Wednesday, April 28, 2010

On Ritual

A friend, a former Catholic, told me this morning that on the rare occasion that she does go to church, she almost feels like laughing because the whole liturgical pageant appears so ridiculous in its pomposity. She said that she would like to ask the priest if he could possibly not be aware of how ludicrous he looks in all his vestments and surrounded by all the trappings of the ritual of the Mass. I believe that there are many who would agree with her.

Of course I was at first deeply offended by her ridicule of something that is a hugely important part of my life. But once I got my ego out of the way, I recognized that I had never really asked myself why I found the ritual of the Mass so moving, especially when it is conducted with great reverence and skill by the celebrant. The morning Mass of last Christmas and the most recent Easter vigil in my former parish were liturgies that affected me most profoundly. Yet I had never thought of being a “liturgy queen” as anything more than having a great love of theatre mixed with nostalgia for a long-lost aspect of my childhood.

When I first returned to the Catholic Church after a long absence, one of the chief reasons for doing so was to become connected with something much larger than myself, something more significant, more meaningful, more serene than my own emotional turmoil, my own misguided and failed aspirations. I now believe that it is, for me and for millions of Catholics, the ritual of the Mass that helps to make that connection. That ritual, in all its component elements—the entrance procession, accompanied by the opening hymn, with the crucifer, the acolytes, followed by the priest in his vestments and moving slowly up the centre aisle of the church, and ending in the genuflection before the altar; the consecration of the bread and wine and the elevation of the host and the chalice before the assembled congregation; the final blessing by the celebrant—transports me to a place of peace and joy that the HD broadcast of a gorgeous opera from the Met does not, that a thrilling concert of baroque music does not, that a brilliantly written and acted play or film does not.

The transcendent effect of the ritual can easily be diminished or even ruined by any number of factors. The worst of these is, of course, the lack of true reverence on the part of the celebrant, a deficiency that can be manifested in many ways, such as a slovenly appearance, inadequate attention to the reading and proper articulation of prayers (making mistakes, mumbling, losing one’s place), poor singing (this of course may not be the fault of the celebrant), and an unsatisfying homily. This last offence may be the result of poor preparation, lack of consideration for the listener in the determination of the content, unenthusiastic delivery (the worst case of which is reading the homily from a prepared text). The celebrant can also be overly reverent, evincing a kind of “faux” piety that is nearly as offensive and distracting as not enough reverence. I have seen this phenomenon in my mother’s church, with a young priest whose ritual behaviour would be laughable if his homilies were not so reflective of a patronizing and condescending attitude to parishioners who are, for the most part, twice his age. Poor lectors, noisy children, cell phones, mediocre choirs, and latecomers are just a few of the many other factors that can mar the transcendent effects of ritual.

Of course it is not just to Catholics that ritual is important; ritual has been a critical factor in people’s lives for thousands of years. Joseph Campbell speaks of the “shaman’s song,” which is a “deep psychological summons” and a “visionary image” through which “the shamans center themselves.” He tells of Father Alberto de Agostini, “who was a priest and a scientist” and who lived among the Ona and Yagan people of Tierra del Fuego in the early 1900s. The priest-scientist speaks of “waking up in the night and hearing the local shaman playing his drum and chanting his song alone, all night long—holding himself to the power.

Now, that idea of holding yourself to the power by way of your dream myth is indicative of the way in which myth works generally. If it is a living mythology, one that is actually organically relevant to the life of the people of the time, repeating the myth and enacting the rituals center you. Ritual is simply myth enacted; by participating in a rite, you are participating directly in a myth.

The problem with Catholicism for many people—and for Campbell—is that it has ceased to be a “living mythology.” The insistence of the Church hierarchy on cleaving to medieval scholastic and neo-scholastic theology and to a literal-historical interpretation of Scripture makes the liturgy of the Mass, and all its ritual elements, appear irrelevant and therefore ridiculous. Yet as I have noted before, Campbell suggests that “it’s a good thing to hang on to the myth that was put into you when you were a child, because it is there whether you want it there or not.” But in order to breathe life into it, you have to “translate that myth into its eloquence, not just into the literacy. You have to learn to hear its song.”

And my little sermon to the churches of the world is this: you have got the symbols right there in the altar, and you have the lessons as well. Unfortunately, when you have a dogma telling you what kind of effect the symbol is supposed to have on you, you’re in trouble. It doesn’t affect me that way, so am I a sinner?

The real, important function of the church is to present the symbol, to perform the rite, to let you behold this divine message in such a way that you are capable of experiencing it. What the relationship of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost to each other might be, in technical terms, is not half as important as you, the celebrant, feeling the Virgin Birth within you, the birth of the mystic, mythic being that is your own spiritual life.

Religious ritual also appears ridiculous—to many believers and non-believers alike—when the trappings of ritual are used, especially by senior members of the hierarchy, simply to impress upon others the importance of one’s ecclesiastical position and authority. In light of recent revelations about the Catholic Church and the complicity of members of the hierarchy in the most heinous of crimes, such misuse of ritual goes beyond the ludicrous to the utterly shameful.

My friend’s comments have caused me to examine and articulate a vital aspect of my love for Catholicism and my desire to continue to participate regularly in the liturgy of the Mass despite my recent decision to terminate my active involvement in the Roman Catholic Church. I am thus grateful to her for her honesty.


  1. This is excellent. I feel the way you do as expressed here. I am fairly active in my parish but sometimes I feel a distance from the Church in Rome. Some of the homophobic garbage that I never knew existed is troubling to me. But I have a love for the Liturgy and the Eucharist. Peace and blessings to you. Keep the faith.

    Mark from PA