Thoughts on Ritual

An artist friend recently commented to me regarding the prevalence of ritual in the practice of religion, that being man addressing the supernatural, however we choose to label it. In the course of our conversations, I am aware of her referring to a Mennonite upbringing, a voluntary conversion to Catholicism, the study of Wicca and an ongoing interest in majick. It is safe to say, she has seen ritual in many contexts.

The actual content of our conversation at that time revolved around our bemusement that Christian religion is somewhat defined by its condemnation of ritual in any context other than itself. The Church has, at various points in history, persecuted individuals and groups on the suspicion of heresy for any ritualistic activity that is not practiced exactly as they prescribe it.

I dare say, a most egregious example of this is the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the practice of literally transforming bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in the portion of the Common Mass referred to as “communion”. This is an act of magic in a most unambiguous manner. The phrase “bell, book and candle”, which is commonly used in the modern vernacular to denote magic of a more secular kind, is derived directly from this ceremony; those elements figure conspicuously in that very practice. And yet the Church is quick to condemn any other activity that might claim to accomplish a similar objective.

Likewise, my own Protestant fundamentalist upbringing demonstrates a similar hypocrisy. The denomination I was raised and educated in actually denies the likelihood of any supernatural feat being accomplished by the hand of man, but the more Pentecostal fellowship that I presently attend acknowledges the role of healers and prophets in modern life. Yet they would be quick to attribute the practice of those same activities outside of their prescribed formulas to forces of evil.

Indeed, this has been the nature of colonization since the institution of the Church. In the name of their God, all indigenous religion has been condemned while all indigenous territory has been confiscated for the purpose of reconditioning it for the occupation and use of the colonizers and those who will adhere to their doctrines. The Doctrine of Discovery, the policies of Terra Nullius and Manifest Destiny all proclaim this as God’s intent for His world.

The ceremonies I perform or participate in as a part of the Native American community would be decried, no doubt, as heretical by any Christian church I attend. While I was pastoring a Christian church, I was careful to self-censor any discussion or description of such activities. How it is acceptable to seek healing for an individual from the hand of God, but it is not if it is sought from the mercies of Wakan Tanka, seems a little hypocritical if you cannot definitively differentiate between the two. How revelation from the word of the Holy Spirit is commendable, but revelation received in vision as part of a sweat lodge ceremony is suspect, is equally curious.

There is a fundamental similarity between certain ritualistic practices of the Christian religion and certain ceremonial practices of those Native American spiritual systems which I have studied; they seek to accomplish similar objectives. As I have noted previously, if the colonizer missionaries that swept across the Americas in the early history of the Western Hemisphere had put down their White Man’s Burden┬álong enough to truly understand the spiritual beliefs of the indigenous peoples they encountered, it is my firm conviction that they would have discovered that the indigenous spiritual systems did not diverge too widely from their own, on the most basic levels.