The candle is lit in its decorative tin, nestled among the moss and damp pine needles of the forest floor. We sit quietly for a few minutes, watching the flame catch and grow, dancing its reflections across the small bowl of water next to it. We breathe deeply in the silence of the woods. Our senses reach down to meet the spongy ground and the hard rock beneath; our breath opens up to the sky above, the wan sunlight of early spring filtering down through the still bare trees.
Suddenly, from the east — the sound of wings. A woodpecker swoops in across our sacred space to join us, hitching himself to the decaying snag only a few feet from where we sit in silent meditation. Collectively, we catch our breaths, though we can’t suppress our widening grins. The little red-capped priest of the mountain has arrived. He taps out his homily in syncopated rhythms, and the whole hollow drum of the dead tree responds. Without a word, our rite has begun.
The writer Anne Lamott says there are three essential prayers: Help me!, Thank you! and Wow!
Ritual theorists from Durkheim to Turner to Rappaport to Bell have suggested all sorts of ways to classify ritual activity. One common approach distinguishes instrumental rituals from expressive rituals — that is, rituals that are meant to accomplish something, versus rituals that are meant to communicate something. Durkheim proposed another dual classification: negative rituals (which separate the human realm from the supernatural through taboos and similar restrictions), and positive rituals (which bring humans into contact or communion with the sacred). Other theorists have sought more comprehensive and complex ways of categorizing ritual activity. Bell proposed six basic genres: rites of passage; calendrical and commemorative rites; rites of exchange and communion; rites of affliction; rites of feasting, fasting and festivals; and political rites.
We can divide these genres even further if we like. For instance, rites of passage include birth and naming rituals, coming-of-age rites, marriage ceremonies and funerary rites, among others. Each of these rites of passage, where a person moves from one stage of the life-cycle to the next, acknowledges a tension between the biological and social, the natural and the cultural. Lincoln saw these tensions expressed in a pattern of transformation (enclosure, metamorphosis and emergence), while van Gennep characterized it as a kind of journey (separation, liminality and reincorporation). Each of these could be seen as aspects of Campbell’s seventeen stages of the hero’s journey as reflected in many mythological narratives all over the world; in fact, each of Campbell’s stages could themselves be enacted as rituals, either personal or social. The many ways that scholars have categorized and organized the messy multitude of ritual forms and activities in human society are almost endless.
But even with all of this complexity, I think I like Lamott’s three simple, essential prayers the best. Help me! Thank you! and Wow! And of the three, my absolute favorite is Wow!
Ritual as Celebration
My spirituality is much more celebratory than it is propitiatory. Maybe that’s because I’ve never been very good at asking for help, even when I need it. Once in college, a worn sandal and a bit of loose carpet conspired to send me sprawling down a flight of stairs — on my way down, as bones crunched and flesh bruised and time seemed to slow and stretch into eternity, it didn’t occur to me to cry out. All I could think was, So this is what falling down a flight of stairs is like… Wow!*
The world is an incredible place, even in its disaster and indifference. But all the more when we realize this seeming indifference is a veil that can at times be suddenly twitched aside to reveal a reality that is intimately interconnected. With the sudden sound of wings in the east, we are reminded that all things participate in the winding, intertwining melodies of existence, an ecology of the sacred.
This is the primary purpose of ritual in my life. I do not shy away from words like “worship” or “devotion” to describe what I do, because I believe that the world and all its beings — the gods, the beloved dead, the spirits of the land, and other people, human and non-human alike — are deeply worthy of love and respect. In ritual, I take a moment to affirm this love through attention and movement, poetry in the realm of acts, that I might be fully present to the world around me and those who share it with me. For me, ritual is a kind of creative self-giving.
Recently, I was researching the idea of cultus, which is usually used to mean a particular form of devotion or worship dedicated to a deity (or, in Roman Catholicism, a saint — as in, for example, “the cultus of St. Anne”). The word cultus comes from the Latin, and is usually translated to mean simply worship or reverence, but it can also evoke a sense of care and nurturing. It’s related to words like “culture” and “cultivation.” Cultus is the past participle of the verb colere, a word that means “to till (the soil),” but also has the additional meanings “to dwell” and “to move around.” Tracing back even further, this Latin verb comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *kwel- — “to roll, to move around, to turn about” — which has given rise to an amazing variety of interrelated words, such as colony, collar, cycle, pole, polished, and even chakra, as well as the words for wheel in Old English, Old Norse and Old Russian.
Unearthing this rich linguistic history reminds me of the old Welsh proverb, “A man can’t plow a field by turning it over in his mind.” Ritual is not simply an attitude or intention, just as love is not simply a feeling. At its most basic, ritual is something that you do. A man can’t plow a field just by thinking about it, he must go out to the field and get to work. Yet if he is fully present to the work and acts with mindfulness and loving attention — that is, if he brings his whole self along — then even as he turns over the rich soil beneath his plow, he turns it over in his mind and heart as well. The act of tilling the soil becomes an act of tilling the soul.
This is an essential aspect of celebratory ritual. When we light a candle in our ritual space, we ignite a flame within ourselves. When we pour water or burn incense as offerings, we offer ourselves as well, to soak into the earth or rise in gentle wisps of smoke towards the sky. Imagining these things is not enough — the work demands that we engage not only with our minds and hearts, but with our bodies. This is the original meaning of celebration: a gathering, a time of coming together. We’ve come to think of celebration as an occasion for happiness and enjoyment, because this sense of wholeness that we find in company with ourselves and with others is deeply nourishing and joyful for us. But celebratory spirituality also means being fully present to sorrow and suffering, and giving our whole selves as much to hard work and discipline as to pleasure and delight. Celebratory ritual is about our willingness to be fully present to the world and its gods.
But there is another reason why ritual as an embodied activity is so important. It takes us beyond ourselves and puts us in touch with the world around us in a powerful way. Or rather, it reminds us that we are always in touch with and participating in that world; it restores us to a full awareness of that interconnection. When we approach ritual with loving intention, making ourselves fully present and available to our gods and the wider universe, we open ourselves up to possibility. Celebratory ritual is an invitation. Spirit arrives on noisy wings out of nowhere. (Or, sometimes, it doesn’t, and we find ourselves instead plunged into the unexpected hush of mystery.)
This isn’t just a metaphor. Anyone who has been practicing natural polytheism or any form of earth-centered spirituality for very long knows what it’s like to have a perfectly planned ritual disrupted by a rainstorm, or an altar fire suddenly flare or snuff out entirely with a turn of the wind. But they probably also know the wonder of those moments when the clouds unexpectedly part to show a glimpse of sunny sky, or a wild animal suddenly arrives in the midst of the ceremony space to grace the community with her presence. These are the moments when we whisper, Wow! — an awe-struck prayer.
When we are fully present to the rituals we do, these unexpected events shape us. I think it’s no coincidence that cultus, worship, is the past participle of colere, to cultivate. We not only nurture our sacred relationships through ritual, but we are nurtured by them as well. In ritual, we move, and we are moved. We turn the soil to prepare the soul for sowing, and we ourselves are turned and transformed. We connect, and we are connected. We open, and we are opened. We are present with our whole being, and so our whole being is drawn into presence.
* To be fair, I was taught how to fall very early on, while taking ice skating lessons as a kid. Going limp is sometimes the best thing you can do, and my worst injury from that tumble down the stairs was a sprained wrist that got wrenched when I initially reached out to try to grab the railing. There’s a metaphor in here somewhere about surrender to the process and learning how to land on your soft, squishy parts… but I’m not going to belabor the point.
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Stay tuned next week for “Douglas and Douglas: The Tall and the Small”….