By Amy Lepine Peterson
Growing up non-denominational, I entered adulthood with a healthy skepticism of rituals. After all, the Old Testament prophets call them “meaningless rites.” In the churches of my childhood, which tended to meet in elementary school auditoriums, we preferred “popcorn” prayer to liturgy and impromptu river dunkings to the sprinkling of holy water. Looking back, I realize that perhaps we had simply created our own set of rituals.
It wasn’t becoming an Episcopalian that changed my mind about the value of ritual; it was moving to Vietnam. As I studied the theory of cross-cultural disciple-making, especially in Symbol and Ceremony by A.H. Mathias Zahniser (MARC, 1997), I realized that the Holy Spirit has always used symbols and ceremonies to nurture the relationship between human beings and God, working through everyday materials such as wine, bread, wind, or fire. As Clark Pinnock said, believers remain malnourished when “we have no place for festivals, dramas, processions, banners, dance, color, movement, instruments, percussion, and incense. There are many notes on God’s keyboard which we often neglect to sound, with the result that God’s presence can be hard to access.”
Ten years later, as my husband and I find ourselves buying our first home outside a small town in Indiana, we want to mark the occasion.
We spend all day cleaning, and after dinner they come — our friends and colleagues, the ones who by their welcome have made the prairie into holy ground for us. Leaving their shoes at the door, they enter the stove-warmed kitchen, where cider and cocoa simmer, and praise the view. “If my kitchen window looked out on that, I might never stop doing dishes,” one says.
We take coats, ladle hot drinks into heavy mugs for those fingers stiff with autumn chill, and pass around photocopied liturgies. One friend holds the holy water while Father Jim begins the prayers.
Grasping a heavy Bible, my husband reads from Genesis 18, the story of Abraham’s hospitality to the Lord when he appeared in the home of Abraham and Sarah under the oaks of Mamre.
He stops at Genesis 18:8, as the liturgy indicates, as if to say, This is just the first part of the story. This is the part where you open your heart to the Lord as he appears, suddenly, within your tents, and you invite him to stay for supper. The part with the blessing, the surprise, the laughter, the disbelief; the warning, the pleading, the bargaining — all that is still to come. Tonight is for the welcoming and the feasting.
Our socked feet pad from room to room, we herd of worshipers and friends sidling next to each other in the office, the bedroom, the playroom, the kitchen, for prayers. Our preschoolers run headlong from one side of the house to the other, and back again, cutting through the ranks of pray-ers, pretending to be rescue bots and superheroes. They’re playing, we’re praying, and I don’t mind; after all, we are all in need of a rescuer.
I know some of the people I grew up with might wonder why we do this; why we chant our way through an old prayer service, sprinkling holy water all over our new home. Is there any meaning to this ritual?
It isn’t superstition; we’re not here because we think ghosts haunt our home and a pagan incantation can ward them off. This isn’t about good luck charms, a horseshoe hanging over the door, or a double happiness symbol bringing us luck. Rather, we recognize the spiritual reality undergirding our physical existence. We are sincerely asking God to bless this place, and to keep it free from evil spirits.
These prayers are a way of reminding ourselves of the truth, of remembering:
- in the office, that God is the source of wisdom
- in the bedroom, that we can sleep in peace because God alone makes us dwell in safety
- in the children’s rooms, that Jesus called the little ones to himself
- in the kitchen, that God supplies all of our needs
- in the guest room, that by showing hospitality, some have entertained angels unawares
These prayers, and the physical movement from room to room, are a way of acknowledging that every part of our home is a gift from God, and something to be used for the good of others.
When the prayers finish, we cut the cheesecake and gather in knots around the table or the bookshelves. I put on a record and photocopy a poem for a friend. Eventually the children go to bed, and the stragglers head to the back of the property to talk around the bonfire. The moon is full tonight. I wash dishes and warm up my cider as I reflect on the ceremony we’ve just finished.
This isn’t the house I would have chosen, nor the town, nor the job. I would have gone with an older house, a more ethnically diverse city, and a job where I feel like I am saving the world every day rather than simply saving college students from poor grammar.
But last week I told this house that I would be happy to grow old with it. Every day I thank the chickens for giving me their eggs, and I’ve mowed the grass enough that I’m learning where the ground is level and where it slants, where the milkweed pods grow, and what the names of the trees are. “Plant sequoias,” Wendell Berry says in “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” and I agree.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
To know my place, my God, myself; and in that to flourish in the obscurity of middle America. That would be enough.
Lisa Schirch compares rituals to the grease that makes machines work. “Ritual acts as a lubricator for people to create, affirm, or reinvent their identities,” she says. The Celebration for a Home has affirmed my new place here. This is our house, our home; this is our field — or we are its. We celebrate a home through liturgy not because the prayers cast a spell, or in order to jump through a hoop of righteousness. We celebrate with these prayers as a reminder:
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
Amy Lepine Peterson teaches ESL writing and American pop culture at Taylor University.