What are Sacred Rituals?

When you think of religion or spirituality, what do you think of first?  Does your mind recall particular statements of what religious people believe, or do you think of specific pictures of what religious people do?  If you do the latter, that may indicate that you have an interest in sacred rituals.

A ritual is simply an intentional and often formal activity that is performed at a specific time and/or in a specific place.  An example is brushing your teeth each night before you go to bed.

But what makes a ritual “sacred” or “spiritual”?  Is it the activity itself?  The location?  The purpose?  In some sense, that answer is all three.  A ritual can become sacred when it is performed in a sacred context, and is intended to have a sacred meaning and/or sacred result.

There are three general types of sacred rituals:  life-cycle, life-crisis, and calendar or seasonal.

A life-cycle sacred ritual is a religious activity that is performed at a meaningful and predetermined time in a person’s life.  Life-cycle rituals are also sometimes known as rites of passage.  Two examples are weddings and funerals, both of which often incorporate religious elements, such as scripture reading and prayer, even for those who would not consider themselves to be religious.

Other life-cycle rituals are circumcision, infant baptism, bar/bat mitzvahs, and confirmation.  Life cycle-rites often have meaning for the both the individual who is performing the ritual, and also for the community and culture of which the individual is a part.

A life-crisis sacred ritual is performed on an “as needed” basis.  In contrast to a life-cycle ritual, the timing of a life-crisis ritual is not predetermined, but rather, it is triggered by a change in belief or circumstance in the life of an individual.  Examples of “triggers” are illness, conversion, famine, and others.

Many religions have specific rituals that are put into practice during times of sickness.  The rituals can range from simple – prayer for the sick person, to complex – recitation of specific scriptures, use of specific oils and phrases, and performed by specific people.

Finally, there is a third type of sacred ritual – calendar or seasonal rites.  This type of ritual occurs at a specific time each year, often based on either a specific past event or the natural seasons.  There are many examples of calendar or seasonal rituals – Christmas, Passover, Samhain, and Ramadan are a few.  Calendar rituals are often “built into” a specific religion to act as systematic reminders of the core elements of the religion.  Although both life-cycle and life-crisis rituals can sometimes be performed privately, calendar or season rituals are almost always community based.

When you look back at your childhood or youth, were there any sacred rituals that you were a part of?  If so, what impact did they have on your life at the time?  Do you still participate in sacred rituals now?


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