My lovely and well-meaning friend was trying to make a point. She noticed how passionate I feel about my Catholic faith, as demonstrated through my posts and murmurings on social media. And our brief discussion led her to feel, for a time, defensive about her own faith.
“I guess I feel pretty passionate about my church, too,” she said, “and a big reason for that is it is focused outward to people not inward to ritual.”
I find it interesting to hear the perspective of those looking at faith — and a particular way of carrying out that faith — from the outside.
We are both believers in God, but we each have our own ideas of the particulars of how our love of God should be manifest. I hope God will give each of us a little pass for at least trying. Neither of us is probably getting it completely right.
But her words contained a challenge, and what I perceive as a misunderstanding.
Ritual seems to have become a bad word outside some of the mainline Christian denominations, similar to the word “religion,” which I covered here a while back. I guess now it’s time for ritual to have its due.
So my question is, is ritual the problem, or is it our understanding of what ritual is?
According to the all-handy Wikipedia, “ritual” defined most simply is “a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and performed according to set sequence.”
“Rituals of various kinds are a feature of almost all known human societies, past or present,” the piece goes on to say.
An expounding paragraph explains ritual in broad terms, saying ritual includes not only the various worship rites and sacraments of organized religion, but also the rites of passage of certain societies. “Even common actions like hand-shaking and saying hello may be termed rituals,” it says.
Think swan preening.
But a few paragraphs down, something else piques my interest:
“The field of ritual studies has seen a number of conflicting definitions of the term. One…is that a ritual is an outsider’s…category for a set activity (or set of actions) that, to the outsider, seems irrational, non-contiguous, or illogical. The term can be used also by the insider…as an acknowledgement that this activity can be seen as such by the uninitiated onlooker.”
I find the words “outsider” and “insider” interesting, since I had used the same. In the case of my friend and me, I am almost sure, based on her comment, that there’s a disconnect between her perception of “ritual” and mine.
Because, truth be told, if ritual is done right, it flows from belief, and rather detracting from it, provides a way to increase it. But when ritual is misunderstood, it becomes simply something mysterious which, I can completely see, could become superfluous to the outsider.
Where my friend misses the reality of it as I’ve known it is that ritual is not meant to be the end-all of faith. Ritual is part of the way we come as believers to be fed. The act of falling to our knees in prayer and worship is, I think, ritualistic. We are in reception mode at that point, drawing on our Lord what we need to go out into the world and do the work of love.
Even eating to me is ritual, to some degree. We draw to the table, with all of our ritualistic tools — spoons, forks, bowls — and why? To be fed. To receive nourishment so that we can go on living as well as possible.
For me, ritual is the point at which I forget about myself and surrender to God, opening myself in an act of receptivity to be nourished.
Now, put that way, is ritual really so bad?
Of course it can be, like anything, misused, but I think we are way too quick as a culture to have an “either this or that” mentality. Example: “We can either worship God in ritual or without ritual.”
Why not both? Maybe we can have ritual that draws us inward, and then take what we’ve been fed and bring it outward. That’s how I’ve always understood it, so seeing it any other way is a completely new idea, and seems lacking.
It’s not that ritual is bad and reaching out is good. How about that ritual can help lead us to loving others more deeply? Why not that?
Q4U: When you hear the word “ritual,” what comes to mind? Is it a bad word to you? Or do you associate it with something more positive?
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