We are among the first peoples in human history who do not broadly inherit religious identity as a given, a matter of kin and tribe, like hair color and hometown. But the very fluidity of this—the possibility of choice that arises, the ability to craft and discern one’s own spiritual bearings—is not leading to the decline of spiritual life but its revival. It is changing us, collectively. It is even renewing religion, and our cultural encounter with religion, in counter-intuitive ways. I meet scientists who speak of a religiosity without spirituality—a reverence for the place of ritual in human life, and the value of human community, without a need for something supernaturally transcendent. There is something called the New Humanism, which is in dialogue about moral imagination and ethical passions across boundaries of belief and non-belief.
But I apprehend— with a knowledge that is as much visceral as cognitive— that God is love. That somehow the possibility of care that can transform us— love muscular and resilient— is an echo of a reality behind reality, embedded in the creative force that gives us life.
― Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living
The gestures poems make are the same as the gestures of ritual injunction — curse; exorcism; prayer; underlying everything perhaps, the attempt to make someone or something live again. Both poet and shaman make a model that stands for the whole. Substitution, symbolic substitution. The mind conceives that something lived, or might live. Implicit is the demand to understand. The memorial that is ward and warning. Without these ancient springs poems are merely more words.
I also realized that there were lots of unacknowledged theater forms going on all around. Our lives are filled with performances that have been so woven into our daily routine that the artificial and performative aspect has slipped into invisibility.
I may appear to suffer from some sort of compulsive repetition syndrome, but these rituals are important to me. I have many places where I sit and think, “I have been here before, I am here now, and I will be here again.” Sometimes, lost in reverie, I remember myself approaching across the same green, or down the same footpath, in 1962 or 1983, or many other times. Sometimes Chaz comes along on my rituals, but just as often I go alone. Sometimes Chaz will say she’s going shopping, or visiting a friend, or just staying in the room and reading in bed. “Why don’t you go and touch your bases?” she’ll ask me. I know she sympathizes. These secret visits are a way for me to measure the wheel of the years and my passage through life. Sometimes on this voyage through life we need to sit on the deck and regard the waves.
People have traditionally turned to ritual to help them frame and acknowledge and ultimately even find joy in just such a paradox of being human – in the fact that so much of what we desire for our happiness and need for our survival comes at a heavy cost. We kill to eat, we cut down trees to build our homes, we exploit other people and the earth. Sacrifice – of nature, of the interests of others, even of our earlier selves – appears to be an inescapable part of our condition, the unavoidable price of all our achievements. A successful ritual is one that addresses both aspects of our predicament, recalling us to the shamefulness of our deeds at the same time it celebrates what the poet Frederick Turner calls “the beauty we have paid for with our shame.” Without the double awareness pricked by such rituals, people are liable to find themselves either plundering the earth without restraint or descending into self-loathing and misanthropy.
― Michael Pollan, A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder
“I don’t know if I ever told you,” my therapist said. “But I’m a birder. I love birds. And when they hit a window like that, or get hurt in any significant way, they have this ritual. They shake off the pain. They shake off the trauma. And they walk in circles to reconnect their brain and body and soul. When your bird was walking and shaking, it was remembering and relearning how to be a bird.” Oh, wow. I couldn’t say much after that intense revelation, but my therapist continued. “We humans often lose touch with our bodies,” she said. “We forget that we can also shake away our pain and trauma.”
Some tribal cultures believe that the act of creation takes place through music. They literally sing their homes, their villages and their valleys into existence. They keep them strong and real regularly and ritually through music and belief. It’s a little like prayer, isn’t it? Somewhere in the world, someone is chanting their own universe into being right now. We modern folk are not so different from this. We speak of being in tune, of needing harmony and rhythm to feel complete and alive. We create our own realities with our words and our songs, our eyes and our hands. Each world is defined by our own outline, the envelope of skin and nerves and light and air we inhabit. Every time we push against something, we feel ourselves.
The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around.
I have read the story of a tribe in southern Africa called the Babemba in which a person doing something wrong, something that destroys this delicate social net, brings all work in the village to a halt. The people gather around the “offender,” and one by one they begin to recite everything he has done right in his life: every good deed, thoughtful behavior, act of social responsibility. These things have to be true about the person, and spoken honestly, but the time-honored consequence of misbehavior is to appreciate that person back into the better part of himself. The person is given the chance to remember who he is and why he is important to the life of the village.
I want to live under such a practice of compassion. When I forget my place, when I lash out with some private wounding in a public way, I want to be remembered back into alignment with my self and my purpose. I want to live with the opportunity for reconciliation. When someone around me is thoughtless or cruel, I want to be given the chance to respond with a ritual that creates the possibility of reconnection. I want to live in a neighborhood where people don’t shoot first, don’t sue first, where people are Storycatchers willing to discover in strangers the mirror of themselves.
―Christina Baldwin, Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story