Okay, so everyone has summoned up their sensory access to the Sacred, has centered their breathing and relaxed enough to let their guard down. Now what?
This is the time and place for the reaffirmation of the group (assuming we’re dealing with a group) and what makes it a community. In some times and places the simple fact that everyone lives in that area means they are part of that group -- parish, tribe, family. Other times and places the individuals have come together in a “gathering,” so what is it that brought them together? A status, a belief, a yearning for something, a determination to change everything or maybe just to sustain themselves? Now is the time to identify it.
Maybe it will be a story, most often the story of the founding of the group or maybe the story of what brought an individual to the group. Maybe it will be relating to a specific leader who is the “flagpole” that leads the way. It might be rational reflection in the manner of science or theology. It might be the valorization of some quality or the affirmation of the dimension of identity that indicates belonging. It might be testifying or witnessing.
A leader might be the main speaker, a performing subgroup might sing, the whole might sing, there might be a ceremony of intitiation or cleansing. There is an episode of “Midsomer Murders” in which Masonic rites are shown, things that are normally kept very secret indeed. The applicant for membership is brought into the room hooded with one foot bare and one foot in a slipper. (“barefoot and slipshod.”) Around his neck is a hanging noose. He wears an apron, a reference to the Biblical dance of David before the Lord because this ceremony has a religious authorization besides admitting only persons privileged by community respect -- in the opinion of the pre-existing members.
When the experience of belonging is intense, even if it is one individual confronting the universe as a reflecting part of it, then one is open to insight, a widening consciousness, that can allow deep shifts in the understanding of how life proceeds, because part of homeostasis (that which allows life to go on) is the conviction that one understands life, that it has meaning. This may not mean change: it may be reaffirmation of what is already believed.
At the end of this section of a “service,” particularly if it has triggered change, something has to return the person or group back to ordinary life. Perhaps it is a song or prayer, perhaps a recessional on the part of the celebrant, maybe the handing out of something, or a blessing. Last of all is a command or precept about how to live: “go in peace,” “do no harm,” “celebrate each day as it comes,” “sin no more.” This reverses the passage over the limen.
But none of this three step process has to be in words. It could all happen in metaphorical concepts, as in a dream, a vision, an experience. What counts is the structure, the pattern, the belief-system that is brought to consciousness and possibly supports change.
Another factor is the extent to which the smaller group belongs to a larger society, for what brought them together may be persecution and resistance, powerful forces that may prompt life-threatening consequences to the individuals on behalf of preserving the quality of life for the smaller group, forcing changes to the large group. Sometimes there is no way to resist -- perhaps in the face of catastrophe like drought or tsunami or earthquake. Then a new group may form that takes on the moral challenge of protecting displaced and suffering people. They will need ways to sustain their energy and focus: religion can be part of that.
One Jewish group is dedicated to gathering the body parts torn and scattered in explosions and other disasters, in order to treat them in a ceremonial honoring way that sustains and is sustained by the larger believing community. Eventually, these small horrifying but necessary acts with their example affect the human community of the whole planet, but the horrifying collection of flesh must be either sustained by deep religious connection or be imposed on the lowliest workers by authorities.
In American general culture we do not honor such acts and pay them the minimum, except for contract businesses who clean up after murder or accidents -- for a fee. I expect the employee turnover is high and that the president of the company doesn’t go into the field much. American mainstream religion is based on the premise that deserving believers never have to do dirty or demeaning work, because their deservingness will make them prosperous. As the 9/ll rescuers discovered, such work is risky and after the emergency is over, compensation thins out.
Assumptions about life that are captured in religious groups often promise they are a permanent solution, but in a world that is whirl, both in its actual operation and in the changing processes of new perceptions, “permanent” is a silly idea. Nonfunctional and, at heart, ridiculous -- not in touch with reality. Therefore, the energy of a religious institution ought to be going into awareness and response, rather than self-preservation. Freeze or flee only works for individuals in dangerous situations, not for organizations.