THE BONE CHALICE
A manuscript in progress. . .
The “controlling metaphor” for this discussion is the idea that the form of an event is a container for what happens. The more intense the event, the stronger the container needs to be. Even a free-form improvised non-verbal event needs a container. The Catholic mass form is very strong with a long history. Basically, it is study of written material (derived from Jewish study of the Torah) followed by celebratory sharing of communion (a metaphorical form of sacrifice). Experiments with mind-altering substances in non-verbal cultures are always attended by adepts who can control what happens.
There is much to explore here. Are “forms” logical and rational? Is the content always passionate emotion? What happens if the same content is put into a new form?
My sources for this thinking about designed ceremonies was derived from Method Acting classes, Blackfeet ceremonies, myth, natural history, and comparative religion. When I entered seminary, it was clear that I was not functioning the same way as the more conventional people. To make this simple, they were all thinking like white male grad students: rationality, precedence, and literateness. Once I realized that was the prevailing and natural context in most academic places, I was able to find books that explained how to choose my own path while still functioning with others.
It is easy to shrug this position off as peculiar to the Unitarian Universalist movement, which allowed me space and something like camouflage. But Ethical Culture and humanist groups would have done the same thing. Particularly because the tradition I was in (Unitarian more than Universalist despite a merger in 1961) was relatively affluent, educated, and in 1978 still mostly male, everything was as professional as lawyers and doctors — that is, one’s vocation was professed, stated. Even the faculty at Meadville/Lombard had credentials meaning they were committed to a faith — though a broad one — and to an academic inheritance. We were expected to operate through logic, reading historical and theoretical materials, and conviction. My conviction was one of seeking. My basic definitions were out of line, so how could they certify what I believed?
Their method left out some of the most religious people I knew: nonliterate, ceremonial, connected to the land and tribe, because my other strong influence was experience with the Blackfeet tribe on their reservation in Montana. I never did connect with any anthropologists at the University of Chicago, though now I know that some work was being done that would have fit exactly with what I was looking for, for instance, Victor Turner. My faculty knew nothing about anthropology. Indeed, if I’d gotten too interested in their work, it would have pulled me out of preparation for the ministry, which is the point of a seminary. The denomination was, after all, paying my tuition and they were my side admission gate, a subset of the U of Chicago mechanisms for keeping order and focus.
Since the thinking that I did in Chicago and used in my ten years of ministry, the world and myself have moved on. I left parish ministry in 1989, but continue as an independent scholar. In 1999 I was able to move to a disintegrating little house in the village of Valier, next to the Blackfeet Reservation where I spent many happy years. Since that time, some transformative new ideas have dawned.
One major shift in thinking is from neurology where fMRI and other strategies have allowed us to see thinking as it happens — not implied results but actual ions moving and so on, which has introduced a new language of “-omes” to describe the libraries of molecules and cells in potential and patterning, from the genome to the “mineralome.” We have new support for the idea of humans as evolved animals and new respect for what a cell or a neuron can do. Philosophy as simple introspection is over.
On one hand we are tempted to think of ourselves as “meat computers” but on the other hand we are forced to admit that our more elegant experiences and empathies are far beyond anything a computer can achieve, even a self-taught OS on the verge of being human as in “Her.” As the horizon of artificial intelligence moves back, the dimensions of human experience also expand and elaborate. We can feel ourselves still mutating into new evolving creatures. This demands a different kind of spiritual life, one that will support individuals in a time when institutions of all sorts are confused and even failing. If the containers of our lives are falling away, can the spiritual flame sustain us? Or are we looking at holocaust?
Pressure from global climate change has stimulated much research on the history and process of the planet as a giant ecology, which has moved investigation past the origin of human beings, past the origin of eukaryotic cells, past the origin of climate itself and how it has shaped the existence of biological creatures ever since. We are cosmic.
This has revealed a shift in our understanding of the past, which was artificially limited by written records. Once we reached back past the document horizon, we moved our thinking to the oral story and interaction society of indigenous peoples like the pre-contact Blackfeet. Remnants of it remain, or did in the Sixties, and I had direct contact ceremonially. This made me realize that what I had been pursuing as “liturgy” was limited to institutional religion, circles of believers who needed to reinforce their community and worldview by repeating accepted writing. Sometimes it was written down (The Book of Common Prayer) and sometimes it was learned by heart (The Lord’s Prayer). But because it was words and writing, it was a “given”, both anchoring and walling in, co-opted by government and stamped on our money.
If history defined by institutional writing is no longer a limit, new thinking about ceremonies is needed. One of my sources of inspiration all along had been experimental ceremonies at the Pacific Northwest UU Leadership School, where a gathered temporary community invented actions that would express more modern ideas: nurturing, gender equality, trust, and something that could not be called theology because it resented and shut out all notions of “Theos.” Not just because of being angry at a big humanoid in the sky, not just because of damage to the concept of family, but because even redefining God as “Love” was a return to old ideas.
Many of us defined our religious center as something like secular unity and progressiveness, a kind of patriotism and concern for governmental ideals. It was still in writing, still preserving the institutional aspect of religion, but not the driving force of it nor the spiritual passion that can sustain it. “The Pledge of Allegiance” was a litany that snuck back in the concept of God, so what else could we do?
Once the old ways of doing things are questioned and dropped, where is the replacement? I think it comes like music, out of our daily lives, humming a tune until it catches on and begins to be a chorus. Deliberateness moves in and out of spontaneity, so that the Flower Communion — a Spring event to which people bring a flower, gather them up front during the service, and and choose a different flower to carry away — is a deliberately designed thing to do, but quite natural and capable of containing many thoughts. (“The Flower Celebration was initiated in Prague on 4 June 1923 by Norbert Čapek, who was also the founder of the Unitarian Church in Czechoslovakia”.) But I am NOT recommending UU as some kind of ideal. This is NOT about being UU.
Once the pattern was familiar, women used it to bring and mingle water, then take away a bit of it — in the original feminist example using their emptied cosmetic containers. By now people have used soils, seeds, or other symbolic bits, even sometimes declarations written on small bits of paper: regrets, sadness, and resolutions that are then burned. Or possibly making “Stone Soup” by bringing ingredients to be cooked together and eaten in a group. In the earliest Christian congregations, something like “house churches,” the people brought the bread and wine to mingle and use ceremonially by eating together. Potluck is a familiar practice, often associated with churches.
The Blackfeet use a gesture to express acceptance and appreciation of a speaker: they hold out their hands to the speaker, then cross their arms across their chests. It means “all that you say, I take to my heart.” Then one day when I explained and used the gesture in a small group, a man rose to extend the gesture. He held out his hands, crossed them on his chest, repeated “all that you say I take to my heart” and then extended his hands again, saying. “All that is in my heart, I give back to you.” It was as natural as many of the gestures of sign-talk, both the Plains Indians gestures of meaning and the language used by the American Sign Language community of non-hearing persons. It was a spontaneous elaboration.
Now that video is as easily transmitted and stored as writing, a gesture language can exist without paper or spoken words and so can other acts of meaning. Libraries already exist, not even counting YouTube, Tumblr, Vimeo, and so on. The shared expression of feelings in this way allows a complete bypass of the logical, precedented, defined, emotionless writing, that we have given hegemony in the past. Now we can go to the world of art, empathy, the “limbic” brain, the dreamworld, the autonomic nervous system, and limerence. In fact, as populations mix and expand, more and more people are communicating this way anyhow, out of necessity without a shared language, history, or place.