We were just guys sitting around the same booth in the same diner we sit in every Monday. We were eating our usual breakfast specials, chewing the fat, breaking the bread as they say, and wondering out loud why people didn't seem to have rituals anymore.
Once, we recollected, meals like this were rituals. Then, they were more than just a time to fill our bellies with food and the air with conversation. When the woman of the family lit the evening candle to burn on the dinner table; when the family took time to acknowledge the meaning of this time in their own, traditional way, ritual happened.
I thought about the power of a ritual bedtime story read to kids. Or a time when one day of the week was set aside for rest and reflection and quiet talk with family and friends.
For early people, building and furnishing a home was an exercise in ritual. An act that carried a special power. Often, at the center of those crude, early homes was a pole that existed not only to keep the roof off the floor but also as an axis that reconnected the transcendent with the world of the everyday.
I remember reading about those early people and the importance they put on what was positioned in the center of their home. From that center point their world spread out in all directions as they made order and pushed back the boundaries of chaos.
I read about those people and couldn't wait to get home, pull out my tape measure and figure out what rich symbolism I would find in whatever thing I had placed at the precise center of my house without really making any conscious decision to do so.
I didn't waste much time measuring before I figured out that at the center of my house was the washer and dryer. I'm pretty sure that washer and dryer say things metaphorically that my family would find pretty funny. They could probably humor themselves for quite some time just speculating about all the ways spin cycles show up in my life.
But, I'd rather stick to the point. And this particular point is that most of the things placed in my home had found their way to the spot they occupied purely by convenience and function. In that process, the meaning and spiritual function of the home and the things in it had suffered by the absence of ritual.
Baseball players talk about things like eating only chicken before a big game. During the playoff season, some guys wear the same shirt or go without shaving for as long as their teams continue to win.
It's tempting to think about these kinds of gestures as rituals. They're not. They're superstitions. All rituals, religious and otherwise, become superstitions, I think, when we stop practicing them with mindfulness and intent. When they cease to work inside us, like yeast in bread, long after the action has been performed.
Long ago there was a meditation group that met regularly. The group's leader had a cat that she brought to the meditation sessions. The cat had a rowdy streak and was a constant distraction to anyone trying to sit in silence.
So, the story goes, the leader, being careful not to disturb the stillness, started a practice of slowly and carefully tying up the cat before each session. After each session, she would just as mindfully untie the cat.
This went on for years. When the leader died, a new leader took over and continued tying the cat. Over time, the group took on new members while others wandered away.
When the cat died, the little group flew into a panic. Finally, after many loud and disagreeable meetings and endless doctrinal interpretations, the leader bought a new cat that he tied during every session. Decades later, after all the original members were long gone, the group still tied a cat whenever it met but no one could tell you why.
Rituals' power comes from our evolving ability to see deeply into what lies beyond and within the actions and materials of the ritual. Rituals are windows to the transcendent. All of life may become ritual when performed by and with people who see.
We enliven or we kill our rituals every day by our intention and attention. That's true whether the ritual involves breaking bread or changing motorcycle oil. The breakfast special that is ritual to one group may be just another blue plate special to another.
(Jim Grossman holds a master of arts degree in theology. He is a trained spiritual director and is assistant sports editor at The Dispatch. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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