Create Your Own Holy Day
We are entering one of the busiest spiritual seasons of the year, so we asked for some special “Roadside Assistance” from Rabbi Rami Shapiro:
• What are holy days for?
• How should we engage them?
• How do we make the best of them?
And the Rabbi said: One way to open this inquiry is by defining the word “holy.”
The word “holy” has two dimensions: personal and communal. Something, someone, some place, or some moment is holy if it arouses in you a state of awe and wonder, lifting you out of yourself and into a timeless nonduality. This is the personal dimension. When this moment passes and you return to your normal waking state of mind, you are left with a love from and for all things that manifest in you, as a call to compassion and justice that transforms your life and the lives of those you touch. This is the social dimension of holiness. Holiness isn’t just a feeling but a call to action as well.
My definition of “holy days” comes directly from my definition of “holy.” Holy days are moments in time that, often aided by tradition and ritual, open us to awe and wonder in a manner that deepens our capacity for compassion, justice, and love. Simply put, holy days are for cultivating holiness. This seems almost prosaic but for too many of us, holy days have been reduced to holidays. Time that should be set aside for cultivating awe, wonder, compassion, justice, and love is, instead, devoted to endless consumption and mindless distraction. The promised holiness of holy days is replaced by the frenzied anxiety of holidays.
Is every day holy somewhere?
This season may be busier than others, but there is no month of the year that isn’t filled with holy days. Why? Because we humans are homo religiosus, an intrinsically religious species. Despite sounding like a spell from a Harry Potter movie, homo religiosus is quite helpful to our understanding of holy days. While we may choose one religion over another, our tendency to be religious is innate; we are hard-wired for holiness.
What makes us homo religiosus? Awareness of our own mortality. One moment we are alive and the next, dead. There is no in between. Our lives are a matter of on and off.
In retreats I often use a flashlight to illustrate this. Gathering everyone in a pitch-dark room, I turn on a small flashlight. “This light is you,” I explain. “The dark room is reality. You illumine a small portion of that reality, and you do so for a limited amount of time. When that time is up, when you die, the light ceases.” I turn the flashlight off and speak from within the darkness. “There is no transition from on to off or off to on; no partly on or partly off. There is on” — I turn the flashlight on — “and there is off.” I turn the flashlight off. “And even if I tell you that the end is coming, that the light” — I turn the flashlight on — “will soon be off, the actual off is sudden.” I turn the flashlight off. “It is the play of on and off, light and dark, that triggers our sense of awe and wonder.”
Birth, turning your light on, and death, turning your light off, are equally wondrous and awe-inspiring, which is why we have rituals for both and why we celebrate birthdays and mark anniversaries of death days. Of the two, it may be death that is the more powerful catalyst for holiness. This is why our Neanderthal cousins ritually buried their dead with gifts, and why even the most secular among us continue to treat death and burial with respect.
Is that the birth of all religions?
It seems to me that if we didn’t die, we wouldn’t invent religions. If we didn’t die, we wouldn’t ask about the meaning of life. If we didn’t die, we would give no thought to heavens, hells, bardo states, pure lands, or inheritance taxes. If we didn’t die, the only question we would ask ourselves is How do I keep from going insane when faced with the boredom of eternal life?
“Wait a moment,” a seminary professor said to me when I mentioned this idea during a guest lecture. “Eternal life is what we all seek through our faith in Jesus Christ. Are you saying that eternal life is boring?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “Can you imagine singing the same hymn to God, over and over again, for all eternity? You would go out of your mind. Quite honestly, I don’t know how God stands it. I would think that the Creator of an infinite and infinitely varied universe would demand a larger playlist.” I smiled, the class snickered, and the professor frowned.
“And are you saying that if we didn’t die, we would not create religions? Are you saying that God has no hand in this? No reve-lation? No truth? Just people fearing death and creating their little rituals, religions, and after-life scenarios to comfort themselves?”
“Yes, that’s it exactly,” I said. “We might still invent religions, but they would be quite unlike those we know today. If we didn’t die, we might attend Our Lady of Perpetual Distraction, rather than Our Lady of Perpetual Salvation.” Being a rabbi and making a Catholic joke at a Protestant seminary might not have been the wisest move, but my host graciously ignored it, saying, “Well, this is, of course, only your opinion.”
It is my opinion, but what else do I have to go on? Even if I choose to follow this or that revelation, I do so solely based on my opinion as to which revelation is true. Religion is always a matter of opinion. What isn’t a matter of opinion is the fact that everyone dies.
Death happens to all of us, and because it does, religion happens to all of us as well. Religion, at its heart, is a response to mortality that answers the question, Given the fact that I am going to die, why am I here and how should I live? Different religions offer different answers, and you are free to choose the answer that best suits you. The question itself is universal, and it reveals the deeper value of holy days.
So how do holy days happen?
Western Christians, for example, set the birthday of Jesus on December 25 and then rely on the earth’s orbit to bring December 25 around. But just because the calendar moves from December 24 to the 25th doesn’t shift every Western Christian into a state of holiness. Something else is needed, and that something is ritual. A holy day becomes holy through ritual observance. But the ritual has to be more than an empty gesture; it must confront the practitioner with the question, Why am I here and how should I live? A holy day is, or should be, a day devoted to asking this question in such a way as to generate awe and wonder, and in so doing, to call the questioner to be more compassionate, just, and loving.
Given this expanded definition of holy day, we can understand why different people and different faiths have different holy days. Each holy day has to ask the question and present the call in a way that speaks to its followers. Christmas calls to Christians but not necessarily to Hindus. Diwali speaks to Hindus but not necessarily to Christians. It is not that one holy day is true and the other false but that each speaks to the community out of which it arises and to whom it addresses the question, Why am I here and how should I live?
Despite their differences of form and content, when holy days work, they do so in the same way — lifting us out of ourselves and into the awesome and wondrous nonduality of reality. This experience of awe and wonder results in our sense of being called to greater levels of compassion, justice, and love, which, in turn, draws us into community and to being of service to others. This is why we celebrate our holy days with family, friends, and our larger religious communities. Unfortunately, we often mistake being with family, friends, and community as the point of our holy days and never get around to asking the question that holy days are meant to ask and answer. At this point, holy days devolve into holidays. True holy days should be days spent alone as well as with others, cultivating awe and wonder by contemplating the meaning of our existence. In this way, holy days are rehearsals for our final days.
What happens when we die?
Not too long ago I visited a man who was dying from cancer. We didn’t know one another. He belonged to no religion and preferred the curiosity of science to the certainty of faith. His family, however, regularly read my column in this magazine, and they thought I could help him face his death more gracefully. I agreed to visit with him on the condition that we could talk alone, without the family present. I didn’t want the pressure of having to live up to their expectations of me, and I didn’t want him to have to put on a positive face for them. They agreed.
“I’m dying,” he said when we were alone.
“Yes,” I said.
“I’m not happy about it, but there is nothing I can do about it. But I want to know what happens when I die. That’s why we sent for you — to tell me what happens when I die.”
“You die,” I said.
“Of course I die. I mean, what happens after that?”
“I have no idea. I’ve never done it. Or if I have, I have no memory of it. If you’re really curious, you’re in just the right place.”
The man glared at me. “What are you talking about?”
“Look,” I said, “I don’t mean to be rude, but the fact is, as best as I can tell, between the two of us you are in the better position to discover what happens after you die. You are the person dying. When it happens, you will know, and even if I’m standing next to you while you do it, I will have no clue as to what, if anything, you are experiencing.”
He continued to stare at me, but the hardness in his eyes was gone. I continued talking.
“The closest I’ve ever come to death is standing with a family at the bedside of their 16-year-old boy as he died. He was in a coma, and death was imminent. All of a sudden, he opened his eyes, sat up in bed — something he had not been able to do for quite some time — and, looking each of us in the eyes, said in a strong and joyous voice, “I found it!” Then he died. Of course, I immediately leaped onto his bed and tried to bring him back so he could tell me what it was he found, but he was gone, and I am none the wiser for having been there.”
The corner of the man’s eyes crinkled, his mouth widened into a smile, and he laughed until he started to cough. A family member entered the room, but he waved her out. “I’m fine,” he said to her. And then to me, “I mean it; I’m fine. I’m dying and I’m fine. Science has always been my passion, and I’ve spent my whole life exploring questions, and now you’re telling me I ought to die the way I lived. Thank you. This is much better than some religious mumbo jumbo I would have rejected anyway.”
We talked about his life for a while, then I gave him a hug and walked out into the hallway to invite his family back in. I didn’t stick around for the actual death. For me, it would have been anticlimactic. For him, who knows?
How does this deepen compassion?
I mention this story, because I think we shouldn’t wait to be on our deathbeds to face the reality of our dying. We are dying now. Some of us faster, some of us slower, but all of us dying just the same. Holy days are opportunities to face death in a manner that triggers awe and wonder and the challenge to live with ever-deepening justice, compassion, and love in the midst of this dying. With this in mind, let’s turn our attention to the season that is upon us. What can you do to make this time rich with awe and wonder, and to open yourself to the call to compassion, justice, and love that awe and wonder generates?
This is a different question from the usual query of the season: “How can I keep from turning this season into a celebration of corporate greed and mindless consumption?” I don’t care if you buy gifts, make gifts, recycle gifts, or ignore gift-giving altogether. What matters to me is this: will your holidays be holy days? Will they be rehearsals for death, by providing time for asking why you live? Will they deepen your sense of awe and wonder? Will they leave you more just, compassionate, and loving?
Three Practices You Can Adapt to Your Own Holy Day Situation
Sky gazing: When asked where they feel the greatest sense of awe and wonder, most people choose nature over church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. Spend an evening under the stars during your holy day; just lie on your back and gaze at the night sky. (If this isn’t possible, go to a planetarium and sit through the show.) When staring into the night sky, awe and wonder arise naturally, and as they do, ask yourself, Why am I alive? As the awe and wonder grow, the answer will become more and more clear: you are here to be a vehicle for compassion, justice, and love. If possible, do this at least once on your own, and then again with friends, family, and/or community.
Journaling: Keep a journal with you throughout the holy day. Review the year since you last observed this holy day and note where/how you have spread compassion, justice, and love; where/how you failed to do so; and where/how you could do this more effectively during the coming months. If this exercise brings up amends that need making, make them. If it reminds you of forgiveness that needs granting, grant it. If it recalls moments of gratitude, give thanks.
Deep dialogue: After you have done these two exercises, make time to talk with loved ones about holiness (awe and wonder) and the call to compassion, justice, and love that accompanies it. As you dialogue, bring in the themes of your holy day. If it’s Christmas, ask where people are birthing Christ in their lives. If it’s Hanukkah, ask where people are kindling light. If it’s Bodhi Day, ask where people are becoming Buddhas.