By Barb Arland-Fye
Exploring the topic of ritual, our Pastoral Care II class gathered in small groups to describe the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of a favorite family holiday. What struck me when we shared our observations with everyone in this class were the poignant memories that rituals stir in each of us.
Some of the deacon candidates, their spouses and others in our Master of Pastoral Theology Program recalled hilarious stories involving food or football games. Others shared fond memories of loved ones no longer with them. Some talked about the stress involved in striving to maintain traditions. I appreciated hearing their stories as a student with them in this program, a collaborative effort of the Diocese of Davenport and St. Ambrose University.
Our instructor, the Rev. David Turner, a chaplain at Genesis Health System in Davenport, pointed out that deep-rooted feelings surround ritual. He shared memories of Easter Vigils he’s participated in at New Melleray Abbey in Peosta, Iowa, with 13-year-old confirmation candidates from his Lutheran church.
Together, we visualized the rituals of the Easter Vigil and how changes – such as not being able to hold a blessing of the fire ceremony outside — can affect us.
Ritual is predicable, you can taste it, smell it, see it. It inspires connections to other things and ties us together with the communion of saints, Chaplain Turner said.
Rituals can be changed, but we need to connect the dots for people, to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing. When we connect the dots, we’re inviting people into the ritual. When we fail to do so, ritual becomes empty.
The role of ritual in my own family’s life can’t be underestimated. Our adult son with autism anticipates family holidays for months in advance, and Saturday night Mass in his home parish is the highlight of his week. But we have to take care to introduce some flexibility, some small changes in ritual to prevent rigidity from consuming him.
This coming weekend he’s participating in Special Olympics, so he’ll miss our Saturday night tradition of Mass and dinner with the family afterward. But we’ve assured him that we can take him to Sunday morning Mass instead. We’ve connected the dots, and that’s reassuring.
Chaplain Turner, and the other instructor for our weekend class at diocesan headquarters, the Rev. Michael Robinson, a chaplain specialist at Genesis, provided several epiphany moments for me and perhaps my classmates as well.
While we were discussing pastoral care, I asked Chaplain Turner how best to respond to someone whose reply to “How are you doing?” is “You don’t want to know.”
The chaplain advised that we need to think about our own emotional reaction to the individual’s answer before considering the next question: “It sounds like your day’s not going well. Would you like to talk about it?”
Chaplain Robinson shared the importance of “being present to someone, and reinforcing that sense of presence within ourselves.” He reminded us that listening is an active process which requires more than sitting still. It involves letting another person know by my actions that I am listening with my whole self.
Listening skills are vital, no matter what field or endeavor in which we are engaged, he noted.
Two other pearls of wisdom I took away from our weekend: Be careful not to promise more than I can give, and know when to refer people to other resources.