So I had an idea about something to write about today, and it was about ADHD and a method for getting work done. But we’ll come back to time-not-task methods because something else important has come to mind. Look, a chicken! (Little ADHD humor for you, there.)
Instead, I’m writing to you about some of my own history, and the history of hundreds of women around the country. We are all women who have “left the convent,” or left Roman Catholic (or Anglican) “religious life,” as it is called. (The idea that I’ve left religious life is ludicrous, of course, but in Catholic circles, “religious” is used as both an adjective and a noun, as in “she is a religious sister,” or simply, “she is a religious.” It’s a little weird to those who aren’t used to it, but it’s nonetheless the usage.)
So yeah, leaving religious life.
Some of you are reeling first at the idea that I was a candidate for religious life, someone who in my order would formerly have been called a “postulant” (what Maria is in The Sound of Music). Yep. Was. Lived for nearly a year in a convent attached to a church.
(Interestingly for those of you who know that I have a particular devotion to Brigid/Bridget, the church and the convent used to be St. Bridget’s. There’s an image of her behind the altar in mosaic. And there’s another mosaic depicting fire coming from water. Yeah, yeah, it’s by the baptismal font, but I still chuckled, even at the time.)
So I spent four years spending time with a religious congregation, as it was called then, the Sisters of St. Joseph. They are an amazing group of women. Sr. Janet who was the President of the Leadership Council of Women Religious (see there’s that funny usage again) at one point; Sr. Paula, one of the best spiritual directors I ever had; Sr. Mary P, my vocation director and someone I miss very often; Sr. Mary P, who used to be on Romper Room (no lie!) and then worked as a broadcast journalist… so many sisters I could name. So many wonderful people. And Sr. Mary M, whom I will always treasure for introducing me to David Whyte and for telling me I could sing harmony and that it was just in my bones, just to do it.
And I’ve pretty much lost them all. Well, no, not pretty much. I’ve entirely lost all but the occasional Facebook contact with all of them.
It’s not entirely their fault. Neither is it entirely mine. It’s complicated.
On this topic of loss, I can’t help going to those lines, those lines you’ve heard me say or read in Reflections. They have stuck with me in what a good friend would call “my top 5 most memorable chunks of poetry.” They are the lines from the Oliver poem I read at my father’s memorial, from “In Blackwater Woods.”
you must be able to do three things:
to love what is mortal,
to hold it against your bones,
knowing your life depends upon it,
and when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”
There are times for things to be let go. And we’re not great at marking those times. But if we would be wise, we have to let go. “As in all things in the Household of Earth, / We embrace for a while and then let go.” All things are impermanent, all of us are mortal, and boy, do we know it now.
I mean, sure, we have had funerals and memorial services, but most of us who grew up in Christian hegemony don’t spend time with our dead before they’re committed to Earth in some way. Many of us mummify our dead with formaldehyde and have funeral directors/undertakers do everything in their power to make the dead look like the living and withstand the ravages of decay.
And furthermore, some of us aren’t being able to be with our loved ones who are dying, or dead, or even with others in grief. This grief, my friends, this grief is no small deal. It is going to leave a mark on a generation, and we are that generation. We may not know how or when or why this grief will pop up, but it will – that mark, that bruise on our souls will show up again and again when we least expect it.
Not only that, but Earth wins. She gets the last word. Trying to save our dead from decay doesn’t make them any less dead. Any less gone.
All these losses deserve to be marked. These are losses we have held against our bones, knowing that our lives depended on them. And recognizing that when it was time to let them go, to let them go. We have loved because we are mortal, because on some level we know that time is short—not only for ourselves and our own lives, but for our time together with all that we love.
And we have held all that we love against our bones, we have acknowledged that it is literally true that our lives have been created out of other mortals, out of the choices of millions, even, one could argue, billions of people. Not only our direct ancestors, but all those who have created the world, the communities, the families in which we have lived and moved and been ourselves.
But when is it time to let go? And how does it happen? And how do we ease the passage of grief that runs through us?
In the case of a person dying, we at least try to have some ceremony, most of us. Most of us at least gather some flowers to place on a grave, or scatter ashes, have a memorial or a funeral, say kaddish and burn the yahrzeit candle each year.
But what about other losses? I mean, I know I’m not the first person to come up with this idea – to say that we, as a culture, need to get our collective ceremonial butt in gear and help one another through loss. But I don’t think I have to be the first or even the best to say my piece.
Leaving the Sisters of St. Joseph was painful. Leaving Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary was painful. Leaving friendships and other relationships is painful. Even learning about others’ losses is painful.
I suppose I’m just wondering at what level a loss must be for us to acknowledge it—culturally, communally, ritually. When do we care enough about the grief that all our mortal lives hold to mark more of our passages through them? And how can we be as creative as possible in making our ceremonies, marking the times, creating rites of passage when we cannot be physically together in safety?
Handpartings, rituals of divorce, small rites that acknowledge the loss of beloved communities, ceremonies for the loss of friendships, safe and meaningful markings of the deaths of those who have been dear to us or to those we love.
How can we do these things, and do them now? What do you think? What are you doing with your families and communities, congregations and friends?
Blessing, a thousand times blessing –