In just a few days, I will be taking part in the commencement exercises at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where I will be hooded in recognition of having completed the work to earn a PhD in English. The event is an auspicious one, and its imminence reminds me that I am very much attuned to the meanings of rituals. Something in the ceremonial, among the pomp and flourish of a well-executed traditional performance, speaks to me--and it has long been so for me. I have invested much in coming to understand how insignia and their placement, what regalia are displayed and in what manner, what phrases are used and in what order, and what arrangement of seats and of things before those seats mean.
And they do have meaning. Or they can.
I am well aware that a great many people put no stock in ceremony. They do not attend to the actions they perform, and in many cases resist the performance as artificial and stuffy. Their complaints are not wholly without merit; even in the case of my upcoming graduation, it is far more important that my transcripts show completion than that I wear a fancy, elaborate robe and get a highly decorated piece of paper with my name on it. But there are things in ritual that are worth attending to. It connects us to our pasts, to those who have gone before and upon whose achievements many of us have relied; certainly, I could not have done my dissertation project without a work to write about and without the research of others from which to develop my own ideas. And attending to the small details of ceremonial activities can show--and for me does show--the belief in the importance of the thing being celebrated. By making sure that each piece is in place and time, those participating in rituals demonstrate their devotion to the thing being celebrated; it is the very removal from simple efficiency and practicality that makes the ritual important.
I do not think I am the first to say so (although I do not recall where I have come across it before, for which I apologize). But that does not mean that I do not feel it.