On our North American cultural calendar, the month of September evokes “Back to School” rituals: the return of excited children to their classrooms and the company of their peers, the relief of parents as their family routines are recalibrated by the rhythm of the school bell, and the newly sharpened pencil, clean eraser, and brand-new notebook that promise a fresh start, a new beginning. Rarely has the longing for that new beginning been as intense as it has been this September—after so many months of life postponed, we hoped that this year’s “Back to School” rituals might turn the page into a better future in which the virus would be controlled, our solitary and constrained days could “return to normal,” and our fractured body politic might be healed at last.
Of course, beginnings are never as straightforward and uncomplicated as we wish they could be. Finite, contingent beings can neither slip back into the storied past nor step effortlessly into a fully formed future: that which is truly “new” often seems chaotic, ambiguous, and uncomfortable. Those long-awaited simple pleasures of September’s Back to School season have already been overshadowed by bitter disagreements about how humans might safely gather in the age of COVID and lingering uncertainty about vaccine protocols. Children are not immune to the virus after all, and teachers are once again being asked to teach students online as well as in the classroom.
The education sector is not the only aspect of American society navigating waves of change instead of settling easily into the rhythm of autumn’s new beginnings. Interrupting the hoped-for return to business-as-usual for our nation’s medical centers, local virus outbreaks continue to test the compassion and resolve of health care workers. Businesses still struggle with sluggish supply lines and worker shortages. Local and national lawmakers are sidelined by old structures and ideologies that cannot make room for creative solutions to 21st century challenges. Even as our collective spirit yearns for a new day, we resist those same beginnings when they demand new understandings, new partnerships, new commitments, and new practices.
Our religious communities are likewise navigating uncharted waters in this season of beleaguered beginnings. After as many as eighteen months of online gatherings, YouTube worship videos, and Zoom meditation sessions, members of those communities are hungry for the embodied presence of others as they pray, preach, and commemorate life’s passages. Riding the “Back to School” tide, many religious leaders have chosen the month of September to welcome their membership into the temples, synagogues, masjids, and church buildings that some have not visited in nearly two years. Despite the fact that these communities are informed by traditions and texts that have endured and adapted amidst innumerable episodes of cataclysmic change, the tensions that accompany these ritual beginnings echo the fear and anxiety in the culture at large. How to return to their sanctuaries and their beloved rituals, when to return, who should return, and what it means to do so have been topics of endless conversation and sometimes heated debate for months already.
The rationale, rhetoric, and rhythm of our ritual life together—the inevitability of practices that have served us well for generations--have been called into question as a result of the same adaptive genius that was such a balm during the pandemic’s darkest days. What might it mean, as we imagine our new life together in the wake of our COVID exile, that church, sangha, temple and mosque seem to have been able to transcend both time and space? If religious life is no longer simply circumscribed by what takes place inside designated places of worship, but also by the practices and devotion of each believer every day—how then do we understand the work of religious leadership, and those whom we have designated as “laity”? If our communities are no longer constrained by the conditions necessary for them to gather “in person”—mobility, proximity, accessibility—then what is community, after all, and what healing might a less bounded, more capacious expression of community offer our fearful, fractured culture? Some congregations are experimenting with hybrid gatherings, bringing worshippers together online and in the sanctuary simultaneously, exploring the dimensions of community that extend beyond their buildings. Others are offering more varied menus of ritual opportunities—outdoor services and smaller indoor services by reservation, along with “on-demand” online worship. Some communities have found new uses for their buildings, offering workspaces and retreat opportunities in sanctuaries once reserved for worship alone. And some have left their buildings altogether, preferring to invest in online opportunities that are more accessible to newcomers, or to gather their congregations in spaces and ministries shared with other communities.
Communities of meaning and value can be quick to assign both to a beloved space or familiar practice, but slower to acknowledge that meaning and value, while eternal, are at the same time supple, portable, much less fragile, and much more tenacious than our entrenched institutions tend to imagine. Many of the world’s religious traditions bear witness to the breaking in of new truths amidst the rubble of old civilizations, the discovery of new identities while wandering the wilderness, new purposes emerging from the liminal spaces between what we thought we knew and what is yet to be revealed. Prophets, saints, seers, and gurus alike remind us to let go of what has been, to embrace what is before us, to begin, and begin, and begin again. Perhaps our own present season of chaotic and ambiguous beginnings might also be replete with opportunities for reckoning, reconfiguring, and re-imagining, towards the reconciliation and transformation of individuals, institutions, and communities alike.
Image via creative commons.
Sightings is edited by Alireza Doostdar and Willemien Otten. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Marty Center or its editor.