Rituals (written 2002)
In the years during which I wandered on my spiritual quest with no path to follow, I often longed for some of the rituals and traditions of my childhood. When we lived in town, I used to see on Sunday mornings from my kitchen window, families preparing to leave for or returning from church and I would miss that. Just the routine of my childhood. The dressing up, gathering materials, driving together, meeting friends we didn’t see during the week, chatter on the church steps, and the Sunday drives and restaurant breakfasts that used to round off the day. There was a comfort in the unspoken coming together of family around something shared, something unifying in a way many other tasks and undertakings were not.
But I had a suspicion of this comfort, as well. The same suspicion that made me unable to hum a remembered hymn without feeling uneasy. That wouldn’t allow me to pray no matter what the extremity of pain or need. This all seemed a superficial crutch somehow. Something I shouldn’t need.
I did not reserve these reactions for the Christianity of my youth. Statues of the Buddha, the rituals of bowing and lighting incense or candles, bells and robes all seemed to me to fall into this class which caused me a vague unease. The meaning I sought was in none of these things and I was not interested in what I thought of as “mere trappings”. But I confess to a different view now.
The change in my perspective, I think, began when I read the suggestion by Rita Gross that religion is more like poetry than science. I hope I have not misrepresented her, but this is how I remember her comparison: it is not so much a matter of proof as of interpretation. No one claims that one poem will be meaningful for everyone, that it will speak to everyone, or even that it will mean the same thing to everyone to whom it does speak.
Beauty, poetry, art, music…they touch something in us that is beyond the limits of words and explanation no matter how we try. And so it is with religion. And, as in the expression of our emotions in poetry we may rely on forms and symbols and in music on tones and rhythms and in art on color and light, so in religion we may choose various expressions. Lighting a candle and stopping to breathe is a ritual which reminds me of that which is greater than those petty concerns I give too much time to. Bowing or inviting the bell to ring slows me down and centers me. Chanting does the same.
And so, I do not gather my family, put on a Sunday hat and sit in a high-ceilinged church once a week to sing and pray. But, I bring a small Sabbath, to use the words of Ram Das, into my day several times a day, through ritual acts that remind me of meaning my heart knows and lips cannot adequately express.