Ritual as the Choreography of Faith

I am deeply embedded in the Triduum at present and I am really loving being wrapped in our Catholic Easter rituals. I found the following reflection from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks really very interesting:

When people talk about religion, they tend to speak about beliefs. Which, for Jews, is very odd. Yes, belief is important, but for us, religion is fundamentally about rituals, the things we do together as an expression of collective memory and shared ideals. Ritual is the poetry of deed, the choreography of faith, and nowhere is this clearer than on Pesach.

On it, we tell the story of the framing event of Jewish history, the exodus from Egypt and the long walk from slavery to freedom. We tell it around the dinner table, usually in extended families, and we don’t just tell it: we taste it as well, eating matzah, unleavened bread, and maror, bitter herbs, to remind us of what it felt like to be oppressed, and we drink wine and sing songs to celebrate the fact that we’re here to tell the tale.

What gives Pesach its enduring power is that it’s a way of handing on our memory and identity across the generations. It begins with a series of questions asked by the youngest child, and I can still remember when I asked them all those years ago when I was four or five in the company of my grandparents.

It’s a bit of a shock to realise that now I’m the grandparent and the young people doing the asking are my grandchildren. But what continuity that represents, seeing in the course of my life five generations telling the same story, asking the same questions, singing the same songs, learning what freedom means and what losing it feels and tastes like.

That’s the power of ritual, simple deeds that we do as children because it’s fun, and as adults, because we know that the battle for freedom and human dignity is never over and we must be prepared to fight for them in every age.

Rituals are how civilizations preserve their memory, keeping faith with those who came before us and handing on their legacy to the future. The most important thing my parents gave me and the thing I most tried to give our children was ideals to live by. Everything else was just gift wrapping, briefly enjoyed then forgotten.

Beliefs inspire our children and eventually change the world when they’re translated into the songs we sing, the stories we tell and the rituals we perform. The proof is Pesach, the story that has given Jews hope for more than three thousand years, and continues to inspire us and the world today.

Together with Elaine, I wish you all a Chag Kasher v'Sameach!

This got me thinking about the role of ritual in faith. I have always thought that the ritual of our faith is important. It is a very human response when we love something or want to emphasise an action's importance that we ritualise it. Liturgy is prayer in action as well as word. This is especially important in my experience when we are suffering from depression. It is easy to feel that we are trying really hard but it's just not working. We can end up thinking we are somehow not worthy; that we should be able to pray but the fact that we are finding it difficult, or that we feel God is not listening means we are not worthy of God's love somehow. Of course, this can't be true—God loves us in the most intimate way imaginable as He keeps us in existence by His will focused on us. It is He who created us and He redeemed us, He knew us even before He formed us in our mother's wombs (c.f. Jer 1:5). But we know that clinical depression can make us think this way.

When we do, when we feel lost, we can know that the ritual will see us through. Because we do not succeed by our own merits or powers or efforts, but by the grace of God. So we can let go and let God, we can relax into the ritual of the Mass and say to God that we are struggling. When we don't know what to say, we can just do.


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