Thursday, December 04, 2008

Traditions and Rituals

As Christmas approaches, I got to thinking about what it is I, and people in general I think, like so much about holidays. I think a lot of it is a sense of familiarity. We bring out those same decorations year after year, make those same cookies, practice our same family traditions, sing those familiar songs etc, and they bring us together and make us feel united. Humans crave familiarity, tradition, and even ritual.

I grew up in a church where tradition and ritual were seen as bad things, and yet we practiced them all the same without calling them what they were. The family prayer was always the same, complete with hesitations in the same spots that made it perhaps sound more like spontaneous prayer on the surface, but the truth is any of us could have repeated it word for word, hesitations and all. Church services were the same each week and would have fit any definition of ritual, for instance this one from a dictionary online: "Any practice or pattern of behavior regularly performed in a set manner." Well yeah, that's what we did!

I think an interesting side note is the fact that, as an introvert, I appreciate rituals and rote prayer even more because it allows me to really focus on my intentions and prayers, rather than frantically scrambling to find "the right words." I'm not a good thinker off the cuff, and I was always terrified of having to pray out loud in front of people (and thankful I was a girl so I didn't have to often!) But with rote prayer, the words are given to me so that I can focus on the meaning rather than finding the words.

But rote prayer and rituals were seen as vain and empty in the church of my upbringing, and yet we practiced them all the same. We practiced them without calling them what they were. And we practiced them in family settings too, especially around the holidays. It doesn't matter how much we said they were bad or wrong, in the end we were drawn to them and we practiced them anyway. Why did we do this? Because it is natural, it is good. God created us with this longing for tradition and ritual, it is not a bad thing or a dirty word.

People have their bedtime routines, their nightly prayers, their weekly Saturday morning breakfast or weekday game night. The seasons and the activities that come and go with them are also a form of tradition, we can see that our liturgical seasons mirror the natural seasons. These things comfort us, they give structure to our time and familiarity and closeness. So why wouldn't we embrace these things in our worship? Why pretend like we don't practice them when we do?

Of course the answer one would probably receive is because these rituals and traditions are "man-made." Well, so are church service programs, who gets to decide how many songs you sing before the sermon? A man does! But the thing is, man-made does not automatically mean wrong. Yes, some of these rituals and traditions are "man made" in the sense that men were there to organize them. But the desire, I believe, is God-given. It's why, even when we try to avoid rituals we end up fitting them in somewhere in our our weekly schedules, or in our holiday traditions, even in our daily family interactions. Seeing as God created us, and became one of us, certainly he's aware of this natural human desire for ritual and tradition. How, then, could we say it's a bad thing?

I love the structure that the liturgical year brings to my life, and I thank God for fulfilling the desires He places in our hearts for such things through the Church!


Catharine said...

Oh, yes! And the crazy thing is, those church traditions from our past were so dry, so colorless, so boring!!! They didn't increase my desire to know God more; they made me want to run away from such a God who would demand such lifeless life. And the crazy thing was, they couldn't say they refused these "man-made traditions" so that the Spirit could move, because they didn't trust the Spirit to move them! Everything had to be done the same old way. Occasionally a new song would be taught. Very rarely though. That former life had no tradition and no Spirit. And contrary to what many think (who try doing church w/out tradition & ritual) - the Spirit does move in the midst of tradition, order, and ritual. The Spirit is at work, making our hearts glad, focusing our attention on Christ, giving us the courage to speak the good news, empowering us to live by faith, etc!

Well, I've gone on and on; obviouslly your blog hit a nerve, lol!

~Joseph the Worker said...

I agree completely. Written prayers help focus our mind on the important things to pray about, but also leave us open to meditate on deeper spiritual matters while we pray...a perfect combination. I think the Rosary is the best example of this. Meditating on the mysteries while praying such powerful words is incredible.

Anonymous said...

I do vain repetitions, too! I've only seen it denounced by like two or three people in my life time. I mean, who's seriously going to go out of their way to denounce the Lord's Prayer or the Serenity Prayer, etc.?

Catharine/Star said...

I have discovered, by reading what the Scriptures actually say, that Jesus was never against repeated prayers. You will never find him say in the Gospels, "don't pray traditional prayers." Why? Because he said traditional prayers as a Jew!

What Jesus was against was VAIN repetition, the emphasis being on VAIN. And he explained that those prayers were vain because the person praying was hoping God would hear them BECAUSE of their many prayers.

Prayers said in faith (believing that God hears you) is the issue.
It is not the repetitiveness of the prayer that is the issue, it is the unbelief that God won't hear you unless you pray this prayer 20 times (or whatever). But if you pray in faith, each time, then those prayers are not said in vain.
By the way, I'm Star on Steph's board.

Stephanie said...

Well said Catharine! :-)