Monday, September 2, 2013

Ritual Resources: Breaking It Open

It's easy to fall into the trap of supposing that the main aim of ritual is a perfect, peak experience. When a ritual works well and moves us deeply, of course we want it to move us again, and so sometimes we get more and more focused on the choreography. It's easy to start chasing the buzz, for its own sake. We can forget that the ritual isn't the goal, but a path; not the moon, but the finger pointing at the moon.

Good ritual isn't a commodity that we shop for.
Especially when we're experimenting with the creation of personal or group ritual from the grass roots up, there's always the possibility that we'll try to turn ritual into a perfect fulfilment of fantasy. Paradoxically, succeeding in that might be the worst thing that could come of ritual practice, if it lets us off the hook from becoming more self-aware about our motivations and aspirations.  (I've heard people refer to heavily scripted, complex, and edgy erotic experiences as ritual, as though labelling them as such automatically explained the complexity and shut down deeper reflection about what the experiences meant and what could be learned from them.)
So it's really important to fuck it up.
It's harder for rituals to point to something beyond themselves if they're perfect. Flaws remind us that there's always a tension in ritual between, "here and now" and "not yet" or "not literally." In Christian liturgy, the sharing of bread and wine symbolizes a banquet at the end of time; but what you get is one sip of usually bad wine and a wafer that looks and tastes like fish food: this is a banquet in which you share, but only by anticipation of what's still to come, and in acknowledgment  that life as we're living it isn't there yet.  (Gordon Lathrop, a Lutheran liturgical theologian, talks about the tension between fulfilment and foretaste in his book Holy Things.) Turning a Christian Eucharist into a five-course meal centered around artisanal baguettes and Chateuneuf-du-Pape would weaken its power as ritual, not strengthen it.
In the queer men's lingam puja that I've described this summer, the erotic content of the ritual stays more or less veiled. If it were acted out as a fulfilled fantasy of communal sexual experience, it might satisfy one or a few participants, but to the exclusion of others. And it would lose much of its power to make us dig deeper into the meaning of desire in our spiritual lives. So instead of staging an orgy (not that there's anything wrong with an orgy), we circle meditatively around a symbol of the erotic energy that galvanizes our lives and unites us with the rhythms of the natural world.
Good ritual may help us to feel more fulfilled and at home in our lives. But at least as importantly, we have to break it open,  so we can see through the cracks to what's Outside, and so we can grow beyond what we're yet able to ask, or even imagine.