What is Ritual?

“It is from the primal world that living faith arises.”     ~Larry Harvey


What is Ritual?

It’s a simple word—yet many of us struggle to define it, feeling uncertain or even argumentative about how it should be defined. Some people use the word confidently and easily, while others feel uncomfortable and even threatened by it, and a few reject it completely.  Yet rituals, diverse in appearance, content, style, and meaning, exist all over the world. Often cultures or groups of people disagree about the appropriate traditions, customary ways, and even whether to honor rituals at all! Thus it’s not surprising that rituals are a common source of conflict and confusion for many of us.

According to one dictionary, ritual is defined as an established, prescribed, or customary procedure for a religious or other solemn ceremony or act, including sacraments for births, visitation of the sick, burial of the dead, life transitions, special occasions, etc. It comes from the Latin words rītuālis or rītu (rite), meaning a sense of convention, formality, ceremony, and sacredness. But while some rituals are clearly religious in nature, others are more secular—so what, in fact, makes a ritual a ritual?

To answer this question, we must understand that belief is the core of all ritual. Whether the belief is in God or science, wind spirits or serpent wisdom, it is the expression of belief through actions, words, and symbols that defines all rituals. Moreover, misunderstanding or rejection of the diversity of beliefs is the source of all confusion about ritual and its purpose in our lives.

Although some rituals are purely mundane, most rituals create a space for humans explore their beliefs about divinity. Usually one of two views of divinity—transcendence or immanence—is expressed while the other perspective is rejected. The first view, transcendence, is from the Latin word transcendentem: it means surmounting or rising above, as if to step up on a ladder. Transcendence places divinity beyond the worldly experience of humanity. On the other hand, immanence views the divine as immanent—deriving from the Latin immanere, it evokes the feeling of an indwelling presence whose divinity exists within all aspects of Being.

These conflicting perspectives about divinity lead to different and often mutually rejecting beliefs, and almost all ritual conflicts can be traced back to this fundamental difference.

 Yet because rituals are pure expressions of human belief, they are deeply powerful. We have a choice— through our actions or communications within the realm of ritual, we can continue to draw lines between right and wrong, divine and mundane, heaven and hell. Or we can reach out towards our fellow humans, undertaking with solemn purpose to blur the lines between transcendence and immanence. We can let go of our ideas about ritual and become playful and curious, exploring different rituals, putting them together in creative ways, and finding the ones that work for us while allowing other ritual paths to be right for others.

After all, both perspectives taken alone are incomplete; beliefs contain, define, and limit meaning. But when we relax control, a bigger picture can begin to take shape through and beyond our rituals. Together, immanence and transcendence include all possible aspects of sacred experience. And perhaps that is the true purpose of ritual—to teach us what it means to be human and divine at the same time. 







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