You walk the dog every morning, read the paper each evening, buy birthday cakes at the same bakery every year, or picnic at the same lake every summer. We build our lives on repeated, recurring actions, that provide order, and satisfy our emotional and physical needs. Some are simply habits, others are rituals, some mundane, others sacrosanct. Sacred rituals such as personal prayer, taking a meditation walk in nature, attending a religious ceremony, or listening to a symphony are revered for the ability to express a deeper reality, move us from one emotional place to another, or transport us to the heart of life’s mysteries.
Rituals involve traditions and rites that celebrate life’s transitions, such as graduations, marriage or the passing of a loved one. Rituals, a part of everyday life, are relative to those carrying them out. In my family of six children, graduations always involved a party as the sole means of celebrating the achievement. Because I attended a Catholic school and my siblings did not, my graduation ritual included attending a Mass, which for me was more meaningful than the party. To solemnize her marriage one of my friends was married in a cathedral with a prescribed rite, while another was married by a lake with a friend presiding at a 5-minute service. These diverse gatherings accomplished the same result, but on a deeper level, each ritual met the moment, expressing the thoughts, desires, and inner convictions of the couple. Rituals are both a communal recognition and a personal experience.
Through carefully constructed elements, rituals reveal and express the veracity of the moment. Every ritual has a goal, such as joining people in marriage, or saying good-bye to a loved one at the time of death. It is crucial that a ritual express what is meaningful to the people at the center of the ritual. At the deathbed of my father, someone opened the window because she believed a window must be opened for my dad’s fleeing soul to escape to the next world. Since it was not a part of my belief system, it offended rather than comforted me. Ritual, to be meaningful, reflects the beliefs of those central to the act.
Unless prescribed by an official institution such as the civil law or the rubrics of a religion, rituals do not require specific elements, a given number of parts, be a certain length, or have common attributes. In creating ritual, words, actions, symbols, and objects are woven together to express the significance of the moment. However, when creating ritual one must always consult the governing civil or church law, in which case there may be specific requirements.
Rituals although sometimes performed merely out of habit, are vastly different than habits. Sacred rituals get to the heart of the matter, calming our fears, nurturing our hopes, easing our pain. With a growing number of people identifying as spiritual rather than religious, it is challenging to create ritual that accomplishes what cultural and religious ceremonies have in the past. However, helping people create meaningful ritual helps clarify their beliefs and express the significance of the moment. Humans need ritual to enable the human heart to celebrate, mourn and endure life’s deepest moments.
Ritual is . . . a vital, precious tool for tending the human heart.