“Initiation rituals were not done for the initiate’s benefit. They were done to keep the Universe alive for all of us. It was believed that in initiation by learning the ways and language of each layer, and then doing the rituals of each, the world as a Deity would stay flowering and flowing, greased on the beauty of the rituals.”
–Martin Prechtel, Long Life, Honey in the Heart: A Story of Initiation and Eloquence from the Shores of a Mayan Lake
I’ve been reading this book recently as part of my continuing journey into learning what ritual is and what it can be. I’m not sure why this particular quote jumped out at me as I sat here deciding what I would share for this blog. The language is beautiful, surely. The imagery captures me and has me pondering what a world view like this can offer.
“…the world as a Deity would stay flowering and flowing…” Imagine this, if you will. The world is alive! The world is full of movement. The world moves through cycles and has different needs in different parts of the cycle. What might our part be in a world like this? Really let your imagination go here. Perhaps the world as Deity looks to you like the goddess Gaia (I see her as a woman with blue and green skin, draped in flowers and looking out into stars). Perhaps it looks like a tree, slow and large, containing lots of history. Perhaps it looks like a boat, moving slowly on the river of time, propelled by invisible and ubiquitous biological processes, the division of atoms, the decay of the old to make room for the new.
Where are you in your image? Are you in the boat? Are you a leaf on the tree? Are you sitting on the goddess’s shoulder, or are you in her womb? Wherever you are, imagine that you are in your true place in the world, that you in your place are in relationship to the whole. What do you do? What do you know?
If you’re like me, you may wonder how you know what to do. After all, my brain says, there are many options here. Maybe I could stay still and not do anything at all. Maybe I should get into the river and help push the boat. Maybe I’m not a leaf at all; maybe I’m a piece of fruit hanging from the world’s branches. Does the goddess want me hanging off of her shoulder? Maybe I’d do better to be at her feet.
My brain has no idea what to do. And yet, if I am to believe that the world is Deity, then I must have a place here. I don’t want to believe that the world is dying and dead, incapable of being renewed, blind and deaf. When I walk in the woods, I want to know that the woods are just as aware of me as I am aware of them. I want to know when I gather in groups for the purpose of sending out healing energy that real connections are being made, that something is actually happening. Philosophical considerations of how we can know the world’s aliveness aside, I can choose to act as if the world is alive. And that means that I must take my role here seriously.
And in trust. If my body is part of the world’s body, perhaps my body knows more than I do about what my place is. If that is true, perhaps I can find a way to cooperate with my body’s knowledge and wisdom. For me, that is where ritual comes in. Ritual is a way of trusting the things of this world for their inherent ability to connect our bodies, our hands that hold and move these things, to themselves, to the solidity of rocks and the flow of water and the unpredictable dance of fire, and through these things to the whole. If a rock has a part in the Deity of the world, then so do I, for the same reasons.
This is true in daily life and it is also sharply true in initiation times and rites of passage, as Martin Prechtel points out. Times of initiation, whether we mark them or acknowledge them or not, are times when we are being asked to change our level of relating to the whole. What may have worked before is no longer appropriate, or is impossible, now. What do we do at these times? Modern society, at least where I live, tells me to use my brain, to try to figure it out. What have I done wrong? What do I need to do differently? Maybe I can pretend nothing happened.
Yet this doesn’t work nearly so well as our brains tell us it will. If I have experienced a major loss, a disappointment or a betrayal, that in effect initiates me to a new level of being because I can no longer relate to the world in the same way, I am not going to be able to move through this by analyzing, blaming, or rationalizing the experience away. I am going to want to understand with my body and heart what this means, where I am now in the body of the world, what is different about what I can now do and what I can now know. Most of all I will want to know whether I am ok, whether it is ok to continue living and trusting and knowing.
I am going to want to use ritual to connect me to this knowledge. For the reasons I mentioned above, ritual can get me out of my head and into my deeper knowledge. It can open me to the deeper knowledge held by what is around me. This is healing for me, but, as Martin Prechtel says, it is also healing and necessary for the world.
When I change, the world changes, because I am part of the world’s body.
How, then, could the world not participate in my changes, in my needs and movements and impulses and difficulties settling in?
Initiation rituals, whether drawn from tradition or drawn from my own creativity, are needed to rebalance the world, to help me and the world move together through my transitions.
I believe that initiations do not happen randomly. We can say to the world, “I would like my initiation now,” (thinking that initiation is what will move us out of whatever stuck or frustrating place we are in), but this is not what moves things. Trying this, we might be disappointed that there is no response, that our desires (which are likely either coming from our heads or from some part of us that is in longing for change but is still unripe) are being frustrated. Initiations often come unexpected, in the night as it were, and suddenly we are in the midst.
Yet unexpected as they might be to our minds, isn’t there part of us that knew this was coming, that suspected? Maybe we’ve been dreaming it for years. If the world is Deity, perhaps the world sends us these dreams. Perhaps the world has been watching us and waiting for our ripeness.
All the more reason to dialogue with the world through ritual at these times. We can ask, “what do you want of me, world, for my wholeness and yours? How do I move through this with the most grace that I can?” We can ask with our bodies, with action and symbol, and then invite response. World as Deity, as living being, as whole of which we are a part, responds in a way we can hear, if we are listening.