Last time, we considered whether the creation of rituals, I mean habits, might serve as an antidote to depression, or as a way of managing depression. But the creation of ritual has had a much more significant role in feminist religious practice than such an approach might suggest. Currently, WATER – Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual, a leading center for feminist religious thought – creates multiple rituals marking various seasons and events in the year, most recently for the summer solstice. These rituals can provide alternative ways of marking the year’s rhythms, and they can serve as ways to take control of liturgical spaces that have tended to exclude women or to allow women to serve only in various subordinate roles.
Yet the terminology is odd. What does it mean to create a ritual? If I think of the rituals of my childhood, what presented itself to me as ritual was connected either with religious practice, or with seasons of exception. Indeed, the most stylized rituals of the year were areligious (as I understood religion). They took place on Christmas Eve. First, during the distribution of presents, my father would put on a terrifying, horrifying, grotesque Santa mask. It was intended, clearly, to be a friendly Santa, which was why its leering was so fundamentally disturbing. My sister and I would try to run away, emotionally and sometimes physically petrified by the transformation of our father into this monster. Second, after Christmas dinner, we would eat cold rice porridge with cream and try to get an almond – “mandel i grøten” in Norwegian tradition. Getting the almond, which is blanched and hidden in the porridge, is considered an auspicious omen for the new year, and requires that the finder be given a gift – traditionally, a marzipan pig.
These rituals marked not only the year, but the peculiar constitution of our family. Yet as rituals, neither of them was, strictly speaking, invented. The first seemed to grow out of its own accord out of the sheer horror of the Santa mask. The combination of terror, fear, and excitement that the mask induced is easy enough to explain. The second was a commonly shared Norwegian practice, but for my Norwegian-Iraqi family, it took on what felt like almost necessary variations – specifically, that my mother seldom provided us with the traditional marzipan pig. Instead, we were given books, almost every time. My mother adapted a ritual for her own purposes – a ritual that she, growing up in Iraq, had been utterly unfamiliar with. The way in which she used the ritual became a marker of our difference-in-identity, that we practiced the same ritual as ‘other’ Norwegian families, yet in a way that paid attention to our own peculiarities.
The rituals that we invent, or adapt, whether in their public form as recognizably ritual practices or in their apparently private form of ‘habits’ that we perform without much thought, serve to identify us as much if not more as any of our other practices. To be habituated in a certain way (by a ritual) is a marker of attachment and history. The way we do the actions we do not need to think about in order to do, reflects the way in which they were taught to us or how we trained ourselves to perform them (brushing our teeth, tying shoe laces, reading at breakfast – ok, the latter may just be me). To create a ritual, or a habit, is then a marker of desire for a different self or a different world. I know a physician who supervises a team including nutritionists who work with persons wishing to lose weight. In order to combat the tendency of nutritionists to think that what is simple and habituated for them, a certain way of eating, ought to be simple for their patients as well, the physician requires the nutritionists to adopt a new habit themselves – and it has to be something fundamental, daily, affecting the very ingrained rituals of morning or evening (flossing, for instance). The doctor believes that when the nutritionists recognize how difficult it is for them to add a simple, single new habit, they will be more compassionate with the struggles faced by persons seeking to change their eating habits. (Note: I do not endorse the forms of fat policing often practiced in such medical spaces.) So to add such a new habit means to dream of, and then take steps to create, an altered self – a self whose automatized responses function in a new way.
To create a social ritual, in whatever space, means also to imagine a different relational world. To say the words of institution over a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine in your own home when not ordained is a reclaiming of authority over against its inhabitation in institutional structures of recognition and legitimation – or so it seems. Yet such ritual practice has its own history in the oppositional nature of ‘low-church’ practices to ostentatious or showy ritual. And when done in the home, the privatization of religious practice entailed has its own relation to the way the public/private divide functions to keep some practices purportedly outside the realm of the public or shared social space, thus rendering such practices unquestionable and potentially depoliticizing them.
I have written as though ritual and habit are unproblematically convertible to each other, at least in the personal realm, but that’s of course not quite right. For those of us who read the Bible, for instance, that practice generally presents itself to us as a different kind of practice than flossing, even though both entail the creation and recreation of a different self and the institution of practices serving desirable ends. Different yet is the institution of a liturgy for the solstice. In a later post, we’ll think further about the limitations of creating ritual. For now, let us dream of another world, and seek to institute the habits and rituals that will transform it.
Linn Marie Tonstad is assistant professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. She is currently completing her first book, tentatively titled God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology.