Many of you will know that I am an avid fan of ritual and liturgy. Not for any ‘spooky, or old-fashioned, and ‘quant’ reasons, but because ritual and liturgy, like a good piece of music can have a deep and profound effect on us. It can usher us into a state of deep thought and meditation, waft us into the liminal realm of the imagination, and on into sacred time-space; a ‘thin place’ [known as caol áit, pronounced ‘kweel awtch’ in Gaelic].
Ritual (actions) and liturgy (words), and even the attire we choose to wear for an event, has energy and meaning. It is status-declaring. Power-evoking. It is ‘transportational’. It ushers us into an awareness of the Friend.
The sun fell below the horizon. A chill had set in, but the air was still. No birdsong could be heard at all here in the New Forest. And so, a group of twenty stalwarts sat in a circle, around the open fire, as the bodhrán sounded a slow drumbeat. One person nominated to lead the event, the Guardian, stood and moved in a clockwise direction, pausing at the four cardinal points, before moving to the centre of the circle. Wearing a dorchau pen (Welsh for ‘head wreath) made of oak leaves to signify his ‘office’, he lead the ritual and invoked the energy of the Source of All
It has been said by some modern-day scholars that ritual is outdated, and nothing more than a futile attempt to ensure the safety of an individual, who, when invoking the presence of an overpowering god, is fearful. Or, it’s to appease an angry god. I’d like to suggest something different.
For me, ritual is a reminder that we continually stand in the presence of the Source of All, a wholly benevolent Power; and ritual acts are a reminder to us of that fact, and that this is a special time set aside to draw even closer, and/or to be aware of that fact.
Ritual, then, is for our benefit.
It is for us – to (re-)empower; to (re-)enable us; to (re-)member us , that is to bring us back to that point of knowing that we are members of a greater whole. Definitely re-membered (and not just remembered!).
Everyone waited with expectancy. All could perceive the flames from the fire, but little else. Night was drawing in. And, yet what our eyes couldn’t see, was more than made up by our ‘imaginal eyes’, our mind’s eye, the eyes of our hearts, our imaginations. Some saw ancient archetypes of power ‘skip’ from the flames, others elementals that moved in and out of the circle from the surrounding forest trees in a joyful manner, and still others ‘saw’ elusive power-animals at their sides. Some ‘saw’ nothing, but felt an almost over-powering tangible presence of benevolence descend upon them, and embrace them.
There is a physicality to ritual, but it is more than that. If ritual is just a series of moves and words, and nothing else, then it’s akin to a Harry Potter spell – the kind, in that movie, where one has to be careful to get everything exactly right, otherwise, who knows what might happen? Ritual is a series of actions and words, and to be enjoyed, but it’s much more. Left at that level, it is pure ‘theatre’.
It’s physical, but imaginal, too. Perhaps most of the ‘action’ takes place in the realm of the soul, that imaginal realm. It’s ‘in’ the imagination, but no less real (and some of us might say more real!) And, then there’s intentionality. If you didn’t get the ritual right, don’t worry. I do believe our intentions are most important, and that the Source of All honours our good intentions.
The Guardian of the circle spoke of the illusion of time and space, and how we view it as linear. The Guardian also spoke of connectedness, of the ‘Great Chain Of Being’, or being ‘at one’ with our forebears, the Ancestors. He raised his hands, momentarily – orans style, and declared that the Ancestors were here! The drumming stopped. A descended as though the weight of accumulated time rested, providentially upon our shoulders.
You, like me, are probably ‘amphibian’. We, seemingly, live in two realms – though, not that of water and air. We live in a world of seeming dualism, separateness and individuality, and yet, deep within us we each yearn for connectedness and deep spirituality, as though that was our ‘default program’. And, I do believe it is.
We are connected. Someone once said that what we do to others, we do to them. Now, that’s connectedness.
Some say that if a butterfly beats its wings on one side of the planet, it might lead to a tornado elsewhere. That’s connectedness.
Scientists tell us that each one of us is made of atoms that, at one time, were inside a distant star that exploded – yes, we really are star dust. We are astronomically, connected.
And, our ancestors? We wouldn’t be here if it were not for them, and many of our innate characteristics, unbeknownst to us, probably come from them in one glorious time-spanning family tree (of which we’re all part). Rooted in time, that is connectedness.
Our ancestors, are here. If you don’t believe in ghosts, perhaps they’re here in actual spirit or presence, or in essence, or in our DNA (or all of those, and more)?
In this ritual, it felt as though we had been pulled out of physical time, as a group, and into sacred space-time, and were propelled back in time to engage with the Ancestors in story. Or, was it that they had joined us? Or, was it that space-time does not exist, but the ritual, using metaphors, and using the illusion of pulling us out of physical time had given us an awareness of them in the ‘now’? Already there? Already connected, but unaware? I believe so.
This deep type of remembering, in ritual and liturgy, or meditation is called anamnesis.
Anamnesis is a remembering, or re-membering (a rejoining of members) that makes the original event present to the believer. In a very real sense, ritual negates time and space.
The Passover Seder starts with the question, ‘How is this night different from all other nights?’ Ritual, then, brings the participant into that timeless realm of the sacred in which the time and space that separates the participant from the original event just disappears. It’s not just a casual remembering. It’s a re-experiencing and a re-connectedness to that former event – in this case story and the Ancestors. Anything less that that, is merely mimesis, an imitation or re-enactment. Sadly as regards the latter, (especially, but not only in organised religion(s)), a lot of mimesis goes on in ritual, and misses the point wonderfully (that latter word said somewhat sarcastically).
A slight wind now blew through the encircled people. In a low voice, the Guardian said that this time-space was a Telling Place, a place of story, myth and ‘magic’. Like a ‘thin place’ as Celts and Druids of old would have known it.
For the next twenty minutes he told an ancient story of birth, and death, and re-birth. A story that is as old as the cosmos itself, and full of hope, and evident in the sacred text of many cultures. He went on to say that some know this as Saṃsāra, others know it as Moksha, and yet others know it as the Paschal Mystery. He said it was ‘built into the very fabric of the universe’ and that all are partakers, being inhabitants on this Eucharistic planet.
As a Druidic-Christian, an inclusive and sociable person, I enjoy meeting new people, leading events, sharing deep spiritual truth, and listening to others. It’s by listening and then sharing, like iron sharpens iron, that we grow. In many cases, we’re saying the same thing, but using different words, or coming at it from a different perspective.
After twenty minutes the Guardian concluded the story and sat down, and some others from the circle, as they felt led, shared ancient stories, stories of life, and some shared parts of their individual life-story.
Our stories are as important to the Universe as its story is to us. Could it be that we are the product of the Universe’s wish to be self-aware? If so, there is a wonderful circularity there. Like an electric circuit that is complete and working. The Universe gave birth to us, so that ‘it’ could be aware of itself, and see itself, and did so by (even) including us as part of the Universe, especially, but not only in that Telling Place (story-telling) event.
The idea, then, that we’re separate is an error. We’re included in the cosmos, in nature (or as some might say, ‘life, the universe and everything’), but some, sadly, are unaware of this fact.
After a few minutes had elapsed since the last story-sharer had finished and sat down, the Guardian stood. The bodhrán sounded a slow drumbeat as the Guardian moved in an anti-clockwise direction, pausing at the four cardinal points, and ‘closed’ the meeting by moving back to the centre of the circle and raising his hands momentarily – orans style. The drumming stopped. Everything was still, and oh-so quiet. He said a short blessing-prayer and sat down. Slowly, ‘normal’ time and interaction resumed.
And so, we re-entered physical time. Ofcourse, we all knew that what we had experienced was still true, and still with us. But, we also knew that as humans, and living in the world we do today, that we need to ‘compartmentalise’ our awareness.
True, we can obtain glimpses of ‘real’ reality as we go about our daily life, but we also acknowledged a different mode of ‘operation’ when working in the office, the factory, when driving, or formulating a shopping list – all necessary activates that ‘pull’ us away from deep awareness. Regrettable, but perhaps understandable in living in this society.
Nevertheless, That Which Is Larger Than Ourselves is on your side (so, don’t feel awful about leaving behind those profound times of awareness…but cherish those times when you can fully enter into that liminal space and/or the daily glimpses you might experience). It’s okay to be an ‘amphibian’.