myth and ritual; darkness and courage

Yesterday and today have been reading days – the plan was to read a chapter or two of half a dozen books, just to start my thinking in a few different areas [i’m still on a very steep learning curve with this new role!]. Instead, i’ve found myself absolutely engrossed by Karen Armstrong’s latest book, The case for God, and haven’t moved past it.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about moments of transformation – we can’t create them, but we can make space where they might be possible… In the first chapter of Armstrong’s book, she walks us through a history of religion and ritual since humankind first existed, beginning with the rituals that shape pre-historic life. For the pre-modern person, myth only makes sense in the context of the ritual which brings it to life. It isn’t the myth that’s important, or even the truth behind it; instead what matters is the transformation caused by the ritual. It’s pointless knowing that death is intimately entangled with life if you don’t live as though that’s true. So, 30 000 years ago, a boy would crawl through a mile of underground labyrinthine passages – with no light, and to the terrifying sound effects of screaming and thumping – to find himself in a cave covered with paintings, where he would be introduced to the tribal rituals surrounding hunting, victory, death and birth… and there in the cave he wouldn’t just hear the stories; he would know them through a new lens of courage, because he’d had to find that courage simply to make it to the cave. And, when he left the cave and faced the inevitable terrors of the adult world, he would know where to find courage to live…

‘Like any work of art’ Armstrong says, ‘a myth will make no sense unless we open ourselves to it wholeheartedly and allow it to change us. If we hold ourselves aloof, it will remain opaque, incomprehensible and even ridiculous.’

Which is the luxury and the peril of our time – that we can hold ourselves aloof from the myths of life and death…

So how do we create the places where we can come face to face with fear and desolation… and where we practise courage for the moment we need it? It’s going to be fun trying… Perhaps the turbine hall at the Tate Modern is an example… the last two paragraphs of the Guardian’s review make me want to get back on a plane and go visit…

4 Comments

  1. ben

    The story of the boy in the cave always strikes me as something missing in our culture. I have often felt that self harm, pub fights and even Jackass are in some ways connected to our cultures lack of ritual, particularly “rites of passage” kinds of things. On All in the Mind a few weeks back, there was an episode about “Dark Science”, where there were people talking about what it was like to be pierced or become a human mobile (hung by hooks through the back). (http://www.abc.net.au/rn/allinthemind/stories/2009/2692929.htm)

    I quite like the body, being a yoga teacher and all… but sometimes wonder why the “alt worship” crew haven’t done more rituals involving pain… self flagellation was a big fave in the middle ages, and apparently even God wasn’t opposed to the transformational power of self harm (Exhibit A: crucifixion)… u could even give out that bumper sticker at the end: “Body piercing saved my life”.

    I am writing the liturgy as we speak… 😉

  2. do you think god wanted the crucifixion to happen? perhaps it was out of god’s control…

    i’m going to watch All in the mind…

  3. I’ve been reading the wanders trilogy by caisheal mor recently – following two young druid apprentices through their preparation for a particular role to keep the Irish traditions alive while christianity is embraced by the Irish people (in a choice between alliance with Rome for the protection they can offer against Saxon warriors or going it alone …). the rituals described in Mor’s stories also require some courage, and involve, I don’t know that it’s self flagellation really, but they do involve some pain, physical distress, use of hallucinogens … I’m not sure I’d incorporate any of that, but it’s certainly worth pondering the embodied nature of ritual as offering deep connection with our being, our whole being …

  4. ben

    Hmm.. Yeah you got me Cheryl… I dont think God chose crucifixion … and yep… dont even think god had control over the course of events. But i would happily suspend that particular belief for a service that involves people suspending their whole selves (and their beliefs) from meat hooks!

    I’m joking. Sort of.

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