Friday, July 20, 2012

Ritualizing our fractures

How exciting!  A new issue of Liturgy has arrived, and it is (as usual) fascinating. Our topic is Life Transitions, and our guest editor is Dr. David Hogue, professor of pastoral theology and counseling at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and author of Remembering the Future, Imagining the Past: Story, Ritual, and the Human Brain (Pilgrim Press 2003). As a former student in Dr. Hogue’s seminar on Ritual Studies, I knew from the beginning that this collection of essays would be fantastic.

In our opening article, Rev. Dr. Susan Marie Smith leads us carefully and thoroughly through both the rationale for and the technique of developing rituals that help to ease the pain and psychological trauma of unexpected and unwanted life transitions. It should not be surprising that our various books of rites are full of rituals which celebrate expected and welcome life transitions, such as baptism, bris, bar/t mitzvah, first communion and wedding. Societies have a vested interest in calling community attention to these sorts of events. They are a signal that our communities are functioning in the way that they are supposed to function. Unexpected  and unwelcome events, on the other hand, are often swept under the community’s psychological rug. We do not enjoy thinking about them, and societies have a vested interest in pretending that they are not happening.
Smith illustrates the need for these sorts of rituals with the particular cases of  the sudden firing of an employee, a divorce and a student flunking out of school, but the theological rationale and the practical techniques for planning and execution she explicates can be applied to a multitude of situations in which persons desire to ritualize life transitions.
Students of ritual studies will recognize many of the guiding principals Smith commends to her readers, but one of them is quite rare in the field, as well as being quite interesting. Alongside her suggestion that christian ritual should seek to incorporate the story of the focal subject of the ritual action into the larger story of the family of God, and her suggestion that all christian ritual should enact the hope of new beginnings, Smith also suggests that ritual actions should contain an element of whimsy.
Finally, in the midst of all the serious prayer and praise, lament and tears, gravity and end-marking, it is also fitting to engage in a bit of holy whimsy. One scholar eagerly opened the book of essays, only to discover that the editor had not included the scholar’s essay in the collection. It was unthinkable! Was it begrudging, an oversight, an act of shame or guilt? But there was nothing to be done; the book was printed. In a follow-up rite with friends, involving wild wailing and gnashing of teeth, a friend produced an outdated book from the thrift store to which she had glued a creative cover. After a litany, someone called to him, ‘‘Remove your essay from this collection!’’ The writer was invited to rip out a set of pages, and the participants cheered. This whimsical act was symbolic and liberating. Afterward, serious prayers were offered for the grace to forgive, thanksgiving for new venues and creative work, blessing upon all who would read the book as published; and finally, the assembly prayed God’s blessing upon the person and a large pile of his publications. Laughter in the midst of anguish was an important dimension of his healing passage.
I myself am a huge fan of whimsy, but this may be the first time I have read a ritual practitioner suggest that whimsy is an indispensable part of our work. What are your thoughts about the role of whimsy in ritual?
Susan Marie Smith, PhD, is an Episcopal priest and rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Bexley, Ohio. She is author of Christian Ritualizing and the Baptismal Process (Wipf and Stock, 2012), and Caring Liturgies: The Pastoral Power of Christian Ritual (Fortress, 2012).

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