Recently, I spent a week on Cape Cod with my family, and after my wife and I returned home we went to Sunday Mass. As I sat in the church waiting for Mass to begin I realized that I hadn’t really thought much about God while on vacation. I hadn’t prayed or read scripture. I hadn’t been as attentive to God’s presence as I usually am. Needless to say, I felt bad about that and was glad I was now in church, ready to engage in my weekly ritual of worshiping the God who I encounter every day.
There’s something to be said about ritual, even when it appears to be a case of “going through the motions”. For me, the ritual of Mass, of standing, sitting, kneeling, singing, listening, praying, and receiving Communion, hit a reset button for me. After several days of unawareness of God, the Mass reminded me that God was still there, still present. And going through the motions of the liturgy helped nudge me back to that sacred state. Ritual is a powerful thing that guides and draws us into something important. Going through the motions of preparing your morning coffee draws you into the day laid before you. Taking a daily run reminds you of the gift of your body. Even daily prayer, though it can sometimes feel like you’re just going through the motions, opens yourself up to an awareness of God.
I remember years ago when I was involved with a regular faith sharing group, there were several times I did not want to go to the weekly meeting. I was feeling “out of the groove” with God, my prayer was dry, my week was dry; what would be the point of going through the motions and attending this weekly meeting? But when I went, I was reminded that God was always there, and a reset button was hit, drawing me back into a state of closeness with God.
Ritual action can be performed mindlessly. Sometimes that’s okay. Sometimes you’re not in a place to be fully engaged. That’s why ritual is so helpful, because what can begin mindlessly, frequently concludes in a state of richer awareness.
Saint Ignatius encourages those making the Spiritual Exercises to engage in the rituals of the church like Mass and confession. He suggests regular prayer times, and even for staying a full hour in each period of prayer. When I made the Exercises I remember that those hours could feel so long. I had prayed with the assigned scripture passage for ten minutes and got plenty out of it. What more could there be? Sitting that remaining 50 minutes felt as if I was just “going through the motions” of Ignatius’ prescription. Sometimes my mind would wander or I’d struggle to stay awake, but amazingly, I’d end the hour with much more fruit than I got out of the first ten minutes!
Don’t get me wrong. Going through the motions of life and faith mindlessly all the time is not a sign of a committed spiritual life. But once in a while, especially during a period of dryness or distance from God, going through the motions of a ritual can draw us back into the active and attentive motion of a personal relationship with God.
Andy Otto is the creator and editor of God In All Things.