More important than a definition of ritual is a sense for it.

Ritual is nothing if not a sensuous activity.

A sense for ritual arises from participation in rituals that activate the senses.




You don’t have to define the word automobile to drive one.

You don’t have to define the word computer to use a word processor.


You don’t define ritual any more than lovers define love.

You define words, “ritual” and “love,” or use images.



The quotation marks remind you to exercise humility,

to remember that you are not defining reality.

You are defining words.


Maybe you know people who cook or garden

by actions rather than by recipe or guidebook.


Even though they may, or may not,

be able to explain what they do,

they do a fabulous job

because they have a sense for it.


“How much baking powder?” I once asked my grandmother.

Her reply was tossed off predictably, “You know, just enough.”



“Where do hollyhocks grow best?” I asked her.

“Oh, you know, wherever it seems right.”



The craving for how-to manuals

attests to the lack of a sense for ritual.


If you have a sense for something,

you don’t need books.



What you need most can’t be provided by books.

The problem with do-it-yourself manuals

is that they can’t cultivate a sense for a ritual,

a felt, embodied knowledge that enables you to act

constructively in situations calling for a ritual response.




Maybe you’ve seen the film Babette’s Feast.

I have.






Babette, a distinguished French chef, displaced by dire political circumstances, arrives in a

northern, starkly Protestant Danish village beset with petty grievances and perpetual backbiting.


Taken in by two elderly sisters, daughters of the local religious leader, Babette cooks their simple,

tasteless food in the manner to which they are accustomed.


After years of service in this austere household, Babette comes into money and wants to express her

gratitude to the sisters by spending all of it on a feast for them and their alcohol-free communi


The village is bereft of culinary art,

but the religious community

agrees to suffer through an ordeal of French food.

It would be a greater sin to refuse.


From bafflement and barely concealed disgust at eating French turtle soup,

they proceed to delight, even ecstasy.



In eating tasty food and drinking fine wine,

confession and mutual forgiveness

flow like a river of pure mountain water.


By the end of Babette’s feast,

those who ate her lavish meal

notice the beauty of the weather-beaten faces

sitting around the table

and the fullness of the night sky.



These revelations

reveal nothing new,

only what was not seen or not tasted

before the meal.


Babette’s Feast depicts what ritual is supposed to be.


The film a ritual

that replaces ritual-as-routine

with ritual-as-attentive action.


The film implies that


religious rites are ordinary acts

attentively practised

displacing human conventions

and revealing what is most deeply desirable

most fully human

and cosmically orienting