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"A heartfelt, personal story of the gradual awakening of a woman who comes to see that preferring the 'human to the perfect' does not alienate her from authentic spirituality but allows her to live more fully."

Kathleen Norris,
author of The Cloister Walk

In what has become a tradition, each year I lead a celebration of spring at The Humanist Hub. Katherine Ozment writes about one of these celebrations in her excellent book, Grace without God. Katherine has graciously allowed us to post an excerpt describing the Easter she joined us for that celebration: 

As comfortable as I felt with the secular humanist philosophy, I wasn’t sure that humanist meetings could replace some of the magic I associated with religion growing up. When I was a child, on Easter I wore a new dress, white tights, and a bonnet tied with a silk ribbon. The floral arrangements on each side of the altar were taller and more brilliant, the music more soaring, the pews more crowded. The day was about communal celebration, and the experience of it was transforming.

I recalled one Easter as an adult, when I’d risen early, placed the Easter baskets in my kids’ rooms, and gone to a yoga class as usual. On the way home after class, I was standing in sweaty clothes, a yoga mat slung over my shoulder, scrolling my phone, when the doors of the church across the street from me burst open and organ music flooded out. I looked up, stunned by the pageantry. Parishioners dressed in their Easter finery stepped out, celebrating spring and, for them, the Resurrection. The sight took my breath away. I’d been fine with my morning yoga ritual until I remembered that sense of renewal that always came to me at church on Easter Sunday. Could I find that sense of wonder among secular humanists?

That year, I decided to go to a secular Easter celebration to find out. On Easter morning, I went through the usual basket ritual, then left my family at home.

I made my way to the Harvard Humanists headquarters in Harvard Square, emerging from the elevator into a large meeting room. In the main room, four middle-aged musicians with rough beards and faded T-shirts were playing “Home” by Phillip Phillips:

Hold on to me as we go

As we roll down this unfamiliar road

And although this wave is stringing us along

Just know you’re not alone

Cause I’m going to make this place your home.

Above the musicians the words Connect Act Evolve hung in large wooden block letters. About fifty people were seated in folding chairs set up in wide, arcing rows. 

Mary Johnson, who served as a nun with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity for twenty years before leaving the convent and eventually losing her faith, led the event. Exuding joy in her teal tunic, her reddish hair styled in a curly bob, Johnson stepped to the podium on the small stage. “I don’t believe in religion anymore,” she said, “but I have the Holy Week blues. I miss all the stuff I used to do.”

As a group, the humanists are not typically nostalgic for religion, but I saw some people nodding their heads in agreement. She told us she had moved on: “I don’t want to do that,” she said, referring to the Catholic Easter rituals she performed for many years as a nun. The crowd laughed, already in her palm.

She explained that, after unraveling herself from her strong ties to the faith, she decided that it was senseless to ignore religion. She hoped that today she could help those in the room reflect on what comes up at this time of year, and not to judge ourselves for feeling longing or confusion. Instead of drumming up more ideas and thoughts, as the highly analytical humanists are wont to do, she asked us to take this springtime ritual—she never used the word “Easter”—as an opportunity to reflect on what we already knew and had inside us. The prime vehicle of our reflection would come through poetry. “Religion has its scriptures,” she said, commanding the room, “and humanists have their poets.”

We spent the next thirty minutes listening as community members read the words of poets who celebrate a secular understanding of the world. Mary Oliver, Robert Pinsky, and Esther Cohen were our prophets. At one point I was invited to stand at the podium and read a poem called “Lilies” by Kate Gale. I stepped to the stage and steadied my breath. In my experience with religion, I had never been called upon to participate in shared authority. It was empowering, a strange shift from my role as a quiet, seated parishioner in the congregations of my youth. The poem was about praying even after leaving religion, and it reflected that half-in, half-out feeling of the newly unaffiliated. After I read it, I stepped down from the stage as another woman approached to read Mary Oliver’s “Mindful,” a poem imploring listeners to notice everything in nature with heightened attentiveness, a spiritual practice without God or dogma. 

After the readings, Johnson asked us each to stand and take a tulip from the table at the front of the room. The twenty-something man next to me groaned and said under his breath, “I guess we have to.” I suppressed my own cynicism and tried to remain open to the ritual. A young woman stood at the end of each row and gestured to us to begin walking to the front of the room. One by one, each of us stepped forward to take a tulip, in a quiet procession that reminded me of Holy Communion. Once we were all seated, with tulips in hand, Johnson asked us to feel the stem and leaves of our tulips, then the petals. She asked us to smell the tulip and fifty heads bent forward to inhale. She asked us to study the stamens and pistil and said we might notice that our tulip isn’t perfect. I traced the cracked petals and the torn, arching stem, glossy as sealskin, and a star-shaped blister of brown and yellow around the stamens.

She ended the program by telling us about a poem written by Nick Flynn, a writer from Boston most famous for his portrayal of a homeless shelter in the memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. The night after the Boston Marathon bombings, when two brothers planted homemade bombs on the sidewalk where fans were cheering runners crossing the finish line almost one year from that day, Flynn wrote a poem about the event called “Marathon.” Johnson read it, lingering on one of the final lines: “everyone we’ve ever known // runs without thinking // not away but into the cloud…”

The cloud is the smoke that rose when the two bombs detonated. Beneath that cloud was a grotesque and terrifying scene. And yet the story of how Boston ran toward the destruction, of how the city grew strong in that moment of terror, will forever be an example of people coming together to battle the worst of humanity. Johnson urged us to live our lives running into the cloud. Humanist philosophy puts human agency, not God’s will, at the center of understanding how the world works. In this view, no supernatural power will swoop in and make everything right. We have to do it ourselves.

Johnson closed the ceremony by telling us that her only requirement was that we no longer have our tulip when we go to sleep that night. We could pass it on to anyone or anything we chose. I said my goodbyes and walked out into Harvard Square, where I found my favorite statue, a whimsical little creature that looks a bit like a hedgehog sitting on a tiny pedestal. The statue was erected in memory of a popular street performer who died young and I’d always liked it for the contrast it made to the imposing statues of Revolutionary War heroes erected around Boston. Here was a statue for the rest of us, the people going about their business, doing their jobs, caring for their kids, making their little bit of beauty in the world. I placed my tulip in the creature’s unassuming little arms in the hope that the bit of brilliant color would bring a smile to someone’s face. I boarded the subway back to our neighborhood.

I found my oldest daughter at our neighbor’s house having Easter brunch among a group of our neighbor’s college-age relatives. After dessert, I walked home to find Michael playing basketball with our son behind our house, while our youngest daughter decorated the back steps with colorful sidewalk chalk.

I felt the rush I always get when I see my family before they see me, like I’m holding a precious photograph. They are my solar system, my closest and most lasting tribe. But that day I’d moved beyond my small orbit. I’d given myself over to a new ritual, led by a wise stranger I admired. I’d observed moments of silence and reflection in a community of like-minded people, then returned to my neighborhood, more aware than before of its own bonds and protections. The day was infused with a feeling of gratitude and care. It felt like something in me was changing. But what?

To learn more about Kathryn Ozment's journey as a secular parent and to discover what was changing within her, buy Grace without God here.

Mary leads the Spring Celebration at the Humanist Hub at Harvard