June 7, 2020

The Rite and the Wrong Way to Live

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI commute half an hour each way to work, and there are no decent radio stations in the wilds of western Indiana.  I’ve discovered college courses on CD as an antidote to boredom while I drive.  Recently I listened to a series of lectures on Hinduism.  It occurred to me as I listened that every religious and cultural system on earth, with one exception, has something in common.  The common element is ritual, and the exception is most modern forms of Protestantism.

A ritual is “an established or prescribed procedure for a religious or other rite,” according to one online dictionary.  Those of us who have grown up in modern evangelicalism have been taught to see ritual as a degradation of faith.  We’re told that it interposes itself as a barrier between us and God.  The word almost never appears without the modifiers “dead” or “empty” in front of it.  Ritual is the tired repetition of words and actions that have lost their meaning.  True faith rises above ritual to express itself in spontaneous outpourings of love and worship.  Only the cold heart needs a script.  I’ve heard this enough in Evangelical circles.  If that’s so, then only in the last few centuries have we people figured out what true faith is – and then only a minority of us.

I’m always suspicious of new assumptions that ignore all the rest of human history.  Maybe it’s the modern distrust of ritual that’s unnatural, not ritual itself.  I acknowledge that ritual can be dead and empty.  People are all too willing to perform outward actions without attending to their hearts.  Religious practices such as Roman paganism, that didn’t care what you believed so long as you kept up the outward forms, are not honoring to God.  But as is always the case with humankind, just because we sometimes do something badly doesn’t mean that it’s a bad thing.  I think that people who reject ritual are certainly making a mistake about human nature and are probably making a mistake about God.

First the mistaken view of human nature.  We are unique in the universe, so far as we know, in having self-conscious intelligence – which other physical creatures don’t have – and living in time – which angels don’t do.  So we uniquely experience a tension between change and constancy.  God has designed us to enjoy both change and constancy, but in the fallen world we have a hard time getting the balance right.  We restlessly seek change for its own sake, or we get mired in stagnation and resist change.  Ritual is the means we have invented – or that we have been given – to reconcile this tension.  Ritual allows for daily, monthly, and yearly constancy in the midst of change:  when leading what most would call a healthy life, we have rituals for meals, for holidays, for work, for play; ritual guides the round of newness and familiarity.  We get out the Christmas ornaments after Thanksgiving, and if there are children around, woe betide us if we do anything different about hanging them up.  We have the same foods for certain holidays, especially the ones we think of as important.  In fact, the more important the change, the more conservative the ritual in response to it.  There is comfort and security in ritual.

Even the most staunch anti-ritualists embrace ritual of some sort for weddings and funerals.  When facing the great changes of birth, death, or the entrance of God into our world, we rely on ritual to know what to do – all of us, not just Hindus and Catholics.  We lean on the stock phrases, acceptable gifts, prescribed outfits, and all the other conventional trappings to provide us with a buffer in the face of something beyond our understanding.  When these don’t exist, we are at a loss.  This was made clear to me when my atheist grandparents died and gave their bodies to science.  No ceremony of any kind marked their passage, and they wanted no grave or monument.  My grandparents had served with the U.S. Foreign Service in Taiwan and become close friends with a younger Taiwanese couple.  Several years after they passed away, the Taiwanese couple was visiting America.  They sought out my mother to find where my grandparents’ graves were, so that they could leave flowers or in some way honor the dead.  They were appalled and unsettled when they found that they couldn’t.  They didn’t understand why anyone would deal with the dead that way or how any culture could allow that.  My grandparents’ behavior didn’t just offend their Confucian or Buddhist sensibilities; it barely seemed human to them.

The people who have tried to eliminate ritual and make everything spontaneous have ended up doing one of two things.  One group creates ritual unintentionally. Anyone who has ever been to a new, “spontaneous” church can tell perfectly well that there is a ritual that directs the activities within the church, whatever they say, because everyone else seems to know what is going on and only the visitor feels lost.  Churches that reject infant baptism or confirmation have commitment ceremonies as a way of marking important life passages.  Even institutions that would never allow praying have “moments of silence” to honor the dead.  These are all rituals, created to satisfy a basic human need.

The second group is more radical.  They genuinely do eliminate ritual and become “spontaneous” in all they do.  Ultimately they degenerate into a way of living that 99 percent of human beings would not recognize as civilized. They don’t sit down to meals with people they love, instead eating take-out food in cars or on the street.  They make phone calls while sitting on the toilet.  They trample store clerks on Thanksgiving in order to prepare for a different holiday a month away.  Their children, if they have them, suffer anxiety because they never know what to expect from birthdays, holidays, or bedtimes.  These children raised without any ritual don’t know when they are grown up, because nothing has marked the passage, and often exist in a perpetual awkward adolescence.  The elimination of ritual has not led to freedom but chaos for these people.

It’s obvious that we humans need ritual, even if there is legitimate discussion about what the rituals should be.  Personally I believe that it’s more honest and humble to accept the rituals handed down to us than to pretend not to need rituals and then make them up on the sly.  This is true equally in the culture as a whole and in religious observation.

What does God wants of us, though?  Does he want us to practice rituals?  Many modern Western Christians would say absolutely not.  They cite passages like Psalm 40:6 or Psalm 51:16 and 17, where the psalmist emphasizes that God doesn’t desire sacrifices but a loving heart – equating sacrifices with the type of ritual that they reject.  (I notice, though, that Psalm 51:19, two verses later, says, “Then there will be righteous sacrifices, whole burnt offerings to delight you; then bulls will be offered on your altar.”)  They also mention Jesus’ consistent disapproval of the empty ritual observance of the Pharisees.  But here as in the psalms, we are called not to forgo the rituals but to be genuinely present in them – to offer righteous sacrifices.  The Pharisees weren’t told to quit tithing but to show genuine kindness. “Empty” is the bad word, not “ritual.”  Jesus himself observed the rituals of his society, going to the synagogue and celebrating Passover.  I can’t conclude from anything in the Bible, Church tradition, or human nature that God forbids ritual.

Some years ago a good friend joined the Orthodox Church after years in Protestantism and the post-evangelical wilderness.  Someone asked him, “Doesn’t it bother you that you have to do all those things like liturgy and fasting?”  My friend answered, “It’s not that I have to do those things – it’s that I get to do those things!”

The challenge is not to do away with rituals in church and culture; it’s to bend our hearts and wills to benefit by them.  Ritual can be empty and often is when I’m distracted or disgruntled.  But then, when I’m distracted or disgruntled, even my spontaneous thoughts are hardly edifying.  At least ritual is a leash that tugs me back and back again to God.  When I’m fighting the leash, I may feel it as a stranglehold; when I submit and follow gently, I’m guided to where I need to be.

I’m not very good at it.  I can’t always remember what to do.  I’m awkward at the choreography, often sitting when I should kneel or speaking when I should be silent.  My mind wanders, and I’m tempted to laugh or cry at the wrong moments.  I get lazy and think, “Do we really have to do this again?”  But I still love the rituals I’m such a bumbler at, especially those at church.  I love the cycle of songs and prayers; the slow march of Bible readings through the history of the Incarnation and Resurrection; the changes in color as the church year progresses, the bareness of the church during Lent and Advent exploding into the glory of Easter and Christmas.  Especially I love the words that are slowly, like the endless drip of water on stone, eroding my hard heart and creating a space for the Good News – “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven,” “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed,” and “Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.”  Thanks be to God.




  1. Nice work, Damaris.

    Protestantism has it’s rituals, as well. And they have their liturgies. They just aren’t traditional Christian rituals or liturgies. For they (many) hate traditional forms of worship.

    Rituals can be quite helpful when they help us to keep centered on Christ Jesus and His finished work on the Cross. If they put the focus back onto us, and what ‘we do’…then maybe not so much. Of course, I don’t expect complete agreement from either Catholics…or very many Protestants, either. And that’s ok.

    We use ritual and liturgies in our church. But we don’t have to do any of it. We want to use them because they help to keep us anchored in Christ, and prevent us from drifting into whatever places that the ‘self-ascendant sinner’ might want to go to.


    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Don’t forget the Evangelical Ritual of The Altar Call. Where “The Sinner’s Prayer(TM)” has to be Recited Word-for-Word (and accompanied by the proper posture of Truly Sorry For My Sins(TM) or “the fix doesn’t take and you Go Down”.

  2. I have been pondering this a lot after a trip to Europe this summer. Rituals and traditions still incorporated into the daily living. Simple rituals like walks on Sunday afternoons, quiet time during the noon hour. I think we are wired for the security such rituals and routine bring us. Insightful. Thank you.

  3. Doubting Thomas says

    Many years ago in my wanderings I belonged to a small unaffiliated with anything Charismatic prayer group. We rejected the Reformed tradition that most of us came from. They had an Order of Worship, we let the Spirit move as he would. No body seemed to notice that we did the same thing the same way ever Sunday.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I remember hearing during the Sixties that Nonconformists became totally Conformist in what constituted Nonconformity.

    • Yup, where I grew up, we had a tradition of having no traditions 🙂

  4. Damaris,
    Continuing forward with your post, sometimes in our zeal to be free and unencumbered we lose sight (quite literally, I think) of the larger than life rituals which privilege us everyday. From the sun rising this very morning to the stars that will appear tonight. From the constancy of polaris to the unexpected yet predictable return of the leonids. And ultimately to the seasonal consequences that we experience on our little blue planet, we are seaped in cosmic ritual and meaning. It surrounds us and becomes the physical reality of our very existence. For anyone who says that ritual is not of God, let us not forget who is the originator. Pray we always honor him in our humble attempts at imitation.

    …..Do this in memory of me.

  5. “We are unique in the universe, so far as we know, in having self-conscious intelligence – which other physical creatures don’t have – and living in time – which angels don’t do. ”

    Although I appreciate and agree with the intent and direction of this post, I’m not sure either of the points of the above sentence are true.

    Experiments have shown that some higher primates, at least, are self-aware, and are able to recognize themselves in a mirror; add to this the fact that they have intelligence, however limited it may be depending on definition and methods of measurement, and we have at least some exceptions to your statement concerning animals self-consciousness.

    And although it is traditionally thought that angels exist outside of any time framework, is this true? Given the modern concept developed in physics that time is relative, and that time may is different in different contexts, in word, that time is multiple, how do we know this is true? It is perhaps more likely that angels exist in a different kind of time than we do than that they exist outside of any kind of time. Unlike God, they were created, after all, and so had to have had a beginning, and to begin is to exist in time.

    • Your points may be true. The essential is that we humans are self-conscious and live in time; the uniqueness I’m willing to give up.

    • I suspect that more species than primates are self-aware; they are not, however, verbal in a way that *we* can comprehend as such.

      Even though some animal behaviorists staunchly deny this, others doing legit research are breaking through a lot of the perceived barriers. One recent example is a study of sheep done in the UK. One of the things that was discovered: most of the sheep they worked with both recognized and remembered the faces of up to 50 other sheep. I have no difficulty believing this; just because we see them as “stupid” doesn’t !mean that they actually are. We don’t understand the social lives of herd animals very well – the more we learn, the more astonished we’re going to be.

      The thing is, we see ourselves and our species’ intellectual capacities as unique. What happens if/when we find out that’s not the case? Am entirely convinced that this discovery is inevitable, and i’m not talking about an hypothetical ET.

      I realize this is speculative, but anyone who’s truly clued in to animals and has spent a lot of time with them will tell you they’re sure of it. (Example: seriously dedicated horse people.)

      • Some animal researchers consider Corvis Corvidae to be the smartest animal. They are the only animal that can figure out four levels of puzzles – even primates, while more clever, haven’t been able to do this. The test consists of using a tool to reach a tool to reach a tool…etc…to reach a food prize. Or maybe the primates are just smart enough to realize that it is a whole lot of work, and their keepers are going to feed them anyway. In another test, crows were given water in a beaker too tall and narrow to drink from. The test animals filled the glass with pebbles until the water level rose sufficiently for them to drink. Fascinating stuff, and definitely evidence that animals have an impressive level of intelligence.

        • I think that is fascinating… And there are even some bird species that use tools.

          Beavers are architects, and their constructions are intricate and anything but haphazard.

          I think that many Native Americans’ respect for the intelligence of other species is something we’d do well to heed – and no doubt would if we spent more time away from our human “hives.” (Highrises, office towers and the like.)

      • For me, the belief that human beings are somehow unique is central to maintaining my faith. If it were to be proven to me that human beings are not unique, and that they do not have a qualitatively unique relationship to God, then my faith would be terribly undermined. I don’t insist that intelligence or self-awareness or any other single quality is what constitutes this uniqueness; for all I know, it could be something as hard to discern as the way different qualities fugue together in the human, or it could be an as yet unnamed qualitative difference. But if there is no qualitative difference between human beings and the other sentient beings, then I don’t see why the humanity of Jesus Christ would have any special spiritual relevance or value, and the Incarnation would be reduced to the nonsensical. I probably would then end up back in Zen Buddhism, after a period of dizzying spiritual disequilibrium.

        • I’m not sure I can ever go back to seeing human beings as singularly unique. I think there is FAR more going on in the created world than we will ever apprehend, and I find that deeply comforting.

          am curious, though – what’s your take on (hypothetical) highly intelligent life in other parts of the galaxy? I mean, I don’t see that God is restricted to *us,* and it seems unfair to hold him hostage to that.

          Ultimately, Christ was/is incarnate as a human being, which I hope will set your mind and heart at ease. That there is something uniquely special about us, I have no doubt. But just as the Bible isn’t a science text, it’s also not a comprehensive guide to all life on planet earth. I live in a mountainous area, and there are thousands of animals and birds living what I believe to be meaningful lives with little, if any, interference from or contact with humans. There is that bit about the sparrow falling, about the birds nesting and raising chicks in the temple (Psalm 80-something); God’s concern not only for the people of Nineveh but for all the animals in the city; the glorious psalms of praise where all creatures praise God ( just by being themselves, I think), and more.

          I think that we were made to be part of a huge web of created life, and to live as much in harmony as possible with other creatures. The world being what it is, those relationships are anything but perfect, and yet… I find myself feeling *more* assured of God’s love and good purposes for us as I spend more time with other species. That’s a story in itself; no real space for it in blog comments.

          I do find myself baffled by the assertions of many that we are the only creatures with souls. How, exactly, are we so sure of that, and on what do we base our conclusions? If it’s a combination of intelligence and personality, then we’ve got plenty of company. If it’s based on brain size, there are more than a few other mammals that have much larger brains than we do. As yet, we don’t even have a clear definition of what the human soul is.

          Animals are individuals, very much like we are. Again, I find this to be a marvelous and reassuring thing; not something that diminishes the worth of human beings (either individually or collectively).

          Besides all that, there were animals right there at the birth of Christ. They are witnesses, too.

          • “I’m not sure I can ever go back to seeing human beings as singularly unique.”

            “That there is something uniquely special about us, I have no doubt.”

            Not sure how your above two statements can both be true. They seem to contradict each other. Either we are unique, or we’re not.

            Regarding intelligent E.T. life: whether such life exists and whether it is or is not more intelligent than human life makes no difference to my belief that human life has a uniquely qualitative difference, and stands in a special relationship to God through Jesus Christ, who took on human nature in his work of redeeming all creation precisely because of the special status of humanity. If this qualitative uniqueness does not exist, and someone were to prove it to me, I would stop being Christian. It has nothing to do with the fact that the Bible is not a scientific textbook, because this belief is a religious assertion that has nothing to do with science. If, however, someone could somehow prove to me that science could definitely establish that humanity has no such qualitative uniqueness, then good-bye to Christianity and Jesus Christ for me. Of course, I don’t believe science has the ability to establish proof for such a broad negative.

          • I know, I know – that was kinda sloppy on my part!

            Re. singularly unique, I meant re. intelligence, self-awareness and more. Re. my other statement, Christ became incarnate as a man.

            I think there’s a great mystery here – also that the two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

            More than that I cannot say at this early hour! (Fell asleep very late; am not fully awake.)

          • I can see where you’re coming from – it’s a belief I once shared, but no longer do.

            Again, though, that’s a long story in itself and doesn’t lend itself to blog comments.

          • Also, the part about far more going on in the created world than we’ll. ever know or understand is crucial here. I don’t see how/why this invalidates our need for a Redeemer, and whatever is unique about our species.

            But it’s all unprovable either way – a matter of faith, not hard data.

          • Robert – I guess I don’t see this as an either/or issue these days, but as I’ve said upthread, my beliefs are based on speculation + observation and interactions.

            I can’t “prove” anything, and i’m fully in agreement with the Nicene Creed. I know that might not seem logical, but there’s too much involved in Christ’s redemption for us to ever truly comprehend its breadth and scope, in this life or the next.

            Just not certain that we’re talking about the same exact things – text-only communication is *hard* sometimes. Either way, it’s not a make it or break it issue, imo.

          • The greatest part of life, both in quantity and quality, is lived in regions untouched by hard data.

            For me, the Eastern Orthodox description of Jesus Christ as Pantocrator means that he reigns over all, and will manifestly reign over all, through his divinity and humanity. I believe that death will be swallowed up in life in the completed New Creation, death not only for humanity but for all living creation.

            Btw, even most forms of Buddhism ascribe to humanity a special status, affirming that it is only from human form that nirvana can be realized. It’s typical in Buddhism to view the life of animals as controlled by fear and attachment to a degree that prevents the development of the non-attachment that is a necessary prerequisite of enlightenment. In fact, reincarnation from a human form to an an animal form is considered by many traditional Buddhists to be a movement down into the hell-bardos, where ignorance and fear control almost everything that is done.

          • Totally agree with you on Christ Pantocrator and his triumph; totally disagree with the view (Buddhist and otherwise) that animals are lesser forms of life. Different – of course. But lesser, and controlled by fear, etc? Not so sure about that! Part of it probably comes from seeing the fear of prey in the face of the predator, but man is THE biggest predator of all. I’d also hazard a guess that we see real fear in mistreated domestic animals, and with good reason. The fear felt by an abused person (esp. abused children) is much the same.

            If we are truly wanting to lessen suffering, animal rescue is one place where that can happen – and also, sadly, one where extremes of human cruelty are seen on a daily basis. I think “Do unto others…” extends far beyond the purview of our own species. We have a responsibility to care for the earth and its creatures, not exploit or lord it over them. Temple Grand in has made great strides in this area re. the humane treatment of stock animals + her work on animal cognition and behavior, and I’ll freely admit to being a fangirl.

            As for the assumption that animals are “less than,” I don’t buy it. Different, yes, but still very important. I can’t imagine there being no animals in God’s immediate presence. If it’s mainly us, well, how boring can you get!

            All that said, my views are my own, and I can’t prove them to anyone – nor is it necessary to me, except insofar as education on the humane treatment of other species is a passion of mine. For the rest, I can just hang out with like-minded folks, on the web and IRL.

          • numo,
            Just to be clear: I believe in the humane treatment of animals. We’ve adopted both of the cats we’ve had together from shelters, and I have no doubt that our cats not only think and choose, but can imagine and reflect.

            I do, however, consider human life to be qualitatively different from animal life, and will continue to do so. My ethical obligations to human being are of a different order than those to animals, although there is obviously much nuance and complexity involved in the ethical relationship between humanity and animals, and we human being as a species have failed to honor the value of animal life, and thereby failed to honor our Creator.

            But I would never affirm the core beliefs of a group such as PETA, because I believe there is hierarchy and order in the value of beings, without which no ethic would even be possible.

            Peace and Happy New Year.

          • I’m no fan of PETA, either, for many, many reasons.

            You did see my ref to T. Grandin and her pioneering work on the humane treatment of stock animals, right? fwiw, I still eat meat, though less than I used to -but I need the protein and working out adequate substitutions can be hard.

            There needs to be a drastic overhaul in the way farming is conducted re. the need for humane treatment of animals.

            I have a great personal affinity for many prey species, rabbits and horses in particular.

            And (as i’m sure you know), animal welfare advocacy is different than most animal rights groups’ m.o.

          • btw, when PETA members “liberate” animals, they rarely try to get them placed in shelters. All too often, they kill them.

            That’s anathema in my book!!!

          • I don’t want to lose my cool in talking about the completely inhumane practices of many animal rights activists… But will say that many seem to completely contradict their stated values when it comes to actions.

            It makes me feel physically ill.

          • You’re kidding, right? So they use animal lives the way terrorists use human lives, to make a political point. It really doesn’t surprise me, though; fanatics engage in parallel behaviors no matter what cause they follow.

            Btw, the current Dalai Lama tried to practice total vegetarianism, but became sick and on advice from his doctors eats meat every other day or so, for which he has been taken to task in a letter by none other than Paul McCartney.

          • Robert F – I wish I was joking, but it’s true. Not something I can discuss further, as it’s painful and, imo, terribly cruel and wrong. Though to be clear, many do not think it’s right.

            Paul McC and his chiding: huh??!! Foolish and not terribly compassionate, i’m thinking…

            btw, you were very clear in presenting ideas (above) and I knew you were not advocating them, but explaining.

        • I have been working on a short novel, in which one the participants debate (among other things) whether humans are unique and, if so, what that uniqueness consists of. The excerpt is too long to post here, but here is a link to it:


          • Must read! Thanks, Daniel.

          • Your character is unable to prove most of her points, though of course, she fervently believes them.

            There are some recent studies on altruism in mammals and birds. Some of the findings would definitely rattle her, um…cage. 😉

          • Daniel,
            Interesting excerpt. I don’t know enough about the current state of science in this area to know what the scientific evidence really shows, and I’m not sure that anyone but experts can get a handle on it.

            But the core reason I believe that humans are unique is that Jesus Christ became a human being, and his incarnation was, and is, unique. So it is a knowledge rooted in revelation, not science, and it is the kind of knowledge that I believe is unfalsifiable. Someone could tell me that I’m mistaken about my religious understanding, but that’s a different argument.

            I’ve really never met, or known of, any human being who didn’t privilege human life, in some way, above animal life, or vegetable life, for that matter. We are highly social creatures, and it’s impossible for us to escape our social matrix completely without actually becoming insane, and being viewed as insane, and our social matrix will always privilege the human above the animal.

            That’s my viewpoint, anyway.

          • their respective social matrices have them at the center, it seems. (Not joking about that.)

          • And well they might; I wouldn’t expect it to be otherwise than for them to put themselves at the center. I wonder what they would expect of us?

    • I fully agree with Robert. More than that, I would argue even more strongly that anything created lives within a time/space framework. That the angels’ framework appears to be different than ours, does not negate that.

      • Yes, Father Ernesto, time and space are two aspects of a single reality, and anything created must exist within some time/space framework. On this point, Hindu religious speculation and belief may help us when it distinguishes between the gross material body and what they call the subtle body; they say that each exists in a different time/space framework.

  6. Thank you, Damaris. This was just what I needed to read this morning!

  7. When were your parents in Taiwan, Damaris? And were they posted to the old embassy in Taipei, or where?

  8. I do agree that ritual is very important, and in fact human beings cannot exist without it. If you get up every morning and check your i phone or pad, you are involved in a ritual. Rituals are the trellises on which social life develops, and it’s idiocy to think that social life could occur in any meaningful sense without them.

    There is, however, a way in which many traditional forms of ritual separated people from each other, leading to entrenched tribalism and distinctions between those inside and those outside. The looser contemporary forms of ritual that have formed around the current communication technologies make it possible for people to bond across boundaries that in the past would have been impassible.

    Some of this appears as reinventing the wheel, but it’s not, because it often involves wider networks of social bonding than earlier ritual did. But for this to happen, ritual has to be seen as malleable and subject to change over time, not written in stone. To paraphrase a New Testament text, ritual exists for the sake of humanity, not humanity for the sake of ritual.

  9. Very good observations. As much as those who despise rituals may try and avoid them, like forms, it is impossible. Having no tradition, ritual or form is having a tradition, ritual or form. All one needs to do is repeat it.

  10. Excellent, Damaris. It’s interesting that even the most “free”, “spirit-led” churches are deeply imbedded in ritual. At one Evangelical church I served in, the order of worship was absolutely, positively the same every Sunday morning. The same elder prayed over the offering each week, and quoted from Malachi 3 (“bring the whole tithe…”: ) every time he prayed. Even in moments when the worship leader would lead into a song that was supposedly spontaneous, I knew, because I was on staff, that it was rehearsed.

    Another church where I was on staff was even more regimented…The pastor had clocks placed on the platform, and a schedule worked out for each Sunday worship service. Any variations, in terms of time scheduled for each portion of the service, were highly frowned upon.

    My point is not to slam these churches, but to note that there is a liturgy, an order of ritual, in every church. It feels more formal in a Catholic, Anglican, or Orthodox Church, I suppose because of the smells and bells and vestments. Evangelicalism is firm in its rituals as well. This is important to us. We find comfort in the familiarity of order. Why? Well, the rest of our lives are chaotic.

    When I was on the outs with the Church, but still clinging to my faith by a thread, it was in the Eucharist and the liturgies of the Book of Common Prayer that I found spiritual nourishment and refreshing. This was profoundly different from the rituals I had known as a pastor, but today, the Body and Blood of Christ are central elements of my faith. My life was chaos…spiritually, personally, financially, etc…I needed the peace of ritual.

    This is a great quote, one that I love, from Flannery O’Connor on the Eucharist…It could very well apply to many of our Christian rites:

    “Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

    The comfort, peace, and rest available in ritual are truly representative of the Grace of God. The rest of life…all the reality TV, financial woes, auto repairs we’re putting off, and worries about our retirement funds…those things truly are expendable in the light of rituals like the Eucharist.

    • Great quotation, Lee — I hadn’t ever read that.

    • David Cornwell says


    • ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’

      Lee, I was just thinking of that quote from Miss Flannery. . I discovered it a few days ago on another blog and saved it.

      I think that the Eucharist as “Symbol” would be an upgrade for some churches, those who insist merely upon “Do this in remembrance of me.” I think “Remembrance” is no better than a yellow Post-It note, while “Symbol” at least has a bit of substance, although not nearly up there with Real Presence, whether Consubstantiation or Transubstantiation. My pastor considers Symbol and Remembrance to be the same, but I disagree.

      On the other extreme, we have a character in our church who considers the Roman Catholic interpretation “blasphemy” and “idolatry” because Christ doesn’t need to be sacrificed repeatedly (ritualistically?). But nobody listens to him about anything anyway.

      Damaris, this whole discussion is great. Thanks.

    • I’ve come to think/believe/act that O’Connor is undeniably right. If what we share in the Lord’s Supper is **only** a symbol or an inferred memory, then to hell with it. Which, btw, is how most of the Evangelical Circus treats it anyway in my experience.

      Thanks for sharing with us Damaris.

  11. You wrote that humans are the only animals with self -concious intelligence. If you did your research you’d be aware that over the last decade animal behaviorists’ studies have shown your statment to be false.

    • Sorry, but you are conflating animal behaviors with the knowledge of self and mortality that only ensouled human beings profess. Only humans are made in the image of God, and only humans have immortal souls. You, of course, will state “studies” that prove otherwise, and you are free to believe whatever you would like….just don’t expect others, especially others of faith, to agree with you.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > Only humans are made in the image of God, and only humans have immortal souls.

        I know no such thing as “*Only* humans are made in the image of God” or “*only* humans have immortal souls”. Scripture is silent on the matter, as it is silent on many things.

        > You, of course, will state “studies” that prove otherwise, and you are free to believe
        > whatever you would like….just don’t expect others, especially others of faith, to agree with you.

        I, ***as a person of faith***, both believe what “studies” have demonstrated [they do not “prove”] (otherwise how does one explain what is demonstrated? that is the only sane avenue out of believing them]. I, ***as a person of faith***, also am not troubled by those results, I do not feel threatened by them, nor to I find them in conflict with the doctrines I profess.

        • Scripture being silent on the matter is not a concern to me at all, but I would reference back to God giving Adam dominion over all the other creatures here on earth as a launching point. And, as comforting as the the thought of the “Rainbow Bridge” was to me when the dog died, I knew it was sentimentality and not theology.

          I am fond of my pets, but harbor no illusions about their place in the universe.

      • Pattie, not to pick a fight, but to bounce off your statement, “Only humans are made in the image of God, and only humans have immortal souls.”

        I found this over on Daniel Jepsen’s blog. It doesn’t settle anything, but it’s a hoot:


      • I am so glad I know a different G-d than you — one who made ALL life and loves the animals as well as humans. I feel sorrow that you miss seeing G-d in his other creatures.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > the last decade animal behaviorists’ studies have shown your statment to be false

      I immediately noticed that as well – BUT – the phrase “self -concious intelligence” is very specific, and probably stand. Other creatures are certainly self-aware [is that “self -concious”?] and possess intelligences [note the plurality – most (all?) current intelligence researchers view `intelligence` as a plural thing]. But “self -concious intelligence” … I assume by that he means reflective intelligence – that is they contemplate themselves, looking in upon their own intelligence. I am not aware of any research that indicates that capacity exists in other creatures – maybe at a reach it does in some Cetans [they exhibit Mirror Self Recognition – a *very* rare trait in other creatures]. A dog may recognize other dogs, be self-aware, even recognize representations of “dog”, but it shows no indication that looking into a mirror it realizes that that is itself. And without advanced symbolic intelligence it is hard to even imagine self-reflection – that may require language.

  12. I think that’s a valid point.

    If one would examine a common slug…and the run of the mill politician…the similarities are striking.

  13. I think our biggest strengths are usually our biggest weaknesses – as individuals or institutions. I attend mass each Sunday and 90% of the time I’m going through the motions, “punching my ticket.” A newly assigned priest takes a full minute to elevate the host and another to elevate the chalice. At first I was irked, but now, reminded of the meaning behind the action, I use that sacred time to focus on what’s really going on. The RC church has very rich rituals, but if they’re just repetitive actions to be observed they’re meaningless.

    • I would disagree about their being meaningless. Let me suggest two points. One, whether or not a liturgy is eternally meaningful does not depend on the faith of any particular individual in the congregation. And, two, obedience has its own reward. If my faith only becomes meaningful when I have the right feelings about it, then I am lost. For, if I die depressed or doubting, then I am the most to be pitied, a Christian who has done what is right, except as the most crucial point of my life.

      I know that is not what you are saying, in any way. I am simply pushing the logic of your statements to a conclusion.

  14. Damaris…..putting aside the liturgical differences amongst us, you painted a chillingly accurate picture of the “no ritual in their life” crowd, and the harm it inflicts on children. Life changes every second, and the pillars of ritual hold us together through this change. Heck, even the dog knows that when the TV gets turned off and the fuzzy throw gets refolded, that it is time for b-e-d! Five minutes of belly rubs on our bed before he trots off to his own bed for the evening….It is so hard to watch children who have lives of chaos, as they never learn to trust or feel safe in their own skin….

    • David Cornwell says

      My dog, Athena, is so ritualistic that she insists on doing the same things at the same time every day. Marge always goes to bed before me, sometimes several hours. The dog starts reminding her that is bedtime at almost the same time every night. Then around midnight she starts bumping me with her head, so I know it’s time to head upstairs.

      Children who live in chaos: I’m very close to some of those. For much of their life they didn’t know what was next, where to sleep, or when to eat. Going to school was something one could skip.

      One of them is now 19. He forced order into his life, without parental help. He found it from a church, some other adults, and now he’s in the Marine Corp. He survived the hell of boot camp, and his plans for college and then a career in law enforcement are intact — so far. War can change all that.

      He has a brother who I’m very afraid for. He has no discipline. Never made above an “F” in school. Has no job, and does not look for one. And a younger sister, now 15, that I’m very afraid for. Plus the oldest brother who is now 28 (whom Marge & I mostly raised). He is doing pretty good.

      None, not one, of these children has the same father.

      Please pray for them.

  15. As I sit here, performing my usual morning ritual (Wake, walk dogs, make coffee, sit in front of computer) this post got me to thinking about the differences between evangelical church rituals and high church rituals. After spending the last 37 years in evangelicalism, after being raised in Roman Catholicism, I have come to see that the evangelical rituals are presented to make MAN more comfortable and serve human interests more than illuminating God’s presence. High church rituals, by and large, are more for illuminating aspects of belief, landmarks of the Christian calender, and meditations on personal piety.

    No matter WHAT we do as humans, we ALWAYS fall back on ritual. Even our bodies depend on them (sleep patterns, excretory functions, etc.), so why should we deny them in the practice of our faith? Certainly the passage of time in the life of Christ is worthy of ritual observation during the year and is fruitful for confirming our beliefs and strengthening our faith. Practicing a little self awareness and admitting that we NEED these things will make for a more honest “religion”. Hear that Evangelical Church systems?

    • “No matter WHAT we do as humans, we ALWAYS fall back on ritual.” Well, I suppose you can twist the word to mean whatever you like. As for this Christian, I’m saved by faith in Christ alone through grace alone, and not by anything I do.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > I’m saved by faith in Christ alone through grace alone, and not by anything I do

        And is it not ritual for hard-line-grace-vs-law people to respond to a w-i-d-e variety of things as ” I’m saved by faith in Christ alone through grace alone, and not by anything I do”. 🙂

        Your statement I am quite certain Damaris Zehner would agree with.

        Ritual is not about salvation; it is about drawing near, remembering, communing, and celebrating amid a world of distraction.

      • Clark, you have again pinpointed the major but often unrecognized difference between revivalism and historic traditions. It’s not really a matter of doctrine or conservative vs. liberal or “Bible-believing” vs. Bible + tradition, or whatever we think are the major differences between us. It is a sacramental vs. a non-sacramental view of life and faith.

        There are those of us who believe the Bible teaches that God has given means of grace which do involve rituals. It is in the rite of baptism that we die to sin and are raised to walk in newness of life. It is in the preaching of the Gospel that faith comes to us. It is at the Lord’s Table that we are nourished through Christ. These are not merely actions we perform as rituals, but actions of God in which we are called to participate so that we can be saved and formed in Jesus. Ritual is an integral part of the salvation process — and the rites Jesus ordained are not works by which we achieve anything, but God’s works by which his grace comes to us to work faith within us.

        • CM,
          But what of those of us who believe that the story(ies) that the gospel comes to us in are the actual sacramental means that God uses to impart his grace to us and work faith within us? That doesn’t mean we are non-sacramental, it’s just that we locate sacramentality in the physiological/psychological matrix of hearing the story that we call gospel, and that all other sacramental means of imparting grace that God uses are sourced in this narrative sacramentality.

          It’s just as physical, and material, as bread and wine, but it’s not ritual.

          • We don’t disagree, Robert. Baptism involves water mixed with the word and likewise Communion and its elements. In my comment I also mentioned the proclaiming of the Gospel as sacramental. The key is seeing these God-ordained actions as God’s means of working for us and not vice versa.

        • Mike,
          This is probably a question for another discussion, but how exactly can we die to sin and walk in newness of life before hearing the Gospel and having faith? What are the scriptural arguments for this belief? What about a man who hears the gospel and has faith but hasn’t been baptized? Is he still dead in his sins? Or a man who went through the baptism as a baby but never once in his life had faith? Did he ever really walk in newness of life?

          • These are good questions, Jon, and ones I myself asked in the past. I won’t write a tome here, but suggest you read my post from earlier this year, A Structured Gospel, as a start to an answer.

          • Mike,
            I read it, but it didn’t really answer my first question. Are there any other resources online that would give an explanation or a defense of the Lutheran understanding of baptism?

      • Amen, Clark.

        It’s not that we can eliminate ritual from life; it’s that the freedom of the gospel, and the redemption offered through Jesus Christ, does not depend on ritual for its efficacy. Salvation does not inhere in religious ritual of any kind.

        Having said that, the next issue is: now that we believe, how shall we worship God? I think it behooves us to heed the historical worship of the church, without being slaves to it, when we are deciding, as the church or as individual Christians choosing a church home, what should constitute worship. There is a depth and wisdom in traditional liturgy that is sorely lacking in the evangelical worship I’ve been involved in (admittedly, on rare occasions), and often a real continuity with the experience of Christians of former eras, and the whole communion of saints, that is often completely lacking in evangelical worship.

        In addition, earnest participation in traditional liturgical ritual does not require a state of emotional excitation for authentication, as often seems to be required in evangelical worship. As a result, in traditional liturgical worship there is less of a burden to personally manufacture an emotional mood that fits into a stereotypical “good worship experience,” and more room for the variety of moods and feeling that people bring with them to worship.

        But traditional liturgy requires something, too: it requires that we do our best to pay attention to how God is moving in the midst of the liturgical dance, and how he is speaking to us in ever new ways through words and actions that reach back into antiquity. When we do this, a space opens up in the midst of worship where we can truly taste and know that the Lord is good, and we can be still and know that he is God. In other word, true contemplation of the Divine presence becomes possible, even as the focus moves away from ourselves and what we are feeling.

      • Clark: Twisting? Did I even intimate that salvation was the reason we fall back to ritual? No, what I am emphasizing, obviously imperfectly, is that in our rush to dismiss ritual in our religious services we deny that ritual, never the less, ALWAYS plays a part in how we gather and celebrate our faith. We may not CALL it ritual, nor may we RECOGNIZE it as such, but ritual it is indeed.

        But when ritual becomes mere HABIT it then loses any redeeming quality because HABIT is done mindlessly and without reflection. Reflection is what is missing in many evangelical services, and I’m speaking as one who STILL, after 37 years, attends one of those churches.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        As for this Christian, I’m saved by faith in Christ alone through grace alone, and not by anything I do.

        So what do you do? Sit back and be Spiritual(TM)?
        Any cattle to go with that “saved by faith in Christ alone” hat?

    • Oscar hints at a response I was hoping to find here.

      It is important to differentiate between ritual and routine. Answering the clock in the morning, walking the dog, and checking the e-device for news — even the scheduled spontaneity in a worship service are routines. Routines are necessary because they provide structure to navigate daily living. Ritual on the other hand engages us in the pursuit and experience of the transcendent — carnal experiences with an incarnate God. For me, life is empty when I have a structured daily routine or worship without the transcendence that ritual provides.

      • Good distinction between ritual and routine. Have to revise my thinking around this distinction. Thanks, Tom C and Oscar.

      • Or maybe one is religious ritual and the other more mundane, but still a kind of ritual, and meaningful?

        The idea of everything we do (or most everything) being a matter of routine gives me the shivers, because it makes me feel like life is largely empty repetition. That’s a tough one for me -not sure I can fully articulate the reasons at this point, either.

        • The issue is, I think, whether routine is “empty” or not. That’s pretty subjective, but routine has to be connected to some kind of meaning, whether someone can articulate that meaning or not. Routine tames the chaos. It would be impossible to live a rational life on any level within that kind of chaos.

          Routine does not have to mean “lack of freedom” or “lack of uniqueness.”


          • Good points, Dana. I struggled greatly with depression when younger, and feared leading an “empty” life. Routine seemed crushing, rather that just how things are, though of course, some routines were comforting.

            But the seeming emptiness was about the depression more than anything else. And my age, I’m sure, because I feared being trapped in a job where I felt chained to a desk.

      • I don’t take any issue with the presence of routine in our lives, but I do think that some things truly are rituals – what those things are is different for each person.

        For an artist, mixing paints or preparing other materials can have a strong element of ritual. Not only is there a real need to pay close attention to materials, but doing so provides a transition that helps allow the artist/artisan to focus on the work at hand. (Even if/when the mind flies off into thinking about which bills need to be paid today, reminding oneself to pick up the dry cleaning and the like – no different to the everyday concerns that habitually collide with prayer, really.)

  16. David Cornwell says

    “Ritual allows for daily, monthly, and yearly constancy in the midst of change:”

    So very true. In fact, the older I get, the more obvious this becomes. Time seems to rush forward for me now, barely giving pause. The true constancy, the only pause, is in the ritual provided for me by the Church. As imperfect as it is here that I slow down, taste a bit of the eternal, partake of that which has been offered by Christ, and know that I am in good hands.

    And I love our personal rituals, our family gatherings this time of the year. They get harder for me in some ways, and give me sadness because it is here that we see the children grow up, do their own thing, and go away. Their faces change, careers take hold, and time goes on. Yet once or twice a year we gather to celebrate, laugh, remember, eat, and give gifts.

    • This hit me like a ton of bricks at Thanksgiving….when my entire family was under our roof, and again at Christmas, with the little grandsons excited down to their teeth! THIS is what I prayed for a decade or so ago, when teenaged boys and the choices they made had me questioning if they would survive and return to the fold.

    • For me, the true constancy Christ.

      • Clark, your comments reflect what I’ve read referred to as a “zero sum theology”. The idea is that grace operates on a zero sum scale – it must all come to us from God without the use of secondary means (sacraments, ritual, etc.).

        Here is a quote from Robin Phillips explaining further:

        In a zero-sum exchange, whatever is gained by one party of a transaction is that much which is necessarily lost by the other party. A zero-sum mentality towards grace assumes that God can only be properly honored at the expense of the creation, and where this orientation is operational it feels compelled to limit or deny altogether the important role of instrumental causation in the outworking of Providence. The zero-sum mentality is thus highly uncomfortable acknowledging that God’s decrees are outworked through secondary means, and prefers to emphasize the type of “immediate dependence” upon God that bypasses as much human instrumentality as possible.

        This same mentality can be seen no less in popular evangelical approaches to justification and sanctification. When the modern evangelical says, “only the Holy Spirit can engineer a change of heart,” nine times out of ten what he really means is that “only the Holy spirit independent of any instrumentality can work change in a person’s heart.” This antipathy to instrumentality remains a deeply Gnostic notion, since at root it questions the spiritual legitimacy of God using the elements of this world as conduits of His grace.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          I describe the zero-sum game as “since there’s only so much to go around, the only way to get more for me is to take it away from you.”

          Or in “spiritual” application, “Since God must have Supreme Importance, nothing else (like you or me) can be allowed to have any importance.” This way lies Worm Theology.

        • Clark just disagrees with you about what those material means are. He believes that the gospel told by means of narrative is enough to work God’s purposes in conferring grace and salvation. He just doesn’t agree that the instrumentality of traditional sacraments are necessary. There is nothing Gnostic about it. In fact, it could just as easily be said that the insistence that grace can only proceed through traditional rites and liturgy accessible only to those sacramentally initiated is Gnostic, which wouldn’t make it true. The true defining aspect of gnosticism is that it depends on secret, esoteric knowledge or practices that liberate one from what is thought to be an evil creation. Nothing Clark said is anything like that.

          • I was responding to the comment of “for me, true constancy is Christ”. I took that to mean Christ independent of any instrumentality, or the idea of immediate dependence discussed in the quote I shared. And yes, antipathy to instrumentality is in fact a gnostic notion.

          • Clayton
            Actually, many rites and rituals were and are used instrumentally in the various forms of gnosticism to impart esoteric knowledge, or gnosis.

      • David Cornwell says

        “For me, the true constancy Christ.”

        The thing is so many make up Christ as they go. Without some outward agency, .i.e. the bible, the Church, tradition, then Christ can be anything. Thus we have cults and weird American made religions. Liturgy steers us toward Christ. These rituals have their beginnings in the very earliest gatherings of Christians. They become ancient guides for us, and how we need it in our “made up” age.

        Yes, Christ does, then, become true constancy.

  17. Excellent as usual, Damaris. Your essay reminded me of something I’d like to share…

    Several years ago I was having a discussion with a friend, an Anglican priest, about liturgy. In defense of our non-liturgical form of worship I stated something to the effect that it is far superior to not practice liturgies, for such rote practices lead to merely repeating words and actions and are in effect, meaningless.

    He then asked me to describe how we conduct our worship service at our Evangelical church. I responded that we start at 10.00a with worship music, ending around 10.25a and followed by 5 – 10 minutes of announcements, followed by a 5-minute “meet & greet” thing, followed by a 40-45 minute teaching/preaching time, followed by a closing song. And, oh yeah, once a month we “break bread” during the music worship part of the service. He then said, “There’s your liturgy right there!” I had to agree with him and that I was wrong in criticizing how Anglicans did things.

    A few years later his wife died and I attended the memorial services. I expected the usual priest says this/does that, congregation replies this/does that. I was not disappointed, of course, as that is exactly what took place. But when the bishop began to speak about the deceased, how she loved Jesus and showed that love by acts of mercy throughout her life, and then described the gospel of the cross which saved her and motivated her to be the good woman she was, I was moved and convicted that perhaps these folks were doing things out of a genuine devotion to God and to each other, and that the liturgy actually enhanced and accentuated such devotion rather than hindering it. When they held communion I joined them, and to this day I consider it to be the most beautiful and meaningful communion experience I’ve ever had (I mean that).

    I want to slowly introduce some liturgical elements to our worship service, if for no other reason than to teach them that it’s a good thing, not drudgery as many perceive it. A few weeks back I led my congregation through some of Psalm 136, where I would recite the first part of each verse and they would repeat “for his steadfast love endures forever” afterwards. For many it was refreshing, but I’m not sure how well it was received by some. No one left because of it, but I can see that introducing anything new is met with apprehension by some.

    I’ll keep trying.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      In defense of our non-liturgical form of worship I stated something to the effect that it is far superior to not practice liturgies, for such rote practices lead to merely repeating words and actions and are in effect, meaningless.

      Did you use the “vain repetitions” verse from the Sermon on the Mount? That’s the usual proof text for such things. Often coming from a non-liturgical background with 7/11 Praise Choruses (seven words repeated 11 or more times), fifty repetitions of “Just as I Am” for the Altar Call, and “Jesus/Weejus” prayers.

      • Yes, we did. But I know better now. In fact, you might say I’ve reformed.

        And the funny thing (ignorantly hypocritical, I would add) about it is that we often sang songs which repeated the same phrase ad nauseum (e.g., “Give me Jesus, give me Jesus, …).

        Thank you for pointing this out.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          And the funny thing (ignorantly hypocritical, I would add) about it is that we often sang songs which repeated the same phrase ad nauseum (e.g., “Give me Jesus, give me Jesus, …).

          That is generally called a Mantra.

          And though Mantras these days are usually associated with Hindus and Buddhists, there ARE fully-Christian mantras; my church is known for one called The Rosary, and the Eastern Rites have a meditation mantra called “the Jesus Prayer”.

          • I was Roman Catholic once, and recited my share of Hail Marys, Our Fathers and Confiteor Deo Omnipotentis. That was over 40 years ago. I did not leave the Church because I hated the repetition or even for doctrinal reasons but because by 1970 all things spiritual became meaningless to me.

            I became a “real” Christian in 1974 in an Evangelical church (I’m still with the same movement). In effect, I became hungry for God and these folks reached out to me in a sincere and loving manner which I had never experienced before, and in a way which made sense to me.

            But now I look back on Roman Catholicism with a certain sense of nostalgia for things deep, beautiful, historical and mysterious. And I wonder how I can introduce the best of the older traditions into my own church.

  18. Randy Thompson says

    Thanks for this great article, Damaris..

    One of my teachers at Yale Divinity School, the late Aidan Kavanagh, taught a course called “Anthropology of Ritual Behavior.” His class changed my whole way of looking not only at worship services, but at how human beings function. Our lives are ordered by habitual ways of doing things–rituals, in other words. I suspect no one on the planet wakes up and lives completely spontaneously. Within minutes of waking up, our rituals begin, and thank heaven they do.

    Also, as others have noted here, spiritual “spontaneity” degenerates quickly into habit(s). To recognize that human beings need habits to function–rituals, in other words–is be more thoughtful about what rituals and patterns do and how best to use them.

    I fear that many ritual-starved Christians make themselves more vulnerable to secular and especially patriotic rituals because they are unused to ritual and don’t understand what it can do, and does do.

    I’d rather be participating in a liturgy that engages my mind as well as my heart than in a service with a lot of yelling and shouting and noise that is more about techniques for eliciting emotions than spiritual and intellectual (and even aesthetic) depth.

    • “I fear that many ritual-starved Christians make themselves more vulnerable to secular and especially patriotic rituals because they are unused to ritual and don’t understand what it can do, and does do.”

      Great insight, Randy.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Patriotic rituals as in (most extreme example) a Nuremberg Rally?
        (Which was likened to “a revival meeting” by foreign eyewitnesses.)

  19. I agree heartily in principle and practice with what Damaris has written here. But I do have an interesting anecdote about the process (and how it works both ways). Several years ago my job assigned me to London for a brief time. While there, I attended an evangelical Anglican congregation, and wound up mostly going to the earliest service, which was not only the most liturgical but also a “said” service (meaning no songs are sung). That service was mainly attended by church staff, who then usually went to morning coffee/tea at a nearby shop before returning to their morning duties. After awhile I was invited to accompany them in their coffee breaks, and many interesting discussions came out of that. One morning, I was relating my journey from non-denominational evangelical megachurch to historic liturgical church, and how I was finding a depth and a support for my spiritual struggles in liturgy that I couldn’t find elsewhere. One of the Brits (a middle-aged lady) remarked that her experience was the exact opposite – she was raised Roman Catholic, in an apparently very formalized and nominal congregation, and that she was finding spiritual life and vigor in the less formal non-denominational worship style of the later services.

    “Isn’t it funny,” she remarked, “that you and I are meeting here at a crossroads, both seeking to follow Christ, yet headed in opposite directions?”

    What a funny world we live in, indeed.

    • Isn’t it wonderful that Jesus Christ does not belong to any denomination, communion or confession, neither to the independent churches? He and his grace go where they will, and we’re may to find them in out of the way places, if we stay alert, and in the most usual and ordinary places, too.

  20. Damaris –

    Thank you for the excellent essay. I, however, think otherwise regarding this point:

    “Personally I believe that it’s more honest and humble to accept the rituals handed down to us than to pretend not to need rituals and then make them up on the sly. This is true equally in the culture as a whole and in religious observation.”

    I have found that, though handed down rituals can be meaningful, it is the rituals we create out of our personal life experiences that have the most meaning and impact when we repeatedly practice them. Perhaps less so in a church, but certainly more so within the life of the family unit.

  21. Richard Hershberger says

    “Especially I love the words that are slowly, like the endless drip of water on stone, eroding my hard heart and creating a space for the Good News”

    This. Liturgy isn’t like normal conversation. Or rather, the first time you hear it, it might be. At that point it is new to you,and you listen to it like you would any other new words (as well or as poorly as that might be). Then you hear it again, and it is like that guy who tells the same story at every gathering. Even if it is a good story, the mind will tend to wander, and the exercise can seem tiresome and pointless. I think the people who reject liturgy never get past that point. But there is a third phase, when the words have grown so familiar that the conscious mind can do them on autopilot, freeing you up for deeper contemplation. It is like coming to really understand a piece of music. If you are thinking about the notes, you aren’t thinking about the music. Of course this is only worth while if the liturgy has the depth to stand up to such contemplation. This is the advantage of tradition. Two thousand years has a way of winnowing out the transitory and leaving the timeless.

  22. Funda-penta-gelicals kid themselves with their so-called spontaneity, supposedly driven from a true, sincere passion. Perhaps their activities are lively rather than “dead”, but they are equally “vain” as any dead ritual at which they wag their self-righteous fingers at others. Vain can mean empty, but it also means self-centered and narcissistic. That is what makes any act truly dead: God is not in it. If the desire and longing of ones heart is self, then ones habits and behavior will be self-centered and ultimately lead to despair.

    Rituals can be a guide to protect us from vanity. It certainly can become a show, but as with what makes one unclean, the cause is from within the selfish and sinful desires of the individual and not in the ritual itself. Spontaneity also has its place, but itself is not to blame why people drift toward the esoteric, superstitious, and bizarre.

    • petrushka1611 says

      Very true, Ox — their activities are often equally vain. In my old church, I finally realized the altar call and testimony time merely replaced the confessional.

      It’s amazing — it was constantly preached that we should read the Bible every day (ritual?), yet I knew people who did that, who were the most miserable, controlling people I ever met.

      The liturgy was denigrated as being dead, yet the whole while we heard that we weren’t supposed to limit God and put him in a box. So, God can’t work through the ordered weekly reading of his word and the presentation of his gospel?


  23. Ritual can bring about results that we may have never expected. This link goes back a few years on the blog of a retired UMC pastor and shows the power of shared experience through liturgy.


  24. I was curious to note that the Book of Revelation has not been cited yet (12/31/2013 @ 22:33). That is the book the describes the heavenly worship. That worship includes special dress, incense, ritual, symbols, thrones, crowns, etc. Orthodox, Roman Catholics, some Anglicans, etc., see that as passages that indicate how we ought to worship. Thus, we would see liturgical worship as being the way in which God Himself wants us to worship him.

    Warning, tongue in cheek statement ahead: In fact, we would claim that we are the true Biblical literalists when it comes to worship.

    • I get a kick out of how lots of high church types (am one myself) tend to over spiritualize vestments. They started out as ordinary clothes and, over time, morphed into a kind of fancy dress. The same is true of the wimples, coifs and veils that most nuns used to wear. Those originated during the Middle Ages and were part of most women’s day to day attire.

      • Here is a good study of how the vestments were developed: http://www.theodora.com/encyclopedia/v/vestments.html

        TLDR version: the leaders of the early church wore everyday clothes, though their best everyday clothes. The vestments were developed piece by piece in the fourth through ninth centuries, and taken first from the everyday clothes (the toga becoming the alb, for example) and then from the roman political officials.

        • I have some replies to that:

          1. Were they indeed simply everyday clothes? The very study you cite says, “As often as the bishops would partake of the Mysteries, the presbyters and deacons shall gather round him clad in white, quite particularly clean clothes, more beautiful than those of the rest of the people.” That is not a description of everyday clothes, but rather of very special clothes, which were probably embroidered, given the requirement that they be more beautiful. The quote from Jerome, in the same article, can easily be interpreted as an injunction against wearing street clothes to celebrate precisely because they are defiled by the world.

          2. The clothes that Jesus Christ wore at the Last Supper were especially beautiful and costly. How do we know? Because the Bible confirms so when it comments that the soldiers took one look at his robe and decided to not split it among them but to roll dice for it. The Talmud records that for the Passover to be celebrated, the father (or other male) must wear a white robe, especially rich. That became the custom.

          3. There is a logical problem here. Are vestments only vestments if they do not resemble street clothes? Or do vestments become vestments because they are consecrated and only used for godly functions? Given the descriptions in the article you cited, of specially clean, more expensive clothing, and they must be white, that sounds like a good description of vestments.

          4. Eusebius and Jerome state that the Apostle John would wear a mitre. Epiphanias says the same of James, the brother of the Lord. Their statements may or may not be accurate, but, they are early, one author living in the 200’s, one in the 300’s, and one in the 400’s. That does not sound like the description in the article that implies that vestments were of slow development.

          5. Many parts of vestments have indeed developed and / or changed over time. Yes, they are based on what was regular wear. But, be cautious of arguing that because they have the same structural shape as everyday clothes that they are everyday clothes.

          • Good responses.

            The quote you cite is from a fourth century document. That was apparently the beginning of distinct clothes for the clergy, though the difference was mainly one of quality and color. Before then the author notes, “The officers of the Church during the first few centuries of its existence were content to officiate in the dress of civil life, though their garments were expected to be scrupulously clean and of decent quality.”

            I am sure Jesus wore a costly garment on the night he was betrayed. I am less certain this says anything about clergy garments during religious services.

            It seems unlikely to me that Eusebius and Jerome really knew what John wore a few centuries earlier, but I could be wrong.

            Everyday clothes of high quality would not, in my mind, signify vestments. In the church I grew up in, the ministers would always be in a nice suit, not unlike those worn by the business professionals. They did this to show respect to their role in their culture’s terms, much as I interpret the words I quoted above. But they would not regard it as vestments for the following reasons. First, the clothes were not intended to have religious significance or symbolism. Second, unlike vestments, they were also clothes that could and would be worn by other member of the church. In fact, most men did wear suits. These churches held to the priesthood of the believer, and they would regard vestments that only clergy could wear as reinforcing a rigid distinction between clergy and laity that they did not believe in.

    • Fr. Ernesto wrote;

      In fact, we would claim that we are the true Biblical literalists when it comes to worship.

      Actually, before I read that, I was thinking “Prescriptive Restorationist”. LOL

  25. Wonderful essay, Damaris.

    Once I heard an evangelical Protestant complain, “In Catholicism there’s no room for symbolism.” I wanted to reply, “No. To you there’s no room for reality!” That’s what is so beautiful about the sacraments; they are both symbolism and reality combined — a fact this person truly did not understand. Another friend used to constantly talk of the “dead, dusty, dry rituals” you mention. To him, ritual = dead (+ dry and dusty!) He had come out of a Lutheran background to a Charismatic faith.

    In fact, some of the people I’ve known who have most looked down on ritual have come from a highly ritualized background, but have gone on to embrace the “freedom” of the absence of ritual. I think for them, the religion of their childhood was that of their parents and grandparents. It wasn’t until they discovered something completely different that they really made the faith their own.

    Likewise, most of the folks I know who have left some kind of evangelicalism to come into full communion with the Catholic Church have also experienced a renewal in their faith as a result of the switch (or the renewal led them to make the switch). I guess truly “the grass is always greener on the other side.”

    • “No room for symbolism”? does not compute. (Lutheran turned evangelical turned Lutheran again writing, here.)