time without rituals

Among the symptoms of change shown by postmodern society is the loss of rituals. Indeed, it is enough to see the swearing-in or inauguration of some high dignitaries on television to realize that they do not want to follow any rules of use and that they understand all protocol as a formalism limiting their spontaneity: thus we find characters who swear “by my criteria and by my family”; leaders who promise “for their daughter of the soul and for their people.” Something similar happens in sporting celebrations in which a winner offers his trophy to his mascot, the losing footballers shamefully divest themselves of the medal that the jury has just awarded them, or a minute of silence becomes an eternal ordeal in the stands, almost like waiting for the VAR verdict, football purgatory.

However, it should be understood that social customs, such as repeated and facilitative formulas, serve to show respect for society and help us walk along its routes. What is the rite? The rite is a symbolic action that communicates faith in the community of origin and evokes tradition, so that in this set of formulas the story that keeps us in family unity, in communion of creed or nationality, is spun. In short, each ritual characterizes us as a group.

The ceremonial rule conveys cohesion. In the rite we all coincide, we exercise the same sequence of words, gestures and signs, we recognize each other. On the contrary, the absence of rite makes everything become routine. Postmodernity pushes us to live in an inert automatism, which has a repetitive obsession, yes, but which is fed by utilitarian activism and, furthermore, tries to keep citizens entertained.

In postmodernity there is an excess of information, big data warehouses and clouds, news bulimia, but none of all this generates human cohesion. The empire of computer signs, the abundance of acronyms and the avalanche of data, rather isolate the individual because they overwhelm him, condemning him to improvisation and the labyrinth.

The respectful and dignified repetition of ceremonials produces awareness, enlivens interiority and favors cordial harmony. It is radically different from routine for its ability to generate intensity, concord, security. The rite is a silent delving into one’s own roots. The set of these rubrics could be seen as the vademecum that gives meaning to the daily walk of a citizen. Saint Augustine, in the fifth century, emphasizes the meaning of sacred symbols and rites when he writes Against Faustlittle educated teacher who despises the ritual value of the Old Testament and the Catholic sacramental: «A religion that brings men together, by which we are relinked to the divine and men to each other, cannot exist if men are not linked by a relationship founded on visible signs or rites: the force of these rites has an inexpressible value, which is why it makes those who despise it sacrilegious» (Against Faustum, 19.11).

The disappearance of rituals, in the opinion of the thinker Byung-Chul Han, fosters in our society narcissism by which each one is the measure of their acts, norms and customs; it produces social disintegration, since no one wants to submit to predetermined social forms. Likewise, it eclipses the vision of transcendence and capture of mystery, because the social routine is hard and opaque, preventing the transcendent vision; it also produces an overdose of emotion that hides the common rational principles accepted by society as the foundations of its existence. This author says in his work The disappearance of rituals: «It is the ritual forms that, like courtesy, make possible not only a beautiful treatment between people, but also a neat and respectful handling of things. Somehow, the rite shows the sacred side of reality, makes spirituality and poetry sprout from daily prose. Ritual practices make us have an affable, neat treatment that allows us to tune in with other people. The rite turns repetition into something sacral and conscious, the daily reality is clothed with heart. This South Korean philosopher, also a student of theology, brings up a text taken from a work dedicated to studying the value of repetition, and says it this way: «With the help of the Mass, priests learn to handle things neatly: sustain carefully the chalice and the host, slowly clean the containers, turn the pages of the book. And the result of the neat handling of things is a joviality that gives wings to the heart. I am surprised that in our days a philosopher navigating waves of postmodernity writes down in his study a liturgical observation as significant data for the contemporary world. He surprises me and throws me off.

Living life as a liturgy is the result of having been soaked in the symbolism of the true rites. Even in the seemingly most innocuous things, the soul will be able to escape from the routine and reach a higher illumination. Chul Han interweaves his interpretation of the postmodern world with oriental brushstrokes and, in this way, dares to present the Japanese tea ceremony, as a ritual model where the person enters into a sacred silence, the soul falls silent and an intense company is generated. “In the Japanese tea ceremony,” he says, “one undergoes a painstaking process of ritualized gestures. Well done manual and body movement has a graphic clarity. No psychology, no soul baffle him. The actors are immersed in the ritual gestures. These generate a absence, a forgetfulness of oneself. No verbal expression occurs in the tea ceremony. Nothing is transmitted. A ritual silence prevails. Communication is withdrawn and gives way to ritual gestures. the soul is silent. In silence gestures are exchanged that generate an intense company. The beneficial action of the tea ceremony is that its ritual silence completely opposes the current noise of communication, communication without community. The rite generates a community without communication. And I add: communication without the pressure of having to speak.

To understand the importance of ceremonial, which is not mere etiquette, take the following eloquent and real counterexample. The distinguished doctor and university professor Vallejo-Nájera stopped teaching his psychiatry classes at the Central University of Madrid. Shortly after his unexpected resignation, the former professor explained in a short essay the reason for his shocking decision. He described the reason more or less like this: when he entered the classroom as a teacher, in those turbulent years, the students stopped standing up, they were no longer silent, they no longer had the usual respect. On the contrary, they kept smoking, talking, sitting on the floor or at desks… The psychiatrist professor, a doctor of spirits, kept explaining: there was no longer any sign of appreciation for the sacred act of learning and teaching. The rite that daily inaugurates the miracle of learning in the classroom had been lost, respect had been lost. Everything had slipped into triviality. This atrophy of the ritual, evidences the loss of meaning.

Therefore, when we take care of the significant ritual among the components of a family, we are raising a dam to the tsunami of triviality that ends in routine. Speaking of routine, I just received a little book from Spain entitled Verbalist, by Rodrigio Cortés, an esoteric dictionary that reveals the provocative side of the words, and which, by the way, is discussed every day in the Augustinian Recollect community of San Millán de la Cogolla, at coffee time, like a curious rite community. I come to the word in question: routine. And, very much in line with what I am explaining, he defines: “Cadence of someone who has no ambitions.” Let us live, then, and celebrate the rite well so as not to fall into routine and ruin.

Lucilo Echazarreta OAR

time without rituals