Ritual, religion, spirituality. Are they significantly different? The same? I think about this sometimes and have the opportunity to talk to people about it on a fairly regular basis. So I will report here what I have arrived at for the moment.
Spirituality seems to me to be an individual thing- personal and very intimate. Religion, I think, is a communal thing – an affirmation of grouphood. Perhaps a way of joining prayer for gathered strength. For those that believe in the power of prayer, the power of communal prayer is larger, stronger than individual prayer. Ritual for me is a heritage thing – an affirmation of identity. I also think that often ritual is the glue that binds our spirituality and our religious ideas together, or at least finds them common ground.
If you are someone that grows in spiritual practice, then sometimes you find that rituals help to bring you that most sacred space. I consider my religion and my spiritual life to be things that have grown separately. But there are those times that they merge. For example, when I set my seder table with my grandmother’s things and prepare to welcome loved ones to that table, I feel near to her and those that came before. It creates a sacred moment in which my spirit, my religion,my ritual, my community and my past all come together.
And when I meditate, some of it is about prayer. And some of prayer is about how I came to a relationship with a Higher Power. And some of how I came to a relationship with a Higher Power is through my religion and the rituals that are a part of it. Circular, no? So in this way, rituals bind the personal. But in a very major way, rituals bind the community.
There are many views in major religions about the utility of some rituals. There is some idea of “modernizing” religion by eliminating some ritual. But I was told by a religious eastern orthodox woman that ritual “warms” religion, keeps it from getting cold. I thought that was a wonderful description. In the same way, ritual warms our spiritual, non-religious, practices. We sit in certain places, listen to certain music, scent the air or sit in nature’s scent, sit by the ocean or contemplate the stars. We each of us with our own particular rituals for spiritual practices that have nothing to do with religion.
I love the final shavasana and meditation at the end of my yoga class and my shabbat service rituals with equal intensity. Sometimes they lead to the same place, often not. But all my paths take me to personally important and sometimes enlightening places.