Enriched by ritual

Enriched by ritual
einarfour, Flickr

I run into people from time to time who are very skeptical of religious ritual, things like liturgy or hourly prayers, practices like fasting or crossing yourself. If we discuss it, they usually tell me that they think it’s deadening, that their spirituality is vital and free and that ritual would stifle things.

I think I understand the resistance. Some come from families that just seemed to cycle through the motions at church. Some of those families were very serious and consistent, others almost irreligious in every other way; both left the impression that their engagement was lifeless, even faithless.

Others have simply never tried it. They have a preconception of what ritual is all about, and they think embracing it would be a giant spiritual step backward.

My personal experience was more like the latter, but it turns out that I was very wrong. I have found — and many others I know have as well — that vital faith combined with traditional ritual proves spiritually enriching. Here are two initial reasons why:

1. Ritual provides structure for faith

Ritual contours our spirituality the same way a cup contours a beverage. Remove the cup and you have an accident, a word that pretty well describes my Christian walk before encountering ritual’s comely structures.

I don’t know if the observation was original to him, but a friend once said that ritual is the grammar of faith. Grammar isn’t the substance of language, but its structures and precision help language reach fuller, richer meaning. Ritual can do the same thing for faith.

Many of us have faith like a rambling run-on sentence, all meandering and going who-knows-where. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s just missing direction. We know our faith has meaning, but the full depth of that meaning is unavailable or unattainable to us because we’ve not availed ourselves of the formative, shaping power of ritual.

2. Ritual enlivens faith

Augustine wrote about this while discussing the physicality of prayer. God doesn’t need people to “bend their knees . . . stretch forth their hands, or even prostrate themselves on the ground, [or] whatever else they visibly do. . . .” After all, he said, God knows “their invisible will and heart’s intention. . . .”

But the ritual of prayer “excites” a more prayerful spirit. As the outward acts are done in faith, the inward, spiritual reality of that faith increases. Augustine said “the heart’s affection . . . grows because [the ritual motions] are made.”

I find this generally true of liturgical worship, using a prayer book, crossing myself, lighting candles for prayer, and other ritual activities as well. They stir my heart, and best of all they bring my heart along when it’s heavy or distracted or even resistant. Instead of being a dead weight, ritual excites and energizes my faith. I can start out saying my prayers by rote and find myself at the end fully, spiritually engaged. And I never would have arrived in the second of those states if I didn’t begin with simple ritual.

Ritual can be form without power. We’ve all seen that, and some have suffered by it. But don’t close the door; the form of ritual filled with the Spirit’s power can be enriching beyond measure.

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  • “Ritual contours our spirituality…” this is a beautiful way to express what I know to be true. In the past few years I have attempted to live through the seasons of the liturgical year, and have personally found that such ritual provided my faith not only with structure but with aesthetics as well. There is such beauty in the prayers of the Book of Common Prayer, in the symbolism behind the sacraments, in reenacting the seasons of Christ’s life by living them throughout my year.

    I realize that Scripture does not command we do any of this, and liturgical or ritual faith is a matter of preference just like contemporary worship. I do it not because the Bible says to, but because it benefits my faith! As we intentionally observe the events of the life of Christ, we align ourselves with God’s unfolding story of redemption.

    • I find the church year very powerful as well. I’ve only followed the liturgical calendar for a few years now, but each cycle it becomes more helpful and formative for me. It really opens up the story of our salvation and makes me present to the key events in ways I couldn’t understand or appreciate before engaging that way.

      And great point on the aesthetics. Sometimes we forget that our faith is about the good, the true, and the beautiful, something ritual can powerfully communicate.

      • Yes, the beauty and poetry I see in a more ritual-oriented faith, as you call it, appeals to the creative in me.

        Also I had this thought as I was reading your post on people’s critiques of a more structured faith…once someone commented to me how taking communion every week minimizes the significance of the sacrament. She said this before she knew I crave communion weekly, and it is incredibly significant to me on a weekly basis! I’m not sure this argument holds up that frequency decreases value. I doubt any married couple would say that the frequency of their intimacy decreases its significance! So it is with our communion with Christ.

  • I agree with your insights on ritual and liturgy. Having not grown up in a liturgical church and then spending almost 30 years in Baptist churches as a pastor, my introduction to Eastern Orthodox liturgy was a refreshing shock to my soul. My daily devotional time follows the Rule of St Benedict, as well as the Orthodox calendar for the saints and feast days, and daily reading of the Prologue and using an Orthodox prayer book. This has brought order and depth to my personal spiritual exercises. And when I have opportunity I attend Orthodox liturgy and am richly blessed by it. I think for many the biggest problem is being totally unacquainted with liturgical worship and spiritual exercises.

    • I love that expression, “a shock to the soul.” It was exactly the same for me. And you’re right about people being unacquainted with it. Ancient Christian practices and ritual are just not on people’s radar. What’s great is how positively some people react when they encounter it.

  • Its always interested me that those who claim to have no ritual (or liturgy) just have a different form. Novelty always arouses my suspicion.

  • Deacon James Stagg

    Well written, Mr. Miller.

    I find the ritual that supports me is the Liturgy of the Hours, in addition to the Liturgy of the Mass.

    Thanks for asking.

  • Joshua

    I appreciate very much the power that ritual can play as a role in spiritual life, as an outward sign. Much like choosing to smile can make us happy, rather than the other way around.

    However, I find that ritual is a very damaging thing in two ways:

    Most commonly, among people who take the ritual itself to be spiritually significant. This has serious consequences in the social culture around the church and in the theological understanding of most people. When we teach rituals and aren’t absolutely explicit that the ritual itself is meaningless except in a personal sense, we plant the seeds for serious misunderstanding.

    Less commonly, but just as importantly, those who do not share the culture of these rituals are excluded. I am not a part of a culture that has religious rituals. I am *always* a foreigner in any church that practices rituals of any sort. Furthermore, being a very introverted person I have always had a mental separation between outward and inward action that most people do not have. Due to that, rituals, for me personally, can never be anything more than show for others. As such I simply cannot perform them in good conscience.

    As I’ve gained more experience, I’ve come to understand better that some people crave and need these sorts of things. For people like me, though, they do nothing but separate–especially when we who don’t share these rituals are ostracized or judged by those who assume that the rituals themselves are signs of spiritual valor (or that lacking them is a sign of the opposite).

  • Sam

    One of the early church thinkers (I believe it was Arnobius) said that “We raise our hands so that our hearts may follow.” I imagine that this describes ritual very well. We “do” things so that our heart can be lifted up – we fold our hands, cross ourselves, kneel, etc. so that our heart may follow with the same actions. Ritual gives body to our soulful worship. In this way, ritual can help create a more incarnational worship experience. Thank you for writing and posting!