01PROFESSOR VANESSA OCHS (University of Virginia): Any ritual should have the capacity to deepen your mindfulness, to be present to the world around you, to be grateful for all the people who are around you. We are able in a ritual to affirm belief in a way that isn’t just cerebral. Our whole body is engaged in the act of making a connection.

MANJULA KUMAR (Sufi Whirling Dervishes): And in the whirling [dervishes] it becomes a meditation. It’s an ecstatic state, but over the years it’s become an art form. They do not call it a performance; I would not call it a performance. It is a spiritual offering.

DR. SIVA SUBRAMANIAN (Upanayanam): This is a rite of passage in a young man’s life, usually between 8 and 16 years of life.

10PROFESSOR OCHS: The right of passage into adulthood is a fraught time, probably more so for the parents then for the kid. And so we have these practices in many traditions where a child has to undergo a great deal of learning, a great deal of preparation, where a child is told beforehand: “This is what is expected of you.”

Pilgrimage is one of the most complex rituals in any tradition. It takes an enormous amount of preparation. It takes a lot of physical strength. It takes a lot of endurance. It takes a willingness to potentially encounter danger.

BRUCE FEILER (“Sacred Journeys”): It’s difficult to make one of these journeys. You’re traveling to another country, multiple time zones away. You’re staying in unfamiliar places, you’re eating unfamiliar foods, and you are putting yourself out of your comfort zone, and that’s part of it.

PROFESSOR OCHS: And they allow us to play a role in a story in which we are one of the main characters, and we are connecting to the sacred narratives of our tradition.

RABBI JAMES KORNGOLD (Desert Passover Seder): It Is in the wilderness that God speaks to Moses. It’s in the wilderness where the people get the teachings of the Torah. On Passover we’re taught to embody the story, to act out the story. So when we walk through the desert we really get that idea of freedom.

17Orthodox priest chanting at Jordan River: Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah...

KIM LAWTON, correspondent: On Epiphany, Orthodox churches around the world hold a special worship service.

FATHER THOMAS FITZGERALD (Orthodox Epiphany): It’s a time when the people come together to celebrate the liturgy. It’s also a time when the people come together to celebrate the great blessing of water.

PROFESSOR OCHS: So many of our washing rituals prepare an individual for an encounter with God.

IMAM TALIB SHAREEF (Wudu): There is a common expression that cleanliness is next to godliness.

RABBI NISSAN ANTINE (Shabbat/Sabbath): The idea of lifting up our hands to do God’s work or spiritual work, rather than our hands are doing mundane things.

24PROFESSOR OCHS: A ritual helps us deal with the chaos of life. When we are sick we just feel so alone. We feel that God has abandoned us. Many healing rituals involve water, like going to Lourdes. They involve community, people being with you. They involve chanting that takes you away from your pain.

Ritual is particularly powerful at the time of death. Even though we expect death it astonishes us, it leaves us without words. And even people who aren’t religious will turn to the death rituals, the burial rituals and practices of their traditions, because these traditions tell them this is what to do.

RABBI JOSHUA MAROOF: (Sephardic High Holidays): The shofar on Rosh Hashanah is supposed to signify our crying out to God. When a New Year comes, we’re hoping that we are going to be there for that whole year. Most New Year practices use food or music or sound to hope for an auspicious New Year.

33PROFESSOR OCHS: Our hope for peace is often expressed through our prayers. The prayers of our voices, the prayers of creating lanterns.

SHINNYO LANTERNS: Our wishes for peace and our paths are always connected with so many others.

PROFESSOR OCHS: We believe that God wants us to perform these rituals.

CHARLES BROWN (Church Ushers): I am an usher because God has given me that talent, and he also has given me a blessing to be a blessing to others.

Looking Back: Rituals

After almost 20 years of distinctive coverage of religion on mainstream television, this is the final episode of Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. University of Virginia Professor Vanessa Ochs reflects on some of the many religious practices and rituals the series has spotlighted.