Ritual is necessary for us to know anything. – Ken Kesey
Ritual has a lofty definition; it’s described as a symbolic act that brings an individual or a group into contact with deeper aspects of reality than the ordinary. It’s clear to us from the beginning that intent and meaning are important to the concept of ritual. These symbolic actions may derive from religious or other communal practice, but, much like personal myths, they may also originate on a much smaller individual scale or anywhere in between.
Once you start looking for them you begin to see rituals everywhere: in the spheres of politics, commerce, education, holidays and the everyday. Ritual is how we mark significant occasions, how we observe the passage of time (whether it’s a birthday or an agricultural event) and how we imbue communal and personal meaning into the span of our lives. The ways in which we celebrate, observe, mourn and transition are strong points of plot in our shared and personal mythology.
On a grand, species-wide scale, the first evidence we have of our own impulse to ritual are early burial sites dating to the Paleolithic – we have been burying our dearly departed with ceremony since well before we tilled the soil to grow food, before we ever settled into permanent groups. Ritual marks every one of the world’s religions, including largely non-institutionalized spiritual practices such as shamanism. Many cultures still observe rites of puberty, in which a child is taught that he or she is no longer a dependent but now and forever after bears responsibility. In modern times, the pattern of initiation into manhood is somewhat mirrored in the breakdown and rebuilding process of military basic training, in which the myths of civilian life and youth are replaced – in a very short time – by a new set of beliefs and patterns, and a new community.
Poetry is the perfectly possible means of overcoming chaos. – I. A. Richards
Each culture has its traditions and observations – here’s a quick list of examples off the top of my head, based on the simple timeline of a human being:
* births and birthdays
* maturity (the bar or bat mitzvah, the fiesta quinceañera, the debutante ball, confirmation, registering for Selective Service, getting a driver’s licence, graduation from high school, college)
* bonding (fraternity hazing, the institution of marriage, weddings, wedding nights and divorce)
* decline (the writing of a will, the entry into a nursing home, applying for Medicare)
* death (not only funeral rites, but also the last meal and execution of criminals)
We also have state and cultural holidays which you, your family and community may have observed over the years, in the forms of parades, barbeques, fireworks displays, cooking a turkey or watching the Macy’s Day Parade on TV. The infinite rituals around Christmas alone are pervasive in many families who may not ever go to church or consider themselves particularly religious.
Government, law and business have their own (often quite ponderous) rituals. Consider election day, coronations, presidential inaugurations, jury trials and annual business conferences.
I had this whole ritual with my mother making the bed with me inside it so I would be invisible. – Ahmet Zappa
On a more intimate scale, ritual can include how you get ready for work in the morning (your “morning ritual”), making a New Year’s resolution, sitting down to a family meal, getting a haircut and how you tuck your children into bed. Maybe you plant bulbs every year in anticipation of spring, and some deeper meaning infuses the act with ritual. As poets, maybe we have rituals for sitting down to meditate, to read, to write. For making a cup of tea, a glass of water or a shot of whiskey and sitting down at a messy, cluttered desk before a blank, uncluttered page.
Expanding on our original definition – the ritual creates a space in which we can enact and then formally enshrine our triumphs, our losses, our points of power, happiness and pain so that these things have a place, so that they become fixed somehow. We also make ritual to foster reverence, to continue valued traditions, to create and strengthen social bonds, to cope with crises and to put us into a certain frame of mind that we need in order to accomplish something, or to move on from something.
Write today’s poem along one of these angles, or – as when we do not have a specific ritual and need one – make up one of your own.
* What beloved family or other tradition has sustained you?
* Alternately, what traditions drain or weaken you?
* What seemingly mundane rituals can you think of that bring you into contact with some deeper aspect of your life? Glorify the ordinary.
* What rituals have you invented, and why?
* What rituals have you borrowed from groups and traditions other than your own?
* What rituals or traditions did you inherit? Do you still observe them all?
* What is the difference between ritual and habit?