It was an exceptionally bright, clear morning on Sunday 12th November 2017, but due to the warmth of the autumnal weather there had been no frost overnight, and the deciduous trees were still ochre and yellow. The grass sparkled and glistened in the sunshine, flecked by fallen leaves. The place was St Mary’s church, Lambourne, in the county of Essex, an historic site due to celebrate its 900th anniversary in 2020. Here individuals and families gathered, as was their wont, for the Remembrance Sunday service, perhaps the closet equivalent many will experience to journey of the Canterbury pilgrims as immortalised in Chaucer’s description.
The order of service in the ancient building, and the subsequent laying of wreaths at the memorial in the churchyard, dominated by a huge and elegant Yew tree, were wholly predictable for all who knew the score. There was the reading of the names of those who had lost their lives in the two World Wars, the clarion tones of the bugle playing the Last Post and Reveille which framed the two minutes’ silence, well-known traditional hymns, the National Anthem, and the presence of the British Legion standard throughout.
During the service, from my vantage point I had a perfect view of the children in the front pew, and also the gallery, and as usual I was intrigued to see how they participated in and reacted to the ritual. There was plenty for them to observe and take in as the clergy processed, the names were read, wreaths placed but I was particularly struck by their engagement with the standard and the two minutes’ silence. They watched the lowering of the flag with intense concentration as if mesmerised, and stood motionless throughout the two minutes silence.
In an age of digital images and the pressures of marketing, branding and social networking, two minutes standing in silence with nothing pressing for your attention is a long time. One of the families was attending the service for the first time since the death of their spouse and father. I wondered what the widow and children were thinking as the flag was angled until its head rested the stone floor held by the immaculate white gloves of the standard bearer.
I didn’t ask and won’t know, but it was evident that this ritual meant a great deal to the children. I have watched children including those of pre-school age in similar settings, and there is something like a magic or spell that seems to be cast on such occasions. Perhaps it is one of the only times when they gather on equal terms with adults and stand in silence. Shared silence is unique in that every person contributes equally to the process: giving and receiving are symbiotic. I couldn’t help noticing that afterwards they ran around the church playing informally. You could say that they were letting off steam, or you could read this as their recognition that the formal event was now over. Their play was spontaneous and happy, and they still wore their poppies and Remembrance Day clothes as if the preceding ritual was both satisfying and deserving of celebration. While they did this the adult chatted contentedly thus creating the social space for the children to play in this way, in this venerable place, and on such a special day.
There can be little doubt that children need ritual: that is given patterns or rhythms in their lives. This is as true of annual events, such as Remembrance, but also birthdays and Christmas, as it is of daily rituals that accompany getting up, washing and brushing their teeth, and having meals.
Recently I heard Jewish children and young people reflecting on the Shabbat dinner on a Friday evening. Interestingly they didn’t speak of the particular elements of the meal itself, or anything said or prayed, but talked of the importance of being together. It was a gathering, a ritual in which they felt valued and respected as individuals because they were part of a family, household or community. If it were not for the ritual they reckoned that they would rarely be together as a family because of the pressures of 24/7, contemporary life.
It so happened that Monday is one of evenings when we have a meal together at Mill Grove, and there are a number of elements that go to make up the ritual (using the word to mean everyday patterns of group life and expected behaviour most of which go without thinking or saying). So 24 hours after being at the Remembrance service, the meal was being cooked, and the two youngest children were in the kitchen making things. This time it happened to be paper houses. We sat at our usual places when the meal was served; we had grace; we waited for everyone to be served before getting stuck into the lasagne and vegetables; we helped clear the tables, polish them, and get out the Bibles for today’s story. Given the joy that the children displayed when showing their paper houses to everyone, we had the story that Jesus told about the two housebuilders (one was wise and built on a rock, the other was foolish and built on the sand); we sang a song about the story (with actions), and as we left the table we went to do our allotted jobs: some at the sink, and others putting the dustbins and recycling bins beside the back gate.
As I am writing this piece it happens that I am listening to the voices of the two younger children in a setting where there is not the same accepted and predictable ritual. It is hard going for them and their parents: gone is the relaxed, contented atmosphere of the night before.
With this in mind, I reflected on the place of ritual in therapeutic child care. Any setting that seeks to provide “the village that it needs to raise a child”, especially those residential communities that are guided by a therapeutic philosophy of shared living, knows that there must be rituals accepted over time (at least some of the time) by everyone, adult, child and young person. All philosophies of education (for example that of Maria Montessori) stress the importance of shared corporate behaviours, for example getting out and putting away books and resources. The critical thing is that the rituals are accepted by all, and do not need to be spelt out or prescribed each time.
As the frosts come and the leaves finally part company with the trees, come to the Christmas season in Europe. It may be the annual celebration in the UK which comes closest to a regular shared national ritual. It comprises the patterns of myriad sub-groups of different backgrounds and faiths, but it is a time when we all know that this is what others have in their minds. In saying this, I call to mind Chinese New Year, Thanksgiving in the USA, the Alp Wand with the cows into the higher pastures in Western Switzerland, Eid, Passover, Diwali, Red Nose Day, and many other rituals around the world).
The practical challenges in therapeutic settings are to identify potentially beneficial rituals both within and outside the community, to discover ways of nurturing them, and where they have broken down (whether in households or nations) to work at reconstructing them. I know from long experience that they are to be treasured, and the ones that seem intuitively to me to be the most therapeutic in nature or essence, are those where all ages are present and in some way involved, and where there is a focus on a shared feature or task, rather than where one person or group performs for or teaches another.
It won’t often be shared silence, but the Quakers surely have important insights for us all. Significantly they talk of Meeting Houses. Perhaps that’s a useful term to have in mind as we seek to construct the rituals that underpin and sustain our communities.