I had lunch with a friend this afternoon, and after the usual pleasantries, after the how-are-yous and relating significant events since we last met, our conversation turned to ideas and things we like to think about when we have the time and space: philosophy, language, culture.
I found myself, this morning, before I had lunch, thinking about rituals. As someone who strives to be creative, I have rituals that I perform to set myself in such a creative mindset. My rituals have to do with making coffee, opening up my draft, then walking around a bit–moving–so my mind engages on whatever my problem was yesterday when I stopped. And, I always stop at a problem.
I have the same ritual as I drive to work: I leave the radio off until I get to the highway, winding the few side streets, frozen at a stoplight. Since I consider myself part of the Christian tradition I recite the Lord’s prayer, silently, at the stoplight. Before that I showered and ate breakfast, reading while my girls watched television or played, another ritual. And even at lunch we entered into an old ritual, asking about each other’s lives in the span since we’d last talked, preparing the conversation for wherever it would go.
Later, at lunch, we talked about religion and ritual. People in our circle talk about how religion is relationship, and I know this has been helpful for many people. Religion, of course, has been a terribly destructive force at times, and continues to be in some people’s lives today. But, religion, at its best, is an embrace of rituals: corporate rituals that center and focus the participants, that remind us of our broken humanity and our need for something beyond ourselves. We all need this, whether we’re atheist or fundamentalist: we need rituals to prepare ourselves for connection. The individualism and assumed free-form of relationships does not focus us in the same way. It does not connect us so tightly with the suffering, wandering, hopeful people around us, and it negates the rituals inherent in any relationship. This is why thousands of conversations across our culture had the same arc as mine today. We performed the ritual of relating events as a springboard for connection.
The ritual was connection, and it provided for more.
It’s crucial that we note these rituals. As someone who longs to speak and write meaning into the world, I enter into ritual in order to enhance my creativity, not to stifle it. I make coffee and pay attention to its smell and earthiness to awake my senses; I move, oddly enough, to awake my mind and let it wander. This is why walking or showering or pulling weeds have always been a creator’s friend: we need mindless movement to see what’s really in our minds. These are rituals that, rightly viewed, connect us with what is around us, within us.
I call these rituals because it wraps these mundane events with meaning, because to the creator no event is meaningless. Perhaps–perhaps–to the human no event is meaningless, even if it is an event that signifies the absurdity of life. “The writer should never be ashamed of staring,” writes Flannery O’Connor. “There is nothing that does not require his attention.”
We could say the same about the well-lived life: all requires our attention. And our rituals, if performed rightly, increase and stir that all-important attention.