Comfort

What brings us comfort? In a religious context I find it fascinating how quickly these comforts change without people even being aware. For instance Protestants speak in hushed tones about the holiness that is Christmas Eve service and their desire to be comforted by its traditions. The reality is that in the Protestant tradition Christmas Eve services are a relatively recent tradition. But you would never know that by the way people speak. In a church service the source of that comfort is supposed to be God, or the stories of Jesus or the presence of the Spirit. But in practical terms the way we name comfort can be very ordinary, a chair that is placed here, a song that is sung in certain key, pews at the back of a church, etc… I once knew a Roman Catholic Priest who was new to a parish and explained that his Bishop wanted to discontinue the practice of ringing a bell as the Eucharist was celebrated. The parish was up in arms and one Sunday as the priest raised the Host a parishioner snuck up behind him and rang a bell.

I do understand the comfort of routine, I think it is almost universal that human, all creatures really, like routine and find a certain comfort or peace in that daily ritual of activity. I like my coffee first thing in the morning, my walk with Nova at 9 pm. That evening walk has also become my daily prayer time. But I have learned that many people also find comfort in details, making sure some activity includes the following of details so complete that it begs the question, “what is the desired outcome of this fixation?” There is, in many, an obsession with making sure what we do is “normal”, that this normal way of things is framed by the assurance that every detail is done exactly the way every other person did it. If one is planning a worship service then it is not only important that the order be the same but that every word in said order is likewise exact. When I ask people to explain this obsession the word they almost always use, in a religious context, is “comfort”. “I find comfort in following the words, details and order that I always have.” Never mind if those words, details and order are a relatively recent invention, the comfort remains. One lifetime is enough!

For me the “comfort” I find in a religious context is one of knowing that the sacred stories, rituals and songs point me to a mystery of a reality that is larger than myself, that includes others beyond myself. I find great comfort in routine and ritual that connects me to that larger mystery, to that mysterious other. So words, details and order are for me mere means to an end. But the older I get the more I realize I am in the minority of such matters. And the level of frustration, almost anger, in others who are faced with a practice where words, details or order change can be breathtaking. Again, keeping in mind how rapidly these comfort change from generation to generation the degree of emotional turmoil caused by shifting even one word, one detail, one sequence in an order, is remarkable.

As someone who is becoming more and more aware that he is an existentialist at heart the idea that the form can be so important, even more than the substance that informs this form, that gives the form depth and character, is confusing. But knowing I am in the minority is humbling and thus important to plan knowing that others and other perspectives need to be addressed and honoured. It helps for others to know that I know they are comforted by this kind of attention to detail.