Celebration of ritual

Rituals get a bad press. The word implies something archaic, boring, mindless and pointless. Some rituals are. But I want to make a case for rituals, albeit rituals defined broadly enough to include reminders and procedures. Without those we’d lose track of what to do and how to do many of the important things of our lives.

But first I want to set aside the rituals which exist because people are odd or ill. Here are four examples I know:

  • When a senior manager attended a formal meeting, he always laid out three identical, good quality pens on the desk right in front of him. Likely he worried one might run out, hence having a spare. And then he needed a spare for the spare.
  • An office manager always had several pencils on his desk, all the same length, and all pointed in the same direction. When the manager went for lunch, juniors in the office would reverse some of his pencils. When he came back, the juniors watched to see how long before their manager noticed his pencils no longer all faced the same way. It was immediate, and he’d demand to know who had used his pencils.
  • One senior officer was always last out from the office at night. He’d switch off all the lights, then switch them on again, off again, on again, off again, on again, off again. Much the same happened with locking the outside door – lock, unlock, lock, unlock – at least four times before he could leave.
  • After everyone had gathered for the Sunday morning church service, Pastor George would leave his vestry, and join his congregation exactly on the hour for the service to begin. I mean ‘exactly’ on the hour. He’d watch the second hand of the clock count down and enter the sanctuary at precisely the right time.

I’m no clinician, but several of these seem like instances of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which America’s National Institute of Mental Health describes: ‘Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.’[1]

We’re tempted to smile at obsessive patterns, but OCD is no joke for the sufferer. Anyone with OCD deserves sympathy, not teasing.

So, to be clear, I’m not writing about uncontrollable or obsessive behaviour here, but about rituals we choose because they make our lives better. And, because they’re useful to us, we can celebrate them.

So, how do rituals make life better?

Rituals keep us safe

I’m usually last to go to bed, so it’s my job to make sure the house is secure for overnight. That consists of several tasks: 1) Make sure the dogs relieve themselves outside. That’s definitely important for them and us. 2) Once the dogs are in, check every outside door is locked, including the garage. 3) Fill the kettle so there’s no delay in making the first cup of tea in the morning. 4) Make sure all appliances and lights are off. 5) Close doors to retain heat.

I won’t be the only one with a last-thing-at-night routine. Nor the only who occasionally finds a door unlocked or a light still on. The ritual protects us.

In fact, we create many rituals to keep us safe, but we often call them rules, routines, codes or protocols. Think about these:

Safe crossing of roads: I was taught ‘Look right / Look left / Look right again / if all is clear, walk (don’t run) across’. There are more modern crossing codes now, but with the same aim. A young American, only a short time in the UK, got the ritual wrong. In a momentary mind-lapse, he stepped into the path of a car because he first looked left, as if he was still in America where traffic drives on the right. He didn’t die, but was so badly injured he never walked unaided again.

Driving routines: My driving instructor gave me a routine for every time I approached a junction or crossroads: mirror, signal, manoeuvre. That’s now been expanded and adjusted to M.S.P.S.L (Mirror, signal, position, speed and look). Motorcyclists have similar routines, with one important extra: a life-saver shoulder check. Motorcycle mirrors give limited vision, so glancing back on the side toward which you’re turning warns you if something has been in your blind spot. It’s saved me more than once.

Flying checklists: There are various checklists related to piloting and maintaining aircraft. Aviation historians say pre-flight checks were first mandated after a 1935 crash in Ohio. Accident investigators later found the pilots had tried to take off without disengaging the plane’s gust locks (which stop control surfaces moving in the wind while the plane is parked).[2] Both pilots died. These days there are checklists for each of several stages of an aircraft’s flight. You’ll be happy to know the final checklist includes ‘Landing gear – down’.

There are checklists for many industries and workplaces. But, by now you’ll have got the point – protocols are rituals that keep us safe.

Rituals bring welcome familiarity

Alison isn’t a fan of shopping in supermarkets she doesn’t normally use. ‘It’ll take me too long because I won’t know where everything is,’ she explains. Alison isn’t interested in browsing every part of a store. She knows what she wants, so shopping in her usual supermarket allows her to whizz round, get what she needs, pay, and go. Familiarity is her friend.

I like the story of the large department store which kept changing where the different sections were located. An exasperated shopper asked a member of staff, ‘Where’s the electrical goods department now?’ and got an equally exasperated reply, ‘I’m not sure but stay here and it’ll be along soon.’ Some changes are welcome, but we also appreciate familiarity, stability, even sameness. Rituals give us that.

In my earliest years as a church minister, I worried that Christmas services were much the same year after year. We sang the same carols, and Christmas sermons covered the same ground. It took me about ten years before I realised people weren’t expecting or needing novelty. They wanted to hear the old, old story told again and again, because the familiarity gave comfort. And their understanding of what it meant for God’s Son to be born in this world had grown and matured because of the regular repeating of the core truths about Christmas.

That constant focus on core truths is why some Christians follow a lectionary which focuses on major passages of the Bible (often on a three-year cycle), or structure their teaching around major Christian events (like Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Ascension, and so on). Lectionaries have never been part of my tradition, but I understand why many find these rituals ensure everything major is covered, and that repetition enhances understanding. Rituals have those advantages.

Rituals keep us on track

The first time I needed a ritual was when I first lived entirely on my own. I was 18 and had a small bed-sit in a flat where the landlord wasn’t usually present. I would have a serious problem if I went out without my house key, so I developed a routine. Every time I opened the front door, I paused and checked the key was safely in my pocket. That ritual meant I was never locked out.

In another place where I rented a room, the landlady cleaned the kitchen and bathroom on Mondays, front lounge on Tuesdays, hallways on Wednesdays, and bedrooms on Thursdays and Fridays. Probably she did ‘spot cleaning’ in between, but it was mainly her weekly ritual that kept the house in good shape.

My mum had a less-regimented method for keeping our house clean, but her absolute ritual was spring cleaning. As the dark days of winter faded, it was time for the house to be vacuumed and scrubbed from top to bottom. Cupboards were emptied, carpets were beaten, furniture moved so corners impervious to normal cleaning were conquered. My dad was busy too. We had a very large garden, and in spring especially he worked there every evening and on weekends. The spring rituals were a big deal, and never missed.

Many rituals involve cars. One neighbour washed his car twice a week whether it needed it or not. I used to take the wheels off my car once a month, just to be sure I could if I got a puncture. I also checked all my tyre pressures weekly. One old car leaked oil so badly, I monitored its oil level every day (and carried a large can of oil in the car). Rituals kept me motoring.

Many Christians (and people of other faiths) make sure they take time to pray morning and night; some follow a three times a day pattern. Good rituals aid spirituality.

I asked a friend who owned a hairdressing business how frequently some customers had their hair ‘done’ – apparently some came every week. A golf store owner told me he had customers who bought new golf clubs every six months. I know people who buy a new car every three years. Some rituals are good but expensive!

Rituals can help psychologically

At the beginning of this blog, I identified rituals that have got out of hand and become an illness. But more moderate rituals help psychologically.

Most of us know the things that really matter to us. If we have a routine that gets these things done, we’re at peace. The flowers were bought for the one you love. The elderly relative was visited. The car was maintained. The study schedule was met. The medicine was taken. The budget was done. And so on. Now, all done, there’s no nagging worry that we’ve missed something important. Our routine prioritised what matters, and we followed it, so those things can’t prey on our minds. No ritual can guarantee every area of life will run smoothly, but it can ensure everything significant gets attention.

On the website of The British Psychological Society, a ‘guest blogger’ article suggests that even meaningless rituals boost our self-control by making us feel more disciplined. (You can find the article here: https://digest.bps.org.uk/2018/07/11/performing-meaningless-rituals-boosts-our-self-control-through-making-us-feel-more-self-disciplined/). I’m not a psychologist, so can’t evaluate the experiments described in the article, but I do understand the point being made – routines enhance our self-control and thus make us feel disciplined. That can’t be bad. Earlier I mostly described how rituals help us achieve more, but it’s interesting to think that rituals could also have a positive effect on our minds.

There are two reasons why writing about ‘rituals’ has been a strange subject for me. One, I dislike feeling imprisoned by a pre-defined way of doing things. Two, my friends would laugh at the idea of me recommending rituals. Not what I’m known for.

However, when I thought about rituals, I realised I’ve always had them. They’ve varied during my life, and never been the kind that gets written down and slavishly followed. But, I had a ritual about when I’d visit my dad when he was old and on his own. I have one now about how often I’ll play golf. And another about when I’ll write my weekly blog!

So, celebrate rituals. You almost certainly have them, and almost certainly benefit from them.


[1] The NIMH have a useful website: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd#:~:text=Obsessive%2DCompulsive%20Disorder%20(OCD),to%20repeat%20over%20and%20over

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preflight_checklist