Thursday, August 22, 2013

Ritual Resources: Holding Ritual Space and Time

If we want to use ritual to focus and redirect and transform parts of our lives, it needs a strong container, a force-field of intentional energy, that frees us to step outside our expectations of how to act and what to expect in ordinary life. Ritual has to take place in a space where simple actions can have weight and carry symbolic meaning. Receiving or giving a blessing of water or colored powder on the forehead; pouring water over a stone; tying a thread around your own wrist, or someone else's wrist; lighting a candle, breaking bread together, giving someone a flower--if you do any of these things in ordinary time and space, it  won't carry much weight. Such actions seem small, ordinary, undramatic in daily life. Or just weird and out of place.

You have to mark out a boundary between life-as-usual and ritual space and time. There are ways of marking out and entering ritual space that you can borrow and adapt from many different traditions. Christians invoke the Trinity. Hindus remove their shoes at the entrance to a temple and ring a bell to announce their presence to its resident god. Jews put on a prayer shawl and recite a blessing specific to doing that. Wiccans cast a circle to begin a rite.
Just as importantly, ritual space and time have to be closed. Mass ends with the words, "Go in peace." Wiccans close their circle.
One of the biggest pitfalls in crafting ritual from the grassroots up as a shared practice is uneasiness with what feels like the artificiality of ritual time and space. If you're not used to crossing over into it, what happens there feels awkward and contrived, maybe even a little pompous and self-serious. So we try to reassure ourselves by making small talk while we wait for something to happen, or joking about the practice we're engaged in.
It's important to notice these impulses and be mindful of them, and to resist them when they compromise the integrity of ritual space. And it's advisable, if not essential, that a specific person take on the role of holding the ritual space. This might fly in the face of our democratic principles. It might make us a little uneasy on a more personal level. But it's not about setting someone up as leader because of who they are. It's about someone taking on a role, and then putting it off again when the ritual is over. You can make a distinction between being an officiant in ritual space and "becoming a priest."
Ritual space and time have to be held lightly. It's important to invite the unexpected in. People will come late. Somebody will feel confused about what they're being invited to do and say, if they're new to a practice. Unexpected noise will intrude from the street. A cat will jump onto the altar. The goats will start yelling from their pen when a chant begins. A holder of ritual space needs to take all this in stride, as best he can. Welcoming the unpredictable into the container only makes the container stronger, more resilient, capable of holding more. There's room for play and laughter within the container, and that's different from using wisecracks that rupture the container.
It's important not to talk ritual to death. Actions have to speak for themselves. A good leader uses words to invite participants into a practice, not to explain exhaustively what an action is supposed to mean to them. A good leader leaves space for every participant to have his own experience, which is no one else's.
And finally, a good holder of ritual space invites the whole community into a sense that they're also holding the space--giving them meaningful roles, encouraging them to take ownership of what happens, perhaps even making himself increasingly dispensable, the more a community comes to feel that an emerging practice belongs to them all.

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