Rituals That Make us Whole

I caught the tail end of Thought For the Day on Wednesday morning (12th September 2007). It was given by the Chief Rabbi, Jonathon Sachs whose voice I find very seductive. And he usually has important things to say. He was speaking about the Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah which began that evening 12th September and continues for 10 days culminating in Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. And he was speaking in praise of rituals that give our lives meaning. It was one particular sentence that struck me: he said ‘ritual structures time the way music structures sound. It turns life into a work of art, giving it shape, proportion, grace and beauty.’ - shape, proportion, grace and beauty.
He also claimed that in the face of so much anti religious sentiment - he was thinking of Richard Dawkins book the ‘God Delusion’ and a more recent book by Christopher Hitchins ‘God is Not Great’, religion is not simply about beliefs – it is, he says, about rituals where we take our beliefs and make them real in the way we behave.
As Unitarians, it’s interesting to consider the rituals that have meaning for us. I receive the Cork and Dublin Unitarian magazine Oscailt each month. In the August edition, one member of the Cork congregation has written that he became a Unitarian because he couldn’t abide ritual. That could be true for many people who become Unitarians. So much of our history has been about ridding ourselves of patterns of religious behaviour with which we cannot sit comfortably.
Unitarians have dispensed with much of orthodox ritual: the eucharist in its traditional form, the Apostles Creed, Orders of Worship. Even the pattern of our simple service – hymns, readings, prayers, sermon - is too ritualistic for some. And here at York, in common with other churches, we have alternative services to break the ritual of that pattern. Some of us like this breaking of ritual more than others.
So, what place does ritual play in our lives? Is Jonathon Sachs right when he claims that although religion isn’t the only way of thinking about ultimate questions – philosophy and science do that too – they don’t create rituals and he claims that when you lose ritual you lose much else besides. In the freedom of this chapel, what are the rituals that give life shape, proportion, grace and beauty? In the daily act of living your life what are the rituals that give your life meaning? In this month’s newsletter, I referred briefly to the ritual of saying grace before eating. Years of habit – the routineness of that custom built into family and school life, have made of it a ritual that many of us are glad to dispense with. Just occasionally the impulse to give thanks rises up within us…
Kent Nerburn, an artist living in America, considers the act of eating as a holy act and has this account of his family experience. He writes: ‘Her day was long. She is tired. But she has chosen to prepare a meal. If not for my wife, Louise, we would each grab such food as we could find and go our separate ways. But she will not have it this way.
“it’s important for us to eat together.” She says simply, and places the food before us. Though she would not put it in those words, it is an act she reveres, a ceremony of the ordinary. We say no prayer, though perhaps we should. But in a quiet way, the table itself is prayer enough. It draws us into a circle, the most mythic and powerful of all human shapes. We pass the food from hand to hand, the most sacramental of all common human acts. Though it remains unspoken, even unrealised, our shared meal creates a bond among us and, for a moment, makes us one.
There is no mystery in why Jesus chose a meal to reveal his death to those he loved, why he chose a meal to commemorate his truth…..It is only natural to want to hallow so elemental an event.
The Dakotah Sioux would often take the choicest piece of meat and cast it into the fire before beginning to eat. The Tibetans place the first food of a meal outside the door as an offering to the hungry spirits. We have wandered so far from this sense of the meal as holy gift. Our food comes too easily. We care less about sustenance, more about choice.
We judge the meal, we do not honour it. Only the one who lifts the hand in preparation senses even dimly the sacred significance residing in the act.’
When we consider rituals we might ponder on these words:
‘A meal is an act of holy service, made no less significant because it is so common.’
(Small Graces – The Quiet Gifts of Everyday Life by Kent Nerburn)
Rev.Margaret Kirk
York Unitarian Church