The Place of Ritual – a personal journey

by Don Hills

Reprinted from GreenSpirit, Winter 2000
MandalaMy journey into ritual during the past year has profoundly affected every area of my life. During the 1999 GreenSpirit Wild Week I was captivated by the deceptively simple Threshold Ritual. All we did was cross a bridge but it was the preparation and what it symbolized that was so powerful for me. We had previously split into pairs to discuss what we wanted to leave behind, what we wanted to preserve and what we wanted to newly embrace in our lives. Care had been taken to lovingly decorate the bridge and each of us had the opportunity during the week to quietly meditate on the likely implications of our choices. In other words, emotional energy was invested in the build-up to the ritual itself. Before crossing, half the group smudged each other in preparation, whilst the other half gathered on the other side of the river preparing to welcome each individual after she or he had crossed. As my turn came, I found myself trembling in anticipation with what I was about to promise myself in the presence of the group. It was as solemn a moment as I had ever experienced previously. It was as though that walk across the bridge was ‘summing up’ all my life until that moment and that a new life awaited on the other side – a kind of baptism in the rushing waters below!
Little did I realise at that time that many ritual journeys lay ahead. Just a few weeks later, Ian Mowll and I were deputed by the AGM to investigate possibilities for the development of ritual within the GreenSpirit movement. This was a real challenge as we were both relatively new to this most intimate area of spiritual life and we were well aware of the vast amount of experience already held within the movement.
During the early autumn last year Ian and I met on several occasions to work out a plan of action. What struck us immediately was the power latent in our various GreenSpirit vision statements for developing ritual, particularly in the work of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme on the emerging Universe Story. In their book of the same name (Harper 1992), an incredible mixture of science, cultural history and poetic language, they draw out the main elements of ‘the unfolding of the cosmos’ – the Big Bang (or Flaring Forth); the birth of the galaxies and stars; the creation of our solar system; the appearance of the first forms of life on earth; the appearance of human life; the rise of culture and religious expression; the Enlightenment. But how could such a monumental scenario possibly be encapsulated in ritual? Yet this is precisely what Swimme and Berry are calling for with urgency.
Until the present we have not been able to celebrate properly this larger story of the universe, yet this is the high achievement of our scientific enquiry into the universe . . . Without entrancement within this new context of existence, it is unlikely that the human community will have the psychic energy needed for the renewal of the Earth’. (ibid. p. 268)
I am indebted to Ian for the next creative step. Why not link the Universe Story with Celtic festivals, which begin in Samhain’s darkness and progress through the reappearance of light, the beginnings of life at Spring time, the full flowering of Summer and the fruitfulness of harvest-time? The Universe Story would then be grounded for us in Earth’s Story, the cosmic drama reflected in the planetary experience as it circles its sun. What better way for us to celebrate our humanity as children of the Universe? Here’s how it looks diagrammatically, with each item having a notional date, a festival, a significant stage in the unfolding of the world and a theme

1st November –Samhain –‘Big Bang’ –Cosmic birth – unity

21st December — Winter Solstice — Birth of Galaxies — Light coming into Universe

1st February — Imbolc — Creation of our Solar system — Earth in perfect balance to produce life. Creativity

21st March — Spring Equinox — First appearance of life on earth — Celebration of new life. Renewal

1st May – Beltane — Human life appears — Celebration of our existence

21st June — Summer Solstice — Rise of culture & religious expression — Acknowledging the diversity of spiritual expression

1st August — Lugh-nasadh — The Enlightenment — Benefits of Science

21st September — Autumn Equinox — Today! — Need to link the combined wisdom of the ages to ensure our planet’s survival

Since Ian was organising the Wimbledon GreenSpirit programme and I was doing the same with Southampton, we put these ideas to our respective groups and both were willing to ‘give it a go’. Now we had a real story to work on as a basis for ritual-making for an experimental year’s cycle of meetings. And not just a story – in every sense the ultimate story, the universal myth for our time and all time! The challenge was now to embody and empower the outline programme with rituals worthy of such a vision.

Rather than producing identical programmes for both groups, we decided to work separately to allow for experimental diversity, but at the same time to keep in touch about the outcomes of meetings as the year unfolded.
The following are some examples of rituals that each group came up with during the year:
‘At the Winter Solstice 1999, we celebrated the birth of the galaxies which resonated with the birth of the sun in the pagan tradition and the birth of the son in the Christian tradition. We decided that the ritual would be about leaving something behind and welcoming in something new.

To start the ritual, we lit a candle in the middle of the floor to represent the original flaring forth. Each person wrote down, on a piece of paper, what they were leaving behind and this was burnt on the candle in the middle of the floor. Then, each person lit their own candle from the centre candle, which represented the birth of the galaxies. Whilst doing this, each person welcomed in something new for themselves.
Of course, the mechanics of the ritual does not express the feeling or the meaningfulness of what happened. We included a creative visualisation and had time to share our thoughts and feelings. The ritual helped us to engage both with the mythology of the New Universe Story and ground it in each of our own spiritual journeys.

At Beltane 2000, we linked together the wild energy of May-time with the appearance of human life on this planet. The meeting started with the chant ‘we all come from the Goddess’ with an accompanying dance around the Hazel Maypole. This was followed by poems from Louis MacNeice and D H Lawrence, reminding us of the destructive shadow of Spring balanced by a song of life and joyfulness. We then listened to a compelling story of Gawain and the Green Knight, where themes of courage, life, death and rebirth are inter-linked.

The scene was now set for a quiet meditation on the links between springtime and the ancient Cave paintings, during which time reproductions of these amazingly vibrant paintings, as well as a colour photograph of the Willendorf Venus, were passed round. We asked ourselves what Spring-time 2000 meant to us individually. The group was then let loose with materials for painting any images that formed in our minds during the meditation, onto a roll of wallpaper that was laid out flat down the middle of the hall.
It turned out that the experience of painting became the high point of the ritual. I was taken aback at the colour and vitality of the images produced, and wondered what the original cave painters would feel about our efforts! I venture to think they would recognise and resonate with the life and spirit evident in the painting even though the images were so different.
For me, there have been two main outcomes to the year’s experimental ritual-making. First, is the confirmation of the latent power of the Universe Story to bring a whole new dimension of life and meaning to the ritual aspect of our GreenSpirit gatherings, both local and national. As James Roose- Evans says in his seminal book Passages of the Soul – ‘Rituals, if performed with passion and devotion, enhance and strengthen our capacity to live’. Having the opportunity to spend a whole year with my local group reflecting on, and feeling part of, the unfolding of the incredible cosmic drama was like entering a magical world – but a magic with its feet literally on the ground. In the words of Joseph Campbell (in dialogue with Bill Moyers) – ‘Ritual is the enactment of the myth, and the only mythology that is valid today is that of the planet’.
Second, has been the opportunity to report back to the national membership at the recent A.G.M. at Hereford on our findings in the form of a little booklet, outlining the kinds of rituals carried out at Wimbledon and Southampton, and to gain feedback from interested members. We were particularly taken by the suggestion of Michael Colebrook that the year’s ritual round could commence with a Cosmic Walk to help participants get a real ‘feel’ of the tiny, but essential part that humans have played in the great transformations  of the cosmic drama. Indeed the act of reporting back with Ian felt to me like the end of a personal journey – only to find myself at the beginning of another.