On a recent visit to the Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles, I found myself looking at Andy Warhol’s silkscreen titled, Twenty Jackies (1964). It depicts Jaqueline Kennedy’s head and shoulders as she stands in dignified stillness in front of a uniformed guard at the funeral of her husband, President John F. Kennedy.
Looking at Warhol’s work, I initially wondered why he chose to create a series of small, identical frames instead of having the viewer take in the scene through one larger-than-life image. Then I became intrigued by the repetition. As my eye moved from one frame to the next, I noticed that my reactions to the image changed. It reminded me of the way you pick up nuances you previously missed when you view a movie a second time.
At first glance, Twenty Jackies reminded me of Michelangelo’s Pieta.
Both expose a woman caught in the throes of shock, grief, and devastation brought on by the violent death of a loved one. Then, while looking at another frame, I thought of the grief the whole country experienced as the nation watched the longest uninterrupted news event in TV history until the 9/11 attacks. Looking at yet another frame, I focused on the stiff uniformed guard in sun glasses, standing over Jackie’s left shoulder and wondered what his back story might be as he stood there at attention on that day.
Warhol’s use of repetition in much of his art made me think of our human need for repetition of rituals – both secular and religious . Time and time again rituals highlight the touch points in our lives.
We seldom consider how much we rely on rituals to keep us afloat. Ritual practices keep us doing what we should be doing (praying, working, being polite) even when we don’t feel like it. Whether we are celebrating birthdays or ordering our morning coffee - whether we are attending Sunday Mass or saying grace before a meal, we repeat our rituals. Each ritual remains intrinsically the same each time it is performed. The X variable is always…us. Where we are in our lives, how preoccupied we are, our emotional state – all affect how much we get out of any ritualized experience.
Attending Sunday Mass in person is a ritual that appears to be slipping through the hands of many Catholics. What’s the value of going to Mass when I’m deeply annoyed with the institutional church? What’s the value of participating in the Mass when the homilies can be uninspiring? Why go through the motions of the Mass when I'm just parroting words that aren’t meaningful to me? What’s the value of that?
The value is in the ritual itself. Rituals hold us steady through time. By our very nature, there are complexities inside each of us that cannot make easy peace with the person we like to think we are. While our ideas, emotions, and life situations can fluctuate and wander all over the map, the consistency of the ritual holds and sustains us inside a deeper reality, however tenuous that hold may be at times.
By attending Sunday Mass on days when we just don’t feel like it, we are trusting the ritual that Jesus himself set in place for us at the Last Supper. "Do this in memory of me." Lk 22:19
On the road to Emmaus, when the disciples failed to recognize Jesus even as he walked along beside them, Jesus captivated them with the Word. Then he sat down with them for Eucharist, and the ritual did the rest. “He was known to them in the breaking of the bread.” Lk 24:35
Andy Warhol once said, “You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you, suddenly thrill you.” Even on an off day, the Mass can be full of surprises. As the saying goes, 90% of life is just showing up.