Ritualizing Ongoing Conversation
I have been thinking a lot about ritual these days. It is a word that I have not thought about as much as related words like ‘routine,’ ‘tradition,’ and ‘habit.’ It might be on my mind as a result of my taking a class this semester at Union Theological Seminary with Hal Taussig and Janet Walton called “Ritual and Early Christian Meals.” Or it could be my new role as Worship Chair at COTV. Or it could be the retreat I went on a few weeks ago at Camp Olmstead, called “Coloring Beyond the Lines,” where we explored the ways our church rituals have suppressed diversity and inter-cultural dialogue. It may be a combination of all of these that have caused me to be thinking so much about ritual these days.
When I first started taking my class at Union in January, my initial thoughts on ritual and religion were generally skeptical and critical. I thought about the ways that dialogue was suppressed for the sake of unity in Christianity during the 3rd to 8th centuries, through the Ecumenical Councils. I thought about Sigmund Freud’s statement that religion, with its repetitive rituals, is a ‘universal obsessional neurosis’. I thought about Paul Tillich’s warning in his book, Dynamics of Faith, about the potential for the symbols of our faith to become idolatrous. I thought about Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, in which this Buddhist monk observes that people worshiping in Christian churches seem distracted because they have heard the same words so many times.
But then I started thinking about Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book, Pastrix, in which she describes her first few months of worshiping in a Lutheran church after years of alcohol addiction. She fell in love with liturgy, describing it as ‘a gift that had been caretaken by generations of the faithful,’ and went on to describe it as ‘a stream that we get to swim in, so that we, like those who came before us, can be immersed in language of truth and promise and grace.’
I also started thinking about the ways ritual helps people heal from trauma and abuse. When I was growing up, my mom was the Director of the Sexual Assault Center in Green Bay, WI, and I remember the annual ritual she organized called “Take Back the Night.” This was always a powerful, well-attended event, with a guest speaker, time for victims to share their story with the crowd in their journey to become survivors, and a march through the streets, where we chanted things like: “Women Unite…Take Back the Night” and “What do we want? Freedom! When do we want it? Now!”
Finally, I reflected on my first year in NYC in 2008, when everything felt chaotic as I adjusted to a new city, new acquaintances, new grocery stores and pharmacies, and the new career and financial pressures that come after the college years. One ritual I started that year was my morning walk to Starbucks for a quad espresso. Many friends and family lovingly gave me a hard time about what they saw as an expensive, and strong caffeine addiction, but few could comprehend the way that ritual was helping me feel grounded during a destabilizing and chaotic period of my life.
In piecing together my thoughts ranging from the early church councils, Freud, Tillich, and Thich Nhat Hanh, to Pastrix, Take Back the Night, and my first year in New York, I concluded that rituals are important and stabilizing to people experiencing some kind of trauma or chaos. However, over time, most, if not all, rituals lose their power, and become sources of mindlessness.
With all of these thoughts on ritual swirling around in my mind, I attended a retreat a few weeks ago, called “Coloring Beyond the Lines,” where one of the speakers was the Rev. Dr. Traci C. West. She talked about the ‘beautiful tension’ in our worship between our desire to conserve ancient traditions, while also finding new, explosive, and creative ways of opening to God. She also called us to ‘ritualize ongoing conversation’ in our worship. When she used those words, ‘ritualize ongoing conversation,’ I immediately thought of how well that summarized what I have been learning about early Christian meals from Hal Taussig and Janet Walton.
The earliest experiments with what would become Christianity centered around the Greco-Roman meal, which was the only form of Christian worship that existed for around 200 years after Jesus was crucified. People would meet for hours in the evening for a substantial meal with food and drink, punctuated by guided conversation, readings of the Torah and letters of Paul, singing both rowdy and serious songs, and a game called kottobos, where people had to flick the last few drops of their wine into a bowl in the center of the room. People reclined at these meals, creating a feeling of intimacy. These meals were a social experiment, in that the lines were being blurred in the relationships between women/men, slaves and their masters, and the rich and poor.
Jesus had challenged social relationships at meals during his lifetime, by eating with tax collectors and sinners. He also challenged the oppression of women by allowing Mary to sit at his feet in the book of Luke, rather than joining Martha in fulfilling the traditional role of a woman at that time.
In the words of Traci West, these early Christian meals were able to ‘ritualize ongoing conversations.’ I think it is important for us to individually and collectively examine our rituals and decide which ones are helping us ritualize dialogue, and which ones we are mindlessly engaging in that have lost their power.
Paul Tillich says that symbols are like living beings – they grow and they die…but they die not because of scientific or practical criticism, but rather when they fail to produce a response in the group where they originally found expression. May God grant us the courage to embrace the rituals which open us to conversation, to walk away from rituals which are oppressive or mindless, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.