Power of Ritual

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.

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The Role of Ritual

Yesterday was one of our “Mid-Day Dialogues of Faith” at UST Law School. As regular readers will remember, each of these dialogues takes a single theme and explores it from the perspective of several Christian faith traditions. In the past, we’ve dialogued on subject that include the value of creeds, on intercession, faith and works, and heaven, hell and purgatory.

The theme for yesterday was The Role of Ritual. In addition to myself, the speakers were Mark Osler (currently Episcopalian, with roots in the Anabaptist tradition) and Chato Hazelbaker (Evangelical Christianity). As we usually do, each of us spoke for a while and we then opened it up for broader audience participation.

Of the three of us, Mark expressed the most hesitation about ritual, although each of the three of us acknowledges both the potential positive power of ritual to aid in our transformation as well as the danger that it be mindless or hypocritical. I was particularly struck by Chato’s opening, which distinguished Evangelical attitudes toward ritual, sacrament, tradition and discipline – distinctions I’m not sure are drawn as clearly in Catholicism. The broader discussion after our brief presentations raised some good issues about the distinction between ritual in an individual and a corporate capacity and the challenges for those unfamiliar with the rituals of a faith tradition.

You can access a recording of the dialogue among Chato, Mark and me here or you can stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 31:51.)

Clean and Unclean Objects

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, the Pharisees are amazed to see that Jesus “did not observe the prescribed washing before the meal.” He responds by chastising them, saying:

Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, inside you are filled with plunder and evil. You fools! Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside? But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you.

The Pharisees, we know, were obsessed with adherence for the law. In fact, the law of Moses did not require washing for ordinary meals unless one had been tainted by something “unclean.” For the Pharisees, that teaching had morphed into an automatic ritual washing before meals; one commentator called their behavior an imitation of the ritual purity of priests in the temple.

Jesus’ problem is not with adherence to ritual (which may be an aid in our transformation) or even to an effort to try to do more than rules require. Instead, his response reminds us that it is easy to get caught up in traditions and rules to the point where they blind us to what true adherence to the law looks like.

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees invites us to reflect on what it really means to live a life of holiness. And he helps us answer that question, reminding us to focus on “what is within.” External acts of devotion unaccompanied by a transformation – by an interior cleansing – are empty.

Advent and Ritual

One of the rituals I love during Advent is the lighting of the candles on the Advent wreath. We light them at Mass every day…one during the first week of Advent, two during the second week and so on. I also light them at home – on each Sunday, but also during the week at odd times when I am home.

There is something in actions like this. If we do them intentionally, they seem to stop time for a moment. They pull us out of the ordinary and into a quiet space of peace. For a few minutes, the exams that have to be graded, the meal that has to be made, the load of laundry waiting to be washed, the bills waiting to be paid – all disappear and there is something else in its place.

I recently read a New York Times article that quoted a Jewish rabbi saying, “Ritual pulls us back from all the mundane stuff and helps make us more transcendent in our lives Any ritual can have transcendent meaning, but most of the time we miss it because we’re trying to take care of everything else.” The author of the article commented in words that mirror my experience, that ritual is “a way to make time stop for a moment in the blur of life.”

So let time stop for a moment. Whether it is lighting the candle of an Advent wreath or some other act, allow yourself the time and space to leave the ordinary for a bit. Don’t worry – it will all still be there when you return, although you may look at it all a little differently.