I grew up in an iconoclastic Mennonite culture. We had few religious symbols or rites in our home or in our church. No Christmas tree, wreaths or a crèche; only a singular electric candle in each window. I didn’t know what Advent or Lent were until well into young adulthood.
This lack of symbols or rituals stems from the iconoclastic fervor in 16th Century Zurich headed by Simon Stumpf, a colleague of Conrad Grebel as students under Ulrich Zwingli. Stumpf wanted to abolish anything that was considered idolatrous—any symbol or image that was worshiped instead of directly worshiping God. Zwingli went so far as to abolish singing as idolatrous. Thankfully Mennonites didn’t go quite that far.
Increasingly the Mennonite church is taking on more and more symbols and ritual celebrations. I been both drawn and chagrined by this tendency. For example, when I see all the postings on Facebook wishing everyone a “Happy New Year,” I shrug and think, “It’s just another day.” Anabaptists, the forerunners of the Mennonites, were very clear on this. We do not have special emphases on different days or seasons of the year because we are to be disciples every single day. “Take up [your] cross daily and follow me,” said Jesus (Lk. 9:23). No one day is more significant than another.
Having said that, my concentration in seminary was on spiritual formation. We were each challenged to develop a “rhythm and rule,” for our lives. This phrase comes from monastic life where each day was governed by specific prayers or spiritual practices called “the hours.” Each year was governed by specific seasons according to the church calendar—a calendar that was probably developed by monks ordering their lives. In spite of my upbringing which still at times gives me pause, I have developed such a “rhythm and rule” for my daily “hours.” I find them meaningful and life-giving.
Ronald Rolheiser in his weekly reflection from July 2010 points out that, “couples who make it a habit to give each other a ritual embrace or kiss before leaving the house in the morning and another ritual embrace or kiss before retiring at night fare better than those who let this gesture be determined by simple spontaneity or mood.” This is so because, “[the ritual kiss or embrace] speaks of fidelity and commitment beyond the ups and downs of our emotions, distractions, and tiredness on a given day.”
A ritualistic kiss can be compared to ritualistic prayers, daily hours, and seasons of the year; our ritualistic “rhythm and rule.” “It is a ritual,” wrote Rolheiser, “an act that is done regularly to precisely say what our hearts and heads cannot always say, namely, that the deepest part of us remains committed even during those times when we are too tired, too distracted, too angry, too bored, too anxious, too self-preoccupied, or too emotionally or intellectually unfaithful to be as attentive and present as we should be.”
So, I have found that adding ritual, symbol and icons to my “rhythm and rule” has added mystery and devotion to the daily “taking up of my cross.” Unfortunately, as humans, when left up to “spirit-led spontaneity,” we usually are too distracted, bored, etc., to do anything. That is why it is so important to have such a ritualistic, iconic practice. My iconoclastic upbringing was necessary for a time when there indeed was an overemphasis on images, saints and holy relics.
Ritual, or establishing a rhythm and rule in our devotional practices, seems to have become an important part of the life of the Post-modern church. I raised the question on a Neo-Anabaptist discussion board about how important Advent is considering the iconoclastic history of the Anabaptist movement. It really touched off a firestorm of opinion. However, the overwhelming majority affirmed the need for seasons and the following of the church year. Does this affirmation of churchly rhythm and rule provide an anchor for these post-modern, post-Christendom times?
“It’s fidelity to the routine of everyday life, not a honeymoon, that ultimately sustains a marriage,” Rolheiser concludes his thoughts on ritual. Likewise, “It’s fidelity to simply being at the weekday meal, simple fare eaten quickly and distractedly, not the huge celebration or banquet, that sustains family life.”
We need to sustain our spiritual lives with a daily practice of prayer, scripture reading and contemplation. Through this seemingly daily drudgery, from time to time we may enter into a period of honeymoon or a banquet feast. But such heights can only be attained if we develop a daily, ritualistic rhythm and rule.