A Q&A with Jeltje Gordon-Lennox


We caught up with Jeltje Gordon-Lennox, on the publication of her new book Crafting Secular Ritual.

Jeltje, you’re a psychotherapist and the founder of Ashoka Association, an organisation that specialises in training non-religious celebrants in the craft of ritualization. How did you discover ritualization?

Before becoming a psychotherapist, I worked a number of years for a Swiss humanitarian organisation called the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and also as a Protestant pastor. The ICRC’s mandate is to convince warring parties to respect some basic rules and to protect the civilians who are inevitably caught up in armed conflicts. This is a dangerous job and a number of delegates lose their lives. Since many of the delegates have strong humanitarian values but are not religious, I was intrigued about the challenge of doing a funeral outside traditional religious institutions that reflects their motivation and values. Moreover, as a pastor in Switzerland I realised that 90% of the people who came to me for life event ceremonies did not want me to talk about God or religion. Yet another challenge! With time, I had to admit that religious rites did not meet my own needs either. As a pastor I represented the institution so I could not ever truly meet these needs for non-religious ritual. I felt out of sync.

In 2000, with my new psychotherapist degree in hand, I did my first non-religious ceremony. Shortly afterwards, I put Ashoka – a nonprofit association – into place as a platform from which I offer secular ceremonies that reflect my clients’ needs and values. Talking about my work as ritual or ritualisation came much later. I still prefer ‘ritualising’ because it shows the progressive aspect of creating fitting ceremonies to mark life events.

 What motivated you to write Crafting Secular Ritual?

I designed this practical guide for those who need to mark the significant transitions in their lives or create fitting ceremonies for public events. While traditional rituals have basically two phases: planning and realising, to be effective, emerging rituals require a middle phase: creating. Traditional rituals were created over years, even millennia. Now, in order to practice ritual that makes sense, those who find themselves outside of tradition or institutions must build in this creating phase – often with a very limited amount of time. Crafting Secular Ritual proposes a unique toolbox with simple serviceable tools for the creation of meaningful secular rituals.

 In the book you examine the history and function of rituals in different cultures, as well as presenting practical guidance for creating your own rituals. Why do you think humans have such a strong inclination towards rituals?

Human beings, like all social animals, ritualise. Ethologist Ellen Dissanayake says that playing, making art and ritualising are essential to being human. Our need to mark events in time and for bonding result in ritualmaking. Our fundamental emotional and communal needs are met by rituals that make sense to us. This used to be taken care of through family and village life or religious institutions. A growing number of people in Western societies find that these contexts no longer meet their need for ritual. In fact, their ritual identity has evolved more quickly than their ritual practice. My book is a step towards helping people harmonise their ritual identity and practice.

 What would you say to people who claim that non-religious ceremonies are meaningless?

People who hold that non-religious ceremonies are meaningless are probably quite satisfied with their own religious practice. I would encourage them to continue practicing their traditional rituals, as well as to keep an open mind towards those whose identity no longer matches traditional ritual practice.

 The book contains checklists for the different stages of planning events such as weddings, naming ceremonies and funerals. Why did you think it important to provide checklists for readers?

First of all, let me tell you what a checklist is not. A checklist is not for the faint-hearted. It does not tell you how to create ritual. It is not a teaching tool, nor is it a substitute for common sense and skill. It does not list everything one should do.
A checklist does guide craftspeople as they identify what is at the heart of the ceremony by obliging them to pause and communicate with each other. It frees them up to concentrate on meaning and create rituals that make sense. Checklists help the celebrant provide a safe context for the expression of strong emotions. For example, a checklist is invaluable in situations where people nurse long-standing feuds; it does not take sides.

Can anyone be a celebrant?

If you are preparing a tailor-made ceremony, think carefully about who should help you craft and preside it. This person can be a friend or relative who assumes the role on the day of your ceremony or a professional. The person you choose to preside at your ceremony must be able to put the focus on you and your objectives for the ritualization, provide timely advice and support you unconditionally on this special occasion.

Crafting represents 80-90% of the work and presiding the ceremony 10-20%. One should not underestimate the value of accompaniment from a professional in the planning and creating phases. Presiding a secular ceremony is a service role. I encourage hiring a professional for weddings and funerals. The newly weds and their entourage should have the luxury of participating fully in the ceremony. This is hard to do when one is presiding a wedding, and even more difficult in the case of a funeral. People who have assumed this role during the funeral of a close friend or family member tell me that their grief process was stunted or hindered because they had to put the needs of the other mourners first.

 You also include a questionnaire for discovering your own ‘ritual identity.’ How did you go about creating this?

For many years I worked on questionnaires about religious identity. After seeing the confusion of people who knock on the wrong door for a life event ceremony, I understood that they did so because they are not clear about where they belong and what rituals suit them best. This is especially the case for those who are distanced from religious institutions and it is particularly critical for people with multicultural backgrounds. When fiancés who share various cultures and religions between them understand that, while they are both distanced from their respective religious institutions but still interested in the significance of traditional rites, they can look for a secular celebrant to help them create a wedding ceremony that reflects their traditions of origin – without parody – and, most importantly, who they are together.

 In your experience, what makes a successful ritual?

The two main keys to successful ritualmaking are authenticity and meaning. One must be able to trust one’s senses to ensure the ritual makes sense. As sociologist Margaret Holloway says: ‘It has to feel right to be right’.

 What has been your most memorable ritual or ceremony to date?

Not long ago I was asked to do a wedding ceremony for fiancés with four cultural origins. The groom’s mother is British Anglican and his father is Indian Zoroastrian. The bride’s father is Swiss Protestant and her mother is Japanese, a tradition that favours Shinto wedding ceremonies. After months of planning and crafting the couple had a ceremony that reflected where they came from and where they intended to go together.

Their wedding ceremony began as the couple lit a Zoroastrian lamp which had been placed on a small table by the groom’s Indian cousin; it ended with a Shinto sake ritual performed by the bride’s Japanese cousins in full kimono dress. I explained, not what these rituals meant in their traditional context but what they meant to this couple on their wedding day. The groom wrote a poem to express their values and the meaning of this transition in their life as a couple. At the centre of the ceremony was the vow they wrote and their request that those present help them keep it.

 Do you have any advice for people hoping to craft their first ritual?

Be true to yourself and to those with whom you are creating this ritual. There will most likely be tears and laughter. Use the checklists!

For more information and to buy a copy of the book, please follow the link.

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