Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Power of Ritual

(This post is part of a series of blogs by Canon Chris Harris as he shares some of his experiences during his field study this summer with Episcopal Community Services. Read the whole series here)

This morning I was at East County Accord which is a program of Episcopal Community Services which works with people who have been arrested for DUI.  As part of their court sentence, they are required to attend anywhere from eight to several dozen meetings.  Part of my field study this summer has been to act as a kind of unofficial chaplain as well as occasional discussion leader to one of the groups of about 20 people. Their ages, races, professions span the range of course -- driving under the influence doesn’t discriminate.

Each Friday morning the group gathers for a facilitated discussion on different topics ranging from what are the excuses and consequences for our drinking to a discussion of what it means to live a life of integrity -- and how our use or abuse of alcohol impairs our ability to live in integrity.  They don’t always have an alcohol use/abuse focus.  For example I led a discussion on mission and purpose in our lives, but there is always an alcohol angle that can be brought in as it is such a major distraction/impediment to personal and spiritual growth in our culture. The discussions are surprisingly open and honest. Several members of the group are in AA and are very good at helping the conversation get to a deeper, self-reflective/self-revealing level that gives permission for the rest of the group to follow suit. And of course our expert facilitator is also very good at drawing people out and creating an atmosphere of safety. As a result, the group has bonded very well in a way reminiscent of some of our spiritual autobiography classes at St. Paul’s. People share their life struggles, their relationship ups and downs, the impact their DUI has had on their career and so on. We laugh and cry together and many exchange phone numbers or emails so they can stay connected after their required sessions are complete. I come early and stay afterward to make myself available to those who wish to talk more.

In many ways the groups resembles a tribe. We have an initiation ritual – new members have to tell their DUI story (that is, how they got arrested). We have an elder of the tribe – when he speaks, his plain spoken wisdom and life experience immediately commands the full attention of the younger members. We even have a ritual for when we leave the tribe. When a member has fulfilled the required number of classes and is on his or her last meeting, we pull out a marble from a box and pass it around the group. As the marble stops with each person, they hold it tightly and share an appreciation about the person who is preparing to “graduate.” Often they reflect on how they have seen the person change over the course of the meetings and how they have grown. The marble finally ends in the hands of the person leaving, blessed by the touch and infused with praise from those with whom they have reluctantly spent these last few months. In a way the ritual provides closure, a sense of accomplishment and growth as the graduate prepares to ‘reenter’ to the world.

So powerful is this practice that when we had a guest facilitator filling in for our regular leader, there was a reluctance on the part of the two graduates that day to complete the ritual of the marble without a blessing from our leader. We went around and said our goodbyes and offered our praises as usual, but toward the end, when it came time to hand them their blessed marbles, they didn’t want to receive the marble just yet. Since they would be meeting with our facilitator later for a kind of exit interview, they specifically asked if they could receive the marble from her later that day. I find this particularly interesting because this is a completely secular program, yet the power was such, that it wasn’t complete without the tribal leader (if you will) saying her part.

I wonder if we might benefit from a little more ritual in our lives. The power and impact of ritual is undeniable, but often we deny ourselves of the opportunity to employ its power. How often in our daily lives are we given an opportunity to use ritual to mark something that is important. Even the ritual of the toast before meals or a short speech thanking the guests at a dinner party can add to the enjoyment of the evening. How often in the church do we get too caught up on the doing the business of church, be it a meeting, an event, or even service opportunities, that we miss the chance to mark these moments through the use of small rituals – even the ritual of the opening prayer? Or how about the ritual of the house warming (or house blessing) – a wonderful ritual often forgotten in the hustle bustle of a move? We are all familiar with wedding and graduation rituals, but what about a ritual for when our teens get their drivers license and are handed the keys to the family car? There is a wonderful book by our very own Gertrud Mueller Nelson “To Dance with God – Family Ritual and Celebration” that has many suggested rituals for the occasions of our life (including that last one). Ritual can help add meaning to the routine.  It can help us notice the deeper purposes at work in the small moments of our lives.  Ritual can even help us recall the presence of God...and dance. 

What opportunities for ritual do you have in your life? What might you develop (or dust off) to help savor the deeper meaning of life’s moments?

Chris Harris is Canon for Congregational Development at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral and postulant for holy orders. His passion is helping people integrate their faith and a sense of call into all aspects of their lives -- workplace, finances and relationships -- while designing a life of purpose and mission. He can be reached at or connect with him on Facebook

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