Ritual and reality

“Ritual is a very ancient social technology and it fulfills the exact same roles today as it did for our ancestors thousands of years ago.”

These were Dimitris Xygalatas’s closing words in an interview that aired on NPR’s All Things Considered last evening (8 minutes audio).  Host Ari Shapiro had asked him what he might say to his younger self who grew up in Greece questioning the value of the religious and secular rituals in which he participated.  Xygalatas is now an anthropologist and cognitive scientist with a new book – Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living.”  His final words to his younger self regarding ritual: “I would say embrace it.” 

Early in the interview he names the ritual paradox – the fact that many people cling tightly to the importance of ritual without being able to explain why.  He observes “all our social institutions are permeated with ritual.”  He has studied rituals such as fire walking in Spain during which participants’ heart rates synchronized whether they were walking or watching.  He cites this as an example of a painful and potentially dangerous ritual that has difficult-to-measure benefits such as social alignment.   Xygalatas doesn’t go this direction in the interview, but the power of ritual can also be hacked for destructive ends – such as creating social alignment around genocide. 

Ritual is one of the features of church life that especially intrigues me.  Rather than mailing a Bible to CMC second graders to be opened like any other Amazon package, this past Sunday we held a ritual where they received the Bible amidst their peers, parents, pastor, and congregation (needing another ‘p’ for that last one – pew-people).  A week from this Sunday we’ll dedicate more children and families and do our strange and wonderful march in the light of God.

One of the memorable lines I’ve encountered on ritual is from Father Jim Clarke who wrote “The soul cannot tell the difference between ritual and reality” (In his book Creating Rituals, p. 3).  In other words, if we experience something ritually, such as marking a life passage, then we have indeed undergone that life passage. 

Along with our Sunday worship rituals I’m involved in some additional ritualizing these days.  A new group of ten CMCers is going through the Transitions and Ritual process this fall and we’re building up to a life passage ritual.  Tomorrow I’ll be flying out to Minnesota for a few days at the invitation of St. Paul Mennonite Fellowship to provide some leadership at their annual retreat also focused on transition and ritual.

I’m not of the mind that every ancient practice needs a new scientific study to justify its value, but it is good to have the seemingly non-rational behavior of ritual affirmed among our contemporary priests of knowledge in the scientific community.  When it comes to life-affirming ritual in our lives I’m with Xygalatas: “I would say embrace it.”