To feel a loss keenly, to sense the profound emptiness that comes when a person central to your life — a spouse, parent, or first friend — can no longer be with you, touches all of us at some point in our lives. When there is nothing more you can do but to say goodbye, we can be left staring into a void that may seem unbreachable. Surely it had been a quiet morning when Mary of Magdala came to the tomb. Her grief was intense, love and hope lost in a violence of the crucifixion.
While years may dull the pain of separation, it remains. A friend I shared a long overdue conversation with recently told me of how profoundly the death of an adult daughter 10 years ago still affected him. He had been immobilized by his sadness for months after her fatal car accident. Eventually he felt he had to sell the home they shared in order to move on. A visit a couple of weeks ago to my family’s cemetery plot where four generations of my kin have been laid to rest no longer evokes tears, but rather a sense of peace and the fullness of life for me as I “talked” to them there.
What bridges this void for us? The 84 per cent of our world’s population who embrace some form of religion, according to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, would surely say their faiths offer that ability. Some evolutionary researchers studying the psychology of religion see global faiths as a byproduct of the way our brains work. They say religions develop out of our search to seek order from chaos, to understand our place in the world around us and confront the finality of death. Dr. Dean Hamer, the director of the Gene Structure and Regulation Unit at the National Cancer Institute in America, goes so far as to argue for a “god gene” that predisposes us humans to believe in a greater spiritual force at work in our lives.
Faltering numbers of churchgoers in more secular societies like Canada suggest, according to Quentin Atkinson, a psychologist at the University of Auckland, that now “Basically, people are less scared about what might befall them.” However, in the same BBC article, Ara Norenzayan, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and author of Big Gods, proposes that “Existential security is more fallible than it seems. In a moment, everything can change: a drunk driver can kill a loved one; a tornado can destroy a town; a doctor can issue a terminal diagnosis. . . . then suffering and hardship could fuel religiosity.” “People want to escape suffering, but if they can’t get out of it, they want to find meaning,” Norenzayan says.”
Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and author of Living the Secular Life, sees “For some reason, religion seems to give meaning to suffering — much more so than any secular ideal or belief that we know of” (www.bbc.com/future/story/20141219-will-religion-ever-disappear). We want to believe that we are a part of something grander, that our suffering has a purpose and meaning.
One of the most important books I have read in the last couple of years is Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. In it he holds that “Just when we are in many ways moving to an ever greater validation of the sacredness of the individual person, our capacity to imagine a social fabric that would hold individuals together is vanishing. This is in part because of the fact that our ethical individualism, deriving, as I have argued, from the Protestant religious tradition in America, is linked to an economic individualism that, ironically, knows nothing of the sacredness of the individual. Its only standard is money, and the only thing more sacred than money is more money. What economic individualism destroys and what our kind of religious individualism cannot restore is solidarity, a sense of being members of the same body.”
Being joined together in a faith community provides us with another way to breach that void we face. Remember the lifeless three-year-old body of Aylan Kurdi being tenderly carried from a Turkish beach by would-be rescuer? The fact that this young boy and his Syrian refugee family had been blocked in trying to find their way to Canada and the haven sponsoring relatives would have provided here, sparked national grief and the collective resolve to open our doors to these refugees.
Gord Downie tells the story of Chanie Wenjack in his album Secret Path. The cold death of this 12-year-old Ojibwe boy on his solitary attempt to run home from residential school revived this heart-rending tale from half a century ago. This call to healing touched many. It challenged us to truly proclaim the truth of the residential school experience and find national reconciliation.
Our lenten penitential journey turns to celebration today. As the psalmist says, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad.” What Mary of Magdala and the other disciples experienced at the empty tomb on that first Easter morning liberated them from despair. It can liberate us as well. Their experiences with Jesus “all over Judea” now reached its fulfilment in his resurrection. They now would embark on a path on which we join them. It is where we, as Paul, urges, “seek what is above.” He is risen!
Dougherty is co-chair of the Social Justice Committee at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse, Yukon.