Quakers and Ritual

©2010 Ramona K Silipo. All rights reserved.

NB: This is a revised version of an article I wrote in the 1990s, when I was editor of my Meeting newsletter.

The query for this year’s day retreat was, “Other religious traditions use rituals to help align their lives with the Light. What helps us open our lives to the Light and realize our visions?”

The basic assumption inherent in this query is that there are no rituals among Quakers. In my Quaker dialogue group, there was a further, to me,  disturbing, assumption that all ritual is empty.

The idea that there are no rituals among Friends is interesting and always makes me smile. Just to begin with, the central ritual for the Christian world, the celebration of Mass or traditional communion service, is, at its core, a meal.

And from my observation, the principal ceremony to mark Quaker milestones is a meal:  baby and new member welcomings, newcomers’ brunch, graduation, Friendly sevens  — all revolve around a table where Friends are gathered to share food. These are not very complex events, but nevertheless, in their regularity and simplicity, maintain the meal as an important  ritual celebration.

The truth is, we need ritual in our lives, and if we don’t have any, we create it. I have my personal ritual for settling down before Meeting for Worship, and I’ve observed that others do, too. I have, in fact, routinely noted people’s personal rituals as they arrive for Meeting and find it both comforting and slightly amusing that a body that so definitively eschews ritual comprises so many people with very specific small rituals.

Neither for me nor, presumably, for my fellow Friends in Meeting, are our small routine activities empty rituals. They give structure to worship, mark a beginning and an ending to the formal meeting period. It is strangely naive, while also condescending, to assume that all ritual is empty.

Certainly a great deal, perhaps even most, of religious ritual has arrived at mere rote routine or even emptiness after a couple of thousand years. And there is no doubt that the ritual George Fox rebelled against was empty. The ritual itself had replaced the sanctity of the real events it was meant to represent.

However, ritual is valuable and can have great depths of meaning, can even be a gateway to inspiration, even enlightenment,  if we keep the ritual as a true remembrance, symbol or representation of its original meaning. The meal I mentioned earlier was, of course, the Passover meal at which Jesus used the bread and wine to speak of the feeding of the Spirit of humankind by the Spirit of God (or the Light, the Absolute, Jehovah, Allah, or any other name you prefer). Christian services, both Catholic and Protestant, throughout history, have maintained the ritualistic meal as the center of their worship.

Candles arranged, ready for a marriage celebration ritual

As a former Catholic, I most miss the rituals around candles, which are used in various ceremonies and to indicate specific periods in the liturgical calendar. The lighting of a candle “‘with an intention,” that is, with your own or someone else’s special need in mind, is a simple ritual that always has meaning for me. The dancing flame is a reminder of the Light, and of the fact that we can be bringers of Light, too, if we live by the Light.

Friends talk about the Inner Light, which we experience not only in Meeting for Worship, but also in our daily lives, if we open ourselves to it. Sometimes, however, an outward symbol is a powerful reminder to others of our commitment to a particular way of life. When I was growing up, the consecrated Eucharist was left in the tabernacle after mass. (It is rarely done these days because of the increasing frequency of theft and vandalism in churches.)  To Catholics, the Eucharist is literally the Body of Christ, changed from bread and wine during the mass. The altar light, never extinguished, was a constant, warmly glowing reminder of Christ’s presence– a symbol so literal even a child grasped it and was awed by the fact of His being there on the altar and inside us at the same time. Jesus, as the Light of the World, was a concept I grasped early.

From conversations with fellow members and attenders of my home meeting,  I know that many of us have additional spiritual activities that compliment and enhance our worship experience in meeting. Most of these activities center on some form of ritual , whether it is meeting for old-time nature religion holidays, or attending a rousing Gospel service, or gathering with others in a prayer circle, support group or yoga class.

What helps us open up to the Light? Our own rituals, whether simple or complex. In each of our lives, we have created rituals meaningful to us to replace those which long ago lost their meaning.

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