Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

A Tree of Rituals

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For long time I struggled with rituals in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Since I was a kid and as I am growing up in the same church, I have noticed how rituals play part in many of the arguments, conflicts, and even quarrels among the congregation. On the contrast, if I visit a church that does not practice rituals during worship, I can see harmony and apparent peace among the congregation. When I contemplate more about it, I find that there is more beyond. In this article, I will try to present an analytical judgment on rituals based on biblical concepts.

In Matthew 7, we read: "Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them" (Matthew 7:17-20). The Lord has given us the way to make good judgments and to be able to discern between good and evil. With a human wisdom, I applied the concept in the above biblical passage on my observations on rituals in the church. My preliminary conclusion was negative; rituals cannot represent a good tree if it is the source of quarrels among the congregation. Since we deal with absolute concepts, a follower of bad tree is not going to bear any good fruit. I know many accept this simple argument that I just stated. But, let us examine it on a more profound basis!

If we go back and read the biblical passage above, we will find that it conveys two massages: a tree is judged by its fruit, and a tree cannot bear good and bad fruits at the same time. As a member of the Coptic Orthodox Church, I also witnessed the positive spiritual impact of practicing rituals on myself and on others. Just a second! Now we have both good and bad fruits from the same tree. This cannot be true! It has to be either good or bad. Clearly, the picture is not clear!

Ok, it seems like I am confusing myself and my reader, how can I get out of it? I remember something that I learned from my academic advisor; he once told me, "When you get confused, go back to the basics! Don't over complicate the problem! It can be much easier than you think." This advice was given in a scientific context but I find it generally a very enlightened one. I will go back to the basics about trees and fruits.

First, a fruit has to be of the family of its fruit; an apple tree can never bear an orange fruit. As naive as it sounds, it is a simple fact that we miss all the time. Before we make a judgment on a tree, we should first make sure that we picked a fruit of the same tree and not of another tree. Second, good and bad can exist within fruits and trees of the same family. It is nonsense to assume that an apple tree that was planted in my backyard will bear bad fruit because a similar apple tree, in my neighbor's yard, did. Third, a tree whether it is good or bad, needs soil. Without taking care of the soil, a good tree is not going to survive the way it is; what does the soil represent in this context? This is where many are misled, there is a misconception among many that the church is the soil. The true soil lies within our human nature and we are the land owners. This is not a personal vision, but rather a biblical one. Recall the parable of the sower given by the Lord! The Lord used the soil to describe the human nature when receiving the word of God. Fourth, to maintain the soil in a good shape, it requires effort from both the land owner and a experienced farmer. In 1 Corinthian 3, St. Paul talks about Apollos and himself as the ones who water and plant. What did St. Paul and Apollos represent at the time? They represented the church's authority. Therefore, it is biblical to say that the farmer, who plants and waters, is the church. In the same manner, one can conclude from the parables on stewardship in Luke 16 that the land owner is God, and we as human beings, are the land stewards. A good farmer cannot help without the permission of the land steward. And a responsible land steward will not be able to provide professional care to his land without an experienced farmer. In regard of this simple analogy, we should reapply the biblical passage that talks about the tree and its fruit, on rituals.

Can rituals be represented as a tree? Of course they can! What type of fruit can this tree bear? With little contemplation, one will find that the fruits are self-consciousness and discernment. How could this be? I will tell you how: Ego is one of the main, most dangerous and contiguous disease that infects the human nature. One way this disease manifests itself is through self-righteousness. What makes it dangerous is that it is very hard to be diagnosed. Practicing rituals demands different levels of interaction between the congregation and the clergy. Through these interactions, one can easily discern the degree of spread of this infection both on a personal level and a group level. Rituals push us to reveal who we are instead of pulling out the nice spiritual mask. A good diagnosis is the first step towards healing. It is similar to paying visit to a doctor who provides top edge medical equipments for diagnosis. This doctor will be able to provide an effective medicine. On the other side, a church without rituals will provide a nice spiritual atmosphere for Her members; everyone is enjoying a peaceful and joyful time but no spiritual healing. It is similar to a doctor who relies on pain-killers; it will give a temporal relief, but no real cure.

Now I understand why in my Coptic Church I sometimes see and experience unpleasant things. It is rituals that forced me to see myself and others without a mask. Sometimes I see things that I do not like but I would rather see my real face than a pretty mask. I would rather accept others for who they are than masks of whom I want them to be. It is up to the land steward to make the decision and allow the farmer to help him with his land or not.

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