Why Spiritual Ritual?*
Learning to kneel took decades. It was not something I did in my upbringing; and before I could kneel, I needed to know why. Now I kneel at a communion rail each Sunday as I take in my hands a small wafer and drink a swallow of wine from a common silver chalice. The kneeling is part of the grounding of the ritual, the receiving. Too, I weekly kneel to say a ritual “prayer of repentance”: I have not loved you with my whole heart … I have not loved my neighbor as myself… . Words that feel like truth-telling to me, not self-flagellation—an eye-opening to something I want to repeat because otherwise I will choose to ignore it, selling myself short. I am more than a self-separating, self-aggrandizing consumer, the rituals reminds me. I am invited into oneness with the Divine, which is my essence. So are you. The why of kneeling, for me? To get closer to the Ground of all Being, where I am humbled and uplifted in my oneness with humanity, with animals and trees, and with God, the Ground of Being this creation incarnates. I recognize many cannot kneel because of knee pain, and I’m not elevating kneeling in any way. What is important is ritual, not the kneeling, per se.
When I have communed with a group of Episcopalians in a tiny, enchanting church on the Oregon Coast, it was because I needed spiritual ritual. It is not about doctrines or cognitive beliefs. I think we all need spiritual ritual—something that stops us, quiets us, guides us inward, that reminds us of who we are. I gravitated to that community and faith expression for reasons that include the familial love of the group, the intellectual freedom of Episcopalians, the unity in diversity. But it is hunger for ritual that rumbles most loudly in the belly of my soul. Spiritual ritual can take many forms—not just religious. I think walking in nature, attending a poetry reading, or deep, good theater can be spiritual ritual if it challenges us to ask: why am I here? …to what am I given? A ritual activity is spiritual if it draws us out of the false self and into Love, into something far greater than ourselves.
Of course spiritual ritual is all about interpretation, thus we can imbue ritual with life-giving meaning or its opposite—and at times I hear of ritual done so poorly I cringe. I recently heard of a megachurch where communion bread and wine are distributed in individual sealed plastic cups that look like Land-O-Lake creamers you might pick up at the Howard Johnson’s breakfast buffet. People at the church aren’t even served communion; rather they retrieve their communion kits upon entering the sanctuary, so they can peel back the hermetically-sealed lids and serve themselves on cue—an individualistic, anti-ecological ritual if ever there was one. What does such a ritual say as it begins with disconnection and ends in thousands of plastic cuplets filling garbage bins bound for the landfill?
That spiritual ritual can be done as badly or well as any human endeavor is self-evident.
The endless variety of religious and spiritual ritual is, on the other hand, no failing. Variety merely speaks to our diversity, our multifarious tastes, and expresses our natural, graced heterogeneity. There are beautiful rituals, rituals of great integrity, that simply don’t resonate with me. On me, they are an ill-fitting shoe. And what suits me will surely cramp the style of others (declining attendance at mainline churches attests to this!). If a spiritual ritual offered to you doesn’t suit, perhaps keep searching?
When I ponder: why spiritual ritual?, I can’t help but notice what transpires when spiritual ritual is absent. In part, we need these rituals because of what we tend to do without them, in their absence. Looking around us and at our own lives, we see how our tendencies often steer us into unhealth. For better or worse, we are extraordinarily ritual beings. And without spiritual ritual, we fill the ritual-vacuum with something. Into the vacuum caused by its absence floods habit, another kind of ritual. But habit-as-ritual tends to be unexamined and compulsive. We all have these unexamined, compulsive habits that give structure to our days. Our brains actually require them. But when in the absence of spiritual ritual our ritual-habits are all we have, we can become reactive, rigid, shallow, and highly vulnerable to things like advertising and propaganda. We lack the introspective, wise, self-critical lens a spiritual tradition can provide, and we live tossed about on the outer edges of our experience instead of grounded in our center. Out of habits our brains form synapses, or neural pathways, as we repeat certain actions over and over again. Habits exert great power.
For me, many of the liturgical words repeated in my tradition on Sundays are as nourishing to me as ritual actions. The words shape me; they form a particular kind of neural pathway each time I say them. Among the words of weekly liturgy, my favorite come from the concluding prayer recited at my church. They read: “Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.” Peace, strength, courage, love, service, gladness, singleness of heart. I need these words on my lips on a regular basis, corralling the otherwise scattered intentions of my heart. The words of this prayer are ancient and beautiful, and as I say them on a regular basis, they gradually alter me. Ritual acts on the brain, on the neural structure, crafting us into the people we are becoming. I could go into all the ways we engage in rituals that build unhealthy neural structure, but I won’t. We know this already. The point is: ritual also has the power to heal our hatred and divisions, if we so desire.
* Note: My jumping-off place for this title is Elaine Pagel’s recent book Why Religion?, which got me thinking about my own answers to that question.