Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Learning: The role of ritual

The word ritual can have terrifying connotations for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The compulsive rituals we perform to try to alleviate the anxiety caused by obsessions result in even more anxiety. They become the source of much pain and much waste.
Religious rituals are especially difficult for me. I’ve written about my scrupulosity and my particular problems with praying.
Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about religious rituals in a more positive light.

In the years after I left religion behind in my 20s, I made brief forays back into spiritual practice, but I continued to eschew what I considered to be meaningless rituals.
During church services, I wondered what was accomplished by response readings, recited prayers and ceremony. What did those rituals have to do with finding God, with learning to live a good life?
I came back to formal religion over seven years ago, for various reasons. One was that I wanted to have a home for my spiritual questions.
I have been happy with my decision overall. I must admit, though, that the rituals in my United Methodist tradition at one time did not mean a lot to me. They were exercises to participate in until we reached my favorite part of the service, the sermon.
I think differently now.
What I have been learning is that rituals have a way of bringing me to a place where I am ready to seek God’s presence.
The book “The Case for God,” by Karen Armstrong, helped to launch my meditation on ritual.
In the book, Armstrong traces the ways that God has been perceived and practiced since man had the first inklings that there was perhaps more to the world and to life than what he could see or experience with his other senses.
Armstrong writes that before the matter of belief became so important, ritual was deemed the way to make myths come alive and become meaningful. She places a great deal of importance on the role of ritual:

“Religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart. . . . It is no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover their truth—or lack of it—only if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action.” (The Case for God, page 10, e-version)

She writes further about the role of ritual:

“Many thousands of people find that the symbolism of the modern God works well for them: backed up by inspiring rituals and the discipline of living in a vibrant community, it has given them a sense of transcendent meaning. All the world faiths insist that true spirituality must be expressed consistently in practical compassion, the ability to feel with the other.” (The Case for God, page 14, e-version)

I am learning that one way I can prepare myself to practice compassion is to attend my church’s services and participate in the rituals. Doing so helps to prepare me to listen more intently to the scriptures, to the sermon and to the quiet voice within.
During the service, we listen to the reading of the scriptures based on the lectionary. After the reading of each selection, the leader holds up the Bible and says, “The Word of God for the people of God.” The congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.”
We sing hymns. We sing the Gloria Patri.
We listen to the minister’s sermon, based on the scriptures that we have heard.
We read as a congregation an affirmation of faith, usually the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed.
All of this gives me much to ponder, including the unity of us all.
During communion, we first pray for forgiveness. We then greet each other in peace before taking part symbolically in Christ’s Last Supper.
There would normally be all kinds of red flags flying around me with any talk of forgiveness and prayer.
And to be honest, I have yet to begin a personal prayer practice.
But in a group setting, I can follow along with the words that were written long ago. I don’t have to make up the words and worry that I haven’t said the right ones.
Being with others also helps. It’s not a ritual that I’m doing alone. I don’t feel alone.
What do you think of rituals? Do you participate in any rituals that are comforting, that go beyond the rote to become meaningful? Or does the thought of participating in any rituals make you uncomfortable?


  1. No I don't participate in rituals or church. I can understand your reasons and I commend you for earnestly seeking something deeper spiritually. I spent most of my early to mid adult years in church which led me to make some egregious choices. I've written a memoir about those years. I think it's good to pursue what brings you peace.

    Thank you for the invite. :)

  2. Grace, Thank you for stopping by and commenting. From the description of your memoir on your blog, I can understand where you're coming from with the idea of ritual. I look forward to someday reading it!

  3. Hi Tina. I don't know if this would be considered a ritual, but it's at least a spiritual discipline. Daily Bible readings are something that I strive for - though I haven't done too well with that this week! In fact it is a discipline I've always struggled with but recently I've signed up for a daily e-mail devotional and it is really helping me to incorporate it into a daily practice.

    I find that if I don't read, it is too easy to go through my day without thinking about how God wants me to serve Him and live my life. I also feel less compassionate towards others. I find it helps me to know the Lord better.

    1. Sunny, I would call that a ritual, and it certainly sounds like one that is a positive in your life. I think that's the best that a ritual can do, is to make life better.

      I hope you are doing well and having a good day!

  4. I love it that you're finding an appropriate role for ritual in your life. Like you, I have in the past been put off by ritual, but find it important to me at this phase in my life.

    In Jewish services, each section of the service transitions to another via a "Kaddish," a prayer that extols God's virtues (many non-Jews may have heard of the Mourner's Kaddish, but that's just one version). Since I was fascinated by this transition, I decided to use it in my daily life. I call my afternoon yoga practice a kaddish because it transitions me from my workday to the evening. Whenever I end one task and prepare to start another, I either exercise, or chant, or read something that inspires me. I think this helps me stay more present and focused, and helps me to let go of a project when it's time, rather than obsessing over it for the rest of the day.

    1. I love what you're doing to transition from one project/time to another! I can see how it helps to keep you focused and to "let go" of one project before starting another. I'm going to think about how I can do something like this--it really struck a chord with me. I think it would help me not feel like the days pass in a blur, and it would help me appreciate more the time I have. Thank you for sharing, Nadine!

  5. My rituals have nothing to do with religion, but they do play a part in my daily life, giving me focus in my writing, my fitness, and my family. Rituals simply help me become more centered.

    1. That's what I'm learning, too, Becky. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  6. Hi Tina, it's interesting to me that your topic is ritual. My morning ritual right now is to read a Psalm, followed by daybooks: one from Thomas Merton's journals and the other by Mark Nepo called The Book of Awakening.

    I recommend ritual for writers because it helps us overcome the "anxiety of authorship" and give the process to God, relaxing us into our purpose. If you or any of your readers want a free ebook called "How to Write a Memoir" that starts with daily ritual, just sign up on my website. I'd love to have you as part of an online community.

  7. Hi, Shirley-Thank you for visiting and sharing. I am discovering the power of rituals, too, in keeping me focused. I signed up for your ebook, and the section on daily ritual is really good!

  8. Hi Tina, I followed your comment on Shirley's blog to your blond, and seeing the Gloria Patri and the Doxology carried me back to 1st-3rd grades when my family attended a Methodist Church. It's been nearly 40 years, and I had no idea that those two songs were still a part of me. We moved several times as I was growing up, and I went from Methodist to Brethren, to a Mennonite college, followed by a charismatic congregation. Like you, I left the church altogether in my 20's. But after the birth of my daughter just befor my 39th birthday, I found myself seeking a kinder, gentler spirituality than the conservative "submit and obey" Christianity I grew up with. I've been attending a Unity church for several years now, but I'm still troubled by some of the rituals. But I love the music, and I'm finding I'm more comfortable with meditation than traditional prayer, and I'm especially partial to contemplation. I have established a bedtime ritual with my daughter, though that we've been doing most of her life. We say "Now I lay me down to sleep..." then she affirms, I am grateful. I am kind. I create what's on my mind. perfect health....Prosperity....My world reflects the change in me. And then I sing the first two verses of "Day is done" (Taps) along with a made-up verse especially for my daughter. So I guess I'm a believer in making up your own rituals or doing whatever works for you.

    1. Laurie, Thanks so much for visiting and commenting. I think that is a beautiful ritual you have with your daughter. I agree that rituals we come up with ourselves can be very powerful and helpful. Like you say, whatever works for you.

      I attended a Unity church some years ago and enjoyed it. I guess the Methodist church just "fits"something in me a little better.

      Meditation definitely works better than traditional prayer for me right now.

  9. My spirituality is a big deal to me. I don't know what I'd do without it. That said, scrupulosity gets in my way in my relationship with God quite a bit. The progress is that I can at least see that it is happening and recognize the scrup stuff for what it is -- religious OCD!


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