This Is the Ritual: Stories
The Things We Do That Make No Sense: Stories
Northern Illinois University Press, 2017
ONE OF THE MOST STUBBORN MYTHS of modernity is the notion that religion is something you believe rather than something that you do. Religion as a “belief system” was the invention of an Enlightenment that reduced Christianity to a set of superstitious propositions precisely in order to discard it. This, in turn, shaped the story we tell ourselves about secularization. We are “secular” because we sloughed off certain kinds of beliefs (about God, gods, and the supernatural), or because we escaped the superstition of belief altogether, arriving at the shore of cold, hard “rationality.”
There’s just one problem with this: religion was never just a constellation of beliefs. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all “faiths” not simply because they involve propositional claims about supernatural entities but because they enfold believers in a way of life, conscript them into a narrative carried in a repertoire of rituals that inscribes a posture we bear toward the world. As the anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu once put it, “Belief is not a ‘state of mind,’ still less a kind of arbitrary adherence to a set of instituted dogmas and doctrines (‘beliefs’), but rather a state of the body.” Believing is something that you do, and it’s something that you do with your body.
This also means we’re not as secular as we like to imagine—not because we assent to propositions about divine entities but because we remain ritual animals. Perhaps our philosophies dream of fewer and fewer things in heaven and earth, but that doesn’t mean we’re not still devoted to something, giving ourselves over to liturgies that script and conscript us, giving us some handle on the chaos and managing our angst.
So what makes us religious: our epistemic set or our acts of devotion? Has our secularization effaced our liturgical bent? Or does the endurance and migration of ritual attest to something about human hunger, yea, human nature? What if literary criticism marked the enduring presence of religion in literature not by counting references to God but by noting the persistence of ritual?
Recovering religion as ritual is not just another way to domesticate it or explain it away. Rather, the point is to appreciate the enchantment of our rhythms, the incarnation of devotion, the way rituals are a last tether to sacramentality that tell us something about ourselves. Even if a secular age is increasingly willing to throw overboard an array of beliefs and norms we associate with religion—precisely because we associate them with religion—we are a long way from giving up on ritual. It’s not that we’re a-religious; we just inhabit different liturgies. Our penchant for finding grooves for our longings and hopes is a backhanded witness to our enduring nature as worshipers. Homo religiosis is fundamentally homo liturgicus.
You can see this persistence in twentieth-century American fiction—and not just in Flannery O’Connor (as one would expect). In one of his early stories, “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car,” John Updike remarks: “We in America need ceremonies, is I suppose, sailor, the point of what I have written.” In Infinite Jest, both Enfield Tennis Academy and Ennet House Recovery House are sites of intense ritual observance. Even the godforsaken world of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road portrays characters who, living on the edge of survival and animality, cling to ritual as a way to remain human:
The boy sat tottering. The man watched him that he not topple into the flames. He kicked holes in the sand for the boy’s hips and shoulders where he would sleep and he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it. All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.
If rituals enable us to be human, it’s because they enfold us in something older and bigger and other than ourselves, carrying a whiff of transcendence and enchantment. They are a lingering holdout of another age that pushes back on our autonomy and individualism. Rituals are never just something that you do; they do something to you.
But rituals aren’t conduits for thinking as much as repertoires of know-how. They remind us that there is a kind of believing we do with our hands, on our knees, flat on our faces. In trying to unpack this bodily mode of believing, Bourdieu invokes a specific example: the religion of the knights. Following the work of George Duby, Bourdieu is critical of what he calls “mentalist” accounts of religion that dominate religious studies, taking religion to be a system of ideas and propositions. Such a picture could never understand the devotion of knights, the rituals of romance and chivalry. As Bourdieu observes, citing Duby:
the religion of the knights “came down entirely to a matter of rites, gestures and formulae,” and he emphasizes the practical, bodily character of ritual practices: “When a warrior took an oath, what counted most in his eyes was not the commitment of his soul but a bodily posture, the contact that his hand, laid on the cross, the scriptures, or a bag of relics, had with the sacred. When he stepped forward to become the liege man of a lord, it was again an attitude, a position of the hands, a ritual sequence of words which only had to be uttered in order to bind the contract.”
It’s not that the knights were insincere or didn’t mean it; such concerns about sincerity are still operating with a dualism that assumes we “go through” rituals because “inside” we first believe something—that rituals externally express some prior, mental interiority. But that fails to recognize (and honor) the integrity of ritual—the unique “logic of practice,” as Bourdieu puts it. In contrast, Bourdieu is trying to honor that distinctive logic by recognizing the irreducibility of enacted belief. Ritual is the way we learn to believe with our bodies.
This insight—the irreducibility of knowing how to knowing that—can be seen in two of the seminal texts of twentieth-century philosophy: Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. Consider just one suggestive snippet from Wittgenstein. Discussing the know-how that one needs to play a game—whether it’s chess or hockey—Wittgenstein points out that this is the sort of knowledge that is caught more than it is taught. “One can…imagine,” he muses, “someone’s having learned the game without ever learning or formulating [the] rules.” Sometimes we belong before we believe; we belong in order to believe; we practice our way to believing, and our practices sustain us in dark seasons when we can’t believe.
These shifts in understanding have started to trickle down to philosophy of religion so that philosophers, rather than merely analyzing beliefs or fixating on the coherence and implications of epistemic sets, are beginning to recover an appreciation for religion as something that we do. It shouldn’t surprise us that Jewish philosophers like Peter Ochs and Steven Kepnes have led the way (Kepnes’s Jewish Liturgical Reasoning is an exemplary entrée into these matters). But Christian philosophers like Nicholas Wolterstorff (most recently in Acting Liturgically: Philosophical Reflections on Religious Practice), Sarah Coakley, Terence Cuneo (Ritualized Faith), and others have retooled philosophy of religion to consider the priority and irreducibility of liturgy and ritual.
The next stage of such reflection, I’d suggest, would be to turn this same kind of attention to what we might call, for lack of a better term, secular liturgies. If our ritual devotion has migrated rather than ceased, then it’s not only the institutionally religious who give themselves over to liturgies. But perhaps literature rather than philosophy has best appreciated this fact.
It was this framing that led me to read two very different story collections side by side: Rob Doyle’s This Is the Ritual and Adam Schuitema’s The Things We Do That Make No Sense. On the face of it, Doyle and Schuitema are very different writers, with very different projects. Doyle, an Irish phenom, is a philosopher by training who made a splash with his first novel, Here Are the Young Men. Gritty and glorying in transgression, Doyle is experimental, weaving together (others would say blurring) fiction and nonfiction, working under (and against) the burden of Irish literature (i.e. Beckett). Schuitema, who hasn’t had his fifteen minutes yet, is a more intentionally regional writer—by which I do not mean provincial but rather placed, reflecting the west Michigan of his formation. Less experimental than Doyle, he is nonetheless a master of his craft who seems at home in the short story that is epiphanic without the burden of resolution or redemption.
Despite these differences, one can detect a shared environment behind these collections. Whether it’s the Catholicism of Doyle’s Ireland or the Dutch Reformed and Polish Catholic ethos of Schuitema’s west Michigan, both of their imaginations have been incubated in ritualized milieus, even when railing against them. Both, in oblique ways, testify to the persistence of ritual in a secular age, even if the worlds—and rituals—they envision are very different.
For Doyle, the rituals of religion are the foil, hovering over the world of these stories like a somber Irish cloud. The opening story is called “John-Paul Finnegan, Paltry Realist.” Finnegan is a self-loathing expat on the ferry back home to Dublin, railing against his countrymen’s desultory ambivalence toward literature, of which Finnegan is the only true devotee. His profanity-laced rants betray his delusions of grandeur, but he also gets all the best jokes in the book. He has been devoting himself to a school of literature of which he is the only disciple: “paltry realism,” which eschews any of the pretensions of craft and even any interest in readers. Instead, paltry realism revels in “writing shit,” which, as Finnegan spins it, is the only honest way to face death. To write well, to hope for literary immortality by means of excellence, is a pretension akin to imagining that God is still alive (Nietzsche makes a number of appearances in Doyle’s collection). So Finnegan has devoted himself to his magnum opus, Nevah Trust a Christian, which he describes as his novel in eleven volumes, “with bottomless perversity, the fact being that there were no fewer than thirteen volumes in this novel, if it even was a novel.”
This opening story, with its predictable dismissive taunting of religion, is characteristic of much of Doyle’s collection. The people who entertain religious belief in these stories tend to be madmen (literally). It’s a bit like encountering a college sophomore who went to Catholic school his whole life and has just read Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. Doyle (like Ireland, perhaps?) is still stuck in the adolescent thrill of alleged transgression, which is predictable and dull. The supposedly titillating descriptions of a menage à trois and other sexual adventures only serve this function today if you’re still haunted by Father Patrick and Sister Mary Katherine tut-tutting over your shoulder. In other words, I wonder if Doyle realizes how much the supposed thrill feeds off the persistence of religion.
And yet even this collection remains haunted by a different kind of ritual at points. In “No Man’s Land,” the best story in the collection, a young man has just returned home from university in the wake of a mental health episode (“a severe nervous affliction”). I thought it was a tick of my own Augustine-soaked imagination that brought to mind the young Augustine’s hiatus from school in Carthage that brought him back to Thagaste—until in the very next paragraph we meet a weeping mother who sounds like a latter-day Monica. The young man’s mother leaves her job to care for her son in his depression. “On several occasions I walked in on her weeping in the kitchen, or in the cemented back garden that was hidden from the neighbours by high, grey-brick walls. Sometimes I heard her weeping in the bathroom. She always tried to hide her crying from me.” We’ve met a son of such tears before.
She enfolds him in his depression; she becomes to him (again) an amniotic sac of compassion, hoping against hope to birth him back into life. He eases out of his lethargy with, you guessed it, a ritual of daily walks in an abandoned industrial estate, wandering contemplatively amidst the labyrinthine corridors of this rusted site of former industry. Here he regularly encounters a thirtysomething man who has gone mad, spouting proverbs of nonsense (“There is no father. There is no therapy”). The young man is jarred, disturbed, mostly because he sees in this raving wanderer a possible future for himself. After a chilling dream, a revelation of brokenness generates a new resolve.
I woke up sobbing, drenching the pillow with tears that streamed out of me like never before or since, pierced with a desolation I knew to be incurable, a condition I would carry with me for ever. I rose from the bed, feeling my way through the dark. I found my way to my mother’s bedroom and turned the handle on the door. I heard her gasp in the dark. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘Go back to sleep. I’m sorry. Just let me lie here on the floor, just like this.’ I could hear her hesitating, wanting to get up and fix this, but it couldn’t be fixed and she lay back down. I knew she was staring upwards into the dark, her face gaunt with worry. After a while she got up and draped some covers over me, then got back into bed. I closed my eyes and tried to hear her breathing.
Rituals are not solutions. They don’t fix things. They are how we live with what we can’t fix, channels for facing up to our finitude, the way we try to navigate this vale of tears in the meantime. But precisely for that reason they can also be conduits of hope and rhythms of covenant. Mother/Monica didn’t need to say anything; she needed to be there, present, breathing, lifting the covers over her boy.
When he later wakes up, he tells his mother that he’s going to call the university about returning. “Peering at me with widened eyes over the curve of her teacup, my mother nodded faintly.” (There are unspeakable wells of restraint and fear in that “faintly.”) “She hesitated, fearful of crushed hopes. Then she said, ‘I knew ye would. I never stopped prayin for ye.’ Tears welled up, her voice was cracking. ‘I never stop praying for ye. I mean it. I never will.’” This is the ritual; it’s just that someone else performs it. So be it: the mother as monastic, a quiet Benedictine of the everyday praying for the world that forgets her, keeping a fire alive for the future when the gleam of transgression is dulled and the hubris of our Enlightenment wears out.
The persistence of ritual in Schuitema’s stories is less begrudging and more explicit, but without nostalgia or romanticism. It’s the same post-Christian world. But Schuitema’s settings are also post-war and post-work, environs gutted by the proverbial “new economy,” dotted with the detritus of boarded-up factories (all that remains of a shuttered GM factory is a pedestrian bridge to nowhere). The world of his stories will be familiar to vast swaths of working-class folks around the country, a million miles from the MFA programs of the Ivy Leagues.
But one of the starkest differences between the worlds created by Doyle and Schuitema is the social capital of community that persists in Schuitema’s west Michigan. Like the tenuous but tenacious sinews of a spider web, relationships and friendships endure. There is all kinds of brokenness here, but people aren’t lonely. While the corporations have left, institutions have survived: the VFW hall; baseball; the local parish with its Friday fish fries during Lent; the Peacock Tavern on Cherry Street; and Northcentral Reformed down the street that quietly glows with interior life on an Ash Wednesday evening; even parents who are still together, after all these years, still trying to figure out how to love their prodigals. These institutions are the incubators of relationship, custodians of community that holds up a safety net for the broken souls who collapse into their embrace. Each of these institutions curates its own set of rituals that create the rhythms of a life, which mostly looks like an excuse to show up somewhere and be welcomed.
Schuitema’s writing is a marvelous enactment of the concrete, in two senses. First, as I’ve already mentioned, these stories are located, steeped in place, embedded in neighborhoods you come to know. Admittedly, my reading experience is conditioned by sharing a town with him; I’ve been to the places he describes and renames. But I don’t think you have to recognize these places for the concretion to be felt; rather, the writing itself evokes the feel of a place. There’s something incarnational about this.
Second, his writing is subtly but tangibly tactile, partaking not only in the low-hanging fruit of sight, but touch and taste. For example, in “Stone Dust,” set in a Puerto Vallarta vacation rental that sits atop a stone sculpture studio, when Luke, a washed-up major-league pitcher, emerges from the pool, water drips from him “dotting the concrete and vanishing seconds later under the Mexican summer sun.” He doesn’t just finish his tequila; we hear “ice hitting his teeth” as he does so. In the nightclub down the street, where a younger Luke might have ventured, the “dance-beat throb” of the music is “faster than a grown man’s pulse.” Stone dust emerges into his bedroom through slats in the floor. “It mixed with the blades of sunlight and in the dimness became a glowing smoke.” The whole time he’s in the apartment he tastes “the grit of stone dust in his teeth.” When he steals a glance at a young woman on the beach, her “thigh looked as smooth as the inside of a seashell.”
This concretion helps us picture, feel, hear the rituals that then govern the lives of characters in these stories. And this ritual frame is hardly accidental. Its significance is signaled in the opening story, “All Your Vanished Men,” which is a mystery of sorts—not a whodunit, but why. A thirtysomething high school teacher has come to the chili cook-off at the local VFW exactly a year after his father vanished, leaving a note: No foul play. Did no crime. No woman involved. In other words: don’t come looking.
By this point, the narrator actually knows where his father is: he’d “chosen the desert.” The son won’t chase him. But he’d like to understand why. “I’m not looking for nostalgia. I’m looking for clues—for any trace of his quiet plans.”
And so he tries to relive his father’s rituals before he left, to inhabit his rhythms to try to get inside his thinking. The VFW is a kind of sanctuary: “I sometimes come here alone to watch football and sit among the ambient chatter of old men.” As he returns for the cook-off that was, a year ago, his father’s last supper, so to speak, the narrator recognizes familiar teams: the older ladies dressed in grass skirts with pineapple in their chili; the metalheads whose secret is buffalo meat; the camouflaged crew cooking with venison. But there’s a new team this year, a pair of nuns, one aged, the other younger and “strangely tan.” He approaches their table last. The older nun first instructs him to eat a tortilla chip. “Cleanse the palate,” she says.
She looks up again and reaches over the table, holding the chip out to me—not toward my hands, but higher, toward my mouth. And without thinking I’m opening wide, extending my tongue a bit, where she gently lays the chip. I close my mouth but never take a bite, letting it slowly dissolve.
Turning to the chili, they are out of cups and spoons. So the younger nun
picks up the gold chalice that stands amid the candles and trophies. Then she scoops it into the pot and pulls it out, rivulets of chili running down the side. She holds the chalice before me, and the older nuns nods. “Drink up, my son.” I set down my beer, grasp the chalice with both hands, and raise it toward my mouth, pausing for a moment to stare into its darkness. I don’t want to sip yet—I want to linger in this moment—so I keep my mouth closed and let the chili accumulate around my closed lips. Then I gulp.
In a creative writing workshop—at the Glen, say—some might worry that the metaphor is a tad bald, the Eucharistic allusion too direct. And yet it’s interesting to find this in a collection from a university press, not a religious publisher. The hunger speaks to something human. Indeed, it’s at this point that the narrator observes: “These are the things we do, and they make no sense.” But the upshot of this collection suggests something different: These are the things we do that make sense otherwise, like a logic of the heart which has reasons of its own.
Sometimes the things we do that make no sense turn out to be the things we needed to do in order to withstand the heartbreak that makes no sense, the tragedy that shouldn’t be, the evil that doesn’t deserve a place in the cosmos. These rituals—the things we do over and over “for no reason”—mysteriously build a capacity to do the things we’d never dream of doing—the things we have to do that we’ll try to forget and hope never to do again. This is powerfully pictured in “Last Year’s Palms,” a story about a couple grappling with the fallout of their son’s depression in the wake of childhood abuse. Larry Jacobsen’s wife, Elizabeth, has wrested an agreement from her husband as they’ve walked this valley with Ben: he’ll join her at church on Sundays. But this night, a weekday, he’s gone above and beyond to join her at an Ash Wednesday service, leaving his buddies to themselves at the Peacock bar. He’s skeptical but not resistant.
If anything, it’s his self-consciousness that is gnawing at him. During the long silences he’s remembering the horror of leaving his son screaming at the mental health facility, his mind then splicing to memories of Ben coming home from his first day at kindergarten. This has him worried that his worship is a sham, that his head bowed with such thoughts is a “non-prayer.” “She’d grown up with ritual,” he muses. “Not him.” He feels ridiculous; he thinks others look absurd. Little does he realize that the gift of ritual is an escape from the cult of sincerity and a release from the paralyzing chains of self-consciousness. Liturgy is how we lose ourselves in order to be found.
The epigraph to Schuitema’s collection is a line from “A Father’s Story” by Andre Dubus that succinctly encapsulates what I’ve been circling around: “For ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual, as dancing allows the tongue-tied man a ceremony of love.”
There’s a wonderful underdetermination to this suggestion. Are these rituals fictions? (Is fiction one of our enduring rituals?) Even the question is ambiguous. What if we imagined these rituals to be fictions? Does that somehow make them less true, their being made up? Are they impositions of order on a chaos that is supposed to be real? Or are they disclosive: unveiling, revealing an order just as fiction tells us the truth? What if rituals are the way we dance with the love that drives the cosmos?
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.