Take comfort in rituals … really?

Maybe you too have seen “Take comfort in rituals” at Starbucks. Here’s a good commentary on it.

11 comments

  1. So the argument seems to be this: While Christian ritual may bring us immediate comfort, that’s merely a stepping stone along the way towards the uncomfortable practice of pouring ourselves out for others.

    Leaving aside the question of whether pouring ourselves out for others is neccesarily uncomfortable (it certainly is sometimes, but it’s not clear that it’s neccesarily so in all cases), this commentary ignores the fact that pouring ourselves out for others is not itself the final end of humankind. Were this the case, it would lead to all sorts of difficulties for Catholics, e.g. are cloistered Carmelite nuns leading a purposeless life?

    Furthermore, it’s not clear to me that the end of liturgy is action in the world. Liturgy is the source of the Christian life, but it’s also the summit a foretaste of heaven, the final end of man.

    Since dwelling in that “locum refrigerii, lucis et pacis” is true comfort (at least in a colloquial sense) for us and since others as well do and will not have true happiness or comfort until they dwell there as well, and since liturgy is ordered towards leading people to that end, it seems that the end of liturgy is indeed comfort (at least in a colloqiual sense that equates comfort with happiness directly).

  2. Cloistered Carmelite nuns (and others who live in cloistered environments) are truly pouring themselves out for others – in prayer. We (and I do mean *we*) forget that prayer is one of the works of the Church.

    1. This is true and I almost included a further comment about this, but I was worried about the length limitation. If prayer counts as pouring out for others in the sense required by the author, then the whole point is moot, because the liturgy is itself the pouring out for others. I’d certainly agree with that, but I don’t know that the author would.

  3. @Samuel,

    Being the author, yes, I do agree that prayer is certainly one of the ways we can (and should) pour ourselves out for others.

    United Methodists have no cloistered communities, but we do have two religious orders in dispersion (The Order of Saint Luke and the Order of St Brigid of Kildare). I am a member of the former, and do consider praying the daily office as part of that priestly ministry of intercession (as in priesthood of all the baptized) of offering up and pouring out for the sake the world.

    I note in the article that most United Methodists though, based on recent studies, hardly pray at all. I also note (from my observation perch as the denomination’s “liturgical officer”) that few of our congregations spend much time or energy in actual prayer when they do gather for worship.

    I would also suggest that, with a few exceptions, United Methodists do not generally see worship as “a summit and foretaste of heaven.” Neither do they see it, as I suggested in the article, as being intended to “embody and be embodied faithfully as the body of Christ within the Holy Trinity.” Part of my role is to keep lifting up these larger Christian emphases as I can– even as the Wesleys, and especially Charles, did– with the hope that such a vision and language may catch on over time.

    Peace in Christ,

    The Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards
    Director of Worship Resources
    The General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church

  4. I wonder if there’s a comparison to be made, in regard to the “ritual serves only to soothe me” as [selfish] idolatry with Roman Catholics who attend Mass on Sunday solely to “get some Jesus” for themselves in the sacrament. One can believe in Christ truly (or substantially, in the Aristotelian sense of that word) present in the sacrament, but if it’s only for selfish or egocentric purposes … ?

  5. “Rituals (the plural) refers in common parlance to regularly repeated patterned actions.” “One might even call them routines or habits”

    Drinking a cup of coffee each morning is a habit, but not a routine nor a ritual. Making a cup of coffee when one gets up and sipping it as one goes about doing other things is a routine but not a ritual. Drinking a cup of coffee each morning while listing things that need to be done, or reading the morning paper, or watching the news is a personal ritual which centers and orients one’s day.

    Drinking a cup of coffee in one’s office midmorning is a habit and a routine. Having a coffee break with colleagues and sharing work thoughts, organization gossip and personal items is a social ritual which centers and orients one’s work relationships.

    Rituals whether personal, social, cultural, or religious are about “plausibility structures” that fundamentally center us in thought and behavior. Good rituals orient us sufficiently to the environment that we are able to process it more creatively.

    We face life most creatively in a relaxed but alert state that allows us to comfortably process things. Rituals whether personal, social, or religious are most adaptive when they help us process anomalies by providing great comfort and security without boring us.

    Starbucks is about the 95 % of ritual that is comfort; preaching is about the 5% of ritual that deals with being adaptive.

    1. Jack, I mostly agree with you, and I appreciate your subtlety (rituals are behavior patterns that enable us to orient and adapt to new — or partially new — situations, not just any old thing I do a lot). An example for those who haven’t read much ritual theory might be bedtime routines: they are rituals only insofar as they help us “wind down” from the novelties of the day and adapt to the daily need to sleep. This is especially evident for children, whose bedtime routines can help them functionally adapt to travel (even jet lag!).

      I am now wondering if there might be “partial” rituals — whether the scent of tea (I am not a coffee drinker) experienced outside its ritual context might not help me reappropriate the orientation I have practiced by drinking tea within ritual contexts.

      I think the article, although perhaps not nuanced enough for us ritual theorists, did a great job of countering the misconception, sometimes advanced by agnostics but often by religious folk, that worship is a psychological compulsion.

      1. Kimberly,

        Thanks. The adaptive function of rituals is to keep the optimal level of energy and its focus, which may vary with the task.

        In the case of sleep it is a steadily decreasing level of energy with the aid of activities and thinking (counting sheep) and less stimulation (noise and light).

        At the other end of energy continuum, athletes and performers of well rehearsed behaviors generally do better with a very high energy level. Rituals right before they begin to perform have the function of absorbing their thoughts and behavior into a very well established sequence without decreasing their energy level much so that at the moment they step up to bat or on stage they are completely into the performance that they have done so many times. High energy and no distractions is the object.

        These two extreme energy situations may have helped color our attitudes toward ritual as being boring and/or superstitious.

        My comment focused upon the ordinary daily personal and social situations where there is general agreement that the best most creative responses are often not the well learned ones. Coffee and tea as stimulants moderately increase our energy level that can be usefully balanced by cognitive and behavior routines that allow us to focus upon some aspect without being overstimulated.

        The challenge for liturgy in all this is that it has to provide its own stimulation, and balancing and focusing routines while not falling into boredom and superstition.

  6. Jack,

    I agree completely with your more subtle distinction.

    Making that distinction in this article wasn’t my point, though. That’s why I conflated “rituals” with routines and habits and introduced that conflation by the phrase “in common parlance.”

    United Methodists by and large are not ritual theorists. It seems that many of us actually tend to have an aversion to the word “ritual”– associating it with “things we do by rote” and associating that with a lack of authenticity. If it’s not new, not immediate, and not “creative” there’s something wrong precisely because it may be leading us back toward “rote.”

    United Methodists don’t seem to have a problem with the word “rituals,” though, as long as that term isn’t used in regard to worship.

    So part of my pedagogical intent in this piece was to take a word that was familiar and non-threatening (rituals) and use it to create a bit of comfort (if you will) so my readers could have some better chance of beginning to process what is for them a more negative word (ritual) in perhaps a more positive light.

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards

    1. Reverend Taylor,

      My background is an interdisciplinary doctorate in psychology and sociology. Having a life long interest in the study of liturgy, I audited ND’s Ritual Studies course before embarking on a master’s degree in spirituality. (just to be sure that I did not want to do it in liturgy).

      Not much in the anthropology literature that appeals to theologians appealed to me. A few psychologists had studied personal rituals and a few sociologists had studied social rituals but their level of sophistication in defining ritual did not exceed your common sense one, and of course there was little attempt to cross over into what anthropologists and theologians were talking about.

      Your interesting article gave me the perfect opportunity (coffee as a person and social ritual) to try to articulate what might separate ritual from other similar behaviors using a theoretical perspective that is derived from some rather old and well accepted notions in psychology. Namely, we learn new activities better under moderate levels of stimulation, even though we often perform well learned activities under higher levels of stimulation. Similarly we have a preference for low to moderate levels of complexity and novelty. Rituals help regulate stimulation.

      So I agree with your strategy. If we just understood everyday rituals better, especially their creative aspect, we might get beyond the history of regarding religious and cultural rituals as inferior and primitive.

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