This is a follow-up piece to last month’s essay, “Preparing A Ritual”.
Something always seems to die around Lammas. Last year it was our pet fish, Inky. The year before it was a raccoon under the house. This year it was my wife’s phone. As I whiled away a couple hours in the local Verizon shop, I couldn’t help reflecting on how we are turning into cyborgs; losing one’s phone is akin to losing a limb. Mainly, though, I was preoccupied with the black beans which a friend had given me from her father’s farm in Indiana. I’d soaked them overnight but hadn’t started cooking them yet. Would they be ready in time?
Eventually we got the new phone up and running, got back home, began cooking and gathering the necessary materials. When the hour arrived, we loaded up the car with several large boxes. I had to laugh at myself. How is it possible that a religious ceremony should require so much gear? The black beans were still not done, so we put the whole pot in the car and drove to the next neighborhood, just a mile away, to the house of our friend who graciously agreed to play host.
We were almost on time, and a small crowd had already gathered. I encouraged people to chill in the air-conditioned apartment while I prepared the ritual space out back with a little help from my daughter. We’d decided the ritual would take place outdoors, even though Lammas in New Orleans can be suffocatingly hot and humid. For one thing, I wanted a bonfire; more importantly, it just makes intuitive sense that an Eco-Pagan ritual, which aims to foster a sense of reconnection with Earth, should take place outdoors.
So we dressed the focus (or altar, as I’m still prone to call it) with everything we’d brought: several sheaves of wheat, a loaf of bread in the shape of a human figure, a statue of Bastet, the Brigid’s cross I’d made at Candlemas. We also got the fire going, always a tricky proposition and slightly nerve-wracking. Did you know that dryer lint makes nifty kindling? I learned that trick from our host.
Soon enough we were ready to welcome people into the ritual space. One by one, we administered a tone from the singing bowl and a drop of strawberry essential oil on their wrists, then embraced them and said, “Welcome friend.” When we’d welcomed the last celebrant, I turned and saw they’d assembled themselves into a large circle around both fire and focus. Wow, there were more people than I’d expected, about twenty or so.
We joined hands and took a few deep breaths together. There were a number of small children in the circle. I hadn’t advertised the ritual as “kid friendly” but I definitely wanted it to be, so I was glad they were there. Of course, young children don’t always cue in to the idea of silent meditation, but that’s alright. Their random outbursts provided a beautiful counterpoint to our solemnity.
We observed the powers of Gaia through the metaphor of the four ancient elements. Not in the abstract, but in actual fact. Here I conscripted the help of my family, each of us facilitating a different element. We distributed some rocks for the celebrants to hold. We sprayed water on everybody — refreshing, in the heat of the afternoon. To the flames we committed to the Brigid’s cross. We blew bubbles. And for each of these elements, celebrants called out any associated qualities they wanted to invoke. “Trust!” “Fluidity!” “Anger!” “Peace!”
We honored our ancestors and our extended family by reading names of some recently extinct animals: Pinta Island Tortoise. Formosan Clouded Leopard. Pyrenean Ibex. Hawaiian Crow. Baiji Dolphin. West African Black Rhino. Golden Toad. Spix’s Macaw. Black-faced Honeycreeper. Each grown person in the circle read a name in turn and then committed the slip of paper to the fire.
I guess this might be a good time to mention my ambivalence toward language. I love language, and English in particular, and words and wordplay. But language is like its own dimension of reality, and I’m deeply suspicious of how it draws us away from direct experience of the world. My ideal ritual would be an unspoken one, a ritual of actions which are not explained or framed or interpreted with words but allowed to simply be, resonating in manifold possible meanings in the minds of the participants. Why spell it out? I’d rather err on the side of mystery.
Such an approach seemed beyond my grasp. Given that we often have first-timers in our circle, people who have never participated in such rituals before, people who might not have even heard of Lammas before, it seemed necessary to say a few words about the seasonal moment and the purpose of the ritual. So I said a few words, but I did try to keep from speaking too much. I mentioned the waning light, and our position midway between the solstice and the equinox, and the beginning of the harvest.
In my desire to keep it short and sweet, however, I omitted two of the most important things. I forgot to mention the idea of dissolution in Gaia, and I forgot to ask the other celebrants to give their take on that idea, to add their interpretation. (For example, my wife the teacher might have made the connection to the “larger self” of the school to which she was returning as summer break drew to a close.) In retrospect, this struck me as highly ironic. Did anyone connect the symbolic action that followed with the concept of dissolution of the self? I erred on the side of mystery alright. Nothing tests our ideas like putting them into action.
I’d been practicing for weeks, and now I sang the old English folk ballad, “John Barleycorn.” While I sang the lyrics about planting, my daughter distributed stalks of wheat to the celebrants, and they held them aloft as I sang about the growing of the cereal crops. As the lyrics turned to reaping, my daughter collected the stalks back up. Then we came to the final verse, which I’d rewritten to be about bread rather than liquor.
And the baker served him worse than that for her’s baked him in a loaf
But little Sir John proved the strongest one despite all of their solemn oaths
For the dancer cannot dance the dance and the player can’t play the horn
And the singer cannot sing the song without a little barleycorn
As I sang these lines, I held up the bread figure in one hand and a knife in the other, and I walked around the circle so everyone could see up close. Then, as the final words left my lips, I plunged the knife into the bread figure’s heart.
“We are the grain,” I said. “We are the harvest. We are the bread. We feed the universe.” We passed the bread figure around, tearing off a piece and consuming it, and saying to the next person, “May you nourish the world.” Yes, more words, but I noticed by the time the words came full circle to me they had transmuted back to the more traditional formula, “May you never hunger.” We did the same with a glass of dark beer (Irish Channel Stout by New Orleans Lager & Ale Brewing Company) and I meant to say, “May all good things flow between us,” but I forgot. Darn words.
To end the ritual I succumbed to reading from a slip of paper I had in my pocket, the words of Mark Green: “To enrich and honor the gift of our lives, to chart a kind and true way forward, by these words and deeds we name intent: to dare, to question, to love!” Through inflection and gesture I got the whole circle to shout this last in unison despite never hearing it before. “May all that must be done, be done in joy. We go forth to live!”
Our celebration didn’t end with the conclusion of the formal ritual. To the contrary, we were just getting started. We roasted some vegan marshmallows (yes, they exist) over the sacred bonfire, and then we repaired to the apartment for a potluck feast. There was some truly delicious food on offer. Unfortunately my black beans, which had been cooking on the stove all this time, were still not done.
Since Lammas is associated with summer fairs and feats of strength, we conducted a Lammas trivia contest while people were eating. There were eleven questions, and the prize (chocolate) went to the one person who managed to answer two correctly.
All too soon we were saying our farewells. I’d wanted to have a dolly-making clinic but there simply wasn’t time, nor did I bring the necessary materials.
In the final analysis, how did it all “go?” Was it a success? How does one evaluate such things anyhow? In my professional life I always distribute forms after I make a presentation, to gather feedback on what worked and what didn’t, and I use this data to improve what I do next time.
I didn’t distribute evaluation forms after the ritual. Maybe I should have. Instead, all I have are my subjective impressions, and a few comments from the participants. People told me they found the ritual “beautiful” and “meaningful.” I don’t attribute this to any great skill on my part but rather that our intentions were manifest in our actions. I think our joy in being alive, and our desire to share that joy, was clear and evident and contagious.
So that was awesome. However, I’d be less than honest if I didn’t also report on the downside. I was a little nervous ahead of time, and afterward I felt a sense of depletion, what I call a “spiritual hangover.” This is consistent with other rituals I’ve facilitated, and it leaves me wondering. There must be a better way. Next time (assuming there is a next time) I will make it a point to attend to that question specifically.
As for the black beans, we ended up taking the full pot back home and eating them for dinner the next day.
- PaGaian Cosmology and Making Sacred: Space for the Not-Yet by Glenys Livingstone
- Atheopagan Ritual Primer by Mark Green
- The Shape of Ritual by Áine Órga
- John Barleycorn on Wikipedia
The Author: Bart Everson
“What can we learn, and how can we teach, from the cycles of the Earth — both the cycles within us, and the cycles in which we find ourselves?”
In addition to writing the A Pedagogy of Gaia column here at HumanisticPaganism,Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband and a father. An award-winning videographer, he is co-creator of ROX, the first TV show on the internet. As a media artist and an advocate for faculty development in higher education, he is interested in current and emerging trends in social media, blogging, podcasting, et cetera, as well as contemplative pedagogy and integrative learning. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Corridor, sometime contributor to Rising Tide, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle.
Photo credit: John Beckett. Very beautiful! http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/2015/07/lughnasadh-a-solitary-ritual.html
Found myself nodding or smiling to lots in this post, but most of all to the criterion for ritual success: that your intentions were manifest in your actions. That is the definition of a satisfying, meaningful life, isn’t it? 🙂
I smiled often too as I read – in recognition sometimes of your responses and questions. re this: “My ideal ritual would be an unspoken one, a ritual of actions which are not explained or framed or interpreted with words but allowed to simply be, resonating in manifold possible meanings in the minds of the participants. Why spell it out? I’d rather err on the side of mystery.” … when I was a student of liturgy at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley (1978) I and another woman did a whole ‘liturgy’ (“mass”) without words … to circumvent the whole issue of words in that context particularly.
and also yes to the nervousness – par for the course of taking a lead I think … even professionals in performance genres feel that. and re the sense of depletion … it is a complex thing I think: it seemed to happen less over the years, as I took/take comfort in the universe being really happy about the sacred conversation and the making of space for it – and the complete unknowing we may have about the value of that … personal, collective and cosmic; and all three never separate of course.
Great work Bart!!
I enjoy wordless ritual, too, and most of my solitary work is wordless. It’s harder with a group. This sounds like a lovely and effective ritual and I’m honored that you chose to use my words in it. Thank you.