The enduring power of ritual

Ron Grimes

Ronald L. Grimes is university professor and a prestigious author. But he is also a man of ritual. In this interview with Mystic Vision, he tells of how the scholarly and the ceremonial have coexisted in his life, and why we are  are all, at the most basic level, ritual-makers.

He certainly doesn’t lack credentials: L. Grimes is author of several books on ritual, including Rite Out of Place: Ritual, Media, and the Arts and Deeply into the Bone: Reinventing Rites of Passage. He is co-editor of the Oxford Ritual Studies Series and of the volume, Ritual, Media, and Conflict. Most recently, Grimes was Senior Researcher, Senior Lecturer, and ISM Fellow at Yale University. Previously, he was Chair of Ritual Studies at Radboud University Nijmegen (the Netherlands). Currently, he resides in Canada and is Director of Ritual Studies International and Professor Emeritus of Religion and Culture at Wilfrid Laurier University

But in the university hallways, he is also known for his scholarly irreverence. Having reached the conclusion that it’s not possible to fully teach about ritual through theoretical exposition, he chose to take a different road. Once one of his students reenacted for the the class an intimate ritual of grief she had created to mourn the loss of a pregnancy. Other times, it was them -the students- who moved from the classroom into the streets to witness differnet kinds of ceremony. Neither has he been afraid to explore such controversial topics as ritualization in animals and rites in popular culture.

Where did your interest in ritual come from? Were you brought up in a religious home?

I was, and I still am, although not in a conventional way. I was brought up Methodist, in New Mexico. I grew up Methodist in New Mexico in the United States. There, Methodism, at least the version I grew up with, was fundamentalist, racist, anti-communist, and anti-Catholic. We were teetotalers, you know, abstainers from alcohol, and my grandmother was president of the New Mexico Women’s Christian Temperance Union Eventually I abandoned Fundamentalism and got involved in both the civil rights and anti-war movements. Later, about the time I moved to Canada, I began Zen Buddhist practice, which I continued for twenty or so years, even entering Zen teacher training. Eventually, I exited from any formal, institutional connection to Zen. Although I still carry on certain Zen practices and hold certain Christian values, I am now a religious wayfarer and wanderer.

How did this search lead to ritual?

My initial interest in ritual studies had little to do with belief or practice. Rather, it was motivated by pedagogy. I tried teaching a course about myth and ritual only to realize that I knew next to nothing about ritual. So I began to read books about it. Eventually, those books led me to Victor Turner, an anthropologist, and, at his urging I began to do field research in ritual, beginning in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a place I knew nothing about even though I grew up in New Mexico.

Santa Fe

Later, when I married and had children, I began to invest a lot of time and energy in domestic ritualizing around all sorts of occasions: the dinner table, the back yard, birthdays, deaths in the family, graduations, births in the living room, and so on.

You are at once a scholar of ritual and a ritual maker. How have these two facets coexisted? Has it been difficult to create and officiate ceremonies when you’ve been trained to analyze them with a critical eye?

I like being both. It’s hard for me to imagine doing the one without out also doing the other. Some of my colleagues find this puzzling or even reprehensible. They wish I would do the one thing or the other. But I think scholarly criticism and analysis needs the creativity and playfulness of ritual-making, and vice-versa. Whether they, in general, require each other or not, I do. Some critics have described my theorizing as “impure,” but then I would probably describe theirs as “rarified.” For me creativity, whether artistic or ritualistic, requires criticism, and vice-versa. Ritual can be a powerful tool for, say, healing or peace-making but also for exploitation and oppression, so a healthy dose of critical questioning seems to me essential for an ethical and human ritual practice.

Bali ceremony

What do you think is behind the renewed interest in ritual? Is it the failure of religious instituions? The need to get rid of all intercession and establish a direct relationship with the divine?

 

Lots of social changes: the decline of certain religious institutions, the rise of others, rampant individualism coupled with creeping globalism and a highly mobile population.

 

Probably, there will always be helpers, mentors, and teachers, so, for me the question is not whether there are intermediaries but what kind are they? Who are they? How do they work with you?

There seem to be two contradictory visions of ritual: one says that they help to preserve the status quo and perpetuate tradition; the other, that they are a revolutionary force for change. Do you identify with one or the other? Or are they both true?

Both are true, however, both theoretically and practically the conserving role of ritual has been emphasized for a very long time. That began to change in North America in the 1960s with civil rights, feminism, and the anti-war movement. During all of these ritual was taken and reinvented on the streets and in the bedroom. No longer a captive of in-power governments or established churches, such rituals became more improvisational and more socially critical.

country joe macdonald

In your last book you address the problem of people who don’t have a religious tradition to call their own, who find it hard to “borrow” rites from other traditions, but at the same time find that creating their own ceremonies feels artificial.  Do you think we can we find inside ourselves the roots of an authentic ritual life that belongs to no particular lineage?

For as long as we have an archaeological or historical record it is clear that people have borrowed, traded, bought, and stolen rituals. In this respect, rituals are a bit like music or stories. Sometimes people are territorial about them, and the result is copyright or some other form of control. At other times, people freely exchanges rituals or ritual knowledge. So the only way to answer the question is situational, by asking: Who cares? Who might be offended? Who would not? This is the ethical dimension of the problem.

Then there is the practical dimension: How long does it take you to embody, or digest, a borrowed ritual element? How do you overcome stilted or self-conscious ritualizing? How long does it take to “break in” a new ritual element, to become adept at it?

tea ceremony

There are religions whose rituals are so complex and rigidly structured that at times they seem to cross the line to superstition or magic. In your opinion, is there a way to draw a line between the spheres of ritual, magic and superstition?

 

I don’t know that “myth,” “magic,” or “superstition” are the words that I would use, since the first two have more precise, more useful, meanings. But, yes, all of us have to make judgments about rituals (just as we do about every other human activity). What we call them (good rituals versus bad rituals, effective versus ineffective rituals, rituals I will participate in versus rituals I won’t participate in), matters less than what our criteria are. For me, the first criterion is ethical: Does this ritual oppress  or exploit anyone? Does this ritual make me, us, or the planet a more humane place? And so on. Then, there are other criteria, aesthetic or psychological, for example: Does this ritual suite my taste? Can I stomach it? Is it beautiful, just, or true? Then there are the practical criteria: How far away is it? How much does it cost? How likely am I to stick with it?

Rites of passage -especially those for boys- once consisted of violent tests of physical and spiritual strength and endurance. Do you think that today’s versions can have the same transformative effect without that challenging edge?

Violence is not a prerequisite for either memorable experiences or for transformation. Instead of being scarified and beaten, intiates could, for example, be inspired to dance themselves into exhaustion. There is little question that physical exertion helps drive values and meanings deeply into psyche and bone, but there are lots of ways of challenging and inspiring youth without abusing them. So, are some contemporary initiations just make believe? Yes, or, to put it another way, the people who lead or undergo them are self-deceived. But other contemporary initiations are not mere make-believe. The National Rites of Passage Institute is a good example of the latter. Even though some of their initiatory elements are borrowed or even made-up, their effects on young people in Cleveland and elsewhere are real and lasting.

Ronald Grimes is currently investigating ritual creativity and improvisation in the arts (particularly scenic arts like music, dance, theatre and narration), a year-long project funded by Yale University. You can see the results of his dynamic and fascinating exploration here.

To find out more about Grimes’ books and other research, you may visit his site.

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