Marriage, Mass, and the Power of Ritual

Last week, the priest at a nearby church gave a homily about the importance of ritual — about how it keeps us connected even when things don’t feel very compelling on their own. He gave examples about going to Mass week after week, even when you don’t feel like it, or staying married, even when someone else looks more attractive than your spouse.

A couple weeks ago, one of my close friends met my husband for the first time. I was nervous. This wasn’t just any friend. It was someone I once thought was the love of my life. It was only semi-requited, so not much happened in the way of romance. But if it had, I don’t think I would have given it up easily. I know there would be challenges — it’s very consoling to look at the shortcomings of our former loves when we don’t end up with them, but I think I would have worked through those. So I let myself imagine, for a bit, how my life might have been different if we’d ended up together.

The first thought that came to me was, “But Sunday mornings wouldn’t be the same.”

My friend and I are both deeply spiritual and respectful of and curious about one another’s spiritual paths, but we are not the same religion and wouldn’t have regularly worshiped together. Living in the same household, we probably would have felt our religious differences chafing more than I would like to admit. And that was really all the further I needed to go down that path. The thought of Sunday mornings with my husband, going to church, then discussing the service in the car and getting coffee or breakfast before we run errands (or if we’re lucky, go home to rest!), convinced me I didn’t want to be with anyone else. I could only picture this cherished ritual with one person, the person I built it with. And that one ritual was more precious to me than a million tantalizing, possible outcomes with “the one that got away.”

So when the priest spoke of ritual as being the one thing that can keep it all together, no matter what else is happening around you, my heart said a big yes. Catholicism taught me the value of ritual; no matter how much of a struggle it was for my parents to finish the farm chores and get us all washed and dressed in time, we went to Church every single week. This probably had more to do with my parents’ Catholic guilt than their religiosity, but it taught me something that I still hold onto today. Sometimes, quantity is more important than quality. Sometimes, without quantity, you never get quality.

A lot of people stop going to church because they say they don’t “get anything” out of it. I certainly didn’t feel like I was “getting anything” out of it all those years that I was living at home, when I would secretly hope my parents would “forget” it was Saturday so I could stay home and play rather than go to the night Mass. Yet, now I realize that its in the sheer quantity of ritual that you allow the space for those breakthrough moments to happen, those moments when you hear God’s voice on your heart and know what it means in a world of uncertainty. And although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I think that must be why I kept going, even when my parents weren’t there to make me. I went to church every Sunday throughout college, and then through my many single, post-college years. Now, that rhythm continues, and I’ve returned to sharing it with family–albeit, a different family than the one I started with.

All this isn’t to pat myself on the back for my stellar church attendance, or to get onto a high horse about the value of attending services regularly. But it is a realization that I cannot imagine my life without the tether of a weekly religious service. There’s something that feels vast and frightening about it, as if I would somehow lose the ability to tell the days and the weeks apart if I stopped marking each one with service. Perhaps my real fear is that I’ll forget the feeling of those, “Ah, yes,” moments when things all come together, after weeks or months of doing the same old thing in the same old way.

I wouldn’t trade those moments for all the lost loves and free-spiritedness in the world.

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4 thoughts on “Marriage, Mass, and the Power of Ritual

  1. There was a point when I stopped going to church, for about a year and a half, because I was disgusted at the direction everything was going. American institutional/official Catholicism had so clearly become a right-wing club, right down to the parish I was born into. I wanted to yell and throw up, so I went away. After a while I realized that, as you indicate, quantity of ritual really does work on you, shape you, make you what you are. Losing that ritual also shapes you. I wanted to be shaped back into the kind of person I remembered being. I therefore came back. Switched parishes, but came back. I realized I am the sort of person who needs to go to church simply because I am that sort of person. I do violence to my personality if I don’t accept that. All of which I guess is to say: this was really good, and thank you.

  2. I’ve felt exactly like you about going to church at some times. But during those times I experimented with other churches rather than stop going altogether … there was just something about that rhythm that I couldn’t shake. I’ve never experimented with *not* going to church. There’s a part of me that’s kind of curious about what that would be like. I’d be curious to hear more about your experiences during that year and a half, if you ever feel like sharing them.

    Now I only go to Catholic Mass occasionally, usually because I’m with someone else who feels it’s important that we go. I go to the UCC service regularly. I’m not going to say it doesn’t matter which church I’m going to, because if it didn’t matter I wouldn’t have spent so much time looking for one that was a good fit. But I can slip between various services and demonimations depending on where I am on any given weekend and who I’m with pretty easily, I think because it’s more important to my spiritual rhythm *that* I go, less important *where* I go. I think phrasing it as “violence to your personality” to deny that is very apt, and articulates something about myself that I wasn’t quite sure how to give voice to, either. So thank you for that.

    • I actually have a tentative blog post half-assembled in my head. It has the provisional title: “How to Become a Lapsed Catholic, Come Back, and Switch Parishes in Fifty-Eight Easy Steps.” I never get around to writing it. But I might do it soon. November seems like the time. The CTA conference is coming up, and it’s a time when people “like us” seem to think a lot about who we are, why we stay, and how we might talk about that with others.

      I’ve had occasional fantasies of attending other churches or switching denominations. I even own an Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. But I just never got serious about it. Part of that might be my massive, preexisting personal investment. I was a theology major who had an uber-intense Jesuit university experience. I also have a kind of geographic, tribal/blood loyalty that I don’t think many young adults grow up with anymore. I’m very much a product of the South Side of Chicago and my very Slavic family background. As a result, going to a Catholic parish, even in times of execrable leadership, still fits me like a glove the way nothing else does. If I was going to “come home” at all, it was going to be my old home, and so it in fact came to pass. But that’s just me. It is not the only way to be Catholic or Christian, not by a long shot.

      • Ha, your half-assembled 58 steps blog post sounds like my 1/8th assembled blog post on Pope John Paul II’s letter to artists. I’ve come to peace with the fact that I probably never will write that, though. :) I hope yours doesn’t find the same fate. I’ll watch for it.

        I hear what you’re saying about both the tribal loyalty and the personal investment. I spent so many years (22 if anyone’s counting) wrestling with the Catholic Church that it’s not something I could give up lightly. Most people who don’t know me personally know me as a “Catholic writer.” So even though my attendance at Mass has become spotty, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to call myself a “former” Catholic; Catholicism is still very much the foundation of who I am spiritually. In fact, one of the reasons I made going to Call To Action a priority this year is that I find myself hungrier for Catholicism than I am when I go to Mass regularly — and I love that it’s a place that resonates with that deeply Catholic place in me, along with all the other parts of me, too. See you there?

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