Sunday, May 18, 2014


The container metaphor is one of the most basic, anchored in the experience of baby play putting things in and out of different containers.  Mammals and corvids do the same thing until they figure out how containers accept objects, what will happen to the shape of the contents, how to get things back out of containers, and so on.  This metaphor is useful, even inspiring, for ceremonial design, particularly if we relate it to the Von Gennep/Victor Turner concept of the “liminal space” -- a specially protected physical space, or state of consciousness, that is entered by going over a threshold.  In spiritual terms, it is a sanctuary.  In secular contexts such a space might be a theatre stage, a bedroom, a workroom.  The threshold is usually established by sensory means: going through a door, going up a flight of steps, hearing a bell ringing, a curtain rising, certain cue words or songs being produced, a particular decoration style or object, like a cross.

Inside the container, in that liminal space, Turner suggested that there were reversals of the ordinary, that all people were equal, and that it was possible to re-imagine the world.  Then that experienced time/space was taken back over the limen (threshold) into daily life, affecting behavior and creating new experiences of an “old” world.

I used to describe this process by telling an old rabbinical story about a powerful rabbi whose community was occasionally endangered by dissension or oppression.  He would go to a specific clearing in the forest, say magical words of prayer, kindle a bonfire, speak to the people, and then leave.  Over the decades his successors lost the location of the clearing, but they remembered the prayer and so on.   That was enough. Then they forgot the prayer.  But the rest of the formula worked.  Eventually they even lost how to kindle the bonfire, and they had nothing to say to the people.  So they told the story of what the original rabbi did, and that was enough.  It worked.  This is the power of narrative.  It is also the continuation of the “container” metaphor because a story can “contain” meaning and power.

Originally the experience that led me to thinking this way was at PNWD-UU Leadership School where we designed short experimental worship services.  Three of us women assumed a kind of partnership and claimed all the last services before the retreats ended.  There were three retreats where we did this.  We had learned a lot about preparing a room, guiding and cuing the entrance into it, and so on.  

But I noticed the difference between the men and the women in terms of their reaction to it.  The men were always hard to settle into the “frame of mind” but on the last day they had already packed the cars, parked close by and were holding the car keys or jingling them in their pockets.  The women were still settled in, hadn’t even packed completely.  When we ended the service with raised-arm blessing, they didn’t get up and leave.  We announced coffee was ready, but they still sat there.  They were like kids who didn’t want to get out of the bathtub.
women's preference

Men's style

I developed a theory that for women, the ideal service was like a hot tub: relaxing, reassuring, comforting, a special state they were reluctant to leave.  But for men, who had a hard time “getting into" the mood and practically leapt out as soon as they could, the ideal service was like an old-fashioned glass phone booth where they were never really separated from the world and expected to be empowered by the experience, like Superman pulling on his spandex and cape.

The first of these experimental and closely analyzed experiences was based on the trope of a dinner party as a container.  It was an in-gathering, the first real event of the retreat.   At supper we were asked to write a brief description of a moving experience in their lives.  No names.  Hand in the cards.  When it was time for the service late at night, we went out of the dorm building, singing and holding hands in a long line, across a dark lawn, into an unlit gymnasium.  We were at Fort Worden, which is close enough to the Pacific Coast to hear and smell the surf.  The grass was wet.  In the middle of the gym floor a paper circle had been taped down and on the paper was written the things we had put on the cards.  A fat column candle was by each.  We were asked to chose one quote and sit by it.  After some prayer and song, we were asked to read each other’s words.

This was a container within a container within a container:  the dark gymnasium was a space too big to really see but familiar enough not to be threatening.  The lit candles on the paper were like a supper table and a campfire at the same time, holding us together within the darkness, and then the words created a bubble of sharing and understanding.  In the end we returned to the dorm, singing and holding hands.

The success of this was contingent on knowing the people who were participating: not the individuals but the social class and the material culture.  They were agreeable to disclosing intense personal moments.  They attended and presented many dinner parties and knew the protocol of assigned seats, following the guidance of a hostess.  Their intense moments were within parameters: no one spoke of the thrill of killing someone.

In the context of Blackfeet ceremonials, before contact with Euros, every important ritual was preceded by the testimony of four elderly warriors telling of killing the enemy.  Lacking that, he would have to speak of hunting, killing animals for food.  In modern times, it is still necessary to establish the justification of the ceremony by establishing that important people are witnessing and participating, but the warrior mentality is suppressed.  Therefore, the four elders tell about a time they went to Washington, D.C. and brought back assurances or even grants of money.  Interestingly, the shift from killing to money allows women to be “warriors.”   This means that Eloise Cobell -- who successfully sued the Federal government for corruption, neglect, and theft in the management of tribal assets in trust -- would be one of the tribe’s major “warriors.”  (She died of cancer so she is only present in spirit, but she could be invoked that way.)  Using metaphor, we speak of making a lot of money as “making a killing.”

An institution is a container.  A denomination is a kind of institution that contains people of certain convictions.  A ceremony is a container, a retreat is a container, a tribe is a container, a system of laws is a container, a reservation is a container, and each has its boundaries -- it’s ways of entering and leaving.  What happens inside that container is process that can be transformative.  An alchemy.  A spirit.  A process.  A spiral helix.  The vital code.

A parfleche: a rawhide "suitcase"

None of us has ever lived without any container at all because the uterus is a container.  A healthy culture provides some sort of home as container, and so on.  Some things are not recognized until they are destroyed.  To follow this thought, go to the next post.  (You might have to wait a day.)

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