Lord, why castest thou off my soul?
why hidest thou thy face from me?
I am afflicted and ready to die from my youth up:
while I suffer thy terrors I am distracted.
Thy fierce wrath goeth over me;
thy terrors have cut me off.
They came round about me daily like water;
they compassed me about together.
Lover and friend hast thou put far from me,
and mine acquaintance into darkness.
It's Good Friday, the day on which the Church remembers the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Last night at church, we had a service which ended with a ritual I've always found to be particularly moving. While the above psalm is sung by a single voice, rising over the drone of low notes hummed by the choir, members of the congregation strip the sanctuary of all its ornamentation and implements. The communion cup and dish are covered and taken away; the altar and podium lose their colored cloth. At the end, there is only a crucifix in front of the congregation, covered by a black shroud.
The lights are turned off. The congregation sings a final, quiet song, unaccompanied by any instrument, and all leave in silence.
What are rituals for? I grew up thinking that to make something into a ritual meant, fundamentally, to take away its meaning. I thought that the only way to really mean something—a prayer, for example—that it needed to be spontaneous and made up on the spot, or at least created by the person who says it. How can you really mean something someone else created and handed to you and said "Here, say this and mean it"?
I recognize now that this was pretty short-sighted. I didn't think, for example, that songs written by other people were worthless if I sang them, or that marriages were invalid unless the person performing the ceremony made up the words as she went along. I just thought, really, that church rituals, doing and saying things about/for/to God "by rote" (as I would have put it) was wrong, and that was that.
I've since changed my opinion about these things, but I haven't spent much time thinking about why. In a book I read recently called Religion for Atheists*, the author takes rituals, in particular religious rituals, to be a way of reinforcing what we already know, or what we already ought to know but would otherwise forget. They are a way of getting around our tendency to forget things very, very easily. He points out that at universities we are expected to absorb information heard once, often from someone not particularly interested in getting us to really know or understand what she is saying. Religions, though, teach us the important lessons continually, through ritual reading of texts, saying of prayers, and the like. They are a way of making sure that we don't forget the most important lessons.
The trouble with relying on ritual alone to teach us things is that we often end up not acting on what we know is good, e.g.: I know that it is good to love my neighbor, but I often fail to. This state is called akrasia, Greek for something like "acting against one's better judgement." We need something to startle us into paying attention to what we have heard and said a hundred times in church or elsewhere, something to break us out of our akrasia. One such thing, the author suggests, is beauty.
I chose the King James translation in the psalm at the beginning of this entry, because I think it is beautiful. In fact, if you believe Robert Alter, the King James version is the last Bible translation both to set out with "beauty" as an end goal and to succeed. Bible translations tend to aim for accuracy and especially clarity and readability, but they tend to sacrifice style, rhythm, and other elements that make a written work truly enjoyable to read.
Having read about the KJV and its goodness, I recently set about reading it myself. In my imagination, it's an intimidating book, full of old language and hard-to-parse phrases. But when you really sit down with it, and get yourself in the proper frame of mind, Robert Alter's argument comes true: it's a beautiful translation. And if Religion for Atheists is right, it may be the best way to startle myself into living rightly. I'm going to stick with it, I think.
Postscript: two things I think the ritual at the beginning of this post should remind us of.
- Remember and respect that we are mortal. We all die, and that is no light thing.
- Sometimes we feel alone and abandoned. We should reflect on that feeling and remember it when encountering others: they may feel it without our knowing.
*Why am I reading a book with a title like Religion for Atheists, you ask? I thought, in the day and age of the New Atheism, when atheists have embarked on a project of making religion out to be a downright monstrous thing, that it would be nice to read a book where an atheist talked about why religion was valuable and good. And I was right. It was very nice. Also, a character in one of my favorite books, Gilead, talks about the beauty of water baptism by quoting an atheist, Feuerbach, and I always thought that was neat and wanted to do it, and now I can, but without quoting Feuerbach, who is German and (in the German way) very hard to read.