Tuesday, April 08, 2008

WIELDING POWER: The Essence of Ritual Practice


Most books about ritual, like most theologies, are defenses of existing practices, based on historical and cultural assumptions. Therefore, little effort is made to go deeper to a kind of meta-level, which is what interests me. I’m after the kinds of change in the worshiper that shows up on a functional MRI (fMRI). But, in fairness, functional MRI’s (Magnetic Resonance Images that show brain activity as it happens in various locations of the structure) are very new and it would be rather remarkable to perform a liturgy in the donut-hole where a person must lie still to be “read.” Nevertheless, there’s a bit of data beginning to appear.

My premise is that worship, a sense of transcendence, the feeling of communicating with something beyond the ordinary, an inner reconciliation, is real and actually in relationship to something that DOES exists (the argument of the atheist being that nothing is “out there”), but that worship -- like theology -- evolves for the same reasons that anything else evolves, human or not. What helps life and supports an “economy” will survive. What does not, dies out. And some things, which don’t put weight either way, just fall in or out by accident. However, things that have little impact in one culture and ecology may become meaningful in another context, either in a positive or in a negative way.

In pursuit of examples (I hardly dare expect “proofs”) I’m continuing down a shelf of books about liturgies of various sorts. “Wielding Power: The Essence of Ritual Practice” is from the Lindisfarne tradition. I’ll go to Wikipedia for a bit of explanation about Lindisfarne, which is an island when the tide is in, but a peninsula when the tide is in and has been considered holy for centuries.

“Recently Lindisfarne has become the centre for the revival of Celtic Christianity in the North of England; a former minister of the church there, David Adam, is a well-known author of Celtic Christian books and prayers. Following from this, Lindisfarne has become a popular retreat centre, as well as holiday destination.”

“In 1972, poet William Irwin Thompson named his Lindisfarne Association after the monastery on the island.

“The Lindisfarne Community is a network of people, communities, churches and groups committed to the idea of "New Monasticism."

In short, Lindisfarne is a small community at the margins of things that has come to be a focus of spirituality and a place of pilgrimage with special attention to the concept of “tides.” Tetworth suggests that the ancient cultures of Britain were primarily wood-based, rather than stone-based, because in those times the land was thickly covered with timber, now mostly used up. The wooden artifacts and traces of that time have been mouldered away by the wet and salt cliimate, but the first Christian influence goes back to the 7th century and survives in people.

Tetworth focuses for his examples on “the Order of Sentinels,” but his foreword is by a practitioner of the Kabbalistic tradition and in his introduction he thanks a woman named Singh, so plainly he intends to be an inclusive thinker. This “Order” turns out to be a little confusing to research in a scholarly way since the system and terminology has been co-opted by the video game world. To me, this is a good sign that it taps into a deeper sort of “mind” than just history and politics -- that it is valid on a “meta” level, but that doesn’t mean I recommend this system over others.

One of the interesting and, so far as I know, unique aspects of what Tetworth describes is the necessary preparation for a student who wishes to become adept. It consists not just in the management of one’s faiths and attitudes, but also in the preparation of the basic tools: a black-handled knife, a thread, a cloth, a cup, a wand, a cord and a sword. The directions and the materials needed are given. In the course of the repetitious, energetic, and focused tasks of creating these objects, a person should achieve an ability to focus, meditate, pace, and merge that will be basic to worship or liturgy. He or she becomes acutely aware of human relationship to material objects such as used in liturgy, both sensory and symbolic, and -- I’m confident -- deeply bonded with his objects.

Because Tetworth is British, he gives a long and fascinating example of this using the Investiture of the Queen (or King) of England, which is a ritual meant to persuade the common people of the legitimacy of their monarch, because consciousness of “Common Law” and memory of Charlemagne is so strong that anything less than the solemn ceremony and all its components will leave grumbling, balking and eventually revolution. He points out that if they go to a Presidential system at some point in the future, it will be necessary to devise or quickly evolve an equivalent ceremony.

Then he lists all the many objects, garments, and procedures that are included in the Crowning of the Queen, some of the elements so heavy that when Elizabeth II was crowned, there was some worry that her slender neck would be damaged by the weight of crowns and robes. These fabulous things are put on, taken off, carried before, touched to various parts, and sat upon (the Stone of Scone) in a sequence meant to evoke the history and parts of Britain. (I was tempted to list them all here, but there are a LOT!) Tetworth suggests that even in collapse, the remnants of the British Empire constitute a consensus and network comparable to the United Nations!

But he yields this British particularity when he describes ritual. His sequence of “Clearing the Space, Sealing the Space, Preparing the Instruments, The Preparation Within, The Temple Within ‘ are exactly the sequence that I propose, except that I add “Leaving the Space.”

He says: “Ritual is an external form that enables inner change to take substantial shape.” ...”If someone is standing facing the sunrise, there is that which in front and can be seen, there is that which is behind and is hidden from view, and there is that which is to the left and that which is to the right. There are also the heaven above and the place where one stands.” Many Native American and other systems lay out these compass points in ritual. But what interests me is that scientific research suggests that we think “topographically,” that is, in terms of traveling mentally in this “direction” or that. We draw diagrams of our ideas. Our ability to use space metaphorically as a way of making order is basic. For beginning writers we teach “webbing” or “mapping” or “storyboarding” which sequences scenes.

Tetworth speaks little about gesture or posture in worship: bowing, holding hands together, lying flat, standing with arms extended, making a wide gesture of inclusion, and so on. But this is a modest book and his advice is always to simplify, so I presume this was a decision rather than an oversight. He also barely touches smell or taste.

His biggest weakness is his understanding of science, which he suggests may be a religion and uses as the authority for some faith-ideas: the personalizing of the planet as Gaea, the notion that DNA can cry out from one being to another, and so on. Science and faith constantly misunderstand each other since our culture has separated them so long and so deeply that few people are educated to understand both.

Anyway, science is NOT a content. Science is a method. The Scientific METHOD! I aspire to develop a “Ritual Method,” that would be a PROCESS and not a content, NOT a religion. As in science, the content evolves with the economy and the ecology. In both disciplines, as we go through the planetary level to the cosmic level, the challenges of achieving human sensory grasp become greater.

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