#421 Rituals of time

People love rituals. We’re really good at them. Rituals have in fact been a feature of society since… well… pretty much since the beginning of society I imagine. Whether it’s swearing in a new president or sacrificing a virgin for a better harvest, humanity simply loves to mark events.

Marking events has a definite sort of logic to it, but what about rituals to mark time? Once upon a time there were religions where priests and priestesses practiced rituals to mark the sun rising and setting, the seasons turning, the longest and shortest days of the year. As we have moved away from an agrarian economy and demystified the movement of celestial bodies and their effects on seasons, these have faded to be replaced by other religious rituals to mark the various points of the year, or even further away there are secular ones, like the New Year. On a large scale I guess these too have a weighty sort of logic to them – a way of counting and subdividing time to allow for precise narratives of the past. I mean, it would be difficult for humanity to record its own history if the past was delineated only by concepts of “today”, “yesterday” and “before yesterday”. Even the concept of “yesterday” requires more precise definition. After all what is midnight but an arbitrary strike of the clock? Children distinguish today from yesterday by having been asleep. The precise timing of when one day ends and another begins isn’t important to them as simply “counting sleeps”.

What about on a personal level though? We ritualise so many events that are simply marking the passage of time. Birthdays, anniversaries, employment milestones.


For many of these we don’t question their significance. Birthdays are universally accepted, as are marriage anniversaries. Others we choose to assign significance to, even if society at large doesn’t really insist on their importance. I purposefully chose to get married on the third year of my anniversary of getting together with The Mister, as marked by me kissing the haplessly clueless guy in an airport departure lounge. West Wing has an episode where Commander Kate Harper ruminates on her “divorcary”. In a couple of months we will be marking one whole year since we closed on our house. Last year, mum quietly celebrated thirty years since our family came to the US.

No one questions our commemoration of the darker aspects of the passage of time either, but I wonder about these rituals sometimes. Most religions have a formal ceremony to mark the date on which a close relative passed away. In some sects of Judaism, people will stand to recite the Kaddish on the anniversary of such a death rather than sitting down. Catholics hold special masses where prayers are said for the family.

I suppose rituals like these are a bit like social glue. They create sanctioned channels for people to express their emotions in conveniently defined boxes. However, they also make it difficult for people who do not with to commemorate such events publicly. I have attended a number of such masses since coming to Ireland. Like weddings and baptisms, they help bring families together. Others I think would prefer to be left alone. I don’t know which is healthier. My mother, for example, prefers to mark the anniversary of my father’s death by taking a trip to his grave. She does not organise any event. However she prefers to celebrate his life around the time of his birthday by throwing a big party for all of his friends and family.

As someone who isn’t Catholic, my view on such events is quite mixed. It’s difficult to say one ever looks forward to them. Rather, I cherish the opportunity to see extended family. Neither would I ever begrudge anyone the show of support that attending such a mass signifies. But on a personal level, if you are not one of a deep Catholic faith,  I can imagine that attending a memorial mass for a family member can be a bit torturous. It’s a day where, more than any other, you are more likely to wish to be alone, or to be distracted by frivolous things. It then becomes a chore, a trial to get through. I got several messages of support by text and my reaction was simultaneous and contradictory. I was both deeply touched and honoured by the gesture, and at the same time wanted to rail against being reminded of why today, was more significant than yesterday. Because nothing has really changed between yesterday and today, or will change between today and tomorrow. A clock will tick over from one day into the next and the sense of loss will be neither less nor more than before. Being repeatedly forced to dwell and acknowledge it, however, is a bit like a magnifying glass under a hot sun. The sun hasn’t gotten brighter or hotter, it’s just the sun’s rays being focused together on one spot.

This is our week, today is our day, to be under that magnifying glass. I am both moved by the opportunity to attend the family mass, and I hate the idea of it at the same time. I want to see family and I also dread the polite expressions of sympathy. I want to talk with people and simultaneously be left alone. These thoughts take me back to a conversation I had with Vee nearly a year ago. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.

At the end of the day, at the end of this day, it’s just a calendar date. It is we ourselves that give it significance.

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