Going through the Motions  

Some time ago my wife and I attended a prayer service at the home of her cousin’s in-laws, who were sitting shiva for a departed relative.  They were Orthodox Jews, and most of the service was conducted in Hebrew.  In a concession to some participants, the Kaddish prayer for the dead was transliterated, as well as given in Hebrew.  Not being Jewish, I was more an observer than a participant.  There was no rabbi present.  The service was led by a male mourner who mumbled the first few lines of each prayer aloud, then continued inaudibly, occasionally rocking back and forth from the waist.  The impression this conveyed was of a ritual that had been performed so many times that it was necessary now only to touch on the high points.

I have had a similar experience watching priests performing the Roman Catholic mass.  They often appear to be going through the motions of a ceremony that has long since ceased to engage them.  They drone on as if reciting the multiplication table, or they rush through at breakneck speed, thereby draining the occasion of all dramatic possibility.  As an Episcopalian since childhood, I am no stranger to rituals that can become dulled by routine. I am convinced that the chief enemy of religion is not unbelief but boredom.        

Rituals serve an integrative function in human society.  They may be as simple as a handshake or as elaborate as the coronation of a king.  There is always a prescribed set of words and actions that carry certain symbolic meaning, often accompanied by music, dance and special costumes.  The value of ritual is not in telling us something new about the world but in providing a comforting reaffirmation of what we already know or think we know.   

Rituals may have a biogenetic basis, originating in the primitive limbic strata of the brain.  Researchers have noted similarities between religious rituals and the repetitive behavior of persons suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder.  There are even suggestions that both types of behavior are motivated by the same desire to alleviate fear and anxiety.  However, it is no more valid to discount religious ritual on these grounds than to assume that the compulsive counting behavior of some obsessive-compulsives reflects badly on mathematics.  Clearly, however, ritual behavior goes deeper than our normal cognitive functions, which explains why priests suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease are able to continue performing the mass, even when they otherwise can’t speak or recognize family members.

The curious thing about religious rituals is that they are almost wholly absent from accounts of divine encounters in sacred literature.  Whether it is Moses on the mountaintop, Elijah in the valley of dry bones or Jesus in the wilderness, there is no mention of their performing prayers, processions or sacrificial offerings.  The Old Testament prophets who claimed to speak for God were often at odds with the priests who performed such rites, and they had little good to say about their practices.  “Behold I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung upon your faces, the dung of your offerings, and I will put you out of my presence,” thundered the prophet Malachi.  One might imagine that the whole point of religious ritual is to put oneself in God’s presence.  But I can’t help thinking that they are mostly intended as an expression of his absence.

Malachi 2:3

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