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The value and power of ritual

July 10, 2015
Father Ron Rolheiser

Today we no longer understand the value and power of ritual. This is more than an individual failing. It’s the cultural air we breathe. In the words of Robert L. Moore, we’ve gone “ritually tone-deaf.” The effects of this can be seen everywhere: Allow me two examples:

First, we see this today in the failure by so many couples to grasp the need to formalize their relationship in a ceremony of marriage. They make a private commitment to live together but feel no need to formalize this before a civil authority or inside a church. Their belief is that their love and private commitment to each other is all that’s needed. What does a formal ceremony or a church blessing add to that commitment? The prevalent feeling is that a formal ceremony, ideally even in a church, is nice as a celebration and as something to please others, but, beyond that, it adds little or nothing in terms of anything important. What does ritual contribute to actual life?

We see this same view in many current attitudes towards church-going, prayer and the sacraments. What’s the value of participating in something when seemingly our hearts aren’t in it? What’s the value of going to church when we feel it’s meaningless? What’s the value of praying formally when, today, our hearts are a million miles away from what our words are saying? Further still, what’s the value in going to church or in saying prayers at those times when we feel a certain positive repugnance to what we’re doing? Indeed these questions are often expressed as an accusation: People are just going through the motions of church and prayer, parroting words that aren’t really meaningful to them, going through an empty ritual! What’s the value in that? The value is that the ritual itself can hold and sustain our hearts in something deeper than the emotions of the moment.

Matthew Crawford, in his recent book “The World Beyond Your Head,” suggests that ritual acts positively even when our feelings are negative. His words: “Consider as an example someone who suffers not from some ragging emotion of lust, resentment, or jealousy … but rather sadness, discontent, boredom, or annoyance. A wife, let us say, feels this way about her husband. But she observes a certain ritual: she says “I love you” upon retiring at night. She says this not as a report about her feelings – it is not sincere – but neither it is a lie. What it is is a kind of prayer. She invokes something that she values – the marital bond – and in doing so turns away from her present discontent and toward this bond, however elusive it may be as an actual experience. It has been said that ritual (as opposed to sincerity) has “subjunctive” quality to it: one acts as if some state of affairs were true, or could be. … It relieves one of the burden of ‘authenticity’. … “The ritual of saying ‘I love you’ … alters somewhat the marital scene; it may not express love so much as to invoke it, by incantation. One spouse invites the other to join with her in honoring the marriage, something one could honor. It is an act of faith: in one another, but also in a third thing, which is the marriage itself.”

What Crawford highlights here is precisely, “a third thing,” that is, something beyond the emotions of a given moment and our faith in each other, namely, the institution of marriage itself as a ritual container, as a sacrament that can hold and sustain a relationship beyond the emotions and feelings of the moment. Marriage, as an institution, human and divine, is designed to sustain love inside of and beyond the emotional and affective fluctuations that inevitably occur inside of every intimate relationship. Marriage allows two people to continue to love each other despite boredom, irritation, anger, bitterness, wound, and, in some cases, even infidelity. The ritual act of getting married places one inside that container.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when preaching at marriage ceremonies, would frequently give this counsel to couples: Today you are much in love and you feel that love will sustain your marriage. It wouldn’t. But marriage can sustain your love. Being ritually tone deaf, we struggle to understand that.

The same holds true for church-going, the sacraments, and private prayer. It’s not a question of going through the motions on days when the feelings aren’t there. Rather it’s going through the ritual as an incantation, as an honoring of our relationship to God, and as an act of faith in prayer.

If we only said “I love you” when we actually felt that emotion and if we only prayed when we actually felt like it, we wouldn’t express love or pray very often. When we say “I love you” and when we do formal prayer at those times when our feelings seem to belie our words, we aren’t being hypocritical or simply going through the motions, we’re actually expressing some deeper truths.

Oblate Father Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology, San Antonio, Texas.

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