Sacred Sunday: The Need for Ritual

Tanya Arathoon

Mary Zournazi: researching the need for sacred time in our culture. Photograph by Agnes Varda

Mary Zournazi: researching the need for sacred time in our culture.
Photograph by Agnes Varda

Sunday. The day of rest. And for many of us, the only time we feel able to slow down, reconnect or detach from the world around us. But are our Sundays an endangered species? Mary Zournazi thinks so.

“Time is being colonised now in the same way that space once was. We are all being forced into particular atomisations of time. I’m wanting people to think about the need to consider relaxation where you come together with people, and that community is just as important. To consider this loss of social time, the loss of gathering,” she says.

A senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of New South Wales, Dr Zournazi has spent most of the last year promoting her book Inventing Peace co-authored with renowned German film maker, Wim Wenders, and was pleasantly surprised when she was asked to present a special Curiosity Lecture entitled The Loss of Sundays at the Festival (Saturday, May 24).

“I have been thinking about this idea for a few years. A friend of mine is a vet and he was saying that he felt the pressure to open on a Sunday but he refused to because he actually wanted to value the social time that a Sunday brought him. It got me thinking about the loss of ritual and the loss of sacred time in our culture. Why is it that we no longer have this sacred time in which we gather?

“My research is based on the need for rituals in real life and that there is something in that that makes a difference. My interest in this lecture is one, to suggest that it’s a problem, and two, to suggest that we need to be curious of our use of technology and recreate our use of new sacred times where we can actually meet.”

With the rise and rise of social media and technology, she is not the first to be concerned about the negative impact this fast-paced, wired existence can have on our ability to cultivate meaningful physical connections.

“My father had Alzheimer’s … I would visit every Sunday at 11 o’clock and that to me was a ritual that was important and sustained the relationship – a time to be with somebody.

“If technology is to become the new sacred, in my view that’s not about developing your soul and community – it’s about developing your relationship to technology. It bypasses some of the relations we need to cultivate. Facebook is not the same as meeting in a group and connecting in real time. That meeting face to face keeps a community going.”

With this questioning, Dr Zournazi hopes to encourage others to be more aware of the impact of continually colonising time. “The level of distraction impacts sacred time. It makes people more selfish and it makes the community less interested in other people. The philosopher Georg Simmel had the idea that this overstimulation can actually lead to a blase attitude where nothing is sacred or significant,” she says.

“Today the whole orientation is towards outputs and progress … time can’t be wasted and everything has to be a goal of some kind. Time in which you are seen to be relaxing is seen as wasted time.”

But her lecture will not be aimed at crediting technology with the destruction of human relationships or sacred time. “You can organise sacred time through Facebook! I’m not against technology. But there is something in the curiosity of technology that’s more productive than in being a slave to technology.”

In Mary Zournazi’s view, a symptom of becoming a slave to technology is our detachment from one another, which is at odds with the way humans were meant to engage with the world. “I think our capacity is to be with people – humans are actually gregarious. When I collaborate I do more, I learn more, I enjoy it more.”

But she is under no illusions her suggestions will be embraced by the entire audience. “Thinking endures over time. Last year a book of mine that has been out for a decade got translated into Italian. Even with our book Inventing Peace, it will probably take a while before people get what we’re actually about,” she says.

“Intelligence means nothing; intelligent people can’t often think beyond their own minds, whereas with curiosity, you’re in the world. This lecture series is about balancing curiosity with the ways in which we live. I’m still trying to establish what sacred time means for myself – I’m just as caught up as everybody else!”