Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Meaning of Ritual

Being a religious sister, ritual is very important in my life. And, I would suspect, that ritual is important in many lives. I don’t only mean religious ritual, but also the ritual of what I do each day, the self-care rituals I engage in, and the social rituals that keep me grounded. I have learned that having certain rituals enhance my experience of life and keep me sane. This year, Holy Week and Easter were full of new (and old) experiences of ritual.

I have always enjoyed learning about and experiencing other cultures. My parents raised me on tum yum goon, Indian curry, and tabbouleh – none of which are a part of my heritage. They enjoy trying new things and teaching my sisters and me to do the same. Of course we love our Italian comfort food too, but the value of respectfully learning from other cultures was instilled in me from a young age. My father taught me how to observe before participating and my mother taught me how to throw my whole self into the experience. So you can imagine how thrilled I am to be immersed in the sub-culture of the Rio Grande Valley.

Walking the viacrucis on our pilgrimage to the church.
The highlight for me was Santa Viernes, Good Friday. I have always loved the somber atmosphere of Good Friday which gives me a chance to reflect on God’s love for me. This year, a new ritual allowed me to walk with Jesus in a whole new way. At 2pm, a small crowd gathered at a park near the church. Leading the pack was a wooden cross carried by a teenage boy dressed as Jesus. A girl dressed as veronica, complete with a veil bearing the face of Jesus, walked beside him. We processed through the streets, singing and praying el viacrucis, the Way of the Cross. I felt like the women of Jerusalem, following Jesus in the streets as he showed us how much he would suffer in the name of the justice he stood for. As we arrived at the church we prayed the last station and entered the church in silence. The culture here is an expressive culture, and I appreciated the ability to express my sorrow for the suffering of the world and to physically see God’s love for us in his actions.

Later that day, after the passion play put on by the children of the parish, I participated in yet another new-to-me ritual. We gave our condolences to Mary. The idea is to give condolences to Mary on the occasion of her son’s death, just as you would with a friend. We said a special rosary that led us to meditate on times Mary had to let go of her son and watch him do God’s work. It was touching to watch mothers, who have to let go of their own children, meditate on what it must have been like for Mary to do the same.

We were greeted with this beautiful altar as we prayed our condolences to Mary.
About a week after Easter, I had the opportunity to participate in a Mayan cleansing ritual called a temazcal. Unlike the other rituals, this one did not have a familiar basis for me. I had no idea what to expect and I was not given much description ahead of time. The ritual cleanses body and spirit, inside and out. One participant described it as going into the womb of the earth. The whole ritual reverences nature and thanks the elements and mother earth for the gifts of healing. Before the ritual, a small hut with a tiny door flap is built and a fire is lit to heat the stones at the bottom of the wood. I loved the reverent preparation. Each person was blessed with a type of incense before entering and I was asked to pray “for my relationships” with my forehead to the earth at the entrance of the temazcal. Once all were inside, “hombre fuego” dug some rocks out of the fire and delivered them to a hole in the ground at the center of the hut. We welcomed each rock with “Bienvenido abuelita!” (welcome grandma in English). Once the door was closed, water with different herbs were poured on the rocks to create steam and an incredibly hot room. The door was opened four times and each time, more rocks were added and a different herb was infused in the water. The first two doors felt like being enveloped by a car on a hot day. The heat was comforting and cleansing. The third door was so hot that I had to lay down. I left with the fourth door because I had reached my limit. After the ritual I was doused by cold hose water to close my pores and shock me back to normal.

After the ritual I felt energized and at peace. Inside I was disoriented, but once I emerged and was doused with water, I was somehow more present. Even though I hardly knew the names of most of the 19 people participating in the temazcal, I somehow felt bonded to them after our mutual experience. There is wisdom to rituals, no matter what tradition they come from. And opening myself to these new experiences has been invaluable.

Happy toes in the Gulf of Mexico.
The final ritual I engaged in this Easter is one I am quite familiar with. I have a ritual of taking a quiet day once a week if possible. This time I spent the day at a local retreat center near the Gulf of Mexico. A blanket of quiet covered the place as I encountered wildlife and the tangible presence of peace. At the end of the day I drove the five miles out to the retreat center’s private beach on the gulf. How exhilarating it was to be consumed by water!


No matter what ritual it was, each one helped me to live in the present moment and get a taste of this new-to-me culture. What a blessing to be able to learn from others!

*Note* I apologize for the long absence of posts this last month. I have a back-log of stories, so you should be getting one a week for a while!

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