This total misunderstanding of the real nature of ceremonial gives rise to the most awkward and dehumanized versions of the conduct of men in rude lands or ages. The man of science, not realizing that ceremonial is essentially a thing which is done without a reason, has to find a reason for every sort of ceremonial, and, as might be supposed, the reason is generally a very absurd one-- absurd because it originates not in the simple mind of the barbarian, but in the sophisticated mind of the professor. The teamed man will say, for instance, "The natives of Mumbojumbo Land believe that the dead man can eat and will require food upon his journey to the other world. This is attested by the fact that they place food in the grave, and that any family not complying with this rite is the object of the anger of the priests and the tribe." To any one acquainted with humanity this way of talking is topsy-turvy. It is like saying, "The English in the twentieth century believed that a dead man could smell. This is attested by the fact that they always covered his grave with lilies, violets, or other flowers. Some priestly and tribal terrors were evidently attached to the neglect of this action, as we have records of several old ladies who were very much disturbed in mind because their wreaths had not arrived in time for the funeral." It may be of course that savages put food with a dead man because they think that a dead man can eat, or weapons with a dead man because they think that a dead man can fight. But personally I do not believe that they think anything of the kind. I believe they put food or weapons on the dead for the same reason that we put flowers, because it is an exceedingly natural and obvious thing to do. We do not understand, it is true, the emotion which makes us think it obvious and natural; but that is because, like all the important emotions of human existence it is essentially irrational. We do not understand the savage for the same reason that the savage does not understand himself. And the savage does not understand himself for the same reason that we do not understand ourselves either.
-G.K. Chesterton, from Heretics
Sometimes. it's all-too-easy to poke fun of what we call "ceremony," or worse yet, "ritualism." These things seems to us to be dead things, things from the long-forgotten past which don't make sense to modern men with their modern minds. Yet, as Mr Chesterton notes, even the most modern and "rationalistic" man ultimately undergoes a sort of unquestioned ritual.
The modern man wonders at the garb of the Catholic priest in Mass, with his flowing robes and liturgical colors. Or he turns his nose at the scent of the incense and plugs his ears agains the peels of the communion bells. All this he does as he slips a colored silken rope about his neck, or sprays a scented liquid on his shaved cheek. He scoffs at the peels of the bells while obeying the chimes of his alarm each morning, going about his sub-conscious ritual.
The former rituals are in worship to an unseen God Who once walked and dwelt amongst us. It is the God Whom man does not want, Whom he rejects on the excuse that He cannot be seen. God he'll reject out-of-hand, yet the "sophisticated" man accept millions of minor premises which cannot be seen. The quarks and dark matter and darker energy, the vibrating cosmic strings and the universe which is infinite and yet contained in a "multiverse" whose other dimensions cannot ever be crossed--none of these things will ever be experienced by him. Though he cannot reach out to touch any of them, they are each more real to this rational man than his own neighbors.
He laughs at his neighbors and their "slavish" worship of the unseen God of the universe while subjecting himself to the far more demanding gods of efficiency, or career, or time. He will not trifle with such superstitions as his answers beheld, mocking their every custom or ceremony, yet his life is marked by a ritual dance which is far more strange than their customs ever were.
If you enjoyed this post, here are some related ones:
Science and the Death of Wonder (Thirty Minute Musings)
On Canonizing Chesterton, Heroic Virtue, and Everyday Life
A Sort-of Review of Chesterton's Heretics (Book Review)
Chesterton on Dogma
Chesterton on Birth Control
The Idiocy of Modern Man