The Challenge: Absence of Christian Symbols and Rituals in Contemporary Culture
Until the culture of Western modernity (alias the Dictatorship of Relativism) rituals played an important role in all civilizations. They built up a society’s and an individual’s identity by relating him not only to his immediate surroundings but to his forefathers and to his descendants – and all within a cosmic meaning.
In the contemporary Western world a materialistic culture has eliminated the heights and depths of the meaning of reality into a bleak, flat landscape where meaning is mere materialism. This has come about largely through the destruction of symbols and rituals that act as windows to the ultimate realities, to the metaphysical, the eternal, the infinite, the true, the good and the beautiful; and that thus empower one to enter the deepest levels of man’s existence; and so enable you to grapple with the purpose of life, the deepest problems of life (sin, evil, suffering and death).
Three factors especially led to this catastrophe; the sixteenth-century Protestant revolution with its destruction of so much ritual, ceremony and symbolism; secondly, the eighteenth-century “Enlightenment” with its philosophy of rationalism (vis-à-vis reason grounded in intuition); and, thirdly, the 1960s with their exaggerated emphasis on individualism to the extent of eliminating discipline, social identity, and reference to one’s forefathers and above all, to God Creator and Redeemer.
Whatever rituals that remain are shallow because they have been emptied of their original meanings.Man is doomed to travel rootless and orphaned, bored and apathetic, through the wasteland of “Mordor” unable to find any visible, tangible, perceivable realities that will act as doorways through which he can pass in order to understand who he is, why he exists, where he is meant to go, and how he should live in order to get there. As a result his heart is dissatisfied, quietly desperate for hope, unanchored from the truth that can steady him amid the storms of adversity.
This destruction has come about partly by destroying man’s sense of history. The subject is studied less and under a Dictatorship of Relativism it is often openly or subtly hostile to the Catholic Church and to the Christian civilization that she built.
The Role of Rituals and Symbols
Rituals satisfied mens’ thirst for understanding, reminded them of their hopes, challenged them to fulfill their obligations, strengthened them for battle and consoled them in grief.
A ritual is a series of precisely defined and invariably executed actions meaningful to the mind, felt in the heart, and expressed by and through the body, performed according to a prescribed order with the purpose of symbolizing an intangible reality.
Rituals connect man to the truths and institutions that transcend him. We know as Catholics that through the action of the Holy Spirit we can transcend time throughout the liturgical year becoming contemporaries with our Lord Jesus Christ in the redemptive events of his life, death and resurrection in order to fulfill the purpose of those events: our union with Christ according to the particular purposes of each of these events. But we not only remember and reflect upon the events; we enter into their salvific power, being enabled to appropriate it to ourselves in order to be transformed into Christlikeness, into new men. Thus the kairos (salvific time) of Christ transcends kronos (mere historical time) bonding us across the centuries with Christ; enabling us in a way to enter eternity, the deepest dimension of reality.
Moreover they unite the Catholic to his forefathers who cherished the same truths and enacted the same salvific mysteries. Thus we have a sense of continuity.
It also confers on us a deeper sense of identity. We reinforce why we do what we do as an institution, a group, as individuals. The commonplace and the ordinary and everyday cease to be banal and trivial and become bearers of sublime realities. Each symbolism and ritual are is therefore a window onto the past. By looking through that window often enough, long enough, and deeply enough the Catholic cannot be made a prisoner by ideologies of his contemporary society. He is a man who is rooted.
Even the fact of submitting oneself to the execution of external bodily actions to the way they were done in the past contributes to a healthy sense of putting one’s ego in second place to realities recognized as being authoritative. Rituals thus form man’s attitudes about the realities that encompass his daily living. Ritual often involves the individual’s active participation with the awareness that he is in the presence of God and his spiritual forefathers; he enters into a drama, the drama of sacred history and through sacred history into eternity. The ritual thereby confers an eternal value on his actions and the consequences of his actions in daily existence. Thus he resolves a deep need of the human mind and heart: to be rooted not only in history but in history known to be “His Story”, the divinely purpose-driven narrative of time wherein he knows his existing is not meaningless.
RITUALS AND SYMBOLS TRANSFORM SENSE OF SPACE
Rituals also transform the Catholic’s sense of space making him aware that he is in a created world where everything and everyone bears in some way the mark of the Creator. By the ritual activity in which certain places and objects are recognized as sacred man focuses for a brief moment on the creaturely nature of reality. By seeing some part of nature recognized as a channel of the divine – oil, wine, water, medals – man is enabled afterwards in the rest of his twenty four hours to more easily detect the Creator’s presence and to be aware that God can miraculously make Himself present whensoever He pleases.
RITUALS AND SYMBOLS BOND THE ESPRIT DE CORPS OF IGNATIANS
In our increasingly atomized Western world where individualism has led to isolationism rituals help to bond individuals into community. They achieve this by asserting the identity of the group, creating an esprit de corps, an awareness of sharing in the same mission,motivation and sense of responsibility as the other members.
They bond with each other through the kinship that grows from common ideals, knowing they are on the same page as all around them, surpassing ordeals and challenges together and thus being able to trust each other even though from different nations. Rituals of behavior that all uphold help to forge relationships and common action, prevent misunderstanding, channel action, a sense of belonging, a collective identity which, if under-girded by the Natural Law, love of God and neighbor, is a powerful builder of Christian manhood and society.
Rituals are renewed through periodic reflection and self-motivation about their meaning.
Rituals Motivate Towards Action And Self Transformation
Rituals have a certain inbuilt power to motivate man to action. By opening windows onto the eternal, the deepest dimension of ordinary everyday reality, man finds the ultimate order and meaning. He can thus find inspiration for acting to transform reality around him – as well as himself. He can understand that God the Creator wills him to be a “sub-creator”.
Rituals and symbols by providing visible tangible signs of invisible realities alert man to his identity with all of the responsibilities and privileges entailed. Thus they motivate to ongoing effort towards ever higher degrees of authenticity.
They effectively create landmarks in life, marking the entrance into new stages of life, heighten our consciousness of new beginnings on life’s odyssey. Indeed, they act as the mountain summits on life’s journey that we can always look towards while crossing plains and especially the swamps and dark valleys of “Mordor”.