Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A New Definition of Ritual

Ritual is an often misunderstood word that carries strong emotional connotations for most people. And, as the artwork we make as United Catalysts often intersects with the realm of ritual, I have contemplated the meaning of ritual for years.
Here is the Merriam Webster Dictionary definition of the term:
Ritual: noun
1 : the established form for a ceremony; specifically : the order of words prescribed for a religious ceremony
2 a : ritual observance; specifically : a system of rites b : a ceremonial act or action c : an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner
People can easily relate to the last definition, which is essentially a synonym for a self-imposed habit (i.e. the morning coffee). But the other descriptions, which speak of ceremonies, observances, and rites, are more vague. To many, these definitions conjure up images of forced childhood church-goings or frighteningly bizarre acts of violence or sex.
The ceremonial definition of ritual is missing two important parts. First, it does not address the function of a ritual, which is transformation. Second, it gives no description of the mechanisms of ritual, which are symbolism, myth and metaphor.
From elaborate and public traditional wedding ceremonies, to private ceremonies for healing or purification, all rituals are designed to transform the participants. This transformation may be a social one, as in a change in status within a community (graduations, weddings, or rites of passage), or a purely personal one, aimed at the spiritual or psychological growth of an individual. Either way, transformation is the ultimate goal, and the specific type of transformation desired helps dictate the form and content of the ritual itself.
To accomplish this transformation, rituals employ the powerful mechanisms of symbolism, metaphor, and myth. In any ritual, participants go through a series of prescribed physical actions that are designed to serve as metaphors for internal actions. For example, in a marriage ritual, the bride and groom often pour sand into one container, drink wine from the same cup, or light one central candle from two individual ones. All of these actions serve as metaphors for merging two lives and destinies into one.  Many objects within rituals are symbolic; in this case the cup, candle or container of sand all symbolize the new union. These symbols are often dictated or informed by mythology, which refers to the set of spiritual or moral stories within a culture. 
Every culture on Earth has a their own combination of mythology, symbolism, and goals for transformation, so every culture’s rituals are uniquely different. Going further, every individual also has a unique perspective within their culture, and many of us create our own personal rituals, within or outside of our traditions.
The dictionary’s failure to describe the function and form of ritual in its definition is indicative of our society’s failure to understand and convey the value of ritual as a transformative tool. Many of Western society’s rituals are centuries old, and sometimes fail to move participants toward the transformations which they intend. In spite of this disconnect, they can still be powerfully moving.
My new definition of ritual is this: any set of physical symbolic actions that serve as a tool for internal transformation.
Demystifying ritual has enabled me to further appreciate the rituals of my upbringing, and encouraged me to continue to find my own personal rituals. In my work with Steve, this knowledge has strengthened our projects, which use metaphoric action to create new, contemporary rituals, and has ultimately led us to where we are now in the Skywheel Project.
This project, like a ritual, uses symbolism, metaphor, myth and physical action to evoke transformation. We hope the metaphor of a prayer wheel, containing the most sacred words from all spiritual traditions, orbiting the planet as a symbol of honor for all which is considered holy, will help encourage the transformation of our planet to one which is filled with respect, cooperation, and better understanding for all cultures and their beliefs.
Photo: Our first dialog with ritual, 9 years ago: The Purification Project
To learn more about this project, and other United Catalyst artwork, please visit: http://www.unitedcatalysts.net/

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