One interesting thing about age is that the more you live, the more you start thinking and believing the opposite of what you used to.
Take me, for instance. I used to think rituals and reverence were silly, relics of a bygone age. And mind you, I grew up, and remain in, the Greek Orthodox Church. This is a denomination dripping with rituals and reverence.
Us being Orthodox, we can’t just, say, read from the Gospel: We have to have a huge, gold-encrusted book that gets ma dyed around the church, complete with intense. And then we sing about it.
And don’t get me started with the ceremony surrounding the entrance and blessing of the Holy Gifts.
And so, when I was in my late teens and trying on the atheist hat (it didn’t fit), I found all of this pomp a rich target for mockery.
And maybe it is.
But the older I get–and the more (kind of) serious I get–I appreciate the rituals and the ceremony more and more.
I thought of this in church recently with my own son, who managed to somehow sit through the service the way I somehow used to with my own family.
Not that there isn’t a lot to keep your attention: Orthodox churches are painted with vivid iconography, the clergy wears elaborate shimmering vestments, there is mysterious Byzantine chanting, and the smell of incense permeates the entire building.
In short, both the physical space and rituals are impossible to ignore.
And then I got to thinking why the church draws me in more as I get older. I think it fills a need that much in modern life doesn’t.
It provides seriousness. It provides awe. It provides reverence.
All of these things are in short supply everywhere. We–and you bet your ass I’m including myself here–are flippant, we are sarcastic and irreverent, we take particular pride in being iconoclasts, poking our finger in the eye of all things establishment.
And we never, ever, take anything seriously.
So church then scratches an itch for me that I couldn’t easily name, and that’s the desire to take something seriously. Without somehow feeling awkward about it.
And lest you think this is a purely religious thing, rituals help foster an air of important to secular things as well. Look no farther than militaries through history…the rites, the traditions, the somatic markers. They get it.
Athletics are rife with ritual. So is the Anglo-American court system. And don’t even get me started on martial arts or I could write a whole other post.
Rituals help reinforce meaning and gravity. The physical actions and recitations (the Lord’s Prayer and the Nicene Creed, anyone?) that seem rote allow the mind to focus on the ideas behind them and the reasons why they are being done and said.
Think of manhood rituals like a Bar Mitzvah: How much more effective are they at conveying the end of childhood and the start of manhood than merely saying “Now you’re a man, kid” accompanied by a card and some money?
There’s a reason some African tribes have the young boys kill a lion.
Of course, culture as a whole is held together by common beliefs, usually reinforced together by some kind of ritual.
What do we have now? The Super Bowl?
And there are our environments.
I love America, but a lot of it is really ugly. Look at Boston’s city hall compared to some of the other great, old buildings in that city. Look at Washington, D.C.’s flabbergasting mix of disparate architectural styles. Compare almost anywhere in the U.S. with European cities and villages.
I’m sorry, but it’s true.
Physical spaces also confer an air of seriousness and reverence. And there is something to be said about this. What’s more easy to take seriously: The Hofburg Palace or an angular chunk of beige concrete?
Lots of the things I handwaved away or openly ridiculed in my youth are now finally sinking in to my immature skull. You’d think at 35 I should have realized this years ago. But you’d be wrong.
Like most of my generation, adolescence lasted far longer for me than is healthy.
But it’s never too late to learn.
As has been said many times before, human beings learn best from stories.
Rituals are a way of telling a story. Better still, they’re stories we all participate in.
Isn’t it a sad world when things that were known centuries ago are only now being rediscovered like they’re marvelous new innovations?
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