On Rite Conduct
January 20, 2011 10 Comments
I want to take a minute and discuss something that has been rumbling around in my head for the last few weeks – piety. “Pietas” is a Roman word and referred to one of the virtues expected of a man (*gag*), wherein a man “performed all his duties towards the deity and his fellow human beings fully and in every respect.”
I hate the fact that historically this word has such gendered connotations. But – as with all concepts from the ancient world that we try to resurrect – we’ll have to do the best we can to overcome that bias. I’m also not very keen on the fact that having pietas also involved a man’s commitment to country – but we are talking about the Romans, after all. Of course, the concept has had a life since the Romans. Groups with roots in the Mediterranean world have all developed their take on pietas and, down through the centuries, Anglophone culture has inherited a Christian sense of the word “piety” that emphasizes psychological humility.
I’d like to go back to the drawing board and construct a new kind of piety, but a piety re-grounded in the aspect of “pietas” that emphasizes ritual propriety. Of course, propriety is all a matter of taste, and “Taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition.” I’m not trying to lay down rules and regulations for how you should interact in your rituals under the auspices of your gods. But, I would like to see pagans and new polytheists enter into deeper conversations regarding ritual conduct and the theological implications inherent therein, and then to go about including their conclusions regarding ritual conduct into their ritual practices. My wish is that this piece of writing can inform some of those conversations.
So, I’d like to define piety as respectful and harmonious conduct in the presence of gods. Thus, I see two sides to piety: ritual piety and personal piety.
In order to discuss the relationship between ritual piety and personal piety, first it will be useful to outline a distinction I first encountered in J. Van Baal’s article on “Offering, sacrifice, and gift,” which has done a lot to shape my ideas about domestic polytheism and ritual. The distinction I’m referring to is between “high-intensity” ritual situations and “low-intensity” situations.
Say that you’re a rice paddy farmer in medieval Japan. Life is going well, the crops are coming in, and your family is well fed and healthy. Every day when you wake up, you greet your family’s ancestor shrine and leave an offering of a handful of rice or fruit, and then go on about your day. This daily offering (accompanied only by a short prayer mumbled quickly, but with genuine gratitude) is given in thanks for your ancestors’ assistance in making sure that all remains well. Throughout your day, you make sure to present visitors to the ancestors enshrined in your home, say certain phrases before meals, and observe other taboos called for by your ritual relationship to your ancestor shrine.
All of this is “low-intensity” ritual. Your offerings and conduct are meant to maintain right (rite) relationship with the spirits and powers who effect your life.
Now imagine that you (still a rice farmer) have a daughter who becomes seriously ill. You have exhausted all available medical options (say you have run out of all available forms of medicine, and a hospital is too far to risk a journey), and so you call in a few friends from your religious community and (perhaps) a ritual specialist in order to perform a healing ceremony – or perhaps you perform the ceremony yourself. This ceremony requires the recitation of certain texts, the burning of offerings and incense, and the collection and use of specific ritual tools and costume.
This would describe a “high-intensity” ritual. This is not the every-day stuff, but arises out of specific need. Other examples of “high-intensity” situations could include rituals to try and get a job (desperately needed) or find a lost object, or keep hostile people away. But large devotional or seasonal rituals could also be considered “high-intensity,” for although these rituals would involve no other “end” than the maintenance of right relationship with a deity or deities, such an occasion would still require more intense effort and work to accomplish.
Both “high-“ and “low-intensity” ritual is necessary, I think, and all at the appropriate time. Not all meals are dinner parties, but sometimes it’s important to break out the nice silverware. And, of course, we’re talking about a spectrum and some actions might cross the imaginary line that this distinction forces.
((Aside: I think a major problem with Neopagan ritual praxis today is that many pagans have lost sight of any “low-intensity” practice, and all kinds of religious acts, even the most simple, when attempted, take on the trappings of “high-intensity” ritual “workings.” Prayer, which is the epitome of “low-intensity” ritual, is almost gone from Wiccanate ritual, while “working magic” is emphasized even when not called for. This is an imbalance.))
The reason I bring this up is this: We can think of ritual piety as piety (right/rite conduct) during high intensity ritual, and personal piety as piety during low intensity ritual (which includes daily life in general).
Ritual piety would include many things, but essentially it’s what you say or do, how, and when. In high-intensity ritual, perhaps you decide never to turn your back toward an altar, or clap before making a formal invocation. Now, perhaps you’re worshipping Dionysos and so ritual piety would include getting as drunk as possible and falling to the ground making baudy jokes! I’m not making judgments here, and I myself have done exactly that!
Personal piety would include many things as well, and sometimes the same things. Personal piety could be praying daily, or always wearing a certain necklace in honor of some god or goddess, or (less formally) clapping or bowing when passing an altar. Again, piety should match the circumstance.
So why? Why bring all of this up? I bring it up because, I have been in a mind to say recently, piety is the stuff of religion. Piety is relational, and describes our relationships to the entities we interact with in life, both human and non-human. Therefore, how can we – ostensibly those whose aim it is to create new religious traditions built from the collapsed bricks of old temples – hope to accomplish any of our goals if we do not inculcate a sense (senses!) of piety or rite conduct? Liturgy always* comes before theology, creating it. How could we possibly begin to develop theologies if we do not first develop our liturgy, where the driving force behind liturgy is piety?
(*: Perhaps I should say that liturgy always should come before theology.)