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The ceremony of innocence

When things are falling apart, we need to express our faith that death and destruction will not have the final word.
By Galen Guengerich
January/February 2005 1.1.05

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In mid-September I was on the subway headed to an appointment in midtown Manhattan, when my eye caught a snippet of Poetry in Motion on one of the placards. The lines were familiar ones from "The Second Coming," penned by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats shortly after the end of the First World War. The parallel between Yeats's world and ours is both obvious and unsettling:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

What strikes me most about his poem, however, is not the part about things falling apart or anarchy being loosed or even the blood-dimmed tide. The line that persists in my mind is the next line: "And everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned." I somehow never noticed this line before. What is a ceremony of innocence?

When things are falling apart, we need to express our faith that death and destruction will not have the final word. When times are bad, we may have little evidence that our faith is well founded; sometimes we do not have the courage to believe it ourselves. Then the ceremony of innocence becomes crucial. The role of any ceremony is to keep us from forgetting what must not be forgotten. It reminds us who we are, where we come from, and what we believe. In this case, despite ample evidence of life's brokenness, and despite a flood of feelings that all may be lost, we choose, if only for a moment, to live as though the world is whole and healthy. We embrace what we can find of the truth, cherish what we can see of beauty, and respond with what we know of love. I do not suggest that we give up the fight against forces that injure and destroy, only that we remember to give the values we are fighting for a place in our lives.

Simply put, the ceremony of innocence is what brings us to church. In a world where many things are falling apart, we are here to testify that some things are not. We gather among friendly faces, listen to heavenly music, lift up acts of courage and reflect on psalms of hope. We strengthen each other, so that we can, in the words of the prophet Micah, "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God." A ceremony of innocence is a statement of faith and an act of hope.

I recently visited a woman named Monica in the hospital, and I tell you about her with her permission. Monica has been attending the Unitarian Church of All Souls for the past year with her 12-year-old daughter Jordan. Monica came to the U.S. from Malaysia before Jordan was born and has raised her as a single parent, without the benefit of extended family. Sometime in the next few weeks or months, Monica will likely die of a relatively rare, extremely persistent cancer. We talked about the challenges she has faced, and especially her frustration that the cancer was not diagnosed earlier. Hers was a story I hear too often, especially from women: Her doctors (some of whom are also women) brushed off her early intimations of trouble. By the time someone started paying attention, it was too late.

Mostly, we talked about her daughter—about the arrangements she has made for Jordan to remain in this country and the hopes she has for her as a young woman. It was a difficult conversation for me, since Jordan is about the same age as my daughter Zoë.

Then Jordan walked into the room from one of her first days of the school year. I liked her immediately. She is strong, smart, and delightfully bold. We talked about the courses she is taking and her new teachers—which ones are on the most sought-after list and which ones not. We talked about whether her new hairstyle makes her face look square (my answer is no). We also discussed whether Ashlee Simpson is musically more talented than her older sister Jessica (my answer is yes).

It was during that conversation that I finally understood Yeats. My conversation with a dying woman and her daughter was, in its own way, a ceremony of innocence. The fact that Monica is dying does not mean Ashlee Simpson is irrelevant to her daughter, nor does Jordan's concern about how her hair looks mean that her mother will not die. The lesson is this: No matter how difficult the circumstances or how dire the situation, seize the opportunity to celebrate whatever wholeness you can find. Heed what is true, cherish what is beautiful, and embrace what is loving. From this ceremony will come strength for the journey that lies ahead.

When I was a child, we had family worship in the living room most nights after supper. Mom would read from our book of Bible stories, we would sing a song or two, and then we would all kneel, and Dad would pray. His prayers always seemed long to me, but then he had a lot of ground to cover: our family, the church, our nation's leaders, and often a continent or two of the world and its troubles.

The tradition my wife Holly, daughter Zoë, and I have developed is quite different—it is certainly a lot shorter—but I have come to understand that it plays a similar role. When we sit down to dinner, we hold hands and take turns saying what we are grateful for. On some evenings, the ample blessings of the day come tumbling out. Other evenings find us less ebullient and more thoughtful. The evening after I visited Monica and her daughter, I simply said to Zoë, "I'm grateful I could make you a peanut butter sandwich this morning." Some days, moments like that are gift enough.

Our world is continually roiled by people and forces that are not innocent in any sense of the word. Their purpose is to injure and destroy. Our purpose is to bring about wholeness in all its forms: beauty, truth, compassion, and love. This involves standing firm against the forces of evil and making a place for the presence of good. Engagement is the best antidote to despair.

At the same time—and this is the crux of the matter—remember to live the values you are fighting to defend. Become a high priest of wholeness. Conduct ceremonies of innocence everywhere. Hug your kids or partner or cat as though you mean it. Ask someone how he or she is doing and listen carefully to the answer. Invite a friend over for supper tonight. Send someone flowers.

Evil and suffering can negate and pervert life, but they cannot fulfill it. Our purpose is to forge a world where, as Yeats might say, the worst lack all convictions, while the best are full of passionate intensity.


Adapted from a sermon preached at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City, on September 19, 2004.

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