Among the greatest gifts of crossing religious and cultural boundaries is that we come to understand ourselves more clearly. On this trip to Japan I had the opportunity to visit briefly other religious partners: the Konko Church of Izuo (a modern Shinto movement), the Tsubaki Grand Shrine (one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan and in the care of the Yamamoto family for 97 generations), Mitsumi-kai (a modern Buddhist movement), and Ittoen (an intentional community based on Gandhian values).
In most of these quick visits we (I was traveling with my wife Phyllis and my assistant Dea Brayden) participated in some religious ritual. This is an appropriate sign of respect. One of these is the “Misogi” ritual at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine. This ancient ritual is a purification ceremony that involves standing in a pool of water outdoors under a waterfall. I am told that every UUA president participates in this ceremony, so the pressure was on. The Tsubaki Grand Shrine is in a beautiful setting on a mountainside, set among majestic cedar trees. The waterfall where the Misogi ceremony is held is on a stream that comes down from the mountains. In early March it is cold. It had rained a lot two days before, so the waterfall was especially large and powerful. And the water, I am told was eight degrees centigrade (or 46° F). At any rate, it is breathtakingly, numbingly, cold.
The other ceremonies we attended were quite a contrast. All of them—Rissho Kosei-Kai, Tsubaki Grand Shrine, Konko Church of Izuo, Mitsumi-kai—were complex and beautiful. The Japanese, whatever their religious preference, value elegance and beauty.
As I reflect on all the ceremonies I attended as the ambassador of our faith, the role of ritual in religion is very much on my mind. An ancient faith has rituals with centuries of tradition. These rituals connect people over time and, with repetition, induce a state of reflection and centering.
Rituals in a heretical faith like ours are a different matter and a huge challenge. Many UUs, and I count myself among these, have a love/hate relationship with religious ritual. On the one hand, we realize the importance of ritual. On the other hand, lots of us grew up with rituals that have a lot of theological baggage we want to leave behind. (I recall being taught that during communion I was literally partaking of the body and blood of Jesus. That disturbing association will never go away, no matter how I intellectually re-frame communion.)
There is a real danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, however. Ritual and ceremony, after all, are an essential part of religion and of life. Just think about how the lighting of a chalice has taken hold in Unitarian Universalism. That simple ritual reminds us of who we are. It helps us enter into a sacred space, a special time. A congregation that regularly strikes a chime to enter into a period of silence has created a ritual that its people anticipate and come to value. In the congregation I served as minister a Christmas Eve service without ending with “Silent Night” while we all lit candles was unthinkable. I witness the deep resonance of singing “Rank by Rank” at the opening of the Service of the Living Tradition at General Assembly.
I think the role of ritual in our faith needs much reflection and much discussion. How do we create and sustain rituals that have depth of meaning and that are authentically ours? I, who have been averse to rituals most of my adult life, am coming to see how important they are. The rituals that have deep meaning are rituals that invite us into a shared time together, that remind us of who we are and what we hold sacred. They are rituals that we create together and that build resonance over time.