What do you think of when you think of ceremony?

by Anya Arthen

To be honest I do not remember ceremony being a part of my early childhood growing up in Russia, definitely not the way I know it now. The things we did that most resembled ceremonies were getting together and celebrating the new year with a beautifully decked out spruce tree, presents, and a toast to the countdown of the moments between 11:59pm and midnight, or maybe the yearly feasts that mark birthdays, years passing in a life. 

As an immigrant in the United States when I was slightly older, ceremony started to become  more prominent: ceremonies of weddings, graduations, naturalization to citizenship, and eventually funerals. Ceremonies and celebrations around the moments of significance in an individual’s life. 

Now as an adult and as a Pagan, ceremony is infused into small daily

Hands lifting water

Photo by Engin Akyurt via Pexels

routines.  It harmonizes to the phases of the moon, it punctuates the changing of the seasons, it celebrates the planting of a tree. Ceremony is Ritual. It is when I stand with community and acknowledge the moments of significance in an individual’s life. It is when we come together and open to lake, to green ones, to mountain, to creatures flying, swimming, and crawling, to sun and stars, to the unseen ones. It is when we come together to sing, and dance, and drum our gratitude into the land on which we stand, into the air which we breathe, out to the web we weave. It is when we sing up the sun on winter solstice morning, or watch it set over the horizon on summer solstice night. It is when I make my first cup of morning tea, breathing in intention for the day with its aroma. 

This thought of ceremony has been sparked by a few passages that grasped at something deep within me from the book Braiding Sweetgrass

Now, potent and powerful passages are not infrequent in that book. Yet, this particular one has had me mulling it over.  Without rest it has been at the forefront of my mind. 

Robin Wall Kimmerer writes:

“Ceremony focuses attention so that attention becomes intention. If you stand together and profess a thing before your community, it holds you accountable. 

Ceremonies transcend the boundaries of the individual and resonate beyond the human realm. These acts of reverence are powerfully pragmatic. These are ceremonies that magnify life.”

She goes on to talk about something very similar to my experience in childhood and young adulthood: the fact that in the dominant culture ceremony is focused on the individuals, or mainly on the human experience. I will quote you the passage as her words are evocative.

“Many indigenous traditions still recognize the place of ceremony and often focus their celebrations on other species and events in the cycle of the seasons. In a colonist society the ceremonies that endure are portable from the old country. Ceremonies for the land no doubt existed there, but it seems they did not survive emigration in any substantial way. I think there is wisdom in regenerating them here, as a means to form bonds with this land.

To have agency in the world, ceremonies should be reciprocal co-creations, organic in nature, in which the community creates ceremony and the ceremony creates communities. They should not be cultural appropriations from Native peoples. But generating new ceremony in today’s world is hard to do. There are towns I know that hold apple festivals and Moose Mania, but despite the wonderful food, they tend toward the commercial. Educational events like wildflower weekends and Christmas bird counts are all steps in the right direction but they lack an active, reciprocal relationship with the more-than-human world. 

I want to stand by the river in my finest dress. I want to sing, strong and hard, and stomp my feet with a hundred others so that the waters hum with our happiness. I want to dance for the renewal of the world.”

In writing those words in the time that preceded the publication of Braiding Sweetgrass in 2013, I wonder if Robin Wall Kimmerer felt the hundreds of people gathered on a mountain top by a lake overlooking her home state, singing, strong and hard, dancing so that the lake hummed with our happiness. 

The words above encapsulate for me a deep aspect of what is so important about EarthSpirit, why was it that stepping foot into this community a mere 10 years ago shifted the trajectory of my entire life. It is because living as best I can co-creatively with the natural world around me makes sense. Gathering to celebrate in gratitude the beauty of spring and the abundance of late summer harvest, and in reverence the passage of time as the year wraps around to the cold seasons makes sense. Having a community to connect with and hold these ideals and carry these traditions makes sense. 

I once heard a scholar of Russian history say that Russian culture has a pattern of self-destruction, that every 200 years or so, over and over again, Russian culture would get wiped clean and forcibly replaced. I never learned the traditions that were practiced by the people living on the land where I was born; they were not passed down in my family. In the United States I am an immigrant: I am not of the land I live on, yet I am of the land I live on, always learning to live in a way that nourishes that land and all beings on it.

That is what EarthSpirit has done for me. It has taught me the skills I need to live deeply rooted to the land. As a community drawn from the deep earth-centered traditions of the indigenous people of Europe, EarthSpirt gives all of us who are living in a colonist society a way to bring back the ceremonies that teach us how to actively form reciprocal relationships with the more-than-human world.

One thought on “What do you think of when you think of ceremony?

  1. Thank you so much for this, I am reading it in the second hour post midnight, and I hear the cricket who currently lives in our bathroom window well chirping. Either the AC or the heat just cane on, at this time of the changing of the seasons, I can’t immediately tell which. Your thoughts expressed about ceremonies are deeply helpful.

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