The season of celebration is upon us. But it’s also the season for a heady mix of other emotions: joy, anticipation, anxiety, expectation, melancholy, loneliness, and grief — in succession, or even simultaneously.
The holidays bring to the fore our deepest yearnings, memories, and sometimes regrets. In times such as these, our ancestors have always looked to ritual to provide stability, a sense of identity and belonging, and to remind themselves of what was truly essential.
But rites and ceremonies are complex creatures. They can serve as anchors, containers, food for the soul and, also, as alchemical catalysts of change.
So, what exactly is a ritual?
There are as many definitions as scholars who study them and people who perform them. I will humbly offer my own: A ritual is an embodied symbolic act through which we render visible the invisible values, emotions, turning points, and insights that are most essential to us. Examples of these “invisibles” we are talking about include:
- Values (such as courage, honor, kindness, justice)
- Emotions (love, awe, gratitude, forgiveness)
- Turning points (personal and collective milestones)
- Insights (shifts in identity, letting something go, welcoming something in)
By bringing these inner realities out into the world in symbolic form, we give them a proper place in our lives and allow ourselves to fully experience and embrace the emotions they evoke in us, often in the company of others.
Here are some of the specific functions ritual plays in our lives:
- Creates or strengthens bonds between people
- Forges a bridge between the past and the present, while recalling the founding myth
- Distinguishes kairos (soul time) from chronos (calendar time)
- Helps heal the body and soul
- Honors significant changes in age, stage, and life cycles, while at the same time keeping participants connected to what is deep and unchanging
- Consecrates new statuses, roles and skills
- Gives welcome to new members of our communities
- Helps us to say goodbye
- Serves as a form of adult play, with a serious purpose and meaning
- Celebrates the sacred at the heart of everyday life
The Emergence of New Rituals
We often associate ritual with time-honored traditions that are passed down across the generations. While it’s true that repeated gestures, symbols, and songs can be powerful and reassuring, we are beginning to understand that created or improvised rituals can be just as effective, and perhaps even more genuine, as they are adapted to the needs and sensibilities of those who perform them.
These new rituals respond to the needs of current generations: They celebrate women’s autonomy and empowerment, protest racial discrimination, redefine families, and redesign our ways of facing death. Most importantly, they help to usher forth social transformation.
In fact, as scholars like Ronald Grimes and Sabina Magliocco point out, in the face of the growing secularization of Western societies (which has left us with a reduced repertoire of rituals), and the commercialization and appropriation of ritual occasions (which has impoverished those that remain), new rituals are emerging all around us to fill the gap. These new rituals respond to the needs of current generations: They celebrate women’s autonomy and empowerment, protest racial discrimination, redefine families, and redesign our ways of facing death. Most importantly, they help to usher forth social transformation.
Author Esther Perel tells of her experiences attending Burning Man, one such current day collective ritual. “[It] provided me with an immersive, secular ritual of remembrance I’d never known was possible. By day seven, the once empty temple formed a living memorial. In pictures, poems, objects, artwork, and other shreds of lives gone, thousands of people responded to their individual loss and our collective impermanence. I saw the entire drama of human experience laid bare and then burned away.”
In fact, we create and take part in ceremonies more often than we think. Friday night dinners, book clubs, gratitude circles, contemplative walks, Soul Cycle and other fitness trends each have communal aspects. These spontaneous ritual gatherings have served somewhat the same purpose as ancient traditions: they forge bonds, make friends out of strangers, help us quiet down and come back to ourselves, and instill a sense of meaning and connection — all without preordained roles, scripts, or authority figures.
Intention plus attention turns any activity that we deem worthy into a life-enhancing, sacred act.
In his book The Power of Ritual, Casper Ter Kuile emphasizes the way such spontaneous rituals can help satisfy our deep need for community. But in order to get the full benefit from these activities, we must give them our entire focus. And this brings us to one of the most important aspects of any ritual: intention. While doing any activity we cherish or find significant, we can stop and ask ourselves: What meaning does this hold for me? What do I want it to mean? What do I wish to honor, celebrate, grieve, or remember through this act? Intention plus attention turns any activity that we deem worthy into a life-enhancing, sacred act.
In the chapter entitled “The Fire” in my book, Where Wonder Lives, I tell a short Hasidic tale about a village where a rabbi lived. Every time there was hardship, the village people followed the rabbi to a certain tree in the forest and performed a certain ceremony. Hard times ensued, and generation after generation disappeared. Finally, there came a time when the young people went into the forest to perform the rite. But they couldn’t find the tree nor remember the songs or prayers. So they picked a tree, and they said the few words they could remember, sang the bits of song they could still sing. And that was enough.
There is a poignancy to a tradition that’s been passed down through the generations, and we can increase the efficacy of a ritual by repeating it on special occasions or by making it a regular weekly event. But rituals can also be spontaneous, improvised, one-time events.
We have the right — and the ability — to create our own rituals, or to adapt inherited ones that no longer quite work for us. At first, it may feel awkward to design a ceremony of our own. But we can trust the ritual intelligence that inspired our ancestors; it lives in us still.
So, what would you like to consecrate — make sacred — with your attention?
As the year comes to a close, we may want to give thanks for what we have received and experienced, both the happy events and the difficult ones that helped us grow. We may want to honor those who have passed, or to celebrate those who are still with us. We may want to shine a light on a sense of purpose we would like to guide us in the year to come.
Whatever it is you want to “make visible”, trust that you will find the words, the gestures, and the deeds. You can use elements from nature, personal symbols, music you adore, an altar full of sacred objects, or none at all. It can be lavish and elaborate, or spartan. If you give your heart to it, you will be stepping on hallowed ground.
If you waver, turn to the beloved Mary Oliver as your guide. In her poem, “Praying”, she could just as easily have been speaking about our innate affinity for ritual-making when she writes:
“It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”
How will you give voice to what truly matters as you bid farewell to this year and welcome the next? What images or symbols might you use?
What will you make sacred today, and how?