Think of a skeleton. Think of the bare framework of something. The calendar before the dates are filled in. The electric grid with no electricity running through the lines. The block of houses with no inhabitants. Graph paper.
Think of the emptiness inherent in the bare framework. Think of the promise.
In life, we usually don’t encounter bare grids with nothing running through them. We encounter mess and noise and flesh, motion and pulse. Yet the frameworks, these pure, spare designs and grids, the things dreamed up by engineers and architects and mathematicians and line artists and philosophers, are what we hang it all on. We often have to guess at what the framework looks like. We can’t always take the flesh off the bone. Sometimes we can get an X-ray. Other times we have to press and prod the soft parts to feel what lies unyielding beneath, the shape of things. We have to find what will give itself up in order to find what won’t.
I am proposing that there is such a thing as the bones of ritual. That there is, in fact, a skeleton at the core of all that humanity has called ritual and some things that haven’t been called ritual but that nevertheless share that skeleton. I am proposing that we feel into this thing called ritual, that we press hard, that we seek for what does not give but instead presses back at us.
How do we do this? How do we feel into anything? We get in close. We touch. We trust what we feel.
For those of you who have experienced anything you have called ritual, perhaps you have some idea of how to imagine this. What was your experience? Remember. Re-sense what it was you experienced. Here I am not talking about something that someone else told you was ritual but which you experienced as lifeless or even intrusive. I am talking about ritual that you knew in your own bones held the essence of the word, the righting of things, the rite of passage, the making of relationship with the world.
For those to whom the concept of ritual is new, you will have to use another concept, another experience, to bridge the gap until you too have felt in your bones what ritual can be. Think of something you have done over and over that has brought you satisfaction each time: feeding the cat because you recognize his sound of asking and it calls forth a response in you, folding the laundry and delighting in its smell of clean, putting down the car keys at the end of a long day and taking your favorite seat. Think of the moments when life seemed to stand out more sharply than usual: the time when you stopped in the middle of dancing at your friend’s wedding, looked around and felt content to observe the fullness of it all as if it were a long satisfying drink, the time when you didn’t stop dancing and felt the ecstatic motion express itself through you, the time when you held your grandfather’s hand and looked into his eyes and knew without words that your lives would only overlap this little bit, and that that was okay.
I am not the expert on what ritual is. No one person can stand and say of all experiences, this one is ritual, and this is not. Ritual is so much a part of our lives, our everyday lives and our extraordinary moments, that each person must stand as gatekeeper to his or her own sense of what it is. But that’s the beauty of it. Ritual is in our bones. To find out whether this is true for you, test it out. Call something a ritual. See if it changes how the experience feels to you. What, if anything, do you feel urged to add to make the experience even more conscious, even more sacred? What falls away because it does not bring you alive, because it does not further your ability to connect with what is around you?
Each of us, feeling into this for ourselves and then coming together to share what we have learned and, if desired, to create experience in common, is excavating the bones of ritual. We are learning again what it is to be in sacred conversation on this planet, with ourselves, with each other, with all others.