What do you call it when you have a little ceremony, let’s say a birthday party. Is it a rite? “The prescribed or customary form for conducting a religious or other solemn ceremony” Not usually so solemn unless you’re over forty.
A liturgy? “The customary public worship done by a specific religious group, according to its particular traditions.” And “as a religious phenomenon, liturgy is a communal response to the sacred through activity.” Close to my meaning.
A ritual? “A ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value. It may be prescribed by the traditions of a community, including by a religious community. The term usually refers to actions which are stylized, excluding actions which are arbitrarily chosen by the performers.” OR “A ritual may be performed on specific occasions, or at the discretion of individuals or communities. It may be performed by a single individual, by a group, or by the entire community; in arbitrary places, or in places especially reserved for it; either in public, in private, or before specific people. A ritual may be restricted to a certain subset of the community, and may enable or underscore the passage between religious or social states.” Yeah, that might fit.
Some denominations are considered “liturgical churches” if they follow the traditional mass sequences (Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Church of England, Anglican), but the Quakers define what they do when they sit quietly “open” to be a “liturgy of silence.”
A spell? An Exorcism? is it for good or evil? Birthday parties could be either. Remember Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) once said “Every definition is dangerous.”
Is this birthday party a rite of passage? Our culture especially marks entry into the “teen” years: “sixteen” as a recognition of sexual maturity. “Twenty-one” as the beginning of legal adulthood, “thirty” as the end of youth, “forty” as halfway-through, “sixty-five” as the legal age of retirement, and all the numbers ending in “ought” seem especially significant. Are these achievements? One is lucky if they actually correspond to the condition of the celebrant. Some people are twelve forever -- others are born old. Does anyone ever reach true sexual maturity or do they just abandon the effort?
It seems necessary that there be community, which will be defined by both heredity and familiarity, but the mayor need not attend, nor need the event be religious, unless it is connected to a stage in the eyes of the church, like baptism, first communion or -- in UU congregations -- “the signing of the book” meaning formal membership. Our culture defines all rites of passage as necessitating gifts and the particularity and value of the gifts has become so overwhelmingly important that now one is urged to just give money. It has become a public duty both in the home and at work.
Some aspects of religious acts, such as praise, thanksgiving, repentance, and supplication, have dropped out as these rites of passage become more secular, more focused on achieving economic success. School and church have stepped back. Government is not involved unless one is voting, drinking, driving -- a few other regulated activities: international trade, hair-dressing.
A ritual, a ceremony, a public duty, praise, thanksgiving, repentance, a supplication, a prescription, magic, a content, a process. What a mishmash. The confusion means that for this manuscript I call the “Molten Chalice” to be understood, I will have to do some defining.
This manuscript is not about institutions: it is about the experience of the Holy or Sacred or Liminal, which is meaningfully intense. Dualities like good/bad, cultural/improvised, individual/group, and so on are not relevant here -- only the intensity of the person’s felt meaning when liminality is reached. It may only be a pleasing interlude, like a concert or a walk through a fine art museum. But it may be something approaching a grand mal seizure. It might be sexual, religious, emotional, physical -- any number of modalities. In fact, it could happen during a concert or in an art museum, which are often spontaneously following the “crossing the threshold” experience that puts individuals into this state.
It is as much physical as mental because memory and emotion in human beings evolved from the survival mechanisms of all creatures, which are -- ARE -- the sensory information and resulting actions that constitute sentience and are the foundation of knowing anything. BUT this discussion is less about that state than about getting there and one relatively reliable means is the five-part template that I outline as distilled from the traditional liturgical mass.
Institutions do NOT like the elevation of individual experience or even other group experiences to anything suggesting the Sacred. They claim ownership. Only what THEY do is religious, they say. So everyone has started using the word “spiritual” for intensely meaningful experience that is not necessarily claimed by religion. They’ve left the churches.
But those institutions, as used here, don’t interfere with what happens outside their own internal culture unless pressed into it, usually by social moral demands, crusades for social reform. As anthropology has matured (meaning it’s much more confusing and splintered than it used to be -- almost as much as religious institutions) it has been pressed to take over these duties for religion. Moral anthropology.
Consider the Blackfeet. Their institutions, which were quite evolved and certainly fitted to the land and their way of life, supporting their survival, were not recognized as religious at first. So they were labeled “pagan” and forced on pain of death to “become” religious in the white way -- though the whites were conflicted about whether they meant Catholic or Protestant. Along came the anthros and pointed out the error, so now we have a synthesis, a reconciliation which is really not like either in its pure form but does at least promote survival. It gets people through days that are modern because the nomadic buffalo days are impossible.
Consider the New Guinea Umeda tribe I discuss -- SO weird to us. There is no possibility of reconciliation because two essential core tectonic plates are in opposition: Their Ida Smav ceremony is actually a liturgical cycle that lasts all year, like Christianity, but it is focused on sex. Survival IS sex to them, and male ejaculation is feeding. To the good American Christian, sex is secret. (Which makes it more powerful.)
How to explain a God that makes only one baby and does not feed it with semen? Can a communion be served with semen instead of wine? A New Guinea marital couple pounding sago together with a pole/pestle held between them is sexually suggestive. Is it in any way parallel to the kneading of bread dough? It is erotic, like hands on flesh. Is that the real reason Communion wafers were always unleavened? More ascetic? Why then have we gone back to raised yeast bread? Are we trying to put sex back into religion? Do we want to turn to a cup of milk/semen instead of a chalice of wine/blood? See how dangerous this can get?