September 18, 2009
Ritual and Community
The Rev. Dr. Scott Stoner
Watching a Wisconsin football game and seeing most of the stadium decked out in red, and everyone singing "Varsity" together never fails to give me goose bumps. As college football begins again this year, experiences like this are happening in every college football stadium across the country. The same is happening at the pro level. Last night during the Packer-Bear game, the cameras showed several young men leading a cheer whose entire bodies were painted green and gold in support of the home team. They were of course surrounded by hundreds of people who all were all wearing various symbols of their home team allegiance.
You may not be a football fan yourself, but please keep reading, because this is not a column about football. Today I write about the universal human longing for ritual and community. Football fans and the rituals that help them identify with a larger community are simply one example of this longing. As an Episcopal priest, I have been fascinated by the subjects of ritual and community my whole life. I get a kick out of my unchurched friends who will sometimes tease me about the church and how it has so many 'odd' rituals, and yet see nothing 'odd' about painting your face green and gold, or wearing a cheesehead while you watch a Packer game in your family room. The lesson here is that rituals that make sense to everyone inside of a community sometimes look 'odd' to those outside the community.
What are the important communities in your life? What rituals define those communities? Some of your rituals and communities may be related to hobbies and recreation, to work or professional interests, to friends, to family and extended family, and/or to spiritual and religious meaning. All of these communities and rituals are essential for our lives.
In the brief space of a column like this, I just want to make one important point about the rituals and communities that help define our lives. From my perspective as a priest and therapist, where I see people struggling some times is when they are having a hard time letting go of a ritual or a community that no longer has meaning for them. Precisely because rituals and community are so important to us, we sometimes try to hold on to the past in ways that does serve us well in the present. "But we ALWAYS celebrated Thanksgiving like this when I was growing up......" can either be a wonderful memory to build on and adapt to the present, or it can become a rigid order that one tries to enforce on others who didn't always celebrate Thanksgiving that way. Family rituals are essential for the celebrating and passing on of meaning, but they also need to be able to adapt to present times as well. The same is true for places of worship, where the most common refrain to most changes is, "but we've never done it that way before."
Individuals, families and organizations are defined in large part by their rituals and communities. Those that thrive are those who know when it is time to create or re-create new rituals, and when it is time to invite new people into their communities.
So if you are a football fan, enjoy this wonderful time of year as a new season begins and our hopes are high for our favorite team. If you are not a football fan, I hope these thoughts have at least given you a new way to understand the curious behaviors and passion of the football fans in your life.