Having been raised in the Catholic Church, ritual is nothing new to me. The rhythm of the Liturgical Calendar, the pomp of the High Masses, and the weekly breaking of the bread have all been a part of my life since before I could walk. They are traditions dating back to the Roman Empire and as such are steeped in meaning. Yet, even in schools which counted “Theology” as part of the fifth grade curriculum, these deep rituals punctuated rather than defined the normal rhythm of life.
True, there are lesser rituals which permeate the day to day. The waking act of rising, washing, and eating. The regular grind of the work week. The release of the weekend. Still, while such a pattern might form the backbone of the average person’s life, it lacks the refinement and deep multigenerational meaning possessed by higher rituals of the type described above. It differs in that it is almost purely practical and seeks not to elevate us but instead address basic needs. Bereft of such nobility, the daily pattern might be better termed routine than ritual.
Of course, such a division is inevitable. If all aspects of one’s day were carried out with the solemnity and weight of a coronation, life would proceed at a maddening crawl. Individuals would meet events with a compressed emotional scale that book cased the reserved stoicism of a courtroom between the grief of a funeral and the joy of a wedding. Rituals attain the awe and meaning they do precisely because they rise above the routine.
Yet, like all good things, to say there could be too much is also to say there could be too little. Ritual and ornamentation may rise above the routine, but they also bring that which is high within reach of that which is low.They animate the metaphysical, give shape to the abstract, and in doing so shed light upon how these things apply to our regular habits. Something is therefore lost when ritual becomes too great an exception as opposed to the norm.
This realization struck with considerable force a month ago, during my first venture out of the United States. Over the last three years, my girlfriend and I have managed to maintain a relationship at the somewhat cumbersome distance of six thousand miles. As she had already traveled to New England on a number of occasions, it was my turn to make the transpacific leap. Aside from the realization that the airline’s liquor service was (mercifully) free, my first cultural shock struck when I attempted to make a purchase at, of all things, a Seven Eleven.
To begin, there was the amount of coin I received back as change. Unlike the States, where even dollar coins are regarded as little more than a nuisance, the smallest Japanese bill is roughly equivalent to ten dollars American. The ability to quickly fish one hundred yen pieces from a fistful of change is therefore a necessity, which might be the reason behind my second shock. Read any decent post about traveling to Japan and it will make some mention of the change trays that abound at registers. Instead of simply handing currency to the attendant, as is done in the United States, one is expected to place his or her payment on the tray. The money is then taken and usually poured into the register, saving the attendant the trouble of actually having to handle it.
Though it seemed odd at first, even standoffish, I quickly appreciated the extra step when I thought about it. Having worked at a bank, I can attest to the fact that cash freshly pulled from a person’s pocket is often less than immaculate. This is especially true of coins, which lack the protection of a wallet and can spend months in between seat cushions or underneath a vehicle’s floor mat. The trays therefore save the attendants the indignity of sifting through a customer’s refuse.
As unassuming as this practice appears, it strikes to the heart of Japan’s famous attention to detail and etiquette. Everywhere one goes in the island nation, the Japanese commitment to promote a sense of public decorum is apparent. It can be seen officially in signs that ask passengers to avoid using their phones while in the subway, or in arrows that remind pedestrians to cleave toward the left in busy stations. On a more subtle level however, rituals have been interwoven throughout routine practices in a manner that draws attention to the beauty of their utility. Exchanging gifts between family and friends, most often after a trip abroad or upon first acquaintance, illustrates the reciprocity that is essential to such relationships. The timing Chefs practice in fine restaurants, preparing and presenting each course right as the guest finishes the last, emphasizes an appreciation of the moment that is indicative of a good meal. Even in inexpensive yakitories, small roadside eateries that specialize in drinks and skewered meats, cooks fill sake glasses to overflowing in a way reminiscent of the hospitality and bounty such establishments are built upon.
Perhaps the most famous and highly ritualized of these practices is the act of public bathing. Though likely not as common as it was when indoor plumbing remained a luxury, visiting a sento or onsen, depending on whether the water is draw from a tap or a spring, is still a regular if not daily practice in Japan. At the one I visited in Izukogen, the experience began at the step separating the baths from the rest of the hotel. As is customary in a person’s home, guests entering a bath house are expected to remove their shoes prior to entry, a fact I would have forgotten had my girlfriend not grabbed my arm as I strode forward. With footwear safely stowed, the individual proceeds to the second locker room where he or she disrobes. This stage of the journey was particularly vexing for me, as it was early, I seemed to be the only one in the locker room, and the signs instructing guests as to how far they should disrobe appeared to have been translated by someone suffering from severe dyslexia. Fortunately, an elderly gentleman soon answered my questions by emerging from the baths wearing the key to his footlocker.
My stumbling aside, the actual act of bathing was incredibly relaxing. Once undressed, the individual enters the bathing room. In the Kawana Hotel, this consists of an open granite hall with two wings and a large bath set before a floor to ceiling window. To the left were the small shower stalls where guests wash themselves and shampoo their hair before proceeding. After this final preparation was complete, I moved to the main pool just mentioned. Being an onsen, the water there is drawn from a natural hot spring and the ability to recline and clear my head while gazing at the foliage outside was a welcome respite from an otherwise busy vacation. Stepping from the water to a narrow corridor on the right, I lowered myself into what I quickly realized was the cold water pool. Plunging my head beneath the surface, I felt my skin and my senses jolt to life. Considerably more awake than I had been a moment before, I climbed out and moved to the sauna before soaking for a few more moments in the hot spring.
The beauty of this practice lies in the civility and grace it bestows on what is otherwise a mundane activity. Just as bathing cleans away the soil of a day’s work, the onsen’s orderly progression, from changing rooms, to showers, to baths, and back, draws attention to the need for constant and thoughtful self improvement. At the same time however, the act of bathing for its own sake reiterates the need to pause and appreciate things in their own right. It serves to elevate the individual, forcing him to stop, inducing deliberate action, and clearing his mind by focusing it upon the present. In a very real way, it is the traditional, the inherited aspects of this practice which wash away the fleeting concerns that typify the mundane while simultaneously drawing attention to the here and now.
Although there will always be a line delineating routine from ritual, the two need not be completely isolated. Like ivy that has grown into the lattice work, rituals can be incorporated into the routine and the routine into rituals in a way that is beneficial for both. Beautiful as they are, traditions and ceremonies are only as valuable as their ability to relate. They remind us of who we are, what we hold dear, and what we hope to achieve. Just as dead vines can strain the lattice, those rituals that fail in this regard become superficial routines themselves. To my fellow Catholics, how many times have you seen parishioners attend Sunday Mass and mutter the Apostle’s Creed with little care or thought for what these actions entail? For my own part, I have been one such parishioner on a number of occasions.
Thus, there is a clear need to tend to rituals as one would a vine, watering the soil, maintaining the lattice, and cutting away dead stems. Seeking to understand the implications behind our traditions and ways in which such meaning can be more closely applied to the everyday is perhaps the best way of achieving this. Rituals serve as a bridge to our past but it is still up to us to decide what aspects of that past we wish to carry forward. But the meaning which animates these acts is lost when we fail to apply them to the routine, just as our lives and routines become base when we look no further than the needs of the day ahead.