Ceremony: Tradition and Innovation

Impromptu Ceremony: Songs of Joy and Sorrow

After days of rain, the sun is out! The gardens are happy, the forest deep green, and the lawn overgrown. Even the evening light is a lovely shade of lemony green.

There has been a good conversation going in the “Comments ” section of this blog. The discussion has centered on innovation and tradition in ceremony. Reading the comments I find myself aware that tradition, ceremony, and innovation are all alive in our world. I find this hopeful, as there is a tendency amongst anthropologists and others to imagine ceremonies as static, or worse, degenerating. They sometimes seem to think that Native culture died out a century ago,  seeing Pan-Indian ceremonies as poor, remnant reflections of a “once proud culture”.

Of course, Indigenous people everywhere innovate. After all, we are each standing on the shoulders of those who came before. The ceremonies they taught us are not the ceremonies their great grandparents conducted. Rather, they are ceremonies that have changed over time to reflect the lived experiences of the people they serve. They will evolve in our hands, and continue to bloom far into the future.

About ten years ago, I, and a handful of others, were visiting two of our teachers, deep in the Amazon. One afternoon we found ourselves in a shallow, cathedral like cave, not far from a remarkable waterfall in a national park.  We milled about for a while, looking carefully at our in cave surroundings, then gathered around our teachers. “Our people have been doing ceremony in this cave for over 20,000 years,” they announced. “The ceremony took all of ten minutes, probably more like five. After all, one never knew who might wander into the cave. They joked that the ceremony used to be a bit more leisurely.

That same trip offered another lesson. We were supposed to do a fire ceremony. Three nights in a row we prepared the fire, only to have thunderstorms move in minutes before the ceremony was to begin and drench any possibility of ceremony. The Amazon basin was in drought that year, and the rains were welcome. The absence of an important ceremony was simply OK. By the third evening, each following a gloriously warm and cloud free day, we were laughing at our plight, just a small group of humans going about our business in the grand ecosystem we call the Amazon. We, and our intentions, were indeed insignificant. We were also aware that the spirits were playing with us, teaching us humility and humor.

Some twenty years before that I had found myself on a hilltop in a thunderstorm. We were in the midst of an initiation. I was one of the initiates, and I was the last to be introduced to the spirits. Lightening and thunder careened all about us. Everyone else fled the hill. The ceremony came to a premature halt, yet the blessing I encountered remains with me. I was reminded of that afternoon a few years ago, when one of my teachers told me about initiating a group of young shamans way up North. The initiates had worked for three years to return shamanism to their communities. The day of the initiations dawned stormy. Still people from several band communities gathered for the ceremony. Moments before the rite was to begin, my teacher looked up to see a tiny break in the clouds. He addressed the clouds, humbly requesting the clouds part enough to provide ten minutes of dry conditions. The hole grew, the ceremony was quickly conducted in a highly improvised and abbreviated form, the clouds drew together, and the rains poured. Neither of these ceremonies went as tradition would have dictated, yet both were holy and transformative.

We are alive and the spirits still speak with us. We are told to honor the Creator, the Ancestors, and the spirits. We are encouraged to approach ceremony with deep respect, and to carefully consider changes we would bring to tradition. We are reminded to refuse to appropriate that which is not ours. At the same time, many of us are making our way without tribal communities, and with teachers who encouraged, no demanded, we shape and devise ritual and ceremony to bridge the generations, and bring connection and healing to the people we serve. This is a grand challenge. It’s work. We are, like those of innumerable generations before us, standing firmly in many worlds.

6 thoughts on “Ceremony: Tradition and Innovation

  1. Another gem Michael! I appreciate your reminder about the lack of appreciation that exists for the celebration and ritual that is a basic part of our joining the natural rhythms of life.

  2. It’s so true. So many nourish themselves with material possessions then wonder why they can’t find peace. There is so much beauty surrounding us, and we need to make the time to immerse ourselves in it—be grateful for what we have, not dissatisfied because we want more.

  3. Very well said, Michael.

    To blindly cling to a tradition when Spirit has other things in mind simply because, “that’s the way it’s done”, is an exercise in ego. Yet to cast it aside because one feels like doing something else begs an often difficult lesson.

    Walking in balance allows us to move according to Spirit’s wishes, and to be the gateway through which new life is breathed into old ceremony. . .

    1. Maybe we just get caught up being human. The Ego keeps us from walking in front of cars – well usually. (Our Rabbi walked across the road this morning, ear to cell phone, seemingly unaware of traffic, and survived!) Finding balance really is a challenge for us – or so it seems.

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