Understanding Ritual

Two weeks ago I wrote about my experience while attending the Adoration of the Eucharist at a Cistercian monastery. My thoughts come back to the notion of ritual. What is ritual? Why do all religions make use of ritual?

These days we often hear people say that they are interested in spirituality and not merely “rites and rituals”. Even the Dalai Lama made a similar comment recently. It seems that for modern man spirituality is something completely inward, with little concern for the outer settings in which we walk, sit or sleep.

Ritual, on the other hand, seems to be extremely concerned with the outer setting. A preliminary condition for ritual to work seems to be that the persons involved should feel a connection with the objects outside them. This may be the bread and wine of the Eucharist, or the butter and rice that are poured into the sacred fire in the Hindu fire sacrifice, or even an ordinary person cleaning up his room and putting things in order.

The first significant aspect of ritual is that it creates a sense of order. The objects of the ritual are always put in the right place, and not scattered around. In the Catholic Mass, there is a certain order in which the prayers are said and then the bread and wine are brought to the altar. One of the priests’ assistants brings the wine and the other brings the bread. After that, the wine is consecrated and then the bread is consecrated. It is done in this way, everyday, without fail. The order cannot be turned around. Ritual, therefore, establishes an order which did not exist to begin with. A messy room is the last place to invoke the sacred.

Second, ritual brings into a profane atmosphere a degree of sanctity. It does so by introducing objects which are considered sacred. This may be incense, or the consecrated bread and wine, or sacred music. These objects are recognised as sacred by those present in the ritual setting, and therefore, lift the whole setting to an existentially higher plane than it was in at the beginning of the ritual. A simple, soft incense stick can do this. A dirty room, unwashed objects have little place in ritual because in most developed cultures, dirt is associated with profanity rather than sacredness.

Third, ritual involves an element of regularity. This means that those who do the ritual often do it periodically, perhaps everyday, and usually at a fixed time. In this manner, order and sanctity are brought in to the space regularly (for instance, the Mass may be held every morning at 8 AM) to renew the existence of that space and of those people who are in it.

Hence, order, sanctity and regularity seem to be three important elements in a ritual.

A word may be said about the objects of a ritual. Are these objects sacred in themselves or is sacredness attributed to them by human beings? This raises larger philosophical issues of what it means to have a quality, which I am unable to answer. But I may say that today we live in a time when the boundaries between one’s self and the outer world are more thick than they ever have been in the history of mankind. While today, spirituality is entirely an inner matter for several people, in the past human beings have felt their sense of spirituality to be within as well as outside. The sacredness within has easily been perceived to extend outside of one’s self, attaching itself to sacred objects – stones, images, texts, deities, and so on.

In its psychological development, humanity is at a stage where the deepest core of oneself – which is sacred – is not easily accessible and has to be discovered after much work on oneself. Only after this work of uncovering oneself may it be possible to relate the sacredness that is inherent in those depths to objects outside. The psychologist Carl Gustav Jung spoke of stages in the development of the human psyche. In Jung’s system, sacredness is an attribute of the Self, which is an archetype that manifests in the human psyche as God, and as other forms of divinity. In modern times, writes Jung, the Self has been pushed so far away from the conscious aspects of ourselves, that it is only through considerable self-exploration that we may reach it again. We may consider this model the psychological version of the Hindu idea of kali yuga.

Ritual need not be conducted around an altar in a church or a temple. I often notice that my room is messy, clothes are lying on my bed, books are scattered on the table – some of them open, little bits of paper lie on the floor, the air is stale because the windows have been closed for long, and there are too many things in the room which make it look cramped. All of this is anti-ritual. When I have the motivation, I put the books and clothes in order, sweep and dust the room and discard notebooks, pens and other objects that I don’t need so that the room gets some space and openness. I then light a little incense stick and put it in a corner. If the air is fresh, I keep the windows shut to block away unpleasant noises of car horns and engines. And I put on some soft, soulful music.

This ritual does not involve invoking any deities, but it still brings in the sense of order, cleanliness and peace, involving my senses of sight, touch, smell and hearing. Perhaps these small things can deepen our experience of life, even if they are not overtly religious.

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~ by tdcatss on October 4, 2010.

7 Responses to “Understanding Ritual”

  1. This is a very well thought through post.For me, the world is in itself sacred. Ritual and ceremony serve to remind us of that. Our insistence that there is a division between sacred and profane trips us up. All life and living is sacred. The challenge is to remember that.

    Thank you for thinking deeply about this and sharing it with us.

  2. What a thoughtful and well written post! :) I wonder . . .have you ever read “Practicing His Presence” by Brother Lawrence? Something about your ending made me think of that book.

  3. Thanks Michael and Debbie :)

    Debbie, I haven’t read that book but I looked it up and it seems really popular and interesting! Could you say something about how you feel about it?

    Maybe I should put it on my ‘to read’ list although I recently ordered 2 Christian books – one volume of the journals of the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton and another called ‘The Infinity of Little Hours’, a book about the lives of a handful of Carthusian monks. Monasticism really draws me.

    Which Christian denomination do you belong to?

  4. It’s been a little while since I’ve read it, but it was the simplicity of his heart and worship. . .his trust and faith as he did everyday things, that spoke to me.
    I have been reading some Thomas Merton quotes each Monday on another blog and they are wonderful. You are going to like that book. :)
    I have gone to an Assemblies of God church, and loved it there.

    • Thanks for telling me about the book.

      Could you give me a link to the Thomas Merton blog? I have read some of Merton’s writings and I liked them. His autobiography is the most deeply moving book I have ever read, leaving aside scripture.

      My impression has been that Protestants are not interested in monasticism, and some are perhaps even against it, but you have different views on it :)

      • Hi Kaif! Now, there may be a Thomas Merton site . . .haven’t looked that up, but here is the blog that posts Merton quotes on Monday: helenl.wordpress.com
        She is also doing Henri Nouwen quotes . . .good too!

        We might have to just admit that I’m . . .different! ha!

  5. I love the way your write and illustrate things. And looks like you have read Jung a lot; I haven’t and I am glad that you are enlightening me on a lot of interesting topics.

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