I was inspired and moved by this book, From Beginning to End: All the Rituals of our Lives by Robert Fulgum. He is more widely known for another book: Everything I Know I learned in Kindergarten. The book started as thoughts on the ceremonies and rituals he facilitated, but it grew into a larger theme.
We often think of a ritual as something a bit formal, such as an inauguration or a wedding. At the other end, we call our daily actions a schedule or routine. But in his book, Robert talks of approaching all parts of our life - the things we do daily, weekly, yearly, and in life’s bigger moments - with a sense of ritual, with awareness and meaning and reverence.
What’s the difference between ritual and routine? The word routine is connected to the word route – always following the same path. It’s like the story of two workers in the office lunchroom, opening their sack lunches. As one man unwrapped his sandwich, he made a face and exclaimed: “Ham! Always the same thing every day!” The other guy inquired why he didn’t ask whoever he made his sandwich for something different. “Well,” said the man, “I make my own lunch.”
We do make our own lunch. We get to decide if we want a same-old hamster wheel routine, or whether we want to consciously direct our experience of life and find meaning in what we do. For our species is not just sapiens – wise or knowing, but we are sapiens sapiens – we know that we know. Life is an open book that we inscribe daily with that knowing.
Rituals are like a gridwork that we lay over life – not to imprison us, but as a structure to connect with ourselves, with each other, with a creator, making our life a richer pattern of meaningful acts. Robert says: Rituals are one way in which attention is paid. Rituals transform the ordinary into the holy. To pay attention is to sanctify existence.
How can we live with that sense of meaning and reverence? I mean, we’re busy people with many things to do and not enough time to do them in – we can’t be expected to pay attention all the time! A sense of ritual awareness is not something to add to our to-do list, but to make our lives richer and living life to the fullest.
The main obstacle to living with meaning is busy-ness – haste – rushing. A sense of ritual is like a sacred speed bump, to become more aware of what you’re doing. Just slowing down and breathing deeply is itself a ritual that creates more awareness and being present. It’s being more mindful rather than mindless.
Robert talks of life as full of moments that are liminal. The word LIMIN is the centerline of a doorway, and liminality is the word for crossing over that threshold. Crossing over can be a transition of a personal change or rites of passage like birth, adolescence, college, weddings, and funerals.
There is a time to be born…which is often a time to cry – loudly, as this momentous threshold is crossed into human life. And it’s a time to welcome the newcomer to our planet.
It doesn’t have to be a big formal thing, just giving the community a chance to acknowledge this child. Robert gives an example of a simple but authentic baby welcoming ritual: a Sunday afternoon meal, with guests asked to bring a small token of welcome to be put away until his 21st birthday. Gathering in a circle around the parents and infant, a few drops of water - as the universal symbol of life - are poured on his head, a candle is lit with words of welcome to this world and human family: We, your neighbors and friends and family, bless this child, his parents and his home.
And we are reborn in the first hour of waking from the womb of sleep, and with the rotation of the earth we get a new “turn” of life. A sense of ritual uses symbol and metaphor to make poetry of our experience, and each day is like a lifetime of beginning and ending. How we approach the morning sets the tone – taking time to greet the day, breathing into it, and giving thanks for this gift. We have private practices that mark this time from that first look in the mirror. Why not welcome yourself – I’m still here! Aware of the toothbrush – the water – the soap - the food. For much of the world, these would be extraordinary miracles.
And there is a time to come together. We are a social species and our rites of union reflect this, greeting each other with hello’s and goodbye’s. More so now, with so many avenues for social networking, e-mail, Facebook, texting and tweeting, we like to keep in touch.
Connection can come from shared memories: “Remember when we… Went to the beach…. Remember your party when your parents came home early…and the stories often told over and over. Remembering is part of our personal myth-ology that connects us with each other and to the universal themes of humanity.
Many of our community rituals are related to the earth’s passage around the sun, with anniversaries of birthdays, marriages, losses, Christmas, the first day of spring and other yearly dates that mark our days together.
One of our oldest rituals of community is in sharing food. Perhaps it started when an ancient ancestor didn’t eat what he found but took it back to the cave to share. When elevated to the idea of breaking bread together, it becomes a communion.
Saying grace before meals is a small but powerful ritual - gratitude for this food and for its sustenance. It could just be a simple thank you with that first bite.
In fact, a sense of gratitude is one of the ways to deepen in ritual connection as you move through your day - grateful for your home, car, children, good weather, your job, your health – and all the immense blessings of our lives. Some of the oldest ideas of religion are rooted in communion - whether literally with food or not – honoring ourselves and something greater.
One of our prominent community rites of passage is a wedding – a public celebration of personal intentions. But our image of a wedding is based on the marriage of Queen Victoria’s daughter in 1858. The Queen chose “The Wedding March” for the music, a ceremonial bridal dress and for the groom, coat, tails and starched shirt, which was modified into the tuxedo. Many American weddings are watered down versions of an old tradition that has little meaning for their real lives.
In his book, Robert gives an example of a couple who chose to have a more authentic ritual of union. The couple focused on drawing a large circle to include everyone. Guests were asked to dress up or down as it pleased them. The event started with a mini-reception to allow for latecomers and for the guests to get to know each other and practice a response. Many family members took part in the ceremony - parents, step-parents grandparents, sisters and brothers.
Along with the rings, the couple also exchanged personal tokens of covenant. As the vows were said, the whole congregation gave their blessing. In these kinds of events, emotions are mixed: a time to laugh, a time to weep, a time to dance!
As there are times for union, there are also times for dis-union and then perhaps reunion. There are wonderful stories of reconnection after years of separation by world events, by wars, or adoption, or even a falling out over some argument or misunderstanding, such as when siblings don’t talk for decades.
Reunion is told eloquently in the story of the Prodigal Son – who leaves his home angrily, engages in “riotous living” and becomes destitute. He swallows his pride and returns home, but his father sees him coming and rushes out to meet him with open arms. The words of reunion: I’m sorry. I forgive you. I love you still.
Sometimes the reunion with family never happens, as in Robert’s own life, which calls for an internal reconciliation and peace, which becomes itself a reunion ritual.
How do we meet the ending of the day? It is such a lovely time of transition, a liminal threshold - late afternoon changing to twilight, a sense of winding down, of peace, the sun setting with changing shades of gold, pink, and lavender.
We have the rituals of evening meal, relaxing, preparing for sleep. It doesn’t have to be formal, just thinking over the day – the joys – the challenges met and finding things to be grateful for. Perhaps thinking of all those you know preparing for sleep, the earth turning in space, and being part of it all.
And how do we prepare for the endings of our days?
Robert made arrangements for his death and bought a plot in a cemetery for his ashes. He often goes there to sit and think and look out. He notes that on either side of him are headstones marking the places of Mr. Grimm and Mr. Pleasant – and he thinks his place is reasonably between those two. Robert says that making preparations for death is like wearing an existential seat belt, as it anchors us to live more securely in the gift of the present, accepting the parameters of our earthly life.
Though it is a time to mourn, a death is a profound honoring and sharing in the life of a loved one, and for them, a rite of passage from this life into the next stage of the soul’s journey. It is also a ritual time of personal reflection on our own purpose human span on this earth.
Robert gives an example of a memorial service, planned by a teacher, Martha. She was on dialysis, and as she felt herself weakening, she put her legal and financial affairs in order and planned for her memorial service, which was later carried out by Robert. First, she wanted it to be a celebration of life, with no one wearing black, but all colors. She hired a jazz band that played where she went to dance, selecting the songs herself. The speakers were her grandson, who told of her life history; a former student who was influenced by her to become a teacher, and another student who became her daughter in law, speaking of the family’s love for her.
Martha left instructions with the minister (who was Robert) for notes, gifts, and flowers to be mailed to family members in the year after her death. A note was read with her last words to her friends and family:
All in all, I’ve had a wonderful life. Thank you for your part in it. When death appeared at my door, I was expecting him. I put on my dancing shoes and went. You do the same. Goodbye, with love, Martha.
A time to mourn, a time to weep and still a time to dance.
Actually, we don’t end here, for much of life is involved in the rituals of renewal: little deaths and rebirths that occur on every level as we move from one life to another and cross new thresholds. In graduating and leaving home, changing jobs, moving to a new city, or divorce, one world died and a new one arrived. All exits become entrances to new life.
Renewal can come through an emotional rebirth, a cleansing of the perceived failures and mistakes of the past to cross a threshold into new life. We don’t have to carry around the dead weight of regret and blame from what we should have done or not done. In fact, it is crucial to face, embrace, forgive and release anything that would diminish the full light of this moment. To die daily to the old, “to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.” Rituals of renewal take place in the silence of the heart, when you look back on the rivers you have crossed and the gates you have walked through – and give thanks and walk over a threshold into new life – available at any moment.
Our lives are either endless routine or eternal ritual. The patterns that give meaningful shape to the day, the year and the life are sacred to us all. Patterns repeated by the human race again and again, those patterns that we ourselves repeat, anchoring us to a center, to each other and the full span of human life.
I leave you with a blessing: May you be rich in ritual and joyful in all the days and ways of your life.
I have a passion for stories and inspirational literature.