Sacred ceremonies are containers within which psychic forces and people are held. The form of the ceremony might differ, but there are essential elements in all traditions. Take for example the peyote ceremony of the Native American Church. The ceremonial space is a circular gathering with an opening in the east where the sun comes up. This could be out in the open or enclosed within a Tipi or Hogan. There is an altar, fire, and medicine. There are sacred symbolic instruments which are used in traditional ways. The pattern is well known by the participants. The beginning involves prayers and activities such as making the crescent shaped altar, lighting the fire, placing the instruments and medicines in the right places at the prescribed times. There will be another prayer with tobacco and/or cedar smoke by the leader(s) and the people, followed by sharing the peyote medicine. Then the singing and drumming portion of the prayer service begins. There are prescribed times for cleaning up, more prayers, and in the morning sharing in the sacred communal meal. Then the end of the service comes and the people exit the space.
The Santo Daime tradition also begins with a sacred space. In the middle of the space is a table with sacred symbolic objects like the Cross, candles, flowers, and pictures. The fire is lit, prayers are said, the medicine is drunk by the participants, who are separated by sex. Here the masculine and feminine are set apart on different sides of the table. In the peyote ceremony the feminine crescent moon and the masculine fire are in the center of the people. But in both cases the opposition of the sexes is symbolically represented and their harmonious interaction invoked. In the Santo Daime tradition this flow of force is called The Current. It could be viewed as a spiraling flow of energy. Similarly in the Native American Church peyote ceremony, there is a flow of the Chief’s staff, the masculine instrument, followed by the water drum, the feminine instrument, around the circle of people. They are passed from person to person until someone wishes to sing four songs. Then the masculine staff is held in one hand and the gourd rattle in the other by the singer. The drum is the heart beat which accompanies the breathe, the voice, the song.
In both the Santo Daime and the peyote traditions there are periods of prayer and meditation, drinking/eating the medicine, singing and silence. There might be periods of highly structured dancing in the Santo Daime tradition during the Festival Works. Both traditions might have healing Works or Meetings as a focus, but there is an openness for healing to take place in every ceremony. Both traditions assert that the individual can be transformed by partaking in the ceremony and each person must learn to integrate the teachings and healings into their individual lives. We are encouraged and expected to “walk our talk”. After the closing of each formal ceremony, there is a period of social interaction and sharing of food before saying goodbye to one another.
There is a lot of similarity with the Christian tradition. There is usually a central altar. In our Liberal Catholic Church, which evolved from the Old Catholic Church of Holland, there is a period of prayer and lighting of the candles. There is a masculine side, the Saint Michael altar and a feminine side, the Mother Mary altar. This is replicated on the central altar. The right half of the altar is masculine, the left half of the altar feminine. Again there are the presence of the Mother and the Father. The Mother Mary altar is lit up first. That’s where it all begins with the feminine giving birth to life.
Then the central altar is lit, followed by prayers, song, incense, and traditional actions which go back 1700 years to the Divine Liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Tradition written by Saint John Chrysostom for the first Church Council called by Emperor Constantine at Nicaea.
There is a point in the ceremony when the medicine is served to the people. There is some variety in tradition as to whom is given the medicine. In the Orthodox Rite all of the children and certain worthy adults are given the Holy Medicine, the Eucharist of Christ’s body and blood. In the Roman Rite only qualified adults are given the Holy Medicine. We Liberal Catholics derive our services from both traditions. All persons who approach the altar with respect are given the Holy Medicine, even people who follow other traditions, like Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and the Native American cultural ways.
What I find interesting is the way the cultural background of people shapes their experience of these ceremonies. I have several friends whose experiences growing up in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions were intensely strong in a negative way. These friends can acknowledge the beauty of the Divine Liturgy, but cannot sit through such a ceremony in the church. One friend has panic attacks. Another finds the patriarchal language and attitudes offensive. She is a feminist and feels the Morning Water time in the Native American Church honors the feminine in a good way. Ironically, I met both of these friends in the Native American Church, which is the ultimate in patriarchal, hierarchical tradition. And the ceremony lasts about 14 hours, all night long they “sit up” strong. No sleeping, no laying down (unless you are very sick) and on your knees for hours; much more than any Christian could tolerate in a Mass or other prayer service. What is important is that the individual feel safe and resonant with the ceremony which they are attending, then the Medicine can do its work and we can be transformed by the experience. All of these ceremonies have a safely contained sacred space, if you can “buy into” it. They all have the presence of earth, air, fire, and water. They all have magic actions and medicines. They all have a beginning, middle, and end. They all are valued by those who attend them. They help us feel connected with the Divine, the Spiritual Dimension.
We are not alone. We are all inter-connected. We are all related to one another, even the plants and animals which are represented literally and/or symbolically in all of our sacred ceremonies.