by Don Hills
Remarkably enough, as the practice of formal religion declines in Western society, so interest in ritual appears to be well on the increase. And little wonder. As Tom Driver1 says in his seminal book The Magic of Ritual :-
‘Human longing for ritual is deep, and in our culture, often frustrated…The desire for ritual seems to grow most when people feel a prolonged absence of moral guidance’.
Speaking from an African perspective, Malidoma Patrice Some2 says:-
‘As much as our body requires food for nourishment, our souls and spirits require ritual to stay whole’.
WHAT IS RITUAL?
Malidoma is again forthright on this:-
‘Every time a gathering of people, under the protection of Spirit, triggers a body of emotional energy aimed at bringing them very tightly together, a ritual of one type or another is in effect’.
For Tom Driver, rituals are essentially communal activities which are vital for the maintenance of social order, mutual love and transformation. He freely acknowledges the dark shadow that can fall over society if rituals are used to serve an oppressive regime such as pertained in Nazi Germany. But, equally as destructive for the human spirit, is the absence of ritual, for then ‘anomie’ (lawlessness), psychological alienation and social sterility reign. It is not that ritual per se ‘produces’ social integration and spiritual harmony – rather that ritual helps us celebrate and cement our common humanity and acts as a catalyst for change.
THE ELEMENTS OF RITUAL.
For James Roose-Evans3, the most important element in ritual is spiritual energy:-
‘Rituals, if performed with passion and devotion, enhance and strengthen our capacity to live’
In agreement with this, Driver makes no bones that the magical transformative element is the primary purpose of ritual. In this we can see an echo of the fourth and final path of Creation Spirituality – the Via Transformativa. It is here that compassion, wisdom and justice are embraced. There is no ‘true’ ritual without a moral response.
But what of the other-than-human elements in ritual? For me, the richest source lies in science’s wondrous, all-embracing story of our universe.
In my essay:The Place of Ritual – a Journey, I describe how my own spiritual development was tremendously boosted by a year-long series of ritualsbased on Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry’s4 majestic account of the great evolutionary transformations of our stunning universe, as set out in their book The Universe Story. These rituals were not ‘given’ but planned/created by a group of us ordinary GreenSpirit mortals! We used a whole host of props – photos from a recent visit to the New Forest, a bag of hot-cross buns, a Nautilus shell, favourite poems (some written by us specially for a particular ritual), ribbons, bells, coffee and spice powder (for ‘primitive painting’!), drums, musical instruments, stories, myth, circle dances, ‘ancestor objects’ – you name it. The power of myth, symbol and action is enormous when invested with dedication, longing, prayer, intention – all those things that arise from the heart when the spirit is focused upon the staggering realisation of our oneness with all Creation.
I am far from suggesting that a ritual is not ‘valid’ unless it contains nothing but new ideas. In fact if you already have an established religion/belief system, then why not start from elements and concepts that you are familiar with. And if you are weary with oft-repeated words and sentiments, try sprinkling them with a bit of the magic of your own imagination. For example if you are a Christian, take a leaf out of Father Freddy’s book in his flock’s marvellously imaginative Creation Spirituality rituals in rural Devon5,6.
However, you may, like me, own no allegiance to any particular religion but still want to share your own spiritual vision with kindred spirits in meaningful rituals. As said above, you are sure to find aspects of the Great Story which appeal directly, and you may be surprised by how many others share that vision. Start from where you ARE. You are made of stardust, you can dream, and those dreams are IMPORTANT. According to Swimme and Berry, your special mode of consciousness is no less than the universe reflecting upon itself. Incredible n’est-ce pas? What comes from our hearts is as potent as the world’s greatest liturgies. So let’s swing and sing!
This page has been all about group ritual, but of course ritual also has an individual aspect. To read more about that, go to:.
1.Driver, Tom. The Magic of Ritual (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991) .
2. Some, Malidoma Patrice. The Healing Wisdom of Africa (Thorsons, 1999).
3. Roose-Evans, James. Passages of the Soul (Element, 1994).
4.Swimme, Brian and Berry, Thomas. The Universe Story. (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992).
5. Colebrook, Erna. A Lammas Celebration (GreenSpirit, Winter 1999).
6. Denman, Freddy. A Parish Priest’s Tale (GreenSpirit, Summer 2000).