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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Inner Ritual/ Outer Ritual

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, December 5, 2004


I think that, deep down inside, we are all ritualists at heart. We all yearn for the patterns, the rhythms, which the little rituals we practice, day in and day out, provide in our lives. These rituals have nothing to do with lighting candles or saying prayers or marching in processions (“smells and bells”, in church parlay); rather, I’m speaking of the perhaps inevitable tendency all of us have to fall into certain habits and patterns of life, whether as individuals or in the company of others. Indeed, if we were not, at heart, “ritualists”—or, least, “creatures of habit”—we wouldn’t get very far in the course of our days. If we had to make a conscious decision—each and every day—when to get out of bed; when to have our meals; when to say “Good morning”; whether to brush our teeth with the left hand or the right; when and how to complete those countless, minute transactions that go into human living—then I think that we would spend our entire lives deciding and precious little time actually living.

(Even animals are ritualistic too, you know—as any of you who have a dog, or a cat, or even a guinea pig can testify. I can still remember back when we still had guinea pigs, and back when we still read bedtime stories to our kids, how that pig named Martha would always start to squealing and honking in the early evening whenever we started climbing the stairs to go read Noah a bedtime story. She knew the ritual; she knew that it was her time, too—that story time was also her time for a carrot or some sprouts or some other special treat.) We’re just like that: certain rituals simply get built into us over time; after a while, certain rituals become instinctual, just part of who we are.

In addition to these basic instincts we develop, we are also exposed from the earliest age to the customs of our tribe—from toilet training; to learning the ABCs; to practicing what we used to call “good manners”; to knowing how to say the “Pledge of Allegiance”. Little children are just about the staunchest of ritualists, it seems to me. They always want things done a certain way; they’re the least flexible about changes and alterations in the pattern; they want their favorite stories read in exactly the same way, every time, and heaven help you if you try to change a word or skip a page! Inevitably, if we forgot to say grace before supper one night, it was one of the kids who would pipe up and remind us about it. We form our habits and establish our rituals from a very early age. And among these rituals may (or may not) be explicitly religious or spiritual ones.

Now, maybe some of us came, in time, to find the religious rituals with which we grew up too restrictive or confining for us. Maybe, in time, whatever meaning they might have had at one point drained out of them, leaving them empty, with no relationship to “real life” as we came to experience it. A young woman I once knew told me she decided at an early age to jettison “the church thing” (as she called it) from her life just as soon as her parents stopped forcing her to go, because every Sunday as she was growing up, she would watch the people around her, sitting together, ritually, in church— in perfect peace and harmony; speaking pious words about brotherhood and love—and then, just moments after the service ended, these same people would just about get into fistfights battling to see who could get out of the parking lot first. The irony of the juxtaposition of the “ritual world” and the “real world” weighed heavily upon her, and it scarred her, so that as she grew older, worship and ritual became lifeless, even painful, concepts for her. Religion became something she equated, foremost of all, with hypocrisy.

Hers was a simple story, but a significant one. It was hardly a unique one, too. But perhaps she threw the baby out with the bathwater. Maybe—just maybe—instead of blaming her own religious tradition (or even religion in general) for the failings and limitations of those fellow creatures she sat next to every Sunday, she could have looked a little more deeply at the rituals they were practicing together, and seen how they were pointing toward a “more excellent way” than getting into fistfights in the parking lot after church. Maybe she could have listened to the words being spoken there in church—because the people around her sure weren’t!

Starhawk tells us that “Ritual and myth are like seed crystals of new patterns that can eventually reshape culture around them.” Ritual and myth can be tools for reshaping the culture around them. Sometimes, perhaps, they can be; but not always. Sometimes, our rituals are but manifestations of a culture that is in decay.

The ancient Hebrew prophet Isaiah looked out at his age of religious and social decadence and rampant immorality and injustice and thundered:

“To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to me? says the Lord:
I am full of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight no longer in the blood of bullocks or lambs or he-goats. Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the news of moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot stand any longer… When ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when you make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.”

What is the antidote to this vain sacrifice? What is its antithesis? The prophet Jeremiah tells us:

“Wash you, make you clean [says the Lord]. Remove the evil of your doing from before my eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do good; seek justice; correct oppression; defend the fatherless; plead for the widow.”

In the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh isn’t saying: “Get rid of all the rituals!” He is saying, according to Jeremiah: “Get your hearts in order. Get your society in order. And then—then—come before me with rituals that reflect that.”

Religious ritual is but an outward sign of an inner relationship. If inwardly we are in harmony with the Divine—if we are empowered by a spirit of compassion toward all beings and toward the Earth itself—if we are seeking to live out justice in all our relationships—then our ritual is like a beautiful flower arising out of rich soil: full of color and vibrancy and life, a true blessing to all who behold it.

But if our ritual is but a thin veneer over inner discord and disharmony—if we go through the motions, and mouth the words, but aren’t actually fostering compassion and justice in our souls and in our world—then our ritual is artificial and barren, at best an empty shell, at worst a mask of oppression.

But do we modern men and women—we children of science and technology-- even need rituals? We’ve got computers and fax machines and all kinds of hi-tech gadgetry. Can’t we get through life without ceremony and ritual and things like that?

I’m sure we could survive without ritual; at least I think so. We could survive, sure. But would it be worth the cost?

“Ritual is a way of marking and intensifying value,” Starhawk also tells us. For example, if we didn’t keep alive our rituals of winter festival—Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Solstice, and so on—would our human race remember, in time, that though the days be dark, the light returns at last? No doubt, the astronomical observation would remain. But we would forget, I think, that such a power of dark and light exists within each of us, too. Without ritual, we would forget, I think, that though the light within each of our souls be dark in a given season, that it, too, can return in its time.

Ritual is not only an outer manifestation of what’s going on inside. It’s also about what’s going on outside of us—beyond us—in the world; on the Earth; in the unfolding universe—empowering what’s going on inside of us, too.

Ritual is also a bridge. It’s a bridge between how we live our outer lives and the deeper meaning and purpose and spirituality in which we live and move and have our being. Ritual is a bridge between the prose of our daily existence and the deeper poetry of God.

Ritual also can be a bridge between an old age and a new one. It can be a grand causeway, liking the islands of the past, present, and future. Ritual can be a vehicle for helping people to cross over: To cross over into the past—to keep alive the important and life-affirming parts of tradition, which deepen us and make us more humane. Ritual helps us to re-member: to join ourselves again to that which has come before, to keep intact the precious strands linking the present to the past. That can be such a wonderful gift to this world of ours, which seems so often hell-bent on change for the sake of change. Ritual slows us down, and reminds us of those who came before us, and the debt which we who live today still owe to them.

Ritual can also be a bridge that helps us let go of the old ways—and to try out new ones—and to do things differently. We can take those timeless elements which our traditions offer us, and fashion them, and work with them, so that they become supple and new—living, breathing, circling, dancing rituals of a new age in human history—rituals not of war, but of peace; rituals not of hatred, but of love; rituals not of oppression, but of liberation for all of the Earth’s people.

And we don’t all have to do it the same way—that’s perhaps the most amazing thing of all about ritual: the amazingly diverse ways in which people have expressed themselves ritually down through the ages. Another thing that never cease to amaze me is how certain ritual motifs and activities can be identified in so many different religions at widely different points in history. This is no accident. “Faith makes us, and not we it,” Emerson reminds us, “and faith makes its own forms.”

Certain ritual activities—sharing a common meal; standing in a circle; marching in procession; praying over beads—to give just a few examples—seem to have a natural congruence with the spiritual searching of humankind. Through time and history, these ritual activities assume a particular pattern in a particular culture. We view our rituals through the lens of our own experience and culture, and for us, this pattern becomes “The Tradition”. Each individual culture has its own repertoire of rituals; but all of them, I think, are borrowed from the wellsprings of a more universal Source.

Perhaps the most important lesson we need to learn in this pluralistic, multicultural, oftentimes very dangerous world of ours is that there is no single “Right Rite”. Just because traditions are different, that doesn’t mean that one tradition is right, and the other one wrong. It just makes them different. Do we ever ask two different kinds of flowers, “Which one of you is the “right” kind of flower?” Of course not! They’re just different. Muslims and Christians, Jews and Buddhists are just different—like roses and lilies and tulips and chrysanthemums. This, perhaps, is our abiding truth, as Universalists. It might seem so obvious to us, in this church, perhaps. But it is a truth the world needs to hear now more than ever—a truth we need to spread upon the Earth, just as wide as we may. In the Lord’s garden, there are many different flowers. And we choose and pick and savor and cherish the ones which speak most beautifully to each of us.

So it is with the rituals and traditions that each of us chooses.

We can, all of us, carry out the rituals and rites we choose without shame, with complete integrity, with the full commitment of our hearts and souls.

But we are also called upon to celebrate, with open minds and open hearts, the lessons that those who do things differently have to offer us.

Whichever way we choose to proceed down this amazing spiritual path we call our own, we must surely know that the most important ritual is the one which goes on inside. But the outer rituals we choose—

by reminding us of the stories of those who have come before;

by keeping before our eyes the vision of a world made One;

by helping us to feel at home again in the universe, on the Earth, and in our own bodies;

by allowing us to play again; to sing again with the wind and water; and sway with the trees; and dance in circles again upon our Mother Earth;

by engaging as one our bodies, minds, and spirits;

by awakening our awe and gratitude for the mystery and gift of life—

in all these ways—and in so many more!—the outer rituals we choose can help to remake the landscapes of our souls.

May they also empower us to remake the landscape of human society upon this good Earth.

As in heaven, so upon the earth.
As above, so below.
As without, so within.

May this be our hope and our prayer during this blessed holiday season.

 


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