ritual

Eucharist

I was thinking about the Eucharist today. Did you know "eucharist" comes from the Greek word for "thanks?" That's pretty cool. The central ritual of Christian practice over the millennia is to say "thanks."

It has probably been said a thousand times before and more eloquently than I am capable of, but this stands in stark contrast with the global system of capitalism which dictates the rhythm of our lives.

Capitalism's primary animating value is scarcity. This logic, that there isn't enough, pulls every other human value into its matrix of scarcity. Time, money, natural resources, love, companionship, beauty—all these and more are stripped of their ultimate value and defined instead by fear, anxiety, and the will to power. How ironic that capitalism generates so much waste, a surplus so tremendous that no one in an earlier age could possibly imagine it, while so many go hungry. Capitalism's excess and the gap between rich and poor reifies its own myth of scarcity.

Eucharist, on the other hand, is a symbol not just of gratitude for the fundamental fact that everything that is worthwhile in life is an unmerited gift, but it is an expression of abundance. Through this ritual Christians gesture toward the meal saying, "We exist there, in the wheat and grapes, in the broken body of Christ given for us," and we respond "Thanks," content that this will be more than enough—enough to share.

Obsess

I tend to obsess.

Right now, I’m listening to a song that’s been on repeat for the past thirty minutes or so. I find things I like and I attach. I keep buying the same Jack Purcell Converse shoes; when one pair goes, the canvas ripped and the sole a bare thing hardly keeping my feet from touching the actual ground, another pair arrives.

I like my habits. I hike the same trails, I drink my coffee from the same mug, and I listen to my favorite albums day after day. It’s not that I’m not open to new experiences; I very much am. I want to see the world, hear, smell, taste, and touch newness. But when something grabs me, makes me pay attention, and tells me something about myself, it quickly becomes a part of the repertoire. It nestles into the rotation of my small, comfortable life.

I think that idea might have scared me a few years ago. I feared repetition. I feared a smaller life. Not small in the sense of meaningless, but small in the sense of scale. For so long, I wanted to be the best at many things, I wanted to make a mark on history, I wanted to be grand. Now? I want my dog to rest beside me while I read a book and drink an above-average bourbon.

Granted, it’s probably a book I’ve already read and a bourbon I’ve bought several times before. But why not? The world is rich and wide, sometimes lovely and often harsh. Uncovering something tiny, something to cherish within my tiny life, seems like a worthy pursuit. Why not obsess a little when I find it?

Downward Facing Dammit

This morning, I yelled at an apple. I fed the dog, did yoga for half an hour, and then I yelled at an apple.

More specifically, I yelled at the sticker attached to the apple, but I can’t imagine the apple’s feelings weren’t hurt. It was right there.

I can’t say why I got so upset that the sticker wouldn’t come off, but it’s even more pathetic since I had so recently finished putting my body through a calming mindfulness practice. That's a life lived as a human for you, I guess.

If nothing else, my little outburst reminded me that any religious/mindfulness practice is just that—practice. It’s an effort to ground yourself in the present, to reconnect the mind and body. They need reconnecting because your normal state (if you’re like me) is apple abuser. The effort is one to be made again and again, the centering attempted in the face of one soul-destroying piece of fruit after another.

I’ve written about ritual and mindful awareness here before, but failing at the practice is a different part of the process. Failing is the reason the practice exists. No one needs connection if they never become disconnected. Maybe there’s more than fifteen minutes between the connecting and failing, but sometimes there just isn’t. Resting in the failure, then, can become its own ritual, its own physical interplay between the grumpy children we are and the slightly-less-grumpy children we want to be. That’s hard, though, and there's a wide gap between failing like you normally do and working through the failure via ritual. It’s the difference between "namaste" and "namaste, dammit."

Let’s Get Physical

Rowan Williams contributed a great section to a recent article on ritual practice in daily life.[^1] He describes his time of sitting prayer, preceded by a walking meditation, as “a vehicle to detach you slowly from distracted, wandering images and thoughts.” Unfortunately, it’s a messier reality given that the vehicle doesn’t always take you where you want to go and doesn’t always move when you want to go there. Williams gets this, too:

"So the day begins with a physically concrete and specific reminder that your own individual existence is breathed through by a life that isn’t your possession; and at moments of tension or anxiety during the day, deliberately breathing in and out a few times with the words of the prayer in mind connects you with this life that isn’t yours, immersing the anxiety and dispersing the tension – even if it doesn’t simply take away pain or doubt, solve problems or create some kind of spiritual bliss. The point is just to be connected again."

What we're left with, then, are broken brains and bodies that listen to our broken brains. But as Williams points out, this isn't cause for despair; rather, it's a chance to reorient and try again. When the focus shifts from actively seeking to improve ourselves to noticing what needs improvement in a kind and mindful way, something fundamentally different happens. The practice becomes more than the original effort to have some kind of awakening or breakthrough. The practice becomes attempting the practice.

Getting the body involved in where we want the mind to be gives us an out when our minds start to dump on the present. The bodily practice brings it back. This is the failure ritual, and doing it enough helps eliminate the failure distinction altogether. Getting out of sync and realigning becomes the wider ritual at play. The morning yoga isn’t the practice or the ritual; the morning yoga followed by emotionally damaging some produce followed by a breathing prayer is.

[^1]: The rest of the article is great, too. Read it after you read this one.

Pancakes

When I was small, my dad would occasionally wake me up on Saturday mornings and ask if I wanted pancakes. It was a wonderful question, though an unnecessary one, because what kid turns down pancakes for breakfast? “That’s alright, Father. Just my regular toast points and cottage cheese with a side of honeydew. Fresh squeezed grapefruit juice if you’re so inclined to earn my love this day.” (I hate everything in that meal except toast, by the way. Toast is boss.) So, I would respond like a child who knows maple syrup is manna from heaven/Canada, hurriedly dress, and wait impatiently at the dining room table. He would bring out the utensils first, then the butter, and finally the syrup. This was key, because while he brought out the other accouterments as he was cooking, the syrup came out only moments before the pancakes themselves. He would carry a plate holding a steaming tower out of the kitchen and set it on my place mat. It sat there for a moment, fogging up my glasses as I inched my face closer and closer to take in the aroma, and then my dad would start cutting. Taking a fork and knife, he sectioned off the stack into neat, orderly rows and columns, leaving a stack of perfectly square pieces. It was beautiful. Carefully poured syrup would slide so neatly between the cuts, touching each piece on its way to the surface of the plate below. Each individual bite was as good as another, and I savored them all one by one.

I still cut my pancakes this way, and I’m convinced they taste better when the ritual is followed. Logan visited me in Nashville recently, and he became noticeably excited when I suggested we get breakfast out one morning because “I get to see you cut pancakes.” It’s a running joke for those around me, and I’m okay with that. It is a bit ridiculous, but it’s my ritual. And that’s what makes the difference here, the ritual. It’s a tiny one, but one that still represents so much. I don’t think about its meaning each time I sit down to a short stack, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. My father, unwittingly I’m sure, instilled love and care into a simple meal and its even simpler preparation on random weekend mornings so long ago. I know he did it to make it easier for me to eat, which is why parents cut up any number of foods for their kids. But I still do it; not for convenience, but because it’s a ritual that holds meaning. And really, any ritual worth its salt is inherently about meaning-making. I started thinking about this after hearing a delightful interview with Jerry Seinfeld on Morning Edition last week as I drove to work. I found myself nodding and smiling the entire time he spoke about his relationship with coffee as something that has an elegant way of positively shaping one’s time socially and personally.

Coffee has become that for me in adulthood as well. Seinfeld’s right to note how we use rituals like sharing a coffee and a conversation with someone to set these wonderful spaces apart from the rest of the day. If you let it, the ritual carves out a niche where you can simultaneously hide from the world and be more fully part of it. You’re in it; you’re giving definition to your time and the act at hand. Rituals, especially the little ones that we connect to things and people we love, are constantly pushing us to shape how we navigate the myriad of choices and options open to us as modern, busy people. So, even though cutting pancakes into crisp, exact lines or letting the slow wafts of steam envelop your face before taking that first sip of bold, black brew are tiny exercises in making meaning, they are fraught with meaning nonetheless. And honestly, that’s about as holy and pure as anything else I can think of.