A pop quiz: What do these activities have in common?

    Brushing your teeth before bed.
    Having a pick-me-up candy bar at four o'clock every day.
    Going out with your best friends one night a month.
    Trimming the Christmas tree.

These are all common examples of rituals--the little acts we perform daily, weekly, yearly, and at other times to give us comfort and security.

Our need for ritual begins virtually from the moment we exit the womb. As babies, we come to know that we can expect to be fed at certain hours of the day. The feeling of physical satisfaction leads us to recognize our personal needs and understand that someone will meet them, and every time our hunger is sated it makes us a little more confident in the predictability of life.

Then we become toddlers, learning that there's a huge world that extends far beyond our crib. We run, we explore, we demand, we discover. Yet, precisely because the world is such an enormous place, we need certain constants in our lives to reassure us that there's an order and a safety there, too, and people we can rely on. That why young children refuse to eat anything but mashed potatoes and jelly, why they wake you up at 6 a.m. even on weekends, and why they have to hear "Goodnight Moon" three times and "Night-night, sweetie" twice and have their ratty old teddy bear exactly on the left side of the bed before they can even think about falling asleep.

We may outgrow the teddy bear and the picture books, but our need for ritual stays constant even as adults. Why else do we designate Thursday nights as "Must See TV"? Why do we get upset if something happens to disrupt our morning routine? And why do couples argue over where to spend Thanksgiving, whether to make chestnut or sausage stuffing and how much cinnamon to put in the pumpkin pie?

Rituals keep our lives in balance. And when the rites are put into a spiritual context, they can help make us more aware of our relationship to God. Think of all the little routines that go on in just one hour at a house of worship--most of them activities that we don't ordinarily do anywhere else. We endow the motions with meaning and, once again, sanctify a moment in time.

So as you might have guessed, one of your assignments for this week is to perform a spiritual ritual at least once. (You'll probably find yourself trying a couple more than that.) It can be something unique to your religious faith. It could be something taken from a different religion. Or it could be something you make up yourself--as long as it's done in an appropriately worshipful manner. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Light a candle as you say a prayer of your choice. Notice how it immediately creates a hushed and awe-filled atmosphere in the room. Reflect on it for a least 10 minutes before blowing it out. Or buy a yahrzeit (24-hour memorial) candle and keep it lit the entire day in honor of a loved one who has passed on. Or light a candle in church.
  • Say a blessing before dinner--either a familiar one or one you create yourself. Then be mindful of the goodness of the food as you eat it.
  • Say a rosary at home.
  • Kneel toward Mecca.
  • Light incense.
  • Burn a smudge stick (available at herb stores and spiritual shops). Native Americans traditionally burn dried sage and wave it around the corners of a room to cleanse it and drive out evil spirits.
  • Tape a copy of the Lord's Prayer or the 23rd Psalm to your dashboard and read it before you start the car.
  • Hang a mezuzah on the doorpost of your house. Touch it and kiss your fingers when you enter or leave.
  • Give up something you like for Lent.
  • Give up food and water (if your health permits) for Yom Kippur.
  • Don't eat until sundown during Ramadan.
  • Designate one dinner a week as "Spiritual Night" and talk about biblical stories, miracles, moral issues, and other related topics around the table.
  • Make the sign of the cross as you pass a church or cemetery.
  • Say, "Thank You, God," the moment you wake up.
  • Make a charity jar and drop your loose change into it when you come home from work.
  • Think of someone who is ill, hurt, or in mental pain and spend a few minutes sending thoughts of healing her way.
  • Bless your children before they go to school, before bedtime, or when they have something important coming up, like a big test, a game, or a school dance.
  • Buy and use a miniature Zen garden. (It consists of a board filled with sand, several stones, and a rake. Arrange the stones and sand to your satisfaction as you meditate.)
  • Hang a dream catcher from your window and notice whether you sleep better at night.
  • Read a Bible story out loud with your family.
  • Say a small prayer of protection before going on vacation or business trips. Bless bread and wine before your Sabbath dinner.
  • Find a church close to your workplace and sit in the pew for a few minutes during lunch hour.
  • Buy a new book on spirituality once a month.
  • Research a holiday from your particular faith that you don't ordinarily celebrate--be it Maundy Thursday, Simchat Torah, or Diwali--and observe it this year.
  • Find a meditation maze and walk through it, concentrating on the journey rather than the end.

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