Luke Ripley’s life is the same every morning: he sits in the dark with his coffee and thinks of the people he loves, then he sets out to the stables with a carrot or an apple to feed one of his horses, which he will saddle and ride fifteen minutes to morning mass. Afterwards he and his closest friend Fr. Paul talk baseball or the news in the sacristy. He is an “old buck” in his late fifties and lives alone, having been divorced for more than a decade. He teaches riding clinics and boards horses, but underneath he wrestles always with two strains of thought: Similar to a recovering alcoholic, he deals with painful memories of the past, yet he’s found peace in the newfound rhythms of his reconstructed life without family.
It is not hard to live through a day, if you can live through a moment. What creates despair is the imagination, which pretends there is a future, and insists on predicting millions of moments, thousands of days, and so drains you that you cannot live the moment at hand. That is what Father Paul told me in those first two years, on some of the bad nights when I believed I could not bear what I had to: the most painful loss was my children, then the loss of Gloria, whom I still loved despite or maybe because of our long periods of sadness that rendered us helpless, so neither of us could break out of it to give a hand to the other. Twelve years later I believe ritual would have healed us more quickly than the repetitious talks we had, perhaps even kept us healed. Marriages have lost that, and I wish I had known then what I know now, and we had performed certain acts together every day, no matter how we felt, and perhaps then we could have subordinated feeling to action, for surely that is the essence of love.
The selection is taken from A Father’s Story, written by Andre Dubus, himself an immensely talented artist with a sad home life. While I can’t recommend all of his stories, this one is remarkable for its portrait of Luke. Later in the story, one of his daughters returns for a visit and gets into trouble, and the plot thickens from there.
Dubus’ words teach a simple wisdom. To some degree, each of us has had to deal with past mistakes and all the attempts to repair what went wrong. It’s difficult to change our own habits, and even more paralyzing to reconcile with our neighbor. While we pray for a miracle moment, or wait for the tide to change on its own, we often don’t consider the power of taking a few small steps in the right direction. We forget about ritual.
Ritual is not only a remedy for despair or destruction. We cannot survive daily life without it, and we fill our days with all sorts of practical rituals: brushing our teeth, showering, eating meals, checking our e-mail, paying our bills, calling our parents, and so on. The Church teaches the same lesson about surviving spiritually. Every day, she does the same few holy things over and over again, because they’re the very best things. Every Mass, the same bread and wine are offered as the Eucharist. Every confession concludes with the same prayer of absolution. There is only one rosary, said over and over again.
But isn’t ritual blamed as the reason why things don’t work? What about the claim that a relationship failed because one party just wouldn’t change? What about the complaint of every child at some time that Mass is boring? Can we really foster healthy lives by doing the same things over and over?
It’s true that ordinary objects do quickly grow old: we grow used to one another and start taking each other for granted; we need vacations to quit our work for a week; songs on the radio have a maximum shelf-life of two to three months. But it’s different with what is holy, for Christ can never be exhausted. The barest facts of his life remain fascinating, and so we read the Gospels over and over. Our neighbor is also holy. While maintaining peace can be a bear, we can never claim to know someone “enough.” If we do, we’ve written them off and reduced them to our judgments, not the whole reality. Good relationships have their hiccups, but they naturally and peaceably want to last forever. It would be absurd to imagine a man on his 50th wedding anniversary toast to his wife, “My dear, we’ve come to know each other entirely. I can say surely that we’ve made it. Perhaps it’s time we went our separate ways in this wide world, and found out what other new lives are out there waiting for us.”
What is unthinkable on the lips of an 80 year-old isn’t so for our younger generation. How often we avoid repairs and dealing with hurt, in favor of “starting over.” We are plagued by the disease of novelty, we who are always in search of greener grass, living in a climate saturated with advertisements and endless possibilities. T.S. Eliot described society as “distracted from distraction by distraction.” And the consequences are more sobering than teenage breakups or changing your college major. Luke Ripley couldn’t repair his marriage, and it ended in the breakdown of his whole family, relationally and spiritually. Part was due to dysfunction, but part was due to the thought of something “better” out there, waiting for us. We’re like Adam and Eve, delighted and sheltered in the Garden of America, but we’re soon at the hedge, looking over to see “what else” might be out there.
Ritual takes the opposite tack. It makes us sit and stay and keep working at the things God has given. Can doing a few small things really help repair our lives? Maintain our lives? Of course they can! All love grows by small constant gestures. Maybe it’s as small as a healing “hello” to our alienated loved one, or a ten minute visit to the confessional because in the back of our heads we’ve long been thinking, “I probably should.” It’s as simple as making the commitment to Sunday Mass, or praying before bed, or sharing together how the Lord works in our lives. The Didache, a document from the early Church, concludes by saying, “You shall gather together often, seeking the things related to your souls.” That might help us look differently at the deep consequences of our ordinary commitments, like going for a walk together or “getting coffee.”
Never stop talking to the ones you love every day, no matter what happens that day. And in whatever way you pray, pray every day. It is only by ritual that we keep growing. Otherwise our weaknesses win out in our relationships, and even our holy desires can end up mere wishful thinking.
Image: Joaquín Sorolla, Ex voto