The Paradox Of Impromptu Ritual

Creating ceremonies and rituals
when there is no tradition to follow

One of the articles in Art And Ceremony In Sustainable Culture (IC#5)
Originally published in Spring 1984 on page 53
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

Teresina Havens is an active Quaker with a doctorate in Buddhist Studies from Yale. With her husband Joe, she nurtures Temenos, a forest retreat and workshop center in western Massachusetts (Box 84A, Star Route, Shutesbury, MA 01072).

HOW CAN THERE BE an "impromptu ritual"? The very essence of ritual is that it has been done before, it has been handed down to us by ancient tradition, we do not have to improvise or contrive its movement. Yet in our modern world, largely shorn of tradition, some of us find ourselves not infrequently called upon on short notice to facilitate something approximating a ceremony.

This challenge takes somewhat different forms according to the nature of the occasion, which usually falls under one of the two following categories:

  • People-blessings – anniversaries, baptisms, birthdays, and the like
  • Blessings of non-human entities – such as a building, an appliance, a space.

I shall discuss first the essential elements of unexpected blessing-rites as they have evolved at Temenos, our forest-center, in relation to human rites of passage, and return later to our experience with the dedication of nonhuman entities. I shall illustrate some of the ways in which I have found support in traditional structures which allow room for improvisation.


The most frequent type of unexpected occasion calling for celebration has been birthdays. Sometimes we have plenty of lead-time, as when a friend arranged well ahead to celebrate her fiftieth at Temenos. Even then there was an impromptu dimension, for it was only on the morning of the festive day that the crucial symbol for the rite-of-passage became clear. The rapidly melting snow of that hot March day immediately suggested a ritual of creating snow images of our old psychic patterns, and letting them melt in the rushing stream.

At other times we have had less warning. One day last August a friend brought for the first time a young man from Switzerland who was to join us for several weeks, informing me at the last minute that it was his nineteenth birthday. I had no birthday candles, no cake . . . What was indispensable for the Rite?

Hastily I gathered a loaf of bread and stuck in its center a single plumber’s candle. I set this on a large round tray in the center of our dance floor. Around the bread I placed a circle of stemmed wine glasses with a bottle of wine. Around this mandala the company gathered. After a brief explanation of the nature of the occasion, each person offered a toast/blessing for Joel in the learning-adventure upon which he was embarking. Then we lighted the candle, sang "Happy Birthday!" and danced "’Tis a Gift to be Simple" in a circle, singing it in his native tongue (French) and in ours.

As a blessing-rite this was sufficient. The essential elements were present:

Introduction (Introit)
Blessing (in the guise of a Toast)
Drink, in a mandalic lay-out
Candle (fire or incense would do)
Song, dance
Closing circle

As a rite-of-passage it was not adequate. There was no opportunity to confer with Joel and evoke an image for the transition.

As I look back and compare this celebration with many others, I recognize the crucial support provided by the simple traditional structure of the "Toast." Its basic, probably millennial movements provide a form within which variations suitable to the occasion can be improvised. Everyone – or almost everyone in the orbit of European culture – knows exactly what the elements are. Before reading further, please run through them in your mind and then see whether your sequence is the same as mine:

1 ) A drink is poured, ceremonially, into stemmed glasses (if available).

2) Someone offers a toast, with variations suitable to the particular occasion – a blessing.

3) All lift their glasses – probably originally to Heaven or the gods.

4) All shout "To your health!" in the appropriate language – Sante! Was-hael! Lechayim! Prosit!

5) All clink their glasses, looking each other in the eye (a celebration of connectedness).

6) All drink simultaneously.

This seems so simple that we tend to take it for granted, failing to appreciate the centuries, perhaps millennia, of common heritage surviving in a ceremony so universal that it does not have to be explained or coached. As with all true rituals, it is transmitted through bodily participation and mimesis.

The significant space for improvisation lies in the words of the toast itself. They may be routine or original, shallow or profound, thoughtful or cliche, but the opportunity for innovation is there within the frame of the traditional structure, anchored by that form to the past, to immemorial custom.

A Native American sweat-lodge may seem far removed from a country-club wedding toast, but a similar dialectic may be recognized connecting traditional structure with spaces for improvisation. Ancient custom governs the gathering of the rocks, the laying of the fire, the entrances and exits, the chants, the waving of the sage, etc. But when it comes time to send up a voice to the Spirit of the East, the participants are encouraged to pray for particular parents, relatives, friends, and their specific needs. As with The Toast, the traditional form provides a structure for a fresh individual response appropriate to the time and the place. For example, in the course of a summer solstice sweat-lodge at Temenos, a young folksinger expressed the grief and horror we all felt for the murder of a close relative of one of the participants. More visibly than in most toasts, the traditional sweat-lodge ceremony undergirded the immediate need with healing dignity and cosmic reference.

Blessing Of The Non-Human

The second kind of occasion which invites impromptu ritual is the arrival, installation, and first use of new appliances – frequently unpredictable, given the overloaded commitments of gasmen and plumbers! The first such dedication I recall in our family was our first not-second-hand Servel refrigerator. Many years later, our grandson was with us to welcome an Irish Stanley insulated wood-stove with Irish blessings. The cabinetmaker who brought the gift of a hand-crafted maple-topped table for our Lodge kitchen stayed to join our song of invocation to the maple tree, hands joined around the table in its place. On other occasions a time of shared quiet around the new appliance allows for historical and symbolic associations, as when we sat with a retreatant in front of the new Cauley-Lemay stove in the retreat cabin, appreciating our stone-age ancestors or whoever first thought of containing fire for human use. When the propane was connected, gas light, gas stove and refrigerator all were baptized with wine and rattles. (What a field-day for a ritualist a new building provides!)

In each case the basic structure was silence, thanksgiving, and a dedication of the appliance, with varying accompaniments of song, wine and dance, and time for everyone who wished to respond to the symbolism.

If the builder is known, we appreciate his or her handiwork; if not, we try to remember the unseen hands in forest, factory, truck or train which have made the new convenience possible.

Beginnings are easy to celebrate. What about endings? In October on the occasion of moving into winter quarters, we danced our thanks to the Lodge. Movement felt more appropriate than words as we carried candles in procession behind the person carrying an empty basket around the space which had facilitated so many joyful occasions since its opening the previous June.

A different kind of issue in relation to unexpected ceremonial occasions involves preparation and inspiration. There is a dimension of grace which seems unpredictable, which cannot be coerced. When it (or S/He?) comes, there is a freedom from self- consciousness, sometimes even a gift of words which seem to flow from a deep reservoir of archetypal connections unavailable to the planning mind. This happened at Temenos when two European women came wishing to unite with each other in sisterhood. With the help of the archetypal springs and pool, words came to direct them to enter the primordial Water-Mother together and be reborn as sisters.

When Grace does not come, the ceremony lacks a dimension of depth or awe. It may be for such times that prescribed rituals are needed. My practice is to go ahead within the patterns outlined above, trusting that "two small bowls for the sacrifice" (I-Ching) will be acceptable, even if the Spirit finds no wings.

How do you handle your impromptu rituals? If you have been dealing with these issues, I’d like to hear what you have learned.

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