My husband and I just returned from a ten-day marathon in New England with all our relatives. We are not used to hotel beds, restaurant food, and such a rich diet of forced socialization. It was reassuring and comforting to see people we love, but we missed our rituals – from tea at 3PM to oatmeal on weekdays to the PBS News Hour on Wednesday nights (we can only stomach the news once a week). We are home now and nestling back into our routines, and this has gotten me thinking about the value and meaning of ritual. I am also thinking about it because I found myself trying to defend it on several occasions while we were gone.
Usually, I would say as I sat down at the restaurants our hosts had chosen, Thursday is the day we have fish. Or, upon being asked if we eat oatmeal every morning (we bring our old-fashioned oats with us), I would reply that we ate oatmeal Monday through Friday, have pancakes on Saturday and eggs on Sunday. Generally, our friends and relatives were appalled. You know what you are going to be doing every day of the week? they exclaim. What kind of life is that?
It is a sacred kind of life as far as I am concerned. And a life that leaves much room for contemplation and creativity. It may not work for everyone, but not worrying about what’s for breakfast or dinner, or what we are going to watch for our nightly hour/dose of daily television leaves room for the more intriguing parts of life. It is not that our rituals are not important; it is that they are holy. These moments in our days are like a religious Book of Hours, where we perform and say the duties of the day between work, play, thought, meditation. I would never criticize someone who lived a spontaneous life in all respects, but such is a life of continual decisions and effort of which I am no longer capable – if I ever was.
Ritual also teaches us to appreciate the small wonders of life. In one of my favorite books, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery writes “When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things.” Back home after a major disruption in our routines, the blueberries on our oatmeal, my peanut butter and cracker afternoon snack, become luminescent in their beloved familiarity. And this, in turn, reminds me to appreciate all life.
Routine makes for contentment rather than thrills, but who says that happiness is something to be “pursued”? I would say that the pursuit of happiness is an oxymoron (with due deference to Jefferson). Children love to hear the same bedtime story over and over again; they sleep the peace of the familiar. Monasteries and convents are models of a scheduled life, and yet they fertilize the genius of a Thomas Merton, a Hildegarde, a Gregor Mendel.
And I think of Nietzsche, who raised the question of eternal return – is it possible to live our lives in such a manner that we would be happy to live them again and again? Or would it become an eternal frustration, a Ground Hogs Day of confusion and regret? Routine, for me, makes parts of every day a blessing of eternal return– knowing that I will come back daily, hourly, weekly to these holy points, making the rest of life easier, fuller, and more open to adventures of another sort.
One last note: rituals and habits are “near enemies” in Buddhist terminology. Near enemies are two things that look the same on the surface – like equanimity and indifference – but are totally different in their intention. It is true that rituals can become habitual, but something is lost. And I would never call a bad habit a ritual. One must be vigilant.
This week’s story, “Paradise on Earth,” is about habits (not rituals) that develop about how we treat each other, and what can happen when things change.