Friday, February 20, 2009

Embodying ritual - ritual as a wider life aesthetic (Simon Coleman and Peter Collins)

I have been thinking about how to describe women's religious rituals lately. Specifically I want to describe the all-female rituals, i.e. organized meetings, held by Christian women in Oslo, Norway, in the early twentieth century. They would come together to eat, listen to a devotion, hear news from "the mission field," pray, and talk. It seems to have been important to them that they managed to create this kind of semi-public all-female religious space.

I have been wondering, however, whether I can really describe their meetings as "rituals." I guess the short answer is that it depends on what I mean by "ritual." But I found a slightly longer and more useful answer recently when I came across an article by Simon Coleman and Peter Collins: "The 'plain' and the 'positive': Ritual, experience and aesthetics in Quakerism and Charismatic Christianity" (Journal of Contemporary Religion 15(3), 317-329, 2000). They discuss how religious meetings contribute to the "ritualization of life" (a phrase they borrow from Csordas, Language, Charisma and Creativity, 1997:74). The religious meeting should not just be seen as a ritual separate from everyday activity. Rather, it is part of a process of creating and embodying a wider life aesthetic that marks both the meeting itself and life beyond the meeting.

The aesthetic that Coleman and Collins describe includes both physical and ideological aspects, material as well as non-material elements. And indeed, the early-twentieth-century women I am studying would include all of these aspects in their own descriptions of their meetings too; the meeting minutes may mention what they had to eat, or how the room was decorated, or what kind of flowers were put on the tables, as well as the Bible reading, the prayer topics, and the theme of the devotion. The meetings were different from ordinary life, yet at the same time they were similar enough that the women could carry some of the aesthetic and "feel" of the meetings with them when they returned to their everyday spaces. The meaning of the ritual could be embodied outside of the ritual itself.