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?