The stars were achingly bright. Not in a glittery sort of way; they gave off a certain profound quality that seemed possible only in the summer. A light breeze lifted the hairs at the back of my neck and trickled down my bare arms, leaving a whiff of the sage that had just been waved over my body. I was aware of a sensation of complete containment and calm.
I held few expectations going into my first ritual, beyond gentle curiosity. If I anything, I imagined it would probably be kind of silly. Yet, as I gathered at a firefly-dotted dusk with over forty fellow camp counselors, I found myself amidst a group who would celebrate the summer solstice with upmost seriousness.
Spice—whose two decades of summers spent at Farm & Wilderness Camps made her almost synonymous with the place—had chosen the top of the apple orchard for the ritual. We entered the space through a tunnel made by two people’s arms and then gathered in two concentric circles around an alter which consisted of stones, pictures, and jewelry laid upon a multi-colored blanket. Spice welcomed us to place anything on the alter that we wanted to “charge up” with energy. So I took off a beaded bracelet that had been a gift from my cousins and nestled it among the growing group of stones, photos and even a Frisbee.
The English language uses the word energy all the time without according it much meaning. Yet, the energy at this gathering was thick with intention, acceptance, and the beauty of our voices joined together in intermittent humming and singing. Just a few minutes ago, I had been chatting with some friends on the dock, yet here I found myself in a new space entirely. The thoughts and worries that had felt pressing a moment now slipped stealthily away.
After sharing a few words about the objects she had placed on the alter, Spice invited others to do the same. She then had us offer each other something. One-by-one, we dipped our finger in a powder and placed it on our neighbor’s third eye (the center of their forehead). We then verbally offered them three intangible qualities, such as strength, love, compassion, friendship, clarity, peace.
It has occurred to me that we rarely have a chance to offer each other good qualities. We offer each other things: birthday presents, facebook friend requests, clothing compliments. And we offer each other hopes: an aced exam, a new job, a better boyfriend. But these were qualities transcended the material, the impermeable. These words had a weight to them that meant something.
I know this sounds cheesy. I know this is the type of thing that is easy to make fun of. But it comes back to the energy. The energy was one of seriousness. Of intent.
Spice then welcomed us to share our hopes for the summer, first offering some words about what she wanted to leave behind from the past and gain from the future. I listened carefully as people talked about wanting to let go of insecurities, distractions, guilt, of wanting to gain confidence, understanding, presence.
I knew that I would want to share eventually, but I kept holding back as others expressed sentiments that ringed eerily true to my own. A simple recognition flitted through my consciousness; I’m not the only one that feels this way.
As I walked back to my cabin, I looked once more at the stars. My problems, thoughts, experiences no longer felt so unique. I felt a little less lonely, a little more whole. I felt joy.
We live busy to-do list lives that often leave us stranded in a worry-wasteland of infinitely small problems. These problems often make us feel infinitely alone. Many of us take pride in our secularism, yet our secular lifestyles offer us few moments to come together. We get wound up in the details and rarely take the time to reflect on our shared experience of life.
I don’t believe it has to be this way. A dear atheist friend who wouldn’t be caught dead at such a ritual once told me how she explained to her daughter why they went to their Unitarian church: “For six days we live our lives. On Sunday we come together to contemplate why.”
Some, like my friend, regard the pagan attributes of such rituals with skepticism. Others maintain a healthy distance from anything that looks remotely like religion. Yet, whether its through church, a ritual, a Shabbat dinner or simply a gathering among friends, we could use more moments in our lives to come together and reflect in our shared humanity. Though religious gatherings of all sorts continually bring people to contemplate something “larger,” religion does not have to be the only setting that that can happen. The ritual’s power was neither in its pagan roots nor its religious qualities. It was that it brought us together. That it brought us to be.
Secularism should not prevent us from being sentimental. It should not prevent us from seeking out the stars.