Everything else

Ritual Importance

Some habits are worth keeping.

Illustration by Beth

When I was a kid, every Sunday was spent at our Methodist church. The services were a combination of listening to Bible stories, sitting and repeating after the preacher, standing and repeating after the preacher, silent group prayer, and more sitting and standing. This was church. This was religion.

Like a lot of people I know, and possibly some of you, I fell away from religion as I grew up. It didn’t seem relevant to my life—it felt hypocritical, and worse, narrow-minded. I wanted to be kind to people because it was the right thing to do, not because a set of ancient rules ordered me to do so. Anecdotes about old men parting the seas with a staff or being swallowed by whales, parables though they may be, couldn’t accurately tell me how the world worked—I had science for that. So I left organized religion behind, and when asked about it, I would offer the standard answer: I am spiritual, not religious. But I wasn’t even sure what that meant.

The plain truth is that practicing religion has benefits. I don’t want to get into the benefits to your soul, because that is subjective, but countless studies have found a link between happiness and having faith. Perhaps having a well-established set of rules to live by, and a reward for following them, makes people more comfortable, or perhaps we all feel better when we’re part of a larger group. Have I been so quick to embrace science and logic that I’ve given up on feeling relaxed and OK with my place in the universe? Or is there something less mystical to it?

In my opinion, there are two main facets to organized religion: belief and ritual. Belief is the story that forms the faith you have chosen to accept; ritual is the process of affirming those beliefs and communicating with a higher power. After I distanced myself from the Methodist church, I found that while I didn’t miss the stories, I sorely missed the ritual—maybe not all the sitting and standing, but the predictability, the familiarity of repetition, the assurance that my actions meant something. The fact that I come from a long line of OCD sufferers just added to my need for order. (And I don’t mean the adorable OCD that we all claim to have when we say we prefer our side dishes not touch, or our shoes to be lined up. Those traits are manageable, as opposed to the constant, life-ruining pacing, water-drinking, and muttering that dominated the later life of a relative of mine.)

The thing about a ritual, I’ve learned, is that it’s something you do for yourself as much as for your God or your church. And what’s more, rituals don’t have to be religious—they’re just a set of actions that take on special meaning. In my training as a couples and family therapist, I discovered that ritual is necessary in relationships to establish intimacy, safety, and trust. Having a regular date night, watching The Daily Show together, always going to smell candles when you go to the mall together—these types of activities pay homage to the relationship. Likewise, self-rituals, the activities that you do regularly and alone, like going on walks or relaxing in a bath with a novel, can help to soothe you, comfort you, and keep you sane when things become hectic.

Repeated, structured activities, especially ones that allow you to focus on yourself and the people you love, are anchors. They are the things that we learn to rely on, the things that demonstrate love and care. They are the sloppy, comfy sneakers you’ve had for years that, when you put them on, feel like home. It’s my opinion that we could all use a little more ritual in our lives, and that the rituals we have could stand to be a little more sacred. I see too many people dismissing their inside jokes with Dad or their TV nights with girlfriends as just being “silly things” they do; it’s time we recognize how valuable these “silly things” actually are. Here are a few ways that you can keep the positive aspects of ritual alive and kicking in your day-to-day life:

Look around: what are you doing regularly already?

Maybe you always listen to a certain album before you start writing. Maybe you have dinner with your family twice a week. Maybe you like to eat cereal while watching Conan. For any action that you do repetitively, ask yourself why: Does it bring you solace? Does it cheer you up when you’ve had a bad day? How you feel after doing these things is how you know whether they are your rituals. The things you do (alone or with others) that refresh you, re-energize you, and calm you deserve to be framed in your head as “a part of what makes me who I am.” Make those choices important. Allow them to be necessary in your life.

Let rituals be your shortcuts.

How can you tell when someone cares about you? What tiny things do you see them doing? What inside jokes do you have? These things are the basis for any good ritual. When we’re apart, my husband and I text each other what we’re eating. It’s dumb and sometimes inconvenient, but it’s much shorter and less dramatic than typing, “I love you with all of my heart, and I miss you so much it makes me want to scream, but instead I ate some tacos.” We’ve established, with time and effort, that texting what we’re eating means all of that and more. My best friend and I live on opposite sides of the country, so once a week we watch American Horror Story together in a Google Hangout.

Maybe you and a friend share made-up words or references that only you two understand. Maybe you email someone you love just one sentence every night before you go to bed. These are symbolic gestures, and sometimes you can communicate a lot with a little. I think emojis were invented for just this purpose.

Appreciate stillness even if you’re not in a pew.

Part of the joy of a Muslim call to prayer or a Methodist moment of silence is time spent alone with your thoughts. Having that time alone is necessary. Set aside 20 minutes a day that are yours and just yours: no TV, no phone, no laptop, no distractions. Just you and your thoughts. There are no requirements: you can start by silently listing the things you’re thankful for, you can just look at the room/nature/environment around you, or you can keep your eyes closed. Do your best to forget for a moment all the things you have to do that day—the stresses of school and work and other people—and just sit. Try to let thoughts float into and out of your mind, and acknowledge them without dwelling on them (this can take practice). If you like, you can use this time to communicate with your higher power, listen to the universe, or talk to yourself.

Make it regular, make it a priority, and make it known to others.

So you’ve decided to set up a special day/hour/event with your girlfriend/boyfriend/pals/family. Awesome. Now it’s time to make sure they know about it, and to make it a regular occurrence. If you don’t perform the ritual with regularity, it will never take hold. Put your ritual in whatever calendar system you use, and don’t think of it as optional. Make sure you are creating something that is feasible to do consistently: eating at a fancy restaurant isn’t always possible/financially sound, but spending one night a week with friends watching a movie might be. Keep it simple (book clubs, dancing, working out), and enforce the ritual without anyone feeling forced to be there. This may feel like a chore on occasion, but that’s normal, as long as it isn’t something you are dreading.

There are many reasons people go to church or to the synagogue or to other services that have stood the test of time: this is how people reaffirm their beliefs and find a community. But even if you choose not to visit a house of worship, it’s still important to think of yourself and your own life as sacred. Without ritual in my life, I would most likely be constantly freaking out. As a freelance writer, podcaster, and comedy-show producer, I travel a lot and my schedule is never the same two days in a row. If I didn’t have consistency in my life or attach meaning to my habits, I would feel unmoored and adrift. You may not need religion, but we all need some way of understanding and privileging the things that matter to us. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go watch American Horror Story with my best friend. ♦


  • Martinapovolo December 5th, 2012 11:21 PM

    I’m religious, not spiritual

  • coolgirl December 5th, 2012 11:21 PM

    awesome illustration, beth. rookie you nail it every time with those out of this world collages

  • Abby December 5th, 2012 11:24 PM

    This. Is. Amazing. AMAZING I SAY. But really though… I wish I had more rituals. It’s hard when you’re at college, because your schedule is soooo irregular. But I do one thing… in the mornings, I get up earlier than I need to, get ready, and then I eat breakfast while sitting and watching a show on netflix (I watched all of Psych, then I watched all of Sherlock, so now I’m onto Downton Abbey…). I could be studying or doing work to get ahead in that time, but just relaxing for once makes me happy and gives me a good start to the day.

  • Eryn December 5th, 2012 11:48 PM

    This is really a wonderful article, and I love the collage as well.


  • i-like-autumn December 6th, 2012 12:12 AM

    My daily ritual is watching an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise with my Dad before going to bed. It’s literally the most comforting thing I do all day.

    My younger sister has legitimate OCD, and it can be rough living with someone who has it- for those that don’t know, sometimes if there’s a severe deviation (or any type of deviation at all, it depends on the person/situation) from the routine it can result in… well, nuclear-level meltdowns.

    Although there’s a plus side- you get caught up in calming routines… and soon enough, you find yourself sitting on a swing each morning listening to music before getting ready for the day.

    I definitely think that people need routines/rituals. We’re all creatures of habit, aren’t we? I know I certainly am.


    • Mary the freak December 6th, 2012 1:48 AM

      I am sure it’s hard to live with those people sometimes, but I think a daily ritual can be kinda helpful.

      But HEY, I JUST REALIZED WE ARE BOTH TREKKIES! Yay! Star Trek always makes my day.


  • Mary the freak December 6th, 2012 1:43 AM

    So, now it’s official.
    I will watch one episode of Star Trek everyday.
    Amazing article!


  • karastarr32 December 6th, 2012 7:51 AM

    On my way to school in the morning, I always listen to The Cure, The Killers, or The Dixie Chicks. In the evening, my mum, my dad, and I always watch Buffy or Angel. And finally, my friend and I always text each other “Heello! Like Peeta!” When we start a conversation. It’s the little things :)

  • cancercowboy December 6th, 2012 9:53 AM

    no offense, but the linked article, superficial as it is, speaks about the lack of connection between considering yourself happy and following a faith in Europe, as opposed to the USA, where religious people seem to be “slightly happier”.
    and now Colbert and Stewart are downloaded, time for my weekday ritual ^__^

  • hanna96 December 6th, 2012 10:35 AM

    Such a good article really made me think!!!

  • LittleMissE December 6th, 2012 10:39 AM

    My daily ritual is watching an episode of The X-Files followed by an episode of 30 Rock, every night.

  • wallflower152 December 6th, 2012 11:19 AM

    I like this article. I think it’s good to have rituals. I’ve been having what I call “Thrift Store Day” for the past few months. Every first and third Thursday of the month I spend my lunch break at the local thrift store. It’s something little that I look forward to. And since I started browsing Pinterest I started “Mani Mondays” where I do nail art on Mondays haha. It’s a nice thing that only takes an hour or two that gives me something cute to look at all week. Also on Mondays I write in my adventure book. For Christmas me and my bf have “12 Dates of Christmas” 12 dates, some Christmas themed to make sure we make time for each other during this busy season. I need to make more set rituals with family and friends though! Everyone is so busy.

  • makeawish3653 December 6th, 2012 6:22 PM

    Reading the rookie articles every day is one of my rituals c:

    • all-art-is-quite-useless December 8th, 2012 11:39 AM

      me too! When I get in from school, I read the Rookie articles, and go on Tumblr, for an hour (or I try to, too often longer) before doing my homework. Another ritual I have is to ALWAYS read the weekend papers before I can do something on a Saturday or Sunday.

  • sunflowereyes December 8th, 2012 12:23 AM

    This article made me really appreciate all of the little things I do every day with my friends. I never realized how ritualistic it was, but it really does make my day better. Also, AMERICAN HORROR STORY!!!

    • Sea goddess December 8th, 2012 11:41 PM

      I know right!! How everything we have even if it’s lame, it’s wonderful<3 and YES AMERICAN HORROR STORY