HUU Sermon Archives

Rituals: Feeling the Journey

By Merle Wenger
June 20, 2004

Photo of Merle Wenger.Note: This service varies slightly from the Sunday morning presentation to include some of my responses given during talk-back. Merle

Chalice Lighting

Believe nothing because a wise man said it,
Believe nothing because it is generally held,
Believe nothing because it is written,
Believe nothing because it is said to be divine,
Believe nothing because someone else believes it,
But believe only what you yourself judge to be true.

Hymn #8 “Mother Spirit, Father Spirit”

        From Singing the Living Tradition

Siddartha Gautama 563-483 BC

A Story

At the 2001 General Assembly in Cleveland, Ohio, the UU theologian, Thandeka, presented the following story. The story stirred me and presented me with my own “De Benneville moment” and has tugged at me since.

The story recounts an experience form George De Benneville's youth. De Benneville was an early advocate of Universal salvation in America in the 17 th century.

Our story begins when De Benneville was 12. He had been born in London in 1703 to parents who, although members of the French nobility, had fled their native country to escape persecution as Protestants. When both of his parents died, De Benneville was raised by Queen Anne who eventually sent him to sea in a war vessel to learn navigation.

When the ship docked at Algiers, he walked upon the deck to see the sights, and there saw, “Moors” who brought refreshments. But when one of them fell and injured one of his legs, two of his companions kissed the wound, shed tears upon it and then turned toward the sun and cried so loudly that De Benneville grew angry.

When he challenged these “Moors,” they explained their behavior. They kissed the wound in order to sympathize with their comrade, shed tears upon it because the salt in their tears would clean the wound, and turned to the sun to asks its creator to have compassion upon their poor brother heal him.

De Benneville reports that he was so moved by their account that he felt his heart would break and he would die. His eyes filled with tears, and he felt such an internal condemnation of himself that he was forced to cry out and say, “Are these men Heathens? No: I confess before God they are Christians, and I myself a Heathen! Behold the first conviction that the grace of our Sovereign God employed: he was pleased to convince a white person by blacks, one who carried the name of a Christian, by a Pagan, and who was obliged to confess himself a Heathen.”

From “A CCV Report on Small Group Ministry” excerpted by Thandeka from “Some Remarkable Passages in the Life of Dr. George De Benneville.”

Hymn: #134 “Our World is One World”

        From Singing the Living Tradition

Main Message: “Rituals: Feeling the Journey”

What is a ritual? Are rituals important? Is it possible they connect me with all that is living: the rubber trees of southeast Asia, the lichen of the Arctic tundra, the wetland snail darter, the bald eagles of California, the thousands of fish in the sea, with all these billions of fellow human beings, and with myself? Is it possible that ritual connects me to this network of life more fully than more rational mental processes? What about non-living elements? Could ritual connect me with the soil that feeds all these plants, the water that both succors them and draws the tension out of my body, the sun, the moon that draws the tides, the sand dunes of the desert, or the wind that pushes ships over the seas?

For me, ritual connects and transcends at the same time—something simple seems to take place on the surface while complex stirrings tug at the subconscious. I think of the qualities of a vapor, a mist, a cloud. When my father died two summers ago, I had just attended the UU General Assembly, and I had a short hallway conversation with Thandeka about how rediscovering ritual might hold a key in developing successful small groups in our church. I wanted to write to her about that because the idea struck a chord in my psyche. I suggest that by reexamining old rituals, and creating new more personal ones, we establish a fresh, authentic, affective foundation to replace the tired rituals of our ancestors.

But two weeks later my Dad died and I was transported to another place. Life starting racing by me. The holding of his warm, but soon to be lifeless hands shortly before he died, the turns his eleven children took in checking on him in those last 48 hours, the family gathering we had that Saturday two days before he died—with all eleven children and their extended families present—all melted into the “death of my father.” Suddenly I realized ritual was not something I wanted to write about—ritual was something I was living.

Prior to his funeral I observed a coffin as a pretty box—a sort of ostentatious display case for a dead person. I didn't like coffins—these celebratory boxes that take up so much cemetery space. My thoughts centered on cheapness, sentimentality, trash, over-embellished symbols of holding-on to what is gone—a funeral parlor rip-off.

But death of a loved one can focus our attention in a way that few other experiences can. I loved my dad far too much to let this bit of egocentric necro-phobia derail my grieving process. As I lay my hands on his lifeless body for the last time, the cold elemental starkness of this man, I was forced to reflect on the 5-10,000 year-old ritual of box-burial and realize that it deserved my respect. Who was I to trivialize this ritual, this tradition, without deeper examination? Why a box? How could a box symbolize my father's death in a meaningful way? How could the act of placing that one wooden box in another concrete box (the vault), underground, have any significance to me?

I recalled a death ritual I had participated in almost 40 years ago. Our border collie dog, Shep, had died on the farm and needed burial. I was 14 years old and created a memorial service for this fine dog who had run with us daily to bring the dairy cows to the barn, followed us to the swimming hole, trotted after us as we rode ponies and bicycles, chased us when we drove cars, tractors and farm trucks. Loyal Shep. He needed a fitting memorial. So my five younger brothers and sisters set out with me pulling our toy wagon, Shep's body draped with an equally tired, wool blanket, to a nice alfalfa field up on the north side of the locust grove. I remember we sang songs in our little procession—we grieved a bit. We recognized with child-like clarity, the symbolic ritual of turning Shep's body back to the earth. In no way did I feel that I was committing his living energy—his trotting and barking, his companionship and loyalty back to the elements. They were all still very much alive to me.

Of course we did not invent this ritual. By this point in my childhood, my favorite great Uncle Manny had died and I remembered the grief that event brought me. This was my first real acquaintance with death and as a four-years old I remember being dumbfounded—how one might feel if you were speeding down a scenic highway on a sunshine-filled day, and in an instant all the scenery would disappear—just you and the road would remain—the rest would turn to white. You see Manny was special to me, because he gave me jellybeans when I sang for him. He was something pretty important to lose. I looked around at the other family members, saw that they were crying, and I cried too. That was strange—crying in public. I had noticed later, at my Grandpa Abram Good's funeral, when I was six-years-old, how the five grieving daughters were noticeably delivered from their graveside grieving the minute the casket was lowered into the ground. Smiles returned to their faces. Tears began to be dried. It was as if now the mental memories could overtake the dead body. It was as if now the five sisters regained their five senses.

Now this simple box must have more meaning than I first thought. I wanted to grasp the importance of this ritual. I wanted to be as present with my Dad as I could be. I wanted to feel some sort of bridge from me to him.

So here was a box—a non-living, man-made container, to finally hold my dad. And then a truth slowly began opening to me as a flower in the early morning. I realized that my dad's body was also a box—a non-living nature-formed box. My dad's “box” had now lost its life force. I remembered reading some Buddhist lesson about appreciating the space between material things—to go into a room and concentrate on the energy between the objects—to ignore those material markers and seek a fuller reality in the space in-between. This helped me focus my attention on what was not in the box.

And then I was struck by a value of this ritual of bodily burial. This placing of body boxes within wooden boxes, within crypts, within graves. The fascination of placing like-shaped objects within each other is common. Look at the nested egg sets, or the act of putting a precious gift into a very small box, putting it within another box, and another, and another, having wrapped each with paper. Or consider the barrel of monkeys toy that kids enjoy opening, casting each barrel off as simple refuse, until they find the little monkey in the last barrel.

What I suggest we are celebrating in this ritual, what intrigues us is not the box, but the space between these boxes. When we consecrate my dad's body in this manner, we seem to force the obvious question—what else is there? When we buried the body, we hid the obvious to focus on the less obvious—the non-material. What remains when we hide the body container? This simple ritual of placing a box underground should focus my memory on the life that did not die—to my dad that lives on. Now is the time to give-up this simplistic man's “body box, ” the body I tenderly called grandpa over the past few years. Now is the time to do my grown-up connecting with Dad. Now is the time to claim the Dad in between his body and mine--the Dad of forever, the Dad that lives outside of time. The more I studied the box, the more I realized that my rejection of the box ritual was a convenient way for me to reject death. Once I accepted the box—a ritual that had been passed-down to me, whether I liked it or not, I could deal with more substantial issues. It took me 50 years to build this bridge, to unravel this ritual I had assumed had no relevance to me life.

Remember that I had not changed my own personal feelings about coffins and underground burial. I prefer cremation when I die. I simply came to appreciate this act because it made sense to my Dad, and to a large portion of the Western world. By forcing myself to give closer examination, I had built a bridge between the customs of my father, and my own spiritual center.

I thought about how I might incorporate this lesson in my life and apply it to other rituals. I describe ritual it as a symbolic act, either experienced by a group or individual, that because of its simplicity and its roots provides a universal communication but also expands our comprehension of our interconnectedness with the infinity of the universe. Its simplicity means that many can grasp some truth from the ritual—perhaps none can solve its entire mystery. Call it mystery, magic, transcendent, or simply unknown: ritual celebrates the unknown.

This experience forces me to re-examine other rituals I practice. Music has always had a profound effect on me, and here again a deeper examination asks me to understand the importance of the space between the notes as well as the notes. This universal language of emotion has been passed down through generations of our evolving species as a critical purveyor of “less rational” thinking. The added impact of recognizing the effect of vibrations on our personal energy fields is a relatively new area of study that is bound to prove a more compelling reason for our attachment to music. Music works as ritual if I am willing to extend my side of a bridge, hoping to connect with the composer, and sometimes the performer, on the other end. When we succeed in building that bridge, we may not fully understand the experience, but we do “feel the vibes.” We say we “appreciate” the music.

And then there is the power of color. Most people who know me understand that I have a love affair with color. I work with color every day. I can't sit in a room without having colors flit together like dragonflies on a summer's pond. And how many rituals incorporate color? From stained glass windows to quilts to alter cloths and worship banners, to burial shrouds and rainbow promises? With a bit of creative bridge building, this subtle change in the vibration of atoms of the color spectrum fills us with feelings we don't fully understand.

What about the ritual of baptism? Maybe you don't, but I remember my baptism. I remember the breath of the bishop as he stood close to me and raised the cup of water above my head and poured it between the cupped hands of the deacon. I remember the way the church smelled about me—a potpourri of mustiness, varnish, and mothballed wool. I remember water running off my hair, across the bridge of my nose, and on to the floor. I remember staring at that puddle and thinking someone should wipe it up. I remember thinking that thought was inappropriate. I remember being unmoved. I remember wanting something more to happen. Perhaps at a minimum, if I had been asked to write about what I wanted baptism to mean for me. Perhaps if I had been taught that this was a simple symbolic act that connected me with water rituals around the world, that some of these molecules of water were millions of years old, that some of the energy in this water had been transformed from powerful atomic explosions that followed the big bang millions of years ago. Someone might have told a story about how some of the water had evaporated only months ago from the leaves of a small mango tree in China, tended passionately by a lonely widow who remembered her husband who had planted the seed shortly before he died and now she celebrated his life by nurturing the tree.

I would like to have been told that water connected me with all that was living—that all life needs water and these few drops were symbolic of my new life. Perhaps then the ritual would have sprung to life. Perhaps then I would have taken ownership. But I was not asked to build my end of the bridge in this ritual. I don't know what the ritual really meant to that bishop. I wish I did.

Imagine rituals that involve the power of touch--the absence of words. With a simple hug or embrace we attempt to bridge that critical “space” between us. For millions of years, man and other animals have comforted their loved ones with cradling embraces. Think of the violence done to that ritual when those same hands are used to abuse rather than cradle. What does it mean when a ritual is abused? What about kissing—a powerful ritual that defies “thinking.” The ritual celebrates a moment in time; or perhaps it marks a timeless moment

Our church practiced feet washing—uniting our hands, through water, with the feet of another; a symbolic celebration of our bipedalism—of our dependence on both hands and feet. We used water to wash away the dirt and pain of the journey and celebrate a “homecoming.” When I contemplate the high level of ionic exchange that happens when the skin of two people touch, and add to that the energy exchange of water with skin, I can only speculate on what mysterious exchange could happen in this old ritual.

In the church of my childhood, we always kneeled to pray. I felt shamefully old-fashioned as we dirtied our knees in this primitive act. However, in the last few years of my life, I have found myself wanting to kneel at times. I felt a sense of prostration—a sense of humility. Most recently at a war vigil I knelt on my knees with my forehead on the floor—partly as respect to the Muslims—partly as a way to show my shame and humility before the mysterious universe.

What about the ritual of serving food to other people? I love to prepare food for other people. I sometimes feel that it is a “less than sacred” act but the joy I get from doing it surpasses that so I continue. Partly this is an act of artistic expression—pretty food, pretty dishes—a presentation of color. But in another way I connect with the universe—I bring the fruit of the earth to my friends. I celebrate the present moment as we do with flowers, a symbolic remembrance of how much we really walk alone, eat alone, a reflection on the impermanence of the body—though we seek to influence it so much by material import.

I have little doubt that our celebrated rituals rise up out of personal experience. In a small group setting, it is the honesty of each participant to the struggle of his/her life that will shape the ritual of the group. Perhaps each meeting needs to ask the question: “What is ritual and are there rituals of our past that we want to restore upon reexamination? How powerful and self revelatory can we make these rituals?” For me ritual helps recognize that I am a part of a group that does not have all the answers—that there are “spaces” or mysteries between our “truths.” As I hear other group members search and “try on” answers to their search, the eternal flame of my existence is fed. It means “God” as I know her is the mysterious presence of friends wishing to see my life unfold. Although their dogma may be “written in stone” their transcendental awareness of our purpose nourishes the garden of my soul to bloom its own colors, in its own time. The solutions to mystery come in many time shapes. To accept another's ritual, like De Benneville, we must be willing to bridge the gulfs of cold misunderstanding with the warm heartfelt passion of the moment.

More recently I have wondered if rituals have lost some of their impact because they have not kept up with the times. Could our rituals do a better job of representing what is mysterious now? Would a ritual for joining a religious organization be more poignant to youngsters if it acknowledged the principles of particle wave theory which made Neils Bohr proclaim that there are no individual units in the universe—that all matter is just waves of electrons that overlap with other waves. Does pop music, say rap, fulfill the deep empty longing for meaning in the souls of young people, because it connects through incessant rhythms and in-your-face lyrics at a primal level, cognizant of the mysterious, while most religious education programs seek to fill all the gaps, answer all the questions?

Artists and poets piece new rituals together. In “holding a mirror as if up to nature,” artists mirror back skillfully arranged patterns of words, speech, color, shapes or movement in to awaken the mysterious currents of the subconscious. In fact a trip to the Vatican Museum shows which new rituals the Christian church chose to support over the past 2000 years. They bought as many as they could. But what if you are not Catholic? Who is supplanting their vision? Should we rely on the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art? Is it the Picasso collection? Is it the Parisian collections of Impressionists? Suddenly, I feel that the concept of ritual is being cheapened as I reach out to include all new metaphor media. How does Hollywood affect ritual? What is the ritual value of a movie series like The Matrix ? Is there any binding thread to all these rituals. Is the missing link a church? Is it the duty of the church to weave these metaphors into ritual? Should the church examine the distorted images of Piccasso and Van Gogh and Chagall and Dali and create new rituals—update the old? Has the church failed to recognize that art does precede life, and that the message of the abstractionists is that there is something more fundamental to communication than what immediately meets the eye? The abstract canvasses of Mondrian or Pollock, like updated rituals, ask the participant to explore the mystery between the sketchily placed known elements.

I have fun creating new personal rituals—some of which happen in the garden behind my house. Several years ago a friend of mine shared some personal trauma with me and I decided I would plant a container garden for her. I told her so but realized I was doing it more for me than her. I guess it felt more real than saying I would “pray for her,” or “keep her in my thoughts.” I planted that garden and when she visits, I show her the garden. I always point out how much it has grown, because although that's the way I see her life, sometimes she doesn't recognize that.

I also have an old scraggly cedar in front of my house, which I decided to bond with a couple years ago. We have great times together. Me sitting up there deciding which branch to trim off—trying to keep her acceptable for the neighbors who wanted me to chop her down. But I keep trimming, and this year I planted a little garden underneath her. She really looks great! I suppose this has something to do with gaining more respect for an aging body. I don't think about it too much—I just do it.

And then there are the snails! I have become curious about questions like:

Why are there so many of them? Where are they going? How long will it take them to get there, and do they visit with each other along the way? Who's to say that they don't turn into little hover-shells in the middle of the night and cruise around the back yard? I have been contemplating super-gluing long pieces of thread to their shells so I can track their movements more reliably than when I crawl around the patio on hands and knees. Like all the other things that go on in my backyard, I don't really know what it all means, but I am enjoying the journey.

I find meditation to be one of the more dramatic and challenging rituals in my road to self-discovery. The idea that we language-dependent animals, might stop talking, overtly suspend within ourselves and without, that random and ordered tumbling together of words and sentences for perhaps 15 minutes, amazes me. The suggestion that we might create a sort of white space, tabula rasa, or blank canvas whereupon life's answers and directions might explode in vivid, intentional colors, is so novel to western civilization that we must simply trust the thousands of years of practice in Eastern civilizations to demonstrate its value.

I think it's fitting that Unitarian Universalist lay-members be encouraged to develop new rituals. Perhaps if we acknowledge the need for ritual, create an awareness and acceptance of ritual, then the mind-spirit power of thousands of lay people can best process this complexity. I know a few powerful rituals would far outperform many flaccid ones. Our traditions of the chalice and fire are a great beginning as long as we use them to build bridges. Out of personal rituals might spring a new reverence for life, death and nature that would assist in creating the new “language of reverence” that David Bumbaugh suggests we develop. If Moses' mountaintop experience or Abraham's close encounter with Isaac don't speak to us, perhaps we can find our own burning bush.

This concept of ritual brings me back to my issues with God. If there is not a God in my religion, then there will be a presence, a mystery, that is more pervasive and present than that Old Testament God. But if in my mind or in my worship, I want to call that God, God, at times, I will, but when I need for that reality to be greater than the God of my childhood—some coordinated energy that spans the 56 billion light years of our galaxy--then I will use another word. Afterall, on one level, we are simply talking about a word. I know now that the word and the image of God is a ritual and like all rituals, I can choose to participate, like I did with my dad's box. I can see where it takes me. I can connect with much of civilization through that ritual or I can disconnect. Most of all I know that the discovery and meaning of such rituals are shaped by the people with whom I communicate—the people who join me in UU traditions to celebrate life.

I think as individuals, and as a church, we have a choice to make. When we are in a group of 3-4 people or in a group of 60 to 70, we can celebrate our autonomy and individual experience without end, or we can build bridges that ask us to feel the experience of another. We can float like so many islands on the ocean of diversity proclaiming, “Look at me, look at me, I have it all figured out--for myself.” Or, we can build bridges—not just any old bridge, but elegant, complex bridges because the best bridges are those that span distant shores and cross swift currents. I think we only avoid becoming a “Common Denomination” by creating this new language at a ritual level, acknowledging mystery as an integral part of the process, rather than cheating those who seek after an authentic spiritual experience by feeding them the reprocessed language of traditional theology

Imagine two bridges. The first is between two male, heterosexual, meat-eating political liberal, atheist professors, whose favorite exercise is watching Sunday afternoon football on TV. Imagine the bridge they are building between them. Now for the second example, take one of these professors and imagine that he is flying across the country and suddenly feels a passionate connection with an airline stewardess. They decide to meet. He finds she is gay, vegetarian, a political conservative, born-again Christian, who does rock climbing for exercise. If they stuck it out—really got to know each other, without letting their stereotypes get in the way—can you imagine the bridge they could build? Remember, the magic of ritual bridge building is always in the mystery, celebrating the unknown, entering into another's sacred space.

If we should be so lucky to build these kind of bridges, then I think we will live a life filled with feelings. I think our church will be truly uncommon. Feelings of compassion, love, elation and appreciation in ways we might never have imagined. To share the rituals of our life with another person, not so they adopt the same, but rather so they have the courage to hold on to their own, will connect us with all the energy of the universe. That's the way I ended up feeling about my Dad. Thanks Dad. I was a little slow in finishing my end, but I like our bridge.

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Harrisonburg VA in the UUA General Assembly Banner Parade - 2004.Removing the Banner

I want to close by inviting David and Grayson up here to help in the symbolic taking down of our church banner. This is a ritual you can each join us in. When we arrive up in Long Beach, California this week, we are representing you—we are building the Harrisonburg Bridge to our larger UU church. Your cares and concerns go with us. Their cares and concerns come back. I like to think you want to be a part of that bridge.


We join hands now as equal links of a vast chain--links that are not considered to be weaker or stronger according to educational degree, nationality, age, athletic ability, color of skin or hair, sexual preference, ability to reproduce, or religious preference. We cast aside all such arbitrary identifications as mere scale on the surface of our links. Rather it is the beating heart and seeking spirit within each one of us: the act of simply being, that validates our link.

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