In August, we bring a set of new full-time writers to the blog. Covering the 12th of each month, please welcome Klaas Walhout (’16). Klaas graduated from Calvin in 2016 with majors in philosophy and religion. He has lived on the East Coast since then. He currently lives in Philadelphia, PA, where he spends his days (and sometimes nights) working as a hospital chaplain.
I used to play tennis religiously. Or perhaps I used to be religious about tennis. In high school, I was an intensely dedicated player. The more I played the sport, the more my devotion to it became a pious ritual.
Maybe it began with a strict Calvinist upbringing and my adolescent understanding of God as a set of rules. These rules were never totally clear, but nonetheless I feared that if I failed in decrypting them, I would fall outside the bounds of grace.
Since religious faith is, at its core, about “ultimate concern,”  and I was ultimately concerned at fifteen with hitting a yellow ball over a net, my guilt-ridden religious practices became more and more centered on tennis. For example, if I didn’t pray the night before a match, Christ himself would see to it that I lost. Or, if I didn’t confess every last sin, God would send every one of my backhands sailing into the net.
To make matters worse, the repetitive nature of tennis encourages ritualism in even the most atheistic players. Ask any serious player what her pre-serve ritual is, and she’ll describe it to you with enough detail to make the author of Leviticus blush.
So naturally, my odd religious behavior found its way on court. I came up with ridiculous rules for myself. For instance, I needed to take an ordained number of sips of Gatorade on each changeover. I needed to twirl my racquet before each serve. And so on. In this way, I was constantly writing an ever-more intricate law code for myself, and the religion of which I was the sole practitioner found its public expression at my weekend tournaments.
In later years, I’ve looked back at this behavior as something like scrupulosity—a kind of religiously occupied over-vigilance. Scrupulosity isn’t a common diagnosis anymore, as far as I can tell. It’s now seen as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, a more fundamental pathology. This is probably a good thing. Anxious compulsion is best managed by therapist and patient, and not by priest or shaman.
However, a pathological framework can often belie other meanings. And I must admit there is something human about imposing order by placing universal weight on indifferent objects. Some folks wear a lucky shirt every Sunday; others avoid stepping on sidewalk cracks. Where anxiety is present and outcome unknown, rituals are born.
Look no further than the Bible: what is Leviticus other than a human response to the dread of standing before an unknown something? Divinity strikes us with existential angst, and we respond with ritual. Long before pathologies were conceived, religious hearts feared the unknown and so installed measures of order.
In the time since graduating seminary, I’ve worked as a hospital chaplain. In this role I’ve accommodated many requests for this or that religious totem. A Bible to be placed in the hand of a dying woman. Prayer beads for a sick man. A paper cross to be pasted on a patient’s wall. In every place where uncertainty abounds, object and ritual impose an order that we hope can accommodate God.
Recently, I have been asked more and more to pray outside of the rooms of patients who are very sick with the coronavirus. The request usually comes from their family, and the patient is often sedated and on a ventilator. Faced with the thought of bowing my head and awkwardly mumbling invocations in front of a closed door, I’ve often asked myself, Does it really matter whether or not I actually say this prayer? The patient will never know, and neither will their family. Yet, so far I’ve honored each request with a real prayer muttered in silence outside of the room. After each time, I wash my hands as I’ve been told to do—this purifying act itself a ritual to help keep chaos bay.
I’ve begun playing tennis again, too. I dusted off my old racquet and shoes and joined a league. Some of my old rituals have come back—I still like to reuse the ball if I won the previous point. I like to bounce the ball between my legs before I serve. But others haven’t come back, and I’m glad about that. At least for now, I’m able to enjoy the physical sensation of playing again—of my heart racing and my breath growing heavy. Of course I always hope that each shot falls inside the lines. But if it does not, there is always another point to play. This definition is spelled out by Paul Tillich in The Dynamics of Faith. It’s not normative by any means, I just like it.
Klaas Walhout graduated from Calvin in 2016 with majors in philosophy and religion. He has lived on the East Coast since then. He currently lives in Philadelphia, PA, where he spends his days (and sometimes nights) working as a hospital chaplain.