Thank You For Being A Friend

I think most people would consider their very close friends and family to be, objectively speaking, a more significant part of their lives than their spiritual family (unless, of course, they are the same group).  We tend to spend more time with them, share the important events of our lives with them, and they’re usually the ones with whom we celebrate.

Therefore it is our social rituals, those things we regularly do with our friends, which often occupy a more significant place in our lives than the formal spiritual rituals and celebrations in which we may participate.  Midnight Mass might be an important holiday observance, but is it a bigger part of your life than Friday night happy hour with your buddies?  Or that show you watch with friends every Sunday?  Or the vacation you take with family every summer?

Those regular social rituals are an important part of our everyday spirituality.  They’re significant because they highlight the connections in our lives which are most significant, most valuable, most treasured.  Those rituals which allow us to stay in touch and nurture relationships with people in our lives should not be ignored as mundane or unimportant.

In fact, maybe we should think through our social rituals and see who and what we are leaving out.  Let’s create and celebrate meaningful connections.

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Elixir and Ambrosia

Back when my wife and I considered ourselves practicing witches, we used to follow our private ritual circles with the traditional cakes and ale, or in our case pre-packaged snack cakes and tea.  Traditional or not, the idea was to ground ourselves after the ritual experience and to take time to share food and conversation before going on with our mundane lives.

Though this isn’t nearly as symbolic as the use of food and drink in other religious contexts (Christian communion, for instance), the ritual use and significance of foods and beverages is a nearly universal phenomenon.  Everything from fasts and ritual breaking of fasts to special foods prepared for certain celebratory meals can be found in a wide range of traditions.  

For the most part, the food or drink itself is merely a symbol of some kind, either because of its ingredients or preparation, or the timing of its consumption is symbolic or meaningful.  This gets carried through all aspects of our lives, well beyond spiritual boundaries.  Certain foods are associated with certain occasions or situations, like turkey with Thanksgiving or hot dogs with baseball games.  

Far from being silly or meaningless, these associations we make with foods and beverages are an important part of our personal ritual lives.  In fact, it’s almost a natural reaction to mark special occasions with special meals, especially those which include gatherings of friends and family.  What we eat and why and with whom is really the foundation for observing what’s truly important to us.

This is My Body

I’ve long aligned myself with the pagan community more than anything else, and despite the whole lack of believing in gods or deities or supernatural beings I find a lot of useful thought and practice in neopagan paths.  The Wheel of the Year, in particular, is something I apply to my own practice in various ways, though my way of celebrating the sabbats is a bit unorthodox.

On the solstices and equinoxes (or as close as we can reasonably get), my wife and sister and I go to a local spa and get massages.

Four times a year, we take a morning for ourselves.  We come away with relaxed muscles and refreshed minds.  It’s like a reset button we hit every three months so we can continue to function.

Of course, a lot of people kind of laugh at that, as if our spa days aren’t really rituals.  As if that’s not an appropriately spiritual way to observe the turning of the wheel of time, the changing of the seasons.  But why isn’t it?

Self care in all its forms is not only a largely neglected activity in most people’s lives, it’s one which recognizes that we are not indestructible.  We are fragile beings in need of care, and we should not leave that care to the whims of the universe.  We should not run ourselves to ruin before we seek comfort and healing.  

Now, for some, self care may not mean having a stranger knead the living daylights out of your muscles until you feel like you’ve been beaten up, then give you a glass of wine.  That’s just happens to be my thing.  It could be any activity by which you indulge in your own needs above others, where you assess what would help you feel healthy, happy, and whole.  It could be a long hike.  It could be a trip to the doctor.  It could be time when you get away from your social obligations, or time when you enjoy your social life without worrying about your other responsibilities.  It could be an extra yoga class.  It could be a trip to your favorite ice cream shop.  It be purchasing all new socks and underwear.

The point is that some of the most impactful rituals when it comes to elevating yourself and your life are rituals designed for one purpose:  to take care of your needs, especially if you’re prone to neglecting them.

On Origins and Meanings

I joined a sorority when I was in college, and Greek organizations (for those who are not familiar) utilize a formalized set of rituals for bringing new members into the group.  These rituals were created by the founders of each group, written by young men and women with the intent of these traditions being kept over the years such that every new member would go through virtually the same experience.  I found it really interesting, actually, to picture the group’s founders, meeting together in secret around the turn of the 20th Century, creating scripts for elaborate rituals meant to convey special meaning to those who were stepping into this world they were creating.  

No matter what kind of tradition we are in, even if we are convinced that a divine being was the creator of that tradition, most of the formal ritual elements were created in the same way — humans sitting down and planning out the experiences that will be shared by fellow adherents over time.  Few people, if asked to actually consider the idea, could claim that the god in which they believe actually decided what kind of clothes should be worn to a service or whether those in attendance should stand, sit, or kneel, what words should be said in what order, and how the room should be arranged.  These are details created by people for the purpose of conveying meaning or status or evoking emotion in other people in a way which is meant to embody deeper spiritual content.  

These are traditions and rituals created for us by those who came before.

I doubt many people actually think about why they worship the way they do and why or how these rituals and traditions and concepts even came to be.  We follow them because that’s what we’ve been taught, it’s what feels right or good to us, and it is part of our spiritual culture.  Even fewer question whether these things are actually serving the purpose they were meant to serve.  Significantly, when religious communities as a whole start to look at the history and purpose and meaning behind their rituals and traditions, drastic things take place: schisms, the formation of new denominations or offshoots, complete overhauls of doctrine and practice.  And it’s not until it becomes obvious that something isn’t working anymore that communities become willing to dig deep and create something new which works for them in that moment.

My parting from organized religions began with questioning where all the trappings, all the different practices and aesthetics, come from.  I determined that many of them are beautiful and potentially meaningful, but they’re not particularly sacred any more so than the rituals I experienced in my sorority in college.  And there is certainly the danger, when asking questions such as this, that when the sacredness vanishes we will be left with no significant meaning after all.  

But that’s only really true if we consider these things to have no meaning if they are not sacred.  

Experiences can connect to our spiritual selves without having anything to do with god or doctrine or a church.  Ritual experiences will be meaningful to us if we connect with the intent of those who created the ritual.  It’s the formation of the community of people who agree on something, who find the same things important, which makes a ritual or a tradition meaningful.  And so, I think, to find meaning we first have to find a practice or tradition in which we can find a connection to those who created it, in which we can find connection to a larger community, and in which we can find meaning which speaks to us.  And to do that we must start asking why we do what we do, why we follow the rituals we follow, and why they came to be in the first place.