Monday, June 02, 2008

Why Symbolic Acts Matter

A cool little post from Suite 101.

Why Symbolic Acts Matter

Men and women have always felt the need to express grief, declare hope or celebrate the seasons in traditional ways.

Why did thousands of people create memorials, leaving messages and flowers in public places, after the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York City on September 11, 2001?

The altars, photographs and prayers, according to Catherine Bell, were examples of an urban ritual, marking “places where average New Yorkers felt part of an encompassing community united in grief”.

What are rituals and why are they important to people and communities? If you wanted to create a ritual, perhaps to mark an important event, how would you go about it?

Bell, in an essay in the Robert Segal-edited Blackwell Companion to the Study of Religion (Malden: Blackwell, 2006) likens the response to the twin towers catastrophe to large public displays following the deaths of John Lennon in 1980 and John F. Kennedy in 1963.

According to Juliet Batten (Celebrating the Southern Seasons, North Shore: Tandem, 1995), “a ritual is a symbolic act that carries an extra layer of meaning….In ritual we connect with greater energies that have the power to sustain and inspire us on very deep levels”.

They can take many forms, from lighting a candle of hope to celebrating Christmas.

Ritual Reasons

Evan Imber-Black and Janine Roberts in their book Rituals for our Times (New York: Harper Collins, 1992) identify five purposes of ritual. They are “the shaping, expressing and maintaining of important relationships”; marking transitions; healing; “the voicing of beliefs and making of meaning”’ and celebrating, honouring life.

Rituals tap into tradition but in modern times, also include elements of change. They can occur at several levels, including community, family and personal rituals.

In her study of the “contemporary ritual scene”, Bell observes that many societies have adjusted rituals in times of stress, such as urbanization or heavy cultural pressure from tourism. She suggests that the ritual aspects of organised sports may indicate “the creation of new forms of community that integrate different aspects of life”.

How to Make a Ritual

For people interested in creating a ritual, Batten suggests seven stages.

The first is preparation, making the space ready, deciding the roles of the participants and helping people to be emotionally present. In New Zealand Maori tradition, this preparation may involve people standing together outside the meeting place or marae, waiting to be asked to come forward in the traditional kaikaranga call.

Rituals then proceed through an opening or orientation; centering; the enactment, which may involve stories or symbolic actions; and a deepening, such as a moment of silence.

Finally, Batten observes that it is important for the participants to close the ritual and “come back to everyday awareness”. A time of reintegration follows, often involving people eating and drinking together.

According to Imber-Black and Roberts, the “truly magical quality of rituals is embedded in their capacity not only to announce a change but to actually create the change”.

A related Suite 101 article, Marking the Maori New Year, looks at southern hemisphere rituals celebrating the coming of winter and their potential role in raising awareness of issues such as climate change.

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