[This is Part 1 of a two-part set of articles about ritual and reverence. Part 2 is called A Rite of Passage.]
It was a year ago, during a week-long island retreat, that I strongly felt the connection between ritual and reverence and the vital need for both in every context of our lives. For over a decade, my work has been driven by the belief that if we are to be wise and capable stewards of life on Earth we must feel reverence for it. Without reverence for life, we lack the vision and motivation to do all of what is needed. Without reverence, we aren’t fully nourished. We aren’t fully alive.
On the island, I came to understand more clearly that our reverence takes root and blossoms into action through thoughtful moments of cultivation. In other words, through ritual. By ritual, I mean moments of noticing and savoring our gratitude and wonder. Ritual as incorporation of learning, and as integration of ourselves into some larger group or cause. Ritual as practices of renewal, of deepening connection, of celebration, marking milestones within the flow of our lives. As Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer observed, “The ethic of Reverence for Life is the ethic of Love widened into universality.” My sense is that ritual is key to turning that love into useful expression. Indeed, reverence without ritual seems likely to remain rootless, struggling to find its way to the ground of responsibility and action. And ritual without reverence risks being lifeless and rote.
The industrial worldview has denied the role of both reverence and ritual, leaving us jaded and apathetic. We have glimmers of reverence in extraordinary moments like overlooking the Grand Canyon or witnessing the birth of a child. But the reality is that reverence is the ever-present undercurrent of life, available in every moment. “It is a strange and wonderful fact to be here,” Irish poet John O’Donohue reminded us, “walking around in a body, to have a whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you. It is an immense privilege, and it is incredible that humans manage to forget the miracle of being here. Rilke said, ‘Being here is so much,’ and it is uncanny how social reality can deaden and numb us so that the mystical wonder of our lives goes totally unnoticed. We are here. We are wildly and dangerously free.”
Similarly, the common assumption is that ritual must be stiff, impersonal and apart from the flow of our lives. But if it is to serve our broadest purposes, it can and must be natural and relevant to our times and our current contexts. And though many find the concept of ritual suspect, I believe that some secret part of us craves it. We yearn to be reminded that our lives have significance and to be held within an enlarged sense of time.
In fact, our lives are filled with ritual. If you’ve ever had a check-in at the beginning of a meeting, you’ve engaged in ritual (in fact, we might argue that meetings themselves are rituals). If you’ve ever asked someone how they are and really cared to know the answer, if you’ve gone away on a revitalizing vacation, if you’ve made a sincere wish before blowing out your birthday candles, or if you’ve written a heart-felt love letter, you’ve experienced meaningful ritual.
The question is: how much more intentional can we be about designing existing rituals – both the everyday, ordinary ones and the rare, momentous ones – so that they cultivate reverence for life and spark inspired action? And what new rituals would serve us well?
As I reflected on these questions on the island last year, my eleven-year-old daughter came to mind. How will she feel reverence for her body, for herself and for all life, I wondered, without some ritual to invite her into those feelings and to show her that those who love her feel those things for her already? If Plato was right that parents should “bequeath to their children not riches, but the spirit of reverence,” then an element of ritual ought to be part of the equation. And so I made a commitment to offer a rite of passage the following year to honor her first steps into womanhood.
That is how I came to be waking her up at 4:30 in the morning recently to whisk her away on a weekend retreat with three other women in my family. Part 2 of this series shares the story of our gathering in case it offers some inspiration for other mothers of daughters – and fathers of sons – and also as an example of a modern ritual that was natural, relevant and filled with life.
Now, in the wake of that experience, I wonder what small reverence-filled rituals I might introduce into my life and work today. Taking a deep breath (right now!) and closing my eyes to savor the experience of being alive and surrounded by the sounds of life. Pausing to connect with my children and to let them know how much I treasure them. Cleaning the breakfast dishes with mindfulness and appreciation for the nourishment and conversation they supported. Walking my dog in the forest, taking joy in his rocketing through the trees and giving grateful attention to the beauty of the woods. Preparing my desk and my heart before writing a speech outline this morning. I wonder if I can create enough moments of ritual to string them together and cultivate a whole life of reverence – what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “a life of radical amazement.”
How will you cultivate reverence today? What one small moment of ritual would you create for yourself? What will help you feel renewed? What will you celebrate? Who will you reach out to in heart-felt connection and appreciation? Looking ahead, what larger rituals do you feel called to bring into being in your work or in your family?
“As we know life in ourselves,” Albert Schweitzer observed, “we want to understand life in the universe in order to enter into harmony with it.” As our species stands at the brink of catastrophe and as we struggle to break free of destructive habits of thought and action, this seems like an undeniably important practice to enter into.