I have been to a variety of church services in my life. Not growing up in a religious household was both liberating and constraining. It freed me from enforced loyalty to any one religion, church or creed but it also had the effect of making organized religion all the more foreign and mysterious to me. I am not fully versed in all the strange rituals religions follow in their services.
A few years ago I was privileged enough to attend an Islamic prayer service as part of an Interfaith alliance. We were providing a human shield so that the services could be held even after both the school and mosque buildings had been vandalized and threats had been made against the community. The rituals reminded me of the first time I attended a Catholic service: The ritualized gesture, the ablutions and the responses had been foreign to me in both cases. Even though I didn’t understand the religion, the language or really exactly what was going on, I felt the breath of the sacred in that service.
This weekend I went to watch a procession (by water) in honor of the Virgin del Carmen who is the patron saint of fishermen. I am partial to her as I am to all things water. The procession departed from a small fishing barrio. The boats were humble and were already in the water for the most part when we got there. Kids were running around and diving off the boats, older women stood around with their rosaries, old fishermen stood watch and gossiped, some young women still had curlers in their hair.
A statue of the Virgin was secured onto one boat that was still on the shore. She was beautifully decorated with flowers and ribbons and love made visible. When the men gathered round to push the boat into the water no prayers were needed. Their wading, their gentle carrying, their devotion and respect were visible. We all watched, many like me in tears, others taking pictures. The boat took the lead with others getting into a line behind her as they headed for a neighboring fishing village. The procession was small but awesome. There were about 10 or so boats total and the crowd dissipated relatively quickly. Many were going to the next village to hear the mass and receive the procession, still others were headed home to life. The older fisherman and a few of the older women were left watching. As I was walking down the shore, watching the line- up we noticed a dog jump into the water. It was a mutt, medium sized dog. It swam out quite a ways while we watched. We were all starting to get concerned as we watched it keep swimming out to sea. I’d never seen a dog go quite so far. I was already thinking to myself that if it started to flag I’d have to dive in after it. But no, it was headed for a boat that had stayed behind the others. It kept swimming out to the boat. The dog was unaffected by the waves pushing on it, it just kept going. It would not turn back. The owners saw him and hoisted him onto the boat and then headed out to join the procession. The old fisherman decided that the dog just really wanted to join the Virgencita and pay his respects in the procession. Amen!
I did not go on to hear the mass. That simple ritual was enough to me. Some of the most sacred moments I’ve had have been simple ones… usually outdoors too: Chanting on the beach, Pagan dances under the stars, an evening service during a regional MCC church camp held just as the sun is setting, blessings by the river, group meditations.
Then there are the rowdy, the loud blessings: singing in a gospel choir and watching a little girl with Down Syndrome rock out to the music, the sheer power of voices in song, the thundering of an organ, the chorus of Amen! and Hallelujah! The loud drum circles growing louder and louder, the blessings of sound.
And, of course, there’s always the blessing of service, of giving and helping and working to make the world a better place. Those are countless moments of smiles, of time, love, energy, money, compassion given freely.
I think one of the coolest things I grew to understand growing up in a non-religious household is that God/dess is everywhere, and in everything. No one building, or, for that matter, no one religion, has licensing rights for the sacred. Every breath, every smile, every heart wrenching tear, every kiss, every fight, every orgasm, every ripe fragrant mango, every one of Whitman’s blades of grass has God/dess in it.