Repite, por favor
I recently mentioned an article I had seen in First Things to a Baptist friend of mine as we were driving around the Greater LA Area. The article points out that societies without a deep appreciation for ritual often find themselves on a never-ending quest for sincerity. This observation corresponded with the experiences of both my friend and myself; our common evangelical upbringing was steeped in a desire for “realness”—undoubtedly a good-hearted phenomenon, but a rather quixotic one. After all, if one is deliberately attempting to sound or even to be sincere, then one will almost certainly fake the naturalness through which sincerity ought to manifest itself. In other words, authenticity can be an excellent means, but it is a terrible end.
My friend saw similar problems with ritual, however. He argued that repetition and tradition can also make worship less meaningful in the soul of a Christian. In fact, he saw it as self-evident that ritual easily leads to the believer merely “going through the motions” of worship. This is a common modern criticism of liturgy, and one that I myself have made in the past. However, a bit of reflection should reveal that this accusation is, despite its prevalence, baseless.
In all the examples I have ever encountered, the purported phenomenon arises when the practitioner never understood the ritual to begin with. This conforms with expectations; I always imagined the stereotypical empty ritualist as a half-educated, kneeling parishioner, mumbling words she doesn’t really understand, hoping that somehow her words will get her into heaven. Of course, that isn’t a problem with ritual. It’s a problem with catechesis. But on top of that, it’s almost exactly the opposite of what we generally find to be true about devout practitioners of Catholic rituals.
In reality, the practice of ritual is inversely related to one’s ignorance. So-called cultural Catholics are the least likely to participate in the traditions of the Church. How many times have you seen someone who doesn’t understand Church doctrine praying a rosary? Maybe three or four times, but I find that those who pray their rosaries are generally pretty theologically savvy. It is those that understand the rituals that most frequently and piously observe them.
If one had thought deeply about this, then one could have expected it. Why would someone who doesn’t understand the significance of a ritual choose to constantly observe it? Who fasts for something that they don’t really understand or care to learn about? Maybe a child would. But once those sorts of children grow up, they tend to leave the Church.
Nevertheless, I will gladly admit that something can be meaningful intellectually without being meaningful emotionally. We ought to respond to both potential objections, so as to be fair to the argument. Perhaps the repetition that tradition brings eventually wears out the love that once fueled it?
It is quite the opposite, actually. We repeat the things that we love. Shakespeare’s plays have been performed over and over and over, tens of thousands of times. Why? Because we love them. They are treasures of the English language, and we repeat them precisely because we are enamored of them. Why does a child repeat the same game again and again? Because he has near boundless enthusiasm for it. We lose interest in such repetition precisely because we get older, more cynical, and more easily bored. Chesterton speculates that God orders the sun to rise every day because He is like a child in His enthusiasm—He wants to do it again because it makes Him glad.
Similarly, as a Catholic, I don’t repeat the “Hail Mary” again and again because I am too bored to think of something original. If I was really that bored, I would stop repeating it. I repeat it because I love it. I repeat it because, like Shakespeare scholars, I find some new truth in it every time that I recite it. The repetition builds the love I have for the prayer rather than wearing it out.
The evangelical objection to ritual has its roots in the same mindset that has, of late, undermined the concept of faithfulness to one’s wife. Worldly men of our time like to say “oh, I could never be satisfied with just one woman—I need many to keep me interested.” I say that this attitude shows that they do not love any of the women they are with. If you truly love something, you want it again and again, and the repetition doesn’t bore you—it makes you say “again!”
Indeed, after many years of deeply loving something, it becomes much more meaningful. The Hail Mary has been on my lips in good times and bad alike, and I have become rather attached to it. The sweet memories that come from a tradition long practiced are unparalleled sources of comfort for the troubled soul. Like an old rag long kept by the side of a young child, the tradition has become more lovely to the practitioner over time, not less.
Perhaps, then, we could be accused of falling in love with the tradition rather than with God, Whom the tradition is designed to remind us of. But this also, I think, is a mostly spurious concern. Things can only be properly loved, after all, if they are valued correctly. Someone who is consumed with love for her pets, to the point of excluding the greater objects of her love, is never really happy with them. They may bring some temporary joy, but the end result is always anxiety and possessiveness. It quickly becomes obvious to everyone around the owner that she has developed an unhealthy obsession that will only bring misery. We are only genuinely happy with our things when we understand their rightful place in our hearts.
The same is true for prayers and rituals. The people who most enjoy ritual are those for whom the ritual serves its rightful purpose. The Our Father, Glory Be, and Hail Mary have been repeated through the ages because they are submerged in a deep theological and moral grace. The prayers have retained their form for centuries because they encapsulate deep truths about God, and because they have helped countless millions encounter God themselves.
At the same time, it is appropriate to mention that there is some danger in overvaluing ritual itself. The principle of proper usage ought to be taken as a warning against those who are overly fond of, say, the Old Latin Mass. If you pay attention, I think you will soon notice that the people who are most bitter about The Second Vatican Council and most obsessed with the Latin Mass are people for whom the subject of the liturgy brings more anger than joy. They have oftentimes lost sight of what both the new and the old Mass were meant to point us to by focusing overly on the tradition itself. To be clear, I think it is perfectly acceptable to have favorite rites or prayers. But we ought not get so focused on them that we lose sight of the joy they are meant to bring us.
With this caveat, I feel comfortable saying that ritual is far less dangerous to spiritual health than my friend believed. Humans, of course, can ruin even the best of things. But repetition is generally a sign of spiritual health, not weakness.