Last year I read an article from Psychology Today which describes some of the zany rituals that Rafael Nadal, considered one of the best tennis players of all time, “ritually” carries out at every game. For example, he always has two drinks with him, a sports drink and a bottle of water. The two are placed at his feet by the sideline bench. One in front of his chair to the left and the other placed behind it on a diagonal towards the side of the tennis court he’s playing on. As he describes it, is a way of “placing myself in a game, ordering my surroundings to match the order I see in my head.”
As you know, there are many other examples of peculiar rituals that athletes carry out – wearing a particular hat, performing a little dance, a prayer, etc. As the article continued to point out, you will find rituals wherever or whenever performance happens. You can see rituals in the military, in medicine, in education, and in the performing arts, indicating that rituals are part of our day-to-day functioning. And then the article goes on to describe scientific evidence which basically proves that rituals help us to improve our focus, our concentration, and our attention.
Rituals also help us to cope better in the face of adversity, anxiety, or loss. When things get tough, a ritual can help you get through it. I recall many years ago I helped a young family who were convinced that the negative energy in their house was the cause of their recent health and financial crises. A simple “cleansing” ritual in their home was all that was needed to assist them in turning things around in a positive way.
We also engage in rituals when a bad thing has occurred. The most obvious example of this are the rituals following a death. Sitting out here in the West, where the number of “Nones” (meaning no religion) and the SBNRs (Spiritual But Not Religious) outnumber those who are “religious,” there is still a need to have some ritual after the death of a loved one. It could be a Celebration of Life, a short ritual around scattering of ashes, a gathering where friends and family share food and stories. Jews sit Shiva when someone has died and people regularly pray after national tragedies, or set up roadside shrines at the site of a terrible accident. We do these things as a way to regain a sense of control and diminish negative feelings after our worlds have been shaken up. And so it bothers me greatly when I see “No service by request” in obits. On the death of his mother, I recall a fellow telling me that, while planning her memorial, they didn’t have a Celebration of Life service for his dad, and he wasn’t going “to go through that kind of hell again.”
We also do rituals at certain times of the year. This month of February, how many of you will be receiving or giving a Valentine card? In March, many of us will wear green on St Patrick’s Day. At Easter, children will enjoy Easter egg hunts, and perhaps dance around the May Pole on Beltane. Summertime brings reunions and trips to the cottage. At Thanksgiving, family gathers for turkey and pumpkin pie, and we offer gratitude for the blessings in our life. Do you dress up in a costume on Halloween and give out treats to children at the door? On Remembrance Day we wear poppies and gather at cenotaphs, and then don’t get me started on the rituals associated with Christmas and Hanukkah.
Rituals not only help us to cope better, improve our concentration, and celebrate certain times of the year, they also mark significant times of our lives, in order to help us understand them. They give meaning and value to our lives.
I don’t know about you, but as a clergy member who performs many marriages, I am tired and frankly a little jaded at the end of a busy year of weddings. I need to remember that these couples are marking, with intention and attention, the beginning of a life together that will be filled with other markers of great significance… the birth of a child, birthdays, anniversaries, and death.
Rituals will also reflect who you are, where you have been and who you are becoming. It can tell your history within your community of family and friends who gather to celebrate, mark and grieve with you. Rituals have the power to transform those who participate in them, as well as reaffirm our connection to all of what the journey of Life holds out for us. Never underestimate the power of a ritual to empower, clarify, give hope and propel one in a new direction. As ministers we have been given the great honour and privilege of facilitating that process and giving voice to all that gives meaning and value to our lives.