Religious ritual can infuse time with significance. Religious life is often based on cycles of significant moments, so there are many opportunities to shape time with meaning. In Jewish life, for example, we live in the cycle of the week, from Shabbat to Shabbat; of the month, from New Moon to New Moon; and of the year, through the progression from festival to festival. By marking these moments with ritual, time takes on shape and texture. The day on which I'm writing this is not just Friday, it is the eve of Shabbat, the sixteenth day of the month of Heshvan, and just five weeks before Chanukah.
In my work as a long-term care chaplain, I find that rituals that mark these cycles subvert the tyranny of institutional time in a nursing home. On Friday evening, every resident can participate in celebrating Shabbat, whether through attending a service to welcome Shabbat on their nursing units, coming to the synagogue, or hearing over the public address system the blessings over candles, wine, and challah bread with which a Shabbat evening meal is begun. They know this day is special the moment they see the tablecloths in their dining room. This day cannot be mistaken for Monday or Thursday. And it has nothing to do with being sick, or frail, or a recipient of care. Even residents long removed from religious life heartily offer the greeting, gut shabbes (a good Sabbath) and sing along with the blessings. Throughout the week, I might be asked, "Is it Shabbes?" as older adults eagerly await that sacred day. Shabbat literally becomes, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, "a sanctuary in time" (1995).
Shabbat is but one example of the way in which religious ritual can give the moment a location in time. The present moment can take on substance through its relationship with significant moments before and after it. Even on an ordinary day, living in the cycles of religious life allows us to savor sacred moments past and anticipate those ahead.
Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon, provides an illustration of this. In Jewish life, it is traditional to mark the beginning of the new month, which falls on the new moon. Psalms of thanksgiving (Hallel) are recited, and there are special additions to daily liturgy. There are also traditions that link the New Moon, a semi-holiday, with women. In some communities in Europe, women did not do housework on Rosh Chodesh. Contemporary Jewish feminists have reclaimed Rosh Chodesh and have developed rituals that mark it as women's time and a context for building women's community.(See Adelman 1990; Berrin 1996.)
In the nursing home we celebrate Rosh Chodesh. Initially, I thought it would be a meaningful ritual because the institution is overwhelmingly a community of women. Rosh Chodesh turned out to be powerful for both men and women because it offers another sacred marker in time. Each month the residents perform a ritual that includes lighting a moon-shaped candle, singing psalms of thanksgiving, studying something connected to the upcoming month, and creating a blessing expressing their hopes for the month ahead. When a blizzard kept us from holding our celebration, a resident chastised me: "We missed Rosh Chodesh. It's not the same without it!" Although we invented this ritual based on traditional themes and material, and although none of the participants was familiar with it, the Rosh Chodesh celebration has become a treasured part of the fabric of life in the home.
Connection across Time and Space
In addition to situating older adults amid cycles of significant moments, religious ritual provides connection. Nursing-home residents participating in a Passover Seder are not just strangers thrown together by the fact of their frailty and the whim of the home's administration but fellow members of the people of Israel, telling the story of their people's birth and liberation. As they sing "avadim hayinu (We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt)" and "Next year in Jerusalem," they are part of a common whole, both the community which has been created in this place and the wider community of Jews all over the world who are participating in this same ritual at this same moment. The connection forged by religious ritual is not just horizontal, in the sense of building community across space. Religious ritual also provides vertical connection, linking us to past and future. When an older woman in the nursing home recites the blessing over the Shabbat candles, she says, "I remember my mother doing this." An elderly man shakes the lulav on Sukkot and says, "I haven't done this since I was a boy." His hands are shaking and he needs to be reminded of the words of the blessing, but when he performs this ritual, his face lights up with a proud smile. Suddenly the present is not simply a place of alienation, for there is a thread of continuity connecting this moment to meaningful moments in the past.
Religious ritual binds older adults to the future as well as the past. I was touched and surprised one Friday night after Shabbat services when a woman suffering from advanced Parkinson's disease and profound loneliness said, "We should live and be well and do the same thing next year. "This same woman had told me earlier in the week, "You know, I know I shouldn't say this, but every night I pray that God should take me, that I shouldn't wake up in the morning." It is as if the experience of celebrating awakens a desire to be part of the cycle as it comes around once more. Even knowing that their days ahead in this life are few, older adults can feel connected to the future through the knowledge that this great cycle of celebration will continue beyond them – in the words of the liturgy, l'dor va-dor, from generation to generation.
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