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Ritual is about mystery, honoring needs


I left the witch's ordination feeling cranky -- drawn toward the earth and flame of the pagan ritual, put off by a sense of solemnly playful make-believe. All these women were unquestionably sincere; a few had studied Wiccan craft for years, anchoring their lives in the spiritual aspects of nature and weaving other traditions into its warp. Yet for me, an onlooker ignorant of the tradition's subtleties, all their hugging and urging, shushed silences and magical incantations conjured nothing more transcendent than the slumber parties of my girlhood.

We used to stir fudge, whisper crushes and new desires, then goad each other to play "Truth or Dare," a game of passage in which we either confessed our darkest secrets or braved our deepest fears. In this group of women -- rebels and seekers smashing the limits of patriarchy -- I recognized the same giddy freedom, the same trick of entering the unknown hand in hand, playing elaborately at the edge of fire.

Maybe -- joyous heresy -- our slumber parties were rituals, too?

Twelve-year-old girls honoring needs and impulses with customs borrowed from older sisters, Patty Duke reruns and hearsay. Middle-aged women honoring the sacred while rebelling against mainstream religion with practices combed from ancient texts and New Age manuals. How far does either group fall from a Christian community on Sunday morning?

After she studied ritual here and in Africa for three decades, Jungian analyst Edith Sullwold believes its basic forms come from understanding deep within us. Add the concept of God's grace, and we could say the same about faith. So if people think its organized traditional forms have become hollow, merely ritualistic, can't they simply gather together, two or more, and create them anew?

Driving home, I reconsidered those slumber parties. There was, indeed, a symbolic dimension to the music and foods we chose (leftover meat loaf simply would not do), and our acts were displayed in public, as performances to be witnessed. (What fun is it to freeze your best friend's training bra if nobody notices?) There was ceremony in the cutting of the fudge and the laying out of sleeping bags. There was a prescribed order to the proceedings -- secrets never came first. But above all, there was freedom, a fresh independence from the authorities that breathed down our scrubbed, white-buttoned necks every day.

Watching the Wiccans solemnly arrange their sacred objects -- a bowl, candles, water, sticks of wood, all surprisingly parallel to the sacred objects of Christian liturgy -- I'd wondered how much of that feminine energy came from a similar feeling of freedom. There was an ancient, seemingly universal pattern -- intonations, music, candle-lighting, sharing, invocation -- but it was loosely structured, with each woman making her own changes, incorporating her private rituals into the communal one, calling into being her personal wishes.

Private rituals -- can they exist? Personal wishes -- should they matter? In traditional worship we offer petitionary prayer, of course, and it's always a bit more fervent when a spouse is waiting for a biopsy report than when the Hutu and Tutsi are fighting again. But the "ultimate concern," to borrow Paul Tillich's phrase, is not our own lives. It's not even our own souls.

A coven is indeed a community, one that's knit far tighter than most parishes. But the coven's ritual, at least at the ceremony I attended, leaped from the vaguest of universal principles (peace, love) and natural elements (fire, water) to the concrete terms of separate lives. Maybe I just missed Jesus -- with no clear way to bridge the human and the divine, I felt like we were all just shutting our eyes and blowing out our own birthday candles.

The question I was narrowing down to was a delicate one: What transforms ritualistic acts into religious ritual? What chalks the line between superstition and faith? I have friends whose lives are a happy muddle of New Age borrowings. They "smudge" a new house in the Hopi manner, to cleanse evil spirits; read medieval English tarot cards for insight; manage stress by bestowing their cares upon tiny Guatemalan worry people; visit a chiropractor skilled in Eastern herbal medicine; hang African tribal masks on fresh drywall.

I've always been jealous of this rich, random eclecticism, especially on days when I, too, am discouraged with the established forms. But every time I slip on somebody else's silk sari or Celtic cross, I feel like a phony.

Later that week, wanting more insight, I visited Fr. Jim Telthorst, an old friend who teaches Catholic seminarians about ritual, symbol and liturgy. "Can we create our own rituals?" I asked abruptly. "It's very difficult," he said. "An advertising company can create a new sign, but a ritual symbol has to grow out of the nature of things. And it must be understood within the experience so you don't have to explain it." I understood the need to understand, but there my brain ground to a halt. When does something grow out of the nature of things? Do you just sit around your chalice or caldron, waiting for that to happen?

Clearly, Telthorst meant something a little more probative. He went on to say that most blessings of the church -- prebaptism blessings for a new baby, blessings for an engaged couple, a new house, a person going into surgery, animals and even farm implements, to name a few -- are beginning to take on ritual elements.

Efforts to actively involve all participants have replaced the practice of a priest sprinkling holy water and reading some prayers. "We're trying to avoid the notion that prayers and blessings happen automatically, that they're something a priest 'says over' someone," he said. "We're trying to wean ourselves away from the magical into the ritual."

The word magical sounded like a clue, and I leaned forward. "We often pray as though we are making God do something," Telthorst continued. "That would be 'magical.' But for me, prayer uncovers or discloses what is already present in such a way that it has an effect on us." In other words: God is forever loving. A religious ritual doesn't make God act lovingly toward us, it just represents that love in visible, tangible form, so our tiny minds can grasp it.

Magical and New Age practices, by contrast, often try to manipulate God (or a multiplicity of gods and spirits and earthbound forms) into a desired result. "It's a grasping for ritual," Telthorst said. "But real ritual is always connected to a myth, a story about ultimate reality. An archetypal symbol -- something of the earth, water, fire, food, air -- is connected to a myth that explains who and how the people are."

Connect the symbol of bread to the story of Exodus and you get Passover. Connect it to the story of Christ's death and resurrection and you get Eucharist. Both religious rituals use universal, archetypal symbols to tell their own coherent story.

But what if we don't like that story? Then we borrow elements from each tradition and weave them into our own celebration. We can do whatever we like. But as we spread out, you risk losing depth. "The problem with New Age," Telthorst says, "is that it's often not connected to any single story except that of the individual."

In times of transition -- whether adolescence or midlife, morning rush hour or the turn of the millennium -- our own stories can seem like more than enough. We celebrate them, struggle with them, invoke any power that might listen. What we're forgetting is that faith is about something far bigger than we are. A religious ritual ends in mystery, not magic.

Jeannette Batz is a senior editor at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, August 23, 1996