Sunday, October 3, 2010


Ritual is rarely well defended. The pragmatist launches the all purpose critique of "What good does it do?" and the defenders of ritual are stunned and in disarray. Yet I do not think that it is because the ritualist has no reasons, it is because he has been asked the wrong question. When the pragmatist asks, "What good does it do?" he is asking if it will toast muffins, or mow grass, or drive away that tiresome infestation of ants. And accordingly, when asked what ritual is for, the temptation is to answer in these terms and talk about the educational power in the symbol. But of course, if that was all that the ritual did, one ought to go to a lecture, which would be much clearer and more precise.
There is a reason that people all over the world create rituals and it is the same reason why the create manners and codes of conduct. It is because they are human. Mourners bring flowers to graves, not because they think that the dead require flowers, but because it seems the right thing to do. Hostess devise strange and elaborate rules governing the disposition of cutlery not because they think that there is Trinitarian message in eating with three different forks, but because it seems right. We protect and cherish old photographs, not because they are mystically connected with their subject, but because it feels right to protect even the image of a loved one.
In this sense animals are the great pragmatists. One can almost always see the material advantage in what animals do. Humanity is the one source of divine unreason in nature. Ritual is the affirmation of significance beyond material necessity. It decrees that things have a meaning beyond the use that can be made of them. Ultimately it is mingled with the mystery of the Incarnation, that matter and the eternal word are mingled. Thus it wrong to ask what good it is to burn incense, or light candles, or sing cants. It is partly to teach an allegorical mystery, partly for the sake of beauty, but mostly because it is right, it is human.

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