Navigating Rituals: The Community of Lent
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I wrote this essay a couple of years ago, and recently pulled it out of the archives to see how it resonated with me these days. Like many who grew up in American evangelicalism, I find myself cut loose from the communities and practices that anchored much of my childhood, and yet still continue to shape my life in both negative and positive ways.
Like many (most?) of us outside any formal religious structures, I feel the impulse to find some kind of rhythm to my life, some sort of habitus that gives shape and direction to my days. It’s not that a habitus doesn’t exist (I live within a specific time and place and culture, after all). It’s that it doesn’t provide the depth and richness that I long for my living days to have.
For those less aware of the Christian 1 calendar, we find ourselves in the season of Lent. This season reminds inhabitants to prepare for the event of Easter, when Jesus is resurrected after his crucifixion, by practicing disciplines of self-denial, grieving, repentance, reflection, and above all, hope. Lent, of all the seasons of the Christian calendar, emphasizes what some have called a “bright sadness,” a clearing of the heart, mind, body, and spirit to focus on the transcendent, the eternal, the real.
And of course, by engaging disciplines, one invokes ritual and rhythm, inviting participants to consider their roots, their responses, and their reasons for persevering on the way.
Notes from a While Ago
One spring, years ago (years and years, so many it feels like a completely different lifetime), I tried to observe Lent. I’d started reading a lot of early Christian church history and theology while working temp jobs and casting about for some sort of direction or purpose in my life. This was also a time when Protestants of the non-denominational evangelical variety were harkening back to practices and liturgies from earlier Christian eras, so a great many resources became newly available to the curious and interested.
I remember picking up Phyllis Tickle’s Eastertide: Prayers for Lent Through Easter from The Divine Hours, and deciding that I would try some program of Lenten prayer observance (fasting was a bridge too far). Regular prayer, and stopping my workday for prayer, would be a radical and significant enough change for the moment. In part, this desire stemmed from the realization that, not only did I miss the church in space, but I missed the church in time as well. I missed an immediate community, the larger global community, and the historical “cloud of witnesses” that gave birth to us all, and found myself longing for a way in, a way to belong to that long group of others.
When Lent started that year, it was too cold to sit outside, so most lunch breaks found me in the basement cafe of the building, beige walls and fluorescent lighting doing its damned best to suck the life of out of everything. But, it allowed for a quiet hour, and the owner never seemed to mind having the company after the lunch rush.
I wish I could say that my spiritual life flourished in that Lenten season, that the seeds of discipline and sacrifice grew deep and sprouted well. Alas, my memory of that attempt indicates that it ended, not with a bang, but a whimper. Mainly because the practice simply made me feel even more alone.
I remembered this history while reading a fascinating article by Sigal Samuel in The Atlantic, about the Ritual Design Lab, a team of “interaction designers” who will craft a ritual for you and your specific need, whatever it is. Ritual Design Lab (RDL) has roots in Stanford University’s Institute of Design, and is based in design thinking: creative, iterative, user-focused solutions to issues or problems.
The folks at RDL came up with several parameters for designing rituals: quick, playful, bite-sized, human-centered. They also created kits for Pop-Up Prayer for urban professionals, which I’m both befuddled by and enamored of. (Spiritual entrepreneurship is A Thing™ and I am here for it. Whatever it is.) From what I can tell, RDL aims to provide rituals for the non-religious, or mildly religious, or those of us who’ve become uncoupled (consciously or otherwise) from religious structures and communities, yet who still wish for some sort of practice to help frame the experiences of daily life.
Samuel raises the concern that a bespoke ritual for a single person (or a minority group within a business organization) further alienates the “end user” from a broader community and over-arching moral framework. The article concludes with some tentative critiques of crafting rituals in this way: as decontextualized from a specific community, belief system, or larger way or rule of life. It (rightly) questions the commodification and customization of such a service in twenty-first century Western consumer capitalism, and suggests a pause to consider what this might to our spiritual lives.
Scholar and writer Alan Jacobs posted a pithy observation (“What rituals are and do”) that identifies the underlying (unquestioned?) assumptions of both RDL and Samuel in this article. It’s worth a read, and I think Jacobs hits on several key points that I hadn’t quite articulated. There’s two he makes that I’d like to explore in more detail:
- that rituals are not designed but emerge from the life of a community, and,
- that rituals don’t solve problems but are a mode of communal expression.
Actually, I’d argue that rituals are designed, but not necessarily as consciously and specifically as RDL tries to do, nor in as quick or disposable a fashion. (Because, however well-intentioned RDL’s designs are, they are disposable by their very nature: don’t like that one? Brainstorm a new one!) But his observation—how rituals develop—gets at a key feature that RDL and Sigal appear to minimize: rituals and practices are embedded within a specific community, and specifically arise out of the myriad interactions that occur between the members of that community as they make sense of their lives and beliefs.
I grew up in a church and a tradition that saw rituals as vain, empty actions, utterly useless and unable to provide any value to the life of the church or its members. Ritual was always something practiced by those “poor deluded Catholics” who “trusted it for their salvation.” And so, to not have rituals was a sign that we had been freed from “the law” and trusted in the grace of God. (Never mind that legalism takes many forms, but that’s a story for another time.) Yet there were rituals of the community, even if we didn’t call them such: arriving early to the church to have time to chitchat and greet friends; standing unprompted with the first chords of a hymn; keeping heads bowed during the altar call (and how ‘bout that altar call ritual).
These practices arose out of the explicit and implicit agreements we made with one another to be this community in thisway. I was a teenager before I realized that people in the wider world don’t go around calling each other “Brother” and “Sister,” or that women don’t necessarily have to wait at the end of the potluck line. Rituals help order our immediate world, and help us make sense of what we know and learn. We attach meanings to the rituals: in that church, in that world, in acknowledging Brother Smith or Sister Jones, we remind ourselves of the larger significance of being together in the family of God, of our relationships and responsibilities toward one another, of remembering how we even entered the family and that relationship in the first place.
I still miss the sense of belonging that the tapestry woven out of these rituals in my childhood church created for me, how they shaped my understanding of the world and my place in it.
Rituals are a mode of communal expression, certainly, since they can only arise out of a community’s specific, local, immediate context and interactions. They may not solve problems, but they do respond to problems, as ways to navigate questions or issues that individuals encounter. What I sense missing from the designers at RDL is the recognition that rituals are, above all, organic. What makes sense in Sri Lanka for members of a neighborhood to coexist may be utterly ridiculous in Manhattan. Even if you get a group of people to assent to an RDL-designed ritual, it remains an imposed practice, a forced interaction (kind of like your parents making you shake hands with the schoolyard hooligan after a fight - no one believes you really mean it). The ritual will end up morphing into something completely different that makes more sense to that group, that builds upon the meaning they initially brought to it, and expands that meaning into something new.
It may seem as though we’ve wandered so far afield of the opening Lenten story by now. We haven’t, not really. By the time of my failed Lenten observance, my family had left that childhood church, and while our new one provided a lot of healing, it never quite gelled into a similar community. My own hunger to know the roots and growth of my faith expanded my knowledge just enough to want a certain kind of community, hence, the desire that inspired me toward observing Lent, which was hopeful, if nothing else. God will always show up for those who make space for him. I have not tried to observe Lent since, because I have not yet, not since that childhood church, become embedded in a religious community to the extent that we can share such rituals together. The lesson that I learned all those years ago is that faithfully observing a sacrificial discipline alone is so difficult and so grueling as to be impossible (and not the kind of impossible you can get done before breakfast).
The rituals of Lent, of hope and discipline, sacrifice, and humility, cannot be done alone, because it is the very nature of rituals to turn you away from yourself, toward others. We can only access the full meaning available in engaging a ritual through the interactions we have with one another, negotiating and sharing meanings through the practice of living life together.
I can only practice Lent with my brothers and sisters.
I still miss the embodied reminders of interacting with, and being transformed by, the glimpses of eternity that such rituals point toward. And I know that I belong to the church spread around the world, and that, in every country and timezone, someone—many someones, in fact—practices the disciplines and prayers that call us toward home.
It’s not the same, recognizing the Lenten season while traveling solo on the way. But I also know, in a way I didn’t during that long-ago Lenten season, that I’m not truly alone, that spirit calls to Spirit at all times, in all places. And someday the community of Lent will find itself in the same time and space, joined by a ritual as yet unimagined.
Let’s be creative, hopeful, and wise — together.
1 I work from within the Christian tradition, and understand the Divine as the Trinity of father, son, holy spirit. That said, I know we all have different ways of understanding God and the Divine, so if you wish to insert [Other] when I use that phrase, please feel free to do so.