Confluence Ceremonies

Marking Your Life's Important Moments

Month: July 2014

So, What Does “Ritual” Really Mean??

Our rituals grow like trees: the branches look little like the roots, but both are interdependent.

Our rituals grow like trees: the branches look little like the roots, but both are interdependent.

Ritual is a cornerstone of celebrancy because it is a vital aspect of human life. We have discovered ancient ceremonial sites replete with figurines and flowers; large fire pits near a burial site marking perhaps a rite of passage into another realm; paint used for decoration of the body in dance or other rituals. Rituals helped early humans ask the big questions about birth, death, connection, grief, and so forth. But in the 21st century, some assert that ritual has become irrelevant. I heartily disagree! Ritual is more prevalent and useful than ever before in our history.

What is ritual? Many of us attach negative connotations to the term, thinking of dusty church services, mindless (or even dangerous!) behaviors, or mental disorders like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) when we think of rituals. Some posit that our “modern” society has distanced itself from the role of ritual as it has moved toward a more secular view of itself.

Yet in our own, private moments, don’t you and I still engage in ritual, adding a sense of the sacred to our days? A cup of coffee savored over a view of the garden gate each morning before going to work is an example of ritual. Offering a gift to a loved one on a special occasion, even wrapping it in special paper, is ritual. Singing “Happy Birthday” to honor someone’s birth date is ritual. Going out with co-workers for a drink after work to say goodbye and good luck to someone who is retiring: that’s ritual. Truly, in all walks of life people still use ritual to express our very human need to mark our personal and professional passages. We still marry and hold funerals, too. We celebrate anniversaries of many kinds. But today, we’re more often creating rituals for ourselves, and not accepting the institutionally composed, traditional rituals. This means that we are adapting ritual in order to better infuse our lives with authenticity and healing. Some religions are even revising their own rituals and ceremonies to remain relevant to spiritual life. Taken together, all these indicators lead me to contend that our rituals are more powerful and vibrant than ever!

So while some rituals we enact are traditions that have been passed down from our family or religious culture, other rituals are “new traditions” we have created to better reflect the truth of our own lives. For example, my family of origin used to gather together on most holidays, congregating at one of our homes to share food, prayer, and ourselves. This was a ritual that my aunts and uncles created when they were just starting out to help them stay connected to each other and to ensure family strength. Ceremonies helped us talk about family history, thereby calling into our midst those who had passed on. I got to know my paternal grandfather solely through the stories of my grandmother and his own children. Their recalled memories, shared over the holiday table, brought Grampa and his values alive for a new generation. And as the cousins played together and the adults conversed, our family values were expressed, taught, reinforced, and tested.

Our holiday gatherings—ceremonies in the flesh—exemplified ritual. As people arrived at the appointed time and place, the doorbell sounded a note that signaled our separation from the everyday world to the special, even sacred world of family and celebration. Each family came in proper attire (casual for 4th of July barbeques, formal for Christmas, Easter, or funerals). We all brought food and drink from our own kitchens, making our offering to the table from which we would all find sustenance, both physical and emotional. At the right time, the hosting family would call everyone together for a prayer of thanksgiving. Then we would eat, each in our correct places (the adult table and the kids’ table). There were rules about how we interacted with each other, who was served first, and who got to lead prayers, who did the dishes and who watched the kids. As we parted, hugs and kisses were freely offered and received; I remember feeling most reluctant to leave our special place to return to the workaday world!

And those good feelings stayed with us for days, our rituals creating a powerful energy that integrated into our regular lives. Next holiday, we would replay and somewhat revise the ceremonial rituals at another relative’s home. Each occasion was a ceremony that followed a general plan: separation, transition, and transformation.

From my family, I learned the rituals that gave meaning to my early life. Then, I moved across the country, became an adult, married, went to college, and had a child. Now in my adult roles as daughter, wife, mother, sister, aunt, and friend, I mourned the “loss” of our family gatherings in my life, and realized I needed to recreate them. Or, maybe, “relocate” them. Life changes. I wanted rituals that held meaning for us now, not for my family back in Ohio circa 1968.

While we kept older rituals that were still meaningful to us, we were living in a different world. As we focused on our families at hand and our immediate communities, our adherence to celebrations of national and religious holidays made room for more personally transformative rites of passage. There were more weddings to attend, as our friends and siblings married. College graduations, baby welcomings, and housewarmings became more frequent. We celebrated birthdays as perhaps the greatest days in the year, partly because my husband’s grandparents and great-grandparents were still living, and we knew life was finite. Also, birthdays became so important to us because those we loved were having children, whose young lives we cherished.

We came to see that our participation in these more personal ceremonies added a richness to our lives; we felt invested in a varied community, in our friends’ and siblings’ families as we witnessed their weddings, celebrated with them the births of their children, and attended funerals for their loved ones. As our elders began to pass, we created funeral ceremonies more true to each one, utilizing rituals that had meaning for them and for us.

In my adult life, I have learned to open up to the authenticity of ceremony through performance of ritual. I have witnessed a wide variety of others’ ceremonies, informed by the participants’ own identities, histories, and values. Vietnamese, Jewish, Secular, New Age, Muslim, Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, gay: so many truths now inform our best rituals. One of my colleagues recently witnessed a Brazilian/East Indian wedding at a Korean Baptist church! In today’s world, no one ceremony can serve for all. And rituals serve best when we can see our own values clearly articulated by them.

Life demonstrates that rituals can be alive, adaptive, and tremendously relevant to our lives and to ourselves. Done well, rituals provide the vital building blocks of ceremony, expressing our own truths, healing our emotions, moving us forward, and creating rich communities of supporters.

In some ways, the rituals of my youth seem too narrow to me now. We never would have understood then how to integrate a gay boyfriend or even bi-racial step-children into our little White Protestant group. But fast-forward, and I believe my family and I have grown to see ourselves and our world more accurately. And more lovingly.

Time moves us forward. And each succeeding generation does, if it is wise, conscientiously adapt rituals to serve its current need for the rites of separation, transition, and transformation. That is the role for ritual in modern society: to authentically honor our passages, to mark as sacred that which truly matters in our lives, and to help us make the changes necessary to continue on our journeys.




















Did you hear: Gynneth Paltrow and her husband of ten years, Chris Martin, are ending their marriage? These two people have two families, two large careers, and two real children to sort through, all of which will surely be affected by their split. And for years to come.

Here’s the catch: they are calling their divorce not a divorce—but a “conscious uncoupling.” What’s that about? Can divorce ever be anything but d-i-v-o-r-c-e?

Zosia Bielski of Toronto’s Globe and Mail gives psychotherapist Katharine Woodward Thomas credit for having devised the term “conscious uncoupling” and its unique approach to enlightened divorce as a way to encourage healthier break-ups of couples and their families. As she and her own husband worked “honorably” together to conclude their marriage, Thomas came to see that such amicable endings are unusual. By the time most couples divorce, they may already lack trust, good will, and compassion for each other. Children suffer. Pain and guilt and grief abound.

Thomas’s official process of conscious uncoupling requires one or both parties take a five week online course (~$300) “to Release the Trauma of a Breakup, Reclaim Your Power & Reinvent Your Life.” Each couple or one of a couple works with a coach as the course progresses through subjects such as avoiding pitfalls, crafting contracts to promote positive interactions, and practicing compassion.

While kinder divorce is a laudable goal, it still rarely happens in real life. “[I]t’s time we learned how to do this better” says Thomas.

Hurray! You and I could not agree more! Let’s do divorce better. That’s where celebrancy comes in.

Celebrancy has crafted the “Divorce Ceremony” as a concrete way of addressing the grief which can surround divorce by officially marking the ending of the marriage. Doing so offers an opportunity for recasting the central relationships, transitioning the family and the community into the next stage of these relationships, and imagining a future of transformed roles and purposes. Also, a divorcing couple often wishes to honor their families (children, in-laws, and others), which the Divorce Ceremony provides space to do.

Too, crafting a divorce ceremony can help a couple articulate for themselves and their communities what their own practical vision is: will the couple both support the children? How? Where will each live? What will become of their mutual friendships and professional relationships? Constructing this ceremony with their celebrant can also help them address still deeper questions: What do they want for their own lives? Their children’s lives? What will the end of their marriage enable them to imagine for themselves? Through the ceremony they write together, a couple can effectively envision and then articulate their next chapter.

Celebrants have long been working with couples who want to compose ceremonies to mark their marriages’ endings as meaningfully as they marked their beginnings. We understand the healthful role of ceremony in helping us effectively separate, transition, and incorporate (or as Thomas says, “Release . . . Reclaim . . . [and] Reinvent,”). This three-staged process helps us clarify the present, then step out of our old lives, and into our new ones.

And Divorce Ceremonies aren’t just for those directly involved. Any marriage contains its community of supporters. So when a marriage ends, this larger community doesn’t suddenly stop caring; it is lost, it is concerned, it is grieving. Without its own chance to express and heal, that external group can sometimes turn ugly, spreading rumors, imagining the worst, hurting those already most hurt.

We all need to know how to truly move forward from divorce, and the Divorce Ceremony provides the space to do this in therapeutic ways that honor our humanity.

I’d like to see the “coupling” of Divorce Ceremonies with Conscious Uncoupling’s therapy sessions to best insure that the end of a marriage is truly a marker of healthy transformation, instead of a lifelong source of trauma, for all involved.

Divorce is divorce: a loss of hope and shared vision. But by adding ceremony to conscientious attention, couples can truly transform divorce into healthy transition, instead of the horrible, gut-churning experience many of us think it must always be.


See also:

~~Ben Zimmer’s WSJ online article on the history of the language of divorce.










Home Is Where Art and Nature Meet

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHow Celebrancy Supports Communities

Recently, I offered my celebrancy services to a local community art dedication. The ceremony was to mark the outdoor installation of a sculpture and commemorate the cooperative partnership that brought that art to life: the confluence of two organizations, one in the arts community and one in the fish restoration community, but both neighbors of our lovely Methow Valley in North Central Washington State.

The process that had taken us from a vision to a reality was complete, and a ceremony was in order. Everyone who had been involved in coordinating this project was in a jubilant mood! Both locals and curious vacationers gathered together. In all, about 30 people attended the dedication.

The June day was warm and bright. A cool breeze blew off the Twisp River, lightly rippling the ponds. The air was filled with the buzzing of bees and the rushing of water in the low falls between the ponds that provide nurturing habitat for endangered salmon.

As we stood in a clearing forming a circle around the new sculpture, we knew we were likewise surrounded by nesting birds, snakes, beaver, and young fawns; this is also their community. Come winter, the bears and coyotes and even cougars will call this habitat “home.” Painters, birdwatchers, elementary students, science professors, nature lovers, photographers, tourists, and everyday neighbors enjoy free access to and make use of this special space year round.

In describing to me their visions for the ceremony, both group’s directors had emphasized the importance of the positive impacts on the community of art and the local ponds that were built to help restore endangered fish runs. By placing art on paths around these ponds, the public is drawn both to the art and to the activity of care for endangered salmon. Within the environment of water, trees, river, and ponds enhanced by a rich flora and fauna across the site, the community, we hope, becomes invigorated by and reinvested in both art and nature.

In my opening remarks, I spoke about the power of art to create a “community of care” that we all, nature included, need in order to live healthy lives in healthy neighborhoods. The speakers, both groups’ directors and the artist, then filled us in on the process of bringing together this partnership and the process of creating a memorable work of art for the site.

The sculpture, titled Twisp, was created by Steve Love, a quiet man, uncomfortable speaking aloud and in front of people. He nevertheless shared his own vision of his work with us. And none of our country’s greatest orators ever uttered a more effective address. He told us of the method he uses to create art, often working in a “semi-conscious state” at first, so as to allow his pure creativity to control the work. Later, he returns to the work with a more critical eye to address structural, practical issues (how will a sculpture stand up? Can it withstand the elements?). Finally, he considers the subtext of the work, reaching deeply into it to better grasp its symbolic power and purpose.

In closing, I urged those present to see themselves as part of this community of care, an active group of neighbors whose investment in the ponds’ site and its art—and by extension the local community—makes them important partners of care and positive transformation.

Finally, my concluding blessing spoke of the timelessness of our gathering, the importance of bringing our children into this ethic of community care, and our need to be ever-mindful of our roles as neighbors of the world, part of an interconnected community of humanity and nature. Aware of art’s ability to inspire and nature’s ability to nurture us, we must reach out into our communities and actively support both.

ART DEDICATION: Twisp by Steve Love (sculpture)
June 28, 2014
Methow Salmon Recovery Foundation’s Twisp Ponds Site
Twisp, Washington

Sponsored by Methow Arts Alliance ( and Methow Salmon Recovery Foundation (