As I drive the highways, I sometimes notice a small cross with flowers by the side of the road. The homemade “shrine” tells me, “Someone was killed here.” And I say a prayer for them. The need to mark these tragic deaths with the ritual of a little shrine seems to run deep in our human psyche.
A ritual is a set of actions and/or words performed mainly for their symbolic value. Often they have a religious connotation. Rituals are important because they satisfy a spiritual or emotional need. They can also strengthen the bonds among us.
But deaths along the highways are not the only events that naturally elicit rituals. Last weekend my niece Melannie (who is working on her Ph.D. in ecology at Colorado State University), told me this story. She had spent the previous week studying for her final written and oral exams. Before she left her house to take the exams, she felt she had to “do something.” On one of her shelves sat a picture of my parents (her grandparents). They had helped pay for her initial college graduation. Also on the shelf was the globe my parents had given her for Christmas when she was a little girl. Near the globe was an old book on gardening that my father, a lover of the outdoors, had given her a long time ago. Melannie gathered up the photo, the globe, and the gardening book and hugged them tightly as she asked her grandparents to help her with her exams. Knowing her grandparents’ influence on her education and field of study, Melannie turned to them at this significant juncture in her life. (PS. She passed all her exams!)
Before we sold my parents’ home a number of years ago, I performed this little ritual. I went to the empty house by myself. I walked slowly through every room, pausing to recall events that had occurred in each room and thanking God for all the blessings each room had witnessed. We can create rituals for all kinds of events: the manner in which we celebrate birthdays or graduations, the traditions we establish for Christmas or Thanksgiving, the special activities we do with our friends, the way we relax with our family, the way we pray.
Our Catholic tradition is filled with rituals: The celebration of the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, our funeral traditions, the praying of the Divine Office, the rosary, and the sign of the cross, to name a few.
Do you have any favorite rituals—religious or otherwise? What do these rituals do for you spiritually or emotionally? Would you like to share any of these with us?