Seeking (and Finding) Beauty, Mystery, Wonder
by Janice Van Cleve
Beauty, mystery, wonder — these are the fundamental forces underlying any religion or spiritual experience, according to Steve Blamires, a Scottish author who lectured recently at the Theosophical Society in Seattle. He is a native of the Scottish island of Arran, and the purported subject of his talk was the Celtic spiritual tradition, based on beauty, mystery and wonder. The advertisement said he was going to strip away all the additions and complications that later have been added to this originally simple, practical spiritual path.
There certainly was beauty, mystery and wonder in the room that night. I, for example, openly wondered how long this short little man with the affected accent could drone on and on about the wee little village where he grew up. I wondered why it is in talks like this that a speaker’s mystique and credibility are supposedly somehow enhanced by the difficulty in understanding him. It must be a “speaking in tongues” thing.
Another wonder I had was when would he finally get to the subject that was advertised. I have read a good deal about Celtic traditions, particularly as they apply to the neo-pagan movement in the United States. It is amazing to see how far wishful thinking, misinterpretation, ego and greed can go, grinding out endless books with pretty covers to sell to the unsuspecting. One only has to scan the shelves in the bookstores to realize how much bunk and bullpucky has been fabricated.
Those are the things I was wondering. Then I got to the mystery. The mystery for me was how in the world someone like this could attract an audience on a Sunday afternoon to listen to a talk that really wasn’t going anywhere. It must be marketing. You write a few books, get them circulated, they resonate with some key people and presto, you get to speak. It’s also the macaroon cookies. The Theosophical Society offers macaroons that must weigh in at about a pound apiece. The one I had held my attention and kept my sugar up for a couple of hours.
The beauty, besides the nice room and the spiritual ambiance of the place, is that I stayed to the end and allowed my imagination to interact with the presentation. I go to these things not to get one, two or three rote facts, but to stimulate my thinking. The topic is only one factor. The room, the speaker, the other people — even the droning — all spin threads from which an open mind and an active imagination can weave a pattern or at least a story. Besides, I was not about to invest a couple of hours of my time and walk away empty-handed. In this case, I began to see an application of these three concepts of beauty, mystery and wonder in the creation and performance of ritual.
Ritual is all around us. It is in almost everything we do — dating, dining, political rallies, business meetings, worship and workouts at the gym. Even the process by which we get going in the morning can be a ritual of sorts, what with shower, coffee, the news and so on. What separates ritual from habit or accident is that ritual is an intentional series of actions, appearances, sounds and words that move our psyches beyond logic and tap into emotional energies to alter our consciousness.
A good example is fundraising. On the logical level, the objective is to move cash from the donor‘s pocket to the fundraiser’s cause. Logic alone may move a few donors, but they are never enough. For most, the fundraiser needs to employ rituals of conversations, lunches, tours and building connections — the rituals of schmoozing — to achieve the desired results. The fundraiser paints a picture and paints the donor into it in a way that the donor can see. Strict accounting and profit and loss statements will not move the donor there. The ritual of fundraising has to tap into the emotional energy of the donor to alter his or her consciousness to help him or her become invested in the project. When their emotions are invested, their money is never far behind.
Conversely, we all know what it is like to get out on the wrong side of the bed in the morning. Interruption of or missing a comfortable ritual can put us out of sorts very quickly. That’s an altered consciousness our significant others and co-workers would rather not see!
There are many ways to think about and plan effective rituals, but beauty, mystery and wonder are not a bad approach. As I sat there listening to the Scotsman’s brogueish monologue, I imagined applying these principles to the Wiccan rituals I write and in which I perform.
Beauty is absolutely necessary for effective ritual. Symmetry, color, grace, simultaneous movement and repetition, harmonizing sounds and building to a climax — these principles of beauty have been understood and employed by the Catholic Church for centuries. Smells, bells and stained glass windows are no accident. They are designed and intended to build upon chants, processions and fancy robes to weave another world, an altered consciousness that will give participants the feeling that they have experienced a heavenly place and connected with their saints and angels.
Neo-pagan ritual writers today do not have the advantage of following centuries-old customs that tap into the well-trained responses of their followers. In spite of claims to the contrary, most Celtic or other “traditions” have very shallow basis in the modern world, and today’s pagan audience is usually untrained, eclectic and very independent. Ritual writers have the advantage, however, of being able to call upon the skills of storyteller, magician, choreographer and playwright to put together effective ritual. They get to create something new! By paying attention to tried and tested theatrical, military, business, political, social and religious techniques for crowd engagement, they get to build new vehicles to move our psyches beyond logic and tap into emotional energies that alter our consciousness.
Isn’t this just crowd manipulation? That’s where the mystery comes in. Mere manipulation only attempts to move a crowd into one uniform behavior, like buying a certain product or supporting a certain candidate. The mystery of good ritual is that it helps each individual open up to his or her own unique experience of another world or a unique experience of this world. To do this, the ritual must first engage the people. This is why the old Catholic mass with a priest up in front with his back to the people was much less effective than the new format of moving the altar into the middle. This is also why film houses employ wraparound screens and sound, and why sports teams use cheerleaders.
Once engaged, the people need to be moved from passive observers to active participants. Chanting, dancing, singing, toning, drumming, trance journeying and a host of other techniques are useful. While the participants may outwardly be moving closer and closer to the same behavior, what they are actually doing is letting down their logical restrictions. They are depending upon the mutual support of the others within the safety of the circle to let go of the mundane world and experience an altered state of consciousness.
The wonder is what they behold. If one believes in a single deity or truth, then the wonder is to behold it and to connect with it emotionally outside the narrow limits of the mind. If one believes in immanent deity or many deities, then the wonder is to swim among them and to experience them directly. If, on the other hand, one believes in the individual divine nature of each human being, then the wonder is to behold one’s own disembodied goddess/god self blooming like a flower from its pod. Perhaps the wonder is a glimpse into the future or a profound insight into the past. Perhaps it is simply an indescribable sense of beauty or love or peace. Whatever the wonder is, the ritual is successful if it helps participants get there.
That’s as far as my thoughts got when the speaker began winding down his talk and the effects of the macaroon were wearing off. I began to notice the people around me again and to feel how stiff my backside had become in this hard chair. Perhaps I had been daydreaming. Perhaps, however, my little Gaelic friend had slyly managed to slip me into an altered state of consciousness to behold a truth I could not have reached otherwise.
I wonder how he did that? It’s a mystery to me. Sure’n ’twas a beautiful talk!
Janice Van Cleve is known to doze off in lectures and concerts, but usually comes away very satisfied.