Live your Unitarian Universalist values out loud. Make your year-end gift today!
As Mircea Eliade repeatedly mentions in his many fine books, a central part of most religious rituals is re-creating the cosmos. Speaking of the ancient Vedic rituals, for example, he says, “Every sacrifice repeats the primordial act of creation and guarantees the continuity of the world for the following year." [A History of Religious Ideas, Vol I] Cosmogonic (worlds creating) aspects of liturgy are sometimes present just to commemorate the creation, but more often they are also meant to orient the ritual participants in relation to all the other parts of their universe and to all the other beings in it. Catholics, for example, will mention heaven and hell, angels, saints, devils, etc., and the deity(ies) to be worshipped. Norse Pagans might mention the Nine Worlds of the Norse cosmos and their inhabitants. Shamanistic rites would talk about the Celestial regions above and the Underworld below, listing the spirits to be found therein. In all cases, however, a necessary first step to re-creating the cosmos seems to be defining a ritual center, the place from which the new cosmos can be born.
For maximum effectiveness, most liturgies require a specifically defined ritual center. As Eliade puts it:
...for nothing can begin, nothing can be done, without a previous orientation—and any orientation implies acquiring a fixed point. It is for this reason that religious man [sic] has always sought to fix his abode at the "center of the world." If the world is to be lived in, it must be founded—and no world can come to birth in the chaos of the homogeneity and relativity of profane space. The discovery or projection of a fixed point—the center—is equivalent to the creation of the world... [History. Emphasis in the original]
The center of the world is the place where the deity(ies) created everything, and therefore the place that has access to everywhere. Selecting landmarks in the North, South, East, and West from the center helps to define reality, the territory that is known to your tribe. Sacred mountains, World Trees, Jacob's Ladder, shamanic poles, the column of smoke rising from a sacred fire, etc., all mark such a worldoriginating point, and include the idea of a symbolic way to reach the other worlds. When you declare the presence of a ritual center in your ceremony, you are reinforcing the concept of sacred time (by harking back to when the world was created at this spot), as well as stating that you now have the ability to communicate with other worlds. This combination is very powerful.
It really doesn't matter that thousands or millions of other places are also being declared to be the center of the world at any given time. As Eliade puts it:
The multiplicity, or even the infinity, of centers of the world raises no difficulty for religious thought. For it is not a matter of geometrical space, but of an existential and sacred space that has an entirely different [quantum?] structure, that admits of an infinite number of breaks and hence is capable of an infinite number of communications with the transcendent. [History]
The creation of a ritual center is often symbolized in Paleo-, Meso-, and Neopagan ceremonies as opening the Gates Between the Worlds. This is usually accomplished by calling upon a particular spirit who is a gatekeeper, and who is easy to contact, since he/she is usually halfway into this world already. The gatekeeper is then asked to open the gates, which she/he usually does with little fuss.
When the gates are opened, exactly where are they? With a round ritual area, they usually seem to manifest in the center and anywhere from three to ten feet above the floor or ground. With rectangular ritual areas, the gates seem to open over the altar or other focus of attention (near the cross or crucifix in a Catholic mass, for example). Obviously, different groups working with different liturgies will visualize and perceive their sacred centers differently (if at all), and this is something that should be discussed during your planning sessions and a consensus decided upon.
In Wiccan rituals, the conscious ritual center is most often just over the altar or the center of the circle (when the altar is off-center). However, an argument can be made that the entire sacred space (the cast circle) is a ritual center (between the worlds) and that the spirits invoked at the four directions are all gatekeepers.36 This all-center technique may only work with sacred spaces that are physically small (such as the classic nine-foot diameter Wiccan circle).
One way to demonstrate and reinforce the location of the ritual center, and to focus thoughts towards invoking the gatekeeper(s), is to choreograph movement around the center's intended location during the center's creation/recognition.
When you become aware of the ritual center you establish a relationship between the people in the sacred space and persons/places/ things outside of it. If you're not going to be bringing in mana from the outside (by invoking spirits or deities, for example), then you can skip this step, as well as all of phases three and four. However, you're then no longer doing a worship ceremony, but rather some sort of pure magical or psychic working. Even under those circumstances, if you are attempting to affect something at a distance, you may still want to have a ritual center available through which to send your mana at a distant target. [See Chapter 9, Cones of Power and Working Through the Center.]
One metaphor for this whole process of defining a ritual center, or opening the gates, is that you are tuning the group mind's psychic awareness to whatever wavelength the ancestors, spirits, and/or gods will be communicating on. Another is that you are taking advantage of the multiverse's quantum entanglement (see RE), in which every particle can be viewed as the center of everything and connected to every other one. It doesn't really matter whether you think that you are creating the sacred center or merely recognizing or manifesting one that was already there. Whatever explanation you choose, the use of these powerful archetypal concepts is irreplaceable.
Now that the gates are open, it's time to start getting everyone's psychic juices flowing (although some folks who are familiar with the ritual may have started generating mana when the ceremony began). This preliminary power raising may be done by singing or chanting, by a sacred dance, or by formal evocations or invocations. All of these techniques should be focused on the spiritual entities (such as nature spirits, ancestors, or deities) who are associated with the various worlds in the cosmos you are re-creating, thus giving both an intellectual and an emotional shape to your group's mental images. The important thing is to get mana to start flowing in and around the ritual area, and to open the participants to this flow.
Next: Phase Three: The Major Gifting of Mana
For more information contact web @ uua.org.
This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations.
Please consider making a donation today.
Last updated on Monday, April 11, 2011.
Sidebar Content, Page Navigation
More Ways to Search
Donate to Support This Program and the Ongoing Work of the UUA
Read or subscribe to UUA.org Updates for the latest additions to our site.
Learn more about the Beliefs & Principles of Unitarian Universalism, or read our online magazine, UU World, for features on today's Unitarian Universalists. Visit an online UU church, or find a congregation near you.