We all have rituals. Some are religious, like praying the Rosary. Some are habitual, like flossing your teeth before bed. We use them to simplify our schedules, organize our lives, and affect our futures. Yet how many of us are deliberate about our rituals? If we look at the intended purposes of some of the historical rituals of the Church, perhaps we can find a wealth of tools to use in our creative lives.
As an ex-Catholic turned Evangelical Bible college student, I’ve heard time and again that the Catholic Church is full of empty rituals. I argue that this simply isn’t true. The rituals of the Catholic Church are no more intrinsically empty than anyone else’s. The real source of fulness or emptiness is not the activity itself, but the heart of those participating in it. Yoga can be empty if one’s heart isn’t in it. Belting worship tunes can be empty if a guy lets his mind wander to last night’s game. Kissing your children goodnight can be empty if you are really carrying anger over the latest tantrum. The issue is the heart.
Rituals are important for several reasons. First, they force us to make room for something. Twice a week, I slow down from my schedule to sit and write this blog. It has become a ritual for Monday and Thursday afternoons. When I read the Bible, I am making room in my day to sit and be with God. When I go for a run, I am making room for my health. Many rituals cause us to leave our normal, daily lives to seek out something higher, or at the very least, something different. They draw us out of ourselves to make room for something else.
Secondly, rituals can connect us with a long line of people who have participated in the ritual. Knowing that others have come before your God (or gods) in the same way that you are is an awe-inspiring and often humbling experience. To join thousands of pilgrims in Mecca for the Hajj is to also join with millions of Muslims over the centuries. In a world that values individualism over community, this connectedness is a breath of fresh air and a huge boon for humanity.
Thirdly, rituals can be an opportunity for learning and growth. Many rituals are handed down through the generations. As we struggle to find a deeper connection to our spirituality, the chance to join someone else in their ritual can be of great value. Perhaps fasting can help bring you closer to God. Or reading through your Scriptures daily. Or reciting the prayers of those who have come before. Not all rituals will succeed in helping everyone, but the search can be very rewarding.
Finally, rituals can be a comfort and a guide when things are not going well. When I have hit low points in my spiritual journey, some of my daily rituals have been incredibly comforting. Many find reading the Bible to be boring or dry, but it has been a source of peace and joy for me, and a place I can connect with my God when other avenues fail. We tend to rely so heavily on our feelings and refuse to act unless our hearts are totally behind us. Yet there are times when our feelings are just tired or worn out, and the adherence to a ritual can keep us headed in the right direction until we are able to sort out the heart issue.
While most of the conversation so far has revolved around religious and spiritual rituals, I believe each of these concepts applies to our artistic lives as well. Let’s have a look.
As artists, we have skills that need practicing. Whether it is stretching, sketching, or singing scales, we need to keep our craft sharp thought repetitive practice. If we see our practices as rituals, then our first point above makes perfect sense. Writers don’t always feel inspired to write, but taking time out of each day for the ritual of consistent writing will keep them better at their craft. Devotion to taking photos will create a better photographer because it forces him or her to leave what is comfortable and make room for practice. We won’t become better artists without work, so we need to make room!
Every time I pick up a quill and ink pot to write a letter by hand, I think of the many writers throughout history who have done that very act before penning their words. I lay out my paper, thinking of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writing by gaslight. I laugh at ink spots on my hands, wondering if Shakespeare was always covered in ink. I know that literate humanity has done just these very things for hundreds of years, and it’s exciting to be part of that company. We have a long list of people in our world’s history and it’s really cool to know that we have something in common with many of them.
I spent two years at a Theatre School learning acting. Looking back now, I realize that most of that time was spent learning and practicing the rituals of my professors and other actors. This is how the Royal Shakespeare Company tackles text, so it is how I will try to tackle text. At the end, I was able to walk away with many ritualistic tools that allowed me to be a better artist. I still practice them whenever I get to perform, so their usefulness has not diminished with time, a testament to the power of rituals.
Finally, artists sometimes need encouragement. Like everyone else, they can be caught up in the difficulties of trying to live out one’s calling. Especially during dry times of no work or little creative muse, consistent practice can be the assurance that we haven’t lost our purpose. The class we attend can be a reason to get up or leave the house. The weekly meeting with a mentor can be uplifting and encouraging. It is in the harder times that we must allow the ritual to do it’s work, even when we don’t feel like it.
So, what are your rituals? A more important question, I believe, is do they work? Do your spiritual rituals draw you closer to God? If not, spend some time thinking about the issue and see if the problem is with the ritual or in your heart. Do you have artistic rituals? When is it hardest to keep them? These are the moments we must hold onto our practice or risk falling into a slump and dulling our tools.
Until next week!