7 Guidelines for Ceremony
“All life is ceremony. Every act is a ceremony creating a result in our lives. Every ceremony we do always brings results to our lives… Any time we treat anything with disrespect, whether it is another human being or a plant or an animal, we are performing bad ceremonies. These ceremonies not only have an effect on ourselves but will simultaneously affect everything. We need to use our power well, only do good ceremonies.”
-- Don Coyhis, Mohican Writer and Consultant, as quoted in “Native Wisdom for White Minds”, Anne Wilson Schaef, June 8 entry
The Women of the 14th Moon ceremony is, first and foremost, a ceremony. Those of us raised in the Western Culture, where sacred ceremonies are rare, often have difficulty understanding what ceremony is and recognizing its importance in our lives. Ceremony is one of the most important spiritual tools offered us by indigenous peoples. By ceremony, I mean a set of actions performed with the specific intention of connecting participants with the spiritual energy that flows through all Creation. Because ceremony includes symbols and story, structure and the unexpected, feelings as well as thoughts, it involves both the left and right sides of our brains. Thus it provides us with an opportunity to understand reality at a deeper level and can produce dramatic transformations. Ceremony helps the human being to reach for the highest within herself and something higher than herself.
There are seven universal “guidelines” for ceremony -- preparation, intention, prayer/connection to Spirit, structure, leadership, the unexpected, and symbols.
“We go to great lengths to prepare. Preparation is ninety percent of the Ceremony. It symbolizes the level of our Intentions. If we prepare in this intricate detail, then we make that Ceremony powerful, and Healing occurs.”
gkisedtanamoogk, a Wampanoag elder, and founder of the Wabanaki Cultural Resource Center quoted in “Anoqcou: Ceremony is Life Itself”
The Women of the 14th Moon ceremony takes much preparation. There are the sticks, port-a-potties, food, masks, meetings, gifts, decorating, etc. etc. When you prepare for ceremony, it’s good to remember that you are doing the ceremony while you prepare. So it’s important to prepare with the same intention, focus, prayers, and commitment as you have in the ceremony itself.
There is another kind of preparation that is even more important; that is the spiritual preparation that we each go through to be able to do ceremony. This kind of preparation requires developing a special kind of listening. It is listening with your eyes as well as your ears, developing your intuition, and acknowledging your feelings.
Each of us develops this skill in her own way, through meditation, prayer, or maybe through observing Nature. As Vickie Downey, a Tewa-Tesque elder said, “We study life. Our life is studying. We study everything, everybody, even the tiniest insect… Every second of our life we’re studying everything around us. The sounds. The music. Outside our culture people don’t have that awareness. We have to bring that awareness back. It’s just being in tune with the spirit.”
When we develop our own ability to listen, we prepare ourselves for ceremony.
Every ceremony has an intention, a purpose, a reason for being. Intent is what separates ceremony from its more unconscious cousin, ritual. We can perform rituals without conscious awareness of what we are doing, but when we engage in ceremony, intention is critical. Intention is the very heart of all ceremony – the lifeblood of the ceremony is pumped through intention. All the symbols, the structure, the flow of the ceremony depend on it.
Consider, for a minute, the intention of the various ceremonies in which you’ve probably participated. The intent of most funerals in the Judeo/Christian cultures is to help the survivors with their grieving process, and to honor the life of the deceased. The intent of a graduation ceremony is to honor the graduates for their hard work, and to mark a transition to a new phase of their lives. The intent of most marriage ceremonies is community recognition of a legal and/or spiritual agreement between couples. The intention of the Women of the 14th Moon ceremony is to honor the elder women of our culture, and the stages they go through in becoming an elder. It is very important to keep that intention, and not to veer too far from this central focus.
It is not always important that all participants know the intention of the ceremony ahead of time. If the ceremonial leader, or intercessor, holds the intention for the ceremony, the participants will have an experience of that intention.
Prayer/Connection to Spirit
Prayer provides the ceremony with a sense of the sacred – without the sacred, ceremony becomes ritual. That is why so many of us get bored with graduation “ceremonies” and wedding “ceremonies” where the sacred is omitted. They feel empty, like nothing is there.
People in the Western Culture often have a hard time with prayer. But why wouldn’t we? If we were raised in the dominant Judeo/Christian tradition, we were probably taught to memorize prayers. “Now I lay me…” We were most often taught only about “petitionary” prayer, the “asking-for-something” kind of prayer. If we were lucky, we were also taught to utter a prayer of gratitude. Few of us were taught how to listen to our own guidance.
In this culture of instant gratification we can feel let down if our prayers are not answered with a “yes” within a week or two. It’s no wonder that many of us grew up confused about prayer. In the book “Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer” Ann and Barry Ulanov state:
“Prayer is Primary Speech (that primordial discourse in which we assert, however clumsily or eloquently, our own being. and the most direct line of communication we have to our interior reality. Therefore every denial of that reality, every judgment or retreat from it that shuts off access to it is a serious diminishing of ourselves. “
In The Women of the 14th Moon ceremony, as in most ceremonies, prayer is used to set help the intention. How do we want God, the Spirits, our own higher power, to help us in the ceremony? What sort of help do we need to accomplish the purpose of the ceremony? If you feel that you are really doing the ceremony under your own power, you are either mistaken, or the ceremony is missing something. If you’re connected to something bigger than yourself, do not be afraid to invoke her or him or them for help.
An invocation is a particular kind of petitionary prayer. It can be a song, or words, or it can be done silently. With an invocation you invite God, the Spirits, the Goddess, Jesus, the Great Spirit, whatever your “Higher Power” is, to help with the ceremony. In most Native American ceremonies, there are invocational songs in which the spirits are invited into the ceremony. Sometimes they are called “spirit calling songs”. However, if there is an invocation, there has to be a closing, a time when you send the spirits home, a benediction of sorts. Otherwise, you leave the ceremony open, and the participants will feel more vulnerable to their own and others’ emotions.
There are many different kinds of ceremonies, each with a particular function and structure. The Women of the 14th Moon is a transition ceremony.
Arnold Van Gennep described three phases of a transition ceremony: separation, threshold (or limen), and incorporation. The first phase of separation refers to the time of preparation during which the ceremonial participant (sometimes referred to as the “neophyte”) separates herself from her old way of life, her old identity, her childhood, her previous relationships, her sickness, her physical body. The second step is called threshold or “liminal” period. This is what most people think of as the ceremony itself – the period of time when the neophyte is “on the hill” during a vision quest, or the Navajo singer prays and chants over the sick person, or the Sundancers fast and dance before the tree of life, or the bride walks down the aisle and meets her husband-to-be at the altar. It is during this second phase that change occurs.
For the Women of the 14th Moon Ceremony that is held in Portland, Oregon, the liminal periods begin with the entry of the masks that welcome in the archetypes of the maiden, matron, and crone. In the third phase of incorporation, the neophyte is reunited with the world she left behind, incorporating her new knowledge or state into her life, no longer the person she formerly was. Most of the women who have gone through the 14th Moon elders’ ceremony sense the difference in their lives.
Even though each ceremony has a particular structure, the ceremony does not need to be exactly the same every year. As anthropologist Stanley Wallens said, “To perform a ritual the same way twice is to kill it, for the ritual grows as we grow, its life recapitulates the course of ours.” There is always a balance between structure and spontaneity in ceremony.
The issue of leadership in ceremony is very important. In all ceremonies in which I have participated, there is a leader. In Native American ceremonies this person is sometimes called an “intercessor”. The intercessor’s job is to focus totally on his/her spirits/guidance/higher power and to communicate the guidance from there to those participating in the ceremony.
For the Women of the 14th Moon, the intercessor should be someone with a solid foundation in a spiritual tradition – someone that has a real connection to her own higher power. The particular spiritual tradition is not important, although her language will reflect her training and experience.
It is not necessary that there be a new intercessor each year. In California, the same women led the ceremony for four years in a row. It’s better to have a good intercessor than to change for the sake of change.
If someone wants to learn to lead ceremony, it is helpful if she can apprentice to an experienced leader. Rod, a Native American elder who has performed thousands of ceremonies, had this to say about leadership in ceremony:
“You have to have a mentor, a teacher. Nobody taught me, I had to learn by myself, by looking at myself and finding out what was real and what wasn’t. I learned by watching other people, but above all by paying attention. Like I watched Nature, the sun, Mother Earth. Some reading and relating to my own experiences. But I have a lot of teachers, not just one. That powerful body of water out there, (the ocean), is my teacher. The sand pulling at my leg is my teacher”.
The Sacred Clown – the Unexpected
“People think that the clown is just nothing, that he is just for fun. That is not so. When I make other masked dancers and they do not set things right or can’t find out something, I make that clown and he never fails. Many people who know about these things say that the clown is the most powerful.”
--Apache medicine man, quoted by Barbara Tedlock in “Teachings from the American Earth”
When a ceremony has a clear intention, a structure, an intercessor, and careful preparation, then the ceremony can take wing and lead the participants into unexpected territory. Almost always the most important teachings from ceremony are not what you would have expected. They come from the spontaneous, from the hearts and minds of the participants, from the weather, from whatever it is that you cannot control.
In Native American ceremonies, there is often a “sacred clown” that personifies that energy and is an integral part of the ceremonies. The backwards energy of the clown is welcomed, not rejected or controlled as is often the case in the Judeo Christian tradition. As anthropologist Barbara Tedlock says in her article on The Clown’s Way, “The ability of the American Indian religions to allow room for the disruptive, crazy, but creative power of the clown is perhaps their greatest strength.”
The sacred clown, called heyokah by the Lakota people, and koshari at the Acoma Pueblo, is backwards – he walks backwards, he is profane in the midst of holiness, he draws attention to himself instead of being humble. The heyokah represents an energy that is a part of some people more than others. It is a role that is very sacred, yet difficult to own.
In The Women of the Fourteenth Moon there is no obvious clown role; however, its archetypal energy exists in every ceremony and in life itself. It’s important to be aware of this energy, to honor it, and not to be alarmed when the unexpected occurs. A good intercessor knows how to work with heyokah energy so that it is creative rather than destructive.
Symbols are an important part of any ceremony, as they are important in our dreams, and in life itself. Symbols in ceremony, as symbols in dreams, can have unique or universal meaning. Carl Jung was one of the first psychologists to describe universal meanings for certain symbols, which he called archetypes. Archetypes are certain qualities of being, or energies that exist in the universe. These qualities of being are often represented symbolically and are the basis of myths, stories, art, and other creative endeavors. Our meaning for various symbols can vary according to our culture and location. To those living in the North, autumn may be the time of the harvest, of decreasing light, of going within. However, for our neighbors on the equator, the days remain almost the same length throughout the year, and every month is a time of harvest.
In the Women of the Fourteenth Moon, the primary archetypes are the maiden, matron, and crone. These archetypes are represented in some symbolic fashion. In the Portland ceremony, each of them is represented by a mask. Many other symbols are used in the ceremony, including the circle, the four directions, the drum, the fire, and the gifts. Each symbol adds meaning, and is included in the ceremony for a reason.
When adding symbols, it’s important to consider what each symbol means in the context of the ceremony’s intention. Some people get preoccupied with the symbols and forget the original intention of the ceremony. Then the ceremony gets too “busy” and can be confusing to the participants. It’s always best to “keep it simple”.