One well-known criticism of rituals is that it is “just going through the motions.” While that can be the case, it doesn’t have to be.
A recent Patheos article considered the average Christian’s understanding of religious ritual. Some studies suggest that people, even while participating in religious ritual, don’t think about it very deeply. This led the article’s author, Rick Snedeker, to suggest, “…one might say that Christians are primarily human doings, so to speak, in executing the oft-repeated rituals of faith, rather than intellectual beings focused on understanding and contemplating the meaning of it all.”
Personally, I don’t think it is all that surprising to find that people don’t think too deeply about their religious rituals, especially if they were raised in the faith and performed the same rituals all their lives. Repeating the same action over and over can even be comforting. How often do we think deeply about why we make the bed or how we set the table before dinner? To me, the issue isn’t that ritual is meaningless. The issue is, how do we make ritual more meaningful.
Rituals don’t have to be exact cookie-cutter replicas of each other. The power of ritual is in capturing a moment in time, reflecting on it, and remarking on it. Ritual helps us to name our life transformations, honor what has come before and embrace the future. No two people’s life transformations are exactly the same, so no two rituals need to be designed exactly the same. Weddings, for example, may contain similar elements – vows between the couple, exchange of tokens to symbolize the promises made, words of well-wishes for the couple’s future together, and introduction of the couple in a way that acknowledges their new union. However, this can (and should) look very different from couple to couple.
Ritual done well isn’t just “going through the motions.” Too often I’ve heard engaged couples say that they want to get through the wedding ceremony as quickly as possible so they can get to the party! This is an example of “going through the motions” that makes me sad because the ceremony is the marker of the transition from one season of life to the next. If done well, in a way that honor’s the couple’s unique personalities and worldview, the ceremony can truly be a transformational experience.
Even when ritual is done in a way that honors the unique people involved, there is still an element of mystery – which, to me, is the ‘secret sauce’ of ritual. Some may describe the mystery as God, Source, or Spirit. Others may experience the mystery as love, connection, or community. In fact, I might even suggest that those described in the Patheos article as “human doings” (who don’t think deeply about the meaning of the rituals they perform) may experience some of the mystery of the ritual even in the ‘mindless’ repetition. …….So how much more meaningful would it be after thoughtful consideration and intentional design?
When have you experienced ritual done well? When have you been one of those mindless ‘human doings’ simply going through the motions? Has the mystery of ritual ever caught you by surprise? What do you think of the idea of personalized rituals that honor the individual(s) involved?