It was a perfect night.
The four of us sat around the iron table on the patio of La Hacienda and shared an evening filled with wonderful Mexican food, frozen margaritas, friendship, laughter, and stories – all a part of our celebration of Ginger’s birthday. It was not the only food of the day. During our time in New England, one of the rituals for Ginger’s birthday was a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston to wander and wonder among the paintings and then to share the cheese plate in the museum café. We didn’t make it to an art museum yesterday, but we did end up at Six Plates, a wine bar owned by a new friend here in Durham, that has a great cheese plate to keep up our birthday tradition. My girl likes her some cheese.
As Ginger told of our travels from cheese plate to queso and chips, our friend Lindsey said, “You all are such creatures of ritual.”
Yes, we are.
Ritual is best defined as “meaningful repetition” – repeating those things that help you remember, as the old saying goes, who you are and whose you are. So we end up in a Hard Rock Café on our wedding and engagement anniversaries, we chase down a good cheese plate on Ginger’s birthday, and we keep repeating any number of little sayings and actions that remind us of the promises we are committed to keeping, transforming daily doings into something sacred.
The repetition is a stacking of time, each experience laid one on top of the other, so that when we return to repeat it again we do so from a new perspective. All the years of cheese plates give us a different view of what it means to be together, to be alive in this world. One of my favorite stories is Joshua’s telling the people of Israel to stack up the stones after they had crossed the Jordan so that when the children asked what the stones mean they could tell the story of their deliverance, over and over again.
If ritual is meaningful repetition, habit is the opposite – repetition that grows out of convenience, compliance, or just because: unexamined repetition. Where habits grow like kudzu, rituals have to be cultivated and nourished. We have to keep stacking up stones and slicing cheese if life is going to mean something.
When Jesus first passed the bread and wine, he said, “As often as you do this, remember me.” As a chef, one of the ways I like to interpret his words is to think he was not so much envisioning a Communion service at church as much as he was talking about meal time in a more general sense: every time you break bread together, remember. Let our meals be rituals and not habits.
Soon after Ginger and I started dating, I cooked dinner for her. I sautéed some chicken with pasta and alfredo sauce. She loved it and it became one of our ritual meals, which we call Saturday Night Chicken, since it was a Saturday night when we first had it together. Now it’s a meal I prepare, particularly when we have gone through a busy or stressful time and I want to reconnect. All the meals over the almost twenty years since I first served it to her stack up to give a great view of who we are and where we have come from together because we eat and remember.
Rituals are the raw material from which we can build of our lives a mountain of memories, offering us the chance to see that we have come from God and we are going to God, that we are inextricably connected to one another by the grace of God, and, even in the scope of so grand a universe, it matters that we celebrate with cheese plates, over and over again.