The Anxiety of Rituals

By Diana Rahim

Rituals have always been a fraught topic for me. For a long time I associated them with a vacuous, rigid religiosity I found unfulfilling; the Islam of my childhood often taught through fear and rigid enforcement of rituals to ensure compliance.

Even as a child I was aware that adults knew rituals were simply not fun, and that children might not fully comprehend the reasons behind them enough to willingly practice them. So they enforce it, mete out punishment, and reprimand. Here was the admission that despite the insistence that rituals were a beautiful part of religious practice, they can also be uncomfortable and cumbersome. Sometimes they even make us suffer. We need compelling reasons to willingly go through them. But that is difficult. It takes time and patience. Sometimes it even takes a personal journey. And we don’t have the time to encourage personal journeys. So we keep it simple. We enforce them.

The problem is, it doesn’t stop at children. The policing and rigidity in the practice of rituals is symptomatic of the way we dominantly understand and practice religion in general — a heavy emphasis on outward displays out piety, a watered down experience of abiding by a list of Do’s and Don’ts. Two ladies who visited Iran during the month of Ramadan once told me how the enforcement of the fast by the state resulted in a phenomenon where citizens observed the fast in public, but would eat behind closed doors and curtains. The disparity was so jarring they could never forget it. Then there was the incident last year in Selangor where six Muslims were nabbed by the Selangor Islamic Religious Department for disrespecting the month of Ramadan by eating in public and more recently, when a food seller had her stall raided by authorities in Indonesia. Granted these may be extreme examples, yet closer to home one can’t deny the shame one would feel in being seen flouting such rules or rituals.

If you are forced or coerced by social pressure to perform your rituals, if the element of choice is removed, then how much is that act worth?

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Rituals may also conjure a certain image of primitiveness. Primitive religion was after all where humans inherited the rituals of animal slaughter, trance-inducing dances, or painful initiation rituals. But the reason why we find these earlier rituals primitive is precisely because we no longer see their function or accept them as legitimate. People no longer make animal sacrifices when there is drought because we know no amount of animal sacrifice will make the crops grow faster. In the same way, I often wonder if certain rituals have overstayed their welcome or are in need of tweaks to better suit the context in which they are practiced. One of the times I thought this was when the news broke two years ago that 174 sheep meant for the Korban ritual died while on the flight to Singapore. That year 3500 lambs were flown in for the Korban ritual, no doubt at no small cost. I had thought to myself that surely, such a ritual that has connoted sacrifice and giving to the poor can be re-considered if it incurs such  high costs that would be better served in direct charity to the needy. Surely we can re-think how we practice this ritual since it’s functionality seems to struggle in current times. Surely God isn’t so petty.

Of course I know the value of ritual is not solely premised on its function. My instinctive desire to judge something by what it can tangibly provide is a result of my living in a post-enlightenment era; an age of disenchantment and provable reason; an age that favours logos over mythos.

In the pre-modern world, the value of rituals was never really in their practical function. Karen Armstrong had written in The Case for God that “one of the functions of ritual is to evoke an anxiety in such a way that the community is forced to confront and control it”. One of the most touching ritual-origin story I’ve read was the way our hunter ancestors dealt with the intense dread they felt at having to slaughter animals for their own sustenance while also holding on to an animist view of the universe that regards animals as cohabitants on earth. Bushmen from the Kalahari Desert would stay with the animal they killed till the end, crying when it cried. Some tribes would wear animal costumes to identify with their prey. Others would hold rituals that would help ease the animal into its afterlife.

I was moved by the depth of compassion in our ancestors, the lengths they would go to respect their prey and confront their own anxieties. The rituals of the hunters helped them confront the profound anxiety that comes with having to kill another being. While we suppress our empathy for animals in order to live with our necessary cruelty, our ancestors chose to acknowledge it. Maybe these rituals were not functional, they sound time-consuming, draining and at times a logistical nightmare. But our ancestors must have found them profoundly necessary for their souls.

But our ancestors were also practical. Armstrong went on to note that “if a ritual no longer evokes a profound conviction of life’s ultimate value, he simply abandons it”. They were not precious about these rituals because they were more concerned about what the rituals were innately about, what they were intended to communicate, than simply going through the motions the way we do.

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Rituals are symbolic repetitive acts. Performative gestures at their most powerful when performed in a social setting or context. We need only observe that indescribable, almost sublime energy present when we witness or participate in communal prayers. It doesn’t even have to be religious. Think of the chants that thunder through a stadium during a sports game. Reciting vows during marriage. These too are rituals. The element of community bears repeating and I do think that any enlightening study on the importance or purpose of rituals has to take into account the social context in which it is practiced and the social context from which it originated.

With the general secular-religious split that characterizes today’s climate around religion, I wonder if we spend enough time understanding the way we re-enact or perform religious rituals. Today’s relegation of religion as separate from public life stems from a new conceptualisation of religion – one that saw ritual and worship to be in the private domain. Charles Taylor in A Secular Age wrote that in pre-secular society, “the life of the various associations that made up society … were interwoven with ritual and worship … One could not but encounter God everywhere”. This is not our society now. Religion is not interwoven with state and culture (for the better, of course), so religious rituals are no longer experienced as naturally interwoven into our public lives. If they are experienced publicly within our religious communities, they are performed within carefully demarcated lines drawn up through negotiation with the state.

This shift in the way religion — and therefore its rituals — are practiced thus also shifts the way we experience the very anxieties that the rituals were created to confront or allay.

My friend Agnes Lee wrote her thesis on the problem of suffering in a secular age and noted that while the meaning of suffering used to be understood within the larger context of the Christian paradigm (and certain rituals were performed to assuage the suffering), such an understanding or experience of suffering is not considered viable anymore. Suffering is no longer connected to a larger design or purpose. It is a particular affliction, and one has to derive their own meanings. It is an incredibly lonely experience.

Personally, I find suffering meaningless, and can never be assuaged by religious consolations commonly offered. I find them trite and at times invalidating. I cannot think of any reason good enough to merit the phenomenal amount of suffering that some people go through. But I also think that there is something healing and profound in seeing suffering as something that isn’t just a personal affliction, but something that is part of the human experience. In some way, there is value in seeing how suffering is something that can connect us to the human race, instead of making us feel isolated from it. Perhaps that’s what rituals can provide.

The problem isn’t the rituals per se, but the fact that the way we practice them so often drains them of their meaning and reduces them to mere obligation. We do them by rote. We attempt to justify them by virtue of functionality. Think of how Muslims often feel compelled to prove the “usefulness” of Ramadan by citing health benefits. It misses the point completely. Rituals are not the domain of measurable functionality. From the beginnings of their conception they were about addressing anxieties, or creating a moment of sublime togetherness. Often religious rituals were practiced because people felt God as a reality that transcended language and can only be experienced or understood in a symbolic way.

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The day my grandmother died I knew what would come after. It would be the washing of the body, preparing the house for guests, prayers, and then the burial. I’ve gone through this before so I knew what to expect. I knew that I would be washing her body with flowered water, and later I would get to give her one last kiss goodbye on her forehead. I had thought that at a moment when you are faced with a life emptied of someone you love, a life you can’t even know how to re-imagine, there is comfort in knowing what comes next. I had also thought about how these were the same rituals that have been performed for generations, for over a thousand years, and how me and my family were simply participants in a long line of grieving people. So many have performed these rituals and gestures, and so many will continue to do so.

Nothing special, but how special all the same.

People often feel the need to come up with facts to justify rituals, but that misses the point. Facts can tell me that I have lost someone, that she died from cancer of the blood, that objectively speaking it was a mercy for her to die so she would not suffer anymore. But facts cannot help me deal with despair, with the profound feeling of dread and loss, or even the desire to join my loved one on the other side. But standing together with the ones who have loved that person and offering them your love through prayers or simply your presence, being reminded that they were loved enough to fill a whole house, to see them gently given away back to the earth – these are rituals that can help you deal with it in ways more profound than any fact can provide.

I have come to appreciate rituals now because I understand that their power lies in something beyond anything empirical. They may not be immediately functional or purposeful, but there is a reason why humans have always fallen on the comfort of rituals, whether it’s brushing their teeth every morning or having the discipline to fast every single day for a month. As Barbara Brown Taylor had written in An Altar in the World, “In a world where faith is often construed as a way of thinking, bodily practices remind the willing that faith is a way of life.”  If we can look at what rituals are trying to evoke, the seed of emotion or point that it is trying to lead us to instead of simply seeing it as an end, then we would have a far more fulfilling relationship with them. When we empty them of their meaning or stubbornly insist on simply regurgitating them by rote even when they struggle in our current contexts, then we are already on the path to losing them.

Photo credit: Syafiq Rafid

Read the other posts here: Rituals blog series

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