Collect


Offertory for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity

Moses consecrated an altar unto the Lord, offering burnt offerings upon it, and sacrificing peace offerings; and he made an evening sacrifice for a sweet smelling savor unto the Lord God, in the sight of the children of Israel.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Ceremonials

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.

10 comments:

  1. "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..."

    And are those things holy in their own right? Also, must we represent, ultimately, the non-physical?

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    1. In general, no, rituals aren't holy in their own right. (The sacraments proper, and a few sacramentals such as exorcism, are in a slightly different position: Catholic theology believes that these things have an *objective* relationship to the things they signify, the Eucharist pre-eminently as being the Body and Blood of Christ. This is not true of rituals in general, Christian or otherwise.) We treat them as holy, partly as another gesture of respect to the thing they are associated with, partly for their emotional value. For example, Catholics (especially in the Eastern Churches) and Orthodox venerate icons, i.e. sacred depictions of Christ, the Mother of God, the angels, and the saints, not because there is anything holy about wood or stone or paint or glass, but because the person depicted in the icon is precious to us and holy. To damage an icon is wrong, not because it injures the subject of the icon, but because it displays hostility or indifference where love is due; it's like ripping up a picture of a parent or a spouse -- they themselves are not damaged, but doing so is a concrete expression of a distorted relationship to that person. And what is true in this way of icons is true of ritual objects and actions in general: they aren't magical, but they are meaningful, and disregarding or abusing their meaning is therefore unjust and uncharitable. (This isn't to say that people don't overdo it with rituals, icons, etc. People can get excessive and scrupulous about religion like anything else.)

      As to representing the non-physical, I think it's inevitable. We are embodied creatures, and understand everything in bodily terms either literally or by analogy. Indeed, the transcendence and incomprehensibility of God, taken seriously, mean that we must reconcile ourselves to understanding through analogy and symbolism if we are to understand at all. (C. S. Lewis has an excellent treatment of this oddity in "Miracles.")

      Above all, however, I believe that ritual is justified by the fact of the Incarnation. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory," precisely in the fact of His body, "the gift through which all gifts are given"; the Incarnation was "not the conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but the taking of the Manhood into God." That which is natural to mankind is deified by the Incarnation. And ritual is natural to man; every culture and every age has a multitude of them, simple or elaborate, ostentatious or subtle, lovely, terrible, and homey. In taking on flesh and submitting to every rite of the Torah, I believe Christ put the divine stamp of approval on Jewish ritual in particular (from which nearly all Catholic ritual is derived) and on the fact of ritualism in general.

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  2. Although I doubt you meant to, it seems as though you’ve painted the following picture: Sacraments are derivatively holy in virtue of a relationship they have to their holy prototypes; other rituals and objects are merely treated as holy by subjects like you and me, because they bring thoughts associated with holy things to mind. This is the sort of view I saw a glimmer of in the segment of your original post that I quoted above.

    By contrast to this view as I’ve reproduced it, I understand holy things and rituals to be holy just because they’re set apart for the purposes of God, and, according to his greater humility, God has made them loci of his Divine Activity. We can draw a distinction between acts of magic, which seek to compel cosmic and terrestrial powers for purely immanent ends, with the willingness of a transcendent and transcendently-humble God to enter into created things, even to the point of permitting his very Activity in those things to be abused and profaned.

    How would the picture of icons (hah!) be different on my view? As per John Damascene, the honor we give to icons passes to the prototype rather than the wood and paint. However, the wood and paint are still holy in virtue of their being set aside for a Divine purpose, and being employed in forming the loci of Divine Activity.

    I'm curious to hear your thoughts on these things.

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    1. I'm not sure how much difference there is between what you've said and the view I (meant to) set forth. I ought to have taken a little more care in how I spoke of the sacraments; they objectively are what they represent -- a sort of synecdoche of metaphysics, if you will. As for sacramentals, icons, and so forth, I want to put it a little more strongly than just to say that they are "holy by association," as I seemed to in my last comment. I would agree with you that they are holy because they are set apart for the purposes of God, and that God graces His Church by operating in them -- St Teresa's use of holy water to repel devils is a good example -- though their power is not objective the way the sacraments are objective, and sacramentals may validly be changed by the Church's authority in a way the sacraments couldn't. (E.g., the Church could decree that Baptism must only take place with a cockle-shell to pour the water with, and the shell would then be set apart for holy use and thus a holy vessel; but she could not decree that Baptism could take place by milk instead of water.)

      In brief, though I don't know that I'd say it quite as strongly as you would (I'd perhaps allow for a greater weight to the merely psychological value of sacramentals), the view you've expressed here is substantially similar to the one I was trying to say above, though I said it very clumsily. (Thank you for helping me clarify.)

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  3. I think you are getting at something more familiar to me. But I'm curious as to the meaning of "objective". Doesn't objective mean, for us, that (with the exception of the Divine Persons) something is the case whether or not anyone else exists or knows of it? So ritual would have both subjective value for us, and objective value.

    I think you are getting at something else, more like permanence, that God has made certain loci permanent in a way that others are not. Perhaps because they offer participation in Divinity in a way that the others do not; maybe, in turn, because of how Divine-human happenings actually played out in history.

    Or also, for you, because in Roman Catholic theology, it is sometimes held that seven sacraments are especially permanent because they were explicitly instituted and taught by Jesus while he was on earth.

    As for milk baptism, I would be curious if it would be permissible in extremis. In America, provided the milk was sufficiently 'local.'

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    1. Permanence isn't actually what I had in mind, though that's also true. I did precisely mean that kind of objective reality which is independent of the human mind (though not independent of the Divine Mind). All rituals, the seven sacraments included, do also have a subjective value, but that of the sacraments proper is primarily objective.

      I'm pretty sure that Baptism with any substance other than water (preferably fresh water, though I understand that seawater is permitted if no fresh water is available -- I could be mistaken) is not impermissible, but merely impossible: a material defect that prevents the sacrament from being bestowed. It'd be similar to trying to consecrate pizza and beer as Eucharistic elements. God of course is perfectly capable of conveying the *grace* of the sacrament independently of it, but that is, so to speak, His business. That said, I haven't double-checked the canons pertaining to baptism.

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  4. So do you mean that the sacraments and other rituals both have subjective value and objective value; yet the sacraments have *primarily* objective value, whereas other rituals have *primarily* subjective value?

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    1. I could agree to that. I'm more sure of my views on the sacraments proper, whose nature and effects have been the subject of more discussion throughout Christian history.

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  5. I can't say I would endorse that distinction, but it is an interesting one.

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  6. I can explain pants, anyway. They're so practical it's easy to see why they caught on as men's clothes -- but (as a woman who has gone camping in pants, *ahem* using the restroom, when you haven't GOT a restroom, in pants is actually quite a challenge) not as women's clothes.

    ANYWAY. Not that you care about that really! I love ritual, personally. It seems a way to separate from ordinary space and time and enter sacred space and time ... to help yourself get into that state of mind where you can actually pray. And because it is always the same, it helps you unify yourself with the past, both the recent past (here are the same prayers I was saying as a child!) and the ancient past (here are the prayers the early Christians prayed in the catacombs). And it all serves as a reminder that one must subject oneself to the ritual -- that we do not change it, we change ourselves to fit it, because it isn't about us. So much, in that tight little package.

    Meanwhile my husband is a better Catholic than me, and he isn't into smells and bells at all. He feels that a fancy church or music just distract, and that the only thing that matters is interior disposition. To that, all I can say is, people are different. Which is why the Church has stuff for everybody. I'm not going to sneer at whatever bit is helping somebody else.

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