Holding Space for Sacred Ritual Made New

For millennia, people have used physical experiences as gateways to spiritual ones, whether through yoga, bowing in prayer, visiting a shrine, or the Christian practice of partaking in bread and wine. Even the simple act of gathering with others in a physical space for a higher purpose can become a gateway to a spiritual experience.

This universal practice of engaging in spiritual ritual reminds me of a teaching in the Koran:

And among His Ayat [proofs, evidences, lessons, signs, etc.] is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and whatever moving [living] creatures He has dispersed in them both.

Quran 42:29

Ayat (plural) are forms in the physical world that are a sign or evidence of something spiritual. Or, as an Imam I heard speak on the subject once said, an aya (singular) is a physical form that is a window to Allah.

Physical practices with a spiritual purpose can be like that. They can open a window to what might otherwise be unknown.

In today’s post-modern world, people are as likely to look for an experience on their iPhone as they are to engage in a spiritual ritual. And whatever the benefits of social media might be, it is having disastrous consequences for young people. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt just published The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness. This is how one commentator described the book:

Haidt makes a strong case that social media—as distinct from the internet at large—is severely harming young people. Rates of mood disorders among U.S. college undergraduates suddenly spiked in the early 2010s. The number of kids reporting depression and anxiety rose steadily every year of that decade till rates were up 134 percent and 106 percent, respectively, by 2020. Similar statistics are being seen in countries around the world. It’s probably no accident that Apple introduced its first front-facing camera phone in the summer of 2010, and Instagram, which worked only on smartphones at the time, launched later that year.

Maura Kelly

Haidt contends that these mental health trends are global and that there is no other reasonable explanation for them other than the use of social media.

For several hundred years, Western civilization gradually moved away from the religious rituals it relied on for centuries. And it is not as if those rituals were replaced by new ones or that we have gone back to earlier rituals en masse. For many people, ritual has just faded away—even the ritual of a family dinner.

Why? Isn’t it mainly because the ritual served up by religious institutions has often been accompanied by superstitious belief? And a belief that people found to be disempowering? So, the practice of sacred ritual tends to be rejected altogether, without anything to replace it. Except iPhones.

Traditionally, spiritual rituals are established by those who lead the spiritual discipline, whatever it might be. And often, the form of the ritual is set in stone, repeated unthinkingly for a lifetime by its practitioners.

What would it be like to cast off any remnant of superstition or rote repetition and participate in a sacred ritual in physical form that connects us deeply to Spirit and to one another in Beloved Community? What if we entered into such a process consciously, deliberately using it to know something deeper, more powerful, and spiritually generative together? We could make up our own ritual, starting from scratch. Or we could take a traditional ritual and re-create it so it becomes a window through which we might know something sacred and profound.

There are rituals involving water in cultures around the world. In pre-Christian Hawaiian culture, water ceremonies were used to dedicate altars, homes, and newly made canoes. The Sikhs have practiced a baptismal ceremony called Amrit since 1699. Muslims perform a ritual cleansing with total submersion called Ghusal.

In ancient Israelite culture, there was a ritual of washing hands and also of full immersion. There is archeological evidence in Israel of immersion in ritual basins—mikvehs—beginning in the 1st century B.C.

Immersion in a mikveh is practiced today by the Lubovitch movement. This is how they describe the experience:

Immersion in the mikvah can be understood as a symbolic act of self-abnegation (self-renunciation), the conscious suspension of the self as an autonomous force. In so doing, the immersing Jew signals a desire to achieve oneness with the source of all life, to return to a primeval unity with G‑d. Immersion indicates the abandonment of one form of existence to embrace one infinitely higher. In keeping with this theme, immersion in the mikvah is described not only in terms of purification, revitalization and rejuvenation, but also, and perhaps primarily, as rebirth.

John the Baptist initiated the rite of baptism in the Christian tradition. Here is how his story is told in a version of the Bible translated from Aramaic:

And in those days Yohannan The Baptizer came and was preaching in the desert of Judaea. And he said, “Return to God, the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”

Matthew 3:1,2

There are all kinds of meanings attached to baptism in Christianity, some of them beautiful and some of them superstitious. Each Christian denomination has its own take on it. Some favor full immersion, some a sprinkling. Some do it for infants. Others say you have to wait until a person is old enough so they can participate consciously. And some don’t baptize at all.

The origin of the word baptize is from the Greek word baptizein, which simply means to “immerse, or dip in water.” What if we stripped down the meaning of the act of baptism to that without any other dogma or belief attached to it? And attributed the meaning we want to attribute to it? What would that meaning be for you?

We have the opportunity to let the physical act of sprinkling with water—or a full immersion—create an aya, a window to an experience of a transcendent reality. It could bring a refreshing, and a renewing, and internal cleansing of unresolve from out of the past. The act of baptism re-created could bring blessing to the human heart. It could open a window for heavenly power to flood the human soul. As keepers of the mikveh say, it could be a purification, revitalization, and rebirth.

This past Sunday, we shared a baptism ritual made new at Sunrise Ranch. At the end of it, I spoke these words:

May we, in this baptism, have what is old dispelled from consciousness. May we have any of the energies of the world in which we live that might drag us down cast out. May we welcome in the fresh, renewing power of the Holy Spirit. May we be washed and endued with that power all through us, bringing health and vitality, love and wisdom in and through us and to our world. So, may it be. Aum-en. 

Let’s be a Beloved Community that holds the space for sacred rituals made new. And let the rituals we hold open a window to the mysterious source of power and light within us all.

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March 31, 2024 4:57 pm

Let Love Radiate in so many ways…..Blessings All

March 31, 2024 4:57 pm

Interesting that you said : ” We could make up our own ritual, starting from scratch. Or we could take a traditional ritual and re-create it so it becomes a window through which we might know something sacred and profound.” So In creating a Local Drum Festival with A friend we did That recently with the Idea for our Opening ceremony modeled After a Traditional Yoruba Ritual of Praising the Keeper or Deity of a Persons Path, Deity of the threshold to, And the Deity or Keeper of the Place Of Heaven on Earth Or the Sacred, and A closing ceremony of creating a star Gate together.

Fiona Gawronsky
Fiona Gawronsky
March 30, 2024 6:45 am

I grew up in a Christian culture. I had both the experience of the official Church of England tradition and the non-conformist Baptist heritage of Christian “fellowship” without the trappings of pagentry. However, beyond this, I was also introduced and a very young age to the Emissaries of Divine Light as my mother had contact with Sunrise and this enlightened my perception beyond the religious dogma – somehow, I just “got it”; I was about 4 years old. Those holding the pattern had an impact, I could see.

Yes, there is a primal knowing. Thank you, David, for this consideration.

Kari Bye
Kari Bye
March 29, 2024 6:10 pm

Sunday services in our church sometimes include baptism Wonderful little babies being carried to a basin of warm water held by an angel lowered down in front of the alter. No matter how many times I have experienced this ritual, I have always been touched when this sculpture of an angel descends.
I know I was also myself baptized there, carried by my grandmother, and having water sprincled on my head by the minister. First there was always the question: «What will the child be named?»   It must have been special for my grandmother to answer that, because I was going to be named after her.  I thought for years that baptism meant to officially get our name.
Today the question is «What is the child’s name?»  And then there are some words about welcoming the child into our congregation. Slowly words, rituals and ceremonies are changed in our Christian history, but not fast enough for most people to continue to attend seemingly outdated services. 
In our community, though, many people continue to be «cultural Christians», and celebrate baptism, confirmation, weddings, and funerals «the way we used to»  There are changes and variations, but the basic content, including traditional clothing of a long white gown for the baby, and our colorful native dress for family and guests. 
Yes, people seem to feel a need for rituals or ceremonies, even if they cannot always relate it to their faith.  Perhaps the ceremonies are their faith,  as generations have carried the spirit of them?

Jerry Kvasnicka
Jerry Kvasnicka
March 28, 2024 4:41 pm

Thanks, David, for your words of clarification on the meaning and significance of rituals. The baptism I experienced at the age of 14 seemed calculated to just fasten me more firmly to the Presbyterian Church. And I personally saw it as a way of obtaining “eternal security” in a heavenly afterlife.

In other words, the emphasis was on GETTING something both for the institution and the self. Surely in authentic rituals the emphasis would be more on GIVING, pouring out a blessing and simply celebrating the ritual space we are properly in 24/7.

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