12 Mar 2008 11:27 AM

Ritual 101: Dry Bones

Sermon preached by Deacon Sue Mosher 9 Mar 2008

Of all the objects that function as symbols in our lives, none may be more potent than the home. When you take a bottle of wine or a bunch of flowers to a house-warming or a dinner party, you may be responding to an ancient urge to make an offering to the household gods or to pour a libation to the spirits that hallow a space. Thus, when my parents announced that they were moving in January to a senior community, leaving behind the house of my childhood, I wondered if we could honor their transition with a ceremony that would help the whole family celebrate what their house has meant to all of us, make sure that nothing important was left behind, and release the house to be a home for its next owner. But more than a ceremony, I wanted a ritual that could expose—as playwright Patricia Montley suggests, in her book In Nature's Honor: Myths And Rituals Celebrating The Earth—the “truth that transcends logic and surpasses reason.” And so we gathered after our Christmas dinner, three generations, to sing, to share stories, and to harvest for my parents to carry to their new home all those memories and feelings that the movers could not pack into boxes. Seeing how much that meant to my parents, to my brother, and even to our college-age daughters has inspired me to speak to you today about ritual and what it can mean to us, as individuals and as churchgoers.

“Ritual” is a word we tend to tiptoe around. When I mentioned my interest in ritual to some friends in the computer business, their response was to ask whether that meant wearing weird clothes or skulking around in the woods. Even in church circles, we cloak ritual in a technical term, “liturgy,” as if it needs to be shielded from its ancient roots, for ritual is perhaps as old as the idea of humans gathering around a fire, shoulder-to-shoulder against the cold, sharing stories. To my mind, “ritual” is a word ripe for reclaiming, for rescuing from its descent into phrases like “empty ritual” and “ritual killing,” and this pre-Easter season is a perfect time to do so. In the early church, the weeks of Lent comprised a period of training, testing, and edification for candidates hoping to undergo initiation into the Christian mysteries by being baptized during the Easter vigil. Our Lenten observances here at Universalist National Memorial Church are bracketed between our two most complex worship rituals of the year—those for Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday.

Malidoma Somé, the African shaman we heard from in our reading, suspects that “in the absence of ritual, the soul runs out of its real nourishment.” “A person’s life is ritualized,” he says, “who accepts that the fact that everything that he or she does is the work of the hands of the Divine.” Ritual can start enhancing our lives when we simply acknowledge that we can’t do it all ourselves. That can include the moment when you notice that spring is starting to push green shoots skyward and you whisper a word of thanks under your breath: One of the key functions that ritual can fulfill is to reconnect us with nature, so that we remember, to paraphrase Orthodox theologian Philip Sherrard, that nature is a divine creation, every part of it sacred, and as full of hidden wisdom as we ourselves are.

I had thought about exploring with you some of the technical information I’ve learned in my study of ritual—the functions it serves, its usual structure—but I was blessed with a vision of a better way to share my understanding—by doing a ritual together. I’d like to ask Lisa and Paul to take the baskets that are on the altar and pass them among you. The baskets contain acorns. Please take one and hold onto it. Feel free to pass if you don’t want to participate. Once everyone has an acorn, I’ll tell you what to do next.

[wait for acorns to be distributed]

Now, find a neighbor there in the pews, and exchange acorns with that other person. Stand up if you need to get closer to them. And it’s OK to trade with more than one person. When you’re done, sit down again.

[wait for acorns to be exchanged]

So, how did that feel? Do you feel a little silly sitting there with an acorn in your hand, not knowing what it’s all about? That’s OK. I wanted you to feel a certain gap between the performance of the ritual and your understanding of it. We’ll connect the two in a few minutes, but now you have a concrete illustration of some of the factors that hold us back from enriching our lives with the power that ritual has to heal, to celebrate, and to foster a sense of belonging. I find that there are four impediments:

* We are sometimes confused about the differences between habit, ceremony, and ritual.

* We don’t always understand the intent of a ritual.

* We find it hard to make sacred space.

* When it comes right down to it, we may be anxious that a ritual might actually work.

To help you distinguish among habit, ceremony, and ritual, think about walking through a room in your house. When you walk through that room and hardly notice the furniture or decorations, that’s habit. If you walk through the room and pause to take in its furnishings and maybe even straighten a picture, that’s ceremony. But if, as you appreciate the furnishings, you also are mindful of the meanings behind the knickknacks—what they represent about yourself and your family—that’s where ritual begins, in that invocation of a different level of awareness, one that looks beyond the concrete and the everyday.

The second obstacle to incorporating ritual into our lives is not understanding its intent. In traditional societies, like the African village that Malidoma Somé calls home, everyone knows the purpose behind each ritual. That’s not the case in modern societies, though, and so it is up to whoever conducts the ritual to make the intention clear. This applies even if only one person is involved—you, and you’re creating a ritual for yourself. Somé explains that ritual can serve three basic functions: It can provide healing or bring balance; it can be the vehicle for celebration; and it can prevent something undesirable from happening or rehearse something good that we want to take place. You can turn your morning cup of coffee or tea into an effective personal ritual, for example, if you drink it with intention—mindful of what you need to accomplish that day and with an invocation asking for whatever assistance you might need from your coworkers, your family, or from God. The invocation is a critical part of any ritual, even if it is just a brief unspoken thought, for it engages the unseen for the benefit of the seen and opens you up to the transformation that is the real inner work of ritual.

Let’s do a little check-in: How’s that acorn doing? Still holding onto it?

Now for the third obstacle to effective ritual—finding sacred space can be tough these days. The late Gerald May, who taught at the Shalem Institute in Maryland, wrote that our tendency to “always be filling up our spaces” is “an addiction of the first order,” but that unpleasant words like emptiness, yearning, and incompleteness “hold a hope for incomprehensible beauty.” As lovely as this sanctuary is, it is nothing compared to the sacred space in your heart, if you only make room. A little silence and wonder can go a long way. Scoop up some water from a city fountain or a woodland spring and just marvel at it for a moment. Your heart can remember how to make sacred space.

Of course, a physical space is helpful, too, and that’s why we are so fortunate to gather in this beautiful building. We enter it with an expectation of inner change and might even reinforce that intention by lighting a candle at the side chapel altar. When the service is over, we carry that change out with us, reconnecting with the ordinary world in hope of transforming it, too. That is the core of ritual. To touch that essence into daily practice, many find it helpful to set aside sacred space in their homes or on their office desks with a few objects that provide a reminder to pause for mindfulness, for intention, for a moment of transformation. Christina Baldwin, who has taught thousands the ritual of gathering in circle for council and mutual support, describes in her book Calling the Circle: The First and Future Culture a human resources manager who put a candle on her desk and lit it every time someone came by for an important conversation. After a while, she found that her office visitors would take the initiative and light the candle themselves to signal that they wanted her full attention.

The last obstacle to embracing ritual is that we tend to ignore the possibility that it might actually be effective! Better we should heed Annie Dillard’s warning, when she writes, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? ... It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

But this is why we need ritual, because it provides a safe container for what might otherwise be unbearable, where one can say or think what might otherwise be unspeakable. What ritual asks of us in return is that we act as if we believe the ritual will work. This is what creates the force field that Malidoma Somé describes in our reading, a field coming from the Spirit, but held by human longing. Acting as if we believe in the effectiveness of the ritual forges a partnership with the powers we invoke, recognizing that we cannot bring about transformation by ourselves. Jesus can be our guide here, as in so many areas, for he taught about ritual not by preaching a sermon on the subject, but by demonstrating this “as-if” principle, which we have come to call “faith.” When Jesus put clay on the eyes of a blind man and had him wash in the pool of Siloam, that man acted as if he thought the ritual would be effective, and he was healed.

The intentions that we bring to ritual, no matter how well meant, are like only so many dry bones until the Spirit breathes life into them through our faith. So, let’s get back to that acorn. What role does it play in our little ritual experiment? What “as-if” can it capture for us? Let’s for a moment consider that this acorn is your soul, your destiny, the seed-core that can grow into whatever you are meant to be. Hold it gently, lovingly in your palm and breathe on it three times. Breathe into it your hopes. Breathe into it your dreams. Breathe into it the gifts that you want to share with the world.

Now, think on the golden rule that Jesus taught, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” and understand the intent of this ritual. Our souls depend on the love not just of those we know best, including those nearest us in the pews, but also on the care of others whose influence on our lives may seem tenuous at best. So, again find a neighbor to exchange your acorn with, casting that acorn into the care of another, even into the hands of a stranger. You might want to ask in your own words for your neighbor to care for your acorn.

[Wait for exchanges to finish]

Now, understanding the meaning behind this second part of our ritual experiment, consider how that feels compared with the exchange we did earlier. By acting “as-if” these acorns hold our seed-souls, we are now joined together in mutual caring. You may even be thinking about what you might do to honor the trust symbolized by receiving the acorn; you could place it on a home altar, plant it in the woods, or keep it warm in your pocket.

Our minister emeritus, Bill Fox, once preached a sermon on the Declaration of Faith in which he declared that “what we say here ... is ... a believable ambiguity that holds us together in a mystery.” I believe that not just what we say here, but also what we do here—the worship ritual we share within these walls—embodies that same believable, mysterious ambiguity. Behold the mystery that we celebrate—in a nutshell as it were: We are all called as children of God; thus, each reflects God in some way. Who is to say whether a nod from someone you hardly know might be the divine gesture that sets your life’s journey on its proper course. For the person whose acorn you’re now holding, this visit to church today may have been made in sorrow, in fatigue, or in anxiety, seeking comforting words. Or it may have provided the only touch of a human hand that person will feel this week. Even without an acorn to carry the meaning for us, the ritual that is worship binds this community together in the assurance that all are cared for and all can be transformed through the invisible forces that we welcome in ritual to do their holy work.

Amen.

Readings

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.


West African elder Malidoma Somé, from his book Ritual: Power, Healing and Community:

Ritual draws from this area of human existence where the spirit plays a life-giving role. We do not make miracles, we speak the kind of language that is interpreted by the supernatural world as a call to intervene in a stabilizing way in a particular life. Consequently, our role in ritual is to be human. We take the initiative to spark a process, knowing that its success is not in our hands but in the hands of the kind of forces we invoke into our lives. So the force field we create within a ritual is something coming from the spirit, not something coming from us. We are only instruments in this kind of interaction between dimensions, between realms.... Our collaboration makes us central to the actual happening of a ritual.

Posted by Sue Mosher at March 12, 2008 11:27 AM
Posted to Sermons