The Necessity of Rituals

Although we may not be aware of rituals, they weave themselves into the fabric of our days in one way that defines who we are as individuals. A definition of ritual can be a regular pattern of words or actions. The way we answer the phone or door, our favorite topics of conversation, the way we get dressed, how we develop or maintain our physical and mental well-being, specific hygiene habits, and other tasks we routinely do become rituals that sustain our daily life here on earth. If we take a close look at our personal rituals, we can see how they can range from life-enhancing to life-depleting.

Whether public or private, rituals can also define moments that keep us going through routine days, give pleasure to our lives and reasons to celebrate various stages of growth. Rituals can be formal rites that involve many people, such as graduations, weddings, and funerals, or informal, like watching the games of a specific sports team, planting favorite flowers, going out to eat with friends on certain days, or attending specific cultural events.

However, since our eternal destiny depends on our love, knowledge, and service of God in this life, the most essential rituals are spiritual. Spiritual rituals are an integral part of Catholic life. They promote our faith formation, add reverence to our daily existence, keep us aware of that which is eternal and strengthen our belief in heaven and our bond with God. Because we love God, we want to please him. Catholic rituals invoke in us a greater understanding of, and continuity with, Divine Presence. They help us to understand the responsibilities of being a Christian, and to live a life of genuine faith. They are life-enhancing and extend beyond the human elements of energy, mood, and emotions. Christian rituals reinforce strong character. They teach us that we do not live Christianity just enough to get by. We must strive to promote our beliefs by ethical and legal means in the public square. Gospel values are not negotiable. Knowledge about God’s truth is crucial to sound decisions. Public opinion pales if we seek the Kingdom of God first.

Spiritual rituals take us beyond the scope and influence of temporal issues. In spiritual rituals that involve words, even though we may not feel what we are saying at the time, we say things because they express what is deep within our heart, beyond the capacity of feelings. Feelings fluctuate according to our mood and current situation. Negative events can cause us to be discordant with what we believe. However, deep down, we cling to God and strive to live by faith.

As Catholics, we have an abundant spiritual treasure trove of beautiful solemn and simple rituals. One definition of a solemn ritual is sacred actions, performed in a particular order, that celebrate spiritual milestones in our life. They are found in the formal ceremonies of baptism, first Communion, confirmation, and marriage. Each of these ceremonies is a sacrament. For Catholics, the most important and the most needed rituals are in receiving the sacraments. Sacraments are principal rituals that keep us mindful of the presence and power of God and his merciful love for us. They renew our spiritual energy, are channels of grace, and give meaning and purpose to who we are as Catholics. Grace from the sacraments can renew our faith and trust in God, increase courage and peace, provide a new outlook about our trials, and impart spiritual healing. Most of all, they help us on our way to our heavenly homeland. Mark Searle wrote, “The meaning of each sacrament is derived from two things: its reference to the paschal mystery and the particular situation of the individual or community upon whom the sacramental celebration focuses.” Edward Schillebeeckx takes this a step further: “Each sacrament is the personal saving act of the risen Christ himself, but realized in the visible form of an official act of the Church.”

Sacraments can leave an indelible mark on the soul, like confirmation and ordination, or can be received repeatedly, like reconciliation and Holy Communion. Anointing of the sick can be received in a formal setting, such as a healing Mass, or unexpectedly, after a major accident or unexpected serious disease. Anointing of the sick is not only for those who are dying, but also for any Catholic who is distressingly sick, scheduled for serious surgery, or elderly.

The greatest sacrament is Holy Communion. It is most amazing that God the Infinite One disappears under the appearance of bread and becomes God the Humble One for all humanity. The Dominican Thomas Aquinas noted that there would be no real sacrifice or no real communion without the Real Presence. God’s Son became man to offer himself on Calvary and he continues to offer himself at the Sacrifice of the Mass. He gave himself to his disciples at the Last Supper and continues to give himself to us in Holy Communion. He became man to live in the flesh in Palestine, and continues to live now on earth as the same Jesus who died, rose from the dead, and is seated at the right hand of the Father in the Blessed Sacrament. Nothing in human experience is like the Mass. It is utterly unique. No personal devotion or private spiritual practice can be considered above the Sacrifice of the Mass. The Eucharist is the sacramental heart of Catholic life.

Imelda’s Reflection

I would like to share my way of putting myself into the Mass instead of just attending it. I began attending daily Mass years ago to thank the Lord for a favor received. I had intended it to be just for the summer, but by the end of summer I was hooked. As time went on, I grew more and more to appreciate the sublime wonder that it is. In catechism classes, we were taught that the Eucharist is the commemoration of the passion and death of Jesus. But how is the raising of the Body and Blood of Christ a memorial to death? It came to me in the separate raising of the Body and then the Blood, for when blood is separated from the body, death occurs. Because we believe that this is the Body and Blood of Christ, then that which we are witnessing is the death of Christ. Also, in catechism we were encouraged by the sisters to unite our own sufferings to that of Christ. When the priest puts that drop of water into the wine, I offer to Jesus what at that time is causing me grief. Just as that drop of water becomes thoroughly one with the wine, so does my suffering become one with the suffering of Christ. When Jesus’s passion and death are offered to God the Father, I can feel sure that my own suffering is in them. When I receive Jesus in Holy Communion, I receive him as the Jesus who triumphed over his own suffering and death, and he shares that triumph with me. I can then feel confident that I have the strength and grace to triumph over my own problems.

Experiencing trials and suffering may promote a broader knowledge and greater appreciation of Catholic rituals. When trouble comes, we hold on to our trust in God, instead of resorting to a temper tantrum or sliding into depression. Our anchor is the Cross, to which all roads lead. Because rituals are a source for spiritual strength and divine support, and sustain a deeper connection with ourselves, others, and God, they can bring comfort during prolonged disease, when medical treatment ends, or when life on earth is coming to a close. Somehow, novenas of Masses or spiritual bouquets we receive during troubled times are more treasured, and the sacraments of reconciliation and Holy Communion are more appreciated, than they ever were. When someone is experiencing a distressing concern, there may be times when family or friends share appropriate spiritual stories that can uplift a troubled heart. Such stories can dilute focus on the current trouble and confirm the goodness of God. However, we should not overdo the spiritual side of situations even though it is a reality that needs to be kept in mind. To those who oppose our spiritual values, we can be channels of God’s love without using spiritual words. Francis of Assisi reminds us to preach the Gospel, and, when necessary, use words. A good example says more than most words. In fact, good actions speak louder than sweet words. Our actions show that we need, and are serious about, our faith.

Multi-splendored

Simple rituals are a part of daily life. The sign of the Cross and everyday prayers help keep order in daily life by giving clarity, balance, rhythm, and purpose to who we are as Catholics. Catholic solemnities and feast days can bring families and friends together by special events related to that day and unite people as a community of faith. By reflecting on what we hold dear in our daily religious rituals, we find they are richer in meaning than mundane activities. Indeed, we need constant reminders of what we believe, in order to grow in our love for God and to avoid the influence of anything that opposes God’s love.

Catholic rituals can be personal or shared with others. Personal signs that show we are Catholic include the way we dress, what we eat for meals, when we say our prayers, regular attendance at church, and serving others. Shared rituals can be informal activities with family and dear friends, to celebrate the saint we were named after, first communion, confirmation and wedding anniversaries, and holy-day festivities. Participation in life-giving rituals helps us to become more aware of the dignity of, and meaning in, our Catholic identity. They reinforce belonging to a universal Church, a parish church, or a specific ministry. Rituals bond us with one another by occasions that encourage companionship with others who share our faith, with God, and with his angels and saints.

Rituals remind us that holiness is our universal call. “How much we need, in the Church and in society, witnesses of the beauty of holiness, witnesses of the splendor of truth, witnesses of the joy and freedom born of a living relationship with Christ!” (Benedict XVI). Jesus is our way to God the Father and our guide to holiness. In various ways, every Catholic ritual draws us closer to the Triune God. Help from the Holy Spirit guards us against the two greatest obstacles to holiness: discouragement and an exaggerated anxiety. Focusing on the past (discouragement) and the future (anxiety) rather than the present, which is all we really have, keeps us moving forward on the holiness trail.

The visible elements used in sacraments and sacramentals mingle earth and heaven, the created and Creator, matter and spirit, mortal and immortal, time and eternity, body and soul. Because they connect us with God, all these elements help us to see all creation on earth as somehow sacramental. Various created items remind us of our spiritual life: bread and wine, holy water, sacred oil, beeswax candles, incense, salt, ashes, palms, church bells, holy cards, holy books, flowers for the altar and processions, sacred music, liturgical vestments, religious habits, sacred gestures, and church architecture. And there are elements that have no form: darkness and light, space and silence. Some are rare, like the prostration for vows and ordinations. Some are common, like the sign of the Cross and genuflections.

Sacramentals

Sacramentals are innumerable. The sign of the Cross is a universal ritual. It can be made before a prayer, by a surgeon who is beginning an operation, a person who hears an ambulance siren, or just about any other time to ask for God’s help or request his grace. It seems that the most popular sacramental is the Rosary. The repetition of prayers can calm and sooth a distracted mind while providing food for divine pondering through reflection on twenty mysteries, a series of twenty events in the lives of Jesus and Mary. The Chaplet of Divine Mercy is said by many throughout the world. Medals show images of Jesus, Mary, or a saint. They are commonly worn around the neck, are on a bracelet, or on a keychain. They remind us of God’s presence and his care for us, and for us to be receptive to his grace. There are also blessings, a form of prayer asking God to grant grace to a person, place, or thing being blessed. We often say blessings before and after meals, thanking God for the gift of food. Catholic parents have laid their hands on their children’s heads or made a sign of the Cross on their foreheads as a form of blessing, asking God for their children’s protection and guidance. A new, or well-used, home or car can be blessed by a priest or deacon, as can religious articles, statues, and holy pictures. They remind us to be holy. First Friday or Saturday devotions, Ignatian spiritual exercises, personal affection to specific saints or blesseds, serving specific meals or beverages on feast days, devotions honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary under various titles reveal how sacramentals can be universal, seasonal, cultural, come from different periods of time, or be limited to specific regions or countries or be a link to a beloved homeland. Unplanned rituals such as spontaneous prayer, unexpected quiet time in a holy place, or an impromptu hymn-sing may happen almost anywhere.

In a society that easily neglects the existence of God, our sacramentals remind us to keep moving ahead on the road to God. As Catholics, we have so many sacramentals that it is impossible to count them. Sacramentals turn the Catholic heart and mind toward things divine. They should never be thought of as lucky charms that keep us from harm, a talisman that has magical powers, supernatural objects that bring us good fortune, insurance policies that guarantees salvation, keys that automatically open the gate of heaven, or an excuse for not practicing the tenets of the Catholic faith. Anything that looks holy but hints of superstition, tries to manipulate divine power to achieve a specific end, is alien to traditional Christian beliefs or official Church teachings, or does not have official Church approval is not a sacramental.

Ora

Prayer should be the most important thing we do each day. The power of prayer creates a positive force in the society in which we live. When daily prayer becomes a sacred ritual, we pray even though we do not find it easy to pray or though we feel strongly drawn to do something else. We stick with it even though we find it uninteresting. Regularity in our prayer is important. If we only prayed when we felt like it, we would be in a sorry state. We continue to pray because we know prayer is spiritual nourishment even though at times the nourishment seems distasteful. Someone once wrote: “Prayer is the soul’s greatest privilege, its hardest labor, and its purest joy.”

We may be committed to a number of ways to pray. An excellent prayer is the Liturgy of the Hours. Sometimes called the Divine Office, it incorporates the liturgical life of the Church into our daily lives. It includes hymns, Psalms, readings, and prayers for morning, midday, evening, and night prayers, and vigils, or office of readings. Eucharistic adoration is time alone with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. The Stations of the Cross is a series of fourteen images depicting Jesus during his passion and death. Devotions to Mary are myriad. Whatever our favorite prayers may be, Padre Pio encourages us: “Prayer is the best weapon we have; it is a key that opens God’s heart. You must speak to Jesus, not only with your lips, but also with your heart; actually, on certain occasions, you should speak with only your heart.” Prayer is a pause that clears the mind and nourishes the soul.

A strong daily prayer routine helps us to persevere in the good things we do and to refrain from the bad or stupid things we do because we recognize the dangers therein. To continue participating in bad activities only leads us deeper into trouble. To persevere in that which is good can lead us to a greater understanding of the goodness in ourselves, in others, and in life. We need to do certain things not because we feel like it, but because it is right and good to do them even though our heart may not be moved by the love we have for others. Daily prayer holds us in an orientation of love until a positive orientation returns. Prayer reminds us that we are God’s helpers. This thought helps us to extend a friendly greeting, show appreciation, verbalize gratitude, or express other words of genuine kindness.

Far below the vicissitude of life, we believe we are held secure in the love of God. Jesus said, “You can be sure that I will be with you always. I will continue to be with you until the end of time” (Mt 28:20). We know certain things are true even though we cannot express or feel them. When life seems too hard to bear, we find solace in the words of this gospel hymn:

Time is filled with swift transition
Naught of earth unmoved can stand.
Build your hopes on things eternal.
Hold to God’s unchanging hand.

Values

There is a strong relationship between our rituals and what we value. We perform rituals that support and confirm the values we hold. They give what we value greater significance and stronger meaning. John Paul II takes us to the source from whom our values must be based: “When you wonder about the mystery of yourself, look to Christ who gives you the meaning of life. When you wonder what it means to be a mature person, look to Christ who is the fullness of humanity. Because actions speak louder than words, you are called to proclaim by the conduct of your daily lives that you really do believe that Jesus is the Lord.” Sound values give us a clearer picture of who we are by strengthening our love for God and others. To love someone means more than fond feelings and giving things to, or doing things for, him or her. Rather, love reveals to a loved one that even during difficult times their beauty and value are appreciated and they are still loved.

Innocent children can teach us about values. The famous children’s TV personality Mr. Rogers once gave a talk that included something that had happened at the Seattle Special Olympics. There were nine contestants, all of them physically or mentally challenged, for the hundred-yard dash. All of them were assembled at the starting line. At the sound of the gun they took off. Not long afterward, one little boy stumbled, fell, hurt his knee, and began to cry. The other eight children heard him crying, slowed down, turned around, and ran back to him. One little girl with Down syndrome bent down, kissed the boy, and said, “This’ll make it better.” The little boy got up. He and the rest of the runners linked their arms together and joyfully walked to the finish line. They all finished the race at the same time. And when they did, everyone in the stadium stood up, clapped, whistled, and cheered for a long, long time.

These children reveal capacities for the goodness in life and a pure self-worth. The fundamental basis for self-worth is that we believe God values us and loves us. This is why we find authentic self-worth in a positive relationship with God, rather than from what others think of us. Like the children, one aspect of a positive relationship with God is care for others. If our self-worth is not stabilized in how God sees us, we can easily be moved by inordinate self-love, or the ever-shifting sands of relativism. Thomas Merton wrote, “His one image is in us all, and we discover him by discovering the likeness of his image in one another.” If we see ourselves, and others, as housing God’s image, self-worth would be sound and sturdy. “Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed. Each of us is loved. Each of us is necessary” (Benedict XVI).

Toward the Good, Beautiful, and True

God’s goodness, beauty, and truth become more vivid when our daily spiritual rituals become a daily good habit. His goodness, beauty, and truth can overwhelm us so completely that they take us outside of ourselves. At that point, we see that our goodness, beauty, and truth are a reflection of his. The more we live sound virtues, the more we reflect these attributes of God. Conversely, when our rituals seem useless, or void of meaning, we accept it as a normal part of life. Like the ups and downs of emotions, this will not last. God’s goodness, beauty, and truth always overcome negative situations. During dark times, God takes care of us through the goodness of others and the transformation of ourselves.

“There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know him and to speak to others of our friendship with him” (Benedict XVI). Catholic rituals reveal the wonder of God’s beauty at which we gaze with awe. True beauty radiates from a faith-filled heart that continually strives toward greater goodness and truth. What is truly beautiful must also be holy. God is the ultimate source of beauty, goodness, and truth, and to be holy reveals his attributes to others. Being faithful to daily spiritual rituals allows us to blossom into a holy fruitfulness that we never expected.

Fruitfulness is different than achievements. Achievements involve leaving a mark through our successes, and give us a sense of pride and importance. An example is creating a new recipe for a family dinner. We produce something that is new or renewed. It is praised and appreciated. It is good to achieve this end, but it is not the same thing as being fruitful. Achievements make us, and those who love us, feel good. Fruitfulness makes others, even strangers, experience goodness. This can be seen in the workers at a soup kitchen for the poor, or volunteers at a free health clinic. At the end of the road, wouldn’t it be better to be eulogized for the good deeds we did for others rather than for our personal honor and glory?

Fruitfulness is the result of positive, long-term effects that stem from the good qualities in our life. In other words, how we are a blessing to other people each in our own way. We can be fruitful without achieving great things. Fruitfulness is the result of being gracious, generous, and kind to others. To upgrade ourselves and society, we must speak and act the way we would like to see humanity speak and act. If we speak and act with care, we will listen more deeply. The goodness we bring into others’ lives becomes more precious to us than our own awards or honors. How we make the world a more loving place is how we do what we do, and, more importantly, who we are as Christians. This extends beyond our accomplishments because it freely gives to others. Fruitfulness extends beyond death. Our grave marks the end of our earthly accomplishments. When we look at the saints and blesseds, we see that death is not the end of fruitfulness. When we are in heaven, we can be fully fruitful because we are free of sin and its effects. We will be more fruitful in heaven because gifts from our souls will flow out with complete purity to earthly beings. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love him.”

 

Sacred rituals serve us well. They keep us balanced, offer sturdy support when we engage in deeds of kindness, justice, and mercy, and keep us on the right road as we lead virtuous lives and become Christian pilgrims of compassion. Spiritual rituals please God, are good for our souls, and keep us doing what we should be doing. God’s plan for us is to have a good and fruitful life. Augustine aids us in this quest: “Trust the past to the mercy of God, the present to his love, and the future to his providence.” Life is a gift from God that becomes deeper and richer as our relationships with God, self, and others grow. When we take our Christian rituals seriously, we realize how much grace sustains us, we explore good things more deeply. Things of the earth fade in importance as heaven becomes more real. Daily rituals help us to cultivate a deeper appreciation of God’s love and to live according to that love. Love gives us courage. With John of the Cross, we put love where there is no love, and draw out love.

As we carry out our daily duties we try to put more love into them. We are kinder to those who are closest to us, our family, and those with whom we work. Daily religious rituals help us to be a little more patient, a little more understanding, a little more tender, and a little more forgiving. Spiritual rituals help us toward a holy transformation. God is the true source of goodness, beauty, and truth. As we find God in others, and ourselves, we become God’s ambassadors.

Our real destiny and purpose in life is to love and serve God and get to heaven. This does not mean that we neglect the needs of today. Rather, we approach them with a Christian orientation. The love of God guides us regarding how we do what we do, so that we can reflect the light of Christ. Solemn or simple, Catholic rituals bring us closer to being good light-of-Christ bearers. We are motivated to seek and learn more about our faith and search for Christian beauty, goodness, and truth everywhere. As our flame of light brightens, and our friendship with the Triune God intensifies, we appreciate how highly blessed and deeply grateful we are for all our Catholic rituals.

 

For the beauty of the earth,
For the beauty of the skies,
For the Love which from our birth
Over and around us lies:
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful Praise.

For the beauty of each hour
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower,
Sun and moon and stars of light:
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful Praise.

For the joy of ear and eye,
For the heart and brain’s delight,
For the mystic harmony
Linking sense to sound and sight:
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful Praise.

For the joy of human love,
Brother, sister, parent, child,
Friends on earth, and friends above;
For all gentle thoughts and mild:
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful Praise.

For each perfect Gift of Thine
To our race so freely given,
Graces human and Divine,
Flowers of earth, and buds of Heaven:
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful of Praise.

For Thy Bride that evermore
Lifteth holy hands above,
Offering up on every shore
This Pure Sacrifice of Love:
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful Praise.

For Thy Martyrs’ crown of light,
For Thy Prophets’ eagle eye,
For Thy bold Confessors’ might,
For the lips of Infancy:
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful Praise.

For Thy Virgins’ robes of snow,
For Thy Maiden Mother mild,
For Thyself, with hearts aglow,
Jesu, Victim undefiled,
Offer we at Thine own Shrine
Thyself, sweet Sacrament Divine.

Folliott S. Pierpoint
(1835–1917)

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS About Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS, OTR, is a discalced Carmelite, secular, and a registered occupational therapist. She is the author of the books: From Ash to Fire: A Contemporary Journey through the Interior Castle of Teresa of Avila, Carmel Land of the Soul: Living Contemplatively in Today’s World, Mystics in the Making: Lay Women in Today's Church, and Living Through Cancer, A Practical Guide to Cancer Related Concerns. Her latest book is Everyday Holiness: A Guide to Living Here and Getting to Eternity.