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Ritual as Art

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This is the second of a three-part series on Ritual and Tradition.

“Music is cosmos in chaos.” ~Leonard Bernstein, conductor, composer, pianist; in an interview
“All art is cosmos, cosmos in chaos.” ~Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time; writing in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

If art is a wrestling of cosmos out of chaos; if it’s creating beauty, order, or meaning out of disorder or amorphous abstraction, then ritual functions like a form of art. If some of the best art, transcendent art, involves drawing near to mystery to hint at its shape and substance, to make some element of its essence translatable, perceivable, then ritual, again, delivers much the same satisfaction and enlightenment as art.

“This is what it means to be an artist -- to seize this essence brooding everywhere in everything, just behind aspect.” ~Frank Lloyd Wright (in An Artist’s Book of Inspiration, compiled by Astrid Fitzgerald, 15)

Ritual is a way we strive to capture and commune with sacred mystery, by distilling down some ineffable glory into microcosmic practices, reflecting upon the microcosm, on repeat, so as to grasp a wisp of the magnificence of the whole. Writer and artist, Gertrude Mueller Nelson, describes the holy import of ritual:

God proceeded to create a world of order with space, matter, time, life, and humans in his

own image. Through ritual and ceremonies we people in turn make order out of chaos. In

endless space, we create a fixed point to orient ourselves: a sacred space. To timelessness

we impose rhythmic repetitions, the recurrent feast… What is too vast and shapeless, we

deal with in smaller, manageable pieces. We do this for practicality but we also do this for

high purpose: to relate safely to the mysterious, to communicate with the transcendent (Sacred

Pathways by Gary Thomas).

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Mueller Nelson describes ritual as taking “what is too vast and shapeless,” and dealing with it “smaller, manageable pieces.” I would argue that art often accomplishes the same, for what is art but a distilling down of ultimate reality, an attempt to capture the core of a person, a scene, an idea within a limited form of representation? Art facilitates the process of grasping the overwhelming, intangible whole through the medium of paint and canvas and clay and cleft and print. Ritual enables this process through consistent observation of meaningful ceremonies and traditions that stay the mind on some element of the transcendent, ministering to the spirit, and interrupting, with sacred moments, the autopilot monotony of day-to-day life.

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When, each autumn, my daughters and I collect chestnuts beneath the only remaining chestnut tree in our area, we do this for both the sensory pleasure of it and the nourishing way this practice ties us to the season and the cycles of the years. There is the physical experience of holding a smooth chestnut in the hand, its pleasing, warm brown soon burnished by the rubbing of our thumbs across its glossy, wood-like veneer. We love both the iconically, “perfectly” shaped chestnuts and the asymmetrical misfits with their flattened bottoms. There is the delight of the hunt, especially when a chestnut is found still nestled within a half open casing with its curious spikes. There is also the way that repeating this tradition acknowledges another year has passed, a marker that says much may have happened in the intervening months, but we have found each other again under this rare remaining chestnut. And with this act we tacitly affirm a promise: that we will find ourselves in much the same way after another year’s passing. Taking home a chestnut and pulling it out from a pocket or setting it on a desk provides a reminder of the solace of nature: it acts like a touchstone taking us back to that tree, that fresh air, that moment of connection mother and daughters, that reconnection with the cycles of the waning year. And, as we nestle that funny, umber fruit in our palm, it works much the same effect as a poem: capturing the glory of a tree, the whole, within neat, superb dimensions.

What ritual or tradition is the most meaningful, the most indispensable in your life? What makes it so? Can you pass this practice along to others you love? Perhaps you already do. What is one new ritual or tradition you can incorporate this year? What do you think you will gain by adding it to your year’s cycles? As you complete a ritual or tradition this month, take a moment to reflect upon how it is a form of art. How does this practice serve to help you carve cosmos out of chaos, to find substance in the midst of disorder or abstraction? How does it position you within nature and the natural cycles of the year?

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