It’s Time for New Rituals

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What are rituals?

The Cambridge Dictionary offers a fairly inclusive definition of ritual:

a set of fixed actions and sometimes words performed regularly, especially as part of a ceremony:

Coffee and the newspaper are part of my morning ritual.

The birds were performing a complex mating ritual.

If you search for rituals on Medium, you would be forgiven for thinking that rituals are all about productivity, happiness and magick. They can include those things, but there’s much more lost to cultures that don’t understand, appreciate and cultivate rituals.

Rituals aren’t material. There is no profit motive. They are not dependent on technology- they get their power from human creativity, intellect and spirit.

Crucially, rituals are not divisive. Whether they are for you, for family, your faith community, or even a nation, rituals are fundamentally about helping us to understand our world and out place in it.

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What do rituals provide?

Rituals help us create meaning, understanding and connection.

They provide markers for us as individuals, as families and friends, and as cultures.

Rituals help to guide and teach us. Rituals give us the courage and belief that we can do what must be done.

When done well, rituals beat back the modern plagues of loneliness, disconnection and the diminution of elders. They remind us that we are part and parcel of overlapping and connected communities.

Rituals remind us that our thoughts, intentions and actions matter. Rituals, in short, make us more humane.

Rituals enhance life — all life. And in their decline and absence, rituals call out to be heard.

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What has happened to rituals?

Ask this question to anyone who understands the importance of rituals and you are likely to get an array of varied and valid answers. Here are a few that scratch at the surface:

  • The unstoppable rise of the individual in dominant cultures
  • The precipitous loss of trust in institutions that shaped public opinion, especially religious communities
  • The complete seepage of neoliberal capitalism into all aspects our lives, insisting that everything be valued against dollars or productivity

From these examples, we see a rise in individual rituals and an absence of those that build community.

We witness a steady decline in church attendance while the need for chaplains grows.

And we see people struggle to afford homes after lavish weddings, while others go into debt just to bury a loved one.

But the truth is, this can all be healed.

Rituals do not require qualifications. They simply demand that we follow some simple rules, use our inherent imaginations, work on what’s important, and call people in.

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Where is the need for new rituals?

Where does your heart hurt?

That’s not a rhetorical question- it is step one. What in your heart, your family’s heart, your community’s heart? What demands illumination, blessing or healing? Whatever it is, start there. Here are some examples of rituals that I could get behind:

  • Grief — So much was lost in 2020, how do we even begin to grieve? Maybe a place to start is a ritual that honors the grief we all have and invites everyone to speak or name the losses.
  • Relationships — In the midst of a partnership that is still riding out the wakes of all kinds of pressures, I have imagined what it would be like to have a ceremony that celebrates all that has been good and loving between two people who are either separating or deciding to stay together.
  • Racism — It has become a meme that the most white people are willing to do to fight racism is join a book club. While book clubs have their rituals, this wouldn’t be a joke if it wasn’t true. For the white folks (self included) with good intentions but little direction, creating rituals that focus on identifying change points, taking action and continually evolving might be one start to finding an end.
  • Migration — For most migrants, the only formal ritual they receive in their new home is a citizenship ceremony. What if community members welcomed them from the start on a regular basis? I acknowledge that there are people who do try to make life easier for migrants, but I am imagining a true community-wide effort. Not only would it improve outlooks, it would quite likely have a quick effect on politics.

These are only snowflakes on a glacier. Wherever there is a need, a ritual can work to fill it.

The same is true for rituals that we do as individuals. I would stress that “productivity” and “happiness” are likely external. Search your spirit for what it is you are really after — you could even create a ritual around that seeking.

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How do we begin?

Now more than ever, the time for experts is over. While there are brilliant people (e.g. Michael Meade) who can illustrate the power of myth and rituals, to create what we want we must do the work in our own communities.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Follow the rules —Think of actions and words that, when performed regularly, will work to the ends you hold hope for. Be open to the power of mystery.
  • Use your imagination — Take back your boredom and strangle the desire for distraction. Rituals allow for all of our individual and collective creativity. Have you noticed how we are awash in leaders and drowning in sorrow? Our creativity has been shadowed by technology, by the material, by bad philosophy and terrible politics. In our imaginations lies liberation.
  • Focus on what’s vital — Your heart and spirit know what is needed. That may be something for the self, or your ancestral line, or even something that heals the world. Do not overcommit. Learn the ritual ropes and give attention to one or two things that matter. Your experience and knowledge is better served sharing with others than trying to solve all the problems.
  • Call people in — That last point leads here. Yes, you can do rituals that are just for you, or just your fam. But changing the world requires participation, so call on people you trust, then call on others who care. Call them in by offering them something old and new — the ancient power of rituals to solve now-age problems.
  • Get started — Finally, don’t overthink. Rituals are an old technology, and they are a part of our DNA. They are waiting for us, calling to us to discover anew. Don’t keep change waiting — the world needs you.

Rituals provide us with power to illuminate and co-create a world that we know in our hearts is possible. Start today, create tomorrow.

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Chris Turner

Chris Turner

Interfaith minister & spiritual companion writing about spirituality, chaplaincy, and humanness— more at https://innerfaith.life