This slender little book – Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community was one of the first books I read after becoming Kemetic. It was on the required reading list for the introductory course offered by the first temple that I studied with, and I read it, I recall, sitting in a doctor’s waiting room in one great gulp of contemplation.
I am doing an evening workshop with the author, Malidoma Somé, this week, and because of that I once again have brought out the slender little book, and am steadily swallowing it in a great gulp.
I recall, the first time I read it, being torn: that, well, yes, this was a point, but could the rest of it really be so? Truly? I fought it even as I read it, trying to come up with ways of denying. It is a difficult book to face, in so many ways, as someone born white and Western with all that comes of those things, in what Somé refers to as a machine world, a world regulated, hurried, compelled to acquisition, raising the seen world as paramount, constantly making displays of power.
It is some nine years since I read it the first time, if I do my estimates correctly.
And it is easier, now, to not fight, though I recognise that I do not live up to the lessons that I already know. I do better than I did, once; everything is a process of raising up.
We are not always raised with the expectation that ritual matters; that this symbolic translation is the cry of our spirit to be heard in the world of spirits. And so I see people who mock rituals and ceremonies, but who build a little world of their own traditions and superstitions to scratch that same itch, to have some sense of internal order. (My favorite baseball player, for a time, was one well-known for having an immense catalogue of routines and rhythms, for whom every part of the game was a ritual. I think of this now and wonder if I was recognising that grasping for sanctity. It’s a thing.) We do not think that someone else might die if we do not properly grieve, that our errors might have consequences, that there is something to do to not only correct what we have done wrong in this moment, but the underlying thing which created that situation.
We hurry, all the time, without taking the moments for ceremonialising our actions. Somé mentions it being safe to talk to someone on the road – because one knows that that someone has done the rituals of leaving the house and taking a journey. But we in the West do not consistently have such rituals, or if we do, we call them superstition and laugh them off, awkwardly. (And, these days, I have built a minor ritual for going out. Not one from Dagara culture, of course, but from my own, and perhaps that too is a thing. Perhaps I will keep it beyond its original purpose.) Without the deliberation that ritual brings, we become superficial, unpresent, almost disembodied, not actually living so much as going through the motions of the machine.
But to accept that is to become countercultural, subversive: rather than living to work and working to live, keeping our nine-to-fives, there is something else there, and it is an urgent, deep need. Not only is it a hunger that we are ill-equipped to feed, but it is one that, culturally speaking, we are encouraged to deny, because it would mean less pursuit of More Stuff or less diligent loyalty to The Company or whatever else. The rituals that make our lives sacred pull us away from common values, which do not want sanctity in our profanity, which – if they recognise the holy at all – want it neatly compartmentalised, a thing to do on Sunday at most.
And at the same time as attempts to bring holiness forward make us different, make us remarkable, make us a quiet insurrection, Somé says that the power of ritual is secrecy, is silence, is concealment. That ritual creates a sealed capsule, that breaking that space is bursting the bubble, inviting an explosive decompression. Here is that Witch’s Pyramid line: to keep silent. Or, Kemetically speaking, I put it once: silence is a crocodile. We – like the crocodile – do not want to go about displaying our power, revealing it, draping it across our fancy sports cars like an advertisement. The protective power – and the threat – of the crocodile lie as much in stealth as in the strength of his jaws. We do not often speak of taboos, and the concept of “oathbound” knowledge is mocked by even many pagans, but yet I made a prayer today and knew I could not call my God by His name when I wrote it. I know why in the place behind words, but if you do not know I cannot tell you.
And at the same time as he speaks of secrets, he speaks of communities, of the necessity of the support of the many to be oneself. No cult of the deified individual here, so common to the Western mind. No bootstraps to be had. (And here is a place that it is hard to face a Kemetic theology of kings: where Somé says “What one acknowledges in the formation of the community is the possibility of doing together what is impossible to do alone” (p. 49), he speaks to me of Heru – but I fear that the machine world has poisoned our ability to relate to Heru, unless we first effectively raise “an objection against the isolation of individuals and individualism by a society in service of the Machine” (again, 49).)
He writes “A functioning community is one that is its own protection (p. 51),” and it catches my attention. Many people build intentional community – networks of family (by blood or choice), friends, others who can be counted upon, to provide the protection and security that we need as people, to support ourselves and to grow. Some find this within religious communities – and religious communities, being concerned with the holy, have need of being or becoming that. Some find it other ways. But I am caught, again, with not knowing how to even begin to address the question of how to make the communities I know beyond those little bubbles meet that basic standard of functionality. I want to become political, at times, but I cannot know where to begin, so I return to what I know: a healthy priest makes all things sound. It is only a beginning, but at least it begins something.
I do not know how to deal with the vampiric construct that is that which is out of ma’at. I can only work ma’at as best I can, build something that is strong enough and secure enough to establish ma’at in Her shrine. I can only do the rituals that I am required to do – and the Beautiful Festival was one such, very clearly to me, in a way that I have not felt before, and I am glad of it, because it means that I am more than I was.
Somé writes of humility and of inspiration. Of admitting to weakness in order to seek strength. Of prayer and honesty and involvement. Of giving credit to the Powers rather than seeking to display it as our own prowess. Of alignment. Of being the hands of the divine in the world, and acknowledging that place.
I look forward to reading this book again in another nine years.