The Joy of Ritual


cigarette ashI like a certain amount of ritual. Ritual is comforting. It unites people in purpose, allows them to celebrate their commonality even in the midst of diversity, and mitigates the nasty surprises that punctuate the rest of our lives.

I remember suggesting this to a young woman at a party when I was in college many years ago. She had just handed me a joint, which was traveling around the room from person to person. I saw it coming. I knew what to do with it. It dawned on me in the midst of it—it was not my first toke at this particular party—that the familiarity of the process was almost as comforting as the drug itself.

“Don’t you think it’s interesting,” I asked, “how ceremonial this is?”

“Ceremonial? Smoking dope?”

“Yes. It’s practically sacramental. Everyone does it the same way. There are conventions. Small differences are tolerated as variations on a theme. Larger ones are frowned upon.”

“Um, what?”

At this point, I realized two things in rapid succession: first, the young woman was already beyond grasping my inspired insight, and second,  the fellow next to me was studiously frowning upon my deviation from accepted practice. I was waving the joint around in the air while I tried to explain myself when I should already have passed it along to him.

He may also have been thinking that I was trying to leverage ersatz philosophy into a romantic dalliance with the young woman in question. It was lost on him that my philosophy was lost on her. In any event, I passed the reefer along, and quit talking for the duration of the party. No dalliance happened.

church at Ave Maria UniversitySome years later, after I had given up marijuana because its foggy promises had turned out to be artificial at best, a senior partner at the CPA firm where I worked invited me to his church for Easter services. His church was a brand new structure of glass and steel nestled into several thousand acres of reclaimed Florida orange grove. It was huge and imposing and had attracted a large flock of faithful contributors.

By this time I was already a devout practicing Catholic, and so I was reluctant to spend any time in a Protestant church where I was sure to hear something that would offend my papist inclinations. The senior partner was trying to be persuasive.

“It’s really going to be impressive,” he said. “There will be a complete orchestra, and a guy is going to come up out of the floor of the sanctuary on a white horse—just like the second coming in Revelations.”

“Sounds spectacular,” I said. “but it also sounds a lot like pageantry. I actually prefer something a little more liturgical.”

The senior partner never treated me quite the same way after that exchange. In retrospect, I probably should have tried to sound a little less superior, a little less judgmental. I had managed to denigrate the man’s religious sensibilities, which were at least sincere, even when they betrayed a perverse fascination with opulent spectacle.

My preference was for the familiarity of ritual—in this case a remembrance of and celebration of Christ’s Resurrection from the tomb and the cementing of the Paschal sacrifice. The partner’s preference was for pageantry that embraced the Apocalypse as well as the Resurrection. Nothing says triumph quite like a guy on a white horse.

On the other hand, nothing turns religion into a circus quite like bringing animals into church. I think it’s just asking for a surprise calculated to test your faith beyond its endurance. A horse in church is just one step removed from poisonous serpents, and vipers in church are just one step past full-on crazy.

I bring all this up because I have been thinking about rituals lately—since my wife pointed out that I have made a ritual of preparing my morning latte and my evening martini. She said that I seem to enjoy the process as much as the resulting beverages. She is exactly right. Each one has assumed aspects of a Japanese Tea Ceremony. There are precise steps in a precise order, and, if I’m somehow forced to diverge from the established way of things, I get flummoxed.

cafe latte in a glass cupA proper latte requires, in my world at least, nine vessels and about 15 minutes. I have to drink it in less time than it takes to make it or it will get cold. I have a manual espresso press, so I have to use separate mechanisms to heat the water and the milk. I need to heat fresh, filtered water in a tea kettle. The milk and a little stevia to sweeten goes into a Pyrex measuring cup, which is microwaved for 80 seconds. The milk is then foamed with a foam pump. When the water boils, I pour some into both the espresso press and the cup I will drink from to warm them up. My big cup won’t fit under the filter basket, so I need to use a separate small ceramic pitcher for the final pull. I warm this up too. With everything properly warmed, it’s time to pack the coffee into the filter basket. I buy whole beans, and grind them myself—40 seconds in the grinder does the trick. I then pack the ground coffee into the filter basket, reattach the basket to the press, add hot water (now properly just off the boil), and pull a double shot into the ceramic pitcher. Now I pour the coffee into my warm cup, and add the hot foamy milk. Final step is to stir it all together and enjoy.

I fully understand that, for most people, this is one hell of a lot of work to go to to get one simple cup of coffee. My response is: 1) it’s not a simple cup of coffee, and 2) if you don’t enjoy the process you’re missing the point.

A proper martini at my house only requires six vessels, and the process goes a lot faster than the construction of a latte, but it is somehow more ethereal and satisfying in the end. I don’t think this is solely because ‘spirits’ are involved.

I wrote just the other day about how I make a martini. You can read about it HERE if you’re interested. What’s important to know is this. I swear to you that I can stand next to another person making martinis, and even though we both use exactly the same ingredients in exactly the same proportions, added in exactly the same order, our martinis will taste different. I like to think that mine will be better, but that is probably just a matter of personal preference.

I think that there is a fourth ingredient to a proper martini, beyond gin, vermouth, and garnish, that is not measurable nor discernible. That ingredient is where the ethereal comes into play. I don’t even know what it is. It may be love. It may be purity of heart. It may be reverence for the ritual. I don’t know, but I do know that whatever it is, it makes a difference, and that difference shapes a lot of my life.

I’m not about to abandon the rituals I’ve embraced, and, at my age, I’m probably not going to embrace any new ones either. This doesn’t mean I won’t change. I certainly will. Change for me has its own attendant rituals, which, practiced with sufficient reverence, render it more charming than surprising, more celebratory than fearsome. I’m happy to change, but I still don’t like nasty surprises. Whatever changes I make, you can be certain that I won’t be riding a white horse or bringing any vipers to church.

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  1. I never thought of how many apparatuses I use to make my morning coffee. I use a French press… heating water and milk separately, frothing whip… I guess it’s my ritual too.

    • I’ve got this idea that I need to simplify my life, but the things I enjoy the most, while simple pleasures in the main, seem unreasonably complicated to make. Calling it ritual and enjoying the process makes it easier to process, I think. Looks like a black lab in your picture. We have a greyhound, my heart dog. His name is Bean. I have a lot of rituals that revolve around him as well. I’ll bet you do too.

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