The Other I

November 20, 2010

Ritual and the stories we tell

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:00 pm

This is a response to Existentialist Ubuntu on Chris Lawrence’ blog Thinking Makes It So, which is itself a response to my post two days ago on Religion and Ritual.

My original post was about my personal difficulty with the traditional Catholic rituals with which I grew up.  I have experienced ritual as a way of humans standing together as we face events in our lives, many of which are inexplicable, but as my belief system diverged from Catholicism, I have found it increasingly difficult to participate in Catholic rituals without feeling a certain sense of hypocrisy in myself.

But we have often been able in my family to take these rituals and adapt them to express our common sense of loss and pain and also joy and celebration based not on our Catholicism but on those deeper values that we continue to share.

But Chris is right.  There are narratives, beliefs underlying rituals.  As I said in my earlier post, we were able to “hijack” the ritual for my sister Mary’s funeral and managed to include the entire – very large – family.  That is the last time we have been able to do it.  Since then, one wing or the other has either been absent or has cringed silently during parts of the ceremony.

The saddest example of the divisive potential of ritual occurred between one of my brothers, D, and sister, B.  D  is a uniquely committed but unyielding Catholic and he and his wife have raised their six children in Mexico following a fundamentalist interpretation of Roman Catholicism.  While not accepting his beliefs, B has been a particular friend and benefactor to his children, remembering their birthdays,  helping pay for their university educations, providing summer jobs, and attending many of the significant events in their lives.

Some years ago she was invited by the family to attend the college graduation of one of the children.  But when she took Communion at the Mass of celebration, she started a rupture that now includes most of us.  She is no longer a believing Catholic, and it was made clear that she was most emphatically not welcome to participate in the common breaking of the bread.  After all, she was not “one of them.”

Almost none of us are “one of them” by his definition, and the split between him and us feels simply irreconcilable.  He believes that without repentance, we are each on the road to hell.  The rest of us, for our part, don’t even believe in hell let alone in his version of our need for repentance.

What is so particularly painful about this rupture is that it is taking place over the very thing which we all share – our common humanity.  Communion, the breaking of the bread, is meant to be a symbol of that.  And yet Rome forbids Catholics to welcome non-Catholics to this table.  Even Tony Blair was explicitly forbidden by the present pope from sharing communion with his Catholic wife and children before he converted to Catholicism.  This restriction is not a narrow fetish of my brother; it is officially mandated by the Vatican.

And so although all of us everywhere do share our humanity, its mysteries, its pains, its joys, and our needs for each other, ritual is not necessarily a reflection of this.  The rituals I have described in my earlier post arose out of beliefs I no longer hold.  I am able to participate in them to the extent that whole group – most of my family – has often been able to embrace the sincerity of varying beliefs and disbeliefs and so subtly change the underlying meaning of the various rituals while retaining many of their outward forms.

But rituals are based on an underlying narrative.  And that narrative might be destructive.  I have often listened to the songs of the IRA calling for Irish independence.  The music is so rousing that I think sometimes I could be mesmerized into doing almost anything with a sense of heroic virtue.  And some people do.

The stories underlying rituals are held by the group as a whole.   I can’t, all by myself, transform any ritual into an expression that suits me personally.  To be a transformative ritual, it must reflect the larger values of the group.  And when it doesn’t, I cannot participate.

Rituals are very powerful, but they are like fire.  They can be healing, creative forces.  Or they can destroy our very selves and what we love.


  1. A sad story. At risk of oversimplification, this seems to be the sort of thing that can happen when ethics is derived from belief. The other way round seems to me both a lot safer and a lot friendlier.

    BTW, you might have a ‘http//’ too many in the link. “” should be all you need.

    Thanks, Chris.


    Comment by Chris Lawrence — November 21, 2010 @ 8:25 am | Reply

    • Chris – thank you for noting the double http. I’ve corrected it.

      On a less easily correctable subject, I’m not sure that the fundamental problem is deriving ethics from belief so much as deriving belief from an unacknowledged thirst for power which underlies – it seems to me – so much religious teaching. I certainly think there is a place for looking at religious practice and asking if it does indeed match even the fundamental teachings of ones religion – like to love one’s fellow man. Which I think I will make the subject of a post.

      I’ve never thought of the possibility of deriving religion from ethics, though I have certainly thought of ethics being derived from some other wellspring than religion.


      Comment by theotheri — November 21, 2010 @ 2:09 pm | Reply

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