A few years ago I took a class at Notre Dame on liturgical prayer, and as it so happened, I was the only student in the class who was not specializing in liturgical studies. At one point we were talking about particular ritual gestures at particular points in the prayers, and I got exasperated at what seemed like nit-picking and blurted out, “None of this stuff matters!” The professor calmly replied, “It does matter – we are embodied beings.” “OK,” I said, “it matters that we do SOMETHING with our bodies, but I can’t imagine that God cares whether we are sitting or standing or kneeling, using the orans position or whatever else, at any given moment.” I just couldn't imagine God being a micromanager, but I could understand the importance of sacramentality, that is, the relationship between our sensory world and our spritual lives.
In today’s gospel, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees who make a big deal about the disciples who don’t wash their hands before they eat: “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” (MK 7:6-8) On the other hand, Christians have too often rejected ritual practices as magic that we too easily think that movement doesn’t matter, that space or décor or music don’t matter, because God doesn’t care about any of that. Stripping away the ritual drama too easily leads to locating the real “action” of grace in our souls only, which reinforces the old dualistic problems of devaluing the physical world and its attendant dimensions of justice - economic, political, sexual, etc. - in favor of an overspiritualized "inner" gospel.
There’s the real conundrum that the gospel brings up for me today: local particularities and customs are what give folk religion (I don’t mean that in a pejorative way – I am simply referring to religious practice on the ground, as opposed to the official sanctions from the top) its power to shape an identity for people to live inside of, but taking any of it as divinely mandated leads to the kind of pharisaic compulsion that Jesus has no time for. How do we respect those things that shape the boundaries of our identities without obsessing over them or dismissing people for whom those practices are not so important? I mentioned a few months ago about what some people see as “Catholic identity”: frying fish on Fridays in Lent, saying the rosary, so on. None of those peculiarly Catholic things are bad – I think they are very good, and they have shaped a number of distinctively Catholic cultures – but they are hardly the centerpiece of the gospel. Does God really care if we eat meat on Fridays in Lent or not? My vote would be no, but I value the tradition of abstinence on Fridays because it’s important for us to have a chance to remind ourselves of what hunger feels like (see Friday's post), and because for so many Catholics, it's just what we've always done.
In his marvelous essay, “Learning to Live,” Thomas Merton recalls a meeting he had with the Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki, during which they celebrated the Zen tea ceremony: “It was at once as if nothing at all had happened and as if the roof had flown off the building. But in reality nothing had happened. A very very old deaf Zen man with bushy eyebrows had drunk a cup of tea, as though with the complete wakefulness of a child and as though at the same time declaring with utter finality: ‘This is not important!’” We can bring our total attentiveness and seriousness to our practice at the same time as we acknowledge that God isn’t about being nitpicky. We don't do it grudgingly or out of fear, as if God gets angry if we don't split hairs about it all - we do it because it retells our story, it calls us back to the story of who we are. It doesn’t matter to God whether we kneel or sit or stand, whether we show up at church in Bermuda shorts or a suit and tie, or a myriad of other particularities, but they matter to us embodied beings - our postures generally DO say something about our state of mind, our bodies DO influence our religious lives. Too easily, though, the fact that other people don’t do it as well as we think they should leads us to dismiss them, or our attentiveness to those details makes us think we are better Christians than other people because we do them, and that’s where the second half of the gospel comes in: “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.” (MK 7: 21-23) Jesus doesn’t seem to be opposed to washing one’s hands, he just can’t abide people using it to inflate their own sense of holiness – self-righteousness and judgmentalism can come out of a person at the exact same time as they are washing their hands, in fact BECAUSE they are washing their hands. To how much other religious stuff could we apply that standard? We hold in tension the need to sacramentalize (that is, make tangible and bodily) our inner lives while acknowledging the plurality of legitimate ways of doing so.