I’m in the midst of reading Xenocide by Orson Scott Card, who’s one of my favorite science fiction writers because he doesn’t shy away from questions of God. In this particular book, there’s a society in which a certain percentage of people display extreme OCD-like tendencies. But rather than being dismissed as “crazy,” they are revered as “God-spoken.” Why? Because they believe, as do the other people in their world, that the rituals they feel compelled to perform are direct instructions from their gods, intended for purification. Thus, when one of the God-spoken says or thinks something that she feels ashamed of, she finds it hard to resist the appropriate “purification” ritual — or compulsion.
When I was talking about the book with my fiance, I said, “And this is why I love science fiction — because it messes with your ideas about how the world could be.”
But this morning, I wondered if that world is really all that different from the one I inhabit after all. When I was growing up, my Catholicism had some decidedly OCD tendencies. My “ritual” of choice was the rosary. I used it as a talisman against dreadful things happening; I used it as proof of my devotion; I used it as penance when I felt guilty for a choice I’d made or a thought I’d had, usually related to sexuality, but sometimes related to thinking something unkind about someone else. Somehow, I felt that the rosary would serve as some sort of “intervention” between me and the “punishment” I deserved for whatever sin I may have committed; in fact, when I didn’t use the rosary, I would always find something “bad” that happened to me and directly tie it to the dreadful thought or act I’d convinced myself I’d performed. I had a rosary in my suitcase, a rosary in my pocket, and about three of them beside my bed. The need to use them could strike at any time.
Although I’ve moved away from this type of spirituality, I suspect I’m not the only Catholic whose religious rituals have resembled compulsions. What about the person who goes to confession twice a week because he needs to have that “clean” feeling again, or the one who sits out during communion because of a “sin” that was committed, in thought or deed, throughout the preceding week? Although I know this is in line with the teaching of the Church, I can’t help but notice that it’s not really in line with Jesus. At the last supper, did Jesus say, “This is my body, given up for those of you who haven’t sinned in the past week”? When did the Church decide that this must be what Jesus had actually meant?
In Xenocide, the rituals are used as a way, essentially, to keep the God-spoken down, to keep them too busy with their compulsions to enact any real change in the world. I can’t help but wonder if strict adherence to ritual in the Catholic Church is meant to perform the same function. Because it’s true: when you’re praying five rosaries a day, there’s not a lot of time left over for sinful thoughts, let alone sinful actions. But there’s not a lot of time left over to notice those who are hurting, or to reach out, or to explore what God might be calling you to do that doesn’t require you to stay stuck inside your own head. I realize now that there was a sort of self-centeredness to it all–I couldn’t see what others might need from me, because I was so busy examining my every thought and deed and practicing private acts of atonement accordingly.
I’m still introspective. I still find comfort in the rituals of Catholicism. But now that they no longer feel compulsory, I feel more love for myself and more love for everyone else. And that, ultimately, makes me a better person–more the person I feel God is calling me to be–than a thousand Hail Mary’s ever could.