Holy Envy: What Confucianism Taught Me about Mourning

Holy Envy: What Confucianism Taught Me about Mourning

Michael Ing


I have studied Confucianism for nearly 20 years. More specifically, I research Confucian ritual and ethics dating approximately 2000 years ago. Many of these rituals deal with death and how Confucians mourned for those who passed away. During my studies, I have been struck at how texts written long ago in a foreign place and in a foreign language could speak about grief and loss so poignantly.

One of the texts I work on discusses burial customs. It explains that the dead should be entombed with the things he or she enjoyed while alive. So if our loved ones enjoyed playing musical instruments like a flute or zither, they should be buried with such. However, the instrument they are buried with is significantly different from the instrument they played while alive. The buried instruments, the text explains, should not work. The holes of the flute are not to be carved, and the strings of the zither are not to be tuned. This is because, according to the text, our loved ones are in fact dead and will not actually play them, so there is no use in making them work. However, we should still put them in the tomb, because our loved ones are not entirely gone from us.

This is a remarkable attempt to make sense of the world after the loss of a loved one. To continue living as if nothing has changed is to deny the reality of the loss. To view the loss as something completely severed from our lives is to deny the reality of the relationship we had with the deceased. “Death,” writes one scholar, “marks both an end and a terrible new beginning.”[1]

My grandmother died several years ago, quite unexpectedly. Despite living far away (in Atlanta), she was an important part of my childhood. I grew up spending several weeks with her each summer. She taught me how to swim, fish, and play video games. Her death, in many ways, marked the complete end of my childhood and the beginning of my life as an adult in a world without Grandma.

Confucians practiced elaborate forms of mourning; and mourning is differentiated from grief. The latter is a feeling that comes upon us when confronted with loss. We are “stricken” with grief, often unexpectedly. Mourning, on the other hand, is what we do to cope with grief. In my faith tradition — Mormonism — we often suppress our grief and give it the shortest life possible. We comfort ourselves with reminders of the rewards in the life to come, consoling each other that families are forever, and hope this will remedy our grief. But I believe we could benefit from more constructive ways of mourning.

I am not discounting the consolation that an eternal family brings. At the same time we must not forget, as grand as these promises are, they do not always meet the immediate needs of the mourner. They may not, for instance, help the widow whose three children have come down with the flu and who now must navigate between work and sick kids at home with no one else to watch them. They may not hearten the widower who had been with his wife for 60 years and is now lying in bed at night unable to sleep. Nor will they soothe the friend who now has no one to talk with in her time of need.

It is the mundane parts of life that suddenly become significant when we lose someone. Yet all too often we pretend that the grand parts of the gospel make up for these ordinary moments.

I have learned from my studies that we can change the way we handle grief. Rather than seeing it as a problem in need of a remedy, we can view it as a constitutive part of a meaningful life. This may not lessen the amount of grief we feel, but it will open the door for more fruitful ways of processing it.

Early Confucian tradition had a custom similar to what we call a funeral procession. One text explains:

In following [the funeral procession to the grave], mourners were expectant and anxious as if they were following after [someone alive] but could never quite catch up to him. When returning, they… were hesitant and uneasy as if they sought after [their loved one], but did not find him. As such, when mourners follow [the funeral procession] it is as if they long to see [the deceased still alive]; and when they return it is as if they are bewildered [in not being able to find him].

Regardless of where they sought him, he could not be found. They entered the door to his home, but did not find him there. They ascended up into the main hall, but did not find him there. They entered his personal quarters, but did not find him there. Alas, he was gone; only to be mourned, and never to be seen again!

This is why mourners wail, shed tears, beat their chests, and falter. They stop doing these things only after they fully exhaust their sorrow.[2]

Much of this is foreign to us (and I am not necessarily advocating it) but is also profound. What I get out of this is a stark recognition that as hard as we try to live life as it was lived before the loss of a loved one, it cannot be done. Life before grief is never the same as life after grief. We need more ways to cope with our grief as we learn to live with loss. Death will never stop hurting, but as Confucian ritual teaches us, that hurt can bring new meaning to a new life.

Michael Ing is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University. He focuses on ritual, ethics, and issues of vulnerability as they relate to the human condition.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

[1] Amy Olberding, “Slowing Death Down: Mourning in the Analects,” in Confucius Now: Contemporary Encounters with the Analects, edited by David Jones (Chicago: Open Court, 2008), 143. Olberding’s work on Confucian attitudes toward death informs my description in this article.

[2] Liji, “Wensang,” 36.1.

His Plan Over  My Plan

His Plan Over My Plan

Megan Miller

his plan over my plan
I’m writing this article at a desk surrounded by two calendars, a planner, and a to-do list angrily glaring up at me. I have never been a person that likes to “wing it.” When I’m stressed, I make even more lists to help me organize my rushing and jumbled thoughts. I make plans to help manage stress, but when they fall through or don’t go as planned, I become even more stressed.

We can all relate to this. Besides all of our day-to-day tasks that we plan for, we all have a plan in our heads of how our life should be. We imagine a big white wedding dress, a new car when we graduate, a job that pays well and getting to retire early. I thought for sure I would get married right out of high school and never have a career. This isn’t wrong by any means, in fact, these plans give us hope for the future. Hope that after a bad day we will still have good days ahead. But we aren’t perfect, and our plans fall through. Things change, people change and life is unpredictable. We CAN’T plan the way we wish we could.

But there is someone who can.

There is someone who knows all things and knows us each personally. There is someone who is perfect, and who has a perfect plan for each and every one of us. Why would this perfect being, who knows us each so well, leave us on this earth to plan for ourselves? Why knowing all he knows, would He leave things up to chance?

And the answer is simple. He doesn’t.

We all feel lost, confused and battered at some point in our lives. We all wonder how we can possibly go on from loss, sorrow, heartbreak, and disappointment. we wonder, how in the midst of all the war, terrorism, hatred, and intolerance there could possibly be a plan for us.

In a world that is so unpredictable, we can focus our faith and energy on finding the path that our God has laid out for us. He knows our thoughts, our hopes, and our prayers. He knows what makes us happy and loves us so much, that he would do anything for us to be happy.

But he can’t force His plan on us.

We have to have faith and be constantly seeking guidance and inspiration from God to truly gain understanding about what He would have us do. And sometimes the path isn’t clear. Life is hard. Things change. And we wonder how these events could possibly be for our good and help us. We may not know in this life, but I know with certainty that we will know. We just have to keep trekking. We have to keep walking down the road less traveled and know that our God will never lead us astray in His perfect plan.

Megan Miller is a BYU student with a passion for social media, writing, and her dog. Contact her at meganjomiller@gmail.com.

A Holi Holiday: Clearing the past, coloring the present

A Holi Holiday: Clearing the past, coloring the present

By Laurie Campbell, FaithCounts.com Contributor

holi
I’m a trauma queen. My therapist says I’ve been through a greater variety of trauma than anyone she’s ever worked with. Jokingly, I “brag” about it. In reality, I’m surprised I’m still alive. And, miraculously—with heaven’s help—my past is becoming the strongest part of my present and the brightest part of my future. It is in this same spirit that I’m celebrating Holi this year, for the first time.

Holi is an ancient Hindu holiday celebrated mostly in India and Nepal. It starts the night of the full moon just before spring—this year starting March 12th. People gather round a Holika bonfire that symbolizes the burning away of the bad and the victory of good. It’s a time to let go of the past, to forgive and forget. The following day, people gather together and celebrate by “coloring” each other. Brightly colored water and colored powders are thrown on each other until everyone’s drenched in color. It marks the beginning of spring. A time of peace and harmony. A fresh start.

We each have things from our past that can interfere with the present. Whether they’re mild or severe, we’re prone to collect them and the negative emotions attached. Like when someone has said or done something hurtful. Or, when we’ve done something embarrassing or hurtful to someone else. The more upsetting the event, the more likely we are to remember. And, the more the emotions can make us feel worse, over and over again.

So, using a fire to symbolize the burning away of the bad and the victory of good can be healing. Fire is often used to purify, cleanse, and change. In nature, fire makes room for new vegetation to grow and the resulting ashes provide nutrients. So, as a Holika fire symbolically burns away emotions from the past that weigh heavy, it can make room for new growth. Allowing for a celebration where we can enjoy the present.

A few years ago, I was in a group therapy discussion where we were working through difficult issues from the past. The instructor had us write down, on a piece of heavy paper, those memories that kept coming up and troubling us. Then, we went outside, walked off by ourselves, and each burned the list. The paper was thick, so it burned rather slowly. I watched as each troubling emotion was consumed, disappearing into the sky as smoke and falling to the earth as ashes. I was making room for new growth and providing important nutrients for that growth to take place.

I’m looking forward to my first Holika fire. And, the next day, where I can welcome a colorful new season of life.

Laurie Campbell can be found, on the first night of Holi, watching past burdens turn to smoke and ashes. Her celebration of spring the next day will likely be a “Westernized version” where she’ll enjoy Peeps of all colors.

Yoga—A path to physical and spiritual healing

Yoga—A path to physical and spiritual healing

Yoga - a path to physical and spiritual healing

Everyone has heard of yoga. You just say the word and immediately picture a group of people in stretchy pants looking so calm as they strike perfectly balanced poses on different colored mats. While this may be what you imagine in your mind, yoga is so much more than a stretching exercise. It comes from ancient traditions of self-development and self-realization.

It has the power to heal and strengthen not only the body, but also the spirit.

You’ve heard the word “yoga” a million times, but do you actually know what it means? Like its literal definition? Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means “to join” or “to unite.” By this definition, you could say yoga is the uniting of the body, mind, and spirit.

Yoga itself is not a religion, but it can increase your spirituality as you take time to reflect on what’s truly important to you and all you have to be grateful for. As you open your mind and heart to spirituality, you can tap into the healing power that comes with it.

In an article from Yoga Journal titled “The Healing Power of Yoga for Veterans,” five veterans describe how yoga is helping them heal from years of disturbing war. One veteran in particular caught our eye. Chris Eder retired in 2013 after serving in the military for 23 years. He felt his mind and body start to struggle and turned to yoga for healing. Chris said in the article, “I’m pretty sure without my yoga and meditation practice, I would be a statistic. I had a pretty solid home practice and began teaching in 2008, but over the past three years, my therapist have taken me into some seriously dark places. The comfort and security of my mat, my space, and my practice have kept me going and given me hope.”

So it honestly doesn’t matter what religion you practice or if you even practice one, yoga can help you cultivate peace, inner strength, and the faith to face life’s challenges with a courageous heart.

Homeward Bound: How to Discover the True Meaning of ‘Home’

Homeward Bound: How to Discover the True Meaning of ‘Home’

By Anna Delamerced, FaithCounts.com Contributor

In my first month of studying abroad in Edinburgh this past spring, I felt a bit of a stranger to Scotland. Drinking tea with milk, riding the “lift” and sleeping in a “flat,” trying to come up with the best team name at weekly pub quiz nights (You’re a Quizzard, Harry”). I needed to know my kilts from my ceilidhs, scones versus crumpets, tartans to saltires. And I had to find a better way of answering the question, “Where are you from?”

My first view of Edinburgh on the plane in January. We are pilgrims on a journey, homeward bound. (image via Anna Delamerced)

My first view of Edinburgh on the plane in January.
We are pilgrims on a journey, homeward bound. (Image via Anna Delamerced)

Whenever someone asked me that question, my throat tightened a bit. I had never really thought about ‘where I am from.’ Explaining where Ohio is, is more difficult than I had thought.

“Is that near Canada?” someone asked.

“Oh!…” They throw me a quizzical look.

I resort to broadening the geographical scope by explaining it’s in the Midwest.

“It’s in the Midwest? Sorry, you said the Midwest?”

“Is that…where is that again?”

Understandably, my United Kingdom friends find it hard to locate the Buckeye state mentally on the map. (After all, I myself did not know much of the geography of Britain before arriving.)

Such is my life as a study abroad student.

After several weeks in Scotland now, I do feel settled in. The students have been so friendly and the church community has been so welcoming. They’ve fed me, hosted me, opened their homes to me. At the same time, I bear an acute sense of awareness that I am not from here, and I don’t know if I will ever be able to say I truly belong here. Since I am only here for a few months, my ‘citizenship’ is temporary.

This got me thinking:

Where am I really from?

Where is my true home?

Where do I belong?

In our ever-increasingly globalized world, we cross boundaries, move to different cities, travel over oceans. What is the meaning of ‘home?’

My semester abroad in Scotland has been teaching me that our true citizenship is found in the kingdom of God.

We are called to be citizens of a kingdom that knows no bounds, a kingdom where all are welcome, a kingdom better than the ones we see on earth.

I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, but I attended university in Rhode Island. My parents are immigrants from the Philippines, and so I was raised in a household where a plate of spring rolls would sit next to the turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, where my Filipino culture harmonized with my American way of life. And now, I’m currently living in Scotland for a few months. But my true identity is rooted neither in my nationality nor in my ethnicity. It is not in the passport I bear, nor in the driver’s license stored in my wallet. It is not in what city or state or country I come from.

Rather, as a child of God, my identity is rooted in my Christian faith. My ultimate home is founded in a place that cannot be raided, in a place that cannot be broken in. In a place that stands, permanently. That is where I am truly from.

I know this world is not perfect. There’s a lot of suffering, dying, hurt, and pain, but we can hold onto the hope that we were not meant to live in this world. We were meant to live in our true home. I believe we belong to another world, one in which peoples of all nations will come together – people from all neighborhoods, zip codes, and cities – will gather round as one. A world in which there will be no more crying, no more death, no more pain. No more feeling like a stranger in a strange land, but rather, a child at home.

It may not be now, it may not be tomorrow, it may not even seem like it will ever come.

But I trust and hope and know that it will.

Homeward Bound: How to discover the true meaning of 'home'

Anatomy of a Soul

Anatomy of a Soul

Prayer is universal. It’s a thing we do instinctively, and regardless of religious affiliation or apathy we all trust in something greater than ourselves.

Sometimes prayer can be a practiced ritual before going to bed; sometimes it’s a spontaneous outcry in a time of need; or sometimes it’s as simple as closing our eyes when words and reason fail, and just hoping. Often without us even realizing it, prayer is the ground upon which we stand.

When we need something, when we don’t understand, when we’re afraid, when we’re grateful, when we’re overwhelmed, when it all falls apart or when it finally comes together, we pray. It’s an instinct as natural as a child calling for its parents. Because prayer is a part of us.