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  • Writer's pictureThe Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples

November 15, 2020 | Message from Dr. Benton

The Power of Ritual in Community

Happy Diwali

Happy Diwali! This Hindu religious festival was celebrated yesterday and today. It is the celebration of the triumph of light over darkness…of the promise of a visit from the Goddess Lakshmi…for the new year. Like other festivals, Diwali gives people a chance to come together (pre-COVID) to focus attention on community concerns and on the Spirit in a ritual celebration. My experience of this festival was many years ago somewhere on the peninsula at an ashram that one of my students attended. After getting out of the car, we were drawn to a large bonfire in the parking lot. Behind the fire was the building where the puja (ceremony) was taking place. It was an old church without the pews and up on the altar was another fire in a metal urn. The priests stood in front of the fire to greet worshipers. The power of the fire was awesome! It felt as if every problem…indeed every sadness and every mistake could be washed away in this fire. The Diwali ritual reminded me of this reading by Dr. Thurman about the seed of the jack pine. The seed of the jack pine will not be given up by the cone unless the cone itself is subjected to sustained and concentrated heat. The forest fire sweeps all before it and there remain but the charred reminders of a former growth and a former beauty. It is then in the midst of the ashes that the secret of the cone is exposed. The tender seed finds the stirring of life deep within itself – and what is deepest in the seed reaches out to what is deepest in life – the result? A tender shoot, gentle roots, until, at last, there stands straight against the sky the majestic glory of the jack pine. It is not too far afield to suggest that there are things deep within the human spirit that are firmly embedded, dormant, latent and inactive…There they remain until our lives are swept by the forest fire: It may be some mindless tragedy, some violent disclosure of human depravity or some moment of agony in which the whole country or nation may be involved. The experience releases something that has been locked up within all through the years. If it be something that calls to the deepest things in life, we may, like the jack pine, grow tall and straight against the sky! This story of the jack pine by Dr. Howard Thurman spoke to me four years ago after the election of Donald Trump. It is the story of our lives being swept by fire…both literally and figuratively. It has been that kind of a year. The question raised by the story of the jack pine is, “what has been released by this fire?” Thurman assures us that this seed is positive…it holds the hope for the future…for “where we go from here”.  At that time four years ago I said, “It seems that is what we are seeing…free reign for hatred and bigotry…free reign for denial of reality. There is no denial that this hatred and bigotry…this blatant disregard for human rights and our fragile planet has become more visible. Yet…I want to believe…that we have it in us to overcome this hatred…and to stand tall like the jack pine…stand tall against the hatred…stand tall for love and compassion for all of God’s creation.” That was the hope. That Sunday after the election I shared this reading and proceeded to lead us in a ritual called the Truth Mandala from the work of Joanna Macy, one of my teachers. A mandala is, I think, an appropriate symbol for this time of potential transformation of our species and of life. It is round, instead of linear. It symbolizes the cyclical nature of our existence…without beginning and without end. Here is an example of a mandala, attributed to Hildegard of Bingen. It is said to represent the human as microcosm of the macrocosm of the cosmos.

Microcosm of Macrocosm – Hildegard of Bingen

For our meditation today, I offer the Truth Mandala here again. Although we are not able to practice it in our sanctuary together, we may be able to envision being together and again voice the pain and sorrow, the anger, the emptiness, the fear that we continue to experience. There are four stations in the Truth Mandala mirroring the four directions containing symbols for each station. You could set this up at home or only envision it. North – Stone - representing fear…how our heart feels when we’re afraid: tight, contracted, hard. In the direction of the North we release our fear…by voicing it or drawing it or writing about it. The idea is not just to let go of the fear but to gain clarity on how this fear can propel us to action in the world. West – Dry Leaves – representing sorrow and grief…the great sadness within us for what we continue to see happening in the world and the loss of species, clean air and water, health and justice and peace. We can speak, write, make art in response to this sadness…in an effort to let it go and to remind us to draw on the strength of darkness to guide our steps at times. South – Stick – representing anger…the anger and outrage in us that needs to be spoken, drawn, sculpted or written about…in order to give us clarity of mind and purpose. This stick is not for hitting or waving around, but for grasping hard with both hands – it’s strong enough for that. East – Empty Bowl – represents our hunger…The empty bowl in the East stands for our sense of deprivation and need, our hunger for what’s missing, our emptiness. We can fill the bowl with symbols of things we will need to feed and nurture us on our journey or we may leave it empty in remembrance of mystery and of the creative process, the next step of which is unknown. Or we can speak, write or make art around this theme.

The power of this ritual is awesome…it reminds us that ritual is part of the word “spiritual” and that without ritual we may be unable to connect as a community and experience some relief from the stress and strain of our daily existence. This reality was raised at our last Zoom meeting, where one participant stated that she really missed the worship services and that she hoped we could meet in person…or at the least try to figure out how to experience worship on Zoom.  I know that she spoke for many others that have expressed this wish. I cannot promise that we will be able to do this, but I would like to acknowledge the need…the human need for ritual…for ceremony, especially in a culture that seems to have abandoned ritual. Matthew Fox says that all wisdom traditions, all religions, hold up special days and special practices for celebration. He quotes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel from his book, The Sabbath: The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath.  It is not an interlude but the climax of living. Fox sees this as a profound statement of hope. He says that we, as humans, need hope and big visions…we need to feel that heaven and earth, cosmos and psyche, can unite…to give us vision, energy and purpose. Heschel continues:  Call the sabbath a delight:  a delight to the soul and a delight to the body…To sanctify the seventh day does not mean: Thou shalt mortify thyself, but, on the contrary: Thou shalt sanctify it with all thy heart, with all thy soul and all thy senses. The Sabbath is a delight…a delight to the soul and the body! Imagine that! I would like to leave you today with a video clip from Matthew Fox in which he is describing a ritual that he developed called the Techno-Cosmic Mass. I attended many of these events in the time that I attended Fox’s university and afterwards. Look for a couple of people you know in the background!

Via Positiva, Via Negativa, Via Creativa, Via Transformativa…we need all four paths to move forward as individuals and as a community. May we celebrate the light of hope amid so much darkness and may we draw our strength, our courage, our creativity and our sustenance from the cosmic tree of life…the tree that we must nurture and care for with all our relations. Amen

Cultivating the Cosmic Tree – Hildegard of Bingen

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