When you hear the word “ritual”, images of ancient peoples in long robes chanting an unknown language probably come to mind. In the eyes of many, rituals are a thing of the past, but they are more important now than in years gone by.
Have you ever considered the purpose of rituals? Why did these people wear those particular long robes and chant those particular words? Let me share the conclusions of my own musings: They performed these rituals to separate the ordinary from the extraordinary and to differentiate one period from another.
According to Oxford Languages, a ritual is “a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.” A ritual is not just related to religion, but since religious rituals are the form most seen today, let us start there. In many religions, rituals form the foundation of practice. From the Islamic Salat ritual of praying five times a day, the Jewish coming-of-age celebrations of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and the Catholic celebration of Mass, we can see how rituals shape what the practice of a certain religion looks like and means. Salat is a daily ritual that helps keep God in one's mind throughout the day. Mass is a weekly ritual that recalls the core of the Christian faith. The Bar and Bat Mitzvahs are once-in-a-lifetime celebrations that mark a unique day after which one is a changed person. These three examples have a precise formula the people follow, and they recall to mind the extraordinary. These rituals display the significance of periods of time - whether they be as simple as the passage of a day or as momentous as a change in identity. Rituals are important for religious practitioners for they form the basis of worship and give a concrete sign of the faith they hold.
While rituals appear less often in the secular world, they still exist. A common example is a graduation ceremony. Whether it be at the completion of high school, college, or a GED program, graduation is fundamentally ritualistic. It is a solemn, momentous ceremony. Graduation marks the end of an experience that can never be repeated, and it gives a conclusion to something you might have enjoyed or despised. Rituals help us recognize that there are things greater than quotidian life and that the time yet to come is not necessarily the same as the time past. For me, graduation gave closure to my high school career. I thoroughly enjoyed high school, so having a graduation as the final experience was a necessary and sufficient way to end my time there. The graduation forced me to face the fact that I was no longer a child confined to the structure of my high school experience but rather a person capable of making decisions and exercising freedom in college. Although that transition did not occur because of or during graduation, the ritual gave a concrete and visible sign that I had become a different person.
During the pandemic, many rituals, both sacred and secular, have been discarded for the health and safety of the masses. Especially during the first months when there was nothing to do but sit inside, time began to run together: The events of tomorrow became the happenings of yesterday without us even noticing. There was nothing to mark the passage of time - nothing to show any change or growth.
Quarantine forced most to forego physical rituals and instead settle for virtual ones, which have nowhere near the same effect.
This loss has been hard, for while time has progressed and we have changed, there is nothing with which to mark that metamorphosis.
And so, I beseech you to seek rituals in your life. Whether they be sacred or secular, be a part of something that celebrates the passing of time and marks your growth as a person. As the Eleventh Doctor said before his regeneration “We all change… We're all different people all through our lives. And that's okay, that's good, you've gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.” Rituals are tools that allow us to show that movement and mark the boundary lines in our lives. They allow us to see "all the people we have been" and to step forward into the unknown that lies ahead. //
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