The candle is lit in its decorative tin, nestled among the moss and damp pine needles of the forest floor. We sit quietly for a few minutes, watching the flame catch and grow, dancing its reflections across the small bowl of water next to it. We breathe deeply in the silence of the woods. Our senses reach down to meet the spongy ground and the hard rock beneath; our breath opens up to the sky above, the wan sunlight of early spring filtering down through the still bare trees.
Suddenly, from the east — the sound of wings. A pileated woodpecker swoops in across our sacred space to join us, hitching himself to the decaying snag only a few feet from where we sit in silent meditation. Collectively, we catch our breaths, though we can’t suppress our widening grins. The little red-capped priest of the mountain has arrived. He taps out his homily in syncopated rhythms, and the whole hollow drum of the dead tree responds. Without a word, our rite has begun.
In her book Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, comparative religions scholar Catherine Bell notes that one common approach to classifying ritual “distinguishes instrumental rituals, which attempt to accomplish something, from expressive rituals, which voice feelings or communicate ideas.” This dichotomy between instrumental and expressive has traditionally been seen as the primary distinction between magic and religion: nonrational symbolic acts that aim to bring about a particular practical result in the world or within one’s self are magical, whereas “so-called higher or devotional rites are a purer form of disinterested worship,” religious to the extent that they are nonutilitarian.
This approach to classifying ritual has led many anthropologists to view magic itself as a kind of “failed science,” an attempt made in ignorance to control and manipulate the forces of nature, acting on false premises about patterns of relationship and causality. Many anthropologists have even concluded that magic is therefore the antithesis of religion, being more concerned with manipulative power than with selfless worship. At the same time, they treat it as merely the embarrassing progenitor of “real” science, with no more to teach and nothing of relevance to contribute to the epistemology of more enlightened modern times.
Most theorists today recognize that this kind of classification is problematic. In part, because of the ethnocentric biases that led anthropologists to rank magic and religion on a hierarchy of humanity’s supposed evolution from “primitive” to “civilized” worldviews. And in part, because these two categories cannot possibly account for the wide variety of rites and rituals that we perform throughout our lives, including not only the religious and magical, but also the socio-political, familial and personal. Ritual theory has shifted from the structuralist-functionalist perspective that asks, “What do rituals do?” to a performative-linguistic approach that asks instead, “What do rituals mean?”
In answering the question, “What do rituals mean?” scholars have proposed many more comprehensive and complex ways of categorizing ritual activity. Bell herself suggests six basic genres: rites of passage; calendrical and commemorative rites; rites of exchange and communion; rites of affliction; rites of feasting, fasting and festivals; and political rites. We can divide these genres even further if we like. For instance, rites of passage include birth and naming rituals, coming-of-age rites, marriage ceremonies and funerary rites, among others. Each of these rites of passage, where a person moves from one stage of the life-cycle to the next, acknowledges a tension between the biological and social, the natural and the cultural. Lincoln saw these tensions expressed in a pattern of transformation (enclosure, metamorphosis and emergence), while van Gennep characterized it as a kind of journey (separation, liminality and reincorporation). Each of these could be seen as aspects of Campbell’s seventeen stages of the hero’s journey as reflected in many mythological narratives all over the world; in fact, each of Campbell’s stages could themselves be enacted as rituals, either personal or social. The many ways that scholars have categorized and organized the messy multitude of ritual forms and activities in human society are almost endless.
And yet, the question “What do rituals mean?” does not itself allow us to escape the old distinction between instrumental and expressive rites — it merely directs our focus almost exclusively to the expressive, communicative aspects of those rituals. The tension between magic and religion continues to rear its head even today (as we can see in the endless debates between witchcraft-inspired Neopagans and devotional polytheists, for example).
The writer Anne Lamott has said that there are three essential prayers: Help me!, Thank you! and Wow! We might see the first two of these three as a beautiful encapsulation of instrumental vs. expressive rites: help me to change the world or myself, and thank you, an expression of appreciation, the idea of gratitude communicated to another.
Ritual as Celebration
My spirituality has always been celebratory. The world is an incredible place, even in its disaster and indifference. But all the more when we realize this seeming indifference is a veil that can at times be suddenly twitched aside to reveal a reality that is intimately interconnected. With the sudden sound of wings in the east, we are reminded that all things participate in the winding, intertwining melodies of existence, an ecology of the sacred.
This is the primary purpose of ritual in my life. I do not shy away from words like “worship” or “devotion” to describe what I do, because I believe that the world and all its beings — the gods, the beloved dead, the spirits of the land, and other people, human and non-human alike — are deeply worthy of love and respect. In ritual, I take a moment to affirm this love through attention and movement, “poetry in the realm of acts,” that I might be fully present to the world around me and those who share it with me. For me, ritual is a kind of creative self-giving.
Recently, I was researching the idea of cultus, which is usually used to mean a particular form of devotion or worship dedicated to a deity (or, in Roman Catholicism, a saint — as in, for example, “the cultus of St. Anne”). The word cultus comes from the Latin, and is usually translated to mean simply worship or reverence, but it can also evoke a sense of care and nurturing. It’s related to words like “culture” and “cultivation.” Cultus is the past participle of the verb colere, a word that means “to till (the soil),” but also has the additional meanings “to dwell” and “to move around.” Tracing back even further, this Latin verb comes from the Proto-Indo-European root \*kwel-— “to roll, to move around, to turn about” — which has given rise to an amazing variety of interrelated words, such as colony, collar, cycle, pole, polished, and even chakra, as well as the words for wheel in Old English, Old Norse and Old Russian.
Unearthing this rich linguistic history reminds me of the old Welsh proverb, “A man can’t plow a field by turning it over in his mind.” Ritual is not simply an attitude or intention, just as love is not simply a feeling. At its most basic, ritual is something that you do. A man can’t plow a field just by thinking about it, he must go out to the field and get to work. Yet if he is fully present to the work and acts with mindfulness and loving attention — that is, if he brings his whole self along — then even as he turns over the rich soil beneath his plow, he turns it over in his mind and heart as well. The act of tilling the soil becomes an act of tilling the soul.
This is an essential aspect of celebratory ritual. When we light a candle in our ritual space, we ignite a flame within ourselves. When we pour water or burn incense as offerings, we offer ourselves as well, to soak into the earth or rise in gentle wisps of smoke towards the sky. Imagining these things is not enough — the work demands that we engage not only with our minds and hearts, but with our bodies. This is the original meaning of celebration: a gathering, a time of coming together. We’ve come to think of celebration as an occasion for happiness and enjoyment, because this sense of wholeness that we find in company with ourselves and with others is deeply nourishing and joyful for us. But celebratory spirituality also means being fully present to sorrow and suffering, and giving our whole selves as much to hard work and discipline as to pleasure and delight. Celebratory ritual is about our willingness to be fully present to the world and its gods.
But there is another reason why ritual as an embodied activity is so important. It takes us beyond ourselves and puts us in touch with the world around us in a powerful way. Or rather, it reminds us that we are always in touch with and participating in that world; it restores us to a full awareness of that interconnection. When we approach ritual with loving intention, making ourselves fully present and available to our gods and the wider universe, we open ourselves up to possibility. Celebratory ritual is an invitation. Spirit arrives on noisy wings out of nowhere. (Or, sometimes, it doesn’t, and we find ourselves instead plunged into the unexpected hush of mystery.)
This isn’t just a metaphor. Anyone who has been practicing Paganism or any form of earth-centered spirituality for very long knows what it’s like to have a perfectly planned ritual disrupted by a rainstorm, or an altar fire suddenly flare or snuff out entirely with a turn of the wind. But they probably also know the wonder of those moments when the clouds unexpectedly part to show a glimpse of sunny sky, or a wild animal suddenly arrives in the midst of the ceremony space to grace the community with her presence. These are the moments when we whisper, Wow! — an awe-struck prayer.
When we are fully present to the rituals we do, these unexpected events shape us. I think it’s no coincidence that cultus, worship, is the past participle of colere, to cultivate. We not only nurture our sacred relationships through ritual, but we are nurtured by them as well. In ritual, we move, and we are moved. We turn the soil to prepare the soul for sowing, and we ourselves are turned and transformed. We connect, and we are connected. We open, and we are opened. We are present with our whole being, and so our whole being is drawn into presence.