Ranwa Hammamy is a UU seminarian & 2015 M.Div candidate at Union Theological Seminary. In September 2014 she was the recipient of the UUA’s Tsubaki Grand Shrine Scholarship. Tsubaki Grand Shrine is an ancient Shinto shrine in Suzuka, Japan, and an historic interfaith partner of the UUA. In this essay, Ranwa reflects on her powerful, moving experiences in Japan.
Sitting in my dorm at Union, I often hear the bells of Riverside Church chime in the morning to announce the 8:00AM hour. I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to pause and listen to their familiar ring, reminding me that a new day is beginning – new opportunities, learning, and connections await. On days when my time management is lacking, their sound is also a reminder that I should be preparing for class. The Riverside bells have become a welcome piece of my routine, serving roles beyond simply being a marker of time.
Since my return from Japan, these bells have taken on a new function. They remind me of another sacred sound, one that became familiar and welcome in my routine at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine. Every morning for my 10 days at the shrine, I would hear the sound of the taiko drum at 8:25AM, five evenly spaced beats, announcing that it was time for chohai, or morning worship. On most of these mornings, I would be helping clean the inside walkways of the shrine or sweep leaves from the gravel paths of its outside grounds.
This practice of cleaning, of purifying the shrine, took place every day before worship. Its deliberate motions helped me remember each morning that the ground I walked upon was sacred. When the drums sounded at 8:25, I would pause in my cleaning and perform temizu, a purification ritual with water, before entering the main sanctuary for worship. The drum would return later in the service, as the leading priest would beat a specific rhythm towards the end of worship. I asked Ochiai, one the priests at the shrine, what the drum beat meant. He told me it was another form of purification. When I felt its vibrations run through my body, I was inclined to agree. (more…)