Ritual

From Wayne Meeks:

Ritual is a condensed action that is intended to focus and concentrate meaning so that what is done in this nexus of sacred time and place ripples out onto all prior and subsequent doings, the doings that take place in the “profane” or outside world, resonating in those ordinary affairs with interpretive possibilities. When ritual is working, it helps us to make sense–a special kind of sense–of the other things we do. (The Origins of Christian Morality, 92)

This is a beautiful, succinct statement about ritual, one that has particular implications for sacraments in particular.

But, how do we do it? How do we allow the meaning of the moment of ritual to diffuse out into all of life?

The problem, it seems to me, is that we are too good at compartmentalizing. And, perhaps, the problem lies with those of us who are preachers and teachers, that we do not adequately infuse our rituals with meaning for them to have sufficient power to radiate out into the mundane.

What sorts of interpretive possibilities have rituals created for your world? What sorts of interpretive possibilities might our rituals create for us?

15 thoughts on “Ritual”

  1. Where is the “‘profane’ or outside world” if all the earth is God’s? Isn’t all of creation and time sacred? Maybe the issue is not “to make sense–a special kind of sense–of the other things we do” but rather to continually experience “the other things we do” as sacred. Ritual that instills this experience would seem to me to be what is needed.

    Maybe Meeks is saying the same thing but the Meeks quote makes me uneasy in that it feels at first blush like sacred vs secular dualism. Isn’t the separation of the world in to sacred and profane places compartmentalization?

    1. Thank you, Mr. Kruse. I agree with you that the dichotomy is artificial. If one substitutes the phrase “doings that take place in the rest of life” for “doings that take place in the ‘profane’ or outside world,” then I find Mr. Meeks statement very helpful. Those of us not as familiar with ritual in church services need to hear about the value of ritual.

    2. Michael,

      Based simply on the quote and Daniel’s piece, I would say that the key here is that ritual “is a condensed action that is intended to focus and concentrate meaning.” It’s not that other (non-ritual) things and parts of life (all of creation) don’t participate in that meaning (sacredness), but that ritual compacts meaning so tightly that it produces an intensified impact. Once we experience this, we recognize the meaning (sacredness) of non-ritual parts of life because they remind us of that intensified experience

  2. A very helpful book on this subject is: Frank Gorman’s “The ideology of ritual : space, time, and status in the priestly theology”

    Gorman understands ritual as a means where a society, creates and affirms a particual view of the world. He then reads the priestly literature asking how this material functions in the matainance and creation of a particular view of the world.

    After reading this book I attended a local youth hockey game. After the game the teams lined up to shake eachother hands. (Actually they bumped fists, since its hard to shake with hockey gloves on, but the intent was the same).

    It seemed to me that this was an excellent example of how ritual functions. Our society wants to promote good sportmanship (even in hockey), and this ritual attements to affirm and create this view.

  3. Boring rituals that take up considerable time, often, don’t seem good to me. Churchy rituals seem to be of that kind, and I reckon less of them would be good.

  4. Allow me to chime in as the religious studies person. Meeks’ statement about ritual is interesting, but it potentially confuses matters by naturalizing a certain complex of ideas about ritual as though they constitute “ritual” itself.

    Rituals are generally ordinary actions that, in some setting, are represented as though they are special and have a particular meaning. It’s important to keep in mind that — from a historical/social/anthropological perspective — meanings are ascribed to the actions by people, not inherent in the actions themselves. Sure, from a religious actor’s perspective a ritual has some inherent meaning, but that’s part of how the actor intellectualizes the ritual: X ritual means Y because of ________ (fill in with whatever cosmological, theological, etc. reality that’s claimed to underlie the ritual).

    Thus why rituals can be so interpretively fruitful, if you will…different people can take different positions about their “meanings” and significance. Meeks’ statement does somewhat capture how some rituals work for some people, but it remains too bound up with meaning production in terms of “sacred time and place,” among other things There are other ways that people sometimes ritualize certain actions and other ways that we can discern how rituals “work” socially.

    FWIW, one of the better treatments of “ritual” from a more historical, cognitive, and comparative perspective remains Robert McCauley and E. Thomas Lawson, Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

    I bring this up here not just to be a jerk about ritual, but because this gets at a point Daniel makes: “How do we allow the meaning of the moment of ritual to diffuse out into all of life? The problem, it seems to me, is that we are too good at compartmentalizing.” From a cognitive perspective, this is exactly what we should expect. Our brains are not unified logic machines, but “modular” and domain specific; i.e., tons of smaller computers rather than one big computer. They work precisely by compartmentalizing just about everything.

    Reflective cognition about the nature of the world, meaning of life/cosmos, gods, actions relating to gods (i.e., rituals) and so on are the province of particular parts of our brains. It’s not impossible for those parts of our brains to influence and factor more into the operation of other parts of our brains (i.e., lowing the level of “compartmentalization”), but there are specific ways that happens, requisite intellectual and social conditions, and so on. Certain kinds of “rituals,” for a variety of reasons, constitute practices conducive to the production of some of these kinds of cognitive and social conditions…for reasons that scholars such as McCauley and Lawson (among many others) try to outline. The upshot here is that we can actually examine the issues Daniel raises from more psychological vantage points. The interesting question for those of us with ecclesial/theological interests then becomes: how do such psychological studies fruitfully interface with our ecclesial/theological interests?

  5. And now, from the family studies guy…!

    Much of the contemporary interest in ritual in the psychotherapy and family literature turns on the ability of family rituals, as shared practices, to provide a sense of belonging and stability. Considered that way, we already live out many rituals that seem to have little to nothing to do with the life of the church.

    I agree with the concern raised in earlier comments about the dichotomization of sacred and mundane. But I would like to offer an alternative and a suggestion. The mundane and the sacred do not exist or relate to each other as separate places or spheres of divine influence, as if God were not sovereign over all. But to draw from Stephen Crites’ way of using the terms, the mundane and sacred exist and relate to each other as narrative to metanarrative.

    The reality is that our identities are shaped by “mundane” stories that are played out in family and other non-ecclesial social rituals, and that these stories in turn are complexly located with larger meaning structures that introduce different kinds of transcendence, of being part of social structures, traditions, and divine realities that go far beyond the events and experiences of my history as an individual.

    The suggestion would be this: instead of asking how to infuse our rituals with sufficient meaning to radiate out into the mundane, I would recommend beginning with taking a closer look at the so-called sacred rituals in which we already engage, and asking what narrative and metanarrative understandings are already implied. We may think we know what we’re doing when we take the Lord’s Supper together in remembrance of Jesus. But what other meaning is implied by privileging the sermon to the extent that the ritual must be rushed through just to get it done?

    When we are more aware of how are engagement of ritual already embodies hidden meanings, we might be more able to infuse the meanings that as a community we would want the ritual to represent.

    1. “… the mundane and sacred exist and relate to each other as narrative to metanarrative.”

      Interesting.

      “… I would recommend beginning with taking a closer look at the so-called sacred rituals in which we already engage, and asking what narrative and metanarrative understandings are already implied. We may think we know what we’re doing when we take the Lord’s Supper together in remembrance of Jesus. But what other meaning is implied by privileging the sermon to the extent that the ritual must be rushed through just to get it done?”

      Coming from a business perspective, this got me thinking about the fact the we partake of the bread and the wine, not the wheat and the grape. Human labor is integral to the table. We don’t just come as a “spiritual” community but as a community called to dominion, to work the garden. Lifting this up from time to time might be one way to integrate our lives.

  6. This statement encapsulates well what our family has been experiencing in our recent decision to better practice Sabbath together. I know there is good debate regarding the enduring validity of Sabbath keeping (some good stuff on this blog a few months back!), but that hasn’t been the point for us. We see it as an attempt at re-narrating the other six days of the week. And I would say it definitely has helped the routines of time feel a little more sacred for our family. Our hope is that our children especially will grow up having a deeper sense of time (and life therein!) being oriented towards God’s acts of creation, redemption, and new creation.

    Thanks for passing along the quote!

  7. Thanks, everyone, for your comments and conversation here. I’m following, with a range of thoughts rattling around in my head.

    I suppose one thing that I keep musing on is that the Eucharist is supposed to be a weekly reminder that we are the cross people. And yet, the history of the church and the way we conceptualize our Christian identity does not, for the most part, illustrate this as our defining reality.

    When I think about the ritual radiating out, and the fact that it frankly doesn’t, I’m wondering what it would take to have Christians actually live in the world in accordance with our two great death-entering sacraments of baptism and Eucharist.

  8. The only problem with ritual is when it outlives the meaning that – presumably – was once infused into it.

    There are robust, immanently revivable rituals like Passover – which God instituted – where the meaning is usually quick to return… and then there are other kinds of rituals.

    Perhaps one healthy practice is to jettison (or at least mothball) whichever of our rituals become too difficult to revive meaningfully.

    Just a thought…

  9. I like what Cameron Lee says above.

    Weeks excellent definition coheres nicely with Aidan Cavanaugh: “Liturgy exists not to educate, but to seduce people into participating in common activity of the highest order, where one is freed to learn things which cannot be taught.”

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