March 05, 2005

Ritual as Physical Poem

Cross-Quarter Votary

This candle
lit in winter's belly, its tomb
a flame, its hot blue bones
knock quick against the icy sunset,
quick against the skin of rivers
cut from fat, crumbled farmland;
This candle slips into my mouth
like blood
through veined
silhouettes, trees buttressed
by architectured wind
and a belly of bones,
blue entombed blood slick
and cracked;
This candle,
wick bent black as
an undone tomb under fire's weight,
and ice, burned and bleeding from
the slow noise of winter—
both knock back
at the bruise of sunrise
spread thick
across the morning.

There are many ways to think of ritual. Mindless repetitions. Obsessive-compulsive neuroses. Superstitious tricks to undermine or circumvent the rational mind. Obviously, these are all very negative views. There are also some positive ways of thinking of ritual in social and psychological senses: they provide common activities that can help to form bonds among community members and contribute to a tradition of cultural identity; they reinforce certain psychological states by associating places, times and actions with those states, making them easier to evoke (as is the case with many artists and writers who develop particular habits to put themselves in a "creative mood"). These aspects of ritual are, of course, important and do come to play in religious ritual. However, I am more interested in exploring ritual not from a psychological or cultural point of view, but from the viewpoint of religious practice—the "work" of the spiritual life.

In this sense, I like to think of ritual as a kind of physical poem. Poetry is a complex art form—it incorporates the linear progression of text with the visual and other sensory details evoked by its words, all this set against and interplayed with the musical quality of the words themselves welling from the throat and falling from the lips and tongue. Its musical qualities draw poetry close to the body, close to the speaker and the listener (or reader); as the same sounds vibrate through each of them. When a reader speaks an old ballad aloud, her body is quite literally moving in the same way that the original singer moved. Thus, the musicality of poetry draws us close to one another, to the poem, and to ourselves; it serves to unify. By contrast, the linear aspect of the text and the external aspect of the sensory, concrete details evoked serve to separate. A poem's defining feature is often its line and stanza breaks, the space which surrounds it and sets it apart from prose on the page. As we imagine the images, scents and sounds that the words of a poem describe, we project an idea of beauty outward into the world; as if we were looking at a painting or dance performance, we act as an observer of beauty and, as an observer, are thus separate from it. It is the intriguing nature of poetry to at once unite and separate us from beauty, from the work of the piece.

In the same way, ritual works to unify us—to bring ourselves into wholeness, to unite us with one another, and ultimately, to bring us into intimacy with the Divine—while it also works to separate—setting aside certain places, designated times and particular acts as sacred, as somehow "different" from everyday life. Religious ritual embodies this strange contradiction. It is a "physical poem." That is, it is a poem that we act out in our lives—we perform the same movements and activate the same energies in our physical bodies and in the physical space which serve to unify ourselves over time and space, and yet each time we do so, the act is unique and meaningful, and thus also separate and different from all previous experiences. Just as a poem evolves through our contemplation of it even while the musical sounds remain the same, a ritual moves us into a state of being where we are both connected to a larger world while at the same time remaining uniquely acting individuals. This is the religious meaning of ritual for me; when I perform such acts consciously and with purpose, I am opening myself to a mysterious process whereby I seek intimacy both with the eternal, unifying aspect and the height of the unique and personal aspect of God.

That is the understanding which guides my use of ritual in my spiritual life. For a long time, I took for granted the idea that belief in God was enough. This seems odd to me now, thinking back on how adamantly I insisted that love was an active force and not merely a warm-fuzzy emotion. How can something be an "active force" in one's life without actually manifesting in behavior? By very definition, to believe in love as an active energy animating my very soul is to believe that I must undertake acts of love—towards God, towards my fellow human beings, and towards myself—in full consciousness. In the end, that is what both poetry and ritual are for me. Through ritual and writing, I act with focus, openness and intention to manifest love, to be a child of the Divine, within the world.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

-- Rumi
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

-- W. B. Yeats, from "Among School Children"


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