On ritual and repetition

Commentary by

In a musical composition, the unrepeated note is the aberrant note. Like music, our lives contain few aberrant events. We can usually find meaning easily in unrepeated life events (birth, death, travel), often saturated with significance. However, repetition mostly fills our lives: schoolwork, jobs, doing laundry, eating meals, going to church. Disparagement of the repetitive nature of our lives won’t get us far. Indeed, that is how they are structured, for better or worse. We learn and flourish by practice.

Life challenges us, then, to find meaning in repetitive and daily existence. Many handle this through the establishment of ritual, a word that too often smells like incense and feels like stiff knees bending. In a fuller sense, rituals concern external signs through which we recognize the inherent significance of our lives. Most common are religious rituals, repeated by their nature and prescribed by spiritual communities to be used at certain times. These sorts of religious practices help to ease pain and celebrate life.

Unfortunately, of course, these practices sometimes devolve into sheer repetition themselves, in which religious celebration is as routine as walking to class. What should be celebration holds no joy, and what should be comforting and stimulating only bores. Ritual can relieve us when life seems to be only vacuous repetition. When even those repetitions which are supposed to help us see the pattern at the heart of life, we must re-establish rituals in our lives to accomplish just that. We must reclaim the practice of ritual.

We can devise our own, imbuing them with meaning inherently because they are repeated and because they carry us across time. A night at a bar with a good friend every month; reading a favorite book every summer; returning regularly to an alma mater or the grave of a loved one: these are examples of how we can institute rituals in our daily lives. Perhaps through a recognition of these smaller rituals, we can re-appreciate the larger religious rituals formed before our births and likely to endure after our deaths.

Regardless, ritual’s sober importance lies in its ability to measure our lives. A fresh performance of a ritual reminds us where we were when we last performed it, how we’ve grown or atrophied since then and where we’d like to be next time spiritually, emotionally or intellectually. Do not disparage too harshly the repetitive nature of our lives: rather, repeat well and repeat differently.

March 27, 2015.

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