I've been an avid ritualist for as long as I can remember. When I was a Presbyterian I was aware, from the scornful remarks about ritual made by fellow believers, that being fond of ritual was in some way bad form; and I did dutifully try to convince myself that I didn't like it. I don't know if anybody bought it but me, though.
The Advent wreath, being one of the only vivid vestiges we had of the great mass of Catholic symbolism in our worship, was one of my favorite things. We lit it as a family rather than in church, and the lighting of the candles in the dimness, the readings from Scripture, and the carols all combined to make it my favorite aspect of Christmas. They produced a sense of mystery that, while doctrinally acknowledged, perhaps, was experientially lacking in my practice of the Christian faith. There was nothing like it in the Presbyterian services I attended; they were more like very competently run classes in Scripture and theology, with (for some reason) songs and tithing and occasionally sacraments.
Lent, though I didn't become familiar with it until much later, also retained some very slight remnants of ritual. The rate of jokes about "giving up giving things up" for Lent was even higher among my Protestant acquaintances than among the general populace (and, if you didn't already know, has never, ever been funny, just lame), but some people did. And when I was at my last Presbyterian church, which I attended for about a decade, the great cross at the front of the church was hung with a cloth, draped stole-wise, from the first Sunday of Lent, more or less, through Pentecost: purple until the Good Friday service, when it was changed for black, and then white throughout Easter. It wasn't much, but it was something, and I was grateful for it and took pleasure in it.
It's weird to me that some Christians feel the need to attack ritual. You'll find few things as ritualistic, symbolic, and liturgical as the Torah (which, on the most strictly Protestant showings, is God's own word-for-word instruction to Israel in how to worship Him), or the celestial visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel, or the weird and magnificent panoply of Revelation; to say nothing of the fact that incense, gold, and aromatic resin were brought by the Magi to the very stable. And the earliest documents of the faith attest that a ceremonious liturgy was the universal practice of the Church from her inception. If, as many Christians seem to want to maintain, God abhors ritual, then He's a bit schizophrenic about it.
The contention, sometimes put forward by Fundamentalist Christians, that ritual was abrogated by Christ in His abolition of the Torah and rejection of the rabbinic traditions accompanying it, is in my opinion absurd. The Torah was fulfilled by Him, not merely scrapped, and the New Testament (particularly but not exclusively in the book of Revelation) is full of references to Christian ritual and liturgy; indeed, many of the earliest Christian documents are precisely liturgical books.
At bottom, ritual is the expression in terms of matter of spiritual truth. Because human beings are imaginative creatures, we see, by instinct or training or both, a mysterious fitness in symbolizing certain things by physical means. That we should surround things we believe to be holy and precious in their own right with gold is not an attempt to improve the holy things, but an attempt to do justice to their worth; that we should accompany prayers with incense is not an attempt to display the magic of incense, but an attempt to give an aromatic and visible expression to the magic of prayer.
And when you learn the liturgical language of gestures, colors, vessels, seasons, and substances that the Catholic Church employs -- varying in style and even in specifics from parish to parish and from rite to rite, which is good, because the human imagination is varied -- you will find that most of it is pretty intuitive. Moderns are not altogether unfamiliar with ritual, as that pants are men's clothing and skirt's are women's, for no obvious reason and with a great many exceptions (kilts and, uh, more pants come to mind). But modern ritual tends to be quite arbitrary. An apron of fig leaves, a pair of bell-bottoms, or a cunning arrangement of cardboard tubing will all equally serve to hide one's nakedness, but if you pick the wrong one for the culture you're in, you will be laughed at or even taken for a crazy person. There is no reason for this except convention. By contrast, anyone can see how a golden chalice, lifted in a sudden silence amid chanted music and glinting through a veil of sweet-smelling smoke, states the mingled clarity and enigma of divine things more clearly than eloquence could do. No one, I believe, can truthfully claim to understand the enigma of pants.
C. S. Lewis, with his customary intelligence, expresses much of the problem of ritual's uneasy place in the modern Christian mind in passing in his introduction to Milton's Paradise Lost, which was of a deliberately solemn and ceremonial cast:
[T]he very fact that pompous is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of 'solemnity.' To recover it you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march, as these things appear to people who enjoy them; in an age when everyone puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awake the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in. Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea ... that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connection with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade ... all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obedient; they are obeying the hoc age which presides over every solemnity. The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender's inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper pleasure of ritual.*
A common objection to ritual practices is that, in repeating set forms instead of coming up with things spontaneously, we lose the liveliness and sincerity of worship, and come to substitute the ritual representation of devotion for devotion itself. There is no doubt that people do that. But may I ask the people who raise this objection to try an experiment? The next five times or so that you are listening to the spontaneous prayers of which you're so fond, count the number of phrases that are repeated from one prayer to the next, from one believer to the next, and so forth. If your experience is anything like mine, you will find that these spontaneous prayers are anything but -- that stock phrases are quite as much a part of extempore prayer as of set liturgies. The difference is that liturgies are beautiful and spontaneous prayers are, as a rule, not.
Besides, I think this objection rests on a fundamental misunderstanding. Consult experience. If we think something is important, aren't we apt to get ready for it, to rehearse it, even? Weddings, for example, are not celebrated planlessly on the grounds that it is somehow dull and insincere to have a wedding in which everyone knows what is going to happen next; in fact, people rather prefer to know what will happen next. Even proposals are rarely altogether spontaneous, and those that are aren't necessarily any the better for it.
It's true that every Catholic ritual is, symbolically, something universal and eternal, suited for many situations throughout life, not just something to do in ritual form and then ignore in everyday things. That, to be sure, is hypocrisy. But one of the functions of ritual -- in addition to bringing together our intellectual grasp of truth with our imaginative and emotional responses to truth -- is to give us a place to rehearse the things we need to do in the rest of life. We kneel and beat the breast literally in the penitential rite, in order that we may accustom ourselves to repentance; we bow at the name of Jesus, in order that we may acquire the habit of honoring the person of Jesus. To abstain from ritual on the grounds that it can be substituted for the real thing is like refusing to study for fear that you will stay up too late and sleep through the test: that is, the thing does happen, but to find fault with the studying won't actually help.**
Even if you're up so late it starts to look like this.
A very ancient ritual, of course, is the practice of Lent. For forty days leading up to Easter (Sundays excepted, so that actually it comes to forty-six consecutive days in the West), a deeper devotion to prayer, giving to the poor, and fasting are traditional. It's also become customary to adopt some particular discipline, usually giving something up that you like, though this isn't strictly necessary. If you haven't done anything to mark this Lent, I'd encourage you to start -- you've got more than three weeks to get the benefits out of it. If you've dropped off on what you were doing, I'd encourage you to pick it up again. And if you still think all this sounds like hokum, well, explain pants and maybe I'll listen.
*A Preface to 'Paradise Lost,' p. 17; the Latin words hoc age mean literally "this do," or "behave in this fashion."
**This seems to me to have something in common with the scholarly deduction from the letters of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, a second century Father, that, since he speaks with such emphasis about the importance of obeying the bishop, the institution of the monarchical episcopate was probably a new thing in the Church -- because everyone knows that if you speak about something, it is probably because it does not yet exist.