Sir Galahad in stained glass (1910)
From Andrew’s Dune Church, Southampton, New York.
That terrible bond, that most salutary of human bonds, those invisible threads of gold and light and blood attaching men sworn to a common endeavor!
My life’s short course has brought me to many places, bound me to sundry peoples, and urged me to varied trades. Yet out of the lands I’ve lived and roles I’ve have donned, none blaze in my memory like the two years I spent as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ. It is a shame that few who review my resume ask about that time; more interesting experiences were packed into those few mission years than in the rest of the lot combined.
To be a missionary is to confront the uncanny. You cannot serve without sounding out the weird bottoms of the human heart. But if missionary life forces you to come full contact with mankind at its most desperate and unsettled, so too it asks you to witness mankind at its most awesome and ethereal. Guilt’s blackest pit, fear’s sharpest grip, rage at its bluntest, hope at its highest, love at its longest and fullest—to serve as a missionary is to be thrust in the midst of the full human panorama, with all of its foulness and all of its glory. I doubt I shall ever experience anything like it again. I cannot value its worth. I learned more of humanity’s crooked timbers in the two years I lived as missionary than in all the years before and all the years since.
Attempting to communicate what missionary life is like to those who have not experienced it themselves is difficult. You’ll notice my opening paragraph restricted itself to broad generalities; it is hard to move past that without cheapening or trivializing the experience.
Yet there is one segment of society that seems to get it. In the years since my service, I have been surprised to find that the one group of people who consistently understands my experience are soldiers. In many ways a Mormon missionary is asked to live something like a soldier: like a soldier, missionaries go through an intense ‘boot camp’ experience meant to reshape their sense of self and duty; are asked to dress and act in a manner that erodes individuality; are ‘deployed’ in far-flung places that leave them isolated from their old friends, family members, and community; are pushed into contact with the full gamut of human personality in their new locales; live within a rigid hierarchy, follow an amazing number of arcane rules and regulations, and hold themselves to insane standards of diligence, discipline, and obedience; and spend years doing a job which is not so much a job as it is an all-encompassing way of life.
The last point is the one most salient to this essay. It is part of the reason both many ex-missionaries (known as “RMs” or “Return Missionaries” in Mormon lingo) and many veterans have such trouble adapting to life when they return to their homes. This comparison occurred to me first several years ago, when I read a Facebook comment left by a man who had served as a Marine mechanic in Afghanistan. He was commenting on an interview Sebstation Junger had done to promote his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. I did not save the comment at the time, but I remember it well enough to reproduce a paraphrase here:
“I do not know if I want to live any more. I served in Afghanistan from [various dates of various deployments] and am now working as a salesman for [a prominent American company]. I despise this world I am in now—everything is so selfish and so self centered. In Afghanistan every single decision I made had a purpose; every single thing I did was for something bigger than myself. Everything I did, I did to save lives. Every deed helped accomplish our mission. Here in America no one does anything except for themselves. We work to earn a buck—what is the point to living like this? There is not a day that goes by that I don’t wish I was back in that hellhole. There what I did mattered. Here it is all meaningless.”
What struck me when I read this comment was how similar his feelings were to those I had heard voiced by many return missionaries—indeed, to things I had felt myself. This is by no means a universal feeling among missionaries, not even among those who live up to the standards of their call (not all missionaries do). But it is a common one. Many RMs report a sense of loss and aimlessness upon returning to “the real world.” They suddenly find themselves in a society that is disgustingly self-centered, a world where there is nothing to sacrifice or plan for except one’s own advancement. For the past two years there was a purpose behind everything they did, a purpose whose scope far transcended their individual concerns. They had given everything—“heart, might, mind and strength“—to this work, and now they are expected to go back to racking up rewards points on their credit card? How could they?
The soldier understands this question. He understands how strange and wonderful life can be when every decision is imbued with terrible meaning. Things which have no particular valence in the civilian sphere are a matter of life or death for the soldier. Mundane aspects of mundane jobs (say, those of the former vehicle mechanic) take on special meaning. A direct line can be drawn between everything he does—laying out a sandbag, turning off a light, operating a radio—and the ability of his team to accomplish their mission. Choice of food, training, and exercise before combat can make the difference between the life and death of a soldier’s comrades in combat. For good or for ill, it is through small decisions like these that great things come to pass.
In this sense the life of the soldier is not really his own. His decisions ripple. His mistakes multiply. The mission demands strict attention to things that are of no consequence in normal life. So much depends on him, yet so little is for him.
This sounds like a burden. In some ways it is. But in other ways it is a gift. Now, and for as long as he is part of the force, even his smallest actions have a significance he could never otherwise hope for. He does not live a normal life. He lives with power and purpose—that rare power and purpose given only to those whose lives are not their own. 
Missionaries also live for a mission. One should not overplay the similarities: missionaries do not kill, nor must they watch their brothers and sisters in arms be killed. But in the missionary’s mind—if he or she is a good missionary, that is—the pay offs are just as serious. Missionaries play for eternal stakes. They teach, preach, and serve in order to transform lives in this existence and save them in the next. But it is not just their teaching and preaching that matters: How they dress, what time they rise from bed, what they study in their waking hours, where they go, the words they use, the time they waste, even the thoughts they allow to creep into the back recesses of their mind, influence their capacity and their concentration. The missionary searches constantly for those open to his or her message: the decision to take a bus or to walk to an appointment suddenly takes on eternal significance. This is an extraordinary feeling. Like the soldier, the work of the missionary transcends. Missionaries live for a cause greater than themselves.
It is an exhilarating way to live.
This sort of life is not restricted to soldiers and missionaries. Terrorists obviously experience a similar sort of commitment. So do dissidents, revolutionaries, reformers, abolitionists, and so forth. What matters here is conviction and cause. If the cause is great enough, and the need for service so pressing, then many of the other things—obedience, discipline, exhaustion, consecration, hierarchy, and separation from ordinary life—soon follow. It is no accident that great transformations in history are sprung from groups of people living in just this way. Humanity is both at its most heroic and its most horrifying when questing for transcendence.
The desire to live for something greater than one’s own selfish, immediate needs is not some byproduct of modernity. It manifests across cultures and times, emerging in every epoch and era in which we have historical records fine grained enough to leave a record of such things. Though I can offer no plausible evolutionary explanation for why living for the transcendent cause is so powerful an emotional drive, the impulse is likely as inborn as those other things humans go about questing for: power, thrill, prestige, sex, security, discovery, belonging, redemption, and love. Teasing out the ancient origins of this particular behavior quirk is beyond me. It is, however, one of the reason’s I have been fascinated with Will Buckner’s series of essays on hunter-gatherer mystery cults—even among hill tribes and desert foragers we see the need to identify and embody something larger than ourselves. 
But in these hunter-gatherer worlds—indeed, in most societies—the quest for the transcendent does not usually manifest itself in grand social crusades. Constant devotion to the sacred is not sustainable. This is true in more ways than one. The most obvious: self consecration is exhausting.
I saw Mormon missionaries break under the emotional pressure this task demanded of them; sometimes, if the task demanded is painful enough, entire generations break. But breaking is not the norm. Most crusades do not crash out of existence. Instead, they dwindle. Hearts harden. Focus clouds. Limbs grow weary. Like a dimming fire burning out on its own ashes, an appetite for sacrifice indulged too long soon wisps away. The next generation enters the scene sick of grand causes, eager to get back to the bourgeoisie business of settled life.
This is a good thing. No society of perpetual questers can long persist. If they were able to devote their entire lives soldiering and sermonizing, no next generation of questers would be possible. Yes, not all questers can settle down and raise the next generation u. There will always a few of “that race of men that don’t fit in;” healthy societies tend to send them off to foreign legions or cloistered priesthoods where they cannot cause too much trouble. Which is how it must be. There are strong selection pressures at work here. The societies that survive are those that channel the emotional drive for greater meaning into constructive quarters.
But that leaves these societies with a problem: how to meet this yearning for something more? How do you meet emotional needs for transcendent meaning without sacrificing the abundance of your people to an everlasting crusade? Will Wilkinson explored one possibility in an essay he wrote a few years ago on American country music. Wilkinson begins with the observation that American conservatives (i.e., the consumers of country music) tend to be low on “openess” in the Big-5 personality scale. Folks who rate high on openness are the sort attracted to novelty: world travels, new drugs, and so forth. Country music, he suggests, captures the emotional lives of a different group of people:
Emotional highlights of the low-openness life are going to be the type celebrated in “One Boy, One Girl”: the moment of falling in love with “the one,” the wedding day, the birth one’s children (though I guess the song is about a surprising ultrasound). More generally, country music comes again and again to the marvel of advancing through life’s stations, and finds delight in experiencing traditional familial and social relationships from both sides. Once I was a girl with a mother, now I’m a mother with a girl. My parents took care of me, and now I take care of them. I was once a teenage boy threatened by a girl’s gun-loving father, now I’m a gun-loving father threatening my girl’s teenage boy. Etc. And country is full of assurances that the pleasures of simple, rooted, small-town, lives of faith are deeper and more abiding than the alternatives.
My conjecture, then, is that country music functions in part to reinforce in low-openness individuals the idea that life’s most powerful, meaningful emotional experiences are precisely those to which conservative personalities living conventional lives are most likely to have access. And it functions as a device to coordinate members of conservative-minded communities on the incomparable emotional weight of traditional milestone experiences….
But why would you want your kids to grow up with the same way of life as you and your grandparents? My best guess (and let me stress guess) is that those low in openness depend emotionally on a sense of enchantment of the everyday and the profundity of ritual. Even a little change, like your kids playing with different toys than you did, comes as a small reminder of the instability of life over generations and the contingency of our emotional attachments. This is a reminder low-openness conservatives would prefer to avoid, if possible. What high-openness liberals feel as mere nostalgia, low-openness conservatives feel as the baseline emotional tone of a recognizably decent life. If your kids don’t experience the same meaningful things in the same same way that you experienced them, then it may seem that their lives will be deprived of meaning, which would be tragic. And even if you’re able to see that your kids will find plenty of meaning, but in different things and in different ways, you might well worry about the possibility of ever really understanding and relating to them. The inability to bond over profound common experience would itself constitute a grave loss of meaning for both generations. So when the culture redefines a major life milestone, such as marriage, it trivializes one’s own milestone experience by imbuing it was a sense of contingency, threatens to deprive one’s children of the same experience, and thus threatens to make the generations strangers to one another. And what kind of monster would want that?
Country music is a bulwark against cultural change, a reminder that “what you see is what you get,” a means of keeping the charge of enchantment in “the little things” that make up the texture of the every day, and a way of literally broadcasting the emotional and cultural centrality of the conventional big-ticket experiences that make a life a life.
If consecration for the greater cause is one way to meet the transcendent, Wilikson stumbles upon a second path. The crusader’s life gains purpose by suborning his heart and soul to a cause greater than himself; the traditionalist finds the transcendent by linking her life to traditions whose reach extend far past herself. This sort of transcendence is role and ritual based: the meaning it provides ties individuals not to a social cause but a social group. By participating in these sort of rituals, the traditionalist is assured of her place and purpose in a community of meaning. In fulfilling this role she joins a procession of the centuries—or barring that, a procession that at least stretches back before her life and continues on past it. “Advancing through life’s stations” (and the ritualized responsibilities that come with each) allows her to experience, for however short a time, something less contingent and selfish than the drives of every day life. She joins the eternal round. By so doing she glimpses in the daily run something of eternity.
The actual form of these roles and rituals are somewhat arbitrary: they shift from one culture to another. But their goal, in many ways (one perhaps better said: one of their goals—humans so rarely act from sole motives), is to accomplish the marriage between awe and obligation G.K Chesterton called being “astonished at the world and yet at home in it:”
This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers… How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honor of being our own town? …nearly all people I have ever met in this western society in which I live would agree to the general proposition that we need this life of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable. 
Wonder and welcome. Those who join the eternal round rarely reach the emotional highs found questing for the crusader’s cause. Their sacrifices are smaller, duties less demanding, and focus compromised by the drag of normal life. But these men and women can lead a normal life. The cause asks you to give up your life for something greater; the round asks you to build your life on something greater.
These are parlor sketches, briefest outlines of human paths towards meaning. Some damned psychologist is going to forward this on Twitter with fussy objections. I will hear that words like “transcendent” and “meaning” are too vague to be of any use in the behavioral sciences (though they too—or most of the lot—also feel these yearnings). I do not have much to say in response to that. Eventually some neuroscientist will come along with some clever ideas on how to measure purpose in the laboratory.
I am more concerned with those who cannot find meaning than with those who cannot measure it.
Will Wilkinson wrote that essay in 2011. Even then his description of country music was a bit behind the times. That world was changing: gone, or going, are the songs about dads changing diapers or seeing God in the birth of a child. For most of the last decade, country billboards have been dominated by trucks, dirt roads, beer, and girls in tight jeans. The time when country was the genre for those “advancing through life’s stations” is over with. The music follows its listeners. These listeners have slowly left the eternal round.
Ritual communities are not intentional inventions. Often, as is the case with the communities described in Buckner’s essays, they produce unsettling violence and terror. The best are more benign. The genius of strong communities is their ability to meet the need their members have for special purpose without disrupting the workings of everyday society. Rituals condense these yearnings into specific moments and roles that can be clearly, openly realized. I hope I do not wax too poetic when I describe these roles as anchors to the soul. Parental love is enough to tie parents to their children; ritual orders extend these ties outside narrow kin lines altogether.
But few are designed with that purpose in mind. Few, indeed, are designed at all. Which is why it is easier to tear rituals down than to build new ones up.
Which brings us to the troubles of the current moment. We live in a society increasingly cut off from rituals of meaning. This “increasingly” is not a new development—we live at the tail end of a story that began with the stripping of the altars. So little is left. So hard to find in the little that is left a connection to the transcendent.
But the drive remains. And if that drive for meaning, awe, purpose, sacrifice, and significance cannot be found in the settled rounds, it will be found elsewhere.
Some wonder why our age is so full of Manichean striving. Why so eager, these crusaders? Why so many, these zealots and defenders? Why these warnings of a world on edge, of last stands and last hopes, or evil ever ascendant?
I do not wonder. The star of tradition fades. The allure of consecration must grow stronger.
If you enjoyed this post on ritual and meaning, you might also find the posts “On the American Football Game” and “Tradition is Smarter Than You Are” of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
 This sometimes is confused with a mere love of excitement. Take this story from Glenn Gray:
In 1955 I talked with a Frenchwoman who had suffered cruelly during the war from lack of food and anxieties for her family, but was now living in comfortable bourgeois fashion with her husband and son. We reviewed the misadventures of those war days, and then she confessed to me with great earnestness that, despite everything, those times had been more satisfying than the present. “My life is so unutterably boring nowadays!” she cried out. “Anything is better than to have nothing at all happen day after day. You know that I do not love war or want it to return. But at least it made me feel alive, as I have not felt alive before or since.”
A few days later I listened to a strikingly similar report from a German friend. Overweight, and with an expensive cigar in his mouth, he spoke of our earlier days together at the close of the war, when he was shivering and hungry and harried with anxieties about keeping his wife and children from too great want. “Sometimes I think that those were happier times for us than these,” he concluded, and there was something like despair in his eyes. Neither one of these people was accustomed to such a confession; it came from both spontaneously and because I had known them in distress and in prosperity. They were not longing for the old days in sentimental nostalgia; they were confessing their disillusionment with a sterile present. Peace exposed a void in them that war’s excitement had enabled them to keep covered up.
The void was real—but was it the excitement in war, or the purpose given by war, that filled it? One cannot tell either way for sure from the comments Gray records, but I suspect the latter.
From Glenn J. Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle (UNP: Bison Books, 1971), 216-217.
 See William Buckner, “Notes on Nggwal,” Traditions of Conflict (23 January 2019); “The Assassins Footprint,” Traditions of Conflict (1 April 2019); “On Secret Cults and Male Dominance,” Traditions of Conflict (18 January 2018)
 Will Wilkinson, “Country Music, Openness to Experience, and the Psychology of the Culture Wars,” Big Think (12 February 2012).
 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, reprint ed. (London: Simon and Schuster, 2016), 1-2.
 These features of ritual meaning were notice long ago. Here is Xunzi defending funeral rituals two hundred years before the birth of Christ:
…Thus, the way that death works is that a person dies once and then cannot get to die again. A minister’s opportunity to express utmost regard for his lord, and a son’s opportunity to express utmost regard for his parents, depend completely on this. … Ritual takes care that fortunate and unfortunate events do not intrude upon each other. When it comes to the point where one has to place gauze on the person’s face and listen for breathing, then the loyal minister and filial son know that the person’s illness is serious indeed. Even so, they do not yet seek the items for dressing the corpse and the lying in state. They weep and are filled with fear. Even so, they do not stop in their feelings of hoping that miraculously the person will live, and they do not cease their attempts to maintain the person’s life. Only when the person has truly died do they then make and prepare the necessary items.
….Ritual cuts off what is too long and extends what is too short. It subtracts from what is excessive and adds to what is insufficient. It achieves proper form for love and respect, and it brings to perfection the beauty of carrying out yi. Thus, fine ornaments and coarse materials, music and weeping, happiness and sorrow—these things are opposites, but ritual makes use of all of them, employing them and alternating them at the appropriate times. And so, fine ornaments, music, and happiness are that by which one responds to peaceful events and by which one pays homage to good fortune. Coarse mourning garments, weeping, and sorrow are that by which one responds to threatening events and by which one pays homage to ill fortune. Thus, the way ritual makes use of fine ornaments is such as not to lead to exorbitance or indulgence. The way it makes use of coarse mourning garments is such as not to lead to infirmity or despondency. The way it makes use of music and happiness is such as not to lead to perversity or laziness. The way it makes use of weeping and sorrow is such as not to lead to dejection or self-harm.
Notice the elements of ritual behavior that Xunzi focuses on. Ritual behavior elevates inborn dispositions and feelings to a higher plane of meaning. Rituals allow the men and women who join them to act out their given roles in the communal order. Rituals alternate between stages of happiness and grief, accentuating each stage of life as they are visited.
From Xunzi 19.215-321. The translation is Eric Hutton, Xunzi: The Complete Text (Princeton: Princeton University Text).