The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Karate Kid Explains Liturgy

Religious ritual can be boring. So can reading the Bible. Or attending one of the many deadpan, hurried masses. I'm all for a more deeply connected religious experience, but how to do you explain all the monotony that happens between those more connected moments? Is it just filler? Is it something you endure just to make sure you are present when moments of connection do happen?

Bruce Springsteen has made some extremely eloquent remarks on this. He talks about growing up Catholic, but then becoming distant from it. As he grew older and went through more struggles, he found the symbols and themes from his Catholic past ringing true in ways he never would have expected. It was good he had that experience of chuch at an early age to sow the seeds.

The Karate Kid is one of the most significant religious movies of our time. You wax on, you wax off. Its a drudgery which only seems to benefit somebody else (maybe your parents), or absolutely no one at all. Still, you paint the fence. Then one day it comes together: You have been in training and did not even realize it.

The karate studio across the street sure looks exciting. Its flashy, its popular, and participants are learning skills they can directly use right away. Ralph Maggio is in training waxing cars and painting fences.

My Uncle John warns against a Christianity that becomes nothing but self-help in Jesus clothing. Is that the flashy karate studio across the street? Maybe religion isn't as much about getting something as it is about cultivating something. I'm all for self-help and modern psychology, but its not the end-all, be-all and let's not make a false idol out of it.

You paint the fence, you repeat words. You wax the cars and go through rituals, smell incense and sit on wooden pews like the wood of the cross and you come forward to take the bread and slip away down the sides and sand the floor. Much of it seems to float on by, but you stick with it and do the good work that needs doing. Then one day it all starts coming back to you, and in a roundabout way, in a way you never would have expected, maybe--as Peter Maurin would say and which Ralph Maggio found out--you've become better off by simply trying to become better.


  1. Religious ritual can also be comforting. It can make you feel at home even if you're thousands of miles away. Dragging me to Sunday School every week was probably the most important thing my mom ever did for me. However, I have to remember that the same rituals that make me feel all warm and cozy inside tend to alienate a lot of people, and that's no way for a loving faith community to be.

    Last week I went to a very traditional Methodist service in which the liturgist was a transsexual. Pretty darn cool.

  2. I totally agree with getting dragged to church. I'm so glad my parents did that. I have a real tough time maintaining that regularity on my own, though.

    Thomas Merton remembers leaving church services as a child with a mild feeling that something good just happened. I'm paraphrasing here, but that describes how I felt and still feel.

    I'm less enthusiastic in admitting to any kind of "comfort" in ritual, though. I grew up with an acute rage against repetition and ritual. I still loved church, but there was real agony sitting through the monotony. Even worse when the monotony was predictable.

    Still, I was always glad when I hung in there, and the final words of mass are good by themselves, but they are especially meaningful to me, kinda like you get when you finish a workout and you are glad you did it. Go in Peace to love and serve the Lord. Thanks be to God.

    But I have felt comfort at times, too. Especially during a funeral service or on a retreat, where it becomes clear that the rituals (and the spirituality behind them) are a thread woven through my life, and here in death or in a "peak" experience like a retreat the words come alive in ways they didn't always do before. This is where the wax on/wax off really shows itself for me.