When I was learning about a church I once belonged to, I learned this definition of a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. A sacrament was something you did to show something you felt. Sacraments, such as baptism or holy communion, were always steeped in rituals.
One by one, my children and I left that church. Yet, even my older daughter, the first to go, still enjoyed the rituals when she visited. I have come to believe that humans have a deep need for rituals, because they allow us to express our meaning with actions. The spiritual is made visible.
I know many of my peers have become disillusioned with religion and/or churches. At the same time, it seems to me that the celebration of secular holidays has blossomed. Halloween was not that big a deal when I was a kid. Now it rivals Christmas in the decorations in my neighborhood. Observing holiday rituals marks the passing of time, the turning of the seasons, and the handing down of tradition to the next generation.
But there is not a prescribed ceremony for every passing, turning, or change in our lives. Weddings conclude with “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” The passage from single to married is publicly acknowledged; the moment is marked. Divorces have no such moment; papers may arrive in the mail announcing your transition back to singleness has been processed. Birthdays are celebrated, but dates of death go unnoticed except maybe for Elvis or another famous person.
This brings us to the idea of personal sacraments, rituals observed by one person, or two, or maybe within a small, intimate group. A friend’s family gathers at the cemetery every new year to “have a beer with mom and dad.” Another friend lights a candle to burn all day on the day her mother died. In another family, eating from a special red plate signifies reaching a personal milestone or attaining a goal.
I think we might benefit from deliberately creating rituals of our own. Intensely personal ceremonies can be actions that have meaning, even if only to us.
I remember two deliberately created rituals that held special meaning for me. The first occurred just over six years ago, as my daughter and I prepared to move into our newly-constructed, post-broken-home house. The builders would pour the cement back porch the next day. We came to the building site, each of us bearing a token chosen for its personal meaning to us.
We knelt in the sand where the porch would go and buried our tokens, a piece of coral from the beach for her, a green plastic frog for me. As we put part of our hearts into its solid base, we blessed our new home. It has been a place of much happiness for us.
The second personal sacrament is a story I shall save for tomorrow, a special day in my world.