At our church, we have rituals. Every church does. That’s the main reason some people go to church on a regular basis, to have that kind of punctuation in their lives. The rest of their week can be consumed with the earning of money at work and the spending of money at play, but it is good to have one day, or at least one hour or so, when we come together with like-minded people to consider the big picture.
The church my husband and I attend is the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Dubuque, which meets in a sweet little brick building at the corner of Iowa and 17th St. that has been a church since 1885. I won’t try to explain what UUs believe, mainly because the members of, and visitors to, our sanctuary hold as many beliefs as there are people in the pews.
Definitions of what church is range widely. Victor Hugo called it “God between four walls.” L.L. Nash wittily suggested “A hospital for sinners.” A perception very close to my own comes from John Ruskin – “Wherever one hand meets another helpfully.” I like the idea that church can travel outside the four walls of a sanctuary.
But the rites and rituals most of us consider “going to church” require just that: going to the place we designate our sanctuary. Inside my church, early in each Sunday’s service, comes a ritual that is both simple and profound. It is called Joys, Sorrows and Concerns, and the facilitator often notes that many UUs consider this tradition one of its most important.
Despite its simplicity, the ritual itself is can be deeply moving. After it is announced, people come up as they choose. If two or more rise at the same time, things get sorted out quickly. (We’re a well behaved group, and there is no racing to be first.) One after another, we come up to choose a stone from a selection lying on the altar table and place it in a clear glass bowl half-full of water.
“This is a stone of joy,” a woman might announce. Then, speaking into a microphone so we can all hear, she might tell about a visit from a grandchild, good news about a medical checkup, or a wedding engagement. We smile; sometimes we laugh. For really good news, we applaud.
Joy takes many forms. While the word evokes a kind of jumping-in-the air buoyancy, it might take a quieter form. Some joy is euphoric, as when my son and his long-time girlfriend told me they were engaged. Other joy is more closely linked to sorrow. A clean bill of health three years after cancer, for instance – that’s a joy still tinged with apprehension.
Sorrow, too, comes by degrees. There is sorrow over a flooded basement, and then there is sorrow over a spouse’s death. Of course we know the difference. Sometimes, if the first person to share a sorrow has really awful news to convey, the next person might hold back a little, not sure if he should even mention that his new car was totaled just after he drove it off the lot. But we urge him forward; if he considers his news a sorrow, we want to let him know we care.
Concern, it seems to me, is the category that comes somewhere in between joy and sorrow. That not-quite-gleeful news about being sober for ten years might be a concern, especially if a celebrity like Philip Seymour Hoffman has just died of an unexpected overdose after twenty-two years of sobriety. Concern can follow closely after good news, like the worry that causes us to mutter, “God willing” when a woman announces her pregnancy after a miscarriage. We lower our expectations when things seem to going a little too swimmingly.
I have taken my turn numerous times, announcing concern over an upcoming surgery, and later placing a stone in the water to say it’s over and everything is fine. (I can’t say I felt joy as much as relief that it was over.) I’ve shared concerns over friends and family with worrisome diagnoses. And I’ve shared my joy at having my poems and essays make it into national publications.
Driving to church just after Christmas, I warned my husband that I planned to get up and share my joy over my son’s engagement, but I might need his help to get through it. I wasn’t one bit surprised when, after setting the scene (Dan and Shanna, sitting on our couch), I got so choked up I couldn’t speak without bursting into tears, and had to point at Bob to fill in the blanks. “They’re engaged!” he said, and everyone smiled. They’ve never met Dan, but they know he’s mine, and my happiness is wrapped up with his.
After the last person who wants to come up has done so, the facilitator takes a final stone, saying, “I place a final stone in the water for all of the joys, sorrows, and concerns that remain unsaid in our hearts.” We all know every single person in that church has had a portion of each over the previous week, but we’re not always ready to talk about them.
We do a lot of other things you expect in a church: Lighting a chalice, singing songs, passing the basket. Each is important. Each weaves itself together into the fabric of our fellowship’s life, making our flock stronger. We greet each other, and we end holding hands in a big, warm circle. But this sharing of joys, sorrows, and concerns is, I think, what makes us aware that even when we go our separate ways, we are never really alone.