This afternoon Casey and I swung back and forth in the hammocks that hang between his front porch and the trunk of the large, leafy tree in front of his house. After a bit of catch up concerning the recent happenings of our lives, he had picked up his latest book, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendall Berry. He wanted to read to me, and I had consented on the contingency that I could share a passage from my current read when he finished.
As I slid back into the perfect comfort of the blue hammock, I also felt myself ease into the familiar sound of my friend’s deep-toned reading cadence. During the three months we spent together in Europe this fall his voice carried me through well-over a thousand pages of words. There were times, in the midst of books like Brothers K or East of Eden, when he had had to stop reading because the text made us laugh so much, or because his throat grew tight with the feeling of impending tears. Casey and I share a special love of great books and deep thoughts, and reading aloud has become our shared passion in action–a physical, communal expression of the ideas that move us the most.
Years ago during a theology course, a professor asked the class to clarify the difference between habit and ritual. “You brush your teeth every morning when you wake up!” she said. “But that is not a ritual; that is a habit. Why? What is the difference?” Our blank stares eventually led to a few pathetic guesses. Then, she gave us the answer she had been looking for: “Ritual is communal, habitual practice with meaning. Brushing your teeth has a function–not a communal meaning.”
When I thought about the rituals in my life, this explanation made a lot of sense to me. The Catholic rituals I engage are differentiated from mere habit because of the people I share them with, and the meanings they carry for us. Communion is different from the average meal in this way. A confession, different from disclosing anxious secrets to a friend.
In the past few years this definition has helped me recognize ritual even more, and paying attention to it in my everyday life has awakened me to the depths in surprising ways: Reading a book is not just reading a book for Casey and me; it is the practice of honoring our friendship bond by communally engaging the things we share that mean the most: stories, ideas, and faith.
The more I revere the mundane rituals of my friendships and family and solitary life, the more I love being Catholic. The more I long for the Christian rituals that my church facilitates. The more I realize that the components of my faith are an extension and reflection of so many things that already surrounding me in this life. Rituals help me share meaning in so many ways, as in my friendship with Case; of course I need them in my church too.