Blanche lived on Bliss Street, in Queens, New York. I’d come for lunch and went home with much more. With a sweet tooth, and in her eighties, she had come to the conclusion that she might die before the meal was over. Why not have dessert first? In her own way, she was celebrating being alive, the sweetness that can be found in the now.
The power of now in rituals is a compelling force. Author Joseph Campbell, (Hero with a Thousand Faces and the Power of Myth) described it brilliantly when he wrote through ritual we are seeking to “feel the rapture of being alive. Rituals and ceremonies help us find the clues to this within ourselves.” Through rituals, we celebrate our passage out of the darkness. They’re how we cleanse our blood, and heal our wounds from battles with our personal demons. They allow us to metabolize what we learned in the shadows and share the stories of our warrior wisdom.
Light at the center of rituals.
Whether in the form of candles, fire, the dawning of a new day or the darkness of night, light often plays a significant role in rituals. It instills our days and nights with magic and mystery. Rituals can be played out with great theater, or appear in the form of small Zen like moments that are no less meaningful. In Brazil, an old man told me the story of his family’s evening ritual during the early twentieth century before their house had electricity. At dusk, as the gas lamps were lit, each family member, each friend would turn to the other and say, “Good evening.” How many times do we take a moment when we light a fire or lamp to honor the transition from day to night? In doing so, we take a moment to embrace each other, the safety of home, and empower the unity of our circle.
While staying in a twelfth century villa in Chianti, I made evening rounds to close the wooden shutters over each window. As I said good night to the stars and the small bats that swooped past the panes, I became aware of slowing down. This ritual became a prelude to sleep and dreams.
In the morning, I opened the shutters to greet the new day. From each window I was awarded a new vista, of gardens, olive trees and medieval villages on distant hilltops, all touched by light. It was a very large villa with many shutters and windows, which extended my pleasure. By the time I reached the kitchen I was dancing! For the next few hours, colors seemed richer, deeper; smells and tastes had textures and layers. The mysteries and possibilities of the new day became a gift waiting to be unwrapped.
One man, one nation bring light to the world.
Each culture has developed different rituals that celebrate similar passages in life from the seasons to coming of age, love, marriage, healing and dying. Particularly fascinating to me are the rituals for Truth and Reconciliation that emerged in South Africa with Nelson Mandela’s intent for a peaceful transition through forgiveness and healing. Traveling committees were chosen to be objective observers. Former local apartheid members were called to stand in the front of a large community room to listen as each villager told his or her story about the horrors and the pain they’d suffered under apartheid. Then, the accused were required to acknowledge their participation in those acts, asking for forgiveness.
In reality, these ceremonies had deeper and much older roots in tribal traditions across the African continent. The truth and seconciliation spurred more ceremonies, this time with the child warriors further north. Returning to their tribes, most in their teens and 20s, these anguished souls were placed in the center of a circle where they spoke of being lost, of being brainwashed and tortured to commit atrocities against their own families and friends. The tribe listened and then related their stories of grief and pain at losing their children. Sometimes, the process took days. When everyone agreed all that needed to be said had been said the circle opened up to song and dance. Some tribes gave the prodigal an egg to crush under foot during the dance; symbolizing the birth of new beginnings.
The whole world felt lighter when they saw what Mandela was doing. I hope that no matter what happens in South Africa or around the globe, people will remember those stories and as they do, they’ll do their own ritual to call in the light.
Bringing light into our schools.
I’ve never understood why schools send children who are acting out home where they are often alone and without guidance. Where their anger and confusion festers. What if we were to send volunteer teams trained in compassionate communication to create circles similar to the above. Our children would learn to listen deeply, without judging. They might learn about forgiveness, conflict resolution and the healing, the creativity and joy that unity offers. They will be calling in the light.
As a storyteller, a mother, an activist, a spiritual woman, when I participate in a ritual, I’m often reminded of the title of Zora Neale Hurston’s wonderful book Their Eyes Were Watching God. It doesn’t matter whether a circle is Quaker, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist or Pagan. Whether its members call to Jaweh, the Great Spirit or profess to not believing in god, I believe we’re all connected in our humanity.
Winter solstice when the light shifts.
December 21st is the Winter Solstice, the darkest, shortest day of the year. It’s also a day I experience a quickening; knowing that it’s also the returning of light. The next day will be longer! This year I see it as a powerful metaphor for the darkness, the economic meltdown and the conflicts that fill the headlines.
It’s a powerful metaphor for the light I feel growing. The light I’ve seen in each story of children gathering pennies to build wells or send food to Darfur. I’ve seen it in the beauty of women Kenya who have planted tens of millions of trees. I’ve rejoiced when I heard about the organizations that micro-finance businesses for women in the Far East and those like www.girleffect.org who raise money to send young girls to school.
Believe me, when I say I’m not Pollyanna. There will always be turmoil and stress; sometimes more than others. However positive change is occurring. And so, on December the day that the light changes, I’m going to celebrate by sending out my own light and my prayers. This is a call for you to do the same.
A simple ritual for calling in the light.
Where I am, the lights will be turned off at midnight (EST in my case) and the first candle will be lit. Perhaps, there will be a circle of candles held by family and friends. It may just be me and the dogs thinking of the rest of you as we empower each other as we work and pray for positive change! My circle will start with the oldest person and finish with the youngest, lighting candles one by one. And as each individual lights the next person’s candle, we will say something like this ... “Share this light, in mind, body and spirit.” And when everyone is finally holding a lit candle ... we’re going to say aloud ...” We are the light.”
I hope you’ll join me.