Editor's note -- This month our theme is "Sacred Rituals." Chapter 6 of the prescient 2006 book, A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet's Future, by Roger S. Gottlieb, is a great place to start.
Chapter 6 Opening The Heart: The Ritual Life of Religious Environmentalism
Often, the heart of religious life resides not in the abstract theology of moral action, but in ritual. Ritual’s repetitive nature provides a comforting constancy in a relentlessly changing world; the symbolic material of candles and wine, special foods and familiar melodies touches our emotional center in a way that little else does. When they have authenticity for us, religious rituals soothe our spirits or raise them to ecstasy, giving us a brief taste of the indwelling Spirit of God, Goddess, or life.
Religious environmentalism has given rise to prayers, rituals, and forms of meditation that embody celebration, concern, and contrition. These include Christian prayer services for Earth Day, new Buddhist meditations, fresh significance given to old holidays, and the creation of innovative and original forms of observance. . . These practices express a twofold character now indelibly stamped on the nonhuman world. On the one hand, as nature it has an integrity, beauty, and majesty that lead us to see it as a gift from God or a Sacred Presence in its own right. On the other hand, as the environment it is threatened and polluted by human action. We feel awe and love as we stand before nature, fear, and grief as we regard the environment.
The new rituals of religious environmentalism are designed to help us meet the spiritual, moral, and political challenges of nature’s new meaning. They provide a shared psychic space in which we can experience the full range of feelings we have about the natural world, and they encourage us to change our personal and collective lives in response.
Like the idea of religion itself, the concept of ritual is perhaps best explained by pointing to the many examples of it in our experience: prayers repeated to often that they seem to be known by the lips as much as the mind (“Our Father, who are in heaven”); lighting candles to being the Jewish Sabbath or kneeling for daily prayers in a mosque; the focused breathing of Buddhist meditation or the particular hand gestures (mudras) of yoga; the careful construction of a Native American sweat lodge; or the delicately sipped wine of communion. The world of ritual is coextensive with virtually all of human civilization, from the cave drawings and goddess status of the earliest recorded cultures to this year’s Christmas Eve midnight mass in Manhattan.
The universal presence of ritual is no accident.
- Roger Gottleib
Cover image by Rev. Carmen Retzlaff