Friday, December 20, 2013

The Power of Ritual: The Creation of Sacred Time and Space in a Profane World

The Power of Ritual: The Creation of Sacred Time and Space in a Profane World:
Earlier this week we explored the nature of ritual and posited that its current scarcity may be at the root of the restlessness, apathy, alienation, and general boredom many modern day men experience. It’s our determination that without ritual, life often seems flat and devoid of rhythm and texture.
Now, we are not suggesting that rituals be reinstituted on a society-wide basis; we’re quite pessimistic about putting a cat back in the bag once it’s been let out. Rather, what we hope and recommend is that individual men find a place for ritual in their lives through their own chosen communities and social groups. This can be done by seeking out institutions – be they lodges, clubs, sports teams, churches, or fraternities ­– that provide a rich, satisfying ritual experience. You can also achieve it by making a few of your little, everyday routines more ritual-like. Everything from family traditions to your morning cup of joe can become small rituals if you intentionally cultivate that character for it. How to do this is something we’ll talk about down the line.
You might even consider the possibility of creating your own rituals that involve others – an initiation to your club, a rite of passage for your son, an oath of loyalty among friends. I’m still chewing over the viability of this idea, but I can’t see any reason why you couldn’t. Since our current culture prizes “authenticity,” us moderns are very dubious about setting up or scheduling such a thing, believing “real” rituals are pulled from the ether and evolve naturally and organically. But if one examines most rituals, even those that seem quite mysterious and ancient, you will find that they were in fact created by someone, or a group of someones, very intentionally, deliberately, and self-consciously. Or they developed from behaviors that once had a practical purpose, but gained ritual status after that utility was lost in the mists of time. Those rituals with origins we cannot definitively trace strike us as inherently more real, but that is because no one was around to record how they were created. Had someone been there, maybe they’d just find a guy, sitting in a hut, dreaming up a new ritual. At any rate, a subject for another day.
Today we’ll begin a discussion as to why you might consider seeking to participate in more rituals. What power does ritual hold? How can ritual transform and enrich a man’s life? I had intended for this discussion to be encapsulated in a single post, but as always, underestimated the amount of material to cover. Plus, since this is such a deep, meaty topic, I thought it best to do three “shorter,” easier to digest installments rather than one mega post.
In this installment we will be discussing two different ways of looking at the world: the sacred and the profane. This post will be much more esoteric and specifically religiously-oriented than the next, but it is impossible to discuss ritual without understanding its most basic underpinnings. While the sacred and profane are rooted in religion (and the lack thereof), as Mircea Eliade, the professor who made these categories famous, wrote, “they are of concern both to the philosopher and to anyone seeking to discover the possible dimensions of human existence.” So pretty much everybody.

The Sacred and the Profane

We would argue that today’s world often seems flat and one-dimensional because modern existence lacks a layer of the sacred and exists solely on the plane of the profane, i.e. secular, in a more religious term. For Eliade, the sacred and the profane constitute the “two modes of being in the world.” The sacred represents fascinating and awe-inspiring mystery — a “manifestation of a wholly different order” from our natural (or profane) everyday lives. Traditionally, the religious man (and here we’re really talking about those who live/d in premodern societies) seeks to experience the sacred as much as possible, for he sees it as the realm of reality, the source of power, and that which is “saturated with being.” For the religious man, the profane feels unreal, and leads to a state of “nonbeing.” In contrast, the nonreligious man refuses any appeal to mystery or to the supernatural. As a humanist, he believes “man makes himself, and he only makes himself completely in proportion as he desacralizes himself and the world.”
If you’ve ever felt a sense of “nonbeing,” it may be because the modern world has become desacralized, or as Max Weber put it, “disenchanted.” In a traditional society, all of man’s vital functions not only had a practical purpose but could also potentially be transfigured into something charged with sacredness. Everything from eating to sex to work could “become a sacrament, that is, a communion with the sacred.” In the modern world, such activities have been desacralized; we live in a thoroughly profane world.
While Eliade associated the religious man with the sacred and the nonreligious man with the profane, he argued that even “the most avowedly nonreligious man, still, in his deep being, shares in a religiously oriented behavior.” What he meant was that even a man who doesn’t believe in the supernatural realm experiences things like a wedding, a mountain top, or the birth of a baby as extra-ordinary. He still fills movies and books with the “mythical motifs — the fight between hero and monster, initiatory combats and ordeals, paradigmatic figures and images (the maiden, the hero, the paradisal landscape, hell, and so on).” The nonreligious man still seeks renewal and rebirth in different forms. Rather than sacred, however, he would call these things significant or special. If he seeks a life of greater texture, he has just as much need as the religious man to interpose such significant experiences with everyday life, and to seek to make such extra-ordinary events as distinct from his workaday world as possible.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”
As an example, the famed naturalist John Muir believed in the sacred, religious beauty of nature. In fact some experts have theorized that he abandoned his Christian roots altogether and became solely a congregant of the church of nature. He turned away from the traditionally religious, and injected the spiritual, or sacred, into his own life, in his own way. He created ritual for himself by climbing trees in the middle of storms and by exploring the ever-changing worlds of glaciers. Just because you aren’t religious in the traditional sense doesn’t mean you can’t inject sacredness into your life.

Sacred Time

One of the potent powers of ritual is its ability to set off certain times and spaces as sacred, as “something basically and totally different” than the profane. Let’s talk first about the idea of sacred time.
Eliade argued that all rituals at their core are reenactments of the primordial deeds performed by God, gods, or mythical ancestors during the period of creation. In imitating the gods, it is as if the original events are happening once more, and the ritual releases some of the potent, transformative power that was present at the very beginning of the world. The rituals are able to re-create and re-found the world, re-sacralizing time and beginning it anew, so that each ritual restores freshness and strength to a worn out world.
The Abrahamic religions have a less cyclical and more historical, linear view of time than some faiths, but their rituals also allow the participant to “periodically become contemporary with the gods” and the faith’s heroes. When a Christian participates in the Eucharist or a Jew in the Seder, they are reliving the original Last Supper and the Exodus. The sacred power that was present during the original event is re-created. It is an experience of ritual remembering that connects the participant not only to the original actors, but to all those who have performed the same ritual throughout the ages. In this way past and present are integrated, providing the participant with a sense of continuity; profane time is subordinated and sacred, eternal time emerges.
The power of ritually-created sacred (or at least significant) time applies outside the realm of religion as well. Think of an institution that draws on past traditions to inform its current identity and code of behavior. In such a case the ritual may not release sacred power when reenacted, but simply serves to refresh members’ minds about the founding events and the groups’ basic values, inspiring the inheritors of the legacy to carry them on. For example, the Fourth of July, if intentionally ritualized, can serve as a time to reflect on the founding values, of, well, the Founders.

Sacred Space

Rituals cannot only set apart particular times as sacred, but certain spaces as well. In religious traditions, these sacred spaces are places where the veil between humans and the transcendent are thin, facilitating communication between heaven and earth. When you step into a sacred space, you can leave the profane world behind. Time is also transcended (as just discussed) and you can travel back to the past to participate in your faith’s founding events.
Entering into sacred space, you enter into a state of “liminality” — a state of being in-between – neither here nor there. Dr. Tom F. Driver explains how this allows you to become someone different than who you are in your “normal” life:
“When people engage in ritual activity, they separate themselves, partially if not totally, from the roles and statuses they have in the workaday world. There is a threshold in time and space or both, and certainly a demarcation of behavior over which people pass when entering into ritual. The day-to-day world, with its social structure, is temporarily suspended.”
Rituals cannot only sacralize a general environment, but the physical objects within that space (the people too, but we’ll talk about that next time). Elements that in your profane life would be merely ordinary, take on a new meaning and can become a cipher through which the sacred is revealed to you. Jonathan Z. Smith describes this process:
“When one enters a temple, one enters marked-off space in which, at least in principle, nothing is accidental; everything, at least potentially, is of significance. The temple is a focusing lens, marking and revealing significance…
The ordinary (which remains, to the observer’s eye, wholly ordinary) becomes significant, becomes sacred, simply by being there. It becomes sacred by having our attention directed to it in a special way…
The sacra are sacred solely because they are used in a sacred place; there is no difference between a sacred vessel and an ordinary one. By being used in a sacred place, they are held to be open to the possibility of significance, to be a see as agents of meaning as well as utility.”
Rituals can get us to see everyday things in a new way. Wine is just wine, until it’s the Blood of Christ. A handshake is just a handshake, until it is used to reveal secret truths. Shoes are just shoes before you remove them to step on sacred ground. As you ponder the meaning of these symbols, they can, as Eliade puts it, “take you past the particular, into the universal” and grant you new insights into truth.
Where is sacred space?
When you think of sacred space, houses of worship most likely first come to mind. As you step through their physical thresholds, which are often accentuated by soaring arches or gigantic doors, you move not simply between the street and the sanctum, but between two modes of being – the sacred and the profane. Removing your shoes as one does before entering a mosque or making the sign of the cross with holy water as you enter a cathedral helps tangibly mark this passage.
Many churches today, in an effort not to make potential members uncomfortable with a physical structure and rituals they are unfamiliar with, have modeled their buildings and services on the edifices and entertainments of popular culture, making the transition from the outside world into the sanctuary as seamless as possible. In theory, this does limit the potential for worshippers to experience the manifestations of the sacred as “something basically and totally different…like nothing human or cosmic.” It has been said that sacred ritual disorients to reorient, and modern worship often skips the first phase.
At the same time, however, buildings are actually not the central element that makes possible “irruptions of the sacred” (Eliade’s wonderful phrase). Ritual, not actual physical structure, is what creates sacred space, so that it can be found anywhere one finds worshippers ritually tapping into the divine, from a church to a trailer park to a grove of redwoods.


If you often find yourself asking, “Is this all there is?” you may be due for an immersion in the sacred. You may need to find a place for ritual in your life, even if it’s as simple as declaring part of your morning as sacred time or a room in your home as sacred space. If you wait for life to hand you texture and meaning, you’ll feel flat forever. The modern world exists solely in the profane dimension; to access the sacred, the pathway is ritual. And beyond just giving the individual a sense of meaning and connectedness, ritual also mediates and builds the bonds of community and brotherhood. It’s to that topic that we’ll turn in our next post.


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