Catechesis Week #5

Ritual as a Guardian of Meaning

We continue this week exploring how ritual performs a twofold function of both protecting and revealing.  Nearly everyone can recall some of the simple ingredients that made for an engaging children’s story such as mystery, privacy, and exclusivity.  The secret passage in the back of the wardrobe, the hidden treasure chest, or the sealed object that only a very special person could unlock were some of the first elements that served to raise our attention above the immediate.  Moreover, everyone knew that the secret garden which required patient discovery and some rite of entrance was far better than a public park; the princess who could only be won after storming the castle and vanquishing the dragon was a prize far greater than just any bride plucked off the street.  As Thomas Howard says “All these situations called to something in us that was intensely aware that secrecy, privacy, is in the cards, and that it is a higher consciousness that bows to this and waits for the time and the permission, than that which shouts ‘Open it now!  I want it now!  I shall have it at once!’  And not only does privacy suggest mystery to us, and hence the privilege of revelation, or admission; it also implies exclusiveness... The point in all this exclusion and debarring is that the very nature of the spot is lost the instant it is thrown open to all and sundry.”  (Chance or the Dance Ignatius, San Francisco 2001 p.127-8)  Howard brilliantly explores the parallels between sexual intimacy and religious observance.  To pick up on just one of his themes, we can say that in both cases, when all the barriers are torn down and everyone is free to rush in under the banner of emancipation, the invariable result is not enrichment but desecration. 


This has played out many times in the history of God’s revelation but there is one especially striking instance worth mentioning.  In 63 B.C. when the Roman general Pompey had conquered Jerusalem, he was told that he could not enter the Temple.   Naturally, this did not sit well with the most powerful man of the time, who promptly declared that nothing could be forbidden to him.  He stormed into the temple, passing through the various porticos, courtyards, and finally right into the Holy of Holies where only the designated priest could enter once a year.  What did he find?  Nothing.  In his bewilderment, he could only ask why it was that the Jews had ever held the place to be so sacred? 


Why was Pompey not struck dead as were some of the more impudent or lackadaisical Hebrew worshippers at various times?  Could it be that those latter instances were cases of particular instruction?  Perhaps that for those who had been carefully formed and graciously invited to the most holy and sacred of all things – God’s friendship, far more was required?  One asks far more of a spouse, of a lover, than of a stranger; not for the sake of severity but because the gift of self does not endure non-requital.  Our Lord Himself gives voice to this both as Lover "I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” (Lk 12:49), and as King “because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.” (Rev 3:16)  Yet there is also another reason that is even more certain.  Recall that God had warned Adam and Eve that the very day they should eat of the forbidden fruit, they would surely die.  Did they drop dead once they had put God to the test?  Physically, they still drew breath, but even that sign of life was destined to be cut short as both the consequence, and painful reminder, of the far more serious death that had already  taken place.  Indeed, from the moment of that first and terrible sin, they suffered the greatest calamity of all – a spiritual death that would have been eternal were it not for some future intervention on God’s part.  A similar warning is repeated by St Paul who exhorts every Christian to discern carefully before taking the Body and Blood of the Lord.  How many Catholics receive Holy Communion in an ill-disposed state and are, sadly, left to think that it is of no consequence?  What could be worse than such a hardening of heart, which blinds one to the very precipice towards which they are inching closer?  God is not like the Wizard of Oz who must defend Himself at every turn by a pyrotechnic display.  We must recognize that in His mercy He granted signs and wonders for instruction, but He has no competition.  He is not like the other gods, ancient or modern, such that He must condescend to dethrone them one by one.  We may fool ourselves for a time, but the day will come when all that had lain hidden will be revealed.  The greatest punishment that can be inflicted is that He withdraw His presence from those that had been invited, but who came unprepared, and that such a tragic end be recognized only too late; yet another theme echoed in one of Christ’s parables about a great banquet (Mt 22:1-14).


This should serve as a point of great instruction for us living in a modern world.  Returning to a previous analogy, one who seeks a prostitute finds mere sex, but not love.  Likewise, one who seeks the high and holy mystery of God based on whim and fancy finds only the wounded projections of self.  As was once famously said, such a mystery is where even angels fear to tread.  The world testifies, not only to so many fallen creatures seeking love in the wrong places, but also religion in the wrong ways. 


To summarize, mystery, privacy, exclusivity (and thus by extension borders, demarcations, and hierarchy) are all employed by ritual as a means of safeguarding and protecting.  In this sense, ritual performs a negative function.  Now we can look at its positive corollary - the way in which ritual is also revelatory by allowing higher things to be transposed into lower ones, specifically, spiritual and divine realities through the mediation of material and human realities.



Ritual as Revelatory

Regardless of what name we give it, we are all familiar on some level with the theme of transposition.  An artist attempts to depict a three-dimensional colored vista in a two- dimensional black-and-white drawing, a solo musician transcribes a symphonic score for a single instrument such as the piano, and a translator struggles to render the nuances of an original language  in a foreign one.  Regardless of the context, we rightly value the effort to preserve as much of the original richness as possible in the new medium to which it is transposed.  And yet, despite the constant advances in high definition technology, we acknowledge that HD or 3D never becomes “real-D” and that no amount of speakers or hi-fi can reproduce the real concert.

We can use this analogy when describing the basic constitution of man himself.  Whereas the angels communicate by direct intellectual exchange, man, as an incarnate being of both matter and spirit, straddles two worlds.  While he has a share in the world of spirit, he cannot access it directly.  All of his knowledge of that higher realm, and his communication with it, is mediated through matter, time, and space.  While this has long been corroborated by both common experience and classical philosophy, perhaps the most immediate verification comes directly from Our Lord Himself.  He could have performed miracles by simply willing them and yet he chose to mingle saliva with dirt to heal a man born blind (Jn 9:6).  Even more, he could have created an economy in which all future Christians would have received an infusion of grace directly from God without any mediation whatsoever.  Instead, He chose to institute seven sacraments, or signs, that encompass both material and spiritual dimensions and necessitate a certain amount of ritual.  Matter is called to serve a role beyond it, namely, the communication of spiritual realities.  Ritual, for its part, becomes the further means of overcoming, insofar as it is possible, the attenuation or loss entailed by such a transposition.

Perhaps an even more homely example is the simple communication of human emotion.  Now it is impossible that one person feel immediately (without any medium) another person’s emotion, such as their joy or pain.  In fact, to “feel someone’s wrath” really means to witness a face turning red, a raised voice, and perhaps the unfortunate destruction of nearby objects.  But in no case do we actually feel the very anger itself that is proper to another person.  Everything that we experience comes to us through the mediation of a whole layer of signs and symbols.  It is for this reason that signs and symbols are not superfluous.  They reveal, in a dramatic way, that which cannot be entirely contained in mere matter alone. 

In light of this, perhaps it is easier to understand John Paul II’s rather striking statement that the greatest problem with pornography is not that it shows too much, but that it shows too little.  While it is impossible to entirely eliminate the symbolism entailed by anatomy itself (and the union of bodies which it facilitates), that alone does not suffice to capture the greater mystery that is the union of persons.  That greater mystery is one that can only be adequately expressed by a period of patient and virtuous courtship, solemn signs of fidelity (rings, wedding ceremonies, etc.), perpetual exclusivity (and therefore the exclusion of third parties), and even a certain solemnity and dignity with regard to the act itself, which should distinguish it from merely slurping a drink plucked from the fridge.

As it relates to the liturgy, if we remove its dignified vesture, incense, solemn chants, and gestures, it would quickly devolve into something that shows too little.  Just as persons can easily be debased and made into mere objects, so too can the liturgy be de-sacralized (desecrated) such that it no longer expresses God’s presence, but merely tickles our own desires and emotions.  This points to a slightly unsettling consequence - the liturgy is not something comfortable!  But how could it be?  And even if it could, would that ultimately be something desirable?  If human lovers feel the butterflies in each other’s presence, should we expect something less of almighty God?  Comfort is a quality befitting of a couch, but not of the One who is the object of all possible desire.  Awe, wonder, sublimity, and love (properly understood) are more appropriate descriptors.

Howard sums up much of this up very eloquently.  “Those who honor the shrine move, by their very attendance on the rubric, toward some great and unimagined Unveiling when the ecstatic secret is opened to those who have learned that no churl will see the Holy Thing; to those who have learned that it is not by pushing into a thousand shrines that one becomes able to pass through that final Veil, but rather by brave and single attendance on the one shrine committed to one; who know that an unveiling is a real unveiling only to the extent that what is veiled is set apart from the other things around, and that one’s appreciation of the reward is in some ratio to what one has experienced of patience in waiting for it.”

(p.134-5)  The liturgy is that shrine.  Just as Pentecost signaled an important stage in the undoing of the work of Babel, reorganizing and restoring religion to a harmonious unity, so too the liturgy is the slow undoing of the hand outstretched to grasp the forbidden fruit.  The good that we had once hoped to seize for ourselves can finally, again, be received, in an infinitely greater measure, by our patient, reverent, and trusting observance.  O felix culpa!  Oh happy fault, that won for us such a Redeemer.  If we will but learn from our fateful first encounter with the fruit of Eden so as to taste the fruit of the New Covenant, our Redemption.


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