“As an archaeologist, my father always used to talk about the origins of language, of communication, being around a fire. When you think of that in relation to a theatre you realise that the audience is exactly the same scale as a sustainable human community from prehistory onwards, whether of 100 people or of 10,000. We become part of a collective imagining, we laugh at the same things, we find we are not alone. It’s why religion and theatre are so closely entwined. Priests know how to put on a good show. They understand that we all need rituals, patterns.”
Simon McBurney, Playwright and Theatre Director
We’ve largely forgotten the power and importance of ritual. Perhaps because we’ve conflated ritual with religion, and taken religion to be superstition, something we ought to be over by now in a society founded on science and reason. Or maybe we have a hard time seeing what ritual can do in a cause-and-effect way. If we can’t make a straight line from the doing of a ritual to a measurable improvement in something, we dismiss it as a distraction from the important work of getting things done.
Maybe. I think these are our public stories, the stories of so many organisations and the story of so much marketing (where buying and consuming products and services becomes the new ritual to replace all others). But in our private spaces and in our quieter moments I think many of us long for the redemptive, grounding, relationship-shifting power of ritual. I agree with Simon McBurney that we need ritual to help us rediscover an orientation to life and to one another that can be more nourishing and more whole than the spun-apart, face-it-alone, get-ahead narrative that undergirds so much of our lives.
Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh make the point eloquently when they describe how rituals allow us to rehearse a different relationship with life and with other people. In one example they outline the ritual qualities of hide-and-seek, which switches the usual order around, allowing the hiding adult to play at being vulnerable and small and the seeking child to rehearse being commanding, giant-sized, and powerful. Everyone knows that it is a game – games and play themselves are powerful rituals – and this is the very point. It’s the ‘constructed’ nature of the ritual that gives it its power to upend things and give us a first-hand experience of parts of ourselves that we might not usually encounter so easily. Vulnerability in the commanding adult. Power in the vulnerable child. And a reconfigured relationship between both.
I’ve long related to the rituals of my own Jewish tradition in this way, less as a matter of ‘belief’ but as practices honed and deepened over generations which, if carried out with intent, are very powerful invitations into a new standing with life. I know that when I pause with my family on a Friday night to say shabbat blessings over candle flames and sweet wine, I’m momentarily put back in contact with the part of myself that marvels at the existence of others, at the wonder of light, and at the good fortune of having food to eat and somewhere warm and dry that can shelter us. For a short while we share together in that aspect of us that can be grateful for all this, that knows that many people go short of their basic needs, that understands how small we are in a vast universe that we did not create, and that sees how little direct control we have over any of it coming our way.
Of course, once the ritual is ended, we return to the messiness and complexity of our lives. We find ourselves feeling separate from one another again, perhaps a little afraid at the state of the world rather than grateful, and maybe overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life rather than awash with wonder and awe. To expect anything different would be to misunderstand the nature of ritual. Because rituals are not talismans or magic spells, capable of changing reality in an instant, or shifting our bodies and minds in a simplistic way. When understood this way, they inevitably appear shaky and ultimately a disappointment. Rather they are practices. And if done with the right intention and sufficient attention they teach us, as we enact them repetitively over time, what it is to be in the world and be with one another in a deeper and more attuned way.
Good rituals, so sorely missing in our culture, reintroduce us to that which is out of view, and that which we have left out, and in this way they can be profoundly transformative, deeply healing, and powerfully developmental.