Holy Wild, Rite & Ritual

Turning the Soil of Soul: Ritual as Celebration » Nature’s Path

snowdropsHey, lovely readers! Remember when I said the next installment in my Pagan-UU series would be coming in February? Just kidding! Looks like this series is turning out to be a bimonthly endeavor after all.

But no worries! While I’m diligently working on my next piece, over on Nature’s Path today I’ve shared some reflections on ritual as celebration, in “Turning the Soil of Soul.” What happens when we explore ritual beyond the divide between magic and religion?

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.

Writer Anne Lamott suggests there are three essential prayers. If the prayer of Thank you! is expressive, and Help me! is instrumental, what of Lamott’s third prayer — the prayer of Wow!?

For me, Wow! is the “third way” of celebratory ritual — what precedes and gives rise to the duality of the other two, and also holds within it the possibility of reconciling the tensions between them.

You can read the full article here.

Holy Wild, News & Announcements, Rite & Ritual

Turning the Soil of Soul: Ritual as Celebration » Nature’s Path

snowdropsHey, lovely readers! Remember when I said the next installment in my Pagan-UU series would be coming in February? Just kidding! Looks like this series is turning out to be a bimonthly endeavor after all.

But no worries! While I’m diligently working on my next piece, over on Nature’s Path today I’ve shared some reflections on ritual as celebration, in “Turning the Soil of Soul.” What happens when we explore ritual beyond the divide between magic and religion?

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.

Writer Anne Lamott suggests there are three essential prayers. If the prayer of Thank you! is expressive, and Help me! is instrumental, what of Lamott’s third prayer — the prayer of Wow!?

For me, Wow! is the “third way” of celebratory ritual — what precedes and gives rise to the duality of the other two, and also holds within it the possibility of reconciling the tensions between them.

You can read the full article here.

Current Events, Holy Wild

7 Ways to Enjoy a Death-Free Samhain

pumpkintwins_philiphay

A couple years ago I wrote 7 Ways to Enjoy a Sex-Free Beltane, in honor of all those single and/or disinterested folks out there who were looking to celebrate the reason for the season without necessarily having to “get down,” “jump on it” or “funk it up.” Weirdly, that post did not become the runaway viral sensation I was anticipating.

This year, though, things will be different. If there’s one thing people like more than having sex, it’s avoiding death and thoughts thereof. (Some folks even have the one to avoid the other, although it is generally agreed that this does not work, except among some of the more esoteric religious sects, whose position — or rather, positions — on the matter remain open to debate.)

Plus, if there’s one thing I know about social media, it’s that everybody loves listicles. Listicles are the perfect way to consume fun-sized insights, individually wrapped in brightly-colored ad space for readers-on-the-go who know you only live once and the chill of inevitable death is always lurking just behind you, following you like a shadow and reeking of an eternity of endless night in which all becomes dust… only dust…. — So, what better way to capture the attention of a wider audience than to share a list of ways to celebrate a sanitized, commercialized version of this most holy of Pagan holidays? I can’t think of one.

(They say that on the internet, there’s no reliable way to tell the difference between trolling and satire. For now, dear reader, I’ll leave that distinction up to you.)

halloween_jamalfanaian

1. Eat Some Candy. (Then Eat Some More.)

It’s that time of year when the full harvest moon glows eerily through the skeletal trees and the brittle autumn leaves rattle like the voices of the dead — wait! is that a blood-curdling scream you hear on the wind? Nope. It was just the wheezing asthmatic lungs of the neighborhood kids, as they peel themselves off their couches and away from their first-person-shooter video games in order to spend an hour or two outdoors for the first time in months. Here they come, shuffling down the street in their adorable Walking Dead costumes, pillowcases agape, their pale little faces turned upwards in hopes of some sweeties. There was a time when parents harbored irrational worries about strangers hiding razor blades in their child’s Halloween candy, but luckily those days are gone. Now the only thing hidden within those crinkly wrappers is Type 2 diabetes and a lifelong struggle with obesity. (Ooh! This one has a nugety center of government subsidies to the corn industry!) So enjoy! This year, rest easy knowing that the only reason your heart is racing is because of the 600 million pounds of sugar Americans consume every Halloween. Wait! What was that blood-curdling scream?! Oh nevermind — it’s just the kids getting back to their video games.

2. Deal with Teal.

Obviously, now is not the time to worry about abstaining from foods that might be bad for you. But if you or your child has food allergies, it’s tough to ignore your evolutionary disadvantage and how it will inevitably lead to death by chocolate that was manufactured in a facility adjacent to an apartment complex where the sole surviving descendant of George Washington Carver used to live. But you can put off the inevitable by making it somebody else’s problem, with the help of the Teal Pumpkin Project. Just ask your friends and neighbors to replace all that sugary candy with the cheap plastic toys recommended on their website!

Sure, as an adult you understand that life isn’t fair and the world isn’t always going to treat you to exactly what you want. But ignore that harsh reality, and focus instead on the warm-fuzzy nostalgia you feel whenever you think about those Halloweens when you were young — the costumes, the candy, the foggy nights, the time you egged that house because they were handing out lame Power Ranger pencils instead of Jolly Ranchers… Wasn’t trick-or-treating more fun when it was just about unchecked greed and mindless revenge? Shouldn’t we try to recapture that feeling of empty, thoughtless consumerism for our own kids? Because that’s what this holiday is really about: fun. (Not the factories in China that produce this plastic crap, or this eerie fog which is actually smog pollution from those factories, or the landfills where all those fake vampire teeth and glowsticks will end up by the first week of November. That’s somebody else’s problem.) See? So fun. So stock up on holiday-themed epipens and get in on the teal pumpkin craze. Because nothing says “you probably shouldn’t eat that” like a pumpkin the color of mold.

pumpkin_jussi

3. Plaster It with Plastic.

Speaking of plastic, who doesn’t love seasonal decorations? Nobody doesn’t. And we all know it’s a pain to have to carve a new pumpkin every year, only to have it slowly rot on your front stoop in a matter of weeks and return naturally to nourish the soil from which it first grew as part of the never-ending sacred cycle of life and death that sustains this amazing planet we all call home. What a bummer, amiright? When you’re super busy, you don’t want to take time out to contemplate the unstoppable decay of your consumerist lifestyle and the ultimate fragility and impermanence of everything you hold dear — besides, there’s this cool new decorating technique that you saw on Pinterest that involves spray paint and stencils. So break out the plastic pumpkins and fake autumn leaves (their colors won’t ever fade, because of the harsh chemical dyes)… Dust off the real cobwebs from those boxes of fake cobwebs that you keep in the basement, and never mind that lurking sense of irony you see hiding behind your plastic evergreen Yule decorations. Their time will come.

4. Spice It Up with Some Spite.

Time passes quickly enough as it is, but we all know stores make it worse when they start rolling out the holiday-themed merchandise months in advance. You were only just starting to enjoy the summer — it took you till August to lose last year’s holiday pounds, after all — and now here they come with their turtleneck sweaters and pumpkin spiced everything to remind you that, yes, the nights are getting longer, the days are growing chill (in theory, anyway, although between El Niño and global warming, it’s hard to tell) and, despite how crisp and snappy your Twitter profile is, you are still alone… so very alone. Now’s the time to rage, rage against the dying of the light, and while you’re at it, spare some of that rage for your status updates.

pumpkinspicelatte_genewilburn

Flaunt your care-free, living-life-to-the-fullest, no-time-like-the-present, dwell-in-the-moment lifestyle for all your “friends,” fans and followers to see: by sitting in front of your computer for hours time-policing those spice girls (and guys) who dare to enjoy dried herbal blends out of season! It’ll be obvious to everyone how in touch you are with the natural world. (So what if you’re up till 3 AM leading your noble shame-campaign? Remember, you can always sneak out to the Starbucks drive-thru for a venti to keep you going. Nobody will ever know. Or care.)

5. Focus on Sex, Not Death.

If you had a sex-free Beltane, well, it’s been awhile — since Beltane, I mean — and you’ve probably been looking forward to indulging in another round of Pagan revelry. It’s true that this holiday was originally about warding off demons and guarding yourself against angry ancestors, but times change.6993-Zestyville-Ketchup-Funny-Costume-large These days, you can bet that even the ancestors are bored with America’s puritan legacy of a repressed sexuality. So this year, distract yourself from morbid thoughts of inevitable death with coy references to, as those footloose Victorians used to call it, the little death. Prove to the world just how empowered and invulnerable you really are, all the while fooling those pesky zombies and goblins by hiding in plain site — preferably while wearing a sexy ketchup bottle costume. Because demons might haunt the living, but you know what they rarely pay any attention to? Condiments. Dressing up as a sex object is a great way to hide the fact that you’re an actual human being with a functioning brain and a sense of self-respect.

6. Intellectualize It.

If sexy condiments aren’t your style, this time of year is perfect for gathering with friends on chilly nights, sharing spooky ghost stories around a crackling campfire as a full harvest moon glows eerily through the skeletal trees and the brittle autumn leaves rattle like the– no wait, we did that one already.

Anyway, whispering scary stories into the howling winds of a wild Samhain eve is all well and good for a bunch of silly twenty-somethings just looking for an excuse to drink beer, scare easily and surreptitiously snuggle up to their latest crush on the pretext of being startled by the dramatic use of a flashlight. But us wisened thirty- and forty-somethings don’t go in for such embarrassing nonsense anymore; we know that campfires are smoky and sitting on logs is sappy and uncomfortable. Besides, all those stories about escaped convicts with hooks for hands and ghoulish figures whose fingers are slowly sliding down your dewy windowpane are just so many phallic symbols that reinforce a heteronormative morality about the dangers of delicate feminine sexuality in a male-dominated society. Anybody who knows anything about urban legends knows that!

(And that story in the news recently about the airplane passenger who died mid-flight after biting a fellow passenger — that was just a rumor, right?)

openbook_michaelgoodin

You’ll have nothing to fear if you arm yourself with knowledge! So read up on the collected works of Jan Harold Brunvand — it’ll probably take you all night, locked safely in your study with all the lights on and no one’s fingers sliding down your fogged-up windows. Hell, if you finish all that reading, maybe you’ll even have time to write a snarky blog post mocking all those folks who are having more fun than you are tonight… (Anything to shut up that treacherous little voice in your head that says maybe your crush will be so impressed by how smart and witty you are that he’ll want to play footsies with you next year… Shut up, your poor romantic fool! Did you learn nothing from Scream?)

7. Start Getting Ready For Yule Already

Stop wasting precious shopping days! Winter is coming.


Photo Credits:
• “Pumpkin Twins,” by Philip Hay (CC) [source]
• “Halloween,” by Jamal Fanaian (CC) [source]
• “Pumpkin,” by Jussi (CC) [source]
• “Pumpkin Spice Latte,” by Gene Wilburn [source]
• “Sexy Ketchup Bottle” : This is not a joke, but an actual Halloween costume that you can buy here, if that’s the kind of person you are
• “Open Book and Dusty Glasses,” by Michael Goodin (CC) [source]

Holy Wild, Rite & Ritual, story

Lughnasadh: Honoring the Harvest Through Grief and Gratitude

For me, today, the saying, “I don’t want to work, I just want to bang on the drum all day”… is not a metaphor.

After all, it’s Lughnasadh — a holy day, the first of the harvest festivals — and I am practically salivating in anticipation of this evening’s festivities. Nothing fancy, just great food (including hand-picked wild blackberries that we harvested from along the bike path that runs through our neighborhood!), silly songs, and a simple ritual in the local park to celebrate the season and honor the land.

lughnasadh_feast

Often, I find it hard to concentrate on work on holy days, and of course it’s even harder when that day happens to be a gorgeous, sunny Friday in late summer with the lazy hum of the bees and the idle meanderings of the butterflies whispering, Slow down, take your time, don’t push so hard, it’ll all be fine…

So I wasn’t planning on doing much work today, let alone blogging. But then I came across this post by Merhamet Miller, exploring themes of hard work, hope and sacrifice during this season of harvest — and what it means for Pagans living in the Deep South of the United States, who not only struggle with the summer’s intense heat and the land’s unyeilding clay, but also with the legacy of religious intolerance and fear that have kept them from being able to freely and openly practice their faith for so long. She writes:

I ingest the bread, and I look at the people and enjoy that air conditioning, and see the roof over our heads and I personally know some of the Clergy and Leaders that went before me making sacrifices, watering our souls for hours when we were parched, planting in the stony soil and despite obstacles yielding generations and generations of a Pagan community. We have become so prolific and so scattered we forget, that in 1991 one of our own marched with snipers at his head for our rights. We have become so prosperous we forget that one of our own went to court 7 or more times to just have the right to have an occult store in our town. We forget the sacrifices made, so that we could have this building. We do not look at the Clergy standing in the middle of the Circle as farmers, gardeners, people who are planting their seeds under harsh conditions…but they are. They must have incredible “green thumbs”.

Over the past few weeks, Jeff and I have had many occasions to remark just how amazingly lucky we are. This afternoon, Jeff will be leaving work early in honor of Lughnasadh — his boss not only knows about his Pagan spirituality and supports Jeff taking time off to celebrate the holy days, but often enjoys asking him about his plans and sharing stories about his own experiences of being inspired by nature. This evening (barring a thunderstorm that might be headed our way!), Jeff and I will head back to the local park where, only a week ago in honor of the new moon, we held a small ritual with candles, incense, libations and prayer — and where not a single person stopped to harass us or accost us for performing this Pagan rite in public. Later this year, we’ll celebrate a multi-faith winter solstice ritual with our extended family (after which Jeff’s awesome aunt might write an endearing blog post bragging about it to her fellow Christians). We are so incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by loving, supportive people and to live in a part of the world where our spiritual practices are accepted as a valuable and meaningful part of who we are.

summer_wheat

In Druidry, Lughnasadh is a time for the community to come together in celebration and playful competition, to take a moment to rest from the labor of the summer’s work in the fields and enjoy the first fruits of that labor, to show off the skills and talents that we’ve been cultivating all year. The gods know, we spend enough time in this society with our noses to the grindstone! Even when that work is joyful and fulfilling… it’s still work. So this holy day is a time for playfulness and relaxation, a moment to pause during what is for many the peak of summer’s heat — to seek the relief of cool shade, sweet mead, strong beer and the cheer of good company.

But it is also a time to honor the sacrifices of those who have come before us and made this good life possible. The festival is named for the Irish god Lugh, who established the holiday as a funerary rite in honor of his foster-mother, the goddess Tailtiu, after she died of exhaustion while clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. It is easy to see in this story parallels to other grain-goddess figures who have blessed the land through their loving sacrifice — Demeter, grieving the loss of her daughter to death; Selu, Corn Mother of the Cherokee, instructing her sons to drag her corpse across the fields so that new life may spring from it to feed her progeny. Right now in my life, I know several women who are struggling with grief and depression, a sense of exhaustion, a lurking hopelessness. Lughnasadh is not only a time to celebrate the bright strength and impressive skill of successful work, but to embrace the darker side of work: the fear that all that we are working for will ultimately fail us; the fear that our work will not be enough to overcome scarcity, insecurity and injustice; the fear that the products of our work will be consumed thoughtlessly or mindlessly wasted, that we ourselves will be utterly used up, driven to the point of exhaustion, left at last to be forgotten when we are no longer considered “productive” members of society.

Strangely enough, I think that it is this very acknowledgement of fear and loss during the most fruitful time of the year that marks this as a holy season. It is this mingling of love and sorrow, hope and grief that transforms the cycles of production and consumption into something more: a sacred harvest. When we forget the hard work of our ancestors, when we distance ourselves from the sweat, blood and tears that connect us to the living reality of those who have come before us, when we anesthetize ourselves to the grief we feel at the struggles they faced and the sacrifices they made — that is when we risk becoming mere consumers. Grief serves a sacred purpose, for we cannot grieve what we have not loved. Grief is one of the fruits of love, even as joy and prosperity are the fruits of labor.

This acceptance of death, loss, grief and fear runs through all of the harvest festivals — the ghouls and ghosts of Samhain, the balancing of light and dark on the equinox — but it is perhaps during Lughnasadh, when the sun is still high and the harvest is just beginning, that we most need to see grief as a necessary aspect of the work that we do. The afternoons are hot, the storms roll over the landscape, the berries ripen, the wheat and barley rustle in the fields. There is still so much to do. It would be so easy to convince ourselves that we have no time to rest, no time to relax — no time for self-reflection or the grief that it might bring with it.

But the bees hum and the butterflies whisper, Slow down, don’t push so hard, be gentle with yourself for a little while… During the sacred season of Lughnasadh, we can allow ourselves to take a few moments to explore the transformative grace that turns death into life, work into wheat, and grief into gratitude. We can root ourselves in all that it means to be human on this wild holy earth, and remember that part of honoring the work of those who have come before us is to enjoy the gifts of that work in the here and now, the sacred present, with all the gratitude and laughter we can muster.

The world won’t fall apart if we give ourselves time to grieve. The world won’t fall apart if we allow ourselves to be happy.

So bang the drums! And sing the song!

Hoof and Horn, Hoof and Horn
All that dies shall be reborn.
Corn and Grain, Corn and Grain
All that falls shall rise again.

The Lilly Family Fellowship
art, Featured, Holy Wild

Daring to Dream: An Imbolc Family Adventure

The Lilly Family Fellowship
The Lilly Family Fellowship, by amazing comic artist Joel Watson, creator of HijiNKS ENSUE

It all started this past winter solstice when Jeff’s youngest daughter told us that she was going to be a dentist.

Actually, what she said was that she guessed she’d have to be a dentist, because everybody knows you can’t make a living as an artist.

Our heads kind of exploded at that point, so what happened next was a bit of a blur. I vaguely remember sitting her down at the kitchen table and asking her why this sudden about-face — she’d been talking about wanting to be an artist for the last several years which, for a nine-year-old, is almost a lifetime. I remember treading carefully, lest I inadvertently suggest that being a dentist wasn’t perfectly okay, too, if that’s what she really wanted. The world needs good dentists, after all. But what the world doesn’t need is a grumpy, jaded dentist who’s secretly always wanted to be an artist instead. That doesn’t end well for anyone.

Then the truth came out: her stepdad had been discouraging her, telling her that you just couldn’t make any money as an artist. Jeff and I had to carefully bottle our seething rage at why in hell a grown man would go around crushing a nine-year-old’s dreams instead of, say, EMPOWERING HER to pursue them. (This is, sadly, pretty much par for the course in their mother’s household apparently.) Rage is not a useful tool when trying to salvage a young girl’s self-esteem, however. So instead, we laughed at how out of touch her stepdad was with reality, and we regaled her with stories of the many people we know who do make a living as artists and writers and musicians and creative types of all shapes and sizes. (My best friend from middle school, Megan Morrison, even used her mad skillz in graphics design to create the Snuggie Sutra, which landed her on the Amazon best seller list and scored her an interview on the Today Show. But we didn’t mention this particular example since, you know, kinky sex jokes might not be the best tactic for talking with a nine-year-old about her future career. It’s hard enough explaining to a child why someone would invent a Snuggie in the first place…)

But did our talk help? Jeff and I wanted to do more than just tell the kids about these awesome artists — we wanted to show them that it was possible to live a fulfilling, creative life! We wanted them to have positive, inspiring role models who could get them excited about the possibilities that lay before them, instead of burdening them with cynicism and discouragement masquerading as Financial Pragmatism.

That’s when the muses whispered in my ear. Okay, actually, it was my mother, who had (in the nicest and gentlest way possible) been getting on my case about not sending out Christmas cards to the family. “It’s a nice way to keep in touch with everyone,” she said — and I’d point out that I can talk to my relatives on Facebook anytime I like. “It’s fun to get updates and pictures every year,” she said — and she had me there. Now that my cousins are starting to have wee babes of their own, the annual slew of Christmas cards featuring pictures of everyone dressed in matching red-and-green sweaters are pretty damn adorable. But as a Druid, I don’t really celebrate Christmas — “So send solstice cards instead,” my mother said.

And the lightbulb over my head went ping!

You see, because of our complicated child custody situation, it can be a challenge to get the whole Lilly gang together at the same time for a cute, sweater-matching photo op — sometimes our winter holiday trip is our only chance, and by then it’s a bit too late to be sending out cards. But what if….

I talked to Jeff about my idea, and he was as excited about it as I was. And we knew the perfect guy for the job! Joel Watson, the uber-geek and artistic genius behind one of our favorite web comics, HijiNKS ENSUE. Joel began HE as an experiment to pursue his dream of working fulltime as an artist. On his website, he explains why he decided to undertake such a bold task:

I decided to change the way I was living, take a risk and [cliche]“follow my lifelong dream”[/cliche] of being a full time artist so that when my daughter was old enough to ask me what I did for a living, I wouldn’t be ashamed of the answer. I didn’t want her to grow up with a father who was too afraid to take a chance at real happiness. Sappy, right?

Sappy, maybe, but the kind of sap that this world needs! The kind of sap that rises up in the forests and the trees every spring and reawakens the world to possibility and hope! (Am I overdoing it a bit? Hail, Brighid! Hail, Spring!)

Joel is a geek like us — except, you know, the famous kind who can casually talk about hanging out with Wil Wheaton like it’s no big deal. We had no idea if he would help us out, but we had to ask. So we did. Jeff wrote to Joel, explaining our situation and asking if he’d be interested in doing a specially commissioned “Family Portrait” for us to use on a holiday card. We figured it’d be a win-win-win: we’d be supporting an independent artist whose work we loved, we’d end up with a totally unique and geeky picture of our family to send to relatives (and maybe they’d check out Joel’s comic, too!), and we’d be showing the kids that being creative and nerdy and strange isn’t something to feel embarrassed about — it’s a blessing to share! And the more you share it, the more you help to make the world a better place for everybody. Even dentists.

So that’s what we’re hoping to do from now on. Instead of taking a photograph, every year we’re going to find an awesome independent artist and commission a unique family portrait to send to friends and relatives as a Solstice Card. This year, our family portrait is inspired by the kids’ abiding love of Tolkien and all things LOTR — the kids are hobbits, Jeff’s a wizard and I’m an elf! (I particularly like this portrait because I can pretend that I’m not quickly becoming the shortest one of the group!) Of course, we’re running a bit late this year, but luckily Pagans have a holiday every six weeks! So instead of Solstice greetings, we’re sending out Imbolc cards instead! (Did you notice the Brigid’s Cross hanging from Jeff’s staff?)

So that’s our story. I want to say a heartfelt THANK YOU to Joel for doing such amazing work, and for being generally awesome and inspiring for kids from 9 to 92! If you don’t already follow his web comic, go do it now!

Holy Wild, Pagan Blog Project 2013, Rite & Ritual

By Candlelight: Celebratory Ritual

Imbolc CandleThe 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”….