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Friday, September 19, 2008

Is a private ritual like a private language?

“And when you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Truly I say to you, They have their reward.

But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

But when you pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.

Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.” – Matthew 6:5-7


I went into a bicycle shop the other day. I’d been delaying having my bike fixed, but I knew, from the hairraising sound that the brakes emitted every time I pressed them, that the pads were shot. I also knew that, ever penny wise and pound foolish, I’d waited too long to fix them. The clerk told me, at first, that they could change the pads without changing the cable, and then, when the guy in the back started fixing it, that it would require a cable change too. On top of that, it turned out I had a hole in the back tire, caused by the back brake pad.

The man who fixed the bike came out with it and put it up on a little rack. He talked to me while he fixed it. I watched him not watch his hands, which went here and there, testing the sprungness of the brake, adjusting the screws and the position. He looked at me or straight ahead. His hands were like marvelous, separate creatures, below the sea level of his apparent attention, although in fact his mind was really concentrated on the feelings in his fingertips, his sense of the pressure exerted by the screwdriver, the pull and resistance of the brake assembly. It was obvious that he not only did not need to see what he was doing, but that seeing would get in the way. I had ineffectually tried, myself, to adjust the brakes, peering through my reading glasses to see the whole assemblage, and of course I was awkward and put everything on wrong. I’ve seen my Dad and my brothers repair things in this hands first way too. It is an enviably elegant thing to do.

It is, supremely, a routine.

I mention this because Mauss, in his book on the ethnography of prayer, makes a valiant effort to distinguish rituals from routines. His ultimate purpose is to use prayer as a kind of discursive object in which the ritual and the belief converge. He is what he says about rituals (rites)


“It isn’t after the nature of acts and their real effects that it is possible to distinguish the two orders of fact. From this point of view, all that it is possible to say about rituals is that they cannot produce the results one attributes to them. According to this way of judging, one can’t distinguish rituals from erroneous practices. One knows, however, that an erroneous practice is not a ritual. Thus, it is not in considering the efficacity in itself, but the manner in which the efficacity is conceived that we can discover the specific difference. Thus, in the case of technique, the effect produced is supposed to arise entirely from the effective mechanical labor. And this besides has right on its side (a bon droit), for the effort of civilization has precisely consisted in reserving to industrial techniques and the science on which they repose that useful value that one attributed in the past to rituals and religious notions. On the contrary, in the case of a ritual practice, other causes completely are supposed to intervene, to which is wholly imputed the expected result. Between the movements that constitute the sacrifece of the construction dn the solidity of the house that it is supposed to insure, there is not even from the point of view of the sacrificer any mechanical link. The efficacity lent to the ritual has nothing in common with the efficacity proper to the acts which are materially accomplished. It is represented mentally as completely sui generis, for one consideres that it comes entirely from special forces that the ritual has the property of putting in play. Thus even if the effect actually produced would result in fact in executed movements, there would be a ritual if the believer attributed it to other causes. Thus the absorption of toxic substances produces physiologically a state of ecstacy, and yet it is a ritual for those who imput this state not to its true causes, but to special influences.”


If Mauss is right about this, and if he is right that prayer is a ritual, then there is something extremely puzzling about the famous saying in Matthew. Which I will get to in a further post.

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