As I reflect back over the Triduum and Easter liturgies we celebrated a few days ago, I am reminded of the power of ritual to penetrate directly to the heart. Like art, music and poetry, ritual has such an enormous capacity to touch us to the core, at a level way deeper than the intellect.
I think of the Holy Thursday Mandatum. I know that in some parishes, the priest washes the feet of 12 people (in some, only men). We have all heard that Pope Francis this year had his Holy Thursday Mass in a juvenile prison, where he washed the feet of young men and women, including the feet of two Muslims. In my parish, everyone that wishes to participate in the ritual does so. As each person comes up, his/her feet are washed by the person before, after which he/she washes the feet of the next person.
It is hard to convey the powerful impact it has on me to both allow another person to perform that act on me and then to kneel at the feet of another doing the same. (I washed the feet of a woman and her young child.) But what I can say is there is an enormous difference in what it does to my heart to simply listen to the Gospel and hear the line, “as I have done, so also you shall do” and to participate in this act, where each person is both server and served – an act that is for me central to who and how we are meant to be in the world.
I think of our veneration of the cross on Good Friday. As the last in line in my Church this year, I watched each person come up to the large cross, kneel, touch, kiss, whatever – old and young, healthy and infirm, male and female,
before I did the same. It is a ritual I can never participate in without tears coming to my eyes. When I kneel and kiss the cross I acknowledge and honor in a way different from anything else the Christ through whose Incarnation, Death and Resurrection express something fundamental about my relationship to God. The whole experience touches me at a very deep place.
I think of our recommitment at the Easter Vigil to our baptismal vows, and the feeling of newness I have as I am sprinkled with holy water.
You can think of other examples, I am sure.
When I was younger, I had a great deal of difficulty understanding ritualistic elements of faith. But if, as I say so often during talks, conversion is primarily an experience of the heart, not primarily of the head, these kind of experiences – things that touch our hearts and souls – are enormously important.
Of course, it is easy for ritual to become automatic, to engage in it distractedly, which deprives it of its ability to touch our hearts. Engaged in mindfully, however, ritual has enormous transformational potential.