What is the role of ritual in religious life?
Rituals express our communal beliefs
Pat Lechtenberg, pastoral associate, St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 1234 Ky.:
I love rituals -- those of our family and those of my Catholic way of life. One image I hold of religious rituals is of a beautiful, graceful dance -- a dance that has to be learned and integrated into life but enjoyed no matter what your talents and abilities.
Ritual is part of daily life, too. Many people would think of personal "ritual" as habits or customs. Think about your routine for beginning the day or going to bed at night. Most of us have a certain pattern for each of these. Most likely we have become comfortable and familiar with "our ways" over time. We like to do it our way because it saves time and we don't have to plan it out each day. On some level it makes sense to us and has meaning.
The rituals of the Catholic tradition -- and other similar traditions -- are often referred to as "smells and bells." Those rituals are much like personal rituals. They are familiar, comfortable and have meaning. These systems of behaviors or actions express our communal beliefs even when we, as individuals, may not at that moment be feeling that belief.
For instance, in time of grief, we don't have to think about how to celebrate the life of a deceased loved one. The vigil service, funeral liturgy and burial express the deepest meaning of our belief in resurrection of body and soul. In spite of the sadness of our loss, the funeral rituals and symbols express for us our belief in the joy of eternal happiness and new life.
No matter where I participate in liturgy, in this country or in other lands, I feel at home. Even when I don't understand the language I know what is happening and what is being expressed about our shared beliefs. And that is one of the best things about our Catholic ritual.
Send e-mail to Pat Lechtenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Simple acts turn into sacred event
The Rev. Emilee Whitehurst, associate pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 2415 Clinton Parkway:
I recently bought a magazine targeted to "thinking young adults" with a cover story entitled "Do-it Yourself Rituals."
The focus of the article was on young adults' desperate yearning for meaningful rites of passage. The article profiled young people who had ritualized their initiation into new life stages whether that be leaving home, deciding where and whether to go to college, getting their first job, falling in (and out of) love, starting a family or losing a friend.
As a young adult myself, I empathize with this need. Two years ago, in the course of a month, I turned 30, got ordained, moved to Lawrence, bought a house and started my first job as a pastor. During that time, I longed to mark these events, to signify their importance in my life. More deeply, I felt the need to connect the profound transitions I was experiencing to something bigger. Rather than enduring this alone, I yearned to feel as if my personal story were part of a larger story, a hallowed story that belonged to everyone.
Unfortunately, churches do not often ritualize the rites of passages of young adults. As a result, we neglect profound opportunities for religious transformation. Not surprisingly, the participation of young adults in traditional congregational life is dramatically declining. Interestingly, para-church organizations that appeal directly to young adults and intentionally help them connect their personal journeys with a sacred one are thriving.
Perhaps the ultimate role of ritual in religious life is to enact typical life experiences in such a way as to infuse them with holiness. The celebration of Communion, Christianity's central rite, accomplishes just this. With God's grace, the simple act of eating and drinking is transformed into sacred event.
Whereas the absence of ritual dooms us to experience our lives as disconnected from the Divine, the presence of ritual enables us to connect our story, however common, with God's own.
Send e-mail to the Rev. Emilee Whitehurst at email@example.com.