A Ritual to Define the Culture (of a Collegeville Institute workshop)

Group Photo (2)

Did we start yet? Was that part of it, or just a note before we began? Should we be walking reverently or can we keep chatting? The ritual began casually, setting the tone it would carry throughout. Several times I was unsure if we were participating in an official action, or speaking off the cuff, but it didn’t matter either way. Either way, we were clearly among friends, the sentiments behind our actions were real, and what we were doing reflected exactly what this week at Collegeville had been. Through words and pauses, we related to one another, turned introspective, and cast our view outward to what the broader audience needed to hear, all in the same period of time.

Was it intentional, to begin with a question mark, blurring the line between relationship and ritual? If not, it was a clever happenstance. We stood around and waited for Tess to emerge from behind the Butler Center, and lead us to the tree beside Ben’s back porch. Sometimes it is good, she said, to have an object that can hold the meaning of something for us, to be blessed and carried with us. So the tree with its roots and branches and rootedness and branchiness reminded us. Admittedly my mind wandered a little bit at this point, but I did add my cell phone to the pile at the foot of the tree. I’m hazy on the details, because to me the details weren’t the point. The point was the ethos. Sticks of incense along the side of the patio promoted an ethereal spirituality. We were making space, setting the stage for everyone to have their own experience, except all together. Like Collegeville itself.

When we filed inside, Ben had a great blaze going in the fireplace, and all the furniture had been moved to the outskirts of the room so we could stand in a semi-circle. Melanie instructed us, while clarifying both the similarity and difference from the previous group’s ritual, to write on the paper provided something general in our lives that we’d like to be rid of. When Ben opened the glass door in front of that blazing fire, the risk-averse majority among us were content to put our scraps of paper on the small shovel he extended, and let him send up our released hopes as our intermediary.

John smiled at us, and started explaining how we would now bless the person next to us, or thank them, or note how they had blessed us. Then did he say, “for example”? Regardless, the example started, and he was briefly telling Tess who and how she was and what he hoped for her, and when he finished, even she had to pause in front of the fire before deciding we had started and it was now her turn. The explanation had turned into the doing of the thing. The talking about writing the story had turned into the telling of the story itself. We each did this for each other, probably half listening while another spoke and half planning what we would say about or to the person to our left. Isn’t all word-smithing half listening and half planning anyway? Caroline gave us each a long match stick so we could write a word in the air outside, releasing it into the universe. Several people explained that they would have preferred sparklers, but, oh well.

The ritual ended with drinks and snacks and people settling into groups to talk, laugh, and tell stories, morphing seamlessly into “porch beers,” a ritual which already had a precedent this week. Or maybe it didn’t end; maybe it’s still going. The assignment had been to create a ritual so that the other group could write about it as if we were anthropologists. Perhaps it was just inadvertent that Group 2 created a ritual to summarize and define the culture of the Collegeville Institute during our particular week. Or maybe it was intentional.

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