Thoughts on rites in general.
I was pondering a few days ago the Eucharist Also called “Sacrament,” “Lord’s supper,” “Communion,” “Divine Liturgy,” etc. and found my thoughts straying from the particulars of this rite to the concept of rites in general. Our culture is rife with rites: alcohol poisoning on a 21st birthday, knocking on wood when a negative future is speculated, graduations and inductions and baptisms and funerals…. Perhaps some of these oughtn’t be called rites, I can’t seem to find a firm definition of that word, but they all have characteristics in common I want to discuss. To discuss them, I’ll use the word “rite” to reference them.
Rites generally share three characteristics. They are prescriptive formulas. They require physical action by the participants. And most of them are triggered or enabling, not personally scheduled.
The prescriptive formulaic nature of rites causes them to transcend the individual and link people together. This results from the so-called triangle inequality: two things that are close to the same thing are close to one another. By having a rite fixed and immovable, all who approach the rite come together, forming a common experience and a potential social bond.
The physical action involved in rites is strongly reinforcing in several ways. First, you cannot readily deny an action: “I believed it enough to go on a pilgrimage.” By contrast, that which occurs only in the head can be readily renounced. Second, a physical action is public, which aids in the unity mentioned above. Third, as people as diverse as Robert Sapolsky and William James have suggested, the state of the body has significant impact on the state of the mind and emotion.
The fact that rites are typically triggered by the calender, by an external event, or by the desire to gain access to something is an element I have not been able to justify. Perhaps it is simply an effort to create uniformity. Perhaps rites are so silly most people wouldn’t accept them if they didn’t feel compelled to do so by the roll of time. I simply don’t know.
Rites, whatever their form, appear to have significant benefits simply in existing. And yet when people discuss the merits of particular rites (which almost exclusively happens with religious rites, the others being treated more as tradition than meaning) the general value of all rites rarely arises. Perhaps, when people ask “Why baptism?” the best response is actually “Why graduation? Why any rite of passage? It’s the way humans are.”