Today is the great mid-year purification ceremony at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America; but, unfortunately, due to the other (practical) commitments I have at present, I wasn’t able to attend it, alas. However, ceremony and ritual has been on my mind a lot over the last week and a half (though, as a practical–and practicing!–polytheist, it’s never far from my mind), on which I thought I’d share a bit in my writing on this blog today.
On the Friday and Saturday of last week, and on the Saturday (which is to say, yesterday) of this week, I was at a number of different events that would be considered “secular” in some manner, and yet which have ceremonial or ritual elements to them. Observing and participating in these as a polytheist and a ritualist is often quite interesting from my viewpoint; but, all too often, some of these things seem to be a burden or an annoyance to many people. “Ritual” implies, for so many people (many pagans included, unfortunately), “repetitive” (in a bad sense!), “routine” (in every bad sense, including boring and mindless), “going through the motions,” and “empty”; and those who “stand on ceremony” are often thought to be in some ways out-of-touch, inept, not spontaneous or heartfelt, and any number of other negative evaluations. And yet, there are so many potentially valuable ceremonies that take place on a daily, yearly, or some other basis, and even though our society considers them “secular” they are just as potentially sacred as the most elaborate mainstream church service, as long as they are approached correctly.
The first of the secular ceremonies I attended was a graduation at one of the colleges I occasionally teach for. Academic regalia is required at these, and of the faculty at this particular college, I’m the only one amongst my peers who owns my own (which I received from an older retired academic not long after I received my Ph.D., who was luckily tall enough to have his doctoral gown fit me perfectly!). The students we teach are non-traditional, “adult education” students who usually have families and/or jobs to worry about, who are usually taking our classes on nights or weekends; about ninety percent of the ones at that particular campus are Navy or other military service personnel, or are connected to the military in some way (children, spouses, etc.). The ones who are able to show up for the commencement ceremony are a small fraction of the total number of degree (A.A., B.A., and M.A.) graduates in a given year; there were just over 40 present in person this year of somewhere in the neighborhood of 120+ who were eligible to walk. Even though I have not taught a course at this campus since late 2010, and had no students I knew personally either walking in graduation or graduating at all, I felt it was important for me to be there as a faculty member of the institution, in recognition of their accomplishments. (I was one of nine faculty members, out of around 25, who attended.)
Like many more formal rituals in paganism, there was a procession in, which the administration and the faculty lead. And just like many pagan rituals of initiation, the focal point of the event was the change in status of the students into graduates, which is a performative utterance by the administration, presenting the graduates and then having their status altered by the words spoken; tokens of their change in status are then presented, and the final ritual act or gesture signifying their change in status is moving the tassel on their mortarboards from the right to the left.
Whether it is just due to me being me, or something else, I often get consulted on the particularities of how the academic regalia is worn. The head administrator of our campus asked me beforehand if it was appropriate, for the photos of the graduates, to move their tassels over to the left for their photos before the ceremony, as another administrator had said this is what should be done, and my answer was an unhesitating and absolute “NO!” The way that academic regalia should be worn is with the tassel on the left, signifying the holding of a degree; but until that status is achieved and formalized, the graduates-to-be are in the liminal state of wearing the whole get-up without the one bit being appropriately in place. Thankfully, this bit of procedure was observed on the occasion.
There were some annoyances in other parts of the ceremony, unfortunately; some people were mad that there was too much space between the faculty and the students in the procession coming in–but, shouldn’t there be? We are not one undifferentiated group, after all. And, the prayers at the beginning and end of the ceremony were not done by the chaplain of the naval base, but instead by one of the faculty members (who is a deacon in his church), and rather than reading the prayer that is suitably non-sectarian enough for the crowd, he made up his own, which repeatedly invoked and praised his particular religion’s version of their deity excessively, which was disastrous in the eyes of our head administrator…and, I fully agreed with that assessment, given that we are not a sectarian institution. But, anyway…
The second ceremony I was at the weekend before this one was a baseball game: the Seattle Mariners versus the San Francisco Giants at Safeco Field in Seattle. While I can’t say that I’m exactly a “sports fan” in any conventional sense, I do enjoy a baseball game in-person on occasion; though I have no interest in the plethora of statistics that seem to plague baseball more than any other American sport, and I’m not following any of the players in particular (though I like Ichiro very much!), I certainly “root, root-root for the home team” whenever possible. The Mariner’s various logos have integrated a trident into them at different times over the years, which of course reminds me of Poseidon; and, as they were facing the Giants on this occasion, it seemed particularly epic in its implications–can you image what Poseidon could have done against gigantes? Of especial ha-ha-ness to me on this occasion was one of the names of a player on the Giants: Angel Pagan (of course, the second word was pronounced “puh-GONE”), and when it said “13 Pagan” up on the reader-board, it was especially snicker-worthy at various points.
There’s a lot of ceremony that accompanies the beginnings of a baseball game: the playing of the National Anthem, the throwing out of the first pitch, and so forth…but, as I had done it the day before as well at the graduation, the singing of the National Anthem took on a particularly important aspect in this process. While critics of conservative politics rightly critique the “flag-worship” that passes for patriotism in this country on a great many occasions, at the same time, as a polytheist who is highly influenced by the culture and religion of Rome, the “cult of the standards” always comes to mind as this process is going on. I’ve encountered people in other countries before who have asked me to sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” because they find it to be a beautiful song, and they are amazed that anyone can know all the lyrics to it. Indeed, if “done right,” it can be a very moving ritual bit.
The baseball game on this occasion was particularly strange for me, as it was only the third time I’ve been to Safeco Field (and the fifth that I’ve been to a Mariner’s game in the last twenty years), and it was for the occasion of a surprise retirement party for my aunt that was organized by my cousins. They rented a suite for the occasion, and while I’d seen them from a distance before, and heard about them from others who had been to them, I’d never been in one myself. I have to say, while the view could be a bit better (they’re rather high up for my own tastes–only the “nosebleed section” is higher in elevation than these), there was a certain feeling of being a Roman dignitary in having a private section of seats, a suite with a designated
slave attendant making sure everyone had food and that dishes got picked up afterwards, and having an entrance only suite-ticket-holders could use…and, very thankfully, the spectacles on display on the arena floor below were far less deadly than they would have been back in the day. I would have enjoyed it more if a greater number of the players were more my type in terms of attractiveness, granted, but it was still a fun event to be at, all the more because the Mariners won (after a bad losing streak) 7 to 4, and they had two home runs in the first inning! My own “record,” which had previously seen the Mariners win 3 out of 4 times when I was present (no matter how badly they were doing previously), was improved to 4 out of 5, so that was also good!
The last potentially ceremonial occasion was yesterday. The Relay For Life event takes place yearly in many places across the country, as an all-night (and sometimes multi-day) event to raise money for cancer research. My family has been involved in this in various ways for a number of years, and more so for the last two, since my mother is a cancer survivor. We weren’t going to be able to be present for very much of it this year, and what we were present for was kind of an atrocity.
In the same event two years ago, there was a blessing at the beginning of the event by representatives of the Samish Nation, who of course lived in Anacortes for thousands of years before Europeans arrived; this year, there was no such blessing by them. (Strike one against the event.) The weather was rather bad, and it was blowing pretty hard, and just before the U.S. Marine Color Guard presented the colors and had the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance, followed immediately by the “survivor lap” that always begins the event, one of the tents blew over. Suddenly, as the (mostly elderly) survivors were lined up and ready for their lap, the announcement comes over the P.A. that the whole proceeding was being delayed for a half hour because of the tent blowing over. Really? (Strike two against the event.) My mom and a few others said “Screw it, we’re doing our lap anyway and going home,” and so that’s what we did, walking in solidarity with them which we wouldn’t have been able to do under the “official rules.” And, just as we were finishing our own “in protest/solidary” survivor lap, it started to go from slight sprinkling to heavier rain. We scrambled about a bit, and then said “forget it” and left…
And, because they were still delaying starting things officially, guess what? The rain started to become torrential, and the U.S. Marine Color Guard, who had come out here from NAS Whidbey purposefully for this event, ended up leaving without having presented the colors at all because they cannot do so by flag etiquette if it is raining. Strike three against the event…you’re out. This was offensive to me on a whole series of levels, personally–one does not dishonor the representatives of one’s country and the military by telling them “No, wait, we’re too concerned with our administration to actually pay attention to ceremony and keeping to a timetable.” But, it was offensive to the event itself, and to the survivors, that they delayed the whole proceedings long enough that in reality none of it ended up occurring because the weather suddenly became too bad. (Did the weather get worse because of these offenses against ceremony? I reserve judgement on that to you, dear readers…but it couldn’t have helped, that’s for sure.)
I take a few important lessons from this. When one says one is going to have a ritual or a ceremony, do it, no matter what happens. No, they couldn’t have relocated this one indoors due to the weather, but they certainly didn’t need to delay it a half hour to wait for the weather to get worse when the entirety could have been done properly, and not rushed, in the meantime if they had been more concerned with the sanctity and importance of ceremony rather than handling a situation that a few people could have easily taken care of rather than shutting down the entire proceedings for it. Oh well…
So, if someone says to you in the future, “We don’t stand on ceremony here,” ask them, “Why the hell not?”