RITUAL AND FAITH
This piece first appeared as a Spiritual Perspectives column in The Gallup Independent on October 8, 2022. Reprinted here by permission
It has been said that here on Earth, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience. Rather, we are spiritual beings having a bodily experience." When I was a child, I had a tremendous longing to take communion in church. I watched my mother, the missionary's wife, cut ordinary white bread into cubes and place it on a silver-plated salver. Then she laid a pure white napkin over it. Suddenly the bread from the plastic wrapper had become holy. I watched people in the worship service put the bread into their mouths and chew it with great solemnity, and I felt so left out. There was something deep within me that recognized, not consciously, the value of this ritual. It was much later that I understood that a sacred rite, which employs our five senses, our bones and muscles, has the power to carry us to the heart of the Holy One more swiftly than less embodied practices.
Back to the idea that we are spiritual beings having a bodily experience, I think there are reasons we're made this way––made of earth. In the biblical story of the creation of the first human, the Holy One takes clay and sculpts Adam and then breathes into him the Breath of Life––inspiring him, inspiriting him. First the body, then the spirit. This is not to say that the body is more important than the spirit in our relationship with the Divine, but our bodies can be used to connect with the sacred. Maybe we even need our bodies for that ultimate connection.
Franciscan father Richard Rohr writes, "The human need for physical, embodied practices seems universal." In 1969, Rohr was assigned as a deacon to work at Acoma Pueblo. There he was amazed to see that many rituals practiced by the Acoma people had parallels to practices of the Catholic Church, and it was this experience that led him to believe that the need for physical ritual is universal. He saw altars on the mesas covered with prayer sticks, not unlike the candles people lit as they prayed in church. He saw that the Acoma people sprinkled corn pollen at funerals, just as priests sprinkle water at burial services. He felt that mothers teaching their children to wave to the morning sun was like Catholics blessing themselves with the sign of the cross. He saw smudging with sage as a parallel to waving incense at Catholic High Masses. He writes that all these practices have one thing in common: they are embodied expressions of the human spirit.
Rohr also notes that Protestants, who have traditionally valued the mind as a spiritual vehicle more than the body, have more difficulty embracing our need for bodily practices. I can't tell you how often my father, who was a Protestant missionary, applied the words "empty ritual" to Catholic church services. And yet, Sunday after Sunday our church services followed the same pattern every week: a piano prelude, Bible verses calling us to worship, an opening prayer, singing of hymns, reading of the text for the sermon, preaching followed by a very long prayer, then the taking up of the offering, a final hymn, the Doxology, and at last a postlude. One definition of ritual is "a repeated practice" or a "repeated spiritual practice."
We had repeated spiritual practices at home, too. Before every meal, one of my parents prayed, and we children followed by chanting a blessing in unison. After breakfast my father or mother read from the Bible and a devotional booklet; after lunch we memorized Bible passages; after supper, we heard stories from a children's Bible storybook. The scripture lessons were always followed by another prayer. Ritual. Repeated spiritual practices. And there is something comforting about the repetition, something that nurtures our souls.
There is a way that ritual calls us to attention: now we are going to do something that is different from our ordinary lives. Some people light a candle before praying, and the candlelight takes our minds away from the rush of the everyday. The soft glow can bring us into a space of silence, of contemplation. It can carry us into the God-space. When I attended the yoga school in
Sweden, a teacher lit incense before we began the evening meditation, and that helped us prepare to quiet our busy minds. For yes, we are spiritual beings, and we live in earthly bodies. Sights and sounds, smells and tastes help us join our physicality with our spirituality.