Ritual, Slowness, and Time Out of Time

butter mold

Recently I’ve been reading The Souls of China: the Return of Religion after Mao by Ian Johnson. More about what the book says another time. The rapid industrialization of China and the disjunction from the past that people are feeling reminds me of what I saw as a child in the rural South.

When I was a kid, I enjoyed sitting in my grandfather’s barn. The barn had been added onto many times over the years, but the central structure was a two-story log cabin built by our family in the 1840s. Most of the second story had been removed to allow hay bales to be stacked inside, but the old stairs to the second floor remained in one corner.

I enjoyed sitting on the stairs, thinking about my relatives across the generations who had built the cabin and had lived in it. Parts of their lives were still there — a cider press; part of a spinning wheel; parts of butter churns; some various horse-drawn farming implements; some rotting leather harness and horse collars.

There had been a radical disjunction just before I was born, from horse agriculture to machine agriculture. The horse-drawn implements were in perfectly fine working order, but had been superseded by machines. Farmers in our part of the world had not gone willingly into the new age. Economic necessity had driven the change. Farmers are usually one season away from utter disaster.

Something had been lost that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. My parents, their parents, my aunts and uncles and the neighbors — all of them remembered something that I had missed. A time before machines. There was general agreement that everything was easier now, but that a quality of human dignity had been lost. A dignity that existed in the slowness of horses and the time it took for them to work. A human speed.

The early-twentieth century English poet and art critic Lawrence Binyon was fond of saying “slowness is beauty.” It’s a simple equation — time sacralized. Christina Baldwin, who teaches journal writing and spiritual practice, writes:

Ritual is the act of sanctifying action — even ordinary actions — so that it has meaning: I can light a candle because I need the light or because the candle represents the light I need.

Like the people I knew in my youth who had been wrenched out of a different time, Christina Baldwin sees the dual nature of human action. There is what we do to survive; and there is what we survive to do. One is physical necessity; the other is psychological necessity.

The ritualized existence the human psyche yearns for is a bit harder to come by in a life divorced from horse sweat, and the earth and its seasons. Still, sometimes, we find that lighting a candle means much more than lighting a candle. The slowness of the ritual can ignite sacred time — time out of time.

Slowness is beauty. And the sacred.