Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Meaning of Ritual

Have you ever come across a quote that succinctly expresses what it is you've been trying and trying to say but with no avail? That happened to me recently when I came across one by Chinese philosopher, Xunzi, on his thoughts about ritual. While Xunzi was a Confucian I still feel that his 3-part quote transverses cultures, and its origins matter little compared to the message it contains. Either way, it got me to thinking which is always a good thing. Especially since the blog hath been dryeth due to busyness.

The usual disclaimer applies: all you see below is my opinion and my opinion only. I am not speaking for other Gaelic Polytheists or Celtic Reconstructionists.
The meaning of ritual is deep indeed. He who tries to enter it with the kind of perception that distinguishes hard and white, same and different, will drown there.
Ritual is ultimately a mystery. We can try all we might to classify it into formulas or categories but if we give too much into the temptation to do such (until we reach a point of overthinking everything we do), we then lose sight of what ritual is truly for – creating bonds, conveying beliefs, commemorating life moments, and expressing devotion – and we drown.

The religiosity of Gaelic Polytheism is not defined by a system of beliefs (though shared belief does have a place); rather it is a collection of rites, rituals and observances. This is what makes Gaelic Polytheism orthopraxic rather than orthodoxic. While belief is important, what is even more important is what we do and how we do it. 

I feel this quote also touches on religious compartmentalization. For the Iron Age Gaels, religion was not separate from the secular; it permeated all things. I don't believe they even had a word for “religion” (until the Christians arrived that is) because it was simply their way – it wasn't something outside of them that only saw recognition and devotion once a week. We don't see too much of that religious suffusion in today's world. Spirituality doesn't permeate or shade a lot of people's daily living and it's that hard compartmentalization that will also cause one to drown in ritual.
The meaning of ritual is great indeed. He who tries to enter it with the uncouth and inane theories of the system-makers will perish there.
Getting anally over-analytical about ritual and breaking it down into organized inventions removes us from experience. I'm not talking about labeling types of ritual in an effort to teach and convey liturgy – as Annie and I did here. But when you make such an intense study of ritual for perhaps some intellectual need to have power or knowledge over it, you remove yourself from it. You insult it.

I'm not saying we shouldn't try to understand what things are for and why we do what tradition says we should do. Humans question, it's natural. But if you are studying so much that you are not doing, I think you've created a problem. Theories can be interesting and enlightening to be sure. But don't make a practice solely out of study – to practice means to apply, to do, to perform. Close the books for a bit. Do. Ritual.
The meaning of ritual is lofty indeed. He who tries to enter with the violent and arrogant ways of those who despise common customs and consider themselves to be above other men will meet his downfall there.
For me, this harkens back to my recent ruminations on spirituality not being a pissing contest (thoughts to come in a blog post once I can coherently form them). One cannot perform ritual with a reverent heart if deep down you believe yourself to be above it intellectually, or if you hold contempt for tradition.

Intent is what matters most in ritual. It's okay if you fub-up or make mistakes, or if sometimes the motions are rote because in the end what matters is are you filled with reverence? Are you approaching ritual with a means to honor (even if perhaps you are under the weather and the best you can do is rote)? Do you have a respectful mindset (have you taken your ego out of the ritual)? There is no room whatsoever in ritual for ego and/or entitlements.

I'm not saying leave your brain behind – after all the gods want us to be intelligent and have our own mind – but I don't feel they want us overly haughty. Be boastful at the feast if you must, but I feel ritual should be left for the gods, ancestors, and spirits, and for forming spiritual and communal bonds with those you perform it with – not to fan your ego.

I'm also of the mind that tradition should be consulted for everything. After the gods, and family, friends, and community – in terms of loyalty – for me, comes tradition. I could go on and on about my thoughts on tradition but I'll just refer you to Annie's excellent post on the subject because she has voiced a great many of my same thoughts on the matter and I see no need for repetition :)

Practice and ritual will of course have varied appearances in different families and communities because we'll each interpret tradition in our own way (and let's be honest, no one can perform every custom ever recorded so instead we find what works best for us within the plethora of tradition), and due to locale some things will need to be adapted to fit with a region. But at the core will be those shared beliefs that make us Gaelic Polytheists: the Dé ocus An-Dé; the realms of land, sea and sky; the sacred center; the well; the hearth; offerings; ethics; language; our festivals; etcetera...

Gilbert K. Chesterson spoke of tradition as a democracy extending through time. In his words, “Tradition means giving the vote to the most obscure of all classes—our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead...” As a friend of Annie and I has said, tradition is a bright cord that connects the entire Gaelic cultural continuum; a continuum that we ourselves as Gaelic Polytheists are a part of as well and it deserves our honor and loyalty.

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