The word “Ritual” might well cause a visceral reaction among those of us who were brought up in the Pre-Vatican II Catholic Church. In fact, the words “empty” and “ritual” are often used in combination. Much of our childhood was spent attending Latin Masses performed by bored and boring priests. I tried to pay attention and to follow the goings-on in the prayer books, but the sacerdotal mumbling combined with the hawk eyes of the Nuns (always ready to snap their little frog clickers) created a maelstrom of feelings: boredom, anxiety, curiosity, and confusion, coupled with a sense of rightness and of “being good.” In due time, I became an altar boy, learning the Latin phrases, wearing cool outfits, and being close to the priest. Even then, it seemed the point was to say the Mass as fast as one could. I could rattle off the “Confiteor” in under 30 seconds and feel the approval of the priest waiting for me to get done with the seemingly meaningless words. The “best” priests could say the entire Mass in 20 minutes.
There was a deep comfort, however, in performing these formulaic words and movements. Being part of an ancient and transcendental tradition enabled me to feel very much in synch with the Divine Reality. At the time, I thought of this reality as the traditional “God,” and the only road I knew that could lead me closer to this God was the Path to Rome. So at age 19 I joined the Dominican Order, and for the next five years I lived the life of a Medieval Monk.
Monasticism brought ritual to an entirely different level. Our classroom lectures, textbooks and exams were all in Latin, so it became like a second language. This allowed meaningful words to fill the three to four hours a day we spent in choir singing a High Mass and the Divine Office. The Gregorian Chant was sublime. At the beginning of my Novitiate, I was invested with the Dominican habit. During this ceremony, the choir sang the “Veni Creator Spiritus,” and to this day that soaring melody brings a sense of comfort and peace.
The high point of these years, ritually and spiritually, was acting as a server for the morning Mass of my novice master, Fr. Ferrer Cassidy. He had spent many years during the 1920’s and 30’s as a missionary in rural China, and it seemed to me that the experience had altered him profoundly. When we celebrated Mass together, we were alone at 5 AM in a tiny, isolated chapel lighted only by sputtering candles. I was always transported by the deep spiritual charge in that room as he immersed himself in the ritual. Each gesture, each position of the body, eyes, hands, arms, and fingers was prescribed. The consecration of the host, the centerpiece of the entire ritual, was especially moving. Every word, “Hoc est enim corpus meum…,” came from the very soles of his feet and the depths of his soul. His absolute presence gave me chills, finally teaching me the value and the meaning of ritual as an art form. For, at its best, ritual is indeed a dance that embodies cherished values, grounds soaring ideals, and incarnates the grace of Beauty.
Just as in my essay on Shoddy Virtues, I hope it has become clear that the very same ritual can be a shoddy, empty waste of time, or the sacred embodiment of egoless love. It depends upon the intention, the attention, and the attainment of the practitioner. Simply going through the motions because they are the correct thing to do is dehumanizing. But to bring loving dedication to one’s practice is to enter the tranquil realms of the Tao. Tomorrow I will reflect on these ideas in relation to the Japanese Tea Ceremony.