I assisted with a ‘Blessing of the Animals’ ritual recently that was certainly fun, but also surprisingly meaningful. Immediately following this, I helped a group of friends with the dedication of a bench to a loved one who died some months ago; that was similarly moving. I couldn’t help but feel a deep need behind the enthusiastic appreciation that many expressed after each experience. Perhaps hunger is a better word to describe this need because of the way people seemed to savor every morsel of the simple rituals.
The response suggested to me that we are missing something important in our human process that used to be served by religion: meaningful rituals. We are meaning-making creatures and one of the ways we find or make meaning is through ritual. And, by the way, by religion I’m thinking of the meaning and purpose-making that true religion provides through reconnecting us to the world we share. The roots of the word – re-ligare (to bind back together) – reflect this reconnecting role.
It got me thinking about what in recent blogs I’ve called an ‘everybody’s spirituality’: a spirituality that is both relevant and accessible. By relevant I mean something that helps make sense of everyday things and inspires hope in the face of everyday challenges. By accessible I mean something that we can do for ourselves without the permission or oversight of a professional.
I’ve attempted to define spirituality as simply experience (and understanding of) the deeper dimensions of life that offers meaning and purpose and points to a way of living that reflects this. Spirituality, then, is the implementation of religion. I’ve suggested that there is a critical need for spirituality like this in a world that is experiencing enormous changes that have challenged old senses of meaning and purpose and undermined old ways of living. Thomas Berry, who, some of you know, was my Ph.D. mentor, wrote about religion and spirituality in this way:
“…we will recover our sense of wonder and our sense of the sacred only if we appreciate the universe beyond ourselves as a revelatory experience of that numinous presence whence all things came into being. Indeed, the universe is the primary sacred reality. We become sacred by our participation in this more sublime dimension of the world about us.” Thomas Berry, “The Wild and the Sacred,” in The Great Work, 49.
The changes that continue to happen at an accelerated rate have already threatened the institutions that have guided our lives in the past. This should, of course, lead to a recovery and renewal of the original vision that inspired each institution. The German sociologist and philosopher, Max Weber, spoke of the ‘routinization’ of the original vision of an institution and the renewal it demands as a normal part of the process of change. However, an unfortunate reaction to change can be a reversion to a kind of tribalism. In the religious context this takes the form of fundamentalism. And, while the latter can give the impression of being solid in the sense of going back to the foundations, I believe it is actually an early stage of transition that reflects the challenge of letting go and grieving the passing of old ways and old beliefs. Other less obvious forms of this fundamentalism include what sometimes feels like a kind of worship of science and technology as the new religion where many see infinite potential that will finally address all our issues, including meaning and purpose, as well as our way of living. However, fundamentalism, with its defensive insistence on literalism, actually lessens our sense of wonder and, thereby, our development.
Fortunately, there is also something else happening in our planetary maelstrom, and that is a movement to recover the essentials of spirituality, as Berry describes it, by searching beneath the surface of ordinary things and finding the sacred. In practices that range from yoga to tai chi and from running (last time I spoke of the beauty that the participants in the Leatherman’s Loop experience) to dancing, many are finding ways to experience the numinous presence that Berry speaks of. Some are also exploring more obviously religion-related practices that range from the blessing of animals to the many forms of memorializing that the bench ritual represents. Rituals, like all of these are, can clearly enhance our sense of wonder and the sacred and enable us to encounter the numinous presence, whence all things came into being, as Berry puts it. For Berry, ordinary life – the universe – is the primary sacred reality. In other words, we find the sacred – God – in the real, here and now of the everyday. Berry concludes that we actually become sacred by our participation in this more sublime dimension of the world about us. I believe that this is a way of describing the human process of becoming – of realizing – our infinite, eternal self. For we are the universe’s expression of wonder.
This thought stirs a couple of things in my mind as I reflect on what I believe is a critical aspect of human survival today, whether you see this as the literal survival of the species or the survival of that which makes us human. The first is awakening and the other is connecting.
I’ve come to believe that human becoming is essentially an awakening process; an ever-expanding awareness. One of the reasons I love the poets – and indeed all artists – and see them, in fact, as the prophets and seers of today, is that they reflect this awakening process and serve as catalysts or reminders for the rest of us, the way the prophets of old did. One of my favorite poets – Rainer Maria Rilke – suggests that our awakening actually serves the unfolding cosmic process of God: God’s becoming, as it were:
What will you do, God, when I die?
When I, your pitcher, broken, lie?
When I, your drink, go stale or dry?
I am your garb, the trade you ply,
you lose your meaning, losing me…
From the Book of Hours
The implication is that human living – and becoming – is essentially a divine process that happens through our ordinary, everyday thinking and acting. It is a process of constant – and expanding – awakening. An obvious spiritual practice, therefore, would be the cultivation of awakening through simple rituals.
Rituals can be about anything for they are simply seeing and drawing out the extraordinary within the ordinary, the way Berry implies. I have heard them described as ‘sacred play.’ Play, of course, is sometimes the most serious thing we can do, as our children demonstrate. It is their way – and our adult way too – of learning how to be in the world by stating (and performing) what is true and real. In that sense, rituals are about awakening us to what is already there and finding meaning and purpose by celebrating this together through symbolic gestures (sacred play) and thereby actually effecting what we intend. It is giving life to life.
This awakening includes everything – every aspect of life – from birth to death: facing, in particular, perhaps, the things we would prefer to avoid, like the inevitable pain and suffering that is part of everyone’s life. This is letting life – including fear – awaken us and thereby enable God to be, the way Rilke describes. We used a poem the other evening at our monthly Meditation-Dialogue here in our local town (which I will write about soon) that captures this aspect:
… we get over the measles but not a broken heart…
…The way to get over a life is to die, Short of that, you move with it, let the pain be pain
Not in the hope it will vanish
But in the faith that it will fit in…
From The Cure, Albert Huffstickler
Connection is central to this process. It is the outcome but also the cause of awakening, which is ultimately awareness of and communion with the ultimate reality, however our imaginations name it.
It is what false or inadequate spiritualities do not achieve. In fact, they have the opposite effect. Fundamentalism of any kind, for example, divides by its very nature, while the apparent connecting devices of the modern religion of technology seem to have the opposite effect.
For the kind of connection implied here, however, we need not only personal practices, but also rites of passage for the constant transitions that constitute our life journey. It is why we find simple rituals like the Blessing of Animals and the Bench Dedication so powerful and moving. I attempted to have these little rituals serve this critical aspect of an expanded awareness through connection. So, at the beginning of the Blessing of the Animals I asked who it is that blesses, suggesting that the blessing is, in fact, a two-way process. I made the point with a little call and response format that highlighted (and expanded) this mutual enhancement:
LEADER: Let us give thanks for life in all its forms but especially in our animal brothers and sisters
RESPONSE: We bless and thank you
LEADER: For the bacteria that digest the food we eat
RESPONSE (We bless and thank you)
Leader: For the worms that help make the soil. RESPONSE
Leader: For the bees that pollinate the plants. RESPONSE
Leader: For the birds that spread the seeds. RESPONSE
Leader: For the fish that keep the seas alive. RESPONSE
Leader: For the wild animals that inspire us with their beauty. RESPONSE
Leader: For the farm animals that share their lives with us. RESPONSE
Leader: For our family animals that enrich our lives. RESPONSE
Leader: For our goldfish who calm us. RESPONSE
Leader: For our cats who teach us. RESPONSE
Leader: For our dogs who give us unconditional friendship. RESPONSE
Leader: For our horses who heal us. RESPONSE
Leader: For all our other family animals – hamsters, rabbits, snakes, parrots, canaries…who share their lives with us. RESPONSE
We are grateful to you, dear animals, birds and fish who share our world. Thank you for all that you do. Thank you for enriching our lives. Thank you for being our friends, our playmates, our pets, our companions in the wonderful adventure of life. May we together create an ever-greater world where we all love and respect each other.
I think I’m coming to see more and more clearly that spirituality is actually a critical part of human life. It is not an addendum. It is not an overlay. It is in fact an essential aspect of the human process that fosters awakening by cultivating attention and presence to the deeper dimensions of every moment and guiding our participation in the cosmic unfolding we are part of. For we are in a continuous process of change (which the philosopher Heraclitus humorously described as ‘the only constant’ in life). As symbolic animals – that is creatures blessed (or cursed) with the impulse to find meaning and purpose – we need the sacred play of ritual and rites of passage to make the constant transitions.
All of this is part of the ‘everybody’s spirituality’ that I am exploring as a new elder. The latter title, of course, suggests yet another conversation. The topics are mounting…