It is difficult for me to write about the Council of All Beings for several reasons. One, I cannot remember or imagine this ritual without tears. I guess that’s a good thing, given that the intent is to step into the pain of earth’s destruction, to mourn, and to acknowledge accountability. Two, I am simply not up to the task, and so embedded within this post are links to articles and books which ought to grace the book shelves of any compassionate human.
The ritual itself carries a far more profound depth of experience, if it’s preceded by the process of mourning and remembering.
In pretty much all my recent writing, I have challenged humans for our sense of privilege and entitlement – for our “set apartness”, our anthropocentrism. I can (and have) talked and written voluminously about human interconnectedness with all created forms, and yet I am convicted by the realization that until I am able to grieve the ruin, devastation, and extinction of an astonishing diversity of beings, I am serving as a kind of talking head. It’s a hard thing for me to admit. I guess I thought I could insinuate myself into the company of all those working from an eco-spiritual ground without having to feel Earth’s pain.
The first of the movement toward a ritual Council of All Beings, then, requires mourning. Joanna Macy uses the term to refer to the moral pain for what humans are inflicting on the natural world, and it includes not only grief, but fear, anger, despair, and a numbing paralysis. Macy writes, I have come to see deep ecology as an explanatory principle both for the pain we experience on behalf of the natural world, and for the sense of belonging that arises when we stop repressing that pain.
Think of this as an evolutionary remembering. Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks of the atoms of our bodies – of all bodies – “stardust”. We are of stardust. He describes the process whereby the chemical elements that we recognize today were forged in the centers of high mass stars which, having become unstable, exploded, scattering such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen throughout the universe, elements which formed gas clouds, then stars with planets, and ultimately, life. Stardust.
Remembering in the sense we need to remember isn’t about yesterday’s walk in the woods, or the silly songs my mom used to sing with her ukelele. The better word may be anamnesis, a remembering from the very beginning, a remembering of our star nature before we were humans.
The Council of All Beings
For those who are participating in the Council, the first step is to allow ourselves to be chosen by another form – animal, plant, or natural feature like swamp or desert. A certain spaciousness is required of us, time, and deep listening. The question is “who is asking me to speak on its behalf?” The next step is to fashion a mask and/or costume, something that visually represents the form that has chosen us. Wolf, mountain, glacier, bird, tree. It’s a good idea to spend time with a totem, learning more about its place and role in the world, becoming conversant as to how we humans have disrupted its life, habitat, purpose, how we have compromised its future.
As the people gather, the one who is facilitating the ritual welcomes everyone, and, speaking as her adopted life-form, introduces herself and asks the others in the assembly to do likewise. Macy describes it as a kind of roll call, I am Canadian Goose; I speak for all migratory birds. I am Mountain, I speak for all mountains.
In the first stage of the ritual, the beings speak with one another, sharing their stories of hardship at the hands of humans, sharing the effects of pesticides, for example, mountain top removal, destruction of habitat for the sake of what humans call progress.
In the second stage, a few beings at a time are invited to remove their masks and move into the center of the circle, so that the other beings are able to address them directly, the humans who have caused and continue to cause such damage. I can tell you, it is hard to hear this, particularly for those of us who have kept ourselves separated from the direct causality of the destruction. You want to shout out, “no, it’s not me. I’m not the one.” Yet we are all participating in a colluding kind of way. Macy refers to it as the releasing of moral immunity.
Ritually, the humans are set apart, isolated. It’s what humans have been doing for millennia, by our own sense of entitlement, but now we have to hear and acknowledge how such set-apartness has cost all creation including ourselves.
In the third stage of the Council, the other life-forms offer gifts to the humans. What might be the particular gift that a river stone, for example, might offer the humans. As was the case in stage two, the movement from outer circle of beings offering gifts to the humans in the center is fluid. As a being in the outer circle offers its gift to the humans in the center, that being leaves its mask at the outer rim to enter the inner group of humans, open to receiving the gifts that other beings have to offer.
On a Personal Note
The gift I bring into my retirement from ordained ministry is the understanding of the transformative power of ritual. This is not new news, and I have been transformed, not, however, in ways appreciated by the institutional church. Just as the anthropocentric ritual of mainline churches forms and shapes humans to understand themselves as chosen and set apart, ritual such as The Council of All Beings forms and shapes us to understand ourselves as not only members of the earth community, but destructive members at that.
As I have said earlier, I am one who has had to walk away from the images of the Deepwater Horizon disaster; I take a circuitous route to bypass the clear-cut along my habitual way into town. I rail at a congress which has so little understanding or respect for our planetary eco-systems; sign petitions against de-listing endangered species; protest against fracking, mountain top removal, the presence of Shell in the Arctic.
Yet I am not yet able to turn and face into the devastation of what we have done and continue to do to our home and all beings who share it with us. I believe and have preached that pain and grief are the complimentary sides of love and compassion. And yet I flee from the pain. I am posting this and the one previous because I have always been “a preacher who preaches what I need most to hear.” I think that it’s probably time to turn into this new direction.