The Rebirth Ceremony
Our world is without ritual. Not the globe mind you, just the sphere that each of us North Americans / Occidentals cocoon ourselves within. New Atheists embrace the rational world without God and superstitions. They are free to be and do what they wish to do, without stopping to think about their imaginary immortal soul. Christmas boils down to being about gifts, food and maybe a flight down to Mexico. They don’t run the risk of gaffing on a ritual and earning the wrath of their parish or their God. You can imagine what a load off your shoulders a ritual free lifestyle can be.
From my perspective, I see this absence of ritual as troubling. Church at Christmas. Handshakes. Thank you notes for wonderful parties. Throwing rice at a newly married couple. Fasting during Ramadan. Lighting the Menorah during Hanukkah. All of these are rituals that have abstracted from their core reason, but they remain as touch points to a social context we share with like-minded people. When we carry out a ritual, we honor the past and we honor our peers. To not observe a given ritual used to be an insult, sometimes done because of oafish behaviour; and sometimes done to purposefully insult those around you. One of the lowliest men I ever met was angrily put-off when I refused to shake his hand. My intention was to insult him by not carrying out this part of a greeting ritual; but I see many examples daily where two people meet and the appropriate gesture is to shake hands, but they instead they offer a wave, a little jazz-hands flutter or maybe a fist bump. The lack of ritual can be liberating. It can even give you fewer opportunities to insult those you encounter. If there is no handshake ritual, there is no way for that to put someone off. But that’s akin to smoothing out free speech by removing words from the vocabulary.
I am concerned that the absence of ritual has a consumerist benefit. The Lords Day act is long gone through most of North America, meaning we can shop seven days a week. I enjoy that; but, I am a consumer through-and-through. Some people have espoused observing a Sabbath—not only for religious people, but for all people—a 1-in-7 days routine of not working, shopping or being a gear in the system for one day. In our 24x7 world, it is easy to pack all our days with something and nudge out all things that get in the way of our immediate-satisfaction mindset. Rituals could present an obstacle. How can you push Bob’s Burgers’ “nooner nummys” to a population observing a fast? Rituals take up time. Rituals solidify our social bonds. If we feel satisfied from our social and metaphysical bonds we might not seek out satisfaction through creature comforts. I can’t help but see our secular destinations as being bad for who we are inside but excellent for the bottom line of many businesses.
In abandoning Mike DeWolfe and becoming Shawn DeWolfe, I moved into uncharted waters. I made the rounds and tell everyone in person about what I was doing and why I was doing it, but there didn’t seem to be a way to mark that transition. When people get married, one partner may change their name; they wear rings; they have a big party—there is a demarcation point. My pagan friend, shamanic practitioner, Christobel, suggested a “renaming ritual” aka a “rebirth ceremony.” As said, I am a consumerist and fondly remember times that I have walked through the hallowed halls of our local malls. I have been whittled down to something like three rituals: my marriage, Christmas (which seems equal parts ritual and stress), and handshakes. That’s it. No Diwali. No Sabbath. No three-day ritual for saying hello to the Chandrans. I was a universal donor fit to be plugged into the consumer engine of our society.
I am a little obsessed with the sci-fi show, Babylon 5. In that show, the Minbari race have something called the Nafak’cha or the Rebirth Ritual wherein people who are have, or are about to undergo a great change practice the ritual: The Ritual itself requires the participants to tell someone something that they have never told anyone before and to give up something that really matters to them. It also involved a recitation of Valen's words spoken when he brought together the nine that were to become the first Grey Council and the symbolic sharing of small pieces of red fruit. Once preparations for the ceremony have begun, it must be held within a certain amount of time. If it is not, then the ritual must be abandoned. I am a geek, but doing a ritual from an alien race on a TV show is really pushing it. Moreover, I have a bucket load of secrets that others have imparted to me, or ones I have accidentally discovered over the years. I don’t want more secrets. Likewise, I try to keep as few secrets as possible. If I did it, I should not be ashamed or secretive. Shame is what I was trying to shed; I try to keep as few of my own secrets as possible. Still, the idea of a formal display seemed key to mark this.
I thought the Rebirth Ceremony would be a way to mark my passage, but I had no way to observe the inner workings of a rebirth. Do I pray quietly or aloud? I pray at least daily. But the gathering would be made up of Pagans, Spirituals, Catholics, Christians, Monotheists, Atheists and the Confused (that has to be a religion—it has so many followers). Do I recite from a Holy Book? I don’t have a Holy Book—I’ve read the Bible, the Koran, the Tibetan Book of the Dead—I cannot fathom what in there is relevant and what in there has been unduly man-scented so as to not be divine but actually be dogma from centuries ago. I had no way to build up a ritual if I began with what didn’t matter and work from there—like building a house on sand.
Christobel, KeighLeigh and I talked out what we could do. We thought that a gathering would be best. The original premise involved the four elements (earth, air, fire, water)—I buy into that division, but that doesn’t speak to what I was doing. I wanted to burn my crops. I was brought to the need for a renaming as a side effect of self-destructive urges. After satisfying the destructive urge, there was purposeful ruin. Some people burn crops in preparation for a new planting. That’s where I was: I wanted to burn down the old so that something new could grow. In the spirit of regrowth, I suggested shaving my head; or more properly, getting everyone to take a pass at shaving my head, as a participation in helping me shed the old. That idea didn’t persist too long. I jokingly suggested a piñata. Piñatas were supposedly invented by Catholic priests as an exercise in beating the devil out of a form—like an exorcism. It was done blind folded to represent blind faith. And, for some reason, Satan has candy inside. Go figure. But, the piñata concept caught our interest. I wanted this occasion to be joyous not somber. The effigy would represent Mike DeWolfe—a figure who I was intending to destroy. I wanted buy-in on the destruction, so I would ask that the participants would each take a whack. Like Mike DeWolfe, I knew there was good stuff inside, if only that could be busted out. Like a piñata, the effigy was filled with candy and toys; I am also a middle-aged man, so it was also loaded with tiny bottles of booze and cigars (yeah, I like cigars). Christobel found a passage on forgiveness, which I agreed would be great to read out. This process is as much about me forgiving others as it is about commuting my personal sentences, so it was really fitting.
The flavour of this ritual could have taken any form (religious, quasi-sci-fi, etc.), but Christobel has a background in Wiccan practices. Shamanism is as old as our organization of human society. In every manifestation of Human culture, shamanism is the core that other practices build and elaborate on. I was okay to go with the basics.
The itinerary looked like this:
- "Get your Tribal On" Face painting station.
- Post-It note station for folks who want to add to the piñata. I wanted to let go of stuff. I wanted to encourage others to let go of stuff, if they wished to do so as well.
- Cleansing of space by KeighLeigh (incense).
- The Ritual:
- Introduction - why are we here?
- Circle Casting, call and response. Christobel kept it light, fun and inclusive.
- Forgiveness exercise. Christobel read a passage and I recited it. Others were welcome to participate and recite what passages they wished, if they wished.
- Mike Pinata:
- Shawn took the first swing.
- Everyone else took a swing.
- On went the bashing until candy, toys and prohibited items spilled out.
- Then the effigy was tossed into our backyard firepit.
- The Undressing of Mike, Redressing of Shawn. I took off my old chef’s jacket (I am known to cook up a storm); and I donned a new jacket I had purchased. The old jacket was tossed onto the fire pit.
- Positivity Gifting
- Individuals come up to Shawn with well wishes, favourite things we like about Mike that we hope Shawn will keep, present Shawn with plant/seeds/seedlings.
- Cue Shawn - what is it you wish to bring forward with you from your past?
- Reciprocal blessing - Shawn to acknowledge blessing with well wish in return. I also presented people with plants. Plants seemed to be a fitting metaphor for growth; and, the plants I presented may or may not have survived—that’s fine. That’s how life works.
- Rebirth to Light
- KeighLeigh read passages and I (Shawn) affirmed them.
- Lighting of Fire, burning of pinata and Mike’s chef coat. The fire was a little less dramatic thanks to a full on rain storm underway. But I will say that the chef’s coat REALLY caught up. I cannot believe such a thing is made to be exposed to kitchen flames.
- Circle Close
- Christobel closed the ceremony and invited people to dance around the fire, get their Tribal on and let the feasting begin! It was really raining, so a few of us tended the massive flames and roasted smokies and the rest went inside for dinner and a hang out.
The ritual was intended to make a demarcation point. We held it on a full moon at near perigee—it should have been super cool, but the clouds blocked the sky in typical Pacific Northwest style. The goal of the rebirth ceremony was to also meant to have some resonance. As a man without Holy Books and a belief system that is almost atypical of what everyone else adheres to, it was hard to mine my culture for what meant something. My culture was that of the mall wanderers. So I mixed in some core practices of what humans came up with when they first used language to fashion common syntax on the non-materials of existence. I used a gesture of humility in asking for and making known my desire for forgiveness. I used destruction, because destruction can be fun (see video, below). I used gifting as a way to exchange goods, which is something I am overtly accustomed to.
Our world has so few rituals. Our friends observe so few rituals. I was really happy that my friends took part in this. Since the ceremony, friends have spoken if this ritual to others. Some of those people have felt a desire for something like rebirth ceremony or a way to make a division between a past and its baggage and future with its opportunities. That is why I embraced the concept of the Rebirth Ceremony: to move ahead and away from a person who I was increasingly uncomfortable being around. I wanted to look into the mirror and not see Mike DeWolfe: a man with whom I could not agree with any longer.
I am not alone. Our world is full of rebirth. Nature has Spring. Immigrants come to Canada and get Anglicised names and an introduction to our different way of life. People “see the light” and become Born Again Christians. Couples get married and begin a conjoined life to create their own family. Alcoholics go to AA and follow Twelve Steps. This need to seek our rejuvenation and a new path is not uncommon. But like so many things, the common can be mocked or belittled. When something is admonished, it erodes our confidence and saps our will to follow through. A ritual has some formality or mental permanence that makes a decision easier to hold onto. It solidifies a way forward.
Oh, and a video:
Addendum: Since posting this, I kicked things into high gear. In 2013, I started a process to overhaul my life: The Rebuild
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