Ritual is a highly complex set of symbols that expresses—both on conscious and less-than-conscious levels our relationship with the Divine, with society, with specific others, and with ourselves. Anthropologists can tell much about societies from their rituals and much about individuals, not only by their private rituals but also by how they relate to the communal rituals to the various societies to which they belong.
While we are going to be looking at religious rituals in particular in this posting, ritual goes far beyond the religious. We stand for the national anthem. We sing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch. We eat roast turkey for Thanksgiving. Brides wear white for their first wedding. We blow out candles on a cake and sing happy-birthday to mark another year of age. When individuals deviate from these rituals, or elaborate on them, or ignore them completely, it tells us some things about them.
Families have rituals too. Italian families often have pasta as the first course of Sunday dinner; Portuguese have a fish plate to begin the meal. Some families go out to breakfast after Sunday Mass, others cook a big breakfast at home. Some families have a particular grace they say before a meal. Some parents say night prayers with their children before they go to bed. Some families keep an Infant of Prague or a statue of the Blessed Mother in a prominent place in their home. Most families put up a tree at Christmas and have traditional ornaments that are particular to their family. All these things reflect certain values and ideas, theologies even, about the various families.
And individuals have rituals. There are certain prayers they say in the morning or at night. They may pray the rosary or begin a car trip with a specific prayer. They may telephone a parent or a sibling at a specific time each week. They may choose a certain flower for their garden or put a religious statue somewhere in their garden. There might be a certain song they listen to when lonely or when wanting to remember a loved one. They may visit a cemetery or go back to a specific place that holds a special memory.
Many of these rituals which we celebrate we do without reflecting on their meaning but they each, in some way or other, bring us comfort or fulfill some meaning in our lives. Anthropologists, psychologists, or other social scientists can tell us things about ourselves by the rituals we follow or the approach we take to social rituals. The father of some friends of mine was raised in a very strict Polish Catholic family but in college became—or claims to have become—an atheist. Every year on Good Friday he eats a big plate of kielbasa at three in the afternoon. It is a ritual for him. He says that it expresses his belief that religion is a bunch of b.s. It may, but I think it also represents a rebellious anger against his upbringing and his desire to disassimilate himself from the Polish and Catholic heritage in which he was raised. When I was in college—many, many years ago—I used to attend Sunday night services in the Lutheran Church up the street. It was an informal service and people could request a favorite hymn. There was one gentleman who every week asked for “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling.” It wasn’t church if we didn’t sing “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling.” This song carried some specific meaning for him on which his entire relationship with God seemed to depend. I don’t think that was particularly healthy but then rituals can, and often do, express more about our neuroses than our healthy side, especially when those rituals become compulsive behaviors.
We wrote in the previous posting about the popularity of an angry God in certain circles. An angry God reflects the faith of an angry believer. Our society is riddled with anger, indeed we can talk about the “culture of anger” which is another aspect of what Pope John Paul referred to as the “culture of death.” How much of our television and our movies are about anger, violence, and vengeance? We are raising our children on the pornography of violence with video games that are about destruction, violence, and death. Some people feel a need to have semi-automatic weapons in their homes and the strongest lobby in our country is the N.R.A., an organization that builds a culture of fear directed towards a host of undifferentiated “others” from Hispanic immigrants to the Federal Government to Muslims to unspecified liberals to an invasion force from Canada.
I refer to the “Katholic Krazies” as a spectrum of wing-nuts from hausfrauen Mary Ann Kreitzer of Les Femmes and Janet Baker of Restore DC Catholicism to the genuinely sociopathic minds behind Pope Francis The Destroyer and Mundabor’s Blog to the delusional episcopal wannabes of sedevacantists Daniel Dolan and Mark Pivarunas. What they have in common is an attraction to an angry god.
The roots of societal anger—by which I mean those who are angry with society or because of society—are that people feel powerless and disenfranchised. Often they feel they are not being heard, their opinions are not being respected, they have no influence over the way that the larger society in which they live is running its course. A sense of powerlessness creates panic and panic can manifest itself in strong anger. Religious people who feel powerless about the Church—any Church, their Church whichever Church it is—project their anger onto God to validate and make “righteous” their anger. One can go back to Jonathan Edwards and his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” preached at Northampton Massachusetts in 1741. Edwards had much to be unhappy about. While Independence was thirty-five years in the future, the colonists were already feeling themselves to be second-class Englishmen, disregarded by the establishment at home in London. Moreover, Edwards was a “dissenter”—a Congregationalist in a Congregationalist colony but an Anglican empire. And he could see that even in his colony of Massachusetts Congregationalism was losing ground to Anglicanism on the one side and to Unitarianism on the other. Indeed, as the Congregationalists lost their grip on control of Massachusetts, the colony—and indeed all the American colonies—were becoming less and less religious as they grew more and more prosperous. The original Puritan vision for Massachusetts of a commonwealth was fast disappearing as the Boston merchant class grew wealthier and wealthier and the farmers in western Massachusetts (where Northampton is) worked harder and harder just to survive.
Puritans like Edwards had certain rituals and ritualistic principles to which they clung furiously. These principles were essentially re-active in as that they were a reaction to the liturgical principles of the Church of England which Puritans thought had not been sufficiently “purified” of Catholic practices. (In the next several entries on the History of the Anglican Church we are going to see more about this conflict.) The set prayers of the Anglican Prayer Book were rejected for the extempore prayer of the Puritan preacher. The Surplice was rejected for the black academic gown. The communion table was set aside for a dominant pulpit. Kneeling for communion was replaced by remaining in one’s seat as the bread and cup were passed along to you in your place.
What about our angry Catholics and how they view ritual? An angry God needs propitiation to hold back his wrath. The Mass, therefore, is first and foremost (and for many, exclusively) a sacrifice. Christ the victim is offered in sacrifice to appease the Divine Wrath. Day after day the sacrifice is repeated, the Divine Victim is offered again and again, to counter-balance the sinfulness of the world.
A sacrifice requires a priest who offers the sacrifice on our behalf. Because he offers it on our behalf, he goes forth from us and ascends the altar to offer his victim. The place of sacrifice needs separation from the unholy for whom it is offered. It is to be elevated and walled off. Only the priest and his assistants can be in the sacred space. The priest, since he faces God on our behalf, needs to stand between us and God, thus with his back turned towards us. It also is necessary that he clearly be not one of us. He must be worthy of the role of intermediary between God and us, as sinless as possible. Thus he should have nothing to do with sex, which is the primal base of human sinfulness. He needs to be dressed differently from us to mark that he is consecrated in a way that we are not. He needs to speak to God in an arcane language and in a whisper we cannot, for the most part, hear. The sacrifice must be an experience of total otherness if it is to be accepted by God who is wholly Other.
We can see why the current liturgy is so threatening to those who have a need for their prayer to appease an angry God. An altar that positions the priest standing in the middle of the congregation, or even with the priest facing the people across it, changes the entire dynamic. The idea of a community of people, not huddled in fear but relaxed and comfortable and “very much themselves” in the presence of God undermines their entire concept of God as the Divine Reflection of their rage. For the priest to celebrate the Mass—to offer the Sacrifice—not on their behalf but with them as full, conscious, and active participants requires a drastic theological—as well as psychological and anthropological—shift that is just too much for some. We look at this in more detail in future postings.