The Power of Ritual -or- You’re Doing That Wrong

The Power of Ritual -or- You’re Doing That Wrong October 22, 2012

I’ve participated in a bunch of rituals. From creating them, to fixing them, to just letting someone else create them, and rituals have an amazing amount of power. Unless you do them wrong. I can think of a lot of ways they were done wrong.

At a local Transgender Day of Remembrance service I attended, the participants read out the names of the trans women and men who had been killed that year, then lit candles. You would think that would be moving. It would have been, but the room was sunny and bright. And lighting candles is an act of power, putting candles out is an act of remembrance. It felt like we were adding light, rather than losing the light of the lives of very precious people.

I’ve been to interfaith services created to recognize and lament the death of people (like 9/11 services) where it’s been more about introducing the individuals in the arena who have power than it is about recognizing our loss of power through death. When the first speaker gets up to speak for 15 minutes and you realize that he or she is only really introducing the next speaker, who will then take 22 minutes to introduce the next speaker. Those really just become ego fests, and not really rituals.

I’ve been services on Dec. 17, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers that have been so politicized that I’ve not felt like it was  ritual at all, but rather a political rally.

When you create a ritual, ask yourself what your purpose is. Are you there for politicized reasons? Make sure you call it a rally or march, not a service. Are you there to introduce the powerful people, or to show off your inclusivity? Then, by all means, please cancel your service. No one needs to be there for that. Are you there to remember people who have died? Are you there to help people who are grieving? Are you there to help people come to terms with their own pain? Are you there to empower someone to come forward, to confess their sins or to admit the truth about their lives? For example, a service of remembrance for intimate violence survivors might have two purposes: to help those grieving the loss of their own safety and to help those currently suffering from intimate violence have the strength to find a way out.

Next, make sure that the elements of your ritual are in line with that purpose. A celebration of graduation should have different elements than a service of remembrance. There’s a seminary here, called the Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond, and they give each graduate a towel, engraved with their name, as a symbol of the service that the graduates will do in ministry—a symbol of leadership that begins with washing the feet of your charges. For services of remembrance, many symbols can work, but tolling a bell, snuffing candles, and silence work great.

Honor safety and silence. Please, please, please. Never ask anyone to admit anything on the spot. Don’t ask for a show of hands. Don’t laugh at people. Don’t make light of a serious subject. Don’t endanger the safety of people by outing them. And don’t give people’s real names and real addresses, ever.

Be attuned to the needs of the congregation or audience. I heard of a funeral one time where they did an open mic. The decedent was a loyal, loving, amazing gay man, and he had, throughout his life, changed people’s minds about homosexuality. He had an amazing way about him, that I can’t explain. Anyway, at his service, they gave people an opportunity to speak. A young man stood up to the microphone, began crying, and then confessed, “I’m gay.” He wasn’t out, he had never told anyone. Was this really the time to do that? It’s not that the young man was wrong to come out at a funeral. But his emotions probably got ahead of his brain, and he outed himself in a space with no support. Did anyone follow up with the young man? I don’t know…

Honor emotions, but don’t play with them. It’s easy to manipulate an audience into feeling something sad. It’s even easy to get them to react with anger. But ritual is about feeling what they already feel, not creating new emotions. A service of remembrance is for people who are already saddened about the death of loved ones. Give an outlet to feel those emotions people already feel, don’t create new ones for them to deal with.

Honor traditions. There’s a reason why people start crying at certain hymns. Those hymns remind them of other situations where loved ones have died, or where strong emotions have been felt. There’s a reason why ritual works: it doesn’t just tag our emotions right in that moment, but it brings emotions from the past into play, too. Feeling emotions is good. And those traditional means to do it is good, too. Singing a song to the tune of Amazing Grace (with more appropriate lyrics) can be good. Or saying the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema can be good, too. Even if everyone doesn’t share the same tradition, those traditions can be healing for some, and can be transitioned into good emotions for others.

Ask for help. If you’ve been given the task of creating a ritual, call a local clergy person. We do this for a living. We like ritual. For many of us, the power of ritual is one reason we’re clergy.

Bad rituals suck. They can have the opposite effect of good rituals. I have left many a service feeling empty, angry, and even violated. And if someone feels that way at the end of your ritual, you’re doing that wrong.


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