In the past two days I had two conversations about ritual, once for and one against.
Ritual refers to those things we do out of habit, ritually, without even having to think about their true significance. We all have a bunch of rituals we revert to in situations, to save us having to think or engage with the situation more seriously.
Consider what you say when someone greets you. What is your standard reply? If people ask you how you are do you stop and give them an accurate analysis of your condition or just say something like, “Fine, thanks”?
One day I caught myself answering that question with “Fine, thanks” before stopping to consider that I felt unwell and would rather have been home in bed. It struck me that my automatic response in that instance was untruthful. I decided to choose an automatic response that would not be untrue, and I settled on answering, “I’m alive”. That gets me many questions and interesting responses, but I at least know I didn’t inadvertently lie. As long as I can say it, that statement is probably true.
Sadly we may have many automatic, ritualistic responses in our closer connections that keep us from the more meaningful connection we should be building. Parents can learn to give glib responses to children who keep interrupting them or wanting attention. Parents can fake attention, just to get some peace and quiet. That can lead to a life-long ritual of giving glib responses when the relationship deserves more real connection than that.
The problem of rituals goes beyond our human interaction to our relationship with God. We can set out to worship God and honour Him, but end up just going through the motions.
On the positive side of rituals, a friend pointed out how much he appreciated understanding the symbolism used on some forms of worship. He found that knowledge enriching and aiding his worship.
On the negative side of rituals, a friend regretted that he often went through the motions at church but failed to really connect with God, being distracted with his own thoughts and interests.
Jesus challenged the religious leaders of His day about their empty rituals, including their enlarged demonstration of piety, such as long prayers, or oversized worship items (phylacteries) prescribed by God to Moses.
“All their works are done to impress men: they have oversized phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments” Matthew 23:5
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore you will receive the greater damnation.” Matthew 23:14
Jesus warned us not to get caught up in long prayers, hoping our extended ritual will get us a better hearing from God.
“When you pray, don’t use vain repetitions, like the heathen do: for they think that they
will be heard for their long praying.” Matthew 6:7
Many Christians respond to a prompting to connect with God better, such as by more prayer, more Bible reading, attending church services or prayer meetings and the like. That’s great, but for many, over time, their actions become mere ritual. They are not engaging with the process but simply doing it ritualistically.
Now, as a disclaimer, allow me to say that it is better to do spiritual disciplines out of habit than not to do them at all. So I commend developing good habits of church attendance, prayer, Bible study, gaining spiritual input, and so on.
However I also commend that you regularly audit what you are doing and your level of engagement in your spiritual practices.
You may even find it necessary to modify what you are doing, to rekindle your engagement. For example, if you only pray on your own, and it has become a hollow activity, then join in prayer times with others. If you can’t get anything out of going to church then get along to some other Christian fellowship, such as another church, or a home-group, Christian conference, or the like.
If you find Bible reading is an empty thing for you then get an audio recording of someone reading the Bible and play that as part of your daily routine, to get a fresh voice inputting God’s Word into your life.
Rituals, including even symbolic things, can enhance our worship, but every aspect of our spiritual program can drift into mere routine and empty words. Don’t let that happen to you. Stop and take stock of how well you engage with God, Christians, the Bible, prayer, worship services, witnessing, Christian fellowship, etc. If you are a little stale then give yourself a jolt to rekindle or even kick-start your spiritual engagement.