“It’s boring! Why Ritual?”
Parents who take family car trips on vacation are familiar with the voice of children coming from the back sea,t, repeatedly complaining, “Are we there yet? Are we there, yet!” That’s a bit what Moses must have felt leading the Israelites on their trek through the desert. The folks loved to complain. Today in the first reading it’s “We’re hungry! At least in Egypt we had something to eat while they beat us!” Then after Moses and God have a conference about the complaint, the solution is “mana” and “quail” everyday. I wonder if after a few weeks if the People of Israel began saying “We’re tired of eating Manna every day! The routine, the ritual of gathering quail and mana is boring!” (Yet this food provided by God, kept them alive!)
I’m giving a “Sermon Series” on getting more out of Mass by understanding better certain aspects of the Mass during August, since the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel we’re proclaiming for 5 Sundays may be a bit repetitious. Every Sunday we hear “I am the Bread of Life” and like dealing with the people of Israel and the children in the back seat of the car I am attempting to provide thoughts that are not repetitious each week that will not elicit “we’re bored!” The sixth Chapter of St. John’s Gospel is his “theology” of the Eucharist.
As I said in my first post in this series, I sought questions I could answer during my sermon series from parishioners through the bulletin but not many folks replied. Yet, the experience of the Israelites leads me to reflect on one of those questions. It’s something I often hear from some of our parents when I ask them to make sure their children get to Mass regularly.
“The Mass is repetitious, it seems like the same prayers are said over and over every week. The ritual get’s boring because it doesn’t change.” To a casual observer the order of the elements are always the same; gather, say I’m sorry of sins, a prayer, three readings, a too long (boring) talk, collection, a long prayer while we kneel, Our Father, shake hands, shuffle up to get communion, blessing and go home. But, why? That’s what I want to look at in my reflection, here.
Human beings need ritual. They always have. Ritual helps people navigate the unpredictability of the world, it gives a sense of predictability about life. In some ways it’s an attempt to order the chaos we experience. Ritual is also a way to get into the realm of deeper meaning, to make contact with that which is beyond the routine-ness of life.
We live in a culture that craves the “new experience.” People, nowadays think we need something new to excite us, stimulate us, to get us to notice something important. People spend hours in front of screens, where the images change every few seconds. Children are getting to a point where they get bored in classrooms or with books because it’s not stimulating enough. Attention spans are shrinking even in adults. So at first glance ritual seems “boring.”
But ritual is so much a part of other events in our life and we don’t object. Every culture has it’s rituals…It’s the way we identify having a connection with others, that we share an interest, we share meaning and purpose. How do most of us celebrate birthdays. It’s almost mandatory that family and friends sing “Happy Birthday.” Some sweet confection with burning candles signifying the number of years of life is presented, candles blown out and food consumed. Presents are given. If this doesn’t take place a person might feel “cheated” or like I didn’t really have a birthday. Maybe even the person might wonder if they were loved!
Or consider the “national pastime” the professional baseball game. It has it’s rubrics (rules) and no one stays away. The game must start with the opening hymn, The National Anthem. The 7th inning stretch is always observed and there’s the singing of another traditional hymn, almost always the same, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” There are “rules” (In church language rubrics) and a prescribed ritual form of 9 innings, 3 outs per half inning on a field that has proscribed dimensions. All this “ritual” enables teams to play together.
Family Christmas traditions are rituals, unique to family, and one invites criticism if the rituals are changed. How often do people feel like it wasn’t really Christmas if the family doesn’t gather, doing things “like we always” do. There’s a disorientation, a sense of loosing our connection with past family members and present relations.
Our secular rituals help human beings to “play together” and sense their commonality in a common purpose. So too, our sacred Catholic rituals actually help us experience our communion with one another as the Body of Christ. Ritual makes it possible for people to get below the surface and not have to worry about what’s going to happen next. It opens up a space, so to speak, where we can contemplate and encounter the mystery of God in our midst and what God does in our lives. It enables us to experience God’s love.
I am glad that I am a Catholic with a predictable liturgy! Please, understand I am not “putting down” or being critical about our brother and sister Christians of other denominations. But, to be honest, I always feel disoriented, almost on edge, at Protestant services…what’s going to take place next? Yet, when you go to enough non-Catholic liturgies I’ve learned even protestant services follow a ritual pattern most of the time. I just don’t know what the pattern is going to be, because it is somewhat flexible from denomination to denomination. The other thing that’s happening in many protestant churches is the appeal to the “surface need” (as opposed to a basic need, essential need) for stimulation and entertainment with the big screens flashing images during worship and music leaders “performing.” This isn’t a comfortable fit with the Catholic liturgy, by the way.
The beauty of Catholic ritual (or any ritual for that matter) is that a group or pastor doesn’t have to recreate the wheel each week. Ritual helps us experience being part of a long tradition, connected with our ancestors and our descendants. We’re family across the ages, brothers and sisters in Christ! (Sort of like that Christmas, Birthday experience I mentioned, earlier.)
And Mass isn’t always “the same” In each celebration: the words change, various options for certain prayers can be used. The music selections change (but a common set of familiar music is needed so the congregation is comfortable singing together, not feeling like they don’t know the songs). Yes, the “pattern” is the same, the music is familiar, but there are differences from Mass to Mass.
Even there, though, the words used are prescribed by the whole church, not the individual pastor. A ritual book approved by “the Church” (The Roman Missal) is used to pray from. That is so the congregation is assured that they are being asked to pray in an orthodox way, expressing the one truth the church holds to and not the opinion of an individual pastor. The ritual is your and my assurance we are not veering into heresy or something we don’t believe in common. The books the priest prays from, the scriptures we read are agreed upon by the whole church and therefore a sign of our unity now and across the ages in our belief.
The ritual pattern, since we’re not worrying about what’s going to happen next or what to say or do, this gift of ritual, enables us to listen more deeply to the words, to listen to what God is saying through the familiar actions, to speak to him in the silence and hear God’s reply. If we let the ritual carry us along, we’ll find ourselves transported to a place where we are guaranteed to meet Jesus Christ! It’s worked for 2000 years, so why throw it out?
The people in the Gospel, John 6:24-25, were like modern people whose attention span is shrinking and who want to be constantly stimulated by something new, are looking for the fast fix, the quick solution to a problem, getting food to fill their stomachs another day. Jesus offers them something more, to fill a deeper need. When we stop wanting to be entertained, when we cease looking for a new way to be stimulated, then we’re beginning to be ready to hear and receive what God wants us to experience gathered at the Altar-Table; that God loves us and wants to satisfy our deepest need. That need is to know God loves us ,that Jesus wants us to live in a new way, a way that is without the distractions of suffering and death, forever!