You can tell we’re suspicious of ritual by our tendency to put words like “empty” and “meaningless” before it, and “gesture” after it. Yet the earliest human remains tell us that our prehistoric ancestors disposed of their dead with care: the placement of bodies is deliberate, and there are usually artifacts found with them. This suggests that religion in general, and ritual in particular, have probably been with us from the beginning.
Our culture recognizes our need for ritual and supplies it at important transitions: marriages, graduations and deaths. Rituals are a collective pause to acknowledge that something important is happening, and that it will change things, whether that change is welcome or not. We do this well with the big transitions, like death. But there are a thousand small but significant passages on the way to the big one, and I think we could be more creative in marking them.
I’ve known people to use ritual creatively at times of transition. A friend of mine who went through a divorce at the end of her childbearing years was struggling to accept the fact that she would never give birth. So she created a ritual to mark the passing of this dream, and invited a group of women friends to observe it with her. We laughed and cried with her, and I think this helped her close one chapter and open another.
I could’ve used something like that in graduate school when a close girlfriend found a man and did the classic girlfriend thing, disappearing without a word. I struggled for a long time to let go of my anger, and I think a “friendship funeral” might have helped me gain closure. By the time my beloved dog Abby died, I had learned a thing or two: I gathered candles, her ashes and some things to put with them, and bade her a loving and private farewell. It brought closure, and eased the transition.
But everyday rituals can be useful too. For contemplatives “in the marketplace,” personal rituals are particularly important because we are continually having to recall an upward gaze that’s been lured away in a thousand other directions. Being a contemplative means that whatever you’re doing, whatever position you’re in, you are always facing God. Your stance, the whole orientation of your life and heart, is Godward. But since God is invisible, most of the time, we need to be reminded of that.
Of course rituals can become substitutes for worship. Facing God is hard work, and human ingenuity is unlimited when it comes to finding ways out of it. But rituals can also turn us back to God. I’ve mentioned that during Lent I stuck with a simple prayer: “I love You. I trust You. I thank You.” I prayed it throughout the day, and it kept me focused. What about you? When your gaze wanders off, what are the things that keep bringing you back?