Philosophy, Religion

The right rites: the role of ritual in society and self

The nineteenth century saw developments in communications techniques and technologies which staggered and baffled contemporary observers. First, the telegraph gave people the unprecedented ability to send messages at the speed of light, then the telephone made this even more wonderful by allowing the transmission of actual speech, and finally wireless transmissions broadcast invisible messages through an invisible medium. The speed of these new communications was the most astounding factor: time and space, went the popular adage, had been completely annihilated. I want to argue that a ritual is like a form of telecommunication, joining people across time and space. A ritual is a regularly, if not frequently, repeated action performed for a specific prescribed purpose, and is carried out by multiple people, on a regular basis, over an extended period of time. Specific rituals can be performed daily, yearly, or only once in a lifetime. Entire nations may perform a ritual for generations, and dispersed peoples may maintain a ritual in smaller groups.

Separate points on the spiral of time, connected by a ritual

To understand the power of a ritual as a form of communication, we should consider a model of time as an upwards spiral. A year can be visualised as a circle, but, with the completion of each cycle, we do not simply go around and around, we also progress upwards, moving on. In this model, the horizontal plane represents the individual units of time within a year – the months, weeks, days and hours – and the vertical progression from circle to circle represents the progression of years. (Of course, one could also employ a microcosm of this same model, and view months, weeks or days in a similar way, thus overlaying Januaries on Januaries in the spiral, or Mondays on Mondays and so on.) On this model, a regularly repeated event or action, each instance of which occurs on the same month, week, day or hour as every other instance, is like an arrow piercing through the spiral, through the fabric of space and time, connecting all points through which it passes. Such a repeated action puts all points at which it occurs in communication, each one with every other. Through the medium of a ritual, time and space are not annihilated, rather they are acknowledged and appreciated, but they are transcended; echoes of the past and the future can be heard in the present, and the presence of those distant can be felt nearby.

A person carrying out an action which they know is being performed by others around them connects themselves with the community of individuals carrying out that action. Likewise, a person carrying out this action, knowing that others in previous generations have performed the same ritual, and hoping that individuals in future generations will continue to perform it, connects themselves with all those individuals as well. Such a person, through their intention and their action, creates a bond of familiarity and sympathy with other individuals distant both in space and in time, more effectively than through the medium of telecommunications technology, because this connection will unite individuals by the ability of ritual to create a shared experience between people who may otherwise have had little in common. This shared experience then becomes the basis of something fundamental to religion and to all individuals: community. It is through shared experiences and understanding that a community is created and consolidated. Once established it may be maintained down the generations and across continents; individuals, committed to the continuation of the same rituals, will connect themselves, invisibly and intangibly, to those far away, whom they may never meet, but with whom they feel an affinity simply by virtue of the shared experiences with which their common ritual observances imbue them.

"...the difference between ritual and mundane activities lies not in the type of activity being carried out, by rather it is the intention with which one carries out the habitual action..."The key to these connections with distant individuals is continuity, and the sympathy which results from noticing and appreciating this continuity. It is in this way also that rituals can take on an additional significance, by providing a source of continuity within individuals themselves. The individual who has performed a certain ritual action over a period of time, and who intends to continue to perform the same action, has by their intentions drawn a line through their past, present and future which connects every point through which it passes on their own personal spiralling time-line. The continuity this can create between the individual’s past, present, and projected future self is a connection which allows for consistency of thought and action, and an increased appreciation of personal development and change over time. This can be best understood by imagining yourself in a small room, on one side of which is a mirror, and on the opposite side of which is a sheet of clear glass. The important thing is that both of these are two-way mirrors, but you are on the observing side of one of them, and on the observed side of the other. You can see into the past, to see past-you, but not into the future, to see future-you.

When performing a ritual with the knowledge that it has been carried out in a regular fashion previously, and with the intention to continue to perform it regularly in the future, an individual at a certain point in time connects themselves with all previous and projected future instances when they carry out that same ritual. Thus, when looking back, through what appears to be clear glass, present-you sees the instances of past-you performing the ritual. When looking forward, however, into the future, you see only yourself, reflected in the mirror. All we can see are our hopes for the future. Nevertheless, you know that your past self, past-you, is also looking forward, attempting, in vain, to discern their future. Likewise, your own future self, future-you, on the other side of your reflection, can see you, and looks still further into the future themselves. Moreover, although you can see past-you through reflecting on the performance of the ritual, and past-you is unaware of you, you are there because of your past-yous and their choices, and future-you is there because of you and the choices you make in the present. In remembering this, we build a line of continuity through our lives connecting the past and the future through the present. We can remember the hopes, fears, ambitions and anxieties of the past and consider how we will look back on our present selves from the vantage point of our own future.

Jewish rituals: morning prayers, Shabbat candles, a lit Channukiah, a circumcision

Jewish rituals can be performed daily (prayers), weekly (Shabbat), yearly (Channukah), or once in a lifetime (circumcision)

But what makes an action into a form of telecommunications, instead of simply something more mundane done regularly and by many? For example, going to the toilet is a repetitive action, done many times a day, by everyone; it has been that way as long as humans have existed, and will continue to be that way as long as humans continue to exist. However, the key to the difference between ritual and mundane actions lies not in the type of activity being carried out, but rather it is the intention with which one carries out the habitual action, and the meaning with which the action is imbued. If one has in mind, when performing any action, to do it in a meaningful way, having in mind something more than the mere action itself – and one intends to continue attributing this meaning to the action in the future – then one elevates the physical action to the place of a ritual. This then connects us with others, and with other temporal instances of ourselves doing the same thing. Thus, in Judaism, if one makes a blessing after going to the toilet thanking God for the ability to do so, one connects oneself with others who do likewise, across time and space.

The intention to make a blessing of thanksgiving and acknowledgement of God before and after eating food is another example of how the most basic actions can become powerful transmitters of unity and continuity across time and space. This is just as true with actions such as prayer, Shabbat observance, kashrut, mourning rituals, and a myriad other day to day activities which make up the fabric of human life. Performed without this important element of intention, each ritual is merely a habitual action, carrying no meaning for the individual performing it, and not connecting them to anything else. In which case, each becomes as mundane as any other everyday action which is performed without intention. With this understanding of intention, however, each action is elevated to become an amazing form of telecommunications through the intention to establish it as a ritual, thus transcending time and space to unite individuals with others distant in time and space, and with themselves.


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