There are some recurring themes in my life that are basically a mystery to me, but I know exactly where my love of ritual came from. I grew up Catholic in the South, a convergence of cultures that left me hard-wired with mystical leanings, like a genetic muscle memory.
There aren’t a whole lot of Catholics in Tennessee; when it comes to religion (and in the South things often come to religion), Protestants tend to view us as eccentric papist cousins at best and actual heathens at worst. I decided early on not to be ashamed about it. When your world history teacher calls you out during class to explain the theological principle of transubstantiation, you kind of just have to own that shit. Even if then everyone calls you a cannibal.
The religious rituals of my childhood were both comforting and arcane – utterly familiar, and yet always exotic to the rest of my life. I loved them. When I think of Mass, I still think of the smell: incense, beeswax, dark wood, and centuries.
Ritual, that inner-sanctum sensory space, has been missing from essentially all my adulthood. It hasn’t just been missing – I have missed it. For a while I couldn’t really come to terms with the feeling. I’d spent most of a decade slowly talking myself out of Catholicism, out of religion in general. Hadn’t I given up my membership like cutting up a bad credit card? Was I not staunchly rational now?
And yet, ritual creeps back in. A smoky scent I can’t quite wash from my skin.
Here’s how I’ve come to view my rituals, things I do like tarot and meditation and even lighting candles (Catholics simply can’t do without candle offerings). I no longer think these acts are irrational. I think my ritual acts are non-rational, and that they serve a rational purpose.
This is what I mean: In common usage, we describe decisions and thoughts as irrational when we mean to say that someone’s brain is behaving badly, or that the person themselves is behaving badly despite the good advice of their brain. But we have parts of our brains that are not rational; we have emotions, thoughts, experiences that go against our rational selves.
Those more fanciful synapses aren’t malfunctioning. They’re just doing what they do. And we don’t experience our inner selves as brains, as pure rational gray-matter. We experience ourselves as minds, as something greater than matter.
For some of us, the non-rational parts of our minds don’t play a large role in how we experience the world. But others of us have a stronger identification with our non-rational selves, with imagination, transcendence, mythology. We find a purpose to excavating those layers, to interacting with our non-rational mind in languages it understands.
Actually having these conversations between rational and non-rational, conscious and subconscious, tangible reality and experienced reality, is new to me. At least, doing it on my own terms is new to me.
So I throw my cards and count my beads and light the occasional candle, trying to balance on a line that feels instinctive but sane. If such a line can be said to exist. It’s always shifting. But I’m learning that ritual could be the trail leading me back to a place that smells like burning censers and time, my own personal sanctum.