What is ritual? What is its purpose? Does it create space for the sacred or does it separate us from actually experiencing sacredness? These are the questions floating around in my head after my recent experience at a sweat lodge.
You see, I was raised in the Church, and so to me the idea of ritual is associated with images of sitting in church and repeating stock phrases in response to the stock phrases coming from the pastor. Of standing in the line to receive the sacrement, and of knowing which songs would be sung at various parts of the service.
Since travelling, the idea of ritual has also become associated in my mind with images of ringing bells, of discordant mantra chanting, of burning diya lamps, of marigold chains draped around white-faced statues of Hindu gods and goddesses, of the ritual bow of Buddhists before the statue of the Buddha.
I do really love the feeling of sacred spaces, and I hold close to my heart memories of sitting in the profound stillness of great cathedrals, of walking through the slow, whispering hallways of monastries, of breathing deeply under the spreading branches of bodhi trees in Buddhist temples, of feeling the smooth marble floors under bared feet in joyful HIndu ones.
But honestly I’ve never been a big fan of ritual. I have always had this idea that ritual can separate us from a real experience of sacredness because it involves simply going through the motions of things. That it gives us words to repeat rather than encouraging us to think of our own. That ritual is the antithesis of presence, of conscious awareness.
My recent experience of the sweat lodge, however, has made me rethink such easy dismissal of the importance of ritual. On the lodge site there was a designated ‘sacred space’ near to the fire and lodge. To enter this space we had to be ‘smudged’ in and out.(Smudging is a practice of wafting the smoke of dried sage over the face and body as a means of cleansing and purification.) There were various parts to the day and evening that involved ritual, including a ceremonial lighting of the fire, a time for prayer/introspection, recognition of the seven directions. And of course the lodge itself was held by ritual.
At the same time, there was an element of joy and freedom within these rituals. There was a space which I have not experienced before in the ‘tight’ rituals of my previous experiences. Rituals at the lodge seemed to create a feeling of sacredness and respect, but still leave room for our individual voices, our individual beliefs and prayers and ways of connecting with the earth.
And it made me wonder…
We live in a world where Doing is valued over Being, where Accomplishments are held above Wisdom, and where Spirituality is often dismissed by Secular Modernity and Scientific Rationalism. And yet I also love the fact that we live in a world where we have permission to question everything…where nothing is so sacred that it is beyond our access, our inquiry, our own subjective interpretation of it. I still think many ritual practices are just people going through the motions (although only they would know!), and I do still think prayer that comes from the heart and on the fly must be more powerful than words repeated from memory.
But by completely dismissing the idea of ritual, are we losing a door to the Sacred?
Is there also a place for ritual as a way to carve out a space (maybe simply in our own minds) of respect for sacredness? How many temples have I entered where I was required by ritual to pause at the door, to cover my head or remove my shoes? How many times have I bowed my head to acknowledge that something that is greater than myself. And in these moments of pause, a thought comes into one’s mind.
Honour. Respect.For whatever it is you view as sacred. For the Life Force, for Goddess, for God, for the One that is also in you…
What are your experiences of ritual? Do you practice any rituals in your life? (I’m not talking about coffee in the morning, although that’s seriously important too! 🙂 ) I’m still thinking this through and would love to hear your thoughts!