Ceremony Project: The Power of Setting

“Nevertheless, religious identity, life, and value are thoroughly embedded in the cultures in which they are located” (Bovon 38). The synchronization of the landscape and the individuals being in specific place creates the foundation for ceremony. The environment in which the ceremony takes place can drastically affect the outcome of the ritual. Victor Turner eloquently writes on this subject, “The specific matrix of land, climate, culture and tradition in which tribal religions had been formed is largely discarded…” (Turner 508). In South Dakota, the Lakota People have been reassigned land giving them a lack of stability for ceremony. Digesting their strong connection to the land through ritualistic experiences coupled with the tragic history of having their land taken from underneath them proves the power of setting.

The setting is influential to a ceremony in a variety of different mediums. First, in ceremony, the connection to a visible place draws the individual into participating within the environment. Second, the categorization of rituals based on seasonal or climatic events shows the relationship between land and the goals of enlightenment in a ceremony. Lastly, setting changes the emotional response to an ordinary event within a sacred space. For instance, having a gathering in an office space versus in a temple implies different expectations. “Christianity sought to incorporate…several of these rituals into its own system of messages by linking local seasonal and cyclical rituals with historical events …” (Turner 511). Religious members have been able to associate rituals with seasons cementing them into the year’s cycle. This consistency establishes the ritual as a necessary and vital tradition within a specific culture’s calendar.

Most academic attempts fall short in describing the power of place as a true factor that affects the power of ceremony. However, in the essay “Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown” written by Jonathan Z. Smith, he clearly states the power of setting as an essential to any religious experience. After explaining a story in which the backdrop was a temple, he writes, “The temple setting is more than mere scenery. It serves to frame all that follows” (Smith 54). This validates two points: the importance of having an intense ritual within a sacred space; and the actual affect of having the environment be the lens in which one looks through to engage in ceremony. The setting shifts your perspective from the ordinary to the special. Smith later proves this point by stating, “When one enters the temple, one enters marked-off space in which, at least in principle, nothing is accidental; everything, at least potentially is of significance” (Smith 54). The clear definition between a certain scared landscape and a more common setting allows the cognitive transcendence to take place.

Facilitating a space in which cognitive elevation exists determines how necessary that ritual is to that respective community. The landscape directly correlates to the possibility of reaching a different level of spirituality because without the physical texture of the experience the dialogue between the individual and the transcendent source cannot be facilitated. Removing certain characteristics of a spiritual environment dramatically reduces its effectiveness in ceremony. For example, Churches are built in accordance with many different religious beliefs. All purposes of design correlate to a specific reason. “The point I am trying to make is that every detail of the setting of this central Catholic ritual was governed by rule” (Turner 514). Having the setting under control allows for certain ceremonies to take place. The built structures for most ceremonies gives credence to the fact that setting, and specifically a controlled setting drastically alters the entire process of the religious experience.

After stating the power of a controlled space it is important to analyze the strength of landscapes that cannot be controlled. This is an area in which most of the theorists fail to examine. When reading these articles the emphasis on enclosed places to worship dimmed the view of how meaningful religious experiences can be when they are uncontrollable. Another way of saying this could be that natural settings can promote a stronger connection to higher powers because of the limitless of the outside world. The Lakota People are a great example of persons finding a deeper connection in the land as the way to access the spiritual world. They view the land as an integral part in the flow of life and their ceremonies. This distancing of the western world from religious or spiritual ceremonies performed in an outdoor atmosphere has negatively affected our biological relationship to the earth.

Two hundred years ago the power of the land could be linked to the Lakota people. “Where ever the buffalo went, we went,” Big Mike said proudly. Loosely, Big Mike educated us on how important setting was to the Lakota people and how devastating it was to have the U.S. government take that setting away from his tribe. He said, “The buffalo were our home. They were our shelter, food, clothing, weapons, and spiritual guiders. The buffalo was our source of life and of ritual.” The ritual of killing buffalo began to carry on a different meaning since the setting had been changed into a restricted land zone for a particular people. The ceremonial events around harvesting buffalo meat could no longer continue because the landscape was later turned into a possession of the government.

My experience on the reservation in South Dakota made me realize the different aspects in which the landscape could influence my ceremonial experience. The climactic switch from a dry landscape into a snowy tundra had numerous ramifications for our ceremonial experiences. One evening as I sat in the sweat lodge, water droplets from the snow-condensed roof starting tapping my thigh. The ceremony that had once made me internally beg for the door to open, for cold air to rush into the saturated hot steam, began to caress that uncomfortable feeling giving me time to think. This gave me time to bless my family, my hopes and the uncertain future. In another instance of setting playing a role in my religious experience was the chaotic weather on top of Bear Butte. The atmosphere on top of the mountain seemed to exhale away from clouds leaving the group with a sunny outlook over countless miles. The sunshine pushed me to focus on the new warmth of my body rather then the ritual at hand. Thus, the ritual was skewed into a less meaningful experience then it might have been if I had persevered through the frosty wind.

The theorists studied do describe the importance of place yet don’t delve into the complexities of a rituals changing based on their specific location. I agree with Smith when he argues the magnitude of a religious ritual can be helped when in, “a sacred place… place of clarification (a focusing lens) where men and gods are held to be transparent to one another” (Smith 54). The difference between the black puddle of mud surrounding the fire and the loose ground that had once been there shifted my perception of my ceremonial intuitions. The backdrop of your experience is not paramount for the ceremony to take place but acts as a vehicle to reach the divine.



Works Cited

Bovon, Francois. Harvard Theological Review: Fiddling While Rome Burns: The Place of Academic Theology in the Study of Religion. 93:1. Ann Arbor: Cushing-Malloy Inc., 2000. Print.

Smith, Jonathan Z. . Imagining Religion, From Babylon To Jonestown. University Of Chicago Press, print.

Turner, Victor. Victor Turner and the Construction of Cultural Criticism: Between Literature and Anthropology. Bloo

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