Appendix: Ritual and Trauma
Ritual serves many purposes—marking, celebrating, negotiating, and resolving changes in the world and in our lives. Some rituals mark the flow of time, as in the celebration of birthdays, the Fourth of July, or annual festivals such as Beltane and Samhain. Other rituals mark critical changes in life, as in the birth and blessing of a new baby, graduation from high school or college, weddings, and funerals.
Clearly, some of the occasions marked by ritual are expected and eagerly anticipated, and their rituals mostly celebratory. But other changes that come into our lives may be unexpected or unwelcome, bringing seasons of loss and pain. Even exciting and celebratory events can be disruptive and cause a sense of disorientation from one’s normal frames of reference by presenting us with the new and unknown.
Just as our attitudes toward life’s changes are complex and multidimensional, so, too, are the rituals that express those attitudes. Rituals do more than simply celebrate. They also help us to resist or contest oppressive circumstances, to negotiate difficult times, to cope with moments of pain, discontinuity, and loss. Rituals enable us to acknowledge pain and move through that pain to a place of healing, strength, and new awareness. Good rituals don’t simply restore the status quo, but help us incorporate new experiences to create new patterns of thinking and living.
Because they are usually somewhat predictable and often publicly shared, events such as weddings and funerals are culturally well defined and accompanied by ritual practices and liturgies that are well established within their respective faith traditions. But many important events are less frequently marked by ritual in Western culture, sometimes because they are deemed highly “personal” or “private” in nature. They may carry with them an element of embarrassment, shame, or even guilt.
For example, although bodily changes such as the onset of puberty or menarche are ritually honored and celebrated in some cultures and faiths, such rites are mostly lacking in Western Christian cultures. Rituals embracing menopause are rare around the world. We have a wide variety of rituals of marriage, but almost a complete lack of rituals marking — much less celebrating — divorce, apart from the heavily stylized “rituals of the courtroom.” There are culturally well-established rites for blessing newborn babies, but few marking or adequately addressing reproductive losses such as miscarriage or abortion. These are some of the situations in which expertise in the creation or design of ritual is necessary.
One important role of any faith community is to support and guide members through critical times of change—whether these are expected and eagerly anticipated or unexpected and unwelcome. Each of us benefits from the collective wisdom of our communities, shared through religious story and symbol and expressed through ritual practices. In turn, the stability of any community depends on the wholeness of its individual members.
Rituals, especially those performed in a communal or public context, help to reassure traumatized people that they can be reintegrated into the community, sometimes in a new role. But even very private or personal rituals can express an acknowledgment of pain and loss, an assertion of self-worth or empowerment, a desire for acceptance and blessing, and a new sense of comfort and strength.
This is where the experience of elders in designing and implementing ritual practices, practices rooted in both tradition and particular individual circumstances, becomes of critical importance in transforming painful or unsettling experiences into sources of new strength and stability. Using the familiar symbols, stories, and practices of the tradition that you share with the people seeking your help amplifies the effect of more specific ritual components directed to the changes they are seeking to resolve and integrate. Such familiarity establishes a sense of safety and comfort, supporting people as they work through the unfamiliar and unsettling circumstances of change.In addition to tradition, flexibility and spontaneity are equally essential to good ritual. They are the tools in your hands. Become familiar enough with your tools to trust yourself to be inspired. Knowing the basic components of ritual, and being able to construct an appropriate ritual is a necessary skill for clergy, who often work with people seeking assistance with life’s unwelcome or unexpected events.
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