It’s May in the Northwest and the rhododendrons are in bloom, so naturally my thoughts have turned to ritual. To explain the connection I’ll have to tell you a story.
A year before my first book came out, I was taking a walk in my neighborhood. It was early May, and some of the rhodies were in full bloom. I wasn’t paying attention to them in particular. At this time of year the whole neighborhood looks like an explosion in a flower factory, so I was just taking in the general blast of color: rhodies, azaleas, wisteria, irises, a few late tulips and some early poppies.
But then I passed it: a rhody that hadn’t bloomed yet but was right on the edge—a proto-rhody, if you will. The buds, tightly packed a week ago, had started to relax and you could see the color revealing itself with a bright “Ta-da!” As I looked at that bush, poised on the edge of its glory, its potential about to be realized, I thought, This is my life. I had a sense that as my writing was taking a new direction, my life was going to change, and my color would be revealed. See, the thing about rhodies is that until they bloom, you can’t tell what color they are; they’re all just green shrubs, one pretty much like another.
My life did change, and since then, each time I pass that rhody I reach out and touch its leaves. It’s a prayer of thanks for my vocation, and because I walk that route all the time, I am reminded nearly every day to give thanks for the work I’ve been given.
This is the value of personal rituals. The earliest sociologists taught us the value of group rituals: they build solidarity and buttress the commitment of the faithful. Whether they take place in houses of worship or around the holiday table, group rituals tell us who we are (“We keep this feast”) and mark certain times as special (“Why is this night different from all other nights?”).
Personal rituals can do this too, but they can serve another purpose: when our gaze wanders from God, the rituals we observe can call it back. In Following Francis I mentioned that when I begin a new task during the day, I say a quick prayer of dedication: “To the glory of God and in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Short and simple, this ritual reminds me of the deeper significance of small, ordinary tasks. It also reminds me that if I’m going to offer this work to the glory of God, I’d better not do a half-assed job of it.
Rituals are the voice of a mom whose toddler is wandering too far from her side, of a shepherd whose sheep is approaching the cliff. Yet the whole idea of ritual is off-putting to many. In the next post I’d like to look at why, and consider how personal rituals can help us move toward an unbroken Godward gaze.