The Comforts of Ritual

T’is the season when rituals are shaped and acted out in the same manner they have been for years. It begins for many with the customary Turkey dinner, followed by groaning over having eaten too much. Then there’s lighting the candles on the menorah or lighting the candles on the Advent Wreath in anticipation of Christmas. And, of course, decorating the Christmas tree. Patience is tested as we wrestle the tree into the flimsy stand we bought at Home Depot.  The stringing and re-stringing of twinkling lights around the tree is great fun especially if we have failed to test them beforehand. But then the always exciting and genuinely pleasant exchange of gifts on Christmas Day and its onward from there to Boxing Day, Twelfth Night, and so on and so on.

There is a certain unique joy surrounding these rituals but it would be less than accurate if we didn’t mention the stress and anxiety experienced in the run up to them, as well as the exhaustion that invariably follows.

Comfort and Joy. Well… not entirely.

The poet W.H. Auden captured the ambivalence many experience around the holidays in his Christmas Oratorio, “For the Time Being”. In the brief segment below, he reflects on the ambivalence one feels in the days following Christmas.

Well, so that is that.

Now we must dismantle the tree,

Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes —

Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.

The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,

And the children got ready for school.

There are enough

Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week —

Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,

Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully —

To love all of our relatives, and in general

Grossly overestimated our powers.

I entitled this piece, The Comforts of Rituals, so after acknowledging the challenges of common seasonal rituals, I wanted to call out and honor the rituals rarely celebrated, but practiced more faithfully than those that garner better press. These are the rituals that generally sustain, comfort, and keep us from going mad throughout the rest of the year.

For most of us there is a rhythm, a drumbeat, a carefully choreographed dance of sorts, to the way we live out our lives. It is probably best characterized as “ordinary” but ritualized, nevertheless. Rituals are most simply distinguished by a defined set of actions typically performed in an established sequence on a regular schedule. Ordinary is an interesting term to associate with these rituals. Interesting because the liturgical Churches (those marked by ritual and less by spontaneity) assigned the term to the times of the liturgical year that fell outside the run up to and seasons of Christmas and Easter. The times outside of these two major events were also the longest seasons of the Church year and so were aptly described as “Ordinary Time”.  Of course, the regular rituals of the church go on in ordinary time, but the spectacle associated with Easter and Christmas is absent.

Auden’s words capture both the relief of having gotten through the holidays and gratitude for a return to ordinary time. The season’s end allows us to re-engage with those rituals that soothe our jagged psyches after celebrating becomes enduring the constant interruptions of our ordinary but highly-prized rituals.

The comfort offered by the rituals performed during our own seasons of ordinary time is derived from their ability to offer a respite from the swirling chaos of the world we live in. Look, I won’t recite a litany of events that threaten our capacity to get out of bed each morning, but there is plenty to inspire a lot of hand wringing. Congresspersons have taken to calling one another names, while school shootings have become the norm, forty percent of the country won’t take a vaccine because they have a right to choose what they do with their body while many within that same forty percent do not believe that a woman has the right to choose what she does with her body. OK, enough. So, here’s my point. Even the most basic, even the simplest rituals allow us to momentarily escape the distress and anxiety that has become so pervasive in the 21st Century.

Our oh-so-ordinary morning rituals-or at least a portion of these, if the television remains off, may be busy, but there is an order to them, a sequence and sameness to them that that largely goes unnoticed, yet offers a certain kind of comfort. We may not be conscious of that comfort until there is an interruption in the ritual.

“We’ll, no one seems to have set the timer on the coffee maker and there’s NO coffee!” When the ritual is disturbed, it gets plenty of attention.

Perhaps a child you have gotten up to go to school every morning for most all of their life has moved on to college. The ritual of waking your child has been interrupted, indeed broken. Something is amiss and you feel somewhat disoriented even as you celebrate your child’s college achievement. I found the first couple of years of retirement unsettling because all the rituals that were such a big part of what I did most every day ended. The suits I selected, the right ties, the flurry of calls, emails, airports, travel, and so on. In a very peculiar way I found comfort in it sameness and suddenly it all went away at once. Over time, I have created and adopted new rituals that create off ramps from the daily barrage of discouraging news between the days pleasantries. While I have been enjoying retirement very much, I still occasionally perform consulting services as I am currently. And I suppose some would suggest that I rather perversely, enjoy a measure of comfort slipping back into a familiar character I know well and the things I did over and over for so long…and it all fits like a pair of old loafers. Saturday lunches are ritualistically observed by Lynda and me. A time when there is never a shortage of things to talk about.

Ordinary rituals from brushing your teeth to reading before you fall asleep divert our attention away from anxiety and stress and distractions that impair our capacity to recharge. In no way is this about unproductive time. The 20th Century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein suggested that creativity and problem solving are often disadvantaged by our doubling down on efforts to come to a novel solution. The insights we are seeking often come when we let go of our efforts and perform the familiar rituals of ordinary living. He specifically refers to the bed, the bath and the bus. Frustrated by our inability to come up with new insights, we surrender to the bed for the night, or leave some unresolved puzzle at work and ride the bus home, or perhaps burned out and exhausted we climb into a hot bath. These ordinary events, these ordinary rituals, he claims, are the proverbial moments when the light-bulb goes on. It is in the performance of our ordinary rituals that our greatest insights are often born. Monks for hundreds of years have known this and build their lives around repetition and ritual. They do the same thing every day striving to use the ordinary highly ritualized work such as baking bread, making wine, and the farming as a foil for contemplation.

Our best and most creative thinking comes not through disengagement but through engaging with the familiar- doing the dance we choreographed and have done for years; singing the same song we wrote and have sung a thousand times. We do it all, barely thinking about what it is we’re doing, as a Buddhist might contemplate the meaning of suffering while fingering his prayer beads. Ritual creates the tabula rasa (blank slate) upon which is written our best and most creative thinking.

The upcoming weeks will be rich and full for some, a terrible burden for others, and will impact but mean relatively little to still more. Ordinary time, filled with the ordinary rituals we have adopted (some good, some not so good) faithfully finds us again, allowing us to come up for air and sing our song, dance our dance, beat our drum living out the rhythm of our life.

2 thoughts on “The Comforts of Ritual

  1. A most interesting post, David. Rituals are familiar and comforting despite the stress.


    1. Always glad to receive your comments, Jan.


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