Into the wilderness
Getting prepared for Lent
The renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell used to say in his lectures that ritual is myth (re)enacted, whether the ritual in question is horrific or benign or falls somewhere in between those two extremes. Every ritual is the outward and visible form of a fundamental myth. (I have met some who have argued for the reverse – that a myth is, at least sometimes, invented to explain this or that longstanding ritual – but I find that unconvincing in most cases. Be that as it may, a people’s rituals are intimately related to their mythology, regardless of whether the egg or the chicken came first.) This holds true even if a public ritual is considered secular and not religious. Undergirding it are layer upon layer of mythology, sunk deep in a nation’s history and collective psyche, even when the many components making it up are not fully comprehended by the people engaged in it (think of funerary customs, for instance, or military and political traditions). A ritual’s effectiveness hits us “below the belt,” so to speak; it affects our unconscious. This is because myth originates in the collective unconscious of the human race, and we find ourselves (sometimes in spite of ourselves) moved by myth and ritual at a more profound level than that of our rational and prosaic minds. Ritual plants a seed in us, then, of mystical awareness, which will begin to take root regardless of our more superficial ideas and feelings. When we think of religion in particular — it might be a non-theistic one like one of the expressions of Buddhism or an animistic one cram-packed with nature spirits and a colorful array of gods and goddesses — we expect to (and usually do) find ritual, and in it the recognizable presence of a unifying myth. This brings me to the subject of this post. In the Christian West, Lent is very nearly upon us, beginning with Ash Wednesday. The season of Lent is a much older observance than the singular ritual of Ash Wednesday. The latter dates only from the 11th century; yet what it adds as an enacted myth to the Western Lenten observance clearly has a felt psychological appeal for many, and conforms to what I mean by “pragmatic mysticism” — it works on our consciousness, it opens us instinctively to something vaster than the constricted confines of our lives. This is due to the fact, I believe, that it reminds us not only of “sin,” but even more profoundly, of death — our death.