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The Arts of Ritual

Recently, my daughter, Liz Burklo, invited me to speak with a group of the social work student interns she supervises. She wanted me to equip them with skills in conducting rituals that can serve the communities where the interns are placed. This essay expands on the workshop that I led at Liz’s inspiration.

Social workers, like the rest of us, perform rituals every day. They may not be known by that term, but they are rituals, nonetheless. In the case of clinical social work, every meeting with a client for therapy is ritualistic. The client waits in a waiting room until called in for the session. The wait itself is a ritual. Being called in for the session is an invocation, calling the ritual to order. The walk from the waiting room to the chair for the therapy session is a ritual movement. The room is a ritual space for a set-apart activity. The ways that the client and the therapist sit in the room are purposeful, symbolically denoting the nature and quality of the relationship. The therapeutic process has a ritualistic nature and structure. At the end of the session, words and gestures are exchanged in a prescribed manner. An important – maybe the most important – element of the efficacy of the therapy is to be found in these ritualistic elements. Doing the rituals intentionally, and doing them well, will have a significant impact on the outcome.

Service professionals are priestesses and priests, whether they know it or not. How much more effective they can be if they make the conscious effort to perform powerfully effective ceremonies.

There is science behind this. A good ritual is an example of “EBP” – evidence-based practice. Research demonstrates that the “placebo effect” works even when the subjects of the research are told that the medication they are taking is indeed a placebo. Believing that the pill is real medicine, even when it is not, is not required. It appears that the “active ingredient” of the placebo effect is going to the doctor, getting attentive care, getting a prescription, and taking the pill. “This is the specific effect of the ritual of medicine,” says a reseacher, Ted Kaptchuk, at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston. It is fair to extrapolate from his findings that there can be a similar positive effect from the rituals of social work practice.

I discovered this principle early in my career as a pastor. My first ministry job was as the summer fill-in preacher for a congregation in Michigan, just before I started seminary. I subjected the parishioners to sermons in which I felt compelled to condense all my youthful ruminations about matters theological. I was humbled that the people were neither bothered nor much inspired by the content of my sophomoric utterances. It almost didn’t matter what I said, as long as I said it with sincerity and enthusiasm. The ideas I thought were so important were not the “active ingredients.” Instead, I was performing a ritual for them that had a positive value distinct from the words.

I and other progressive Christians teach that you can be a faithful Christian without believing that the Bible is literally true, that God is a supernatural being violating the processes of nature, or that our religion is superior to others. In the churches I have served, I have made this point of view explicit in my sermons. I have been surprised pleasantly at how few people have objected to my unorthodoxy. People who were raised to hold very traditional beliefs often don’t blink an eye when I contradict many of the doctrines they were taught as essential to the faith, because those doctrines aren’t what really matters to them as much as the rituals that contain them. We progressives still use the Bible and the ceremonies and traditions and music and iconography of historic Christianity. The positive intentionality, the warm, caring community, the overt and subtle harmonies of the music and the art and the beautiful liturgies of the faith – all have their own power and value. In Christianity, as well as in other religions, rituals are not just the media for the message. When performed creatively, intentionally, and well, they ARE the message. And people can and should read their own meanings and messages into them. They can make what they will of the dogma. The rituals put us through motions, physically, spiritually, and imaginatively, that exercise what matters most in our faith.

I’ve seen the same phenomenon with the many hundreds of weddings I’ve officiated in my career. From the start of my ministry career, I’ve worked with couples to create unique wedding ceremonies that reflect what is special about their relationships. But I have learned that in most cases, we do well to put these unique expressions into the structure of the “standard American wedding” – which is defined by the 1928 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. If the most basic elements of this ritual structure are employed – some kind of formal attire, an officiant at the front, a processional, an address by the officiant, the sharing of vows (or something similar), an exchange of rings, a pronouncement of marriage, a kiss, and a recessional – the wedding can include all kinds of non-traditional words and ritual elements, and people’s hearts will be opened. The ritual structure matters at least as much as the words.

“Take comfort in rituals,” said a sign pasted on a Starbucks coffee shop. This made sense to me as I enter in the morning for a hot chocolate. Indeed, I value the process of getting the hot chocolate as much as the actual substance in the cup. Standing in line with other people who are seeking comfort is itself comforting, and it builds up the satisfaction in the awaited hot beverage. It is a ritual that starts my day with warmth and conviviality. Rituals abound in our lives, and if we notice and appreciate them, we can begin to take ownership of them – and put them to work in the service of souls.

Fall sunlight streamed through stained glass, warming the faces and the souls of the people who filled the simple, old white-steepled sanctuary. We gathered at Soquel Congregational Church near Santa Cruz, CA, for the memorial service of our mother, Barbara Lee Deemy Burklo, who died peacefully at the age of 88. My mom’s relatives, friends, fellow parishioners, and friends of her children gathered in the church, founded in 1868 and built of old-growth heart redwood by a shipwright who pitched the floor like a boat deck so that the pews tilt to port and starboard away from the center aisle.

We four siblings spoke, our short speeches punctuated by the congregation singing Mom’s favorite hymns. We talked about who Mom was to us. We told it like it was. We cried, we laughed, we told stories. We made time for an “open mic” and people who loved Mom stood up and shared charming and pithy anecdotes that captured glimpses of what she meant to them. Mark, the pastor, served well as the “master of ceremonies”, leaving most of the talking to family and friends. Any theology expressed was implicit, at most: there was no altar call, there were no platitudes about the hereafter. The memorial service was a deep service to our whole family, greatly helping us to grieve – to feel and to express our jumble of emotions.

The occasion was a testament to the healing power of ritual. Too often the word “just” is associated with “a ritual,” as if these ceremonies are nothing more than rote habits, no more than going through expected motions in order to satisfy conventions of social propriety. But at their best, rituals are mirrors that we hold up to reflect upon life’s passages. The back and forth of this reflection amplifies our emotions, and reveals and clarifies the meanings we find in the turning points of our lives. Rituals are screens, and the participants are the projectors – shining onto the rituals the “movies” of meaning they find in them. Births, graduations, weddings, deaths: the events themselves can be so overwhelming that we cannot see them for what they really are to us. We need to set aside ritual space in order to be able to know them much more fully. Seeing a big black-and-white picture of Mom as a young woman, smiling at us from the altar in the church, brought home to my soul the fullness of her life and the depth of my loss of her life from my own. Hearing a woman speak about how Mom had been a second mom to her in her teen years, choking up with tears as she spoke, choked me up with tears as I listened. That woman needed a second mom when she was young. I did not, because my mom was all the Mom I could ask for, for my whole life. I was overwhelmed with thankfulness I might not have felt so intensely except for the gift of that memorial service.

So here are some tricks of my ritual trade:

1) Entry and Sacred Space. In Christopher Alexander’s seminal book on human-centered design, “A Pattern Language”, he offers a recipe for the architecture of ritual entry: “successive entrances and chambers of increasing privacy and effort to enter.” This describes the ancient portable Tabernacle of the people of Israel, as well as the later Temple in Jerusalem, which were courts within courts, each for smaller subsets of people, culminating in a Holy of Holies entered only by the High Priest, held by a tether so he could be extracted remotely were he to collapse in holy dread. Churches and temples and mosques follow this pattern, with narrowing archway entries, large, heavy doors, and layers of access to the altar. This sense of entry into holy space is heightened by ritual elements such as taking off shoes, putting on scarves, genuflecting, and touching holy water. These ritual elements can be replicated anywhere. “Smudging” with burning sage by marking the four directions, and passing the sage stick around the bodies of those who enter – making temporary archways or successive entry structures – greeting people at the entry with bows or handshakes – all these can be employed to give people the strong sense that they are entering a set-apart place and time.

2) Time. After decades of officiating weddings, I’ve learned a “rule of thumb”: weddings should last between 13 and 55 minutes. Before 13 minutes, the end of a wedding seems abrupt and incomplete. After 55 minutes, people begin to fidget and check their phones. Between 13 and 55 minutes, in a good wedding, most people lose all sense of clock time. They enter eternity – fully experiencing the present moment, absorbed in the ritual. Each wedding is every wedding. Each memorial service is every memorial service. Each vigil is every vigil. In ritual, past, present, and future merge into the eternal now. Rituals are ends in themselves. They deliver us into a place where we need to be – a zone beyond smart phone clocks, a location beyond geography.

3) Repetition. Adding elements that repeat, usually in a slow or deliberate manner, is a powerful way to enhance a ritual. This can take the form of repeating musical chants, repeatedly striking bells or gongs, and repeatedly making certain ritual motions. The processionals and recessionals in weddings are great examples: a couple walks slowly to the altar, then another, then another, leading up to the procession of the bride (or, in many cases now, the bride and groom, or bride and bride, together).

4) 100% Participation
. A good ritual is not a performance. It rather is a co-creation of all who are part of it, including those who might otherwise think of themselves as the “audience”. This is what makes rituals immersive and incarnational: all who are there are seized by its spirit and are the means by which its spirit is manifested. So create simple ways for everyone to be involved in the ritual. In many of the weddings I officiate, I include a time for people to bless the wedding rings before the couple exchanges them. We tie a ribbon around the rings and pass them through the crowd: each person holds the rings and offers a silent blessing. Some people look the couple in the eyes as they do so, and the effect is intense. When I receive the rings at the end of this process, they li feel hot with spiritual energy. At the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert every fall, everyone is told that the event is about 100% participation. Everybody gives and everybody receives and everybody engages in what is going on. There are no “pew potatoes” in a good ritual.

5) Intentional vagueness. Not everything in a ritual needs to have a clearly-stated meaning. Indeed, leaving the meaning-making up to the participants can make the ritual more powerful. Over a decade ago, I had the serendipity of getting to know Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man. I invited him to preach in the church I served in Sausalito, and later asked him to come to the University of Southern California, where I interviewed him about ritual and spirituality at Burning Man. In our public conversations, Larry repeated a question that people still ask him all the time: “What does the Burning Man mean?” What is the true significance of the huge structure shaped vaguely like a human, which is ritually burned to the ground at the end of the festival? His answer: “Whatever it means to you!” Larry talked about the annual Temple at Burning Man. Every year, David Best, a notable artist, gathers a team to create a huge open structure out of junk wood. Each year’s Temple is unique, and each is given a name. The Temple of Mind, the Temple of Tears, the Temple of Joy, the Temple of Honor. That’s all. No other meaning or purpose is initially ascribed. Burners go to the Temple and create their own uses and rituals for it and in it. As the festival progresses, the Temple gains more and more spiritual power and significance. Then at the end of the festival, it, too, is burned down. In those chats with Larry, I shared that it is my hope that the philosophy of Burning Man will permeate our churches. I hope Christians will release fixed meanings for our rituals and allow people, whether Christian or not, to engage with the Christian tradition in ways that are powerful for them, on their own terms.

6) Words for Rituals. Some of us are prolific in this regard, but if you’re not, you should feel free to borrow the words of the prolific! That’s what makes a ritual a ritual: a good ritual is in the public domain. It’s not something anyone can “own”. It is archetypal and universal and timeless in nature. So I’m more charmed than bothered by people “cribbing” from my sermons and musings. And I think other writers like myself mostly feel the same way. Besides my own Musings blog as a source for both religious and non-religion-specific ritual language, check out the brilliant poetic work of Gretta Vosper, an atheist pastor of a Christian church in Canada and the wonderful words of the 19th century agnostic orator, Robert Ingersoll.

7) The Judicious Use of Dead Air. Silence is powerful – up to a point. I often make time for mindful meditation in rituals, but I also inject silence into the ceremony in other ways, pausing between sentences, pausing between elements of the ritual to let people absorb and reflect.

8) Integrating Elements. A ritual needs artistic cohesion. It is best if it does not appear to be the product of a committee. The visuals and the sounds and the movements and the words need to fit together in a pleasing, meaningful, and meaning-making way.

9) Creating Your Own Ritual Toolkit
. I have a set of ritual supplies in my office, ready for action. I have a brass “singing bowl” which I strike with a thick wooden stick covered on one end with a piece of bike inner tube. I often use it to open and close vigils and memorials. (Thanks to my friend Jim Garrison of College Heights Church in San Mateo for this extremely well-used gift!) With twine, I tie bundles of sage I collect on my weekly wilderness hikes: Artemisia sage, and black, purple, and white sage. These bundles, when dried, can be burned as “smudges” for rituals. I have a baggie of fine black charcoal ash, ready for Ash Wednesday but also for use in the Warriors’ Circle ceremony that Army Reserve Chaplain Nathan Graeser and I developed as a way of welcoming veterans back into civilian life. I have small bottles of ceremonial water from Lourdes and from the Jordan River, given to me by students after their travels: drops of this water I add with more water in the singing bowl for use in conducting baptisms. I have small bottles of olive and argan oil for anointing people on the forehead as a sign of prayerful intentions for physical and emotional healing. I have a big jar of powdery dirt from a dirt-floored room in the back of the Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico, an old adobe Catholic parish, where pilgrims have come for a few hundred years to use the “polvo” for healing. I go there annually to collect a supply of the dirt and offer my own prayers. Whenever my students experience a crisis, or whenever they set forth on some kind of adventure, I either anoint them with the dirt or I give them a small vial of it to carry with them. (Hmmm — their parents spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on tuition, and all their kids get is some dirt?) I’ve always got a big stash of tea-light candles and small glass holders for them, ready for vigils that we hold when tragedies or crises happen on campus or in the world. I have also a stack of 5.5” x 4.25” slips of white paper. I supply our Little Chapel of Silence altar with these, so that students can write prayers or meditations on them and slip them into a wooden box on its altar. This chapel is an interfaith space on campus where anyone can pray or meditate in silence. I started a ritual we conduct twice a year, where our Interfaith Council students read the slips aloud and then burn them. It is a powerful tradition: on the slips are expressions of despair, hope, frustration, joy, compassion, and even humor. The ceremony is a quiet celebration that literally lifts up the whole human condition – with its highs, lows, and in-betweens – of our campus community. I use these slips of paper in other ceremonies, as well – for people to express their thoughts, prayers, and intentions. Build your own kit! And as you do so, you’ll feel more inspiration to use it for the transformation of hearts through creative ritual.

Larry Harvey and I are both accidental ritualists. He had no idea what he was getting into when he organized a bunch of his pals for a wild night at the beach at San Francisco, creating an unusual bonfire. One thing led to another as a one-time crazy beach party morphed into a major ongoing cultural phenomenon, and he realized he needed to be very conscious and intentional about the arts of ritual. In my case, I went into the ministry to be a social activist, and had no particular interest in liturgy. But the more ceremonies I led, the more I became aware of their tremendous power for personal and social transformation. I became a believer, to my great surprise. And I hope the same thing happens to you!

Some rituals I have created:

Jim Burklo’s Book of Common Prayer: rituals and words for ceremony
Birdlike and Barnless: my book which contains many rituals and ceremonial elements
Blessing the Hands That Cast the Ballots: A Ritual for Voting
Blessing of Taxes

About the Author

Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: MINDFULCHRISTIANITY.ORG Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
See the GUIDE to my articles and books
Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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