The world is in despair. But there’s a cure: rituals. Find out how four ritual super powers will save the world.
Community Ritual North London, June 2016
2016 has been a turbulent year and many people are concerned about what will happen in 2017. The world is shivering. Brexit and Trump have been no incidents. Something is going on. People are angry. They are afraid. They are building physical and emotional walls around themselves, hoping this will protect them from the strange and violent forces that are attacking them.
These people are us. And we are making a mistake.
The darkness we fight is not a force outside ourselves, it’s part of ourselves. But we don’t know any more how to deal with this.
In our post-modern world, we have lost the connection with the natural forces that have shaped us. Birth and death have been medicalised.
The mysteries of life and death have been reduced to clinical operations, moved from the warm, intimate, private environment from homes and families to the cold, impersonal and technical environment of hospitals.
Not only are we reducing the mysteries of life to manageable issues, we also find it difficult to connect to ourselves. In a world that is 24/7/365 on it’s hard to find moments of reflection, moment to unwind and to recharge our bodies, minds and souls. Where religions provide a given structure to take a ‘time-out’ during the week, many of us no longer feel affiliated to the traditional forms of gathering and celebrating.
We lack given moments in our lives to gather with others to reflect, to celebrate, to sing, to dance, to laugh, to cry. We lack a structure which helps us connect to ourselves, to a community, to our history, and to both the light and dark aspects of our humanity.
We lack rituals.
Rituals have some amazing super powers. Here are four:
- Rituals nourish the soul.
- Rituals deepen the mysteries of life
- Rituals connect us with our ancestors
- Rituals create community
1. Rituals nourish the soul
Throughout the centuries and in cultures around the world rituals have played an important role in the daily lives of human beings. Rituals celebrate all kinds of transitions in our life-cycle and help us move on from one life-stage to another: birth, puberty, marriage, illness, death (van Gennep/Hoy, 115).
Rituals provide room for the whole person to exist. Rituals are guardians of states of minds and emotions that in our modern society often are being neglected. They provide a room for the whole person to exist (Somé, 19) and to nourish our soul. A ritual provides a room for people to expressing emotions together. To shed tears together, to cry together, to laugh out loud and sing together. Expressing emotions is a way for us to rekindle, to calm down. A good cry helps reset feelings and rituals facilitate this.
2. Rituals deepen the mysteries of life
Rituals help us deal with questions to which our intellect can’t find the answers. Think, for example, of the questions around birth, love, hate, and death. Where do we come from? What is this special feeling I have for this person? Why are doing people evil things to each other? What happened to us after our death? Rituals provide a structure, a language and a space to add meaning to the biggest mysteries of life.
3. Rituals connect us with our ancestors
The questions we ask ourselves about the mysteries of life and death are not new. They have been asked by our ancestors. We can learn from them, from how they dealt with these questions.
Rituals put us in the context of a tradition, in the context of our history. When we do rituals we use symbols, texts, gestures and movements that have been practiced since the beginning of humanity. We don’t have to invent the wheel as there’s a rich tradition we can tap into. Many symbols used in rituals have proven to be meaningful to people throughout centuries and across cultures: think, for example of how light, darkness, water, flowers, earth, the sun, the moon have been used in ritual acts.
Rituals provide a room for play. Playing out our deepest fears, but also playing out our greatest joys and our dream for an ideal world.
4. Rituals create community
- When do we sing together?
- When do we share silence?
- When do we collectively find words to express anger about the things that worry us in the world?
- Where do we find a place where we can put our thoughts and fears into a spiritual realm that’s bigger than us?
Many of us are no longer part of a given structure, a community who gathers on a regular basis to take some time out to do things you usually don’t: singing, praying, sharing food with strangers, reflecting on our lives, celebrating the happy and the good, mourning the dark side of our lives.
Gathering in a community helps us deal with views that are different from ours. We learn from each other, challenge each other, inspire each other, and get connected.
It’s hard to hate someone with whom you have shared a meal. It’s hard to fight someone with whom you have shared your fears and dreams. It’s hard to ignore someone with whom you have light a candle.
Rituals in action
Let’s illustrate the super power of rituals by the Christian ritual of Ash Wednesday.
In this ritual people receive ashes on their forehead. The ashes remember of the dust we are made of. They remind us in a physical and tangible way of our mortality and thus confront us with the reality and mystery of death. The day marks the beginning of Lent, a period of fasting and praying, and care for others.
During Lent we prepare for the light and the life celebrated at Easter. From the darkness and the depths of the experience of death we move towards the light. Death and life, darkness and light – the two together define our humanity. The rituals of Ash Wednesday, Lent and Easter proved us symbols, a language, a form to reconnect ourselves with this reality.
By using old symbols and gestures rituals connect to an old tradition, reminding us of our roots and our connection to our ancestors. The ritual creates community as we share the experience together and are invited to act on it in the communities we live in.
But we don’t do rituals any more. We have banned them out of our busy lives. We have become ‘human doings’ instead of ‘humane beings’. But if we don’t do rituals any more, what are the implications?
- If rituals connect people with others and create community, then a lack of rituals make us feel isolated and lonely. We don’t connect with people of different cultures, gender, sexuality and we don’t learn to appreciate the differences and see the similarities.
- If rituals help us connect with our emotions, fear and joys, than a lack of rituals means we don’t know how any more to create this connection. We suppress our emotions and find other ways to release them: addictions, violence, and consumerism.
- If rituals connect us to tradition then a lack of rituals implies we can’t put things into perspective. We don’t learn from stories of how our ancestors dealt with similar life-events; we lack the language, the forms and the tools to create a space in which we can deal with the complexity of humanity.
- If rituals help us deal with the complexity of life, with both the light and the dark side of our humanity, a lack of rituals implies we alienate from ourselves. We become disrupted.
If we exaggerate this picture, we become soulless instrumentalists, focused on our own needs, alienated from other cultures, heartless and selfish. We build walls for refugees, turn our backs to people who are different, become intolerant for habits we are not familiar with and we vote for people who embody the violent response to the fear we have imposed to ourselves. “In the absence of ritual the soul runs out of nourishment and all kinds of social problems ensue” (Somé, 73).
Rituals to the rescue
We need rituals, because they provide a powerful structure to release emotions, they help mourn endings, celebrate beginnings, they help us reconnect with ourselves and with the people around us. They affirm the complexity of life and open up a spiritual reality in which we feel held.
But as many of us are no longer affiliated to the traditional religious guardians of rituals we will have to find new ways of doing them. By adopting the archetypical language and symbolism, by learning from the traditions who have been practicing them for centuries, and by adding new forms, new spaces, new creativity and new language that appeals to the people of now.
And it’s happening. New rituals pop up everywhere. People celebrate their life-events more and more in a personalised way that is relevant to them, incorporating all kinds of elements, religious, interfaith, and secular. Also in the community space we see the need for rituals and ceremonies get shape in new ways. Think, for example of remembrance services, public mourning rituals and the rapidly growing movement of Sunday Assembly.
A beautiful example of a community ritual happened in my own neighbourhood earlier this year.
Community ritual in North-London
June 2016 was an unsettling month. Even before Brexit had happened the world was disturbed by a massacre in Orlando. Then, an MP got murdered. In North-London, a local choir organised an ad-hoc gathering in a public space. The choir sang songs and people were invited to join in. There was an altar where people could light a candle. The local MP and a friend of Jo Cox, the murdered politician, expressed their grief and their hope for a world where love and peace would have the last word.
Papercut hearts are distributed and people are invited to share them with others. The square was packed. A crowd of people, strangers to each other, sang together, lighted candles, shed tears, and shared love. It was a touching event that helped people release thoughts and emotions and provided a space to connect with each other.
Rituals for today and tomorrow
We need new ways of doing rituals. Rituals that provide room for our global, interfaith and multi-belief mind-sets. Rituals that include new elements, and rituals that hold on to the power and strength of the traditions of our ancestors. We have a vast and rich world to tap into.
Let’s get curious. Let’s go and visit a church, a mosque, a temple, a synagogue and see what inspires us. Let’s talk to others about their traditions and the way they celebrate and mark life transitions. Let’s think of the small acts you can do to reconnect with yourself, the people you love, and the broader community.
Rituals have super powers but it’s only through our curiosity, creativity and will to connect that they can make a difference to ourselves, our communities and to the world we live in.
Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage. The University of Chicago Press, 1960.
William G. Hoy, Do Funerals Matter? The Purpose and Practices of Death Rituals in Global Perspective. Routledge, 2013.
Malidoma Patrice Somé, Rituals. Power, Healing, and Community. Penguin Compass, 1997.