The Importance of Rituals (Part 2) by Elise M. Edwards


In my previous post, I wrote about the importance of rituals. The rituals of the Easter season helped me process some difficult emotions. The way that rituals mark time and demonstrate consistency has been a comfort for me when facing new challenges and settings. But I am quite aware that rituals can become empty.   In one of the comments to that post, a woman named Barbara responded, “There came a time for me when familiar and meaningful ritual no longer made sense. I had changed in understanding of what the ritual symbolized and celebrated. And haven’t found new rituals that make sense for me now…or at least I’m not aware of any.” Barbara’s remarks capture not only the loss from no longer being able to relate to existing rituals after life changes, but also the difficulty in finding or creating new rituals to take their place. I thanked Barbara for her honesty and decided that this post would continue the discussion, focusing more on discovery and creation of new rituals.

As I was preparing that post, I watched an episode of Call the Midwife that prompted me to reflect on the need to create rituals when existing ones just don’t work. Call the Midwife is a BBC-PBS show about nurses and midwives living in a convent in London’s East End at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s. The show is based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, and it does a better job than most primetime dramas of showing female characters’ experiences the joys and challenges of their professional lives and personal lives. As it is set in a convent with several characters who are both nuns and midwives, the show also explores the theme of vocation. What does it mean to be called to the religious life? Called to nursing? What does motherhood demand?

One thing I appreciate about the show is that the midwives are clearly concerned about the overall wellbeing of the women and families they assist. They address physical needs that go beyond pregnancy and childbirth and attend to spiritual and emotional needs, as well. In the episode I watched, the nurses and midwives delivered a stillborn baby.   (I hope I’m not spoiling the show for you—I won’t give away detailed plot points, but as the show is in its fourth season, I don’t think a stillborn birth is all that unexpected.) As the religious leaders tried to help the family cope with the loss, they bemoaned the fact that no rituals existed for the event.   I am grateful that we do not live in the time of this fictionalized account. The television show captured a very real phenomenon—religious communities that are ill equipped to deal with experiences of particular concern to women’s lives. But in our time, there are feminist organizations who have prepared a path for us. As I watched the show, I thought of WATER with gratitude.

WATER, the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual, is an organization founded in 1983 by Mary E. Hunt and Diann L. Neu. As part of the feminist liturgical movement, WATER celebrates and creates “rituals [to] strengthen women and empower them for personal healing and social change.  These liturgies challenge religious communities to rethink the basics of religious practice.” Their published works, available on their website, are resources for prayers, services, and music from a feminist perspective.

While some people find meaning in established rituals and the ceremonies that have been part of religious traditions for decades or even centuries, everyone should feel empowered to discover or define rituals that make sense for their particular lives. By saying that these rituals should have meaning for our particular lives, I am not claiming that they need to be created or experienced alone. The beauty of many rituals is the way they unify individuals with a shared experience. But when we are with others, we have to be careful to not substitute their experiences for our own. We can connect, relate, and empathize, but if our community rituals lack personal meaning, we become inauthentic in our own spiritual practice.

Creating a new ritual could begin by starting with elements from other rituals. Is there a ceremony or practice that could be revived by a new setting, new language, new art, new symbols, or new participants? Could something that marked one season of life be reapplied to a new season?

Forming a new ritual might also begin by considering what needs to be honored in a sacred way and drawing upon a “toolkit” of symbolic acts to do that. In times of loss, we often bury or scatter or burn something that signifies the remains of what we lost. We might pour out a liquid or libation. We dim the lights, extinguish the flames, and reflect in the darkness. We create items that preserve our best memories. Or we might choose to literally release something and let it go.

When we wish to honor hope, rebirth, or renewal, we might plant something. We might create a new artwork, a new prayer, a new quilt, or a new table from elements that already existed, recycling and repurposing them for something new. We might light a candle or a fire.

When we wish to honor community, we might gather with loved ones or people of like minds. We may share words or meals together. We often fast for discipline and feast for celebration. We do both for remembrance. By ourselves or with others, we might speak the names or tell the stories of the ones who came before us to make them more present. We can create rituals across great distances by doing the same things at the same times with others far away.

I believe in the power of rituals. I think ritual can empower us to remember what is most sacred. It can provide an opportunity to connect with ourselves, with others, and with the divine. Ritual is an experience, which means that it ultimately has meaning only when we are present to it. It may take some trial and error to find rituals that are meaningful, but is part of the experience of growth and change. I hope and pray that each one of you can discover or create rituals that enrich your whole lives in body, spirit, mind, heart, soul.

Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or

Author: Elise M. Edwards

I am a Lecturer at Baylor University and a registered architect in the State of Florida. My academic and professional career is interdisciplinary. I work between the fields of theology, ethics, and aesthetics, examining how they inform and shape each other and express various commitments of their communities.

4 thoughts on “The Importance of Rituals (Part 2) by Elise M. Edwards”

  1. Very interesting. We all develop little, perhaps informal rituals that help us organize and run our days. We become ritualistic, for example, in the way we prepare and eat breakfast. Boot up our computers and do our email and maybe Google searches. I believe these little personal rituals sort of echo the bigger, more spiritual rituals that mark the turning points (hinges) of the year and our lives. Thanks for writing this post.


  2. My understanding of rituals is that they are designed to assist us in transition from one stage of life to another. At birth, some of us are baptized. Later in life, some of us have a formal ceremony celebrating the transition to adulthood. Other ceremonies acknowledge commitments we make to our beloved.

    As you acknowledge, on occasion rituals no longer fit our belief systems.

    I am not familiar with the series you mentioned. Perhaps I am culturally deprived by not having a television. Yet, I found myself asking if the nuns are Roman Catholic. In the aftermath of Vatican II, many women bailed from their convents. They found themselves questioning a lifestyle they had embraced. One who stayed told me that many of her peers had maintained “This (the changes after Vatican II) isn’t what I signed up for.”

    The rituals of religious life no longer made sense.


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