Tag Archives: baptism

Customarily

There was a madness about Mardi Gras… — the music, the masks, the mayhem all crashing together into a desperate sort of celebration … that was both gleefully innocent and rawly sexual. He doubted [that] the majority of the tourists who flocked… [to New Orleans] for the event understood or cared about the purpose of it.  —Nora Roberts, Midnight Bayou

Mangueira Samba School Parade (photo by Felipe Ferreira)

Carnival in Rio: Mangueira Samba School Parade (photo by Felipe Ferreira)

Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) is the day before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is the final day of Carnival, the three-day period preceding the beginning of Lent, the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday immediately before Ash Wednesday (some traditions … [consider] Carnival … [to be the] time between Epiphany…  [Twelfth Night] and Ash Wednesday). The entire three-day period [before Ash Wednesday] has come to be known in many areas as Mardi Gras.—Wikipedia

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 23

Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
Part 2: Rituals and Traditions and Festivals and Customs and Celebrations and Ceremonies and Habits… Oh, My!

Every weekday morning, when I was in high school, I woke, at precisely a quarter to six, to the crisp click of my dad’s Zippo lighter, signaling the first cigarette of the day, the beginning of his morning ritual, through which he moved, brisk but unhurried, with a precision that made timepieces unnecessary.

teenage_girl_bruthsing_teethDad would smoke his cigarette, don his terry-cloth robe, fetch the newspaper from the front porch and take it into the downstairs half-bath… from which he would emerge, 11.37 minutes later, to climb the stairs and take his shower in the upstairs bathroom. The shower water shutting off was my cue to get up, brush my teeth, wash my face, put on my clothes (this often involved a couple of trips to the clothes drier in the basement and sometimes a hasty ironing job), find my books and my homework, experience a moment of anxiety about the homework left undone, and skip breakfast if I wanted to be ready when Dad left for his downtown office, so that I wouldn’t have to take the city bus to school and could maybe finish my homework in Dad’s car.

Living poetically: an orderly life

Dad’s morning routine illustrates one of the great benefits of ritual and an essential ingredient in living poetically: maintaining order. If one is going to live poetically, then one must be efficient whenever possible, thus allowing oneself the liberty of being artistically inefficient at predictable times.

This is a lesson I was slow to learn, which is why, when I was working full time at an 8-to-5 job, my daughter, Marian, usually ate her cereal in the car on the way to day care.

travel_driving_on_country_road_istockFor purposes of this lesson, I’m going to fudge the boundaries of words such as ritual, custom, festival, celebration, ceremony, and tradition. Sometimes the words can be used interchangeably, sometimes not.

It is the custom (and the law), for example, in the U.S. to drive on the right side of the road and to GO when the stoplight turns green. Some over-the-road truck drivers customarily flick their headlights to let passing cars know that it’s safe to return to the right lane. Back when most highways were only two lanes wide, it was customary to tap on the horn as a signal to the car in front of you that you were about to pass it.

These are practical customs, adopted to make driving safe and efficient. You could, I suppose, consider them traditions, but they are hardly rituals or ceremonies or celebrations. The custom of driving on the right side of the road quickly becomes a habit — something you do automatically, without thinking. Imagine the chaos if every morning, when you got into your car to go to work, you (and the rest of the drivers in your community) had to make up your mind as to which side of the street you wanted to drive on and what to do if you encountered a green stoplight.

Halloween

On the other hand, it is customary and traditional for children to wear costumes and go trick-or-treating on Halloween. Few children, however, are aware that Halloween

…has roots in the Christian holy day of All Saints and the… ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain — a celebration of the end of the harvest season in Gaelic culture, …sometimes regarded as the “Celtic New Year.” Traditionally, the festival was a time used by the ancient Celtic pagans to take stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. The ancient Gaels believed that on October 31, now known as Halloween, the boundary between the living and the deceased dissolved, and the dead became dangerous for the living by causing… sickness or [damaging]… crops. The festivals would frequently involve bonfires, into which the bones of slaughtered livestock were thrown. Costumes and masks were also worn at the festivals in an attempt to copy the evil spirits, [to hide from them], or to placate them. Wikipedia

pumpkin_fieldAs was often the case when a civilization became “Christianized,” missionaries finessed Christian holidays into traditional pagan celebrations. The name Halloween is a shortened form of All Hallows’ Eve (or All Hallows’ Even), because it falls on the eve of All Hallows’ Day, now called All Saints’ Day, which in Christian theology commemorates those who have died and, presumably, gone to Heaven.

As Halloween symbols, skeletons and jack-o’-lanterns have ancient meaning as well, but, for most kids, Halloween is just an excuse to dress up, get together with friends, and eat a lot of candy. Without being aware of it, they are participating in an ancient and multilayered ritual.

Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, 2006

Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, 2006

Mardi Gras

Worldwide, the carnivals that precede the forty-day sacrificial season of Lent traditionally comprise several days of extravagance and self-indulgence — in sharp contrast to the ensuing (partial) fast, which is meant to

…[prepare] the believer—through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial—for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events linked to the Passion of Christ and culminates in Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. —Wikipedia

Weddings

The official wedding portrait of Princess Grace and Prince Ranier III of Monaco

The official wedding portrait of Princess Grace and Prince Ranier III of Monaco

Associated with weddings are rituals, celebrations, ceremonies, and customs, all rolled into one series of traditions — from bachelor parties and bridal showers to Catholic masses and chivarees. During the wedding, the bride is supposed to wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue” (often a garter), though nobody remembers why. 

According to Wikipedia, “exchanging rings may be the oldest and most universal symbol of marriage, but the origins are unclear. The ring’s circular shape represents perfection and never-ending love.”

Why rituals matter

Rituals and ceremonies often mark transitions — seasonal, cultural, and individual. Weddings, baptisms (if you believe that baptism is necessary for salvation), wakes and funerals, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, quinceañeras, even “divorce parties” are ways of delineating a change in status… of indicating unequivocally that before the ceremony things were one way and after the ceremony they are another way.

An 1883 print depicting an Irish wake

An 1883 print depicting an Irish wake

I had always thought that wakes and “viewings” of the deceased were unnecessary and even macabre, until my mother died without warning in 1974. At the age of 62, she had a massive stroke at home; Dad rode to the hospital with her in the ambulance, while my sister, Pipi, and I followed in my car.  The three of us sat in a waiting room, watching television as Richard Nixon announced that he would resign the presidency the next day, August 9. Periodically, some medical person would appear with an increasingly gloomy “update” on Mom’s condition. We were finally allowed to see her, though she was practically unidentifiable behind flanks of machines and forests of tubes.

Late in the evening, the machines and tubes were removed, Mom was declared dead, and we were asked if we wanted to see her again. Our unanimous reaction was, “Ugh,” whereupon her body was donated to the Nebraska Anatomical Board, a sort of clearinghouse for cadavers that would be used for medical research. We held a memorial service, but of course there was no viewing, no cemetery burial, not even an urn for her ashes.

Tulips (Floriade canberra); photo by John O'Neill

Tulips (Floriade canberra); photo by John O'Neill

Well, it was a mistake, at least on my part. Somewhere in my psyche there was persistent denial: I had not seen her dead, therefore it was possible that she was not dead. I had this recurring dream that she had gone to Japan and would be back any day. During my waking hours, I experienced depression, panic attacks, even hallucinations.

I spent a lot of time with Dad in the home he and Mom had shared, helping with laundry and sewing buttons on his shirts. I watched Mom’s tulips and perennial herbs cleave the thawing earth in the spring. I don’t think I actually “went on with my life,” as they say, until Marian and I moved to the Washington, DC, area almost a year and a half later.

When Dad died, eleven years after we lost Mom, I was not about to make the same mistake. He had been ill for some time, and his death was not unexpected, but I arrived at the hospital (in response to a nurse’s phone call) minutes after he died. When I entered his room, held his cold hand, kissed his ashen face, I felt an enormous sense of relief. “He’s not here,” I thought. “This isn’t Dad. He’s gone away.”

Rituals and celebrations connect us with each other, nudging families and communities together. Researchers have found that “social” people, who regularly spend time with their families and friends, are happier and live longer than people who are comparatively isolated, even by choice.

A Campbell family picnic in Des Moines, c. 1946

A Campbell family picnic in Des Moines, c. 1946

When I was growing up, none of our relatives lived in Omaha, and, as the youngest of my generation on my dad’s side, I found our rare family get-togethers tedious in the extreme. As an adult, though, I discovered to my surprise that my older cousins were funny and interesting, even though it was usually a funeral that brought us together. We have had two non-funeral-related family reunions in the last twenty years, and both have been delightful, with copious sincere expressions of regret that we don’t see each other more often. If one of the other Campbells were to plan a reunion and send me an invitation, I would eagerly attend. But, however fine a time we have at our reunions, we return to our comfort zones and follow the path of least resistance, and to date no additional reunions have been planned, which is a pity.

child_with_posy_for_momTruthfully, now… would you give your mother flowers or take her out for a champagne brunch if there were no such thing as Mother’s Day or if we, as a culture, didn’t traditionally celebrate birthdays?

Rituals connect us with our history and our ancestors. I have heard of Jews, descendants of those who fled one of the numerous European Inquisitions, growing up in Mexico and the American Southwest, practicing customs such as ritual handwashing and candle-lighting without knowing that such traditions were relics of their ancestors’ “Jewishness.” These are people who had no idea that they were descended from Jews… but their rituals outlasted their theology. (See Hidden Heritage: The Legacy of the Crypto-Jews, by Janet Liebman Jacobs)

Rituals, traditions, and customs lend structure to our days, weeks, months, and years. As mentioned above, a lot of things just aren’t worth the effort that would be needed to continually make decisions about them.

Take the Christmas tree. The custom of cutting down an evergreen tree, taking it home, hauling it into the house, setting its trunk in a bucket of water, and decorating it with garish balls and beads, probably originated in pre-Christian times as a reminder that living things can thrive even in the dead of winter. The modern tradition, in which the trees became associated with Christmas, seems to have originated in northern Europe some five hundred years ago.

Christmas-tree ornament (photo by Kris De Curtis)

Christmas-tree ornament (photo by Kris De Curtis)

If you decorate your house for Christmas, you probably have a Christmas tree. It might be a fir tree of some sort, or something that has been assembled in a factory to resemble a fir tree. You probably have your own family ritual that determines how and when the tree should be decorated. You might have been horrified, after you got married, to learn that your spouse’s family has one of those aluminum-foil-type trees and hangs only pink satin ornaments on it. Perhaps there were arguments about when the gifts should be opened: on Christmas eve or Christmas morning.

You could flout tradition and bring in a small sycamore tree, or maybe a palm. You could hang your ornaments and stockings on a coat rack, or you could pound a bunch of nails into the wall and drape tinsel across them. It would be odd but certainly not illegal. But why bother, when stores and parking lots are crammed with pines and spruces, and when you have a collection of beautiful Christmas-tree ornaments, some of which are family heirlooms?

Rituals of all kinds are exceedingly tenacious. When I was growing up, we opened the presents under the tree — those that came from distant aunts and uncles, and those that we gave to each other — on Christmas eve. My sister, Pipi, as the eldest of the three of us kids, got to hand out the gifts, and we opened them one at a time, in an orderly way. We wouldn’t have dreamed of opening a gift while someone else was opening hers.

victorian_family_christmasThe presents from Santa Claus — filled stockings and wrapped boxes beneath them — were, naturally, opened on Christmas morning in a sort of frenzied free-for-all — except that everyone had to be there. My brother, John, and I would roust Pipi and Mom and Dad out of bed so that Christmas Day could begin.

John and I insisted on maintaining this ritual even when we were in high school and Pipi was in college. To this very day, I’m uncomfortable opening a gift — any gift — while someone else in the room is opening one… unless its Christmas morning, which is, as mentioned, exempt from the one-gift-at-a-time rule.

Rituals revisited

Kids in Halloween costumes (photo by Charles Nguyen)

Kids in Halloween costumes (photo by Charles Nguyen)

Some traditions have become totally severed from their origins. We no longer dress up at Halloween in order to protect ourselves from evil spirits, nor does Halloween have any religious significance except, perhaps, to Satanists. But we continue to observe Halloween for valid social and cultural reasons.

The tradition of hazing originated as a test of manhood — a rite-of-passage ceremony associated with an organization or a society. While it might have been a useful way, at one time, to “separate the men from the boys” in preparation for battles or hunting expeditions, hazing has, among some groups, degenerated into a sadistic display of boorishness.

Assignment 23.1

Prepare a three-column table. In the first column, list the most important customs and traditions you observe. In the second column, summarize the origins of those customs and traditions. In the third column, indicate the relevance they have for you today.

Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will comment on it and return it to you.

Next: Advent — What Are You Waiting For?

Aztec Mask of Xiuhtecuhtli, c. 1500 (photo by David Monniaux)

Aztec Mask of Xiuhtecuhtli, c. 1500 (photo by David Monniaux)

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Where God Resides

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 21

Chapter 8: Writing toward the Core
Part 2: Connecting with God

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

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The most ordinary of prospects caused her to stop and stare. The last of the leaves dropped from the trees, and the bare branches made lace against pale skies. Sun after rain turned cobbled streets blue as fish scales, dazzling to the eye. Autumn winds, whipping the bay to a scud of white-caps, brought with them, not cold, but a surging sense of vitality.  — Rosamunde Pilcher, The Shell Seekers

Kabir, 1398-1448, mystic poet and saint of India

Kabir, 1398-1448, mystic poet and saint of India

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Living poetically begins with a sense of connectedness — with God, with the soul-candles of other creatures, with the earth. The poetic life is not lived in isolation.

I have heard equally intelligent and thoughtful people say contradictory things about God — that there is nothing that is not God, or that God is very “Other.” It doesn’t seem to make much difference, though I used to fret about such things quite a lot. Now I simply try to keep it in mind to honor the sacred, wherever I encounter it, or it encounters me, as the case may be. Though I am absent-minded and daydreamy, I try to remember to notice things, to be alert for any messages the Universe is trying to send me.

The Ritual of Baptism — Saint Remigius baptizes Clovis I, represented by the Master of Saint Gilles c. 1500

The Ritual of Baptism — Saint Remigius baptizes Clovis I, represented by the Master of Saint Gilles c. 1500

Rituals are important because they remind you to remember and to notice what you might otherwise take for granted, the way Mother’s Day prompts you to feel and to show gratitude to your mom. There is a calming, reassuring meditation on the site MyInnerWorld.com  that calls to your attention the ways in which you are not self-sufficient but that in which, rather, you and your needs are supported — by the earth, by the air that you need to breathe, by food and water when you are thirsty and hungry…. More on rituals in another lesson.

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Where the self leaves off and God begins is the subject of a great deal of poetry. Here are three such poems (the third poem appears in two translations):

 

ARE YOU LOOKING FOR ME

Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
You will not find me in stupas, not in Indian shrine rooms, nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals;
not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding around your own neck, nor in eating nothing but vegetables.
When you really look for me, you will see me instantly—
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.

—Kabir, translated by American author and poet Robert Bly in The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations

Kabir was “a mystic poet and saint of India” (Wikipedia, accessed Nov. 21, 2008) whose life spanned the first half of the fifteenth century. Born into a Muslim family, Kabir became a student of Ramananda, a Hindu. But Kabir’s views defied sectarianism, and his appeal has remained universal.

According to Kabir, all life is an interplay of two spiritual principles. One is the personal soul (Jivatma) and the other is God (Paramatma). It is Kabir’s view that salvation is the process of bringing into union these two divine principles. — Wikipedia

Robert Bly (b. 1926) in 2004

Robert Bly (b. 1926) in 2004

Of Kabir, Bly writes, “His metaphors act like a loose electric wire, or a two-by-four to the head. His contempt for those wishing to be saved by being good is endless…. In the shortest of his poems, he models the high-spiritedness that he thought is essential for the life we live on this earth.

“‘The buds are shouting:
”The Gardener is coming.
Today he picks the blossoms,
Tomorrow, us!’

“If we cannot recite that last line with joy, then we are probably too gloomy to take Kabir in. He wants us not to worry whether we live or die.”

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Emily Dickinson 1830-1886

Emily Dickinson 1830-1886

The brain is wider than the sky,
  For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
  With ease, and you beside.

The brain is deeper than the sea,
  For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
  As sponges, buckets do.

The brain is just the weight of God,
  For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
  As syllable from sound.

— Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson — though not as solitary and reclusive as she has often been described — lived nearly all her life in her parents’ home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her poetry is deceptively simple, rigorously disciplined into conventional forms packed with paradox and insight. The poem above is in common meter, with the rhyming pattern ABCB arranged into alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.

According to one analyst,

her subjects are often parts of the topography of her own psyche; she explores her own feelings with painstaking and often painful honesty but never loses sight of their universal poetic application; one of her greatest techniques is to write about the particulars of her own emotions in a kind of universal homiletic or adage-like tone (“After great pain, a formal feeling comes”) that seems to describe the reader’s mind as well as it does the poet’s.  —Sparknotes.com, accessed November 21, 2008

The Wikipedia article on Dickinson observes that the poet considered her own mind to be “‘an undiscovered continent’…. Academic Suzanne Juhasz considers that Dickinson saw the mind and spirit as tangible visitable places and that for much of her life she lived within them.”

Both of these analyses are fine, as far as they go, though the words topography and continent suggest a surface exploration. In my view, Dickinson was not so superficial; she mined her own psyche for jewels that shine in all human consciousness. 

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BUDDHA INSIDE THE LIGHT

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875-1926

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875-1926

The core of every core, the kernel of every kernel
an almond! held in itself, deepening in sweetness:
all of this, everything, right up to the stars,
is the meat around your stone. Accept my bow.

Oh, yes, you feel it, how the weights on you are gone!
Your husk has reached into what has no end,
and that is where the great saps are brewing now.
On the outside a warmth is helping,

for, high, high above, your own suns are growing
immense and they glow as they wheel around.
Yet something has already started to live
in you that will live longer than the sun.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly in The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations

BUDDHA IN GLORY

Center of all centers, core of cores,
almond self-enclosed, and growing sweet–
all this universe, to the furthest stars
all beyond them, is your flesh, your fruit.

Now you feel how nothing clings to you;
your vast shell reaches into endless space,
and there the rich, thick fluids rise and flow.
Illuminated in your infinite peace,

a billion stars go spinning through the night,
blazing high above your head.
But in you is the presence that
will be, when all the stars are dead.

—Rainer Marie Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell

Rainer Maria Rilke was an Austrian poet who wrote in both German and French. Among the great twentieth-century poets, he is unusual in that his work is both accessible and hopeful, often joyous.

In his introduction to the Rilke translations in The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations, Bly writes, “Rilke has for hundreds of readers been their first introduction to poetry that goes steeply and unapologetically up with the spirit…. Poetry doesn’t mean talking well, but being truly alive. Poetry is ‘a god breathing.’”

I have included the Mitchell translation because, unlike Bly, Mitchell tries to reproduce the original poem’s meter and rhyme as well as its meaning. Every poem is diluted somewhat in translation, of course, because meter, rhyme, rhetoric, and vocabulary are never independent of one another.

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Assignment 21.1 Where Is God?

  1. In each of these poems, the Divine is “placed” somewhere relative to the individual. Write a brief essay (a few hundred words) on the “location” of God as depicted in these works of Kabir, Dickinson, and Rilke.
  2. Write a twelve-line poem in common meter on the “location” of God relative to you. If you are uncomfortable with the name God, substitute Spirit or love or inspiration, or one of the other names of God.

Please e-mail your assignment to me at Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.

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