Born in late April in northern Vermont, my puppy’s first year of life was dominated by the coldest winter in recent memory. It was last winter when even life-long Vermonters were getting edgy about the deep, long cold. But my puppy loved it.
In particular she loved the snow and bounding in it as if it were a lakeshore. But she also got used to doing her business in snow. That was a problem when spring came and the snow finally began to recede. She was much bigger by the end of March and would drag me through mud to an island of snow, seemingly convinced that only on snow could she release her bowels. In fact, when the last pile of snow disappeared she suffered several days of constipation before nature righted the ship.
Some people are like that about religious rituals: change one thing about the way it has “always been done” and it causes great consternation if not constipation. It is hazardous to allow that kind of OCD to creep into our spiritual practice.
The tension is that ritual becomes ritual precisely through the act of repetition. Like a well-worn mantra or rosary, it is shear repetition that casts the spell allowing us to float freely within its universe.
One person’s ritual freedom is another person’s rote prison.
That is why corporate worship does and must change. When new people enter the worshipping community they change who we are and what we do, and we change to accommodate them or risk all the dangers of inbreeding that a lack of bio-diversity creates.
For an individual spiritual practice, the changing or modification of personal ritual – even just slightly – is also important from time to time. Sooner or later personal circumstances will dictate change in our lives and therefore affect our ability to do what we have always done. If we are unable to adjust to changes or modify our rituals, we may find ourselves completely bereft of the thing we loved.
It is the dinosaur principle: adapt to changing circumstances before it is demanded or die out.
Our spiritual practice needs to include intentional modification. Rather than always doing the same thing, once and awhile we need to change it up simply to become more flexible and supple. In this way a spiritual practice is no different than physical exercise: we need to change our aerobic or lifting routines in order for our muscles, which have memory and easily settle into any rut, to actually be exerted and receive the benefit of exercise.
So while ritual is a profoundly important resource for a spiritual life, it is not the substance of a spiritual life. A ritual is a tool and not the creation itself, and if we become a slave to the tool the substance of our spiritual life suffers.
This is a hard truth to most if not all of us, because when we find something that works, comforts, or becomes a dependable pathway for us, it is painful to intentionally and willfully shift and adapt before something beyond our control requires it. Yet that is our challenge: weave modification and change into our spiritual practice, even with our personal rituals, so that we remain adaptable and get the full benefit of spiritual exercise.