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Reclaiming Spirituality
by Diarmuid O'Murchu

Rituals for Our Time

Before reviewing some dominant ritual expressions for today's world and its peoples it would be a serious omission not to highlight the revival of the practice of meditation in recent decades. What in the early part of this century was considered to be the reserve of those specially dedicated to God in monasteries and convents, has now been reclaimed as a divine endowment bequeathed to all humans.

The desire for, and capacity to meditate -- that is to become quiet and centered around an inner core of meaning -- is a gift bestowed upon every human being. It is a dimension of the divine seed sown in the heart of each person, awakening a desire to be centered, realigned to the fundamental mystery of existence, at peace with reality, a sense of home-coming to one's true self. Whether pursed in an Eastern or Western form, against a Christian or Buddhist background, is of relative importance. This is a wisdom and a propensity that cannot, and should not be reduced to the dictates of any one, even all the formal religions.

Although meditation is an innate, God-given propensity, it does require gentle and enlightened tutoring. It is a powerful medium of inner growth which awakens forces of light and darkness. It can easily become a self-delusory and self-destructive ego-trip. In learning to meditate, we need the guidance of experienced, centered teachers, people who themselves are immersed in the practice (and not just in the tradition -- although that, too, is helpful) of what they are seeking to share and communicate. Many of the outstanding guides of our time, people like J. Krishnamurti, Ram Dass, Shunryn Suzuki Roshi, Kalu Rinpoche and Thich Nhat Hanh (see Kronfield, 1993), belong to the great Eastern faith traditions where the practice of meditation carries a sacred history thousands of years old, long pre-dating the emergence of formal religions.

For many spiritual seekers of our time, the most meaningful prayer or ritual experience is a space for centering prayer or meditation, done in the presence of a group on a regular basis. The frequency tends to be once a week, on the understanding that the person meditates on one's own at least once a day. The group dimension seems to create a coherence and affirmation of the integration within, and the harmony without, which seem to be the primary achievements of this ancient practice.

Most people, however, also imbibe a need for some form of symbolic engagement, around significant experience, typified in ancient cultures by Rites of Passage, and in mainstream religions by devotions, ceremonies or sacraments. Many of these rites are devised to celebrate transitional moments such as birth, death, coming of age (puberty), becoming an adult, etc. Many of those rituals have become excessively institutionalized and largely lost their capacity to evoke or a awaken meaning and integration, e.g. the sacrament of Confirmation in the Catholic tradition intended to mark entry into young adulthood, but has become a largely empty ritual seeking to foment church allegiance.

In contemporary human experience, there are many key moments in personal life that need to be celebrated ritually, e.g. sexual maturity in early adolescence; entry and termination of significant relationships; college graduation; first day at work; movement to a first (or a new) home; female menopause; various healing rituals for sickness, loss and bereavement; retirement; death.

The context of such celebrations is also important. A religious ambience in itself does not guarantee meaningful ritual, because often the religious context undermines or seems to supersede the significant cultural dimensions. Many religious rituals focus on the individual person in his//her unique self; increasingly, we are acknowledging the communal (familial) context that is uniquely significant for that person; as yet, we give scant attention to the planetary context that impinges upon that person and upon his/her local community. This latter dimension is the one that has been seriously undermined by religious ceremonies, where the Earth basis of elements like water, oil, light, incense, bread, wine, etc. tends to be totally overlooked.

At a communal level, we engage in a vast range of ritual behaviors many of which have been absorbed into our daily living and hence have largely lost their unique spiritual significance, e.g. birthdays, weddings, funerals, parties for various occasions, carnivals, parades, national days of celebration. But we seriously lack rituals to engage creatively with conflict (locally or globally), political relations, global distribution of the Earth's resources, etc.

Some contemporary writers (e.g. Driver, 1991; Sorne, 1993) attribute the rise in reckless violence to the fact that we are a ritually deprived people. We do not have meaningful outlets to ventilate deep feelings, whether positive or negative, nor can we channel in a meaningful way those negative feelings that otherwise lead to destructive projecting onto other people or onto the environment. There is an instinctive safeguard built into a great deal of animal behavior, whereby creatures of the same species transform heightened emotions (e.g. aggression) into ritual play and resolve what otherwise could become a dangerous digression. We human, being creatures of freedom and creativity, must develop these rituals for ourselves; without them we remain humanly and spiritually depraved, threatening not merely our own equilibrium but the peace and harmony of the entire world order.

Reclaiming Spirituality: A New Spiritual Framework for Today's World, Diarmuid O'Murchu.  pages 178-9,  Crossroad/Herder & Herder; ISBN: 0824517237

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