Moral Theology: The Power of Ritual

Moral Theology: The Power of Ritual

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By Rev. Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Theologian, teacher, award-winning author, and President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX

I don’t always find it easy to pray. Often I’m over-tired, distracted, caught-up in tasks, pressured by work, short on time, lacking the appetite for prayer, or more strongly drawn to do something else. But I do pray daily; despite the fact that I often don’t want to and despite the fact that many times prayer can be boring and uninteresting. I pray daily because I’m committed to a number of rituals for prayer, the office of the Church, lauds and vespers, the Eucharist, and daily meditation.

And these rituals serve me well. They hold me, keep me steady, and keep me praying regularly even when, many times, I don’t feel like praying. That’s the power of ritual. If I only prayed when I felt like it, I wouldn’t pray very regularly.

Ritual practice keeps us doing what we should be doing (praying, working, being at table with our families, being polite) even when our feelings aren’t always onside. We need to do certain things not because we always feel like doing them, but because it’s right to do them.

And this is true for many areas of our lives, not just for prayer. Take, for example, the social rituals of propriety and good manners that we lean on each day. Our heart isn’t always in the greetings or the expressions of love, appreciation, and gratitude that we give to each other each day. We greet each other, we say goodbye to each other, we express love for each other, and we express gratitude to each other through a number of social formulae, ritual words: Good morning! Good to see you! Have a great day! Have a great evening! Sleep well! Nice meeting you! Nice to work with you! I love you! Thank you!

We say these things to each other daily, even though we have to admit that there are times, many times, when these expressions appear to be purely formal and seem not at all honest to how we are feeling at that time. Yet we say them and they are true in that they express what lies in our hearts at a deeper level than our more momentary and ephemeral feelings of distraction, irritation, disappointment, or anger.

Moreover these words hold us in civility, in good manners, in graciousness, in neighborliness, in respect, and in love despite the fluctuations in our energy, mood, and feelings. Our energy, mood, and feelings, at any given moment, are not a true indication of what’s in our hearts, as all of us know and frequently need to apologize for. Who of us has not at some time been upset and bitter towards someone who we love deeply? The deep truth is that we love that person, but that’s not what we’re feeling at the moment.

If we only expressed affection, love, and gratitude at those times when our feelings were completely onside, we wouldn’t express these very often. Thank God for the ordinary, social rituals which hold us in love, affection, graciousness, civility, and good manners at those times when our feelings are out of sorts with our truer selves. These rituals, like a sturdy container, hold us safe until the good feelings return.

Today, in too many areas of life, we no longer understand ritual. That leaves us trying to live our lives by our feelings; not that feelings are bad, but rather that they come upon us as wild, unbidden guests. Iris Murdoch asserts that our world can change in fifteen seconds because we can fall in love in fifteen seconds.

But we can also fall out of love in fifteen seconds! Feelings work that way! And so we cannot sustain love, marriage, family, friendship, collegial relationships, and neighborliness by feelings. We need help. Rituals can help sustain our relationships beyond feelings.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer used to give this instruction to a couple when he was officiating at their wedding. He would tell them: Today you are in love and you believe that your love can sustain your marriage. But it can’t. However your marriage can sustain your love. Marriage is a not just a sacrament, it’s also a ritual container.

Ritual not only can help sustain a marriage, it can also help sustain our prayer lives, our civility, our manners, our graciousness, our humor, our gratitude, and our balance in life.

Be wary of anyone who in the name of psychology, love, or spirituality tells you that ritual is empty and you must rely on your energy, mood, and feelings as your guiding compass. They won’t carry you far.

Daniel Berrigan once wrote: Don’t travel with anyone who expects you to be interesting all the time. On a long journey there are bound to be some boring stretches. John of the Cross echoes this when talking about prayer. He tells us that, during our generative years, one of the biggest problems we will face daily in our prayer is simple boredom.

And so we can be sure our feelings won’t sustain us, but ritual practices can.