(*Pssst: Even if you don’t believe in it!)
Sitting at a Catholic funeral mass today, though I’m a Reform Jew with only a minimal belief in the afterlife (bordering on non-existent), I felt oddly comforted by the unification and spiritual centering that the mass provided. In Judeo-Christian religions, many life-cycle rituals are kind of similar with only the language and the order of prayers being recognizably different from one other. There was a small group of us sitting together to say goodbye to our friend. He had been Irish Catholic, hence the Catholic funeral; but most of the friends sitting there banded together in grief were a patchwork quilt of Jewish, Atheistic, Agnostic, Christian, and Pagan beliefs. Yet we all rose and said “Amen” at the same time, and we all sat down and bowed our heads when the Priest asked us to. We all shook hands, and all of us who knew the prayer of Matthew 6:11 said as much of it as we knew in unison, even though we were from different houses of worship (and in some cases, none at all).
As I sat there pondering the beauty of the church as the sunlight beamed down from the ceiling windows onto the wooden cross that stood up on what in a synagogue we Jews would call the bimah, I wrestled with a mix of sad, surreal feelings when my eyes rested on my friend’s urn sitting on a small table lovingly surrounded by beautiful flowers. As we all sang in prayer to a version of G-d I do not believe in, and as the Priest spoke in lilting, wistful wonder of the pearly gates that await us all in the Christian glory of Heaven that I absolutely do not subscribe to, I still did not feel disconcerted, alien, or left out. Honestly? I felt solace. It was reassuring that all of us were in one place where we could band together to stand up for our friend, to let him know (regardless of whether we believed he could hear us or not), that we were there, that we loved him and that we missed him, in a deeply spiritual way, even if it was not how some of us might personally have expressed our sorrow.
It was through the religious path of our friend that we performed our mourning rites to honor him, because that was his way. What better way to honor a person we loved than to say goodbye to them in the house of G-d they loved? I could not think of a more appropriate place (other than perhaps where he lived) to celebrate him and wish he were still with us than where his family had us gather. It was what he would have wanted, and no matter what you do or do not believe, I suspect this is the best way for people grieving to connect to each other, and to get through the tears without feeling alone.
I may never be fervently religious. I love my Jewish faith, but I have struggled profoundly with maintaining a concrete belief in Hashem (If you held my feet to the fire, I’d say I’m a fairly solid believer, but in a heavily Deist-esque way). Yet no matter what my own personal belief in G-d is, as long as it isn’t physically harming anyone (or any creature), and as long as it isn’t forcing anyone to feel oppressed, I will always stand with others in other places of worship when asked to for weddings, for funerals, for wakes, and any other form of welcoming (or bidding farewell to) a new stage of life. It is not just my duty as a friend, but it feels like an important part of being human.
Rituals, traditions, and cultural touchstones are what often help us get through the most fearsome, confusing, joyous, trying, and morose parts of existence on this tiny, blue dot. Religion, at least at times, can actually be helpful when you need a vessel with which to channel the wide berth of feelings that can overtake us all when confronting things like death, birth, marriage, divorce, or even like becoming 13! Living is a miasma of emotional uncertainty, and coming together as a community, even if only temporarily, even if only symbolically, can often help to ease the burdens these events can put on people who might often otherwise have been (or at least felt) alone for.
Sharing in empathy, compassion, sorrow, and hope that we will all get through this journey in one piece somehow is what I believe religion is truly meant to help us do. Granted, that doesn’t mean that when I die, I expect everyone to sit Shiva for me for a whole week and figure out all the Hebrew in the Mourner’s Kaddish, (since I’m a Jewish convert, that would be VERY difficult for my biological family!), or to believe everything the Rabbi says about life and death, or G-d according to Jewish tradition (or at all!). But I do think that when my time comes, it is a great comfort to me to know that when the people I love are sitting in my little tiny shul in Troy NY, as a Rabbi says the prayers, they will be together as they close their eyes for a minute and remember me in one of the places I was most happy and had some of my most spiritual moments; that they can perform the important mitzvot (act) of nichum avelim: comforting the mourners, as well as each other, in my absence in my favorite synagogue.
Please understand that I am not saying religion is great all of the time, or that is for everyone, or that it doesn’t have tremendous flaws. I’m married to an Atheist, so I am definitely understanding of some of the arguments against organized religion as a whole even while I choose to practice it myself. But in terms of the communal comfort and healing that religious traditions can often provide? For peace of mind like that even as a NYC Jewish girl sitting in a small, upstate Catholic Church; for a few hours at least, I can truly be a believer.