What is ceremony? And what is ritual? Are they the same thing? In some circles, these are two, distinct activities. In others, they are interchangeable. Still in others, there is only confusion. We look in the big dictionary, the three-pounder, and what we read there we could swap one for ... What is ceremony? And what is ritual? Are they the same thing? In some circles, these are two, distinct activities. In others, they are interchangeable. Still in others, there is only confusion. We look in the big dictionary, the three-pounder, and what we read there we could swap one for the other. But that's the dictionary of the noun-based English language, as mangled by the Yanks. And if you spend much time in dictionaries you'll notice they err on the side of vague. Or broad and general as their editors might defend. The Dictionary of Global Culture and the Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience don't even bother with the terms.

So once again, we are left to our own devices. I have been schooled in the camp that maintains ritual and ceremony are two, distinct activities. For this article, we'll look at ritual as it relates to religious practice and ceremony as it relates to spiritual practice. And due to the limitations and prejudices of this writer, we'll be focusing on the spiritual. That is, I will give little space to organized religion, because to do so would require a treatise on each religion invented, and I only have a laptop, not a main frame.

As I understand the terms, ceremony engages the active involvement of all present, is fluid and adaptive, and is receptive, acknowledging that Living Spirits are participating with humans in the ceremony, in real time. Ritual is more of a spectator sport, the ordained few leading the followers many. We can see from this point of view, ceremony is more common where you will find a more spiritual, or non-religious group of people, and ritual...well, what can I say. It is what it is, more commonly found in highly structured religious settings, its hallmark; an inflexibility that typically denies any kind of real, personal interaction by individuals with the Spirits, despite any rhetoric to the contrary. Ritual tends to come from books and seminaries. Ceremony comes from the heart.

Several years ago I was pouring a sweatlodge as a guest. The home water-pourer had graciously "lent" me his firekeeper, which I accepted, even though the whole idea of firekeeper as an indentured helper I found rather odd. That was the only such arrangement I had ever heard of like that. And this firekeeper was a young man, early twenties, and very new to the Red Road. His mentor was true Heyoka (trickster, contrary) and I could see the effect it was having on the firekeeper: major stressing over doing something wrong. I asked for twenty-eight stones to be heated.

The fourth round came and the firekeeper delivered three stones, for a total of twenty-four now (I usually ask for seven per round). And I waited. And I looked outside the inipi. I saw a frantic firekeeper tearing the fire apart, searching desperately for those last four stones. After a bit I called him back to the lodge and asked him, "what's up?" He was seriously stressed as he told me he could not find those last four grandfathers, not in whole or even the shards of their remains: they were not there in any form. I suspected then what had happened; the home water pourer pulled a trick and removed four stones, for what reasons I cannot imagine. Just being true to that Heyoka energy, of which he had no control or particular knowledge of.

I looked at the firekeeper and I could tell he was expecting me to go off on some tirade, what he had been conditioned to expect. But I just nodded slightly, smiled and told him, "Well, I guess maybe the Spirits only wanted us to use twenty-four stones tonight. They're giving us a break. What do you think?"

I could see the guerilla climb down off his back, his relief palpable. He perked up, smiled back and said "Yes!" he thought that was about right. I asked him to restore the fire and come back into the lodge. As an aside, I would like to point out here the truth of that statement, that the Spirits must have only need twenty-four stones. Forget the mechanism by which they accomplished this in the physical, the high probability someone had surreptitiously removed them. That entire scenario was quite likely for the firekeeper, to show him a different perspective, maybe to see his relationship with the other water pourer a little differently. So many times we get caught up in the "how" of something and completely miss the "why," which is where the real gifts are.

Ceremony can tolerate occurrences such as this because those involved understand they are there for guidance. Ritual cannot as it is more in the nature of an intellectual exercise, words read from books or memorized, recited by rote, little room if any for spontaneity. In short, there's no opportunity for the Spirits to interact because they're not in the script. Some of my favorite sundance songs are those with no words, what we call vocables. I call these "heart songs" because we just open up and start vibrating and there are no words to get in the way, and we open up on the deepest levels and even when we do not know what's inside, it comes out anyway and Creator and the Spirits will know how to take care of us best.

This brings us to the place of asking "What works?" I expect both work, but in different ways; ceremony looking for that deep, personal experience, ritual working more in the arena of psychological placation. Which is transformative, which is not? Hard to say, because each person will have her or his own experience, whether in ceremony or in ritual, and depending on how they are involved. But I can speak from my own experience of long ago and tell you I never got much from ritual, if anything. For me, it's kind of like line dancing, or marching lock-step; a superficial routine that slowly anesthetizes the imagination. Ceremony, on the other hand, has been enormously effective for me. And I have thought about that and come to a few realizations.

Ceremony works because it fully engages all of our physical senses, and beyond, and the experience is absorbed into our body-memory. It is effective because personal experiences with the Spirits are validated instead of denied, discredited, or worse, the hallmark of corporate religions. These realizations do cause us to change and grow and mature. Persons leading ceremony are there to serve, not strut. In sweat lodge, again, the water pourer is there as a guide, his or her job to be that of making sure the people are safe during the experience. It is not always the water pourer who has the mystical experiences. In fact, it is generally not the water pourer, but one or several of the people who have come to "just pray." An experienced water pourer should know this and must be able to function in both worlds simultaneously, to act as a tether, or grounding for those who might go out of body, or experience a vision, for instance.

Going into a religious ritual, regular attendees know what to expect because of the uniformity and rigidity; it becomes routine, as much by doing the same things again and again, as for the absence of the Spirits. Years ago I heard a sort-of joke told by a preacher. Goes something like this:

A man moved to a new town and asked around about which church was the one to belong to. Folks told him, but they also said it was a hard church to become a member in. Seems they had very high standards. He thought he'd give it a shot anyway, might be good for business. And he went "religiously," if you can accept the pun, but to no avail. After a year he'd still not met the expectations of the clergy or church brethren. One Sunday, again rebuffed for membership for his lack of recitation skills, he went home and decided to pray on his own, a new experience for he'd always been told the clergy knew better how to pray then he did. And they knew just what verses to recite, and when. But he prayed anyway and he asked God to help him get into the church. To his great dismay, God answered.

"Don't feel bad, my son. I've been trying for years and they still won't let me in."

It's an old southern fundamentalist Christian story, told by Christians ragging on other Christians. But what an interesting commentary by that culture on itself.

When spiritual Lifeways become institutionalized, they become dogmatic, rigid, and the Life goes out of them; they corrupt into religion, the domain of lifeless ritual. Maximize your ceremony by leaving your expectations home, opening your heart, allowing and accepting the spontaneous when it occurs. Participate fully and when you have that vision, or hear those voices, or see a Spirit, hold that to yourself, sharing it only with the ceremony leader or some other trusted and experienced ceremonialist if you need a little grounding from the experience. Reflect on it, accept it, for doing so is like exercising any other muscle; the more you do, the stronger it gets. You may eventually bridge that illusory gap between the physical and the non-physical during those rare bouts of ordinary consciousness. Be well and thank you for plowing through this.

Author's Bio: 

Rick is a mixed-blood Tsalagi (Cherokee), a sundancer, inipi (sweatlodge) leader, and presents workshops and lectures throughtout the country. For information, or to schedule a workshop or lecture please visit http://mixedblood.info or his Expert's Page.