The world has ended. This is what a crisis is, an ending, a death of something precious.
It doesn’t matter if that ending impacts only your family or the whole world, a crisis marks the death of one reality and the birth of something new and different. Death is hard, and human beings are afraid of new and different. So if you find yourself in the midst of a crisis, how do you find a solid foundation, firm footing as it were in a world that is rapidly remaking itself around you?
Ritual: a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.dictionary.com
For hundreds of thousands of years ritual has carried human beings through the good times and the bad, but modern people (especially here in the “old is boring” United States) have often lost the rituals that helped their ancestors weather bad times. In doing so we’ve made ourselves poorer. Those rituals were often shed at the same time as abusive theology, or oppressive social structures were rejected, the good went with the bad as it were.
But we can reclaim, or remake ritual, we can reclaim its power in our lives.
Ritual is in a way simply a habit that has been given weight and meaning. And like a habit rituals help us take the steps needed in the midst of a crisis without having to think, at a time we are especially unsuited to thinking.
Ritual gives shape and stability to our lives. Most religious traditions have a scaffolding of ritual that marks the seasons of the year, and the seasons of our lives. These remain, come what may, and their regular and predicable rhythm provide stability in a world that is anything but stable. Yes there might be a war on, a famine, a plague; but the seasons still turn with rock solid reliability and the joyful and solemn festivals march on regardless. There is comfort in that sort of reliability.
But more than mere reliability our rituals remind us of what is true when we’ve got a whole lot of confusion coming at us. Our rituals root us in our values, in the larger truths of our value as human beings (nothing to do with our earning potential), our relationship with one another, the Divine, and the world around us. This is the power of ritual. Even when everything else is falling apart our rituals remind us that new life follows death, that the Divine is constant, that we are valuable just as we are.
Here is where I will make some of my colleagues very mad: you can invent new rituals.
Now that’s not what many clergy want to hear, they will insist that to having meaning rituals must be ancient, but I’ll let you in on a secret: someone invented those ancient rituals. Someone was the first woman to say “to mark this time we shall do this.” And it stuck, because she’d hit on something true or beautiful.
My one caution would be this: borrowing is good, stealing is not. What’s the difference? You can borrow from your ancestors and your history. When you take something that belongs to someone else entirely, especially someone who your ancestors abused or harmed, that’s stealing; but mostly something for which you have no context or connection. Don’t steal, borrow like crazy.
Did you grow up Christian? Borrow that shit. (I can say that, I’m Christian clergy, seriously, borrow like mad we borrowed and outright stole most of what we do today. If any tradition should be borrowed from freely, it is us.) Are you descended from the Celts (like me?), borrow like crazy from our ancestors.
Someone of course will point out we know very little actually about the practices of our ancient Celtic (or really most) ancestors. You are not an ancient Celt, or Egyptian (fill in your ancestry here). You are you. You can borrow from our incomplete memories of the past and tailor that to your life today. That’s OK.
How to Start
You already have rituals in your life, they are habits that have become ingrained, that have taken on meaning and weight maybe without you even noticing. There are the family cookies you make every Christmas without fail. The tradition that there must be a bagpiper at all family funerals. Or the story and prayer time you have with your child every night.
Ideally the time to set your rituals in place isn’t when you are in crisis but long before, so those well established patterns can carry you. But if you do find yourself in the midst of crisis there are ways you can intentionally mark time and focus yourself using ritual.
Building Ritual in the Midst of Crisis
Crisis often involves chaos, or at least the radical change of our ordinary routines. If you are in the midst of crisis and desperately needing structure, ritual can help. But in the midst of crisis the last thing most people need is a project, so keep it simple.
Think first about your life as it is. There are rituals there, already. Your morning dog walk for example, that first cup of coffee and a few minutes to journal, or your afternoon choice of LP. I have a ritual of lighting a candle before I sit down to write. It reminds me of the power of the written world, and the responsibility those of us have who wield it.
There are bigger rituals as well, mostly those that mark holy days, and these (in their regularity) connect us to the past and the future and remind us that life is bigger than our moment of suffering.
As I write this it is mid March and we are in the midst of a global pandemic. The first day of spring is just past, a festival for my ancestors. Easter is just around the corner. If you normally celebrate a spring festival (or winter, fall, etc depending on when you are reading this) don’t not perform those rituals because of a crisis. But know this: you rituals serve us, not the other way around. So if you need to modify your normal practice for the situation in which you find yourself, do so!
You might find yourself with less freedom, or less energy as in normal times. It is OK to simplify. My church will be doing Holy Week at home this year. It will be very different than normal, but we will still mark that time as holy.
Perhaps instead of an elaborate celebration you go outside to watch the sunrise, and offer prayers of thanks for the reliable march of the seasons. In spring perhaps you plant a flower, or vegetables. In winter maybe you bring out decorations that include lights to light up the darkness.
Give yourself permission to simplify while still marking the seasons and holy times in your life.
Ground And Center
One of the things that makes ritual so important is its ability to ground us in the truths we want to build our lives around.
When crisis upends our world even tiny rituals can give us firm ground to stand on and those rituals do not need to be complicated. You probably have the foundation of them already.
When I begin writing in the morning I first light a candle and ask for the Divine to be with me, that what I write might serve Her and that I might remember I’m writing for real beloved people, not “customers” or an “audience.” This simple ritual (a match, a candle, a few seconds) helps remind me daily of why I do what I do.
Another example might be a bedtime ritual with your children, a time when you are fully present with them. Where you whisk them away to another world in those bedtime stories you tell or read to them. That bedtime ritual tells your children (in actions) that they matter, that they are loved, and safe.
What is the one thing you need to remember right now? How can you take one simple action each day to remind yourself of that truth?
I’ve written before about blessing, and the way human beings are called to bless. Blessing rituals are especially appropriate in times of suffering and crisis because they reclaim our power. You do have the power to bless yourself and others, to make the world a better, more holy place. Even in the midst of crisis.
A blessing can be as simple as a prayer for those you love, a physical act (like baking six chocolate chip cookies for my husband and I to share), or many other things. The key to blessing is that it is for another. To bless is to put our focus and energy on another person, on something that might not serve us at all, that might even require a sacrifice on our part. (As I’ve said before, to bless is to prioritize the other and their desires and needs, not our own.)
In a time of global crisis a blessing might look like staying at home to prevent the spread of disease, it might look like grocery shopping for an older neighbor, or sewing face masks for the those with weakened immune systems. It might look like our vet’s office, who turned over all their medical face masks to the hospital and went to home made masks.
How can you practice blessing in a concrete and intentional way?
Finally, and most importantly, be gentle with yourself. If you are in crisis (whether that be a personal crisis or a global one) your brain and body are silently trying to protect you all day, every day. Especially when the crisis is something we cannot do much about (like the death of a loved one, a pandemic, or a natural disaster) your brain spends all its energy cycling through fight/flight/freeze. And that is exhausting.
It has been said that those experiencing grief aren’t fully sane. Remember that and go gently with yourself. You don’t have to do all the things, be all the things. Not everything must be productive or meaningful. Nap if your body needs to nap, drink tea and light a candle and let that be your ritual, or just bake bread. But listen to your body, and your heart, and be always gentle with yourself.