The Sustaining Power of Ritual

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

Never travel with anyone who expects you to be interesting all the time. On a long trip there are bound to be some boring stretches.

That’s an axiom offered by Daniel Berrigan in his Commandments for the Long Haul and it contains a wisdom that is often absent today in our marriages, our family lives, our friendships, our churches, and our spiritual lives.

Today we often crucify others and ourselves with the impossible notion that inside of our relationships, our families, our churches, and prayer lives we are meant to be alert, attentive, enthusiastic, and emotionally present all the time. We are never given permission to be distracted, bored, and anxious to move on to something else because we are weighed down with the pressures and tiredness of our own lives. We lay guilt on each other and on ourselves with these kinds of judgments: Sometimes you’re too distracted and tired to really hear me! You’re not really present to this meal! You’re bored at church! You’re anxious to get this over with! You don’t love me like you did at first! You’re heart isn’t in this as it used to be!

While there is a healthy challenge in these judgments, they also betray a naiveté and lack of understanding of what actually sustains us in our daily lives. We’ve gone ritually tone-deaf.

What do I mean by that? Here’s an example:

A recent study on marriage points out that couples who make it a habit to give each other a ritual embrace or kiss before leaving the house in the morning and another ritual embrace or kiss before retiring at night fare better than those who let this gesture be determined by simple spontaneity or mood. The study makes the point that even if the ritual kiss is done in a distracted, hurried, perfunctory, or duty-bound way it still serves a very important function, namely, it speaks of fidelity and commitment beyond the ups and downs of our emotions, distractions, and tiredness on a given day. It is a ritual, an act that is done regularly to precisely say what our hearts and heads cannot always say, namely, that the deepest part of us remains committed even during those times when we are too tired, too distracted, too angry, too bored, too anxious, too self-preoccupied, or too emotionally or intellectually unfaithful to be as attentive and present as we should be. It says that we still love the other and remain committed despite the inevitable changes and pressures that the seasons bring.

This is often not understood today. An over-idealization of love, family, church, and prayer often crucifies the reality. Popular culture would have us believe that love should be romantic, exciting, and interesting all the time, and that lack of felt emotion is a signal that something is wrong. Liturgists and prayer leaders would have us believe that every church service needs to be full of enthusiasm and emotion and that there is something wrong with us when we find ourselves flat, bored, looking at our wristwatches, and resisting emotional engagement during church or prayer. Everywhere we are warned about the dangers of doing something simply because it is duty, that there is something wrong when the movements of love, prayer, or service become routine. Why do something if your heart isn’t in it?

Again, there is something legitimate in these warnings: Duty and commitment without heart will not ultimately sustain themselves. However, with that being admitted, it is important to recognize and name the fact that any relationship in love, family, church, or prayer can only sustain itself over a long period through ritual and routine. Ritual sustains the heart, not vice versa.

It’s fidelity to the routine of everyday life, not a honeymoon, that ultimately sustains a marriage. It’s fidelity to simply being at the weekday meal, simple fare eaten quickly and distractedly, not the huge celebration or banquet, that sustains family life. A family that demands that every meal together be an event where everyone affectively engages and insists that the pressures of time and personal agenda should be of no concern soon enough notices that more and more family members are finding excuses not to be there. And for good reason: Nobody has energy for a banquet every day. Indeed, nobody, except God, is immune to the simple tiredness, distraction, affective promiscuity, and self-preoccupation that can make it difficult for the heart to be alert, attentive, and emotionally present at any given time. Love, as the language of Marriage Encounter puts it, is shown in decision.

The same holds true for prayer. Anyone who prays only when she can affectively bring along her heart and soul will not sustain prayer for long. But the habit of prayer, the ritual, simple fidelity to the act, showing up to do it irrespective of feelings and mood, can sustain prayer for a lifetime and reign in the roaming of the head and heart.

Repetition, says Soren Kierkegaard, is our daily bread.

Ron Rolheiser

Long Branch, New Jersey

July 11, 2010