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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XIX No. 1 Eastertide 2004

Invented "Rituals" No Substitute for Prayer


by Joanna Bogle

"A cloth was laid out with various objects on it, e.g., statues, toy animal, whisky, icons, a stapler, a crucifix, etc. On either side there was a crumpled cloth and a smooth cloth. Everyone was invited to pick up an object and give a testimony as to its relevance in their life and to place it on the cloth -- rumpled for a bad experience and smooth to symbolize God's goodness".

This description comes from a report of a recent meeting of the National Board of Catholic Women. It is a classic of its kind.

Some years ago I achieved fleeting fame after writing a spoof piece for the newsletter of the Catholic Women's Network, one of the bodies affiliated with the National Board. The Network newsletter is a rich source of feminist gobbledygook, so in an idle moment I decided to make up some of my own. I invented a "women's circle" based in Australia and described how they sat around a swimming pool having a "desert experience", affirming one another and talking, over wine and an avocado salad, about how much the Church oppressed them. I described a circle ritual -- feminists are very much into circles -- in which they re-invented the Eucharist as a "You are Christ" celebration of personal affirmation. I read it all aloud to my husband and although he said they'd never be taken in as it was so obviously a spoof, I posted it off.

Well, the dear ladies swallowed it hook, line, and sinker, and duly printed it in their Network newsletter. I contacted a national newspaper, which loved the joke and splashed it across three columns. The reverberations continued for a long time, and the episode is still making the rounds on the Internet -- when I went to America not long ago I was asked "Aren't you the lady who made the Catholic feminists look silly? Gee, I so enjoyed that...."

The incident had a serious point, of course. For the past three decades, there has been a tradition of feminist ritual that has been central to their world-view. It degenerated very quickly into clichés, and was never very important except to a few, fairly close-knit, groupies. But these included people who had a considerable influence on Catholic education, and so the lore and language of feminist ritual -- circle-dancing, throwing pebbles into pools, a great deal of ego-boosting "sharing of stories" -- has found its way into the classroom.

"My daughter finds Religious Ed terribly boring this year", one young mother confided recently. "She used to love it, and got really interested in the Mass and the Sacraments, and the events in the New Testament and the lives of saints -- but this year they have a new teacher and it's all sitting on a mat and talking about their feelings. She's bored".

I had to tell her that it would probably get worse as secondary school beckoned: "Focus Time", with a circle or people sitting around a candle, is the next development -- an irritating substitute for being taught about the reality of prayer, the Church's traditions, use of Scripture, lessons from monastic life, inspiration from various saints, and the Blessed Sacrament as a Real Presence with a greater meaning than a candle.

And this is the real point: tired rituals from 1970s feminists would not matter, except that they are being used as a substitute for real prayer. Introducing young people to the great reality of God is a magnificent task, and of course it can and should involve all sorts of imaginative things -- in which flowers, water, pictures, icons, statues, music, and candles will all play their part. But the central and necessary aim should be the worship of a God who truly exists and has a personal concern for each one of us. Catholic ritual is not about advertising oneself. Picking up an object and telling everyone about how important it has been in your life may be good for the ego but it is not the same as meeting your loving Redeemer with an open heart, and talking to Him freely.

Feminist rituals are just that -- rituals. They are meant to be described, talked over, photographed, detailed in newsletters. They are for mutual "affirmation", for public advertising of personal feelings, and for celebration of self-worth and self-importance. That is why they appeal to middle-class ladies whose own circumstances have been such as to encourage a sense of being valued and cherished. They expect, want, and enjoy a lot of personal affirmation. The notion that their stories might bore or irritate others seems to astonish them. The idea that there could be some nobility or usefulness in remaining silent about one's hurts, gifts, talents, hopes or achievements seems to be anathema.

Language of silence
It is all rather absurd. Some of the greatest minds and hearts in Christendom have belonged to people who chose to remain silent rather than brag about their innermost thoughts, and certainly about their sufferings. There is a long and splendid tradition of humility in prayer -- Thomas More serving Mass in obscurity in his parish church, hermits retreating to silent places, hard-working missionaries practicing private austerities, cheerful busy people using the Rosary in odd moments. A sense of humor -- and a sense of proportion -- has always been regarded as a colossal asset for those genuinely attempting to live the Christian life. Talking about oneself has always been seen as not only a poor substitute for prayer, but a very likely obstacle to it.

I detect a growing sense of boredom over the whole subject of "Christian" feminism: its rituals seem stale, and in an era when Christianity and Christian values seem so much under attack from a secular society, feminist griping about the Church seems self-indulgent. Above all, it feels dull. Catholic doctrine -- a source of endlessly interesting and challenging ideas that has captured the minds and imaginations of successive generations for two millennia -- is so much richer and more vital than anything that ritualized story-telling can offer.

Joanna Bogle, Voices contributing editor, lives in London, is active in Catholic movements in England, writes frequently for the Catholic press, and often appears on radio and television. Mrs. Bogle was featured on EWTN radio's "Catholic Heritage" series. Excerpts from A Book of Feasts and Seasons (1988) appear on several pages of the Prayers and Devotions section on our web site.

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