I went to a funeral this weekend for a 21-year old woman whose bright life ended far too soon. As I sat there, steeped in grief, I reflected again, anew, on how religion is dance. The service, which happened to be a protestant Christian one, and took place in a white New England church, was one long dance lesson: it served to teach the people present how to move in the face of unbearable loss.
The cause of our friend’s death was a head-on collision. Two steel boxes, hurtling toward one another, hit and collapsed, unable to protect their tender inhabitants. Our young friend had no way to escape. She was in a coma for a week, her brain bleeding, before she died. She was gregarious, charming, and beloved by many. Over 500 people came to her funeral.
It is a tremendous challenge for any person of any faith to respond to such an event. At first it seems impossible. The grief and anger are overwhelming. How can one person hold it, carry it, endure it? The pain can seem like it is all there is.
In Christian contexts, such events run up against a particularly robust challenge: belief in an omnipotent God. If God knows all and allows all, how could God let someone die whose life held so much promise?
As the funeral began, I attended to how every prayer, every scripture, every reflection on the event trained those of us who were there to greet this death as something other than the horror that it is. That training did not involve telling us what to believe, or assigning some kind of meaning to the event. Rather, it involved guiding us to sense and respond to death as something other than irretrievable loss.
In every moment, we were invited to remember our friend and, in that same moment, to feel something other than pain. Death is a door to heaven. Death is freedom from suffering. Death is being wrapped in God’s grace. Death is a time to reunite with God.
Our young friend was killed, but she is saved.
She died, but she lives.
She has left us, but she is with us.
God was with her when she died, and God is our greatest comfort.
On the one hand, it seemed easy to reject these affirmations as simply wrong – illusions invented by some human mind to deny the fact that she is dead. The loss is real. Nothing can change what happened; and nothing can bring her back. She is gone. Forever.
Nevertheless, when I thought about these these beliefs as dance, I felt their power. The question is not whether these affirmations are right or wrong in relation to a given reality. The question is can they help those of us who are left behind learn to sense and respond to this death in ways that keep us living, loving, and wanting more. The service served the living. It expressed a deep desire that life continue.
The service reminded me that religion is not about belief, even Christian ones. Or rather, that belief is never just a mental construct. One who believes is one who is able mobilize a sensory pattern – a way of perceiving and responding – in the face of tragedy; and give attention to it, until it grows stronger than the pain.
In this funeral, that sensory pattern – that belief – was a belief in love, the love of god. We were encouraged to greet our friend’s death by feeling love for her; by feeling love for all those who knew her; and by acting towards all others as if this love were more real and more powerful than any loss. For those who “believe,” it is. The pain does not go away. It simply stands revealed as our own love for a life that far exceeds our understanding.
Such beliefs don’t work because they are true. They become true because they work. And they work in the way that dancing works: by way of practice. The movements the service invited us to make, time and again, were movements that returned our hearts and minds to our own feelings and memories of love. We practiced making these movements, so that we would leave better able to make them on our own.
While there is ample dancing at funerals in the Hebrew Bible, there was no ostensible dance at this funeral. The movements we made seemed like the antithesis of dancing. We walked silently into the building. Sat quietly. Stood when the family entered the room. Sat. Listened. Bowed our heads. Listened some more. Stood to sing. Sat again, and filed quietly out.
Even so, these movements were dance. In making them, I was making movements that people before me discovered and remembered over thousands of years because they were effective in helping them navigate a life where humans are constantly, relentlessly welcoming and saying goodbye to great beauty. I was making movements that were designed to cultivate in me a sensory awareness of a force greater than myself, and a willingness to surrender to it.
For some of us, other moves are necessary too – big movements, full body movements, that force air into our lungs and get our hearts pounding. Movements that stretch the sore spots; and send attention to the tender spots. To reattach to life and keep loving, keep living. Keep dancing.
The rhythm of life is ongoing. Humans cannot not participate in it, even when they die. What stops the rhythm is not death, but despair — a heartache so profound that no movement is possible or desirable. What keeps the rhythm of life going are practices that train people to find in the depths of anger and grief and pain their own attachment to life – a fierce, primal love that extends beyond the time/space frame of an individual life in all directions.
Religion, at its best, is a dance in which the movement of life continues.