for September/October 2001:
Ritual and Longitudinal
I wrote this column
before the World Trade Center tragedy and later wondered about the column’s
current relevance. I’ve decided to offer it anyway, in hopes that
a call toward ritual, toward its special way of teaching over time, can
bring another means and promise towards healing.
I’ve been doing new moon
rituals for years. There’s always a voice inside that wonders “What
good is this anyway?” Another voice usually replies, “Shut up, this
is magic. You want magic, don’t you?” The skeptical voice persists:
“So what. You do a ritual or you skip it. It doesn’t change
the world.” Cries the magic-loving voice: “Skip the new moon and
the gods will be angry. Better do it.”
When all else fails, guilt
wins. I do it. And because I’ve kept the commitment, I’ve received
a teaching over the years that goes beyond the intelligence of either the
skeptic or the magic-lover. This knowledge is deeply lunar.
And that it came gradually, across many new moon rituals, is precisely
Rituals can be a means for
joining with the natural order. In ancient traditions, ceremonies
timed to the sun, moon and seasons were genuinely collaborative, a way
to ensure that the natural rhythms were sustained. Fail to keep the
rhythms and the world would sicken. Today we’re hampered by knowing
the sun and moon will rise without our help. We cannot be as convinced,
however, that the world hasn’t sickened without our ritual attentions.
This is not my reason for
keeping new moon ceremonies. It’s more personal. It’s about the
developmental value of repetition, returning to the same moment, with a
similar intent, over time. This is what the moon does, always
bringing the full moon to the eastern horizon at sunset, without fail returning
the waxing crescent to the western sky two weeks later. I return too.
At times I’ll simply mouth words or mime gestures without much feeling
or connection, until at one new moon, I get such a deep “aha!” it resonates
backwards and forward, charging both past and future ceremonies.
Over the next new moon something else is building. Nourished by the
subtle weave of change, reflection and return, transformations come.
We get what anthropologist
Mary Catherine Bateson calls “longitudinal epiphanies,” discoveries
that can only be made by walking the same path again and again.1
It’s a natural mode of learning well suited to ritual. Bates worries
that we are losing our capacity for it. Our desires for freedom,
novelty, entertainment, and speed make a stronger call. We hate being
boxed in. Repeating traditional words and forms feels artificial.
We worry that our ritualized spiritual experience lacks sincerity.
We get bored. Especially if the ritual doesn’t bring instant results,
we may feel like we’ve been conned.
Perhaps we could learn from
children, who can watch, with remarkably little restlessness, the same
video, play the same game, listen to the same story, again and again.
Not only can they do it, they love to do it. To the
observing parent what the child gets from such repetition is often a mystery.
But it might draw from the same reassuring secret the moon tells every
month: “You’re back! Stay awhile. Let’s go deeper.
Who are you now? What do you see?” With each new moon return,
the particulars of our lives may have altered, but there is both continuity
and opportunity in reaching the same temporal crossroads again.
A child watching Land
Before Time over and over can seem possessed, as though the video had
captured her, not the other way around. But what if no ritual
form ever captures us? Can we borrow a ritual from some foreign
tradition? Without its heritage or training, will it have meaning
for us? Or if we decide to invent our own, will it lack the secret
substance and power of forms created by ones spiritually wiser? What
if we regularly show up for the new moon, but improvise our ceremony every
time? Does that count?
I wish I knew the answers.
We live in chaotic times. My sense is that in the coming years, especially
as Pluto moves through Capricorn, our desire to find stable forms and build
stable structures will increase. In the meantime I think of one of
my favorite B movies, “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.” In the movie,
a group of post-apocalyptic children are stranded after an airplane crash.
They learn how to survive in the deserted landscape. But they also
develop rituals honoring their presumed past world, based on objects they
find in the airplane debris – a broken videocassette, a girlie photo, a
post card with the New York skyline. Their assumptions about the
past are wildly inaccurate, but their rituals are creative and inspired.
Reciting their stories, returning to their ritual container, is what holds
together the spirit of these stranded innocents.
We might profit from their
intelligence, despite its fictional source. In the end, it may
matter less which ritual we choose, but that we choose one at all.
It may not matter when we do our rituals either. At the full
moon. On the fifteenth of every month. When a favorite flower
blooms. I happen to like the new moon. A nature-inspired time
of beginning, it offers us a monthly opportunity for renewal, creating
a precious moment for our spiritual return.
Mary Catherine Bateson, Peripheral
Visions, (HarperCollins, 1994), p. 113
MoonTeaching | 2001
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