Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Significance of Ritual

Since I ceased attending mass and being an at least nominal member of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, I've thought now and then of joining a Unitarian Universalist Congregation.  That association has had many distinguished and even admirable members.  The Church has had its share of those as well, of course, but there always seems to be something peculiar about them, like Cardinal Newman and his belief that the "visible world" is unreal.  No commitment to a disturbingly human kind of God is required.  I find it increasingly difficult to worship a God that has human characteristics.  Unitarians are actively involved in good works, which is to their credit.

Perhaps I should say "revere" instead of "worship" when referring to God.  If worship requires praying to or petitioning or placating, or participating in set practices which are expressive of devotion, I stopped worshipping even before I stopped attending mass.  I would stand up, kneel and sit down when others did so, true, but wouldn't sing the largely silly songs that made up the liturgy and avoided as much as possible giving to others "the sign of peace," which for reasons unclear to me is done by shaking hands.

As best as I can recall, Jesus is not said to have gone about shaking hands with his apostles or with anyone else for that matter.  So, we don't shake hands as we do other things in memory of him.  The Gospels state he said "peace be with you" at least once, however, and suppose we may say it as well in his memory.  Shaking hands in imitation of Christ doesn't seem right, though.  The sign of peace must be the creation of some inspired liturgist, then.

Based on what little reading I've done, it seems Unitarians don't worship (as I define it) when they gather.  This should serve to attract me, but does not.  They have readings, it seems, though not necessarily from the Bible or from anything else.  Unfortunately it seems they also sing.  I find myself wondering why.

The simple truth is I have no desire to go somewhere on a Sunday and listen to people read and sing.  It doesn't matter to me what they choose to read or to sing; I don't want to watch or hear them do either or, worse yet, be called upon to read and sing myself and be suspect if I do not.  It would make sense to do so if failing to do so constituted a mortal sin assuring an eternity in hell, of course, but absent such a penalty there is no point as far as I'm concerned.  If one isn't worshipping, though, there is presumably something about gathering, reading and singing which serves some other purpose.  But not it appears for me.

But still, I find myself thinking now and then that something should be done, if not on a Sunday then on some other day, expressing a reverence for the divine, and that it should be done in a group of people.  It's possible I feel this because of the years I spent genuflecting, kneeling, standing, sitting, even singing, in a Catholic Church.  Or it may be the case that we humans have a need to acknowledge the divine with and before others and to do so in a special, prescribed way, which seems to us to have acquired divine sanction.

I'm inclined to think that ritual has and always will play a part in our affairs.  Certainly ancient peoples engaged in ritual, and felt that ritual had always to be performed in a certain way.  In Graeco-Roman religion any departure from the form of the ritual required that the participants begin it again and again until they got it right.  Even those who disdained traditional religious rituals sought to create their own--think of the Freemasons with their convoluted and contrived ceremonies, for example, or the preposterous forms dreamt up by leaders of the French Revolution to celebrate the Supreme Being.

When it comes to ritual, the High Latin Mass was quite a spectacle.  I'm not aware of any modern ritual which can compare with it.  Perhaps my assessment of the significance of ritual is a kind of nostalgia.  It seems clear the Unitarians have nothing similar.  It seems clear the Catholic Church has nothing similar, now.

If we're creatures of ritual, the absence of ritual must disturb us mightily.  Are we seeking some substitute for it?  If so I think the rituals of the future will be garish and barbaric.  The drab nature of what rituals we still have leaves us unsatisfied and we hunt for something which will be colorful and tinged with mysticism.  The Old Church understood the need for ritual quite well.  What person or institution or religion will grasp and exploit this need in the future?

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