There is something beautiful and mesmerizing about ritual, such as that we are seeing as the Roman Catholic cardinals who have processed into the Sistine Chapel, ready to begin the concave that will result in the election of a new pope.
The garb of the cardinals, their slow procession, the haunting Gregorian chants being sung, the swell of organ music…could make one settle into a spirit of piety – which I imagine people do – and actually feel closer to God for a few moments.
But ritual has its drawbacks. While many have argued that we need it, it seems not beyond the pale to believe that too many of us get seduced by ritual, leaving the work of “the church” in the dust.
We too often want to “feel holy,” but are unable and/or unwilling to “do holy,” meaning, “do” the acts and the work which bring those who are suffering into a relationship with God and a new relationship with their world.
Holy rituals, it seems, ought to inspire holy action. The music, the prayers, the smell of candles and incense, and, finally, the taking of the Holy Eucharist, are not in place just to make humans feel good, or at least that should not be the case. All of the aforementioned ought to make humans “do” good, and “good,” for the purposes of this essay, is helping those who cannot help themselves.
My guess is that everyone reads the Bible with different eyes. Reading is as much a cultural experience as it is a scholarly venture, but when I read the first chapter of Isaiah, where Yahweh says through his prophet Isaiah: “Hear the word of the Lord…The multitude of your sacrifices, what are they to me? I have more than enough of burnt offering…Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me!…learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow,” what seems perfectly clear to me is most probably interpreted differently by one who is from a different culture.
The old rituals are as beautiful as they are old…but they were never meant to be ends in and of themselves. What rituals, in fact, what organized religion have largely done, is boxed people into structures, bound by rules and bylaws and budget issues, leaving the “oppressed,” the “fatherless,” and the “widow” to pretty much fend for themselves.
Someone asked me the other day, “Why, when churches,especially Catholic churches, have so much money are there so many homeless, hungry people? Does God care about people for real?” Well, it was too loaded a question for me to answer on the spot, but that person is not the first who has asked such a question. What we forget, though, even those of us who ask those questions, is that “the church” is not a building, filled with beautiful, music-bolstered ritual, but is, rather, “we the people.” The world gets better, gets more just and right in the eyes of God by people who understand that very basic distinction and who combine faith and works.
It is easy to be cynical when we see so much suffering in the world, leading us to doubt God, or God’s presence, but the problem isn’t God. According to all I have read, God did not create nor does God require, all the ritual with which we involve ourselves. All we are required to do is “do” the work of God while we are yet alive.
Participating in ritual, though, is more fun, less time-consuming …and, well, spiritually seductive.
Discussion on this always leads to a cultural “fight” over what and who God is, and what God requires. Many will say that Jesus, sent by God, was a socialist, or at least believed in social justice as it is taught today. Others identify that same Jesus as a hard-core capitalist, come pointing to the Parable of the Talents, found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. There are the cultural “eyes” mentioned before. It is quite frustrating to both sides that the other side does not or will not “get it.”
There are so many people caught up in wretched lives, there because of a variety of reasons, but many of them for reasons over which they had little control. Like the poor in Calcutta, where Mother Teresa began her great work, there are “Calcutta” situations everywhere, and remarkably few willing to go and “live amongst” them by offering the deepest and most complete service they can. Too time-consuming. Too distasteful
So, it’s just easier to settle into a Sunday worship experience, and a little heavy ritual from time to time doesn’t hurt. It reminds us of the mysterious tremendum of God. We would rather think about that than “do holy” and minister to people who , far away from ritual, are hurting and lost. The doors of the amazing Sistine Chapel have just been closed; the work of finding a new pope has officially begun. The high ritual has ended…and the world is not changed.
A candid observation …