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Ritual as Paying Attention

Thomas Whitley

Growing up in the American South, I was taught very early that ritual was bad. Many people, especially Catholics, were just "going through the motions." They didn't believe the right stuff. In the now-classic Pauline faith-versus-works debate (that Protestants have greatly misunderstood), we represented "faith" and ritual often represented "works. The problem with this view, I came to learn, was that there actually was quite a bit of meaning in ritual. Thus, J.Z. Smith says,

Ritual is, first and foremost, a mode of paying attention. It is a process for marking interest. It is the recognition of this fundamental characteristic of ritual that most sharply distinguishes our understanding from that of the Reformers, with their all too easy equation of ritual with blind and thoughtless habit.

And elsewhere

Ritual is, above all, an assertion of difference. . . . Ritual is a means of performing the way things ought to be in conscious tension to the way things are. Ritual relies for its power on the fact that it is concerned with quite ordinary activities placed within an extraordinary setting, that what it describes and displays is, in principle, possible for every occurrence of these acts. . . . Ritual thus provides an occasion for reflection on and rationalization of the fact that what ought to have been done was not, what ought to have taken place did not. From such a perspective, ritual is not best understood as congruent with something else . . . ritual gains force where incongruency is perceived and thought about.

When seen in this light, ritual has the power to become transformative. Certainly Protestants participate in nearly as much ritual as Catholics do, they simply cannot acknowledge it. As we move into the Hanukkah, Christmas, and Saturnalia season, it seems to me that the rituals we will be engaged in anyway (such as decorating a tree, going to a service, having a meal, opening gifts a certain way, singing certain songs, retelling certain stories) will become more meaningful when seen as a means of paying attention, of marking interest, and or speaking of how things could be, how things ought to be. Thus, ritual, while recognizing how things are, hopes for how things could be.