The purpose of rituals


The Washington Post/Newsweek "On Faith" web site recently posed a question to its bloggers about how appropriate it was for Sally Quinn, a Post reporter and a non-Catholic, to have taken communion at Tim Russert's Catholic funeral.

I wouldn't have done what she did. True, I might personally find objectionable that whole theology of exclusionary communion (not to mention the sort of divine magic that surrounds the concept of transubstantiation), but I also think that churches that I am not a part of can do whatever they want, and I'm not interested in crashing a party to which I was not invited. I'm not a Catholic and I don't attend Catholic services, so for the most part it becomes a moot point anyway. But a funeral is not exactly the same thing as a regular Sunday mass, because, regardless of the religious nature of the ceremony, the fact is that in our pluralistic culture it often includes the participation of people from diverse religious backgrounds who wish to honor the person in question. The church might host a funeral, but in our society such an event lies at the intersection of the sacred and the pluralistic secular, and it often involves a community of people who aren't part of the church. The idea of a funeral mass with exclusionary acts of ritual almost seems like a quaint throwback to another era centuries ago when everyone in a community more or less belonged to the same religion. In our multicultural society, it is an anachronism. The result is that you invite lots of people to an event that is emotionally charged and then tell some of them that they can't participate in part of it. So in a sense, I can understand where Sally Quinn was coming from, even if I wouldn't do what she did myself. She wanted to honor her friend by participating in a part of the ceremony which others were invited to but which she was implicitly dis-invited from.

What are you going to do if you are not a Catholic and you have a good Catholic friend who died? You don't refuse to attend just because the ceremony partly excludes you, do you?

I've written in the past about my objections to exclusionary communion, despite the fact that communion is not very interesting to me and I mostly eschew participation in it. But even if I don't participate, I appreciate a church that believes in inviting everyone to the table, that puts no preconditions on who is invited, and thus follows in Jesus's own inclusive footsteps when he ate and drank with everyone who wanted to join him. However, I think that what bothers me about communion, even at churches that open it up to everyone, is that even with an open policy, the rite has so much preciousness about it, and so much theology has traditionally been wrapped up in it--especially with all the language about the blood and body of Christ that usually accompanies it--that it is hard for me to get enthused about participation.

Susan K. Smith, in response to the question posed on the "On Faith" site, wrote this in her blog:

God didn't make denominations. People did, and continue to do, if the truth be told. Ah .... truth ... that is the problem. Everyone is looking for the truth and everybody thinks they have THE truth.

And the truth derived by humans is too often not inclusive and welcoming, but exclusive and divisive.

I am not even sure if all the ritual we religious types ascribe to is Biblical or Christian. Didn't Jesus rail against ritual and legalism, and didn't he get in trouble because he wanted, no, needed, people to understand that religion is so much more about God and less about the wiles of human beings?

Didn't Paul write to Jews who had been released from feeling obligated to follow ritual at the expense of loving relationships with each other that they should stand fast in the liberty the Christ had given them and "be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage?"

It is painful to me that religions seem to value ritual over the needs of people. If we gave a tenth of the attention to the world's suffering people that we give to ritual, the world would be radically different. If we practiced the agape love that Jesus talked about, I doubt that anyone would be starving.

She puts her finger on a problem, I think--the idolization of rituals. When rituals are our idols, they stop being referents to the sacred and instead become ends unto themselves. I'm not against rituals per se. To me, a ritual is something that can point us towards a sense of sacred awe, and as such it is a tool, but merely a tool; and I believe that no single ritual is necessarily more important than any other. For me, lighting a candle can have just as much sacred resonance as eating bread and drinking wine. It is not the ritual itself, but how one feels oriented towards the Divine and the Sacred that matters. Communion, I think, is so often in Christianity an end unto itself, and it is granted so much importance that it becomes an idol. The Quakers understood this a long time ago, which is why they don't bother with it at all. Of course, the Quakers have their own solemn rituals--the act of meditative unprogrammed worship is basically one long such ritual.

A few weeks ago, I attended a mid-week Eucharist at an Episcopal church. Much to my chagrin, I was the only person there. I was later told that more people usually attended, but for various reasons that didn't happen that day. Since it was just me and the priest, I was called into service to read some of the lectionary passages and some of the passages from the Book of Common Prayer. There was a lot of High Christological and Trinitarian language that I didn't much care for, but I decided to just try, best as I could, to let the sacred experience flow over me and not get too caught up in the language. The short sermon, which was directed only at me, involved a discussion of Peter and Paul. It was mentioned that Peter died in Rome and was crucified upside down. As I heard those words, I recalled just recently reading in Uta Ranke-Heinemann's book that there was no evidence that Peter ever went to Rome, let alone died there, and that the legend of him being crucified upside down came from a very late apocryphal work. But I didn't let any of this bother me too much. I had come into this service with the intention of having a spiritual experience, knowing full well that things were going to be said that I might not agree with or that I would be uncomfortable with. It helped that the priest was just so nice, and, not to sound self-centered, but it also made a difference that this entire service was was so focused on me. I was getting full attention, and I was an important part of a sacred experience. Often I like to slink quietly in the back pew during a church service, so this was a big change for me.

Then came the communion part of the service. I couldn't bring myself to beg off, as I probably would have done had I not been the only one there besides the priest. I just felt like it would have been rude not to fully participate. So I did. And here's the amazing thing--I sort of liked it.

In fact, because I rather liked it, the following Sunday, when I attended worship at a progressive Lutheran church, I took communion again. I had been there before, and up to that time I had never gone up to take the bread and wine. But, remembering my strange sense of enjoyment from the Episcopal Eucharist, I went up this time. And I discovered that it didn't do much for me. I went back to this same church a couple of weeks later, and that next time I resumed my old practice of staying seated and watching during the communion part of the service.

The lesson I took away from this is that context is everything, and that the meanings of rituals are not inherent to the rituals themselves but in what they point to and in the interpretations and attitudes that we bring to them. This confirmed my suspicion that, for me anyway, communion, is in and of itself just an act of eating and drinking unless we somehow bring something to it. It only becomes important because we make it so. In my own experience, there were very specific reasons why I liked the Eucharist from the mid-week service that could not necessarily be repeated on other occasions or in other places: I was a fully active co-participant of the entire service with the priest, I was given the full attention of the priest, the priest was warm and welcoming, I was probably just in the right mood for it at that moment--and, last, but not least, quite frankly, I am sure I liked it because the whole thing was rather novel. But novelty soon wears off and only goes so far.

Since the churches I attend are generally progressive, and since progressive churches generally offer open communion, I usually have the option of taking communion when it is offered. (I actually was baptized as a child, so I probably qualify for communion in most churches that restrict it to those who were baptized in some Christian church.) In the future, I may or may not take communion when it is offered to me. But my guess is that in most cases I probably will not.


Matthew said...

Seeker >>...the meanings of rituals are not inherent to the rituals themselves but in what they point to and in the interpretations and attitudes that we bring to them.<<

You've hit on an important point, namely what we are ABLE to 'see' is usually heavily affected by what we expect, or limit ourselves to experience. A 'something else' isn't enough; it's our participation that 'makes the moment real'. This is not to say that nothing happens unless you're a participant (the 'sound of a tree falling in the forest' bit) but unless you are OPEN to the reality it's NOT REAL FOR YOU. Others, who ARE OPEN to the reality, may be completely immersed in it.

The different way people experience reality is a major cause for confused and confounding interactions. So much conflict would be avoided if people 'walked in the other person's shoes', BEFORE judging. Of course it's way better not to judge at all, but let's take this one step at a time ;)


Joe said...

Yeah, that is a good point. I have also experienced a varying response to ritual in a spectrum of very-annoying to very-useful. Unfortunately for me, there doesn't appear to be a particularly good way of assessing beforehand which category it will fit in.

Harry said...

A few years ago I attended the funeral of my uncle who converted to Catholicism when he married his wife.

I didn't take communion. It didn't bother me. Why should it?

I understand that Tim Russert was a pretty devout Catholic. For Sally Quinn to take communion was to dishonor Mr. Russert's religion, and so to dishonor Mr. Russert himself.

Matthew said...

harry- >>I understand that Tim Russert was a pretty devout Catholic. For Sally Quinn to take communion was to dishonor Mr. Russert's religion, and so to dishonor Mr. Russert himself.<<

If a 'nonbeliever' takes a gift offered in love (as a way to help that person participate in the saving grace of God) from a
'believer', how does the 'nonbeliever' dishonor the giver's tradition and the giver?!

Simply stated- When can a believer love another, and when can't they (it sounds as if honor trumps love)? I don't recall Jesus warning against dishonor in such a case.


Brian said...

If a 'nonbeliever' takes a gift offered in love from a
'believer', how does the 'nonbeliever' dishonor the giver's tradition and the giver?!

I'm with Matthew on this. Sally may, or may not have understood the symbology of the communion, but I can't see the link between taking communion as disrespect to a living or dead person. Communion is a symbolic remembering of Christ, not other people.

If she had taken the wafer and thrown in on the ground, then that would have been disrespect, but I can't see any seed of disrespect in participating normally.

Harry said...

In my case, the priest made it clear that the communion was for Catholics only.

It was not offered to her in a spirit of love or any other spirit.

This ceremony was open to Catholics only and to flout the rules is a measure of disrespect.

If she did it out of ignorance, then there was no disrespect. But the priest ought to be disciplined.

Cynthia said...

A few years ago I was serving a UCC church during a pastor's sabbatical. While there, a member's mother passed away. The mother was Catholic; the funeral was held at the local parish, presided by the monsignor. I was invited to offer a prayer at the end of the service.

But I could not sit in the chancel with the priest. The family nor I could participate in the Eucharist. Her own daughter and grandchildren were excluded. At such times as these, respect can take many forms, such as respect for a grieving family. If grace is exclusionary, it isn't really grace.

Mystical Seeker said...


Exactly! To paraphrase a certain well-known prophet, rituals were made for humankind, and not humankind for the rituals.

It is amazing how those who claim to follow Jesus manage to nevertheless take on the same kind of rigid legalism that he himself opposed.

Mars Girl said...

I participated in communion at my grandmother's funeral. I've not been Catholic since I was in sixth grade. It seemed to me that it would be something my grandma would have wanted me to do, even though she was a devout Catholic. I dont think her rules were so tight. I think she would have viewed it as hope that I've become less rigid in my apparent non-belief.

Of course, when I told another Catholic friend that I had done this, she got annoyed with me. Oh well. I think it was right by my grandma. I wanted to take part in a ritual that was meaningful to her at her funeral... even if it didnt have the same meaning to me.

The rest of my Catholic family didnt chastise me; I think they all secretly hoped I was returning to the fold too.

Luke said...

i'm not a fan of ritual... but a book called "Jacob the Baker" by Noah benShea really put ritual into perspective... check this out:

"Prayer is the path where there is none." said Jacob.

"Do you always pray the same way, Jacob?"

Jacob spoke slowly, "Ritual gives form to pasion. Passion without form consumes itself."

"But you said prayer is a path where there is none...?"

Jacob's eyes drew back their last curtain, "Yes, prayer is a path where there is none, and ritual is prayer's vehicle."

i thought that was pretty cool. there's a setup to your church's worship and that's important.... structure is important for worship as we'd just be waiting around for the spirit to move.. and that's no fun. however, the ritual should work to be as inclusive as possible.

i remember the first time i took my wife (then girlfriend) to Mass... she was completely lost. she felt so unwelcome and lost in the service... whereas i felt right at home in the her Methodist church. this force the scales to fall from my eyes and see how ritual can be just as exclusive as inclusive.

great post! RAWK!

and kudo's (the candy bar kind) to Cynthia and her comment "If grace is exclusionary, it isn't really grace." AMEN!