“We don’t have too much ritual in our life anymore. And these life symbols which people rely on to keep their feeling of well being, that life is not too bad after all are required more and more.” –John Hench

“When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?” ― Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

“This is what rituals are for. We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don’t have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping. And I do believe that if your culture or tradition doesn’t have the specific ritual you are craving, then you are absolutely permitted to make up a ceremony of your own devising, fixing your own broken-down emotional systems with all the do-it-yourself resourcefulness of a generous plumber/poet.” ― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

“The left sphere [of the brain] questions phenomena and looks for alternative explanations. Often the left sphere can talk us out of something we just experienced because the event defies left-brain reasoning, but as Witches we understand that ritual, and ritual phenomena, are metaphorical communication. This is why our rituals form around myths representing the seasons of the year, and through them we communicate with Divinity residing within nature.” –Raven Grimassi The Witches’ Craft “Altered States of Consciousness”

It is popular to among Protestant Christianity (perhaps particularly in the US, but that is beyond my ken) to deride ritual. Back toward the time of the Reformation, relatively naked antisemitism was the easy course for making these statements. One would point to churches full of ritual and symbolism and declare that they were contaminated with Jewish patterns. Today,  such antisemitism is considered distasteful in all but the fringes.

Calvinists and Iconoclasts began purging what they saw as problematic rituals, but all except Quakers felt that some rituals had to be preserved to preserve Christianity. At the very least, baptism and communion needed to stay. Surely, those rituals were well-founded.

Yet, to be religious (and maybe even to be human) is to observe ritual. Even the sparest of unprogrammed Quaker meetings include basic rituals. There is a set time for gathering (for exceptions see Opportunity). People start in the same way–sitting in silence. Locations of people remain important. People seated at a “facing bench” are in a position of symbolic weight. The time together is ended by an agreed upon signal such as a handshake.

Few can claim to have as little in the way of ritual elements as an unprogrammed Quaker meeting, so if you run into a Baptist railing against ritual you might remind them that the baptism they believe in is ritual. So too is the communion they take part in. Ritual is sometimes derided for its human nature. As in, this a human practice rather than something received from God. While ritual is an important part of what it means to be human, it is unfair to dismiss ritual as merely human while holding on to the Bible as Divine disregarding its human qualities. If, on the other hand, one can allow for the intersection of the spiritual and the human in the Bible then neither is it unreasonable to find it in ritual.

Our ancestors understood the power of myth and metaphor in a way that seems lost to us today. Either we extract pieces from stories, parables and novels declaring those pieces the “true” meaning  or we dismiss the whole of those stories, parables and novels as merely fiction. If we can remember why myth and metaphor were so powerful to our ancestors then we can remember why ritual was so powerful to them.

Ritual does not gain its truth from being old, though a well-worn pattern in our collective psyche can offer added weight to the power of a ritual. Rituals take everyday events like walking across a room or eating food or speaking and turn them into momentous occurrences filled with meaning. The difference is more in the perception and understanding than the pieces that make up a ritual.

Handing out pieces of paper as a newspaper delivery person can be routine and sterile, but handing out diplomas at a graduation can be rich and textured. Snacking on crackers when you’re hungry passes without notice, but eating the consecrated host as a part of communion during mass is a way of becoming one with God. Walking down the hallway at work is boring, but processing up the aisle as a wedding begins and down the aisle as a wedding ends is tremendous.

Ritual offers a way of reflecting on a moment in time. Ritual helps to bring people together into a shared consciousness. Transitions between one state and another are recognized: single to married, young to old, uneducated to learned. While in one sense these transitions are part of an extended process, by pausing and observing this transition at a point in time it becomes more real to us. It becomes an object with which we can interact. We become better able to process our emotions and raise our level of awareness.

 For more on ritual a good place to start is Ritualwell. Also, talk to practitioners of ritual in your community whether pastors, rabbis, witches, judges or others. While we all practice rituals, they will be more aware of ritual observances than you may be.

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