“That which binds a community is that which is sacred” — concerning the nature of ritual and the sacred
Holy and beautiful the custom which brings us together,
In the presence of the Most High.
To face our ideals,
To remember our loved ones in absence,
To give thanks, to make confession, to offer forgiveness,
To be enlightened, and to be strengthened.
Through this quiet hour breathes the worship of ages,
The cathedral music of history.
Three unseen guests attend,
Faith, hope, and love:
Let all our hearts prepare them place.
Joys, Concerns, Sharing
… As they [the Pilgrims] began to explore what they feared would be wild forest, they discovered instead many acres of open fields, ready for crops to be planted. Obviously, the lands had been cleared by Indians, but none were now living there.
What had happened? The Pilgrims learned that not many years earlier, an epidemic had devastated the population, causing the villages in the area to be abandoned. The epidemic, most likely chicken pox, had been brought by fishermen to American shores around 1616 and then raged for three years from Maine to Cape Cod. Devoutly, the Pilgrims thanked God for “sweeping away great multitudes of natives …. that he might make room for us there.”
Even before the Pilgrims had settled down, in other words, Native Americans had been decimated by diseases brought from Europe.
Socially, the disruptions were equally severe. Because male warriors were among those hit hardest, hostile neighbors, either white or Indian, were more difficult to resist. The plague-stricken Indians of New England had “their courage much abated,” reported one colonist; “their countenance is dejected, and they seem as a people affrighted.” Near Charleston, South Carolina, and Indian told a settler they had “forgotten most of their traditions since the Establishment of this Colony, they keep their Festivals and can tell but little of the reasons: their Old Men are dead.”
— from James West Davidson & Mark Hamilton Lytle, After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection, fourth edition (2000), pp. 107, 111.
The function of ritual, as I understand it, is to give form to human life, not in the way of a mere surface arrangement, but in depth. In ancient times every social occasion was ritually structured and the sense of depth was rendered through the maintenance of a religious tone. Today, on the other hand, the religious tone is reserved for exceptional, very special, “sacred” occasions. And yet even in the patterns of our secular life, ritual survives. It can be recognized, for example, not only in the decorum of courts and regulations of military life, but also in the manners of people sitting down to table together.
All life is structure. In the biosphere, the more elaborate the structure, the higher the life form. The structure, through which the energies of a starfish are inflected is considerably more complex than that of an amoeba; and as we come on up the line, say to the chimpanzee, complexity increases. So likewise in the human cultural sphere: the crude notion that energy and strength can be represented or rendered by abandoning and breaking structures is refuted by all that we know about the evolution of life.
— from Joseph Campbell, “The Importance of Rites”, in Myths to Live By (1972), pp. 43-44.