LENT: Meaningful Ritual vs. Mindless Routine

February 12, 2013

This is the first in a three-part series of Lenten articles written by Linda Woodson Stout, a graduate of the Iowa School for Lay Ministry, class of 2006. To read the second article, please click here.


Meaningful Ritual vs.  Mindless Routine

When does hitting my spiritual stride cross over to developing a spiritual rut? Within the repeating rhythm of time, I wrestle with the dynamic balance between familiar comforts and the fresh excitement accomplishing new challenges. I find I need the spiritual nourishment of both these experiences, yet struggle to formulate daily practices that achieve both goals.

We may endanger our spiritual growth when we think any religious “to-do list” is thoroughly complete and that nothing beyond the list is required. Rules are a guide to successful interactions with others. To fully understand the truth beyond the rules and become doers of the word means to become capable of breaking rules brilliantly for the best possible results. Hebrews 4:12¹ states “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Rigid rules may hamper our ability to deal with complex situations in life. Living and active responses open opportunities of deeper meaning. God loves diversity and, thankfully, diversity results in complexity.

My recent Bible study of Psalm 15 included time spent looking at religion defined by moral practices. Verse 1 reminds me of students asking their teacher, “What do we need to know to pass the test?”

  1. Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?
  2. Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart;
  3. who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take reproach against their neighbors;
  4. in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
  5. who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved.

How does Psalm 15 apply to life today?

  • Seek God with a sincere heart.
  • Faith needs to be outwardly active, not merely inwardly absorptive.
  • “The rules” are truly guidelines. We need to become independent thinkers who understand the principles beyond the rules, and with God’s guidance, we need to be prepared to apply those principles in fresh response to daily living that may at times break the established rules.
  • We need to be flexible enough to understand that “the rules” change with circumstances and over time.
  • Define our personal religion in terms of moral behavior rather than ritual activities. Rituals per se are not wrong, but they have the potential to let us become lazy or unfocused. [Is there anything more senseless than empty, mindless ritual? Ritual should be engaged and meaningful.]

The point made in both Mark 2:23-28 and Matthew 12:6 brings into sharp relief Jesus’ interpretation of “the rules.” There is something greater than the temple here. The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.


The Importance of Meaningful Ritual

Because of its focus on active, principle-based religion, Psalm 15 prompts me to ask the antithesis of this psalm, “What is meaningful ritual?”

How do we explore efficiently to find the rituals with meaning for us as individuals? Which rituals will remind us of our moral principles and will keep those principles at the forefront of our thinking to positively impact our daily activities?

Going through the motions is an acceptable practice when we are learning a new discipline, trying to establish better habits. “Going through the motions” defines action over enthusiasm, heart, or full emotional or mental commitments. Verse 4c, “who stand by their oath even to their hurt,” speaks of real commitment, commitment that overrides inconvenience. Many of us take up a practice because we understand the long term benefits yet are still sidelined at the first inconvenience.

During times of crisis we turn to ritual to guide us while our minds wrestle with the impact of events, when we can’t “think” of what to do. As pointed out in Leslie D.  Weatherhead’s classic, The Will of God² to be effective, the anchor must already be on board to be put into useful service during a storm. In Luke 23:56b we see a rare mention that ritual practice sustained the disciples in their shock and disappointment following Jesus’ death. Ritual practices help insulate us from feeling overwhelmed in stressful situations.

God regards us very personally as individuals. We are free to search for the proper combination and balance of ritual appropriate through time and place. This individually balanced combination in turn enables us to respond in ways that open our availability to act as instruments of God’s grace and purpose in the world.

The popular Brain Age games for the individual Nintendo DS game consoles marketed to adults as possible tools to stave off Alzheimer’s symptoms, instruct gamers to practice daily to stimulate the prefrontal cortex, yet explains that regular routine reduces this stimulation. Those two instructions sound almost mutually exclusive. Physical conditioning faces the same challenge. Many workout videos emphasize varying training activities over time to avoid muscle groups becoming too efficient at specific movements and eventually losing the progressive benefits of the initial exercise regimen.

In the evolving practice of ritual, while it may be habitual action during its adoption, once it becomes a meaningful ritual, it must be guarded against becoming “mindless ritual.”

One of my former colleagues remarked she missed my ability to attack huge projects in a single bound. I thought, “I don’t do that” until I realized that my analytical gifts allow me to evaluate large, complex projects and break them into smaller, coordinated projects. Dedicating specific amounts of time to accomplishable tasks keep me from feeling overwhelmed by the tasks before me. Tracking them can assure me of my progress. Concerting all these components make large projects more manageable. Outwardly people may see me accomplishing monumental tasks, but inwardly I see myself applying an adaptive, analytical ritual to allow me to progressively accomplish sequential components.

During Lent a few years ago I led a study group on Prayers, Altars & Blessings, exploring symbols and practices to engage our senses. Each participant collected the results of their weekly activities in a box we designated a “portable altar.” Months later one of those participants related to me that during a recent crisis that fraught her with worry and agitation, she successfully used the items collected in her portable altar box. She delighted that these things looked like bits and fluff, junk to many, but they clearly were meaningful to her when she needed to reconnect to God as the calm center amid the storm in her life that week.

I am not a big fan of memorizing scripture, but I am a strong advocate for knowing scripture. What’s the difference? Being able to quote a specific Bible verse has many satisfying qualities, especially in a group setting. The handful of scriptures I have memorized reveal the core of my beliefs, but having them memorized seems to distance me from their source and context. I find a much more satisfying adventure to recall a scripture and go exploring with Bible reference tools and concordances, often discovering the theme is recurrent in scripture, examining new facets of these themes, and being open to deeper meanings in application to my daily activities.

Like Psalm 15, Isaiah 58 focuses on the importance of moral actions above religious rituals. Here the reader is invited to examine how ignoring moral obligations negates the use of our ritual. Yes, prayer and fasting can bring us closer to God, but that is only an intermediate objective. Our larger objective growing closer to God is to have our actions change through our activities, resulting in each segment of our daily lives becoming more genuine and less compartmentalized.


Identifying Meaningful Ritual

While we may admit to desiring spiritual growth, we may not always immediately recognize how to achieve spiritual growth.

These components, though not an exhaustive list of indicators, may help us identify the meaningful rituals in our lives.

  • The ritual keeps us focused on the spiritual aspects of life.
  • The ritual is energizing both spiritually and physically.
  • The ritual restores or maintains a sense of inner peace or tranquility, especially during stressful times.
  • The challenge component of the ritual is surmountable.
  • After successfully completing the ritual, we look forward to the opportunity to repeat the experience.

Prayer is an excellent first step in identifying meaningful rituals. This is a bit self-referential, especially when we do not have an established prayer practice. Yet even stumbling attempts at prayer acknowledging our need, and our openness to God’s guidance, result in surprising success.

Take a fresh look at rituals. What may have been true in the past may not necessarily remain true in the present. I had failed at fasting in college. I struggled both with fasting blood draws and medication that was to be taken two hours after eating and an hour before eating again, yet as a matured adult was able to fast once a week from lunch Wednesday through lunch Thursday during the six weeks of Lent. [Success tip: drink plenty of water.] Silent prayer for sustained periods may have fallen to wandering thoughts in the past, but prayer tools including beads or drawings may engage me rapidly to refocus.

Look at seasonal events for clues to meaningful ritual. Both Advent and Lent are good times to “try on” a ritual to see how it fits. My daughter feels it isn’t really Christmas unless she finds an “angel tree” giving project where she can provide gifts for children in need. Her goal is to plan her finances well enough that she can take on unclaimed tickets as the deadline arrives. This ritual of giving increases her awareness of other giving opportunities throughout the year.

The six weeks of Lent is long enough to practice something to learn both its benefits and its drawbacks. Repeating the ritual during a second year can provide perspective on its impact in our lives. 


Pursuing Meaningful Ritual

Matthew 6:1-18 advises us to beware the folly of practicing our piety before others in order to be seen by them. These practices include giving alms, praying, forgiving others, and fasting. Clearly, the ritual is not the essence. What happens to us through the ritual is essential.

Wesley’s Means of Grace encompassing Acts of Piety and Acts of Mercy provides a starting point for further personal exploration. However, personal exploration is not limited to solitary exploration. The synergy potential in group experiences can be enlivening. Even though my BA degree in English trained me to analyze books and other writings, I am always delighted with the range of insights and ideas resulting in book discussion groups. The same is true of Bible study groups.

The balance and combination of meaningful ritual that will fuel our spiritual growth is as individual as we are. For many of us weekly corporate worship provides the foundation of our meaningful ritual, but we are responsible for choosing to conduct our lives conscientiously throughout the week.

The bad news is that human nature often enjoys unchanging comfort to the point of stagnation. The good news is that human nature also often enjoys satisfying achievement in new areas. Reviewing our meaningful ritual practices on a regular basis is as sound as reviewing our investments, insurance coverage, and car and home maintenance to be sure our needs are being met.

If review shows reduced meaning in a ritual, we can explore ways to refresh our ritual practices or adopt new practices to stimulate our spiritual growth. We may even choose as a meaningful, ongoing ritual to challenge ourselves yearly with at least one new spiritual practice. This may be a different kind of Bible study (group or individual), a different prayer practice, a different worship style, or a different way of interacting with the people in our lives.

Romans 12:2 is so essential to my spiritual beliefs that I even have it on a t-shirt. 

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

God’s infinite grace, wisdom and abundance will easily satisfy a lifelong thirst for our own spiritual progress.


Linda Woodson Stout
Iowa School for Lay Ministry
Class of 2006

¹ All scripture references quoted from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

² p.10, The Will of God, Leslie D.  Weatherhead.   Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN.  © 1944 by Whitmore & Stone, copyright renewal © 1972 by Abingdon Pres.