'If Christian culture is to be renewed, habits are more vital than revivals, rituals more edifying than spiritual high.' A great essay!
From First Things (April 2004)
ByLast spring on a trip to Erfurt, the medieval university town in Germany famous for its Augustinian cloister in which Martin Luther was ordained to the priesthood, I learned that only twenty percent of its population professed adherence to Christianity. In fact, when the topic of religion came up in a conversation with a young woman in a hotel lounge, and I asked her whether she was a member of a church, she replied without hesitation: Ich bin Heide—“I am a heathen.”
It is hardly surprising to discover pagans in the heart of Western Europe where Christianity once flourished: a steep decline in the number of Christians has been underway for generations, even centuries. What surprised me was the absence of embarrassment in her use of the term “heathen.” She did not say that she no longer went to church or that she was not a believer. For her, Christianity, no doubt the religion of her grandparents if not her parents, was simply not on the horizon. I remembered that two days earlier my train had stopped at Fulda, where St. Boniface, the apostle to the Germans, is buried. Boniface had gone to Germany to convert the heathen, and in a spectacular and courageous gesture he felled the sacred oak at Geismar. The astonished onlookers soon hearkened to Boniface’s preaching and received baptism. It would seem that if Christianity is ever to flourish again in the land between the Rhine and the Elbe, a new Boniface will have to appear to fell the sacred oaks of European secularism.
There will always be those who reject ceremony,
who claim that resolution requires no fanfare,
those who demand the spirit stay fixed
like a desert saint, fed only on faith,
to worship in no temple but the weather.
Symbols betray us.
They are always more or less than what
is really meant.
But shall there be no
processions by torchlight because we are weak?
Praise to the rituals that celebrate change,
old robes worn for new beginnings,
solemn protocol where the mutable soul,
surrounded by ancient experience,
grows young in the imagination’s white dress.
Because it is not the rituals we honor
but our trust in what they signify, these rites
that honor us as witnesses—whether to watch
lovers swear loyalty in a careless world
or a newborn washed with water and oil.