The Helix

[Inasmuch as I just recently had a most striking reminder of the power of prayer, it seems appropriate that I reprise the following article, which first appeared at Eternity Road on April 2, 2006.]

C. S. Lewis has proposed that the human tastes for constancy and novelty are best conjoined — that they are intended to be mingled in a particular way:

The humans live in time, and experience reality successively. To experience much of it, therefore, they must experience many different things; in other words, they must experience change. And since they need change, The Enemy (being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them, just as He has made eating pleasurable. But since He does not wish them to make change, any more than eating, an end in itself, He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence. He has contrived to gratify both tastes together in the very world He has made, by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm. He gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt as a novelty, yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial theme. He gives them in His Church a spiritual year; they change from a fast to a feast, but it is the same feast as before. [From the Screwtape Letters]

The above strikes me as Divine inspiration speaking through the mouth of a man. Yet there is another element for our consideration, which Lewis’s passage does not address. A cycle may have change built into it in more than one way. The one Lewis illuminates is only the most obvious. Another, subtler mechanism for cyclic change is built into all of us at a level beneath anything we can control, for which reason it’s often overlooked. Indeed, from time to time it’s been the fashion to deny it.

The Christian world is swiftly moving through the Lenten season, one of the four major demarcations of the Christian liturgical year. Each of those seasons has a pervading theme, which Christians are exhorted to ponder as the season progresses. The themes never change. The liturgical year, based on the events of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, is itself a constant. The shifts from one season to the next are as regular as the stars in their courses.

That regularity and constancy of theme has caused some to scoff at the meaninglessness of such a formalism. Of course, there are many who scoff at all formalism as empty and pointless. A thing that does not change, they contend, cannot possibly imbed meaning or value for an intelligent person. By such an argument, Christian rituals would be complete wastes of time.

To which this writer would reply with his First Carbohydrate Aphorism:

“Keep thine eye upon the doughnut, lest thou pass all unawares through the hole.”

Yes, Christian rituals are highly constant in form and theme. Yes, they repeat with extreme regularity in time. But one ought to look carefully at such things before running off at the mouth. In particular, one ought to exhibit a trace of humility about one’s outside-observer’s position:

“If I, an outsider, am correct in thinking that what I observe is pointless, does it not imply that the persons who voluntarily participate in it must necessarily be idiots? Were I to find non-idiots among them and (gasp!) ask what sustenance they draw from these endlessly repeated forms, what might they say?”

This question apparently does not occur to many of those who deride the Church.

Formalisms and rituals have several known effects upon the mind. They’re calming, promote peace and order among their participants, and provide a form of psychic refreshment unavailable from informal activities. We seem to realize that unconsciously; much of life consists of regularities practiced for no other reason than regularity itself. Ask yourself: wouldn’t it make more sense to eat when hungry and sleep when sleepy, rather than to set to these things at particular times of day? Wouldn’t it be more efficient to work when charged with energy and to cease when exhausted or demotivated than to set out for the workplace at a set time each morning and to leave it at a set time each evening?

Nevertheless, we formalize and regularize those things, not merely because our intercourse with others benefits from the imposition of order, but because they structure our days in a beneficent fashion that assists us in maintaining our composure. We know, broadly, what to expect. We know what will be expected of us, and therefore, upon what conditions we’ll be able to say we’re done with our current tasks and may move on to what comes next. The regularity of our days reassures and soothes us.

Social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written extensively on “the flow experience:” the mode of consciousness in which men experience their greatest inner harmony, productivity, and satisfaction. The majority of such experiences exhibit a great regularity: they’re repetitions of deeds done many times, that will be repeated many times more in days to come. Yet how could one call them empty or pointless, when they clearly create satisfaction, peace, and even joy in their practitioners? Even the least productive ritual that induces such things would seem completely self-justifying, unless satisfaction, peace, and joy are themselves ruled out of the evaluation.

Nor are we finished. For though the forms might be invariant, the practitioners are not. He who looks at a ritual and dismisses it for its changelessness neglects to consider its critical element, which cannot be insulated from change and is the ultimate point of the whole affair: the participant himself.

A formalism with spiritual content has the twin benefits of reminding the participant of its themes and stimulating him to ponder their relevance to his own life. In this sense, the form simultaneously channels the participant’s thoughts while it frees him to apply the theme creatively to his personal circumstances. Not only in engineering is form a source of liberation.

This is particularly true as regards Christian observances. My two favorites, the Mass and the Rosary, are heavily stylized in practice, yet uniquely stimulating and liberating when approached with an open mind and an accepting heart.

The Mass varies little from week to week. The order of the sub-ceremonies remains the same, the prayers themselves vary little, and of course at the center of it all is the Miracle of Transubstantiation, the recreation for contemporary worshippers of the event, two thousand years ago, when the Son of God, in offering Himself as a Sacrifice for the benefit of Man, sealed God’s New Covenant with the world for all the time that remains.

The Rosary is even more constant. The prayers themselves never vary; one prayer is repeated ten times per decade and fifty times per day. The twenty Mysteries, through which one rotates over the course of the week, are also unchanging. Many devotees of the Rosary pray it at exactly the same time, in exactly the same place, every day of their lives, further reinforcing the regularities of the event.

But they who give themselves fully to these celebrations of love and worship grow with each repetition. Indeed, the repetition itself, even if indulged tentatively and in a spirit of doubt, will draw the participant ever deeper into the spiritual themes imbedded in each prayer. It takes an actual effort of resistance, and a strong one at that, to deny oneself the lightening of heart and enlargement of soul they confer.

In other words, prayer changes him who prays; the prayer itself stays constant.

In reviewing the above, it strikes me that I might be accused of having made ritual prayer sound like a panacea. Nothing could be further from my intent. Life offers each of us many problems, both temporal and spiritual. One cannot solve them all through prayer; it would be arrogant to imagine that one could.

But given the many aspects of the life journey that try one’s soul to its stops, that leave the traveler exhausted and desperate for surcease, isn’t it marvelous that a balm as soothing and costless as ritual prayer is available to us?

The cycles of ritual do change somewhat over time. The Mass I love is not the same Mass I celebrated as a boy. It’s even further distant from the Mass celebrated by the Christians of the earliest centuries after Christ. The Rosary, though its major elements are what they’ve always been, has been altered over the years to include new opening and closing prayers. Pope John Paul II himself decreed that the original fifteen Mysteries — the Joyful, the Sorrowful, and the Glorious pentads — should be expanded to accommodate an additional pentad: the Luminous Mysteries, which commemorate the five major mileposts in Christ’s time of ministry. Other Christian ceremonies have also been altered in gentle, nondestructive ways, always with an eye to strengthening their binding to the themes they express, and deepening their spiritual effects upon those who partake of them.

And Christians who partake of them grow thereby. The cycle of Christian rituals and observances is only flat and unchanging when viewed two-dimensionally, as a set of practices that stand apart from those who practice them. For Christian worship is not two-dimensional, but three: a rising helix of souls striving, through their forms and the meditation they elicit, to an ever better understanding of God’s Will, and an ever greater appreciation of His Love.

May God bless and keep you all.