What Rituals for Modern Times?

It was a year ago, during a week-long island retreat, that I strongly felt the connection between ritual and reverence and the vital need for both in every context of our lives.  For over a decade, my work has been driven by the belief that if we are to be wise and capable stewards of life on Earth we must feel reverence for it.  Without reverence for life, we lack the vision and motivation to do all of what is needed.  Without reverence, we aren’t fully nourished.  We aren’t fully alive.  

On the island, I came to understand more clearly that our reverence takes root and blossoms into action through thoughtful moments of cultivation.  In other words, through ritual.  By ritual, I mean moments of noticing and savoring our gratitude and wonder.  Ritual as incorporation of learning, and as integration of ourselves into some larger group or cause.  Ritual as practices of renewal, of deepening connection, of celebration, marking milestones within the flow of our lives.  As Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer observed, “The ethic of Reverence for Life is the ethic of Love widened into universality.”  My sense is that ritual is key to turning that love into useful expression.  Indeed, my sense is that reverence without ritual remains rootless, struggling to find its way to the ground of responsibility and action.  And ritual without reverence is lifeless and rote.

overlooking-grand-canyon_0The industrial worldview has denied the role of both reverence and ritual, leaving us jaded and apathetic.   We have glimmers of reverence in extraordinary moments like overlooking the Grand Canyon or witnessing the birth of a child.   But the reality is that reverence is the ever-present undercurrent of life, available in every moment.  “It is a strange and wonderful fact to be here,” Irish poet John O’Donohue reminded us, “walking around in a body, to have a whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you. It is an immense privilege, and it is incredible that humans manage to forget the miracle of being here. Rilke said, ‘Being here is so much,’ and it is uncanny how social reality can deaden and numb us so that the mystical wonder of our lives goes totally unnoticed. We are here.  We are wildly and dangerously free.”

Similarly, the common assumption is that ritual must be stiff, impersonal and apart from the flow of our lives.  But if it is to serve our broadest purposes, it can and must be natural and relevant to our times and our current contexts.  And though many find the concept of ritual suspect, I believe that some secret part of us craves it.  We yearn to be reminded that our lives have significance and to be held within an enlarged sense of time.

In fact, our lives are filled with ritual.  If you’ve ever had a check-in at the beginning of a meeting, you’ve engaged in ritual (in fact, we might argue that meetings themselves are rituals).  If you’ve ever asked someone how they are and really cared to know the answer, if you’ve gone away on a revitalizing vacation, if you’ve made a sincere wish before blowing out your birthday candles, or if you’ve written a heart-felt love letter, you’ve experienced meaningful ritual.

The question is: how much more intentional can we be about designing existing rituals – both the everyday, ordinary ones and the rare, momentous ones – so that they cultivate reverence for life and spark inspired action?  And what new rituals would serve us well?

As I reflected on these questions on the island last year, my eleven-year-old daughter came to mind.  How will she feel reverence for her body, for herself and for all life, I wondered, without some ritual to invite her into those feelings and to show her that those who love her feel those things for her already?  If Plato was right that parents should “bequeath to their children not riches, but the spirit of reverence,” then an element of ritual ought to be part of the equation.   And so I made a commitment to offer a rite of passage the following year to honor her first steps into womanhood.

That is how I came to be waking her up at 4:30 in the morning recently to whisk her away on a weekend retreat with three other women in my family.  Below, I’ll share the story of our gathering in case it offers some inspiration for other mothers of daughters – and fathers of sons – and also as an example of a modern ritual that was natural, relevant and filled with life.

radical-amazementNow, in the wake of that experience, I wonder what small reverence-filled rituals I might introduce into my life and work today.  Taking a deep breath (right now!) and closing my eyes to savor the experience of being alive and surrounded by the sounds of life.  Pausing to connect with my children and to let them know how much I treasure them.  Cleaning the breakfast dishes with mindfulness and appreciation for the nourishment and conversation they supported.  Walking my dog in the forest, taking joy in his rocketing through the trees and giving grateful attention to the beauty of the woods.  Preparing my desk and my heart before writing a speech outline this morning.  I wonder if I can create enough moments of ritual to string them together and cultivate a whole life of reverence – what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “a life of radical amazement.”

How will you cultivate reverence today?  What one small moment of ritual would you create for yourself?  What will help you feel renewed?  What will you celebrate?  Who will you reach out to in heart-felt connection and appreciation?  Looking ahead, what larger rituals do you feel called to bring into being in your work or in your family?

“As we know life in ourselves,” Albert Schweitzer observed, “we want to understand life in the universe in order to enter into harmony with it.”  As our species stands at the brink of catastrophe and as we struggle to break free of destructive habits of thought and action, this seems like an undeniably important practice to enter into.

 

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A Rite of Passage

I gently touched my daughter’s arm.  It was 4:30 in the morning.  “I need you to wake up,” I said quietly.  “I’d like to invite you on an adventure.”  “Does it involve sleep?” she asked groggily.  “You can sleep on the plane,” I answered.  Her eyes shot open in sudden interest and excitement.  “I’ll tell you where we’re going once we’re in the taxi.  Your clothes are here.  Let’s go.”

It was a risk to make this a surprise.  The common advice was to involve her in the planning, in part to ensure she would be a willing participant.  But my instinct told me a rite of passage should be a dramatic moment, a break in routine.  I knew she would trust me and that there would be ways for her to shape her own experience once we were in it.  And besides, she loves surprises.

As she and I drove to the airport through a still dark city, I explained the nature of our journey.  “This is a special time in your life,” I said, “not only because you recently turned twelve, not only because you’re going to high school in a few months, but because you’re taking your first steps into womanhood.  In the Jewish tradition, this would be marked with a bat mitzvah.  In Christian tradition, you would have a ceremony of confirmation.  And in Native and Earth-based cultures, a circle of women would gather around you to welcome you into the circle through stories and celebration.  That’s what we’re going to do.”  “Will it be strangers?” she asked.  “No, it will be me, your grandmother, your aunt and your great aunt.  We’ll all come together at your great aunt’s house in the mountains of North Carolina – the place where we all gathered to celebrate your arrival twelve years ago.”  She took it all in with quiet excitement and open curiosity.

We four women had planned the gathering for weeks by email and phone.  “What do we want this to be for her?” we asked.  “What would her hopes and expectations be?”  These were some of our answers:

  • Feeling honored and special. Feeling seen and welcomed into the community of women.  (“One of the deepest longings of the human soul is to be seen,” reflected Irish poet John O’Donohue.)
  • Learning through our stories and through osmosis.  Having meaningful conversations – the kind she and I have when she’s in bed before she goes to sleep.
  • Feeling a stronger sense of being part of a larger story – of family, of women and of the Earth.
  • Feeling reassured that this whole womanhood thing isn’t scary, that she’s capable and ready.
  • Enjoying a special adventure away from our routines. Feeling spontaneous and alive.
  • Playing games. Creating art. Being imaginative.
  • Having power and freedom not to do anything she’s not comfortable with, without guilt or negative emotions from any of us.  Having choices.
  • All of it feeling natural, not forced. Feeling joyful, reflective, comfortable, curious, grounded.

“Weaving a Story of Womanhood” became something of a guiding theme.  We wanted to help her shape the story of what it means to her to be a woman, here and now on Mother Earth.   Her story would necessarily weave together threads of past, present and future, of our own narratives and hers, of inherited traits imprinted on strands of DNA, of mind, body and spirit.  We gave some detail to what this last set of woven threads might suggest for the rite of passage:

mind: our stories; her story of herself, of her history, of her intentions for her future; relationships with family and friends.

body: her body, her connection with nature, food (chocolate!), working with our hands to craft something together.

spirit: the larger connection with the mystery of life, beauty, art, ritual, celebration.

Though we sketched out a rough agenda, the four of us shared enough trust in each other and in life, enough commitment to my daughter’s needs, and enough experience as thoughtful hosts of groups that we could simply be present and respond to what felt appropriate in the moment.  On this foundation, what unfolded during our weekend together was beautiful beyond anything we could have planned.

Most of all, it was a rich sharing of stories.  Because we had all gathered in that house twelve years earlier soon after my daughter’s arrival, the first stories we told were of birth and babies, as well as the broader history of the place.  As we settled into the weekend, our conversation danced through the many facets of our selves: where and how we had been raised, reinventions of ourselves throughout our lives, the rewards and challenges of our closest relationships, dealing with loss and grief, the miracles we’ve experienced, routines that work and reasons for abandoning them anyway.  At different times, we told the stories of the handful of photos we each had brought: ancestors, ourselves as girls, things that inspire us.  And on Saturday night, over candlelight, wine and chocolate and with full complicity from my daughter, we played a storytelling game to make sure we got to the things that seemed most relevant to her.  On a set of index cards, we wrote a series of topics: boobs, blood, body hair, boys and beauty, with extra cards for anything my daughter wanted to add (she added “family relationships”).  Each of us took turns choosing a card, and then my daughter could ask a question and/or any of us could share stories related to that topic, all within the boundaries of our own comfort.  It was both light-hearted and deeply meaningful.  In a perfect crescendo, my sister-in-law introduced us to the card game Spoons, which brought us to fits of hysterical laughter.

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In between the weekend’s many stories, we simply relaxed into life and each other.  We cooked and ate together.  The youngest three of us walked in the woods, taking turns on a daring rope swing and scaling a rocky waterfall so that we could stand beneath its cool shower.  The older two women enjoyed what one of them called “the crones’ right” to sit on rocking chairs on the porch overlooking the mountains and valleys.  (Here, crone refers to the archetype of the wise older woman.)  My daughter and I (finally) put the pictures from her third birthday party into an album and decorated it with colorful paper and stickers.  And we each had marvelous snatches of time alone with our thoughts or our own activities.  The whole experience felt spacious and free.

On Sunday morning, I invited my daughter to sit alone for a time in the clearing next to the house so that she could listen to the wisdom of nature and discern which threads were hers, which ones she wanted to carry forward as she continues to weave her story of womanhood.  When she came back in, we all sat comfortably around a tapestry woven with the image of the tree of life.  There, we expressed what we were grateful for from the weekend and what we were taking from it.  We noticed who was not with us, with gratitude and also some sadness.  We shared gifts with my daughter and each other.  And we offered her our continued support and good wishes, including this from John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings:

For Equilibrium, a Blessing:

Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore,
May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul.

As the wind loves to call things to dance,
May your gravity be lightened by grace.

Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth,
May your thoughts incline with reverence and respect.

As water takes whatever shape it is in,
So free may you be about who you become.

As silence smiles on the other side of what’s said,
May your sense of irony bring perspective.

As time remains free of all that it frames,
May your mind stay clear of all it names.

May your prayer of listening deepen enough
to hear in the depths the laughter of god.

This is what a rite of passage can look like, among infinite other options.  This is one form of ritual for modern times.

Beyond the impact on my daughter, who rose to the occasion with grace and maturity and who seems to stand just a little taller now, the experience was nourishing for me in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

First, it seems to have been a rite of passage not only for her but for all of us.  It was the first time I heard the two older women refer to themselves as crones.  And it was the first time I felt quite that solid in my role as mother and guide, with wisdom to share and a steady hand to offer for support.  In welcoming my daughter into our circle, we women were also necessarily passing into new phases in our lives.  It felt good and right to notice this.

Second, it was like a warm bath to be in easy conversation with trusted women about the experience of being a woman, sharing our stories, with interest and empathy for each other.  As the song goes, it’s a man’s world.  This dedicated time and space to savor the feminine was truly precious.

just-to-be-is-a-blessingThird, to be immersed in this experience in a spirit of love and generosity gave it purpose and power.  It was as if the care we directed toward my daughter was also directed toward the girls we had all once been.  This felt tremendously healing.

Finally, it took some courage to do all this.  It’s not in my culture.  This was uncharted territory, and though there are useful websites and books (including one by Gayle Burkett, who generously offered advice and encouragement by email and phone), there is no clear instruction manual.  Not only that, it seemed somehow counter-cultural, drawing wary looks from some of the few people I told about it.  Traditionally, a rite of passage involves some challenge that has to be overcome, some way to gain inner knowledge and to prove that you can be true to it.  This turned out to be part of my own experience, perhaps even more than my daughter’s.

“Just to be is a blessing,” offered Abraham Joshua Heschel.  “Just to live is holy.”  I hope that this message, most of all, is what my daughter will take away from the weekend.  It’s what I hope to keep in my own heart, too.

Island photo by Asad Chishti of Chairs and Tables

Grand Canyon photo by Frank Plerson

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