The Power of Rituals: A Re-Frame That Mattered

To lose ritual is to lose the way. It is a condition not only painful and pathetic but also dangerous… As for the whole society, sooner or later it will find rituals again … Rituals have much to do with our fate.
–Tom Driver, The Magic of Rituals

My fascination with the power of rituals, more than any other one factor, summoned my return to congregational leadership. Like Tom Driver I was feeling the loss of empowering rituals. Take, for instance, the rituals of initiation into adulthood. For most youth the ritual is reduced to getting a driver’s license. For a few it’s joining the army or walking the Appalachian Trail or some comparable clear, challenging transition event. And still fewer experience a meaningful bar mitzvah, baptism, or confirmation. Even weddings and funerals have become more private, seen by many as necessary but not embraced by a larger community of friends and family. Driver’s conclusion became mine: “To lose ritual is to lose the way … Rituals have much to do with our fate.”

At mid-life I took a second look at the church and observed rituals all over the place. I took a closer look and saw, as if for the first time, how the very core of the pastor’s call is to create and lead rituals. I took an ever closer look and noticed the lack of transforming power in most of these rituals most of the time.

Let’s review the array of rituals. As pastors you design and lead the standing rituals of the church that mark the major life-cycle transitions of birth, adolescence-adulthood, marriage, and death, as well as the occasional ordination. All these markers of human development are in addition to weekly rituals of worship with sacred song and story, bread and cup, Word and Sacrament. Then, add to this abundance the rituals in pastoral care that seldom are named as such. Pastors create private ritual space for those experiencing personal and familial crises. Both are called for: the established rituals you lead repeatedly; the rituals you establish as needed.

I returned to parish ministry with the desire to accentuate the potential of rituals. I brought with me a frame that became a re-frame that mattered. This new pair of glasses came from the early tribal wisdom of “initiation” or “rite of passage” available to us from the research by anthropologists Arnold Van Gennep and Victor Turner. A rite of passage calls for three stages: separation … open to challenge … return transformed. Victor Turner highlighted the in-between period of challenge as “liminal space.” Limen is Latin for “threshold.” They observed young males being separated from their mothers, taken by older males across a “threshold” (limen) into an open, unknown space where their capacity for manhood was tested. Then, they returned to the village, crossing back over the “threshold” (limen) as men, no longer boys, picking up adult privileges and responsibilities.

Note the movement: crossing one threshold from the familiar and comfortable to a time of uncomfortable questing and questioning within a contained space both protected and empty. Then, in time the initiated would re-cross the original threshold as a different person. In short, from separation to liminal space to re-entry changed. Or, another description: from order to dis-order to re-order.

Try on these glasses with me. Let’s start with corporate worship. In public worship, as leader, you create liminal space by drawing from your tradition. Congregants, by walking through an entrance into the church building, are crossing a threshold (limen). As they do they are invited to leave behind the pressing concerns of their ordinary, day-to-day lives. They are welcomed into another kind of inner and outer space where it’s “open season” on the meaning of their lives. They position their lives as vulnerable to the awe of divine Mystery experienced through silence, symbol, and story. For an hour or so the cell phone is muted along with other external distractions. Congregants are encouraged to relax into sanctuary, to settle into a protected community and be alert to any sign and surprise of grace. Within this liminal space, you are liturgical guides that call on a range of symbols — written, sung, spoken, silent, embodied — all of which kindle experiences of the Sacred. In some small, mostly unconscious way, everyone is asking once again the big, existential questions: Who am I? Who are we? What really matters? What can I let go of? What am I to do? What are we called to do?

Then, after this Service of Worship, congregants cross back over the threshold, returning to their ordinary lives but not totally the same persons. To some degree, likely a degree not definable, worshipers re-enter their familiar lives slightly transformed.

Or take a look at funerals. Here you are not only creating liminal space, you are naming the liminal space that the grieving family and friends are already experiencing. Framing the event as safe liminal space is the gift. For a brief but “full” time, family and friends leave their normal lives, cross a threshold into an intentional numinous place where the meaning of life and death is faced in intense, raw, profound ways. Then, following this extra-ordinary time, everyone returns to their daily lives, changed. You and I cannot contemplate our relationship with a loved one’s life and death without reviewing our own. We cannot remain untouched. We are changed.

Weddings follow the same pattern. The engaged couple enters the liminal space (sanctuary) from separate directions, meeting at the altar standing before the priest/pastor. Within this sacred space they ritualize their union to be broken only by death. Then they exit down the aisle together, crossing the threshold, re-entering their community as a new unit, a new family. Transformation has occurred, visible and irrefutable.

Confirmation, baptism — whatever the tradition — follows the same pattern: separation from ordinary time into liminal space in which a new identity is declared, and then the return with the new identity to be embodied. For the Apostle Paul, the rite of baptism mirrors vividly this ancient wisdom: the person separating from or dying to ego-centeredness as immersed under water. And under water the person is out of control, trusting and then finally lifted out of the water, rising to “walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:1-5) Notice the movement: separation, surrender, and re-entry as a changed person, or if you prefer, from order, to dis-order, then re-order.

In pastoral care this three-fold pattern is not so obvious. Let’s make it obvious. There are dual aspects: you are both creating liminal space and naming crises as liminal events. It’s what pastoral care is.

On one hand, you create sacred space. There is the crossing of a threshold — whether the door to your office or front door to a home or coming from the outside and sitting down at a restaurant table. The person or family are invited into an out-of-the-ordinary, separate place for conversation and prayer. Within this secure, protected, and confidential space, the crisis or challenge is explored. This place of non-judgment and assumed confidentiality allows for life experience shared, questions raised, healing invited, decisions made. Then, with the time completed, persons cross back over the threshold, returning to their ordinary lives altered to some degree.

In addition, as pastors with these ritual lenses, you have the authority to frame a person’s crisis as liminal. The crisis itself thrusts them out of their ordinary lives into a place of disequilibrium where questions of identity and meaning are raised in bold relief. In these instances, you help them structure their disruptive experience as liminal, that is, offering a holding space that is pregnant with birthing possibilities.

For example, consider a person grieving the loss of a job held for decades or a marriage broken after many years or the loss of health not to be regained or the death of a loved one. This grieving itself is liminal. It is heart-breaking and possibly soul-making. The suffering, not to be denied or even relieved, can be embraced as a painful invitation to deeper places of acceptance, forgiveness, grace, and new life. This is your gift: framing the situation as liminal where new questions are engaged, new possibilities surface, and letting go is invited. You are given the pastoral authority to structure intentionally your care in this way. You mark the separation, set the boundary of liminal space, and assist in the birthing of new life.

This is an example of naming and structuring ritual space. Lois, let’s call her, was still experiencing profound grief. It had been three years since waking up one morning to experience her husband’s dead body beside her. She had been processing her gift with a psychiatrist, close friends, and me. But the grief remained heavy within her. She so wanted to move on with her life but couldn’t. She asked me one day, “Mahan, this may be a silly thought, but since there is a ceremony for putting on the wedding ring is there a ceremony for taking it off?” “Not silly at all,” I was quick to say. “It makes total sense.”

Lois and I set up a time in her home for the ritual. Slowly she recounted the history of the ring: shopping for it; the moment when Jack placed it on her finger in the wedding celebration; her refusal to take off the ring even during a couple of surgeries; and a few other memories I cannot recall. We talked about a place of honor where the ring would be placed. This was an attempt to acknowledge that her relationship with the ring, as with Jack, is never ended. The ring changes its place, just as her relationship with Jack changes, but neither relationship is terminated. In time she was ready for me to remove the ring. I did. We remained in prayer and silence for a while. Then she placed the ring in its new place along with other prime treasures.

You see in this ritual that Lois and I separated from our daily pursuits, created together a safe, sacred space in her home, and eventually left to return to our ordinary interests. But the ritual itself also incorporated all the marks of a rite of passage: preparation of separation through story telling, then the separation of the ring from her finger, and finally the placement of the ring in its new place. This home-made ritual embodied her desire to take another step away from what was but no longer is. The ritual provided concreteness.

I’m lifting up this dual perspective of pastoral care: often we invite people who know they are in crisis into liminal space, as we do by making appointments; at other times, we create tailor-made rituals to frame some disorienting crisis, as I did with Lois.

In this reflection I want to re-kindle, if needed, the appreciation of your role as ritual creator and leader. This is your privilege, one that is unique to your profession. If, as theologian Tom Driver says, “To lose ritual is to lose our way,” then you are uniquely positioned to help us find “our way” through carefully crafted rituals. And to aid you in this call, I’m pointing to the early wisdom of indigenous peoples who can teach us about the power of rituals. Their understanding is timeless, namely, the movement in rites of passage through separation from the ordinary order … to liminal disorder with openness to challenge … then to the return, re-ordered or transformed to some degree. For me it became a re-frame that mattered.

2 Responses to The Power of Rituals: A Re-Frame That Mattered

  1. Nancy Sehested says:

    Ritual is a reason that I love the church too. It tells the story vividly. It gives us sacred ways to mark the journey. And I still remember those cultural anthropology courses that taught me so much about ritual. I’m grateful you brought those scholars into the re-frame too.
    Thank you so much.

    Like

  2. Jim McCoy says:

    Good morning, Mahan.

    Thank you for this Re-Frame. I’ve read it several times. So helpful in so many ways:

    I think it was Robert Frost who said the purpose of poetry is to raise the level of experience to a plane of higher regard. This re-frame provides us oft-jaded preachers a framework for us to raise and honor each and every personal/pastoral encounter – at ‘home’ and at ‘work.’

    And, of course, the three-fold pattern of separation, liminal threshold, and re-entry, strikes deeply as I’m trying to savor these swirling days.

    Wanted to ask if you will still be able to attend the service on May 21. The service starts at 10:30 followed by lunch. After lunch, we’ll gather back in the sanctuary for a brief, informal time of music and a few ‘reflections’ (4-5 minutes) given by 4-5 folks. Would you be one of those? I’d be honored, but understand completely if that would make for too long a day. Just let me know and I can tell you more about it.

    Gratefully,

    Jim

    _____

    Liked by 1 person

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