On a September Sunday morning several years ago, while we were visiting our son in Vancouver, I walked to the Anglican Cathedral for a celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Along the way, I noticed an inscription etched in the glass door of a Starbucks shop. I have since realized that it is on many Starbucks doors. The inscription read, “TAKE COMFORT IN RITUALS.” It struck me that I was on my way to participate in a ritual because I do indeed take comfort in them. So, I took a photo.
When I arrived at the Cathedral, there were many things that comforted me – the holy water in the stoup, the Compass Rose insignia of the Anglican Communion, people kneeling in prayerful preparation, the processional cross leading the choir, liturgical ministers, and clergy down the aisle. There were familiar hymns, the opportunity to make an offering, the exchange of the Peace, the bread and wine, the Celebrant making the sign of the cross during the absolution and the blessing, the dismissal by the Deacon. I took comfort in those rituals!
However, I also realized a certain amount of dis-comfort. The sermon pricked my conscience at several points. The degree of inclusive language was far beyond what I am accustomed to and, although I happen to agree intellectually with their choice of words, I was startled nevertheless. I was likewise approving of, yet surprised at the dis-comfort I felt in, the multicultural diversity represented in the worshiping congregation.
So, it was an epiphany for me to realize that there is also DISCOMFORT in rituals. That is true of just about any rituals, religious and otherwise. Even a visit to Starbucks or a morning cup of their great coffee, which are rituals for many, can be discomforting. But this leads me to another epiphany: the word comfort has more than one meaning. Our modern use of the word comfort has to do with “solace.” An earlier meaning is to “strengthen intensively.” And an even earlier meaning is “together strong.” That’s the one I like best!
So many times I have guided people through rituals at some of the most uncomfortable moments – ministration at the time of death, funerals, prayers before surgery, sermons about the “hard sayings” of Jesus, and fall stewardship campaigns, to name a few. The desired outcome is always to help them find comfort, solace. Beyond solace, however, we hope they find the strength that comes from the rituals we do together – strength to go on, strength to face an uncertain future, strength to do the right thing. COMFORT – together strong.
The rituals Christians experience together often make us uncomfortable in the process of making us strong. That is an important reason God calls us to gather week by week in worship. An associate of mine often used to pray, “O God, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” In one of our Eucharistic prayers, we ask God to “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only and not for strength.” That’s what I am getting at!
Let us indeed take comfort in rituals, religious and otherwise. But let us remember that comfort is not merely solace, as important as that may be. Comfort is also strength – the strength we gain from engaging together in the sacred rituals of our faith in the One who is the source of that strength.
I’ll see you in Church,
The Very Reverend Ronald D. Pogue
St. Andrew’s Cathedral