A lenten ritual
This photo shows a bowl of water, full of stones with candles surrounding. And this scene takes me to a story of a year ago...and to the Sundays of Lent this year. In a ritual with natural elements, particpants are invited to "leave the stone that weighs you down" in the bowl of water, and then sit in prayer and meditation time while a musician plays.
I first particpated in what I originally called the "sin stone" ritual last year, and I've come to believe that through my telling of this experience, my husband found a peace that he needed to find before he died several months later. Last year, as Lent began, I entered the church and saw the bowl of clear water on a small table, just as it's pictured here. The greeter held out a basket of smooth river stones. Soon after the opening music, the priest explained that there would be a quiet interlude midway during the service. We could, if we so chose, decide what our stones meant to us--a burden, a wrongdoing, a worry---something we wanted to give up or leave behind. Then during the music and contemplation time, we could walk up and drop the stone in the water. The first week when we did this ritual, it was offered after saying a traditional confessional prayer, so when I went home I told my husband I had participated in something beautiful and calming, all done with rocks, water, and candles. In explaining Lent as a time of reflection and repentance, I described the rocks as "sin stones." The next week, the bowl of water and the stones were there, and I took my camera and showed my husband the photos afterwards. Though he didn't often have much interest in religious activities, he was curious.
He said this sounded beautiful, especially with the unstructured part, and the privacy allowed. The stone could mean something personal that did not need to be shared with others...and you could sit quietly afterwards. He started coming to these weekly gatherings in this friendly, sacred space. A few months later, in May 2008, he was baptized in that same space where the bowl of water had been. He was not one to put personal experience to words, but when I asked why he wanted to be baptized, he just said it felt right, complete, like a missed opportunity he'd been given back. But I believe it was the gentleness of the invitation, when he first saw the water and the stones.
This year, we are doing the ritual again with different variations, and this year my answers are different, though the questions remain similar. "What is the stone that is holding you down?" "What is the burden you want to release?" and so on. And I realize that my husband, facing a likely decline in health, was asking himself those questions last year, and I must have faith that they were answered. So now, when I leave the stone in the water, I think about him and wish him peace. And through a very painful self questioning, I realize that I must release my fighting with his illness, my replayed worries about whether he got the best treatment, whether this-or-that I could have done would have kept him more comfortable, maybe still alive to go through this spring ritual with me again.
The closing hymn at Tom's memorial service was "Precious Lord, take my hand" and I'm reminded of the most meaningful line: "At the river I stand, guide my feet, hold my hand..." In the same space near the altar, the words of that song have long faded. Those who gathered in November to sing and say goodbye to him have gone home, and gone are container of his ashes, the photos and objects that represented his life---what now stands in that space again are the stones and the water that have taken us through this Lenten season, my first one without his physical presence in my daily life.When all who have left their stones in the water sit in contemplation, I realize that the bowl full of stones is just as beautiful as the bowl full of empty water. The stones we left behind lie in a randomly-shaped pile, much as river rocks gathered at an inlet, a stopping place in a river. At the river I stand, precious Lord, take my hand...