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My morning practice involves a kind of ritual greeting of the elements. I recite a poem or prayer as I take my first breaths of air when I wake, at the first sight of the sun rising in the east through my window, as I press my fingers into dirt in my yard as I walk outside in the morning, and as I step into the hot water flowing from my shower head. It may seem strange to perform a religious ritual in the shower, but I have found this practice to be a great way to ground myself, in my body and in the present.
I see this practice as a way of “enchanting the everyday”, by which I mean, creating space for the sacred nature of seemingly mundane events and objects to manifest. Taking a shower can seem like a mundane event, a chore that needs to be quickly completed before moving on to the next task. But it can become something sacred, if I take the time to let it, if I take the time to wonder at the simply mystery of water and the visceral response of my body to it. Ritualizing helps me do this.
The poem, “Everything is Waiting for You” by David Whyte, captures for me this idea of mundane objects taking on sacred meaning:
“Everything is Waiting for You.”
Your great mistake — Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice
You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you courage.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity. Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
The tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything, everything, everything is waiting for you.
Whyte suggests that the world is full of presences, and that we are therefore never truly alone. These presences call to us in a way, and we need only be alert in order to regain a kind of “intimacy” with our surroundings. This is a kind of re-enchantment of the everyday.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (2013), Kimmerer combines the wisdom of her indigenous heritage with her scientific training. In one of my favorite parts of the book, she writes about the summers her family spent canoe camping in the Adirondacks and how seemingly mundane act became a sacred ritual for her family:
“By the time my brother and sisters emerged from our sleeping backs the sun would just be topping the eastern shore, pulling mist off the lake in long white coils. The small four-cup coffeepot of battered aluminum, blackened with the smoke of many fires, would already be thumping. …
“I can picture my father, in his red-checked wool shirt, standing atop the rocks above the lake. When he lifts the coffeepot from the stove the morning bustle stops; we know without being told that it’s time to pay attention. He stands at the edge of the camp with the coffeepot in his hands, holding the top in place with a folder pot holder. He pours coffee out on the ground in a thick brown stream.
“The sunlight catches the flow, striping it amber and brown and black as it falls on the earth and steams in the cool morning air. With his face to the morning sun, he pours and speaks into the stillness, ‘Here’s to the gods of Tahawus.’ …
“Then and only then does he pour out steaming cups of coffee for himself and my mother, who stands at the stove making pancakes. So begins each morning in the north woods.”
Kimmerer explains that “Tahawus”, which means “Cloud Splitter”, is the Algonquin name for Mount Mercy, the highest peak in the Adirondacks. Depending on their location, her father would make the coffee offering to the gods of different features of the landscape, Forked Lake or South Pond or Brandy Brook Flow. It wasn’t always coffee, either. In the winter, it might be a pot of hot tomato soup, but the first draught was poured onto the snow-covered ground.
Kimmerer explains the meaning of the ritual for her:
“I came to know that each place was inspirited, was home to others before we arrived and long after we left. As he called out the names and offered a gift, the first coffee, he quietly taught us the respect we owed these other beings and how to show our thanks for summer mornings.”
“The words and the coffee called us to remember that these woods and lakes were a gift. Ceremonies large and small have the power to focus attention to a way of living awake in the world.”
Long before, Kimmerer’s Algonquin ancestors also expressed their thanks with songs, prayers, and offerings. Kimmerer’s family no longer knew those ancient ways. They’d been taken from her people by White boarding schools. But still her family found their own way to offer thanks to the more-than-human world. The words were different, the gestures not quite the same, but the spirit was identical.
Years later, Kimmerer asked her father where the coffee ceremony came from. At first, his response was, “It’s just what we did. It seemed right.” After some thought, he recalled that it actually began with something quite mundane, as a way of clearing the coffee grounds from the spout. Eventually, though, it transformed into something sacred, a way of expressing respect, thankfulness and joy. “That, I think, is the power of ceremony,” writes Kimmerer, “It marries the mundane to the sacred: It turns coffee into a prayer.”
This act of transforming the mundane into the sacred is something that many Naturalistic Pagans do, as well. Bart Everson, for example, has written here about the sacred nature of seemingly mundane acts like making vegetable stock and baking bread. Others have written about crafting and composting as religious acts.
What simple, seemingly mundane objects or events in your life might become sacred for you? Have you ever felt compelled to pour a little water from your water bottle onto the dry ground? What would it be like to experience the numinosity of a soap dish or a window latch? What might your kettle or your cooking pot teach you about the sacred? Please share your experiences in the comments below.
About the Author
John Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.org.