We moderns have a positive fear of ritual. I find myself naturally in that category, but I still haven’t quite figured out the reasoning behind it. Perhaps there isn’t any reasoning at all. But it does have to do with the Enlightenment.
Because we suspect ritual, we as modern Christians have relegated it to the realm of “dangerous,” “heterodox,” or “prideful,” especially when we find ritual in worship. Much safer, we say, to be spontaneous, heartfelt: REAL.
So we end up with two categories: heartfelt informality, and dead ceremony. We’ve probably seen the child who recites the scripted “Yes, sir,” and the one who calls over his shoulder the informal “yeah” (the latter, of course, done with a good heart, the former coldly and without love). These are our two categories enfleshed.
But is there no place for sincere ceremony? We need this third category to begin to be able to function in a Christian and Catholic way. Those people will understand what I mean who have ever instructed their children to say “Yes, ma’am,” or “Yes, dad,” and to be happy doing so; or who were taught as a child not to run in church, and now understand why; or who say “please” and “thank you” in their daily life, and actually mean it. All these actions are ceremonies, scripted actions or words, and yet all of them may be done with a good heart. They fall within our realm of sincere ceremony.
But aside from these minor ceremonies which are familiar to many of us, there are other ones we use less often. How do you speak to someone who is grieving? How do you propose a toast? What would you say to the Queen of England if you met her? (What do we say to the God of heaven and earth when we meet Him?) In some situations, a good heart will get us through, and our sympathy or affection or reverence will speak the volumes we can’t put into the best words. But not always. Who hasn’t completely embarrassed himself with only the best of intentions, or caused pain to a grieving person based on lack of understanding? Instruction to the effect of “Say it this way” is invaluable. Instruction like this is instruction to use a certain ritual.
In addition to instructing ignorance, the structure of ceremony points out many deficiencies in our hearts. I never realized how much I didn’t hate my sins, for example, until I learned to say “the remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable,” and realized that they didn’t really feel grievous and burdensome. Ritual teaches our hearts.
We can say, then, that dislike of ceremony points to one (or both) of two problems. Maybe we don’t really want to learn what a certain ritual can teach us, believing that we’re good enough on our own; or perhaps we know there’s a problem with our heart, and the ritual doesn’t let us forget it. The first mistake comes from buying that Enlightenment lie, that whatever is natural is basically good. The second mistake is just the error of children who won’t say “thanks” because they know their heart isn’t thankful, or won’t say “yes, sir” because they don’t want to show respect. Rather abolish the custom than change the heart, they feel. Both of these problems spring from—alas!—pride.
We can fall into these same errors when we come to God in worship. “If my heart is fine, then nothing else matters” could be a modern praise chorus, so deeply is it entrenched into our collective Christian psyche. Not only is this often laziness, but furthermore it denies that our heart can lead us astray, and that we’re born needing a lot of teaching. Just as we need the words to comfort a grieving friend, we need to know how to address God when we come into his courts with praise.
Ceremony is fitting for the court of the King of kings. This concept of “fitting,” however, may be odd for us, when even the fashion of our time dictates clothes that don’t fit, and when nothing in the public arena is sacred. But a few illustrations may help. Unfitting is coming to the bank interview in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. Unfitting is strolling up to the Queen and asking, “Hey, what’s up?” Unfitting is a beautiful gold ring on a pig’s nose, and Christ’s beautiful bride showing no discretion. Unfitting is wearing work clothes to the king’s wedding feast. Remember what happened to that guest.
Far from quenching our love for God, the strictures of ritual and ceremony actually help us express that love. They aren’t the leaden weights keeping us on the ground, but wings that carry us higher.
Published in Earth & Altar: A journal of Anglican life and worship.
Allison Steinberg earned a degree in classics and is a professor of Greek, Latin, and History at St. Andrew’s Academy. She also chaperones students on all foreign trips, particularly those to Italy.