Standing On Ceremony

 

shutterstock_168595868As a happy break from writing about crime (gloomy) and marriage (even more gloomy) I’ve lately been writing a paper on liturgical theology, which is intended as a chapter for a forthcoming book designed to foster ecumenical dialogue between Roman Catholics and Latter-Day-Saints. It’s proving to be an enjoyable project, which has turned my thoughts to the role of formal ceremony in American life more generally.

Many of you know that I was raised Mormon and am now Catholic, and as a Catholic I developed a deep love of traditional liturgy. Since I developed that taste primarily in my Catholic life, my initial impulse was to think that Mormons are fairly lacking in any kind of formal liturgy. On further reflection though, that’s not as true as it might seem. Of course, the obvious place to find formal Mormon liturgy is in their temple ceremonies. But even in more ordinary settings, Mormons do have a high appreciation of formality and ceremony, along with a very definite sense of decorum. We both (that is, Catholics and Mormons) run against the grain of so much of our mainstream culture, where people are largely ashamed of anything that seems too formal, too ceremonial, or too “scripted”.

To my mind, the loss of ceremony is something of a tragedy. Ceremony and custom are critical to helping us make sense of moments and experiences in life that are naturally difficult for us to process. Weddings and funerals are two events that should absolutely be steeped in ceremony, because these are the moments in life when we struggle to connect our private experiences to something greater than our subjective emotions. Ceremony helps teach us what these occasions really mean and how we can get perspective on them. Sadly, many or most modern weddings have degenerated into glorified beauty pageants, while funerals often don’t happen at all.

Of course it’s hard to generate meaningful ceremony among people who don’t really believe in anything. The struggle for transcendence is part of what distinguishes silly and clownish attempts at ceremony from customs that are genuinely beautiful and rich. Tradition is also a vital component of liturgy (and its cultural counterpart, ceremony), and once traditions have broken down, it’s hard to recover them in an authentic way. Sadly, this breakdown probably contributes further to the contempt that progressives have for the earnestly religious, because liturgical action always looks bizarre and contrived to those who have no entry-point for understanding it.

Are there places in mainstream American life where we could help people to recover that sense of decorum? How do we persuade people that this kind of tradition is worth taking seriously?

There are 91 comments.

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  1. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Majestyk: Well, if given the choice between sugar pills and actual medicine I know I’m going to take the medicine. It would be unethical to give people the placebo if you KNEW that the actual medicine would help them more than the placebo effect, wouldn’t it?

    A placebo is the weakest of examples, and I regret using it. My point is more fundamental than physical health. I am interested in what motivates people to choose to make their lives important.

    So I think of people choosing bold and risky acts because they believe that G-d is with them. If you think that the creator of the world is on your team, then you can become a much more confident and enterprising person.

    • #31
  2. CandE Inactive
    CandE
    @CandE

    Kim K.:Liturgy and formalization of certain ceremonies can also keep people on script. My own pastor usually speaks and prays “off the cuff,” sometimes with disastrous, sometimes with hilarious, results. But it’s as if writing anything down ahead of time or reading something would be inauthentic or not “being led by the Spirit.” I have seriously considered writing a script for him to follow for my own funeral because I have experienced too many cringe-worthy moments at services he’s officiated.

    This is a sad, but all too common, mistake.  In our faith tradition, prayers for special events are often written ahead of time by the person giving them.  It made a big impression on me when one of our church leaders mailed a copy of the dedicatory prayer he offered for a new church building to all his congregants that were out on missions.

    Inspiration =/= improv

    -E

    • #32
  3. Kim K. Inactive
    Kim K.
    @KimK

    Charlotte:funerals often don’t happen at all

    Is this true? Are there statistics on this?

    Reading the local obits, it is not unusual to see no service listed or maybe just a gathering of family and friends in a park, bar, someone’s home. On the other hand,  my church hasn’t had a funeral in years! They had plenty of “celebration of life” services – you don’t want to get me started on why that bugs me so much.

    • #33
  4. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    The no-funeral claim was anecdotal, but I’ve known quite a few people who haven’t had them. Or elderly relatives who loudly declare they don’t want them. (“Too much trouble! Don’t bother over me!”)

    I find this troubling and very sad. But at least my mother has already made clear to the Ricochet community that she wants one!

    • #34
  5. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Rachel Lu:The no-funeral claim was anecdotal, but I’ve known quite a few people who haven’t had them. Or elderly relatives who loudly declare they don’t want them. (“Too much trouble! Don’t bother over me!”)

    One dear Aged Relative was particularly insistent on this point. Well, she sort of got her wish:

    Her memorial was highly unorthodox. It seemed to satisfy most family members, but I confess it left me feeling a little empty. It would have been a fine memorial in addition to more formal arrangements, but… sigh… Perhaps I should look on the bright side: at least she had a memorial.

    I ended up YouTubing a lot of hymns on my own time as my own little mini-memorial to her – and yes, it did feel funny knowing that this gesture probably wouldn’t have been appreciated if I had tried to share it with several of those closest to her.

    • #35
  6. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    It’s really a painful issue sometimes, because if the deceased specifically said he didn’t want a funeral, and the immediate next of kin agreed, it seems cheeky for somebody else to step up and say, “Well, I want one, so I’ll just take over.” But it really can leave loved ones with a lack of closure when there is no funeral.

    Of  course, for the non-religious it’s sometimes hard to figure out what sort of funeral to have, where, etc. For my family, as active churchgoers with an actual parish (or ward, for the Mormons) those questions at least are not so difficult.

    • #36
  7. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    iWe:

    People want to believe that their life matters, that there is meaning and purpose. Religion is a very constructive way to do that, and rituals provide the roadmap.

    This is what I don’t understand: Are you saying that unless there is a God that your life simply doesn’t matter?

    Look: Your life matters to me and I’m sure it matters to every person here at Ricochet.  I’m sure your life matters to you as well, just as mine matters to me.  I know that I’ve made a contribution to the human condition – no matter how small – and certainly to my family.  That’s enough transcendence for me.  I’m not greedy.  I certainly don’t seek to be among the great and mighty and while I would love to have my celestial 40 acres and a mule, I rest easy knowing that if I don’t get it… I’ve lived (and continue to live) a good life.  I’m satisfied.

    My earnest hope is that people would find their own cause for living rather than living only as the dictates of ritual would have them.  However, if ritual is part of the human condition, make it a good ritual.  Don’t let it be ritual for ritual’s sake, or ritual done in the name of “We’ve always done it that way.”  That’s just doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

    • #37
  8. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Majestyk:

    iWe:

    People want to believe that their life matters, that there is meaning and purpose. Religion is a very constructive way to do that, and rituals provide the roadmap.

    This is what I don’t understand: Are you saying that unless there is a God that your life simply doesn’t matter?

    I am saying that a vast number of people are concerned that their lives are not important, that they do not know why they are here, that the world will not be improved because they have lived their lives.

    Lots of people here at Ricochet have said similar things: that there is no hope of permanent impact. That life is not meaningful except as a biological existence where one should try to maximize experienced fun before one dies.

    Religion can tie it all together, because it can illuminate our lives as being more than statistically improbable and ultimately meaningless blinks in galactic time.

    • #38
  9. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Majestyk: My earnest hope is that people would find their own cause for living rather than living only as the dictates of ritual would have them.

    I agree entirely that each person should find their own meaning. My point is that, in the absence of something very like Judaism or Christianity, individual lives are actually not valued very highly. And so the vast majority of the human race will not actually find a cause for living. They will live and die as very intelligent animals who rarely reach beyond the desires of their bodies.

    However, if ritual is part of the human condition, make it a good ritual. Don’t let it be ritual for ritual’s sake, or ritual done in the name of “We’ve always done it that way.” That’s just doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

    But what if the rituals have GOOD results?!

    I cannot tell you which Jewish rituals are the ones that really, really matter – the ones that have preserved our way of thinking and connection with G-d.  What I can say is that instead of spending my time making fun, I would rather get on with what I am here to do.

    As my father likes to say: “If you are told what to eat, who to sleep with and how to live your life, you can spend the rest of your life making important decisions.”

    • #39
  10. user_316485 Member
    user_316485
    @ManOTea

    Rachel Lu:

    Majestyk:

    Rachel Lu:

    I’ll confess to being mildly curious now what you take to be the “assumptions undergirding” Catholic liturgy.

    That there is a personal God who listens to your prayers and more importantly: that he cares about or wants people to act in this fashion. That’s a good place to start.

    If that hurdle represents no problem for a person, you could then advance to the notion which many Christians have that salvation itself requires nothing more than a personal relationship between a person and God (Jesus) and that none of these trappings are necessary in order to achieve the desired end (Salvation.)

    If life is meaningless then so, of course, is liturgy. But you don’t need to share those specifically Christian assumptions in order to appreciate (in broad outline) the point of liturgy and ceremony. You do however need to be circumspect enough to look past the juvenile, knee-jerk, “men wearing dresses! Special underwear!” reaction.

    Yes. Well put Rachel. Majesyk’s breezy ill-informed atheistic comments define precisely the elite posturing of today’s leftist culture. That he posts on Ricochet doesn’t alter his nonsense.

    • #40
  11. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Man O Tea:

    Yes. Well put Rachel. Majesyk’s breezy ill-informed atheistic comments define precisely the elite posturing of today’s leftist culture. That he posts on Ricochet doesn’t alter his nonsense.

    That’s a great, thinly veiled way of playing the man, not the ball.

    Pardon me if I can’t take seriously your complaint.  Just what about my position is either unserious or uninformed?

    • #41
  12. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    iWe:

    But what if the rituals have GOOD results?!

    I cannot tell you which Jewish rituals are the ones that really, really matter – the ones that have preserved our way of thinking and connection with G-d. What I can say is that instead of spending my time making fun, I would rather get on with what I am here to do.

    As my father likes to say: “If you are told what to eat, who to sleep with and how to live your life, you can spend the rest of your life making important decisions.”

    I don’t think I’m making fun.  I’m being serious.  Religious ceremonies don’t seem to have outward effects upon the world, so I’m questioning whether or not adherence to and observance of them is a worthwhile endeavor.  For what it’s worth, I’m sure that you have no problem ridiculing adherents of Scientology for performing auditing sessions, which is a big part of their faith.

    What I’ve highlighted above constitutes a great deal of your life.  Like, 90%, and certainly most of the enjoyable parts.  That sort of abdication of agency kind of sounds like Soviet Russia, where everything which wasn’t prohibited was mandatory.  Yet, even there life had its own set of non-religious, yet equally pointless rituals.

    • #42
  13. user_86050 Inactive
    user_86050
    @KCMulville

    Majestyk: I don’t think I’m making fun. I’m being serious. Religious ceremonies don’t seem to have outward effects upon the world,

    This is interesting. What kind of effect were you expecting?

    • #43
  14. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    KC Mulville:

    Majestyk: I don’t think I’m making fun. I’m being serious. Religious ceremonies don’t seem to have outward effects upon the world,

    This is interesting. What kind of effect were you expecting?

    Any kind, really.  I’m not picky.  Also, I’m not talking about the emotional benefit which some people derive from religious ceremony – which I’m not disputing is a real thing.  It’s just sort of ephemeral and internal to that person.

    • #44
  15. user_86050 Inactive
    user_86050
    @KCMulville

    Well, what I mean is, when you say “effect upon the world” … I don’t quite follow you.

    From my point of view, it’s effect is precisely because it’s coordinated with others. The fact that they’re doing something together is what matters. It’s “public effect” is that the participants are acting as one.

    • #45
  16. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    KC Mulville:Well, what I mean is, when you say “effect upon the world” … I don’t quite follow you.

    From my point of view, it’s effect is precisely because it’s coordinated with others. The fact that they’re doing something together is what matters. It’s “public effect” is that the participants are acting as one.

    Think about it like this:  If 8,000 people get together for a concert at Red Rocks, do they have cosmic effects upon the world?  How that concert different from, say, Easter Sunrise service at Red Rocks?

    My contention is that it’s really no different.  It’s a bunch of people getting together who are having a good time… but it’s not as if the people attending the Concert or Easter Sunrise are causing starving people to be fed, cancer to be cured or anything which we might consider human progress.

    EDIT: I should point out that what I’m looking for here is a supernatural element – not that a concert organized with the specific intention of funding charity isn’t possible or a church feeding people isn’t possible – but that the mere act of having people get together will do that magically.

    • #46
  17. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @SoDakBoy

    Majestyk

    Even if there were a provable causal relationship between religiosity and longevity a person would still have to ask themselves: Is it ethical for ME to say that I believe something (take the placebo) even if I know that I actually don’t?

    I think that is a separate issue from liturgy and ritual.  For that question, the discussion assumes that the group gives assent to a common creed.

    With that assumption, the value of ritual is to reinforce the unity that the individual members share.  Of course, they all retain their individuality, but during the liturgy, that individuality is assumed into the greater purpose of the group.

    This function helps us in at least two ways.  The first relates to the variability that an individual has within himself.  As an example, I was a bit depressed about some family issues yesterday at Mass, but I could still enter into the group’s common activity even though my mood was not in perfect harmony with the others.  Having a standard liturgy allows me to come out of myself, focus on God, and then re-examine these issues from a better perspective.

    The second way relates to the variable types of personalities that exist within a group.   The teenager, the toddler, and the senior citizen can all participate in the common ritual by putting aside their individual preferences for a time.

    –continued–

    • #47
  18. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @SoDakBoy

    –page two–

    Each community needs the unique gifts that each individual brings to the cause, but during the common times, a ritual helps us focus on the group, not ourselves.  And, isn’t that the whole point of religion?  Dying to self.  Let go and let god.  Being crucified with Christ.

    If I insist on attending a “service” that matches my own preferences to a “T”, then what hope do I have to emulate Paul’s words “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”?

    I think that’s the great utility of liturgy.  Without it, a group’s worship cannot match the central mission of religion which is to identify ever more with another Person rather than ourselves.

    • #48
  19. CandE Inactive
    CandE
    @CandE

    Majestyk:

    iWe:

    [snip]

    I don’t think I’m making fun. I’m being serious. Religious ceremonies don’t seem to have outward effects upon the world, so I’m questioning whether or not adherence to and observance of them is a worthwhile endeavor.

    Many ceremonies are focused on the inward, personal, spiritual aspects – as you say, they provide an emotional benefit.  While it may be ephemeral and internal to that person, that doesn’t preclude it from being a worthwhile endeavor.  Since most ceremonies involve multiple people, there is also a social benefit as well.

    -E

    • #49
  20. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @SoDakBoy

    KC Mulville:Well, what I mean is, when you say “effect upon the world” … I don’t quite follow you.

    From my point of view, it’s effect is precisely because it’s coordinated with others. The fact that they’re doing something together is what matters. It’s “public effect” is that the participants are acting as one.

    Exactly.  The benefits are hard to see when looking at an individual event.  But, the alternative is to have everyone living an atomized life.  Each person participates only in those things which are enjoyable to him.

    • #50
  21. user_86050 Inactive
    user_86050
    @KCMulville

    Majestyk: It’s a bunch of people getting together who are having a good time… but it’s not as if the people attending the Concert or Easter Sunrise are causing starving people to be fed, cancer to be cured or anything which we might consider human progress.

    OK, but that’s a very narrow and individualistic way of looking at it (in my opinion). It’s based on the assumption that all actions must have some immediate, utilitarian effect. Or, that the church is merely an instrument of charity, useful only to the degree that it helps individuals perform specific actions.

    The Catholic understanding of church is much more than that. I’ll speak only for Catholics, though I know Jews feel the same way, but the “people of God” is much more akin to a family. Families do perform certain functions, but the family is much more about living life together than it is about any of those functions. The most obvious symbol is eating at the same table. The function could have been fulfilled by simply providing food, but it’s the fact that they eat together that lets it rise to a higher level.

    The church is definitely intended to provide for material needs, but that isn’t its only function. It’s intended to be a way that lets people live together, and that includes praise, worship, gratitude to God, etc.

    • #51
  22. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    CandE:

    Majestyk:

    iWe:

    [snip]

    I don’t think I’m making fun. I’m being serious. Religious ceremonies don’t seem to have outward effects upon the world, so I’m questioning whether or not adherence to and observance of them is a worthwhile endeavor.

    Many ceremonies are focused on the inward, personal, spiritual aspects – as you say, they provide an emotional benefit. While it may be ephemeral and internal to that person, that doesn’t preclude it from being a worthwhile endeavor. Since most ceremonies involve multiple people, there is also a social benefit as well.

    -E

    I don’t dispute that – but that doesn’t make it magical?  If you get together with your friends and read a book together and discuss it, you may experience similar results.  What I’m looking for here is why adherence to these rituals has any special significance above and beyond participating in a book club or a community choir?

    I just don’t think that it does – a lot of things have “social benefit” which don’t advertise themselves as being supernaturally beneficial in addition to those obvious social benefits.

    • #52
  23. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    KC Mulville:

    OK, but that’s a very narrow and individualistic way of looking at it (in my opinion). It’s based on the assumption that all actions must have some immediate, utilitarian effect. Or, that the church is merely an instrument of charity, useful only to the degree that it helps individuals perform specific actions.

    I don’t think it is – I mean, “Fun” might be considered a great social benefit for people… but it can cross over into hedonism as well.

    The point is not merely to say that there needs to be some utilitarian aspect to everything that we do – as I’m certainly not advocating for that sterile and monotonous type of life, and anybody who knows me understands that – but that there is something which transcends the strictly utilitarian/enjoyableness aspect that is inherent to observance of religious ceremony.  Beyond that even; not only does it have supernatural power but such observance is obligatory if one is of a particular faith.

    • #53
  24. CandE Inactive
    CandE
    @CandE

    Majestyk:

    CandE:

    Majestyk: [snip]

    [snip]

    […]If you get together with your friends and read a book together and discuss it, you may experience similar results. What I’m looking for here is why adherence to these rituals has any special significance above and beyond participating in a book club or a community choir?

    I just don’t think that it does – a lot of things have “social benefit” which don’t advertise themselves as being supernaturally beneficial in addition to those obvious social benefits.

    I’ve participated in book clubs and been in many choirs, and my personal experience is that religious ceremony does produce different results.  An inspiring Sunday school discussion is at a different level than an engaging book club.  Singing secular music in a community choir is different than singing religious music at church.

    Why? Honestly, I don’t think I can answer that question to your satisfaction because it requires a willingness to concede the possibility of a spiritual reality.

    -E

    • #54
  25. CandE Inactive
    CandE
    @CandE

    Rachel, can you help me understand liturgy better?  You’re probably very aware that we Mormons don’t use much of the traditional Christian vocabulary, but you are familiar enough with our traditions to see where it might apply.  While temple ceremonies would definitely qualify as liturgy in the traditional sense, what about sacrament services?  While we refrain from many of the adornments of Catholicism and Anglicanism, it’s almost standard that a white shirt and tie are expected to conduct services or administer the sacrament.  The sacrament prayers are scripted. All ward services proceed according to narrow guidelines – about the only variation are on the particular selection of hymn, topic, speakers, and intermediate musical number.  It may not be traditional, but that seems liturgical, at least by how I understand the word.

    -E

    • #55
  26. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Majestyk, I think I found the nub of at least one problem. You are talking of magic, as if religious ritual is designed to produce theurgical results – like a rain dance.  You are missing the entire point of a proper relationship with G-d.

    For me, ritual has nothing to do with that at all. The magic is all about the effect on the person!!! Ritual focuses the mind, reorients us, and makes it possible to grow ourselves, our marriages and relationships and communities. To the extent that G-d involves himself directly, this is usually done within people and not nature. Certainly Jews do not believe that G-d does miracles today that must inescapably be seen as open: if there were such miracles, then skeptics like you would not have the free will to decide whether or not to see G-d in the world.

    As for why ritual is different than reading a book in a group, I would refer to the studies that show why armies drill: doing things together forms bonds between people that otherwise are not created. In the case of (at least) Judaism, the bonds are also between our own bodies and souls – in other words, rituals like tefillin are there to unify ourselves and seek to ensure that we are focused on using our bodies for holy purposes.

    • #56
  27. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    iWe:Majestyk, I think I found the nub of at least one problem. You are talking of magic, as if religious ritual is designed to produce theurgical results – like a rain dance. You are missing the entire point of a proper relationship with G-d.

    SNIP

    As for why ritual is different than reading a book in a group, I would refer to the studies that show why armies drill: doing things together forms bonds between people that otherwise are not created. In the case of (at least) Judaism, the bonds are also between our own bodies and souls – in other words, rituals like tefillin are there to unify ourselves and seek to ensure that we are focused on using our bodies for holy purposes.

    Well, yes.  Prayer is a ritual.  Is not the point of prayer to commune with God?  To invoke his assistance?  If it doesn’t accomplish those ends, how is it different from singing to yourself in the shower, which, I must admit, makes me feel great?

    • #57
  28. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Majestyk:I should point out that what I’m looking for here is a supernatural element

    The wag in me would point out that the mere existence of the Jews (2000 years without a homeland, enormous influence on the world for the population, a ridiculous impact in every manner of human intellectual endeavor) is supernatural. So, too, is the confidence of a devout person, the kind of confidence that can even enable one to act without hesitation or fear- which means success is much more likely.

    The rationalist in me would point out, as I do in the comment above, that religion is not about using ritual to produce inescapably supernatural results.

    • #58
  29. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Majestyk:Well, yes. Prayer is a ritual. Is not the point of prayer to commune with God? To invoke his assistance? If it doesn’t accomplish those ends, how is it different from singing to yourself in the shower, which, I must admit, makes me feel great?

    Where is G-d in our world?

    The Torah says He is in the tabernacle (which we no longer have). And he is in the soul of each person.

    Prayer can be seen as connecting our bodies and our souls – to listen to the “still, small voice” that is us. It is akin to meditation in this respect. It is not clear where the voice comes from, but its voice is heard in our minds.

    Prayer gains us power not because of lightning strikes on our enemies, but through helping us to understand what it is we are supposed to do, and having the courage and resolve to git ‘er dun. Singing in the shower achieves none of these things.

    • #59
  30. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    iWe:

    Majestyk:I should point out that what I’m looking for here is a supernatural element

    The wag in me would point out that the mere existence of the Jews (2000 years without a homeland, enormous influence on the world for the population, a ridiculous impact in every manner of human intellectual endeavor) is supernatural. So, too, is the confidence of a devout person, the kind of confidence that can even enable one to act without hesitation or fear- which means success is much more likely.

    The rationalist in me would point out, as I do in the comment above, that religion is not about using ritual to produce inescapably supernatural results.

    To paraphrase Hitchens, “The survival of the Jewish people is impressive, but if there has been a supervising hand it has been an extraordinarily brutal one.”

    To be frank, who would be a Christian if not for miracles?  Is that not the central tenet of the faith?

    • #60
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