In Search of Meaning
As humans, we feel a need to make meaning from our experiences. Because of this, I imagine ritual has been a part of human existence since the beginning of time. I am drawn to using ritual as a spiritual practice and creating a container for life’s moments, whether they be challenges, celebrations, or simply to mark a meaningful experience.
As I began working with congregations in transition, I brought this practice into my work as an interim director of faith formation. If this past year taught me anything, it is that life is transition. This constant shifting is how I now experience daily life in all its elements. I believe that may be true for many of us.
I have spent many days in a deepened mindfulness, focusing on the seasonal energies, the pull of the moon phases and reflecting on how my body is engaged in its activities. Being more aware has been a gift, and in the noticing I have realized how marking the moments have become a natural outcome of my daily routine. I am aware that the time I have had for this reflective period comes from a privileged place. I acknowledge the disparity of so many whose experience drastically differs from mine. The dire circumstances of the past year have been continually on my heart and I have included a ritual of loving kindness meditation to my practice.
In sharing with a colleague about writing this post, she mentioned a group she facilitates where they had a discussion about transition. With a gathered group of participants at the end of their session together, the facilitator reminded them of the time between leaving the group and moving back into their evening routine. A thoughtful moment to reflect, guided by thoughts of their sacred time together, was an important shifting from one aspect of themselves to another.
I can’t think of a more positive and meaningful way of mindful transition. This formal moving from one “place” to another may not, in its definition, constitute a ritual, yet it can help create a mindful act, giving way to living into each moment.
My first experience in a Unitarian Universalist community was at a women’s circle. Recently divorced and in a new relationship, I felt a need for community with other women. I showed up and was welcomed. To begin, the leader had words of how they would gather and be together, then lit a candle – in a chalice – that I would later find out to be at the center of Unitarian Universalist gatherings. It wasn’t until I went back a second time that I realized this ritual of reading and lighting of the chalice was repeated at each circle. It was comforting and brought me a moment of connection with the gathered group, even though I was unfamiliar with its foundation.
When I think back to my earlier religious community experiences I recognize my draw to ritual and the sacredness it brings. The reciting of the Lord’s Prayer, the Doxology sung at offertory and the weekly repeated closing words by the minister were part of my early religious experience. They were a predictable part of each worship service, which as a younger member I could take part in, although I was never formally taught these simple phrases or songs.
We know ritual-type activities are important. Graduations, weddings and funerals are all part of our cultural makeup through ritual. Certain movement rituals have been found to lower anxiety. One study of participants attending group ritual settings were monitored and shown to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after their participation together.
Not surprising, and could be why many traditions hold ritualized prayer, meditation and dance in high regard. My draw to use ritual in transitional ministry is partly because I embrace the use of ritual in my personal life and know it can assist in building community in those I work with.
Transitions do not always include crisis, but we know congregations are not immune to it. A sudden departure, misconduct or major illnesses of staff and members can rock the solid foundation of the community. We hold those in pain or trauma fairly well as pastoral care agents. Adding a ritual component at an appropriate time can be healing for the community at large. Children and youth especially, respond to ritual positively. It can hold a place for people to express their grief or loss, often without spoken word, which can feel safer to some.
In one setting where the leaving of a director of religious education was without notice, I created a simple ritual of storytelling and lighting candles as a way to bridge the transition. We recognized the importance of closure and the fact that the children did not get an opportunity to say goodbye and may have been a place of hurt. By allowing space to hold what was left unsaid, closure was possible, and people felt heard.
As community builders we strive for connection among those we work and worship with. It is why we light candles or drop a stone into water when sharing joys and sorrows during our gatherings. Another example of a ritual element in transition is one that warms my heart. During the pending move out of the church building for renovation, a lifespan of congregants gathered to decorate small flags that were then sewn into longer streams of banners. The plan was to carry them to the temporary meeting space to adorn the altar, walls and education rooms. What a beautiful reminder to the congregation that the church is not the building but rather its people. The act itself might not have been ritual in nature, but the group dynamic of creating was. I held a sense of energy towards a common goal of communal spirit. And isn’t that what being part of a religious community is all about?
Congregational life is fully immersed in transition. Nothing is more true than our current times. For all of us engaged in this work, I offer encouragement for the continued journey as you find ways to make meaningful transition through ritual.
by De Anna L. Hoyle, March 10, 2021
Xygalatas, Dimitris. Why people need rituals, especially in times of uncertainty, The Conversation. (March 2020). https://theconversation.com/why-people-need-rituals-especially-in-times-of-uncertainty-134321