Why Are Rituals Important?

Please click the link to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this sermon.

As humans, we all share what might be described as brokenness, meaning that none of us are perfect. It is familiar to feel incomplete, not quite there yet; even broken. Life can certainly break your heart with loss, with betrayal, with never fully achieving what you hoped you would, of never getting what you may have dreamed you deserved, never reaching what some might call nirvana, at least not for long. Yet, in this human life there are absolutely those moments of release, of reprieve, of stepping out of the feeling of imperfection and into a sense of wholeness, everything is right.

When we move from chaos to clarity, we get the feeling of being in the right place at the right time, in sync with all that is.

Rituals are important, because they do this magic thing for us, which is a kind of healing, centering, and grounding. Ritual does that by locating us, marking us in a time and space that is beyond that which is routine, or mundane. A rite or a ritual has the potential of refreshing our sense of purpose and connection, of being complete.

Think about it. We UUs, certainly not as ritualistic as some faith communities, do several rituals in every worship service. We light the chalice. We say the same affirmation again and again. We often remember to sound the singing bowl. We drop stones in a glass bowl filled with water. Annually in spring, we celebrate the flower communion. In the late summer/early fall we have a water communion. All those rituals, and more, are significant in forming this congregation.

The act of coming into this building on Sundays for a weekly 10:30 am service is itself a ritual. (You would know that if you ever tried to change the time of your service!) All these acts give our lives a sense of meaning and community, an orienting, a reminder of who we are, bonded together.

Rituals are a way to mark time that is not clock time. For example, those of you who have married may not remember the exact time it happened on the clock, but you certainly know when you stopped being single and became wedded to another. You know the time when you said vows and exchanged rings that changed your “status.” That is a ritual, which like most, has a public component, feels out of “normal” time for all the people participating. Performed in the presence of others who were participants or at least “witnesses,” a ritual marks a significant change. There is a distinct before and after.

Death itself can be private, but memorial services, wakes, and celebrations of life are also public, taking place within a gathering of family and friends, and often with an “officiant,” a guide who helps you understand what is customarily done, a guide who represents the presence of the holy, who “hears” your release of your friend or your loved one and who offers comfort by acknowledging how your community, your gathering perceives and “receives” you after the loss of this other human life.

We Unitarian Universalists come from what has been called the preaching tradition, as contrasted with the “priestly.”

Our UU ministers don’t merely perform rituals; they are expected to explain what is happening and why. It is magic explained; sometimes, paradox unlocked.

I remember when it was popular to have CUUPS (the Covenant of UU Pagans) groups at UU churches throughout the Southeast, full of religious humanists, agnostic, and atheists. And here came the Pagans wanting to do their rituals, sometimes during the 10:30–11:30 hour, and people were asking why. As a minister, I would say to the Pagans again and again, you must explain what you are doing and why, if you want those uninitiated to be comfortable. You can’t just do it; you must say why. Once the explanations were plentiful, whether Pagans themselves were doing the service or I was, everyone was more comfortable. UU’s are used to the “preaching traditions,” where the leader explains.

I know some of you have Catholic backgrounds, or Judaic, in which there are a lot of priestly-type services, rituals performed without a lot of explanation. Rituals performed to bring “the magic” to the room, but you might have not understood why.

Fifty years ago, when I studied religion as an undergraduate, the philosopher Mircea Eliade’s book The Sacred and the Profane, which was originally published in 1959, was standard reading. It was all about religious rituals the world over from the beginning of civilization. Eliade’s theme was mostly about how sacred time evoked by ritual was different from routine time (different from the profane, or the routine). It explained how rituals related particularly to birth, coming of age, marriage, and death were when and where life was given its meaning and purpose, its “frame,” if you will. Later, Joseph Campbell, who may be more familiar to some of you, talked about the hero’s journey, and the rituals involved in becoming an adult, coming of age, gaining wisdom.

Just recently, an anthropologist named Dimitris Xygalatas published his book, titled Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living. In an interview he gave about the book, he talked about growing up in Greece and being made during his primary and secondary school years to go to morning prayers and participate in various parades and celebrations that for him, used to living in the modern, profane world, held no particular meaning. He didn’t understand as a schoolboy why he had to participate. In his book, he talks about what he terms the “ritual paradox.” As an anthropologist, he found that most people swear by the importance of rituals without being able to articulate why they’re so important.

So, he tries to explain why rituals are still very important in the world Eliade anticipated, which is growing more “profane” every day.

Per Xygalatas, “We tend to think about ourselves as very rational beings, and yet so much of what we consider meaningful sits in actions that are compulsively repeated and yet have no obvious outcome.”

He shares that people may think that ritual actions will evoke a certain outcome, but science proves that isn’t true. Yet we still think if we blow on the dice, they will roll in our favor. Or if we hold our mouths a certain way the screw will come loose. Or if we do a rain dance, the rain comes because we danced. This is not true, per science, although brain science says that there is a causality between performing a ritual and a result.

What actually does happen is very important. In his book, Xygalatas concludes that rituals help individuals through their anxieties, and help people to connect to one another. They help people find meaning in their lives.

Rituals play a big role in bringing the emotional reactions of the members of a community into alignment. By aligning our appearances (think about going to a football or baseball game and wearing your team’s stuff), aligning our motions (cheering for your team), aligning our emotions, such rituals can actually lead to social alignment. Xygalatas offers some scientific proof that heartbeats synchronize during rituals, for those who may be skeptics.

He talks about a fire walking ritual that happens in Spain. There is scientific proof that when the firewalker starts walking on the coals their heartbeat slows down, as do the heartbeats of the audience, resulting in synchronicity.

I have been to many a football game, especially in Tallahassee, where my school Florida State has everyone cheering together. Alignment happens!

The author ends by concluding that ritual is an ancient social technology, and it fulfills the exact same role today as it did for our ancestors thousands of years ago. 

Perhaps you remember how during the first year of the pandemic, where it was really awful in some countries, the news would show people on their balconies banging pots, or singing the same song together, or cheering the arrival and/or departure of hospital workers. Those were rituals to lower the social anxiety, and to align each other with the message that we would get through this together.

Rituals don’t always come from ancient times. They can spring up in any community, because they perform an important function.

Creating new rituals reduces anxiety and creates community in the midst of chaos.

I was shocked a few years ago when we had a student minister at First Unitarian from Union Theological Seminary in NYC. I went there and it was my first time in their building to be “taught” how to supervise a student minister. I heard how they did seminary education there and what their students were learning. I was surprised to hear my mentee say that some of the students there were readying themselves to be “climate change” chaplains.

My first question was Who is going to pay them? I realized this was something I had never heard of before, but it certainly made sense. Training ministerial students to be chaplains to deal with the grief of climate change—wow! I wondered what sort of rituals they were using. Wondered if they have read Eliade, and other authors, and about how important rituals are?

It was fascinating to me. I looked it up on my web search service, and sure enough, climate change chaplains are everywhere on my feed now.

My whole family, from 4-year-old to me, check in on our electronic devices all day long every day, like it is a calming ritual that folds us into a particular community.

There are all sorts of rituals that hold us together, that are important. I know that we think that we are the “rational” religion that focuses on justice movements, needed social change, and creating the Beloved Community. Part of what we do is to allow and encourage humans to be fully human. Engaging in ritual and ritualistic behavior is human. We can do it with our thinking minds turned on. We can do it with explanation. But we can’t control the magic, the time out of time, the deepening, the grounding, the connection, the identification that happens in a ritual done well. What ritual do you do to remember, or to reconnect to who you are? That’s letting the sacred in. I don’t think there is such a division between the sacred and the profane. It is all mixed together, and that is good thing!

If you appreciated this reflection, please text to give or visit our Give Now page to support the UUCSH Share the Plate efforts to assist those in need.