Marcy asks: “What do you make of the similarity of various elements of ritual and their roles in religion? For instance, many disparate and far-ranging belief systems share the use of fire and/or smoke to purify a space or item. Similarly, water is often used. And candles. And music/drumming. Do you think this is coincidental, invented, or is there some inherent property of these items that compels people to incorporate them into rituals?”
It should not surprise us that similar rituals and symbols span across man’s worship of the divine. Both monotheistic and polytheistic religions share similar rituals. From whence do these rituals stem (and, by the way, when was the last time you saw “whence” in a blog post?!)? Does this in some way cheapen or degrade highly ritualistic religions, such as Catholicism, the Orthodox Church, Hasidic Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, since they all seem, at one glance, the same, with just some variety in their particulars (for some people, not me of course, important points like the number of deities and whether the soul is immortal count more as particulars to a religion rather than fundamental tenets of the faith)? Or does it point to something higher, something that transcends our rituals?
First, let’s look at worship.
Worship is one of those acts of man that is defined by the Natural Law. Natural Law is basically the basic, ethical beliefs man can know through reason alone, without the aid of divine Revelation. Natural Law is not dependent on one set historical time or one physical location. Most of Natural Law deals with our interaction with other people. Respecting life falls under the Natural Law. Monogamy falls under it as well, as does respecting the property of others. In an intriguing twist of focus, the worship of God likewise falls under the auspices of Natural Law. Now this worship of God has, of course, manifested itself in different aspects in different places and times. It is natural for man to worship God, and thus we do it. We must thank the Creator, and in doing so worship Him. “It is right and just,” to quote the Roman Missal. It is fitting to worship God, as He is the Creator of all things visible and invisible, all we can sense and all that is beyond our senses. Is it any wonder that the ultimate form of Christian worship, the ritual instituted by Christ before His death on the Cross, is the Eucharist? The very word Eucharist, after all, means “thanksgiving.” Here is worship with thanksgiving as its very heart.
So we all should worship God. Man has done just that for his entire existence.
Now, let us look at some rituals we mere mortals have used throughout the centuries to address God, to try to thank Him for His greatness. Marcy notes several universally used items: fire and smoke, water, candles, and music. I will reflect on these in turn, offering some historical examination, but also dive into some personal thoughts as to why these items are used.
1) Fire and Smoke:
How can one reach Heaven? If in the sky the gods do dwell, and we mere morals must lie here below, then some other means must be chosen to bear up our burdens to the divine throne.
And so began the wide-spread ritual of burning offerings to the gods, or God, if you are a pious monotheist.
Fire held a strange power for early man. Here was something which was pleasant and warm when you felt cold, but if you touched it the fire burned, and thus you were hurt. Man had to control fire, but even when he thought he was in control, fire could still rage beyond stopping. Fire destroys what it touches, burning and curling its victims until what was once one thing can no longer be recognized as what it once was. Fire has strength, a wild and uncontrollable aspect to it, which man early on faced with great care. Surely this fire must have come from God, for only the divine could make something so seemingly invincible.
We don’t know exactly when man first began to use fire, rather than fear it, but we do know it happened in the Old Stone Age, thousands of years before the earliest farming. It may have been the second great invention of mankind, second only to the making of tools. Once man controlled fire, he could move out of warmer climates close to the equator and head north; he could cook food, realizing that sweet smells emanated from cooking meat and vegetables.
Then man realized that fire, the sure sign of God’s power, could be a way to give back to God. Here was the earliest sign of sacrifice. Sacrifice requires the destruction of a victim, a victim which can replace the one offering the sacrifice. Fire does the job nicely, destroying the victim beyond recognition. It also purges away impurities, and can thus symbolize a purifying of our hearts (it is worth noting here that Catholic tradition uses the symbol of purging fire to represent the purgation process of Purgatory). At the same time, smoke emanates from the fire, rising towards Heaven. Here all cultures and religions agree: the smoke represents the prayers/sacrifices rising to the divine being, who then delights in the pleasing smell. Fire thus has a practical purpose (destroying the sacrificial victim) and a symbolic one (raising the prayers to Heaven).
Water is life. Is it any wonder why Thales, that notorious pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, thought that all matter was, in some way, made up of water? Early man did not know that life began in the oceans; he did know, however, that if he did not find water, he and his family would die. Water vivifies, purifies, and beautifies everything. Dead lands erupt with green after the spring rains. What was once a desert sprouts into a lush field. Water brings new life; water brings resurrection.
It should not surprise us, then, that man incorporated water into religious rituals. If one is to worship God, one must be (at least symbolically) purified. Thus came washing rituals. The priests in many religions underwent some sort of washing ritual to symbolize their cleansing themselves of their imperfections and sins, to better prepare themselves to worship God. This is clearly illustrated in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy in the Old Testament. These two books lay out in details the ritual life for the Jewish people, including rituals for washing and purifying garments, items, and people after some sort of defilement. One sees references to this throughout the New Testament as well (look at the scene during the Last Supper in John 13:1–20, wherein Jesus cleans the Apostles’ feet). In Christian liturgy, water plays an essential role in the sacrament of Baptism (it is the matter, or physical reality, needed for the sacrament to be valid) but also in the Eucharist, where the priest washes his fingers during the preparation of the altar and also after the distribution of the Eucharist. As always, water cleans and purifies, but in Baptism in particular, water is not merely a symbol; as in all sacraments, it does what it symbolizes. With the waters of Baptism, Original Sin is washed away, leaving a soul perfect, purified and ready for God’s grace.
Candles serve a practical purpose in religious ceremonies: they provide light. Candles harness the darkness-shattering aspect of fire, but limit it to one small spot, specifically a darkened room in some sacred temple. Again, usefulness led to symbolism, and the candles originally used for light came to represent some higher reality. For example, lamps and candles hung in the temple in Jerusalem, illuminating and representing God’s light in darkness.
I don’t normally do this, but I’ll risk my credibility: The Wikipedia article “Ceremonial Use of Lights” does a better job discussing the various traditions and rituals associated with candles in various world religions than I could ever do.
All religions, as far as I know, incorporate some sort of music into their rituals. Music moves the heart and mind to focus on higher things, to draw into the divine life with God. Music proper to worship turns the listener’s attention to God, rather than to the performer. This is why applause is so out of place during a religious ceremony. Literally, in such circumstances, the focus turns from divine matters to human achievements. Worship should unite us with each other through the common worship of God; when we focus on the achievements of others rather than on God, we ignore the entire purpose of worship. That is also why some music is inappropriate for worship.
Across the various world religions, polytheistic or monotheistic, ancient or recent, one style of liturgical music reappears throughout the centuries: chant. Buddhists chant, as do Jews and Christians (at least Catholics and Orthodox Christians do; there is very little chant in Protestant Christian communities). There is something about the melody of chant that speaks to the basic life in man. It is as if the whole person bursts out in vocalizations to God. Chanters worship God with their voices in a way that other liturgical music, even choral pieces (and even polyphonic pieces, no matter their breath-taking beauty), cannot match. Chant is simple and expressive, and in it one feels the whole of human existence, its pains, hopes, and triumphs.
To conclude this post, let us return to our main focus. Though all religions might share similar symbols, these do not point to some irreligious theory, that all religions are the same. Even universal religious symbols, such as fire, can take on drastically different roles depending on the religion. Fire meant something very different to the worshipers of Ba’al, in the days of Elijah the prophet and in the ancient city-state of Carthage, than it does to us Christians (read up on the worship of Ba’al, if you want to see the footprints of Satan in history). Such differences point to the fundamental truths, the essential realities, which underline all systems of belief. If only a couple, related systems of belief used these symbols, one could easily dismiss the similarities as sociological coincidences. The universality of symbols such as water, fire, and music transcend time, and thus the quest to worship and honor the divine, a drive so essential to our human existence, manifests itself in striking similar ways. Over the centuries, man has tried to worship God. Some rituals work, and so rituals echo each other throughout time. In reflecting on this, one should not think that religion is false. On the contrary, one must confess, with almost the entire population of the planet, that there is a God who is deserving of our honor and worship.
So Marcy, no, it is not coincidence that most religions use the same liturgical symbols. Mankind turns to reoccurring themes in worship, and so uses the same tools. We spiritually cleanse ourselves with water; we send our offerings to Heaven with the smoke of incense; we draw our hearts to God through authentic liturgical music. We are material creatures, and thus we must use the material world to try and reach God in worship and in our daily lives. Most importantly, of course, is if we approach our daily lives correctly, we can worship unceasingly, for our daily life becomes a prayer, a sort of sacrament through which God works wonders. We are meant to worship God, and for generations to come, people will use similar symbols not because of some human construction, but because the items themselves are the symbols. In symbols, therefore, we see the unseen hand of God working and drawing us to Him, where we might worship and sing his praises forever.
For further reading:
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). The Spirit and the Liturgy. Translated by John Saward. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000. – Though dealing mainly with Catholic liturgical practices, then-Cardinal Ratzinger does address in broad strokes some aspects of man’s universal desire to worship God (there is a whole chapter devoted to Music and Liturgy which ties in with the points made above concerning proper liturgical music).