I don’t always find it easy to pray. Often I’m overtired, distracted, caught up in tasks, pressured by work, short on time, lacking the appetite for prayer or more strongly drawn to do something else. But I do pray daily, despite the fact that I often don’t want to and despite the fact that many times prayer can be boring and uninteresting. I pray daily because I’m committed to a number of rituals for prayer: the office of the Church, lauds and vespers, the Eucharist and daily meditation.
These rituals serve me well. They hold me, keep me steady and keep me praying regularly — even when, many times, I don’t feel like praying. That’s the power of ritual. If I only prayed when I felt like it, I wouldn’t pray very regularly.
Ritual practice keeps us doing what we should be doing (praying, working, being at table with our families, being polite) even when our feelings aren’t always onside. We need to do certain things not because we always feel like doing them, but because it’s right to do them.
And this is true for many areas of our lives, not just for prayer. Take, for example, the social rituals of propriety and good manners that we lean on each day. Our heart isn’t always in the greetings or the expressions of love, appreciation and gratitude that we give one another each day. We greet one another, we say goodbye, we express love and we express gratitude to one another through a number of social formulae, ritual words: Good morning! Have a great day! Have a great evening! Sleep well! Nice meeting you! Nice to work with you! I love you! Thank you!
We say these things to one another daily, even though there are times — many times — when these expressions appear to be purely formal and not at all honest about how we are feeling at the time. Yet we say them and they are true in that they express what lies in our hearts at a deeper level than our more momentary and ephemeral feelings of distraction, irritation, disappointment or anger.
Moreover, these words hold us in civility, in good manners, in graciousness, in neighborliness, in respect and in love despite the fluctuations in our energy, mood and feelings. Our energy, mood and feelings, at any given moment, are not a true indication of what’s in our hearts, as all of us know and frequently need to apologize for. Who of us has not at some time been upset and bitter toward someone who we love deeply? The deep truth is that we love that person, but that’s not what we’re feeling at the moment.
If we only expressed affection, love and gratitude at those times when our feelings were completely onside, we wouldn’t express these very often. Thank God for the ordinary, social rituals that hold us in love, affection, graciousness, civility and good manners at those times when our feelings are out of sorts with our truer selves. These rituals, like a sturdy container, hold us safe until the good feelings return.
Today, in too many areas of life, we no longer understand ritual. That leaves us trying to live our lives by our feelings; not that feelings are bad, but they can come upon us as wild, unbidden guests. Iris Murdoch asserts that our world can change in 15 seconds because we can fall in love in 15 seconds. But we can also fall out of love in 15 seconds! Feelings work that way! And so we cannot sustain love, marriage, family, friendship, collegial relationships and neighborliness by feelings. We need help. Rituals can help sustain our relationships beyond feelings.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer used to give this instruction to couples when he was officiating at their wedding. He would tell them: Today you are in love and you believe that your love can sustain your marriage. But it can’t. However, your marriage can sustain your love. Marriage is a not just a sacrament, it’s also a ritual container.
Ritual not only can help sustain a marriage, it can also help sustain our prayer lives, our civility, our manners, our graciousness, our humor, our gratitude and our balance in life. Be wary of anyone who, in the name of psychology, love or spirituality, tells you that ritual is empty and you must rely on your energy, mood and feelings as your guiding compass. They won’t carry you far.
Father Daniel Berrigan once wrote: “Don’t travel with anyone who expects you to be interesting all the time. On a long journey there are bound to be some boring stretches.” John of the Cross echoes this when talking about prayer. He tells us that, during our generative years, one of the biggest problems we will face daily in our prayer is simple boredom.
And so we can be sure our feelings won’t sustain us, but ritual practices can.
Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Ronald Rolheiser is a specialist in the field of spirituality and systematic theology.
His website is www.ronrolheiser.com.