Traditions and rituals that surround prayer and worship are essential. I can’t sit for prayer in the morning until I have made a cup of tea and a small plate of fruit. It’s part of my ritual. I do it most mornings before I am actually awake! But this is the glory of ritual—when I am, literally, not yet awake, I know what to do. Put on the tea kettle, get out a cup, place a plate on the counter. If I had to think about this every morning and decide what to do and how to do it, I would never pray.
Communal faith also waits on ritual. The altar must be set. The candles lit. The crucifer standing center, the choir in serried ranks behind, the priest vested. “Blessed be God” must first be said, then Kyrie, then “The Lord be with you.” The glory of ritual is, when we are not yet awake, we know what to do in church. But of course there is also a not-so-glorious corollary. We can pray in our sleep.
Once there was a monastery with a Tabby cat who loved to congregate with the brothers. While it was fine in the refectory or in the garden, it was a distraction in the chapel. Accordingly, the abbot tied the cat to a pole outside the front door before prayers began.
After the abbot died, the brothers continued the practice. The cat was tethered to the pole before they gathered for worship. In time, the practice hardened into a ritual: no one could pray until the cat was tied to the pole. Then one day the cat died and a spiritual crisis engulfed the monastery. How could they pray? They wrote theological treatises on the importance of the cat and the pole. Some even stipulated that the cat be a Tabby.
We cannot live without ritual. We need a set pattern for eating, washing clothes, making the bed, shaving, boiling an egg—to say nothing of wedding two people, inaugurating a president or worshiping the Most High God. The set pattern not only tells us the time-tested way to do these things, it also charges the act itself with transcendent meaning and simple beauty.
But how can we keep ritual from becoming ritualism?
The only answer is awareness. Which is tricky of course, since part of ritual’s task is to help you do what needs to be done even when you are only half awake (and we humans cannot always be fully present to the Mysteries). But if it is life-giving, the ritual will, like a small raft, carry you from one shore to another, greater shore. Your prayers will take you somewhere new; your worship will gradually alter your mind and heart. There will be movement, growth, unexpected destinations.
Absent these signs, you and I are likely just tethering the cat to its pole.