By Susan Lilley
As Bishop of the Episcopagan Church of America, I realized that in all the excitement of the spring rites of free-floating anxiety, intermittent joy, and sadness for the state of the world, I almost neglected to send out my official Easter message! But yesterday, as I noticed two brown and crispy Christmas trees finally put out at a neighbor’s curb, I had yet another spring epiphany: It’s never too late.
Why, oh why does spring bring such caverns of sadness along with the jarring bolts of hope and delirious beauty all around us? For many of us, springtime is an emotional minefield. Just breathing in the faint loveliness of azaleas en masse can trigger a misstep into a lake of despair. Sometimes it’s personal, as in a major loss that will always be relived at a certain point in the year. My dear dad died suddenly the day after Easter over a decade ago, and it’s as if my cells know the anniversary before I am conscious of it. The pagan observance of Ostara, marking the balancing moment of the spring equinox, is full of images of harmony between us and the natural world. But this week felt anything but harmonious.
Sometimes the suffering is universal—just try to get through a spring day in 2014 without agonizing for a while with the relatives of the lost Malaysian airline passengers or the parents of Korean high school kids who took a ferry trip into a disaster. The ache of knowledge of our own mortality and awareness of how quickly this delicate life can alter seem more vivid in spring, even as the natural world renews itself.
Since my capital campaign for building a bricks and mortar First Epicopagan Church has stalled out after the first $10 (which immediately was spent on special wine for ritual purposes), I am happy to thither to my dear local Episcopal church for solace and inspiration. A good, proper ritual is one of the most healing and meaningful experiences a harried, hurried, anxious, technology-harassed human being can hope to find in today’s world. At noon yesterday, Good Friday, I sat in the stripped-down, no-flowers, stark and plain space of the church as the rector and her two assistant priests shared the burden of reading the story of the last days of Jesus, according to the New Testament gospels. It was painful to hear, and as tears rolled down my cheeks during a beautiful sad chant, I came to understand what I was doing there.
It was as if all the suffering in the world was being poured into a deep well, and I could feel the losses, fears, sorrows, and agonies of everyone in the room—many of them strangers–as we reached toward understanding and peace together. Meaningful rituals can carve a space for real, necessary lamentation. That space is hard to find. Unless you are a romantically disappointed emo teenager, sadness is kind of embarrassing. We exist in the land of Facebook posts that look like mini-versions of holiday letters that assure the world that our lives are FANSTASTIC. Yesterday, we made a space for suffering, and from that darkness grew the rare and beautiful blossom of compassion. Damn, I needed that. It also shook me, and forced me into the present moment of my own life.
And here’s the great news, Episcopagans and wanna-be’s (because you are either one or the other, right?): You don’t have to have a set of intractable beliefs or a baptism certificate to take part in any of this. That’s why I am such a fan of putting yourself in the sacred space and opening up. You have absolutely no idea what could happen during that luminous time. Meditating on a cushion next to a tranquil pond could no doubt help you reach the place of peace, too, but I am so easily distracted that I would probably fixate on the hum of a distant airplane engine or a tiny bug crawling around my feet. I need the structure of ancient words that live over and over again each time they are spoken or sung. A student told me recently that in a service at her temple, even though she was barely paying attention, the rabbi said something that set her off on a soul quest that manifested in a beautiful poem and a breakthrough in her creative life. A phrase she had heard hundreds of times before suddenly sprouted wings and took her to a new place. Moments of this depth don’t happen just anywhere.
So, Easter. An explosion of flowers, fertility symbols (rabbits and eggs), candy and, if I am lucky, mimosas, after the multiple bummers of Holy Week. Few religious services ring more authentically pagan than the one happening TONIGHT in churches everywhere: The Great Easter Vigil. As I learned recently from my pal (and official spiritual history consultant) Jonathan, its pagan pedigree derives from the ancient Roman Mithra cult, from which we borrow the starting in darkness, often outside the church, kindling the “new fire,” hearing stories (in our tradition, a symbolic chronicle from creation to Passover), and ending with dazzling light. And bells!
People, this stuff is good for you. I can feel my DNA strands lengthen during a bona fide spiritual ritual. Even an unfamiliar tradition, yea, even in non-English services in churches, mosques, temples! So, may spring blessings rain upon you. Happy matzo and chocolate bunny eating. Just don’t let spring go by without a bit of ritual in your life to make your own yearly renewal one of reflection and, of course, joy. A mimosa will help.