Take Comfort in Rituals... Really?
By Taylor Burton-Edwards
A number of bloggers have offered comment on the new sign that appears on the doors of Starbucks Coffee around the country: "Take Comfort in Rituals."
You see the warm cup of coffee right above it, and you can almost taste the comfort, right? Come in here frequently, make a ritual of it, it beckons. Get this cup of steaming brew, made to your order, and take comfort.
Come in here, escape from your "other daily grind," and for the time it takes to sit down on one of the couches and sip your java, let comfort waft over you. You know it will feel so, so good.
I won't argue with the logic of this marketing campaign. I think it makes good sense for Starbucks to be saying something like this.
But I do wish to make a distinction that Starbucks doesn't make here-- between rituals and ritual. Rituals (the plural) refers in common parlance to regularly repeated patterned actions. One's process for getting ready in the morning, the particular breakfast one eats (or skips), reading the paper or checking in with your RSS reader for the latest updates on the news/blogs you follow, the shows or podcasts you listen to on the way into work or school, how you greet the folks you meet at your school or workplace, when you go to lunch and how long you take for lunch, what you do everyday on the way back to your home, and what particular shows you watch or places you go in the evening on a given day-- these are all examples of regularly repeated patterned actions, or rituals. One might even call them routines or habits.
I'd certainly hope that something like definitive times for prayer during the day are included in your daily schedule of rituals. But if I follow the research findings about United Methodists and prayer from my colleague Dan Dick and the US Congregational Life Study, I would generally conclude that for most of us that isn't happening.
Still, whether you build prayer into your daily rituals or not, the fact that any patterned behavior is repeated does tend to generate a level of comfort, or at least reduce any level of discomfort the more it is practiced. Our brains are wired so that, in fact, we do take comfort in rituals. Repeating them, over time, with perhaps some slight variations from time to time, not only makes us more efficient at them, but also releases "reward chemicals" that make us feel good, that give us a sense of well-being. Our brains are also wired so that when we skip one, or something interferes with our usual schedule, we sense the loss and may even find ourselves more than a bit "discombobulated."
But I would like to suggest that the purpose of Christian ritual -- the usually repeated patterned actions that constitute our practices of worship and devotion, corporate or personal -- is just about the opposite of taking comfort for oneself.
Comfort is not and never has been the goal of Christian (or Jewish or Muslim!) ritual.
Now, to be sure we've always had folks alongside us who insisted that it was. But the Bible has a name for practicing worship ritual for our own comfort-- idolatry. We may have other names today, but the biblical one still applies.
The goal of Christian ritual is to embody and be embodied faithfully as the body of Christ within the Holy Trinity.
This is why we pray over the bread and wine at the Eucharist, "Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ redeemed by his blood."
Having a clear ritual, a defined set of regularly repeated patterned practices, does generate some measure of comfort in us-- but not for that end. The comfort Christian ritual generates when well practiced is rather the background or backdrop or even growth medium, if you will, for our full transformation into the image of Christ.
Comfort isn't the endpoint, but a step along the way.
Christian ritual itself is the ecosystem that generates just enough comfort so that the Spirit can radically disturb, alter, and rewire us even as the Spirit also sustains and reinforces the ongoing work of wiring that keeps us moving toward sanctification.
Put in sociological terms (Peter Berger), Christian ritual provides a "plausibility structure" that can open us to the whole of the Holy, the depths of the Compassionate One and the Power of the One Poured Out.
Not self-centered comfort-- but its subversion into ever-flowing Love.
Because the One Poured Out, Jesus Christ, in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell bodily, is himself pleased to dwell and pour out his power primarily among those who know little comfort, to exalt the lowly and the meek, to send the rich empty away.
Revealed as having nothing in their cups-- even if they've taken comfort in any number of rituals or ritual.
An emptiness, a void, and a Nothing that devours the world as we know it.
We feel the angst of it as it gnaws at the edges of our souls.
But we mislabel it as a sorrow to be soothed, a discomfort to be comforted.
So we take comfort in rituals.
And sometimes in Christian ritual.
All comfort is sweet. It is a balm. It soothes.
But comfort is not the end, but perhaps a necessary step along the way, not so that we ourselves may be comforted, but so that the love of God that brings true comfort may be poured abroad through us and especially among those who encounter few if any signs of comfort in this life.
Blessed are the poor, and the poor in spirit. Theirs is the kingdom of God.