Why Ritual 'Doesn't Happen'

Why Ritual ‘Doesn’t Happen’

Author: James Bulls

Some of the greatest insights I’ve learned in life came from my karate instructor. Among the pearls he shared with me was the guidance that, “If you intend to do something but you never actually do it, there’s a reason why.” To give you the context in which this advice was given, we were discussing the matter of congruity. Congruity is defined as, “the state or quality of being congruous; the relation or agreement between things; fitness; harmony; correspondence; consistency”1) and its opposite incongruity is defined as, “the quality or state of being incongruous; lack of congruity; unsuitableness; inconsistency; impropriety.”2)

In the dojo the matter of congruity was used to address the common issue of students who complain that their technique isn’t strong but who don’t practice their skills and drills to improve; in other words, these students’ words and actions were incongruent and as martial artists were living in a state of disharmony. Despite their words they were not practicing the rituals necessary to attain congruity with the “spirit” of karate.

When I speak of ritual, I don’t mean any specific ritual but, like I stated above, the forms and methods of religious expression practiced to come into harmony with the Divine. For Polytheists and Pagans these rituals may include song, dance, drumming, creating sacred space, calling the elements, invoking one or more deities, and spellwork. For others their rituals may include meditation, reading Tarot, casting runes, sweats, caring for the trees, channeling spirits, and prayer. For martial artists seeking self-mastery and perfection of spirit, these rituals may be attending class, practicing their katas, working on their skills and drills, and sparring. And for others their rituals may simply be doing good deeds for others, reflecting on the Sun or Moon, or recycling. Whatever set, regular practices one uses to express their religious foundations or attain unity with the Divine may be considered a ritual.

With respect to our spiritual lives and forms of religious expression, I would say that the goal is to attain congruity, or to live in agreement with the Divine and experience spiritual harmony in all that we do… and of course the question that begs to be asked is, “What forms or methods of religious expression do you practice in your path to obtain congruity with the Divine, and if you don’t observe regular practice of those forms or methods of religious expression and regret that you do not, why is that so?” In other words, “If you intend to do something but you never actually do it, there’s a reason why.”

The responses that most often comes up are that there wasn’t enough time, the right materials weren’t on hand, the practitioner didn’t have the stamina, energy, or motivation, another activity got in the way, or simply that the time and date for the ritual was forgotten or overlooked. These are all valid explanations for why an intended ritual didn’t happen, but none of them actually address the root of the issue.

People in some parts of the world are wracked by poverty and spend the majority of their day looking for clean drinking water and even a single meal, but probably all of you reading this article have a lot of free time; for you, it’s “What will I eat tonight?” but for other people in some parts of the world it’s, “Will I eat tonight?” With as much time as those of us who live in safety and prosperity have each day, there really is no reason we can’t set aside time for religious devotion.

Look at how you spend your free time: how many hours each week do you spend on the Internet? Watching TV? Shopping for yourself? Talking on the phone? Eating for pleasure? Reading Men’s Fitness, Maxim, Cosmopolitan, or a celebrity gossip rag? If these questions offend you, consider them a Zen slap calling you to the question of why ritual doesn’t happen.

The simple answer is motivation.

If you were truly motivated to perform a ritual and live congruently with your faith, you would (short of circumstances totally outside of your control) not fail to perform ritual. You would schedule your ritual and remember the date, arrange to have the time available, and ensure that you had the materials and supplies necessary to conduct the ritual. If your ritual needed to be done on a certain day and you could in no way be free of your obligations on that day, you wouldn’t take a pass on it – you would perform the ritual at the next available opportunity. And if you needed specific tools or supplies but couldn’t get them, you wouldn’t not do it – you’d adapt and find another way to conduct that ritual.

Returning to the example of the students who complain that their technique isn’t strong enough but who do not practice their skills and drills, the question may be posed to them, “Is karate the right path for you?” When you find yourself walking a true path, you will know it because you will want to walk it no matter the burning Sun, freezing sleet, torrential rain, and treacherous ground. The risks become no less and the journey as always exhausts you, but your desire to brave the challenges never diminishes. The karate students lived in incongruity – their words and actions did not exist in harmony and they did not desire to observe the rituals.

This does not mean that the students were lazy or had poor character; it simply means that they did not sincerely want to practice the rituals of karate (kata, hundreds of repetitions of single techniques, self-discipline, and hard physical training.) These students are not bad people; they are simply people who may not be walking the right path. Perhaps the rituals which call to them and which inspire them to live congruently are in gymnastics or dance? Or painting in watercolors, sculpting, and flower arranging?

If we use this example to consider Wiccans, Asatru, Druids, Pantheists, Polytheists, Pagans, Heathens, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and many others, what might it say? If such a person on one of these paths – contrary to his or her stated desire – frequently did not practice the rituals he or she uses to live congruently with his or her beliefs and attain unity with the Divine, is it fair to say that such a person is not walking the right path? Is it fair to say that such a person would find greater satisfaction and fulfillment through the rituals of another religion? Or without any rituals at all? Or even to abandon religion completely?

That’s a question only that person could answer.

As an instructor I would never tell a student, “You’re just not cut out for this;” in time the mediocre student may become a brilliant instructor, and even a passionate black belt may neglect his skills and leave the martial path – but that is a choice each of those students will make for themselves. If a student intends to be a strong martial artist but fails to perform the rituals necessary to attain martial strength and self-discipline, there is a reason why. Such a person may be on a true path and simply needs to take his attention away from Facebook status updates, video games, and eating for pleasure; or it may in fact be that this person would simply be happier and find it easier to live congruently, practice his rituals, and attain unity with the Divine through another avenue.

But when ritual doesn’t happen it will ultimately be that student’s responsibility to ask himself, “If I intend to do something but never actually do it, is there a reason why? ” and to find that answer for himself. Who knows where the path will take him?

1, 2: [1913 Webster]