Last Thursday we got together and mused over the question what role does ritual play in your faith/spirituality? It was a smaller group of us than usual but wow did we cover a lot of bases.
Firstly we asked: what is ritual? Someone offered “it is something that you have incorporated into your life that you find important”. Good start, seems straight-forward. And then we started fleshing it out. Almost immediately, the discussion turned to all of the ways ritual can be used to exclude people and establish a hierarchy of devotion, purity, citizenship, anything. Is she holding her hands appropriately as she prays? Wearing the appropriate clothing? Does he prepare the food properly? Is this person the appropriate gender for this role? People shared experiences of being made to feel less-than by their (often religious) community, how their experience affected their sense of belonging, and how that impacted their ability to practice their faith and connect spiritually. Unfortunately, that could have been an entire evening’s discussion on its own.
Obviously (from our perspective anyway) the ideal purpose of ritual is not to harm people, although as we discovered, practice can easily warp into something that does. So that begs the question, what good does ritual do? Ritual is an action that was initially at least based on some type of intention, but beyond that it can in practice be anything. It can run from the way you wash the dishes to an elaborate wedding ceremony. Ritual can be meditative, an act of self-discipline, and ingraining a form into your body memory can allow you to focus on your spiritual intentions with more of your being. It can allow us, as one person put it, ” to bring a moment of wonder, sacred, into our material, profane world.”
Ritual can also offer an important sense of identity and belonging. Family rituals, community rituals, whatever they are, they can give us a sense of who we are and where we fit. We have rituals for meeting people, offering hospitality, handling death and rites of passage…These things give us a sense of comfort in knowing what to do when, and the symbolism behind each ritual can bring depths of meaning to events in our lives.
Rituals can be communal or very personal, and as one person noted “they can make life feel empty if you don’t do it.” So it seems as though we are by nature (or something) ritualistic people, and ritual can serve many very useful purposes in our lives, both spiritually and practically. But we have also seen that without reflection on our actions and the intention behind the ritual, like so many other things in life, it can become a way to belittle, exclude, and otherwise harm people–intentionally or not.
We left things that evening with a question for all of you! In the comments section, let us know: What rituals are important to you in your life, and what influences you to engage in them?