Thursday, 29 December 2011

Standing on Ceremony

People are often impatient of ceremony. I was when I was young, although I could see the beauty in some ceremonies and a half-hidden meaning in some. Ceremony seemed to get in the way of thought and so often to reinforce the status quo in ways you couldn't question rationally, only ridicule - and that was a great time for satire in the UK.

I still feel moved to remind myself (and others) that something isn't true or valuable because it's wrapped in ancient or impressive ceremony. Ceremony does not make a royal wedding either important beyond the couple, or loving between them. The Nazis deliberately built up a great edifice of impressive ceremony, some of it visually very clever, artistic and effective. Something can be great ceremony, something can be impressive art, and still be evil.

There are two dangers in ceremony. One is that wrong can be wrapped in gold and music and marching till it is accepted by people who might have rejected it. The other is that it is treated as magic. In rejecting so much ceremony, Puritans and Quakers (who differed on so many other things) shared a perception that these things could get in the way of truth.

When a priest raises a chalice with wine, when set words are spoken over a grave, when traditional things are done reverently before a marriage or a battle, do we think the words or the ceremonial acts themselves change anything? Traditionally many people have thought just that. If the right words were not spoken, if the right sacrifice was not made, the enterprise would not prosper and perhaps even the winter would not end. The fate of the dead person's soul would be different. I think one of the several reasons why people reject religion is that they associate it with this claim of effective magic. I reject this magic entirely. But I do not reject the ceremony.

Clearly people educated to believe in certain ceremonies will be affected one way by a ceremony done properly in the traditional manner, and another way by it going wrong. In the second case, for example, the soldier may be more inclined to perceive defeat coming and to run, making defeat more likely and reinforcing belief in the magic of the ceremony. I believe the impact of ceremony can go beyond that.

Ceremony is poetry - sometimes ossified, sometimes in a strange language people struggle now to understand, but still poetry. Ceremony can represent something powerfully beyond words and engage emotions which might otherwise fester and bubble under the surface. Have you watched while a priest threw a handful of soil on a coffin? Stood a moment in silent respect? Wondered why things as everyday as bread and wine could take on huge significance for Christians? Clasped hands at one moment and not another? Sacrificed a small coin into the sea or a river? Sung a song supporters of the same football club sang generations back? All these are ways of saying something, of symbolising something. The soil on the coffin symbolises our dependence on the soil, our bodies' identity with it, that we come from it and go into it. The football song symbolises unity in a common cause, common across time as well as numbers.

Sometimes ceremony becomes too ornate, too dominated by gold and jewels and long processions, just as some poets lose their way in their own clever and creative talent. At the root, though, there should be meaning - meaning we could not so effectively encompass in logic, but that does not make it illogical.

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