The power of ritual:
reinventing ceremony in a secular time
by Robert Fulford

(Globe and Mail, May 1, 1999)

When a TV director, shooting a rock concert, cuts to a shot of the audience, viewers often see a spectacle that seizes the imagination: thousands of arms waving in time to the music, shifting like a cornfield ruffled by an August breeze. It's an eerie scene, touching and poetic and mysterious. It speaks the same visual language as a religious festival. So does the moment when, for whatever reason, just about everyone at a concert lights a candle. Is there a heart so cold it can't be stirred, even slightly, by that image?

What can you call these phenomena? Perhaps they constitute an art form being born, a dance that requires no talent, only a willingness to take part. More likely, they're a way of expressing community. At the ballpark, "the wave" has a similar effect, when rows of spectators stand and then sit, acting like a single body, a sea of humanity undulating like the ocean. We can understand these events as new forms of ritual for a secular age. They express the urge to intensify a feeling through joint symbolic action.

The evidence suggests that ritual is essential to humans. Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist and scholar of child development, pointed out that commonplace rituals, related to eating, dressing and going to bed, take hold of a child's mind around the age of three; parents notice that three-year-olds begin insisting that events follow precisely the same course, day after day, and they're outraged if a parent forgets the proper form. That's ritual as a tool of understanding, put to work by a child learning how life is structured. Socialized ritual or ceremony comes later, often in church or temple. A child may resist it, particularly if it's imposed by adults, but ritual never disappears, it just changes shape. The need is permanent. There's no such thing as a society that completely lacks ceremony, the expression of shared feelings through agreed-upon actions.

The Roman Catholic Church, for centuries the mother lode of ritual in western civilization, began watering down its rituals in the 1960s. That fit the spirit of the times. Everywhere clothing was becoming more casual, ceasing to express hierarchy. Maids stopped wearing the uniform of maids. Dress codes in restaurants weakened and then disappeared. People started going to the theatre in windbreakers and jeans. Ceremonial dress disappeared in diplomacy and even around the governor-general and the Queen. Offices adopted "casual Fridays," a kind of ritual in reverse. Today, perhaps only the courts and the military (and the very rich) use clothing to indicate status.

But the need to express the meaning of an occasion remains. Flowers sometimes appear spontaneously when a violent death occurs. The death of Princess Diana brought forth a vast field of flowers in London, and a smaller equivalent at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto. After the mass murder at Littleton, Colorado, a car belonging to one victim was spontaneously turned into a flower-covered shrine, where it sat in the parking lot. We seem to share (without quite articulating) the belief that a terrible event can be modified and redeemed by collective feeling, collectively expressed.

The death need not be violent: A man who ran a perfume store in my Toronto district recently died at work of a sudden heart attack; the next day, people were depositing little bouquets at the door of his shop. When an event is new and seems uniquely important, we feel the urge to mark it by some kind of display, whether the event is sentimental (the Ottawa Senators lining up to shake Wayne Gretzky's hand after playing against him during his last game in Canada) or tragic (the man who released 13 white doves at the memorial service for 13 Littleton victims).

These are echoes of earlier rituals, perhaps to be repeated in future. Repetition is the key to ritual: It gives actions an emotional density. Mircea Eliade, the pioneer scholar of comparative religion, argues (in Cosmos and History) that repetition "confers reality upon events" and suspends the sense of time. In my view, that last point connects the idea of ritual with line-dancing, another phenomenon of recent times. Ritual can empty the mind, a route (eastern religions suggest) to tranquillity. On the faces of people line-dancing you can glimpse a distant, abstracted gaze, as if those repetitive, well-practised moves had shifted them out of daily reality and into another place.

Many groups harbour a longing to be involved in a public event; they demonstrate it through the ease with which they can be persuaded to clap in time to music, and their eagerness to take part in standing ovations (and their evident joy while doing so). Once, before videos and cable-TV made films from the 1930s familiar, I was part of a movie audience that wildly applauded when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers finished one of their magnificent dance numbers in Swing Time. It seemed a curious thing to do. We weren't applauding Astaire and Rogers, who were far away, and we weren't praising the projectionist. The mounting tension of that dazzling performance had created such a beautiful exhilaration that it had to be physically released and the ritual of applause was the only one to hand; I happily joined in.

Even at its silliest, this phenomenon turns a commonplace event into an occasion. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, that 1975 film about Dr. Frank-N-Furter, "a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania," became the centre of an outlandish international cult: People would show up at screenings dressed like the characters and equipped with umbrellas to raise in the rainy scene, candles to light when someone refers to seeing a light, and slices of toast to hurl at the screen when a character proposes a toast (a rare example of a pun acted out collectively). They were an audience that declined to act like an audience but instead became the show, expressing a sense of solidarity -- playful and ironic solidarity, to be sure, but still charged with meaning, a joyful form of communion achieved through the re-invention of ritual.

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