Yet, such a mechanical, time-constrained, approach to life might better be termed a rote-ual, rather than ritual. Life has become routine.
If we give any thought at all to how we spend our days, and our lives, we might well conclude that we navigate our way through life as if following a pre-planned route on a map. No deviation. No opportunity to explore a side-road. No striking off into unchartered territory. In many ways this map is already drawn; we have had little or no cartographic interest in its production.
We simply follow the route that is marked upon the map of life.
It is perhaps telling that the words route, routine, and rote all derive from the Old French word rute meaning road, way, or path. Furthermore, it is revealing to note that the word rut derives from the same source. We are stuck in a rut.
Rather than life being a ritual, it has become a rote-ual.
Perhaps instead of bemoaning or complaining that life is ritualised (rote-ualised) we might be better off considering the loss of true ritual in our lives. Perhaps our lives are so rote-ualised because we have lost, forgotten, or had stolen from us, the rituals in our lives.
Today ritual tends to be associated with religious practices. The Roman word ritus predates most of the world’s largest religions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. In Roman times it had the sense of being “the proven – or correct – way of performing sacrifices.”
Therein is a clue – sacrifice; let us follow that lead. Sacrifice – the practice of honouring the sacred. Sacred – to set aside as holy. And holy? Well, that word comes from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning whole, uninjured. It has a link to our word (you guessed it) - health.
What is all this tracing of words, meanings, and definitions telling us?
Etymology can be a light-hearted, possibly inconsequential, study or pastime. Yet, tracing the roots of words can be illuminating. It can point to what we have lost, forgotten, or had stolen.
In this case (rote, rite, ritual, sacred, holy, health) it is possible to trace a serious loss of something of great significance to humanity. We can trace the loss of the sacred. We have forgotten that our health and what is holy are one and the same. We have had stolen from us the rituals of life.
Some of those lost rituals are simple: such as singing the world into existence each morning with the rising of the sun.
Very few of the larger, more meaningful rituals of communal life have been retained. Those that remain – such as marriage – are now so rote-ualised that any remnant of ritual has been largely stripped away. Most that do still exist have been watered-down and deprived of meaning.
The rituals that used to mark the transitions from one life stage to the next (childhood to adolescence, adolescence to adulthood, adulthood to elderhood) are all but forgotten.
Yet, pockets of society remember something. Amongst teenagers, for example, there appears to be a sub-consciously remembered collective, and cultural, memory that they strive to recreate in rituals. But, without the guidance of true adults and elders, all that comes out is drunken, rave, parties, or “schoolies.”1
Although this blogpiece could be read as advocating for a return of ritual in our lives, we should remember that rituals often mark the transition from one state to another. The states between the rituals are what is important; the sacred - if you like.
Returning to the word holy. We now live in a time when, for most of the western world, the states of childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and elderhood, are but a shadow of what they could be. Those states today are unhealthy ones, states that are no longer holy. In such an unhealthy situation we cannot expect to mark transitions in any sort of truly ritual manner.2
Before we embark upon a journey to lead from rote-ual to ritual we will need to re-discover, to re-learn, what it means to be healthy, holy; and reclaim what is sacred.
That is no easy journey.
1. Schoolies is an Australian term referring to a week-long holiday that high-school graduates take after their final exams. Often, but not always, associated with drunken parties.
2. For more on this theme see: Nature and the Human Soul, by Bill Plotkin.