The Power of Ritual

I often find myself discussing rituals, not only with couples I’m working with, but in this very column. Recently I read some excellent research by Michael I. Norton, Francesca Gino and colleagues, confirming the multiple benefits of ritual.

Church rituals are traditional and powerful.

Yes, it is a scientific fact that ritual helps us through milestones, especially grief and loss. Norton, an associate professor in Marketing at Harvard Business School, says “we see in every culture, and throughout history, that people who perform rituals report feeling better.” Not a surprise, at least to me!

While this research specifically dealt with grief, I know the same power ritual has in times of joy such as weddings, the welcoming of a new child, even birthdays and anniversaries. Where would we be without rituals? A birthday feels less important without rousing chorus of ‘Happy Birthday.’

Sharing cake is ritualistic when you think about it.

It is not only in the observing of ritual, but participating in ritual that makes a difference. One experiment sited in this study showed that participants who prepared a glass of powdered lemonade in a ritualistic manner (stir for 30 seconds, wait for 30 seconds, and so on) enjoyed consuming it much more than those who merely watched someone else prepare the lemonade.

Celebrants such as myself are trained in the use of ritual, and of course religious leaders have rituals that pertain to their specific belief systems. We celebrants consider the full range or rituals – cultural, religious, and reach beyond barriers to create new and meaningful ones when needed.

I’ve written at length about some of my favorite rituals. A while back I wrote about a ‘Spice Ritual’ and got lots of positive feedback about it. I’ve created rituals using water, pebbles, wine, beer, champagne, chocolate, puzzles, plants, bells, and even fire! There are traditional rituals such as Breaking the Glass from the Jewish tradition, or The Thirteen Coins, or Arras, from the Hispanic tradition. The Japanese have a wonderful Tea Ceremony, and there are many Celtic rituals that I find especially inspiring!

The Unity Candle while not specifically religious is often done in church.

So what is the importance of performing these rituals in a wedding ceremony? Much of a wedding is already ritualistic, from walking down the aisle to speaking vows and exchanging rings. But by including a very specialized and specific ritualistic act we can enhance the experience. It moves us beyond words into another realm.

Like ‘music’, Leonard Bernstein tells us, ‘it can name the un-nameable and communicate the unknowable.’ Words only get us so far. And as the old adage says: Actions speak louder than words.

Ritual actions, often done in silence, do speak volumes. They help cement the moment in time, burning it deeper into our brain cells for future recollection.

Simple actions become ritualistic.

There are many times in life when we could really use some ritual, but we have nothing to fall back on. How about leaving a work situation or starting a new career? Although there are retirement parties, there are other times when that wouldn’t apply and some ritualistic event might be great. And what about divorce? It is such a huge life-changing event, one fraught with complex and often contradictory emotions. A divorce ceremony or ritual might really help people, yet we have no traditions in place.

Whether religion or science tells you or just listening to your ‘gut’ – remember the power of ritual when you are facing a big moment in your life. And call me – we’ll talk!

Cultural traditions add meaning.


Thank you Lisa Rhinehart –  for use of your beautiful photography!

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