The Sacred Pathway of the Traditionalist (Part 4)
Editor’s Note: This post is written by Sword4Sail and is Part 4 in the Sacred Pathways of Walking With God.
The Traditionalist: Loving God through Ritual & Symbol
I wasn’t there too late! The service hadn’t started yet. As I happily descended into a pew at a Catholic church, I received a few disapproving looks from older women and a sympathetic one from a middle-aged man. I looked behind me, checking out my surroundings, and saw the next person who came through the door touch some water from a fountain in the wall and then touch himself. I then realized I had neglected an important part of this service: ritual.
Ritual. Tradition. Symbol. Religion. Rote. Meaningless. That’s how many people think about rituals or formalities in situations like mine where the order of events is pre-determined. If it ‘s not spontaneous or “Spirit-led”, it is not of God, some may claim. But Gary Thomas, author of Sacred Pathways, reveals that there are many ways of loving God, and one major way is through ritual and symbol. This is the path of the Traditionalist.
It is valid, Thomas states, for you to, “Rightly fear a form of faith that has no substance.” But he also points out, “In the context of true faith, religious practices and rituals can be a powerful force for good – a friend, not an enemy, of a rich and growing relationship with God (80).” If you examine Scripture, you find that God is a God of ritual and symbol. He set up elaborate rules and methods for the priests to follow in Exodus and Leviticus, and to show He was serious, sometimes took the lives of those who by treating His symbols irreverently were treating Him irreverently. (See Leviticus 10 and 1 Chronicles 13.) Although we are no longer under Old Testament ceremonial law, ritual and symbol are a part of the new covenant as well; baptism, communion, fasting, and regular meeting together are all parts of the New Testament church and faith.
Ritual (or liturgical pattern), symbol (or significant image), and sacrifice are three main elements of the Traditionalist pathway. While meditating on these elements, Gary writes, “The same elements that some have discarded as lifeless – because in their childhood these elements were foreign to a real expression of faith – began to nourish my soul in new ways and create a strength and depth in my spiritual life that had been missing (83).” Let’s explore these elements a little more.
The power of rites is the power of reinforced behavior. We had a saying in basketball, “Repetition equals player strength.” The more you do something, the stronger at it you can become. Thomas quotes contemporary writer and artist Gertrud Mueller Nelson, who reasons that the power and awesomeness of God is so vast, we try to deal with it in smaller, manageable pieces. “The power of the Almighty needs, sometimes, to be guarded against but it also needs to be beckoned, called forth, and wooed (84).”
I never grew up celebrating Lent. But when I got to college, I found peers who didn’t just “give up soda” in a meaningless manner for 40 days, but who fasted from something to take that time to spend time with God, letting Him soften their hearts to the truth of the Cross. Lent, Advent, and other religious observances exist to take the time to really remember what God has done. God commands such times, such as the Passover, and instructions for a stack of stones in Joshua 4. You can also create your own days of remembrance; perhaps based on influential figures of faith.
Scripture reading and prayer can have ritualistic significance as well. Thomas notes that Psalm 62 can speak to you through all stages of your life – particularly if read daily. Beginning and ending one’s day with Scripture places God’s Word in high importance in your life. If you have trouble with wandering during prayer – I know I do – pre-written prayers accompanied with personal remarks can be used from old prayer books. Alterations for theological differences may need to be made. Or you could pray through and personalize the Lord’s Prayer. Scheduled times of prayer help us keep our mind on God throughout the day and have a rich history in the church.
Have you ever found it trite when you see a cross hanging on a rear-view mirror? I invite you to take another look at the importance symbols can have in your relationship with God. The power of symbols is the power of combating poor memory. Many single Christians wear a purity ring – a symbol to remind themselves to stay sexually pure. I have a friend who has a heart-shaped necklace with a mustard seed between panes of glass, reminding her of the promise in Matthew 17:20. Christ symbolizes himself as a shepherd, lamb, vine, door, water, and bread. The Holy Spirit has taken the form of a dove and fire. The empty cross is a symbol of Christian victory. My parents added a meaningful twist to the traditional Easter egg hunt: in each egg was something that symbolized a part of the Easter story. When we opened all the eggs, we retold the story with the pieces inside: a coin for the betrayal money, red cloth for Jesus’ blood, and an empty egg for the empty tomb. Thomas tells the story of a pastor who when he saw a pond on his drive home, would leave the worries and cares of work at the pond so he could focus on his family. He could pick those concerns up the next day on his way to work (94).
The third element of the Traditionalist is sacrifice. Faith today is often seen as a tool to get something special from God. Historically, a man or woman of faith is one who was willing to give something precious to God (Thomas, 100). Sacrifice – either giving something up or offering something for God’s service – is part of the Traditionalist pathway because it is a commitment of the will, and is often symbolic. Sacrifice is at the heart of Christianity – God gave up his Son and Jesus gave up his life so that we might live. This is love. Although nothing we have is really ours – it’s all God’s – by offering something back to Him we are reminded that we are God’s servants. Fasting or dedicating something to God’s use (Romans 12, anyone?) are good ways to start.
Just like the other pathways, there are temptations associated with the Traditionalist temperament. You can serve God and go through the motions without really knowing Him. You can also judge others who don’t worship God the same way you do – with the same rites you use. “Just because something is beneficial to you doesn’t mean it is obligatory to others,” writes Thomas (103). When you judge others, you add the law to a relationship with God and in so doing deify the rites themselves. Remember, God cares the most about the state of your heart. Finally, we can get so caught up in ritual and symbol we neglect our duties to reach out and minister to others.
Take some of these ideas and apply them in your own worship. See what happens! Or try coming up with your own methods. Take the quiz, and let us know what you’ve learned! And stop by next Friday for the next Sacred Pathway: The Activist.
Are You A Traditionalist?
Score this series of statements on a scale of 1-5. 1 is not true at all and 5 is very true. Any score of 15 or higher indicates a tendency toward this temperament. Keep track of your scores to complete a spiritual profile later.
1. I feel closest to God when I’m participating in a familiar form of worship that dates back to my childhood.
2. I begin to feel closest to God when I lay something on the alter, sacrificing it for him.
3. The words symbol and history are very appealing to me.
4. Developing symbols I can place in my car, home, or office and developing a Christian calendar for our family to follow are activities I would enjoy.
5. A book titled Symbolism and Liturgy in Personal Worship would be very appealing to me.
6. I would really enjoy developing a personal rule (or ritual) of prayer.
**Sword4Sail is a regular guest poster on Becoming His Eve. She is a young, newlywed tomboy who’s discovering her feminine side with her God’s-grace-filled husband. Together they are trying to live out what it means to be give-it-everything-hold-nothing-back followers of Christ. They are currently exploring the realms of building relationships with others when they both work second shift and handling finances wisely…**