I took some dangerous courses in my Arts degree but easily the most dangerous was… Performance Studies.
It sounds like a bludge, doesn’t it? And it kind of was. It was the B.A. of Arts subjects: fascinating, self-referential and utterly useless. Except that it taught me one very important thing that pushed me along the path to the Catholic Church. It taught me that ritual is not a substitute for reality but an expression of it.
Everything has its rituals, some stricter than others of course but every human action is, in some sense, ritualistic. Life itself, as we were fond of saying, was performative. This doesn’t mean we are pretending but rather, we are truly act-ing. (Our language understands the ambiguity in that; after all, are you performing an action or acting in a performance?)
Once you start seeing that performance is everywhere, it is impossible to un-see it. Even at church.
I remember one particular sermon that was about how we must beware of “experiences”. It would be so easy, our minister argued, to lure people in with flashy lights or flickering candles, to deliberate evoke “feelings” through rituals or such nonsense. But we were above that. Whether it was the happy-clappies or the bells-and-smells folk, we showed ourselves to be truly Gospel-centred by not caring what we did in our public worship.
But my proudly Protestant church had a ritual, whether we knew it or not. A ritual that was deliberately designed to say, “We are not ritualists.” The unspoken assumption was that any ritual was prone to degrade and was only effective in spite of itself.
No wonder we consciously avoided it. Except being human, we couldn’t.
We had our own ritual. We’d all saunter into church, chatting excitedly to each other and ignoring any sense of sacred space that would have come naturally to an Anglican barely a generation ago. We stood to sing but didn’t kneel to pray. A few brave souls would raise their hands in the singing, but mostly we tapped our feet and gripped our bulletins, singing theologically dense indie hymns.
At the centre was a single pulpit. It shouted louder and clearer than anything else that the sermon was the point of service. Everything before was a preparation to hear the Word preached. Everything after was a reflection on it. (All of which elevated the role of the preacher to a remarkable degree but that’s another story.)
It was a beautiful, old Anglican church that most Catholics would kill to worship in. But we inhabited it with an affected disregard.
This disregard was a ritual in itself. Our service mirrored our conviction that the Gospel was primarily a set of cognitive propositions, set out inerrantly and sufficiently in one inspired text. It exalted the preached Word and told your feelings to sit down, shut up and just think.
Now, I’m thrilled to be in a Church that knows that humans need to act and embraces that fact. And if you think I’m acting, that’s just fine by me. I am acting. I am doing something. And that something, that performance, is habit-forming.
So every time I kneel before my King or beat my breast in the Confession, I am performing. So then when I do sin, I will feel it deeply in my heart and when I do come face to face with Jesus, kneeling will be the most natural thing in the world.
And yes, sometimes that requires acting.
I know I need all the help I can get.