The Pope and I

All week I have been preoccupied like most of the world, with the death of the Pope. Watching the ritual and ceremony, the dignity and respect that are being expressed, I am stunned. The Catholic Church has provided a beautiful tribute to the Pope. It is not a Hollywood production, but a ritual prescribed by their history. It is authentic and majestic at the same time as being restrained and respectful.

Ritual appeals to people on a deep level. It transcends words and travels directly to the soul. People crave ritual from their earliest days. A child wants to know what to expect of his world. He or she wants to know that in the morning there is getting washed and dressed and eating and then he or she is off to play or to school. Bedtime rituals allow the child to wind down from the day. Rituals provide a structure for life. They provide regularity and emotional safety. It is within the structure of ritual that a person can feel free. I like to think of ritual in the way I used to think of a playpen for my children. In the confines of the playpen, there were only safe toys and everything that happened inside that structure was safe and healthy. Likewise, in our lives we need that structure which is provided by ritual.

Families naturally create their own rituals. Family members may kiss hello and goodbye. The husband may bring coffee to his wife each morning. Children might show their parents schoolwork each evening after supper. The family might go out to eat every Sunday evening. Regularity and predictability are hard-wired needs.

Cultures and civilizations also create rituals. Holidays are ritual observances. Preparing for holidays, special table settings, linens, decorations are all part of the excitement of the holiday.

Rituals are not just actions performed on a regular basis, but on a spiritual level, they are specific symbolic actions. Immersion in a baptismal font or a mikva is not just a physical cleansing, but a spiritual cleansing. Lighting candles for mood is not the same as lighting candles for a holy day. The connection of action and meaning, the connection of past and present, the connection with others throughout the world along with regularity are all parts of what makes ritual so powerful.

Years ago, my husband and I took care of two little children, aged five and six for a couple of weeks. These were not Jewish children, but in our house, they experienced shabbat- the candle lighting, the kiddush and wine, the formal table settings, the prayers and songs. Of course they dressed up in their nicest clothes as did the rest of us. About three days later, one of the children asked, “Is tonight shabbat again?” She told me that shabbat was special. This child was not sophisticated. She had no understanding of the meaning. It was the ritual that spoke to her without words.

So often, people want to throw away things that are old and outdated. Modern, educated clients have come to me. They are successful in business, they have satisfying home-lives, but they are unsatisfied, and depressed. They feel their life is devoid of meaning. Ritual does not provide answers. It is instead, the spiritual home that helps us feel connected to other people, to the world, and to ourselves.

The Pope and I—we had that belief in common. May he rest in peace.

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  1. First, let me say I am enyoying your site.
    Second, this “ritual” really spoke to me. We had some friends from South America visit with us sometime back. These were not Jewish people (at the time) but the wife told us of a “ritual” they had in her family. Every Friday night, they went down into the basement and turned out all the lights and lit candles and said a little prayer to G-d.

    We reasoned together that this was a remnant of a time when the family openly was Jewish and after becoming Christian out of necessity due to repression kept this small ritual of their Judaism…a special family ritual that told them who they were.


  2. I received this feedback from Dr. Lorelle Michelson, a plastic surgeon who practices in northern New Jersey, USA

    Many surgeons will tell you the the “ritual” of changing, scrubbing and going in to the O. R. is indeed emotionally satisfying in and of itself.
    Even before I begin to operate, just the act of PREPARING TO GO IN TO THE O.R. AND LEAVING “LIFE BEHIND” IS very calming (to me, at least!). There
    is an “escape” quality to this act~~much as the “escape” from the routine
    that Shabbat or the holidays offer

  3. Rhonda Richards says

    This particular story reminded me of when my mother was alive and she fell at work and was in a nursing home for many months. Rosh Hashannah arrived and she was not able to join us as she had been doing since my military husband had arrived back in the states. I had told my two children to get into thier best clothers. When my young daugheter questioned why, I explained it way Rosh Hashannah. She told me it couldn’t be because Grandma wasn’t here! Both of my children knew how important it was for me to have guest and by the end of services I had just that! Both of them had found people who needed homes for a meal for Rosh Hashannah! That was the year, close to my heart, even though my mother did not make it that year! It was the year I realized my children learned not only by words by by actions as well.