Of all the public rituals of loss that followed the attacks of September 11, I found myself surprised to tears only by one: the memorials by firefighters in Europe for the firefighters here. That people at a great distance--Hungarians and Basques--should formally mark our disaster was a kindness. That they should mark it simply at the level of disaster--that their bond with us should be not world trade or political alliance but that more basic form of globalism, the knowledge of disaster--was something more like a grace. Firefighters are one of the last true freemasonries, a brotherhood whose work is purely necessary and signed in blood. The Basques have an ancient ceremonial costume and particular songs; they have a sense of unbroken tradition rooted in centuries of willingness to die for other people's rescue. Their work is so fundamental, so elemental, as to need no justification and bow to no economics.
Not all rituals are so grounded in necessity. A friend wrote to me of wandering from one memorial service to another on his midwestern campus, looking for even one that would allow him to grieve. The pastors and lay leaders seemed too ready to package the feelings--to take safe suburban experience as the equilibrium to which all emotion should tend, and to settle on the lowest common mediocrity of patriotism as the desirable end of group mourning. My friend's heart was broken; what he wanted was a service worthy of people who had died. Is it a failure of tolerance on his part, or a failure of imagination on the presenters', that he did not get one?
Our rituals are unequal to ordinary occasions; of course they cannot rise to emergencies. Andrew Shanks suggests one reason why. He identifies two modes of liturgy, the "pathos of glory" and the "pathos of shakenness"--public boasting and public honesty. Public boasting is the mode of most liturgy, which treats religious and national icons as secure and unshakeable. In a crisis there is nothing to do in this mode but reiterate the boast, which does not reestablish the icon in its security but merely denies the truth of the present conditions. What my friend encountered was religion trying to reassert the habit of public boasting in a situation where only shakenness was credible.
Yet at another level the great liturgies admit the fragility of their icons. The intemperate God, the crucified God, the unrepresentable God govern the imagination not by their unassailable power but by their instability. Our relationship with God is always about to fall apart; much of the work in the monotheist traditions is the effort to salvage it through prayer and ethical life. In religions outside the monotheist traditions, the very dependency of the gods or the ancestors on human offerings and human remembrance emphasizes the frailty of the bonds that make the world cohere. …