Jan 13

The Role of Ritual

In the discussion about why there are so many new religious and mystical movements, whether serious or not, the thing that really sparked my curiosity was “Why?”

Why are people bailing on their faiths to take up these new religions? Disregarding atheists (for obvious reasons), what made these people switch camps? Why are they creating new faiths when there are so many thousands of old ones to choose from? What makes these new faiths different?

And then it hits me. Most of the people jumping ship on what modern society might call “traditional” religion are picking up religions with tradition.

When one of the many Christian denominations loses a member to a “heathen” religion (as Southern Baptists would call them), many of them seek shelter in the rigid worship of the Catholics, whose services have a beauty of ritual unparalleled in Christendom. Beond that, the numbers would suggest it’s to Islam, a rich and peaceful faith full of traditions, customs, and law. The Five Pillars hold up the faith and the faithful as they follow Mohammed’s teachings, gifted from Allah. They pray often, in a ritualistic pattern, and have customs for nearly every occasion. Judaism is similar in those regards (the ritual and custom), and is responsible for a fair number of Christians converting to, at the very least, a Messianic version of the faith.

When one leaves the Abrahamic faiths altogether, there is a tendency towards the mystical and ritual. While many Abrahamic apostates take refuge in Buddhism, the pagan faiths end up the home of many lost travelers. I found it interesting.

Many people would say “They simply found what they were looking for.” Well, I am happy they did–but what was it they were seeking?

I believe they were looking for involvement. Not in a group, per se, though that is found easily. Rather, an involvement with Deity.

My brother has recently begun questioning his faith. He asked why everyone seemed to believe so much more in their religion than Christians do, why everyone else had so much more faith in their choices. Did that mean they’re right? Did that mean he chose the wrong path?

My answer to him is this: they believe more in their faith because they use it more, in a mechanical sense. They are more devout because they let their religion be a bigger part of their lives than Christians do.

Sure, Christians can talk about the “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” until Gabriel’s trumpet blast, but it won’t make God any closer to most of them. And even if it did, Christianity’s gone too far in that direction.

“Faith, not ritual,” we cry. “Personal relationship instead of religion.” That’s all well and good, but it’s a lot more work and takes a lot more faith than you realize.

See, the ultimate purpose of ritual is to build faith. It frees the mind from its tendency to overthink everything, and takes up all the space it normally uses for doubt. You’re too busy focusing on the rituals and your intent to commune with your Deity to process doubt. And, where doubt lacks, faith thrives.

In addition to the intended results of the rituals, and their faith-building properties, they have two bonus outcomes. Firstly, they provide a sort of “Achievement Unlocked!” measurement system, to reinforce both personal piety and the idea of religion as a community of like-mined believers. Secondly, all the faith ritual builds (which is amplified exponentially with the number of other believers taking part in said ritual) has a habit of moving the believer closer to their Deity. Subconsciously, perhaps (at first), but it opens the believer’s heart, makes them more receptive to both the earthly message (through teaching and fellowship) and the spiritual message (through scripture and warm fuzzies) of the faith in question.

Perhaps this is why my brother sees so many other faiths as more devout and sincere in their beliefs than our own. The faith my brother and I share has essentially tossed “ritual” aside as a dirty word, focusing on a “whatever works for you” mentality. Personal relationship with Christ IS essential to Christianity, but our Churches are no longer helping us along the way. They’ve become country clubs people attend on Sundays and holidays, and forget about the rest of the week. We’re given no incentive or guidance on making our faith what it should be: an important part of our daily lives. Maybe a shot of ritual is just what we need to stem this tide of apathy.

Being bound to ritual, feeling oppressed by it, is a type of spiritual slavery. Engaging in meaningful ritual out of the desire of your heart is a humbling act of sacrifice–sacrifice of time and energy to a Deity you claim to love and serve.

If your faith has no rituals, I urge you to take up rituals that you feel suit your personal spiritual path. I’m a Protestant, but I’ve found that things like prayer ropes and rosaries are great meditational aids in seeking my God’s desires for my life. I’ve adapted the prayers to suit my denomination, but they serve me well. I’m also of the belief that every faithful individual should have a sacred space, even if it’s just a shelf or a tiny box. Such a makeshift altar moves the religious experience from a building down the street to a prominent spot in your private life. Maybe a shaded glade, or a workshop, or your favorite spot on your favorite bookshelf, could be consecrated to the service of reminding you that your Deity is closer than you might remember most days.

Whatever you seek, seek it with wisdom. Whatever you do, do it with righteousness. Whatever you adopt, make it your own, make it fit your needs, and make sure it is suitable to your particular faith; even members of the same religion view it differently.

Ritual is just one of the many tools with which we build up the temple that is our heart. A tool can make a job easier, but it is nothing without a body and heart to work it.

Part 1 | Part 2


Masterfully done! Well spoken and contemplative, I once again concede to being surpassed by your pen. Hat's off to you old friend, and here's to opening it is received by open minds in need of some introspection.