MoonTeachings for September/October 2001:

Ritual and Longitudinal Epiphanies
by Dana Gerhardt

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 the point. 

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. 

1 Mary Catherine Bateson, Peripheral Visions, (HarperCollins, 1994), p. 113

© 2001 Dana Gerhardt
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