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Whatever our faith, we all need rituals

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CHESTERTON was once accused of being superstitious and he replied: ‘I love my religion and I particularly love those parts of it which are ignorantly described as superstitious.’I agree with him. I think we should have more priestcraft as well. For the priest does have a craft. I am a priest and I try my best to practise it.

But really, why should someone living in our wonderfully progressed and modern 21st century stand gawping at relics or, worse still, kneeling in their presence? The answer is simple: it is to show devotion to something. These outward demonstrations of devotion, support, loyalty, commitment are not limited to Christians. Atheists and secularists do it. Are there any atheist Chelsea supporters? I’m sure there must be a few. They don’t merely support Chelsea in theory: they wear scarves and replica shirts. And on match day Stamford Bridge is like a raucous church with all that heartfelt chanting and singing.

The reason why Christians and atheists alike practise rituals which involve signs and tokens that superficially resemble totems and fetishes is because we are not disembodied minds. We are bodies, parts and passions and so we relate not just to intellectual matters, to some impossible realm of pure spirit, but we employ visible, physical and material things in all that we do. Ritual and drama are not savagery and primitive superstition: they are the embodiment of the poetic imagination. Enchantment involves putting words and desires into a chant. Try a psalm chant or a canticle – but perhaps not what they chant at Stamford Bridge.  

Suppose there is a residential home for aged and decrepit members of the National Secular Society – the sort of place where Richard Dawkins and Polly Toynbee might end their days. And suppose that two residents of this blissful temple to atheism fell in love and decided to get married. They wouldn’t merely sign a formal contract: there would be a wedding ring, a cake and glasses of champagne for ritual toasting of the happy couple.

We cannot do without ritual and symbols. It’s not just women in darkest Africa who have rings in their ears and studs in their noses. I used to see the same phenomenon every day among the chic young women who work in the City. I have been into the homes of atheists and secularists. They have pictures on their walls. Am I to regard this as a form of superstition? For they do, in a sense, worship these pictures in much the same way as they adore paintings in the art gallery. I bet some of these atheists and secularists even have photograph albums, and that primitive atheist man has a picture of his wife in his wallet. If he should take out this picture and say to me proudly, ‘This is my wife’, am I really to think that he is married to a photograph?

The barrier to a full appreciation of reality is not ritual or symbols. The barrier is crass literal-mindedness. I may say, ‘My love is like a red, red rose’ but I don’t spray her with insecticide in case she has greenfly. Puritanism is especially prone to literal-mindedness. Puritans don’t approve of candles on the altar or fine vestments or sounds and sweet airs which delight and hurt not. The literal-minded Puritan is like a man who will get dressed up to go to a grand restaurant but, instead of eating anything, spends the entire evening reading the menu. Man does not live by words alone but by every piece of bread which comes from the hand of the generous God

Everything we do from a kiss on the cheek or a handshake to a Pontifical High Mass involves us in symbolism. We are incarnated souls. And so we cannot possibly live merely theoretically. As well as thoughts, we need things. This is to say that our nature obliges us to live sacramentally. When we bring a baby to be christened, we don’t just say a form of words, we sprinkle him or her with water. There are the rings at the wedding. When Our Lord told how we should remember him and invoke his Real Presence, he said we should do so not just with a form of words but with bread and wine: a ritual meal.

The religion of detached spirituality is phoney whether it originates in a 4thcentury Gnostic sect, among the Manichees or in coteries of Theosophists and Hampstead Buddhists. Christian materialism is the true perspective because it is derived from two antecedent and fundamental truths: that God made the material world and that he himself became part of that world in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Moreover, spirituality which is not rooted in the material world is not just phoney but dangerous. People who worship only the pure spirit forget that there can be the bad spirit. Beware of theoretical detachment, beware the idea that all truth is merely a matter of the right propositions or formula. For this way ends in death and destruction. The ancient Gnostic philosophers were detached theorists of this sort. They held that the world of material things is beneath contempt, evil. This led them to the belief that, since matter is evil, what you do in the material world is of no moral significance. It was St John in the first fourteen verses of his Gospel who noticed this danger and gave us the antidote. He said: ‘All things were made by God and without him was not anything made that was made.’ He was of course repeating the message of the Book of Genesis: ‘And God saw the world, that it was good.’

The theoretical, disembodied, purely spiritual heresy has returned to threaten civilisation again and again. Chesterton said: ‘At least five times, with the Arian and the Albigensian, with the Humanist sceptic, after Voltaire and after Darwin, the Faith has to all appearances gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases, it was the dog that died. But if the Church had not entered the world, it seems probable that Europe would be very much what Asia is now.’

A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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