The power of ritual

Easter is the highpoint in the Christian calendar, a celebration of eternal life over physical death. But while Easter has specific characteristics and potency, such celebration is not confined to Christians or Christianity alone.

All faiths and faith cultures offer stories and rituals to affirm the co-existence of some form of eternal or infinite life along with this familiar transitory, finite one. How striking, then, that for so many people the rituals of this Easter will centre primarily not on profound questions about the nature of life, but on chocolate eggs and bunnies.

The desire to ignore life’s big questions – or trivialize them – is strong in many people.  This may be a way to avoid thinking about death as well as life’s meaning, but to a great extent such attitudes are culturally conditioned.  For people living in orthodox or traditional religious communities, for example, it is quite natural to experience life through a series of familiar rituals that remind them many times each day of a deeper purpose to existence than mere survival or pleasure.

There can be great beauty in observing these rhythms as well as comfort, however restrictive they may seem to outsiders. In less traditional homes or groups, ritual may also be observed, if more casually.

Coming together for dinner at the same time, ideally saying some form of grace or offering explicit thanks; singing in the car on long trips; gathering the extended family for a shared meal one day each month; saying “I love you” at the end of a day or phone conversation; beginning or ending business meetings with a thoughtful “check in” around the table; spending significant anniversaries in company; camping or taking regular bush walks with a group of friends; committing time each week or month to a community or charitable pursuit – even spring cleaning or gardening: any reliable, predictable activities like these bring an essential rhythm to life and, with that, an invaluable sense of belonging.

Rituals can of course become hackneyed and empty, and never more so than when the external form or “rules” dominate rather than the needs of the people whom the ritual should serve.  It helps to think of rituals as vessels or containers: their power and efficacy are determined by what we pour into them in the way of sincerity, integrity and freshness. When any spiritual or social ritual is done thoughtfully it emphasises community and continuity, as well as commitment, even when it is carried out alone. Starting every day with a few minutes of quiet reflection, for example, will flavour the day quite differently from when you greet it with panic or a groan. What’s more, as any ritual grows more familiar, it will intensify in its power to influence your attitudes. Familiar routines can have ritual significance: taking a few seconds to set a table with care, to choose uplifting music, call a housebound relative or friend, or in more elaborate forms to mark a transition moment – a birth, a marriage, a retirement – with a thoughtful sense of outer occasion that appropriately honours the inner changes also taking place.

It is in times of death that even the most defended or cynical will reach for and need ritual. This is in part because thoughts of our own mortality can then no longer be avoided. It is also because grief itself is such a profound and disruptive experience. Mourners are often devastated by feelings of incredulity or abandonment as well as loss.

Those who are still living want the depth of their feelings met and some sense of meaning restored. Ritual can provide that. Formal religious ritual is not always wanted but many people will instinctively generate informal rituals that call on the traditional props of silence, poetry, music and shared recollections. Creating rather than following ritual is powerful, and can equally affirm how utterly life matters.