Rituals are part of the spiritual journey. They remind us to slow down and check our bearings, to appreciate how far we've come, and to prepare for how far we still have to go. They provide a rest from our travels, in order to place us back on the path.
For two thousand years, the church provided rituals for its members. But they came bound to a specific belief system, and also to certain calculable spiritual consequences. Be baptized, and be assured a place in heaven. Go to confession, and be reinstated, having fallen away. Get married before a priest, or live in sin. The rituals defined not only a grace, but also a threat. A two-edged sword.
Surely, in this post-Christian age, we can do better than that. Spiritual rituals should be life-giving, not death-dealing. And, chances are, we're already doing them anyway, whether or not we think of them in this way.
Prayer is a big one. When it's formalized, like "saying our prayers," we assume we need help to get it right, from clergy or from formulas like the Lord's Prayer. Yet, who among us, beholding a newborn baby, doesn't draw a deep breath of wonder, releasing it with gratitude into the great Mystery from which we come? And at the loss of a loved one, who doesn't offer up their broken heart as a living testimony to their love, grateful for the ties that bind, even if it hurts when those ties are broken. Aren't these at the very root of praying?
Ignation spirituality proposes an evening prayer called the daily "examen." It's an intentional reflection back upon the day, asking: When did I receive a blessing, for which I should thank God? When did I offend God, for which I should offer my contrition? But is this not something we do already, or know we ought to do, at the end of each day? What went well? I'm grateful. What tripped me up? That's my work for tomorrow.
Similarly, spiritual retreats used to be tied to a specific practice, often involving fasting and silence and the counsel of a spiritual director. But isn't this what we do, in effect, every time we go for a walk in nature? We grow inwardly still, if not altogether silent, and feel nourished by having stepped outside our usual routines to seek peace and solace and time just to "be." Is this not "retreat"?
The point is, we humans need rituals, and we naturally seek them out, whether or not we, or they, are specifically religious. All we need is a simple turning of our heart to ask: Where am I? What requests my presence?
Next Week: Good Habits
Find me at The Mystic Cave, a podcast for seekers.