Liturgy is a clunker of a word; it brings to mind robed choirs, medieval chants, the smell of old wood. Such trappings often seem hollow rather than hallowed. So much mumbo jumbo. Admit it: religion can be boring.

Catherine Madsen writes for the bored, the disaffected, for those who snooze in the pews — as well as the atheists on the eighteenth fairway. The problem, she insists, has less to do with our understanding of God than with the weary rituals we rely on to summon a sense of the sacred. True, we have our share of ceremonies — weddings, Christmas celebrations, bar mitzvahs — but these are frequently raucous affairs, complete with drunk in-laws and rouged great-aunts, where family tensions and office intrigue figure more prominently than genuine reverence.

It doesn’t take a true believer to regret the frittering away of all mystery. While I rarely manage anything better than a shrugging agnosticism on even my most optimistic days, the fact is, we are occasionally visited by moments of awe — sublime, intimate moments shrouded in uneasy promise. Speak about God, and I’m liable to shake my head. Speak about awe, and I know what is meant. So do you. Think of the last time a sudden rise of mountain, or a line in a poem, or the touch of a lover sent a hot thrill churning through your belly, tripping up your throat, only to die on your tongue; to have voiced it would have killed it.

As the following selections from her work show, Madsen understands the fragile beauty of such moments; she struggles to fashion rituals equal to it. Expect no mincing pieties here. What you’ll find is a kind of guerrilla theology, in which both classical scripture and secular poetry — including William Blake, T.S. Eliot, Cynthia Ozick, and Walt Whitman — are intertwined. Madsen then takes the most familiar events — a child’s coming of age, the end of a marriage, the change of seasons — as opportunities to explore, test, and hone our sense of wonder.

T.L. Toma


As a college student in the early seventies, I once attended a Lutheran service in the modern idiom, of which the only words I remember are “Lord of atom, earth, and space.” I remember them because they seemed so modern as to be almost insincere, like the smiling, openhearted insincerity of a television host: an attempt to update the church’s image with a casual assortment of items that sounded newsy and scientific. A writer who had sufficient awe of atoms or earth or space — or sufficient Lutheran fear of the Lord — would never have invoked all four of them in terms that sounded so much like dismissal. That leaden echo of biblical language has stood as a warning to me ever since of what the modern liturgist is up against.

I am not a Christian — not, of course, because of the hapless liturgist, but for more essential reasons — and I am dealing with a somewhat different problem. I am not attempting to make an old system palatable but to make certain thoughts sayable. I have written a liturgy not of revelation but of experience and uncertainty. It is not intended to support the belief of a community of believers, but to offer an outline of public ritual to scattered and various people disaffected from belief.

I began it out of frustration at homemade weddings full of clichés, funerals marred by jargon, and Christian and neopagan attempts to devise new rituals. It was a practical matter at first (if any attempt at capturing holiness can be said to be practical): certain public occasions did not seem to be effectual. I was not sure whether they failed to convince because the participants were inarticulate and embarrassed, or whether this inarticulateness itself proceeded from a failure of conviction. I did sense that if care were not given to the purely theatrical aspects of ritual — timing, congruity, a choice of words as intense and concise as possible — those present would feel less like participants and more like an audience, and an audience that has been let down.

What many of these rituals were designed to praise — hence my impatience when they fell short — was the relations between people, and between people and the world. They did not look to an ineffable “beyond”; they looked at the imperfect and malleable “between,” and tried to shape it. They looked for life to supply its own meaning. It is almost as if in the hurried and fragmented patterns of contemporary life, ordinary relations themselves are the divine things that have been eclipsed, and that must be reiterated, recovered, insisted upon, prior to any theology. As if God must emerge from the spaces between us in order to be credible at all.

I have thought for as long as I can remember that the asking of unanswerable questions and the facing of irreparable truths is our only consolation for having to live through them.

There is a slowing process, a withdrawal from casual talk, that helps this emergence. This is why the cadence and content of liturgical language matter: they help to establish trust, to loosen the hold of small talk over people in groups. In this liturgy I have borrowed liberally from language I trusted — a little of it biblical (which we are used to in liturgy) and much of it from secular poetry (which, for the most part, we are not). Poetry already functions as a kind of private liturgy for those who take it seriously: as much as any psalm or commandment, it charges the reader to make something manifest, to be faithful to something essential. Hopkins’ “My own heart let me more have pity on,” Rilke’s “You must change your life” are more than observations of the human scene: they are morally binding. No one claims that poetry is revelation in the religious sense, or that its sources are anything but human and fallible. But poetry reminds us of what the stakes are, and sometimes it reminds us more effectively than religion. Religion has a system: one of its main cares is to safeguard its metaphors, to make sure its vocabulary is pure. It is not free to choose the language by which it reminds us. By mingling religious and secular quotations, without giving one precedence over the other, we can broaden the range of what it is possible to think in each other’s presence. This mingling may also give both forms a new kind of authority: not the authority of exhortation or of aesthetic judgment, but the authority of a continuing conversation whose motives we trust — a conditional but quite genuine authority.

I’ve wondered since childhood why people place religious authority in titles and offices rather than in the behavior of people they trust; surely it’s those people who make authority credible to us at all. In the end all authority is conditional — including divine authority: whatever is not fully trustworthy will cease to command full obedience. We are continually learning to judge more and more carefully what we can obey. To some religious people this use of our judgment is too great a liberty — and too harsh a disappointment in the long search for something we can trust uncritically. But anything worth trusting at all does not demand uncritical trust: it demands the growth of our conscience. The value of personal and poetic authority is that it teaches us judgment: conditional authority makes us establish conditions.

Of all the influences that have worked on me as I wrote the liturgy, Jewish thought has been the strongest: in recent years it has come to be the measure of all my thinking. I am just beginning to sort out the widely varying attitudes toward authority in Jewish practice, but I find throughout all the variations an intense pursuit of conscience and an apparently inexhaustible urge toward careful judgment. I am left in the ironic position of accepting the authority of Judaism conditionally — because I trust it — and not because it is divine.

In essence, I have tried to devise a religious framework for people who have never been a religious community, and to test it by certain principles of Jewish thought: that God is hidden and not to be named, that the development of character is a lifelong work of intellect and compassion, that critical thinking is an essential part of responsibility and that not even kindness is possible without it — and that any “absolute” short of this is a false comfort, an idol. If this nascent religion makes no claim to a covenant with God it still presents an imperative: if there is no covenant, we have to do it ourselves.

E.M. Broner, whose work in Jewish feminist liturgy I admire, has said that ritual must incorporate both illusion and disillusion. I take this to mean both the sense of play or theater that makes it possible to enact one’s great questions, and the sense of bone-seriousness that makes it possible to abandon sentimental pieties. I have thought for as long as I can remember that the asking of unanswerable questions and the facing of irreparable truths is our only consolation for having to live through them. The questions seem to become more unanswerable, and the truths more irreparable, all the time; but perhaps ritual can still provide a way of facing them together, and without despair.


I have organized the liturgy on the lines of an obvious and indisputable cosmology — the solar calendar — and a system which is outdated as chemistry but fully alive as metaphor: the four elements. This is standard practice in neopagan circles, but I am taking it in a new direction. While the eight solar holidays (the solstices, the equinoxes, and the midpoints between them) are often regarded as cyclical celebrations, evidence of the reliability of nature, I have tried to recognize that the reliability of nature is now profoundly in question, and that the trustworthiness of human civilization has been more thoroughly undermined in our own times than at any time before. To approach celebration without reference to these life-disrupting facts — as though the ozone were still intact, as though the Bomb had never fallen, as though the Jews of Europe had not died — is not only to ignore the dead and the endangered, but to underestimate the impulse to celebration itself, as if it could only exist in a closed garden, a safe and artificial place.

While I have followed standard practice in assigning the roles of the four elements — earth, air, fire, and water — to persons standing at the four cardinal points in the circle of participants, I have also made room for a fifth element which is not generally given a role in ritual, though it is part of the same cosmology. It is sometimes called spirit, or ether, or essence, in contrast to the materiality of the other elements; I have chosen its most cryptic name, the Quintessence (“fifth element”), because the other terms suggest a spirituality so ethereal that it tends to float away from the particulars of life. The Quintessence is the force that makes things happen, that which animates the inanimate — the fact of relationship itself that emerges from the spaces between things. In theological terms, it is something like Harold Schulweis’ “predicate theology”: God is not a person but a motive power, the transforming event in, for example, the photosynthesis and harvesting and kneading and baking involved in “bringing forth bread from the earth.” No person and no thing can represent this power — not so much because it is forbidden as because it is impossible — but words can remind; it seemed useful to let it have a voice among the others.

In the series of rituals for life passages, I have tried to keep a balance between the personal and the communal: to suggest that we are linked and responsible for each other, but that the validity of our linkage depends on our regard for each other’s solitude — a generous mutual detachment in which each person has serious work and free choice, as much as the world allows.


Liturgy is a bastard form, halfway between real life and literature. It is not the making of choices and the wearing of soul against soul in the unrehearsed and unrepeatable conditions of living; it is not the solitary study of the human condition in the world. It is an effort to shape ourselves and our future in each other’s presence, to bind ourselves to doing what we ought to do, to hold each other to a moral vision that we honor. It is the lyricism of morality, not its action or its demonstration. It is an attempt to overcome the solitude of our choices — a solitude which descends on us again the moment we leave each other’s presence, and which, if we did not have it, we would desperately desire.


Liturgical reform — which in our day tends to mean the translation of liturgies not only into the vernacular but out of the literary realm — is meant to make those liturgies accessible, but it merely makes them disappointing. Flat language insults both the intelligence and the ear; far from being a reprieve from a too-demanding literacy, it deprives both the literate and the illiterate of a viable oral tradition. Only if liturgy is capable of permeating the common language — as the Book of Common Prayer permeates English literature, as Hebrew permeates Yiddish — can it enter into people’s thoughts. And only what enters our thoughts can alter our actions.


A liturgy without confidence suggests a God without confidence. Perhaps this is apt enough for the industrial age — and for this century in particular, which has surely given God one mortal blow after another — but the point of liturgy has never been to collapse under the weight of the status quo; it aims to change people. A liturgy that cannot change people conveys the message that the will and the spirit have no power, that we cannot do anything that really matters.


If the old liturgies are not possible to translate convincingly — if, to the translators, they are no longer effectual — perhaps it’s because the conditions of life, the type and scope of the threats that face us, are new in human experience. We need liturgy to accomplish a new thing: not simple personal or collective communion with the holy, but the restoration — the re-creation — of the world.

A liturgy that cannot change people conveys the message that the will and the spirit have no power, that we cannot do anything that really matters.

Ritual is not a preliminary to living a good life, but a last-ditch attempt at healing, which the community repeats over and over at frequent intervals, hoping that the hypnotic effect will enable it to “take.”

To have serious poetry or religion, you must first be convinced of the irreparable. The person who is searching for solutions, ways around private tragedy, is still undefeated and will find only superficial answers. Old pain is still there, whole, unmanageable, whenever something touches it.

Tikkun — Hebrew for “repair” — arises only out of this recognition. Defeat is what teaches us the difference between the reparable and the irreparable. And defeat is what provides the impetus for repair: we find it unbearable that even more should be lost, and we rush to prevent it.

Tikkun is not optimism, the cheerful faith that things can be repaired; it is the refusal to accept any more defeat.


A difficulty in the writing of liturgy is the division in our outward life between what is understood and what is enacted. What we know from reading books, and from living our lives, tends to be so much more complex and intimate than what we do in religious services; even when we recognize a passage or a thought we love in a service, if we are with people whose thoughts we don’t know and to whom we can speak only with conventional kindliness, we may suspect we are reading something into the text. We get over expecting any direct relationship between participation and emotion.

Yet we want enactment. People want what they know to be sayable.


For some, religious services and spiritual paths may fail to touch religious feeling altogether. They do not encompass that complex of lights and sounds and smells that the world is to us between sleep and waking, or in our most profound memories. For me there is a whole private realm — moon and stars, intense cold, the smell of tanned skins and the howl of dogs, a certain silhouette of mountains, the shades of green from spruce to aspen — that is a lightning rod from body to spirit; and whatever I do for religion, no matter how deeply it touches me, there is always something elsewhere that is stronger.

The people for whom the lights and sounds and smells they encounter through religion are those primal things — for whom the sound of the shofar or the smell of incense or the taste of ritual wine become that lightning rod — are they undivided?


Why are some people distressed at the thought of not having a “personal God”? Is it that they feel they would have to give up the biblical stories, which are so numinous and so endlessly complex? Is it simply the naive form of belief they want, a God with nothing incalculable about him? Or do they mean that God moves them in their person — “in the inward parts” — and only the language of personality can hold that movement?

To rule out biblical metaphor as a means of talking about the world is like refusing to breathe air. It is polluted? Yes; but can you choose to be anaerobic instead?


Never mind the authority of the Bible. Does it move you to dream dreams and to see visions, and to think? To think about justice, even justice against its own pronouncements?


When the Bible is taken as a set of normative prescriptions that override common sense and individual judgment, it prevents you from striving with God.


If we accept the word “God” into our vocabulary, it is partly so we may have adequate curses. The mighty and disembodied must take its place beside the vulnerable and embodied — excrement and sex. Profanity is the metaphysical complement of obscenity: together they span the whole range of human reality.


To call God he or she and take part in the present wrangle over pronouns is servility. How can one pin a skirt or a codpiece on the immaterial? And to what purpose? Is God a “role model” that we should be able to emulate uncritically?

For the sake of the Hebrew Bible and liturgy — and of curses — I am willing, on the whole, to put up with he. This is a considered decision, made after years of feminist reading and living, and I do not take it as a defeat. Feminism has made it viscerally clear that the West’s strongest image of the divine is a metaphor; to be aware of that all the time is one of the most powerful safeguards against spiritual complacency I know. (I wish I thought the metaphor of she as powerful a safeguard, but I don’t; though it may dispel a certain amount of spiritual complacency among men, it results in a self-consciousness about good manners that is merely distracting, and it encourages in both men and women a wishful romanticism about God the Mother that is a far less interesting metaphor. God’s biblical Fatherhood is at least convincing.) He is also a powerful confirmation, in specifically feminist terms, of an intuition that appears throughout the Bible in various ways: not that God is male and thus our rightful ruler, but that God is not entirely to be trusted.


Should we want to remove the paradox from worship?


Surely the epistemological difference between theism and atheism is not so great as either side supposes. The most convinced atheist must acknowledge that there are realms so different from one’s conscious understanding that only religious metaphor will serve to identify them. The most convinced theist must acknowledge that religious metaphor always remains metaphor — that any name of God instantly becomes inadequate, reductive; that to say “God” and mean anything literal and limited by it is already to take the Name in vain.


Even if metaphor remains metaphor and the universe is “all there is,” surely this is no threat to holiness. Surely the universe only confirms and ratifies that holiness is there, burning, inescapable, right down in the structure of our flesh, right in our atoms. God is true, so true that our knowledge of that truth is bodily. God cannot abandon us; such abandonment is as inconceivable as that flesh should fly apart into loose molecules, or gravity cease to hold us down. Transcendence is immanent: holiness knits us together, bone to its bone. Immanence is transcendent: what we are gives rise to unrest and the dream of redemption.


It is necessary to remember holiness, not to define it. Holiness maintains us whether we remember it or not — for holiness is not some remote moral rectitude but every kindness that keeps us fed and warm and thinking and out of pain — but we may be too embittered or too unknowing to give it room. Holiness is inescapable, but an answering faithfulness to it is not inevitable. Neither the immanence nor the transcendence of God has ever been a guarantee of moral goodness.


There is something that loves you in the world. The voice that speaks to you within, in the worst despair, is not different from the voice that called the world into being. What makes your body give off heat is the same fire that sleeps in the rocks and is changed from light to matter by the plants: the fire that lights the sun and the other stars. The intimate is the infinite. To break that unity is to fall prey to a series of barren and distracting arguments that try to rule the whole of reality by a fragment.


I remain agnostic on the question of the spiritual whereabouts of the dead — resurrection, reincarnation, the transmigration of souls. Two things seem true. In the simultaneity of time, every personality that ever was exists forever; in the successiveness of time, the personality is conterminous with the body. Our practical experience of death knows no more than this, and I think we slight the distress of mourners when we speculate on the details as though promoting some recycling scheme.

The voice that speaks to you within, in the worst despair, is not different from the voice that called the world into being. . . . The intimate is the infinite.

A spiritual quest tends to look like an endless insatiable search after “personal power” because that power ebbs the moment it is obtained. What effect does your private well-being have once you get to your job the next morning, to push the same papers or sell the same unnecessary goods, participating helplessly in the world’s wasting? You turn back, again and again, puzzled, for more “personal power” because your political circumstances do not give it to you.

Yet without that search, without that blind insistence on not merely doing your job but maintaining your ways before God, you lose compassion: you forget how to feel, either for yourself or for others. You read the paper and say, “Why all the fuss about people being disappeared? I, this moment, am disappeared, and I can take it.”


One may refuse the Christian gospel, not because it is too demanding but because it makes the wrong demand. Various tenets — the doctrine that supernatural deliverance is all that can help us against our own sinful nature, and that this deliverance has somehow already been accomplished by the life of one person two thousand years ago; the preoccupation with personal salvation; the church’s recurrent uneasiness with the intellect and the body, as though they implicitly challenged the whole scheme — all seem to distract from the pressing business of conducting ourselves justly toward each other and the world. The fact that some people who accept these doctrines are people of integrity seems to me to argue for a kind of “original goodness” that can persist in the face of heavy assaults, and not at all for the saving power of Christian beliefs against “original sin.” What is holy in us, perhaps, is finally too strong and too sensible to be thrown off course by a theology, and can break forth in the most uncongenial of surroundings.


Our problem is to make the conditions of life worthy of what is holy. Each of us has some knowledge of the holy through experience (whether or not we have been taught one of its official revelations), and we liberate it or occlude it primarily through our actions. Certainly one may discover the holy through Christian practice and belief, and act according to Christian ethical principles; yet the further Christianity gets from its Hebrew origins, the more its idea of holiness is subtly altered. Holiness becomes dematerialized, taken out of time; it becomes remote from us, and we can only approach it by becoming remote from ourselves. Life is a kind of antimatter, it is essentially irreconcilable with bodily life; the body of Christ (historical or sacramental) is the only place where flesh and holiness cohere. Some modern Christians deplore this flight from matter, and affirm the value of the body, but even this affirmation tends not to have the purposeful, unsanctimonious directness that the Jewish idea of holiness still preserves: a holiness that is not a kind of essence but a kind of activity. Holiness is warm, not cold.


It is not what the body is that matters — whether good or bad — but what it can become; what it can accomplish that is necessary to accomplish. Or, from the other side, the damage it can do, how it can lock the intimate away and keep it from the infinite.


The extreme beauty of Christian art and music and literature can break one’s heart. Still, it cannot be allowed to submerge one’s conscience.


The tiresomeness, the frivolity, the sheer redundancy of people when you see them anonymously (does the world need so many of them? does the world need you?), and the preciousness, the heartbreaking uniqueness, the admirable resiliency of the ones you know!

Liturgy is about that resiliency, the reasonless, bodily, flat-out here I am of being here: being here and being glad.


Our business as spiritual beings is to outwit the inevitable.


Jacob Neusner speaks of liturgy as “enchantment,” an act of imagination that transforms the is of ordinary life into the as if of community and holiness. The world grows more “disenchanted” all the time: there is palpably less and less community, and arguably less and less holiness, in it. On what basis can we enchant the world, and when is such enchantment not a fraudulent, romantic effort to see ourselves as important, to cling to the illusion that the universe loves us best? When is enchantment a form of valor, of tikkun?

Imagine a seasonal ritual as an enchantment that does not depend on what the universe thinks of the community, but on what the community thinks of the universe. We invest the earth’s activity with moral meaning, we try to assist it, we imagine ourselves not as important but as obligated. Liturgy makes deliberate the involuntary: we participate consciously in what a world does “by nature.” Not the “pathetic fallacy” whereby we imagine the world feels as we do, but the ritual enactment whereby we feel as it does.

Simultaneously, we enchant morality with the grace of what the earth does. Too much of what we understand as morality is bleak and harsh: mere prohibition without wonder or sweetness or reward — say, the commandment against idols, which deprives, without the commandment to keep the Sabbath, which restores. But if morality is not beautiful — if it is seen primarily as a check on beauty, a limitation on the aesthetic sense itself — who will be able to bear its pursuit?


Morality and grace need each other: both the intentional and the habitual, both the decisive and the beautiful. If morality is only the idol-smasher, it becomes cruel, and then it loses its power; idol-smashing burns itself out, and returns to idolatry, because peace must come from somewhere. But if morality is enchanted, it becomes not merely a destructive force, reducing everything to the irredeemable rubble of what is: it becomes a reminder of, a passport to, what can be.

Coming Of Age

This ritual may take place at puberty or at the arbitrary age of thirteen, whichever the child chooses. In preparation for it, the child should choose an apprenticeship: a serious art, trade, or job in which s/he will be taught and judged according to adult standards (including technique, theory, the work’s place in the community, and its effects on the natural environment). S/he should be introduced to others working in the same field, including authorities whenever possible, and encouraged to consult them (and anyone else who might be helpful, or who might stand in the way). The apprenticeship need not lead directly into the person’s lifework; the point is to begin as soon as possible doing work that is one’s own and not simply homework or housework.

The people gather in a circle; the Initiate and her/his parents wait in another room.

All: (calling the Initiate’s name) ______, come in! ______, come in! ______, come in! Take your place in creation.

(The Initiate walks in between her/his parents. As they enter the circle, the Elements step forward and make a smaller circle in the center around the Initiate; the parents remain outside it in the larger circle.)

Earth: You enter today upon the state of wo/manhood. That is a state of both responsibility and helplessness: helplessness to repeal the conditions we are given, and responsibility to mend them.

Water: One is not born a person; one is born with character and inclinations, but it is the making of choices that proves one’s character. We are born human, but we must learn to be humane.

Air: Parent and child do not speak the truth to each other; they want to speak truth, but they are bound in a terrible intimacy beyond the reach of truth. But now that you are of age, discern the truth: trust your own sorrow, mourn what you lack, and seek beyond lack the luck of your own work.

Fire: Whether your hurt is healed or endures to the grave; whether your bliss is accomplished or still escapes you — these things lie partly within your will and partly with chance. But we ask you now something that lies wholly within your will. What have you chosen for the first stage of your work?

(The Initiate explains the apprenticeship s/he has chosen, and shows a piece of work s/he has already done.)

Quintessence: Your effort is good. Now we invest you with your obligations: till today you have been shielded, but now you are held responsible.

(During the investiture, the Initiate turns to face each Element in turn, and each Element kisses the Initiate’s lips after speaking.)

Earth: There is no body distinct from the soul. For that called body is the portion of the soul discerned by the five senses.

Your body’s work and rest depend upon your decisions. Through your body you also understand the strength or frailty of others’ bodies: whom to fear and whom to care for. And now that you are of age, you face the heaviest of all decisions: you can bear/beget children, and you must not do so until you can have patience with them and provide for them. Every act of the body is a word of the soul, and if the soul speaks rashly the body lives in misery.

Water: Where there are no people, you be a person.

All of us are your fellow mortals, deserving both the judgment and the pity that you yourself deserve. The words between us must be trustworthy. Do not speak out of hatred, and do not turn hatred on yourself. Never assume that another person knows and rejects your needs, and hurts you out of hatred; they may do so out of ignorance, for no one knows what another thinks or feels unless they are told; and never believe that you are powerless against difficulty. If your family hurts you, or your school bores you, or your friends disappoint you, you need not simply suffer it: name what they have done, and study the remedy.

Air: The more piety, the more skepticism.

People will offer you answers to your pain, a doctrine or a drug; some are sweet and soon over, others are strong and cling with a cruel grip. But while your heart follows its work, you will not credit these false comforts; you will let them pass, and keep faith with the true ones. Would you rather believe the unbelievable, or do the impossible?

Fire: You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.

Do the impossible; imagine beyond what is given, and give it your gifts; bring into being what was not, and reveal the glory that is hidden.

Quintessence: Be not afraid of the universe.

Life wants to live itself through you. Do not hide from its light; do not smother that spark with indifference and despair. Your life is valid and beloved; the universe desires you to be.

(At this point there is general cheering and celebration; then friends and relatives who wish to make speeches or present gifts do so.)

Initiate: Now I carry my life in my own hands. Help me, all of you, not to let it fall.

All: With our own strength we will bear you up.

(The Initiate’s friends who have already come of age come forward, pick her/him up, and carry her/him out of the circle.)

The Fall Equinox

Quintessence: On this day, day and night stand equal in the sky. Time crosses its own path, as the fall equinox repeats the spring. The universe hints at equity, and at amendment: that the rashness of growth is atoned for in the time of waning, and the harm done in the green tree may be repaired in the dry.

Earth: We know we have troubled the earth, by abusing the soil and scattering poisons; even so, we have troubled the body, exhausting it for purposes we do not love and despising its humble tenderness.

All: We have stopped short of kindness, and the world’s heart is broken.

Water: We know we have tainted the water, by sending all wastes into it without distinction; even so, we have tainted feeling by fouling it with indulgence, the petty beside the noble without distinction.

All: We have stopped short of honor, and the world’s heart is broken.

Air: We know we have damaged the air, by the vapors of our chemistry and the smoke of our burnings; even so, we have damaged the intellect, by not holding it precious as the breath of life, by not giving it what is life sustaining.

All: We have stopped short of intelligence, and the world’s heart is broken.

Fire: We know we have enslaved fire, using it for every need until its traces begin to leach the soil and melt the great ice fields; even so, we have enslaved spirit, imagining only what we have imagined before, using it over and over till we are trapped and helpless.

All: We have stopped short of vision, and the world’s heart is broken.

Quintessence: Through our failures we have hindered the work of creation. We grieve for the hurt we have given others; we suffer the hurts we have sustained; we crave that through all this giving of pain there may be some justice or some mercy that returns us to each other kindly.

(The following litany is read in call-and-response, alternate lines being read by the Elements and by the people.)

From the harm we have done through power, and the harm we have done through powerlessness, turn us again.

From the harm we have done knowingly, and the harm we have done unknowingly, turn us again.

From the harm we have done for truth’s sake, and the harm we have done without truth, turn us again.

From the harm we have done from cowardice, and the harm we have done from courage, turn us again.

From the harm we have done from hatred, and the harm we have done from love, turn us again.

From the harm we have done for beauty’s sake, and the harm we have done against beauty, turn us again.

From the harm we have done from eagerness, and the harm we have done from reluctance, turn us again.

From the harm we have done through heaviness of spirit, and the harm we have done through lightness of mind, turn us again.

From the harm we have done and been found out, and the harm that remains secret, turn us again.

From the harm we have done for a reason, and the harm we have done for no reason, turn us again.

Quintessence: These are the ways we earn death. Death comes to us in the course of nature, but these are the ways we deserve it.

All: Why, in the course of nature, does ignorance weigh as heavy as knowledge?

Why do our acts return to us, even those done without knowledge?

Why, as we labor against misery in one place, do we create it again in another?

Why are our wrongs irretrievable, and their effects never ended?

Why are our deeds indelible, not only the good but the evil, standing forever against us in the book of the past?

Why was the world born broken, and all our efforts to mend it made subject to decay?

Quintessence: Why were we given such hopelessness, that in one long history still unfolding, in one train of actions linked together, we should have one chance to act and act wrongly?

All: Why do we who are dust have such power?

Quintessence: In the darkness, before anything was, nothing longed to become something; and from that longing came matter out of spirit, life from the inert, history from the unremembered, and the finite from the infinite. All that is imaginable began to be imagined. Who can tell if that longing was fulfilled — whether the world that appeared was the world that was longed for? Who can tell if that longing sprang from exuberance or pain?

All: But this we understand: we are not free of that longing. We want to bring the world into being. Give us, Nameless, out of the midst, the word of beginning: the word that heals shame, that pardons error, that gives strength against terror, that restores the soul; that teaches wisdom, that enlightens the dark, that lives forever, that rejoices the heart.


This ritual takes place in a room with two doors. The Partners and the Quintessence stand at a table that holds a full cup of wine, two empty cups, and two pairs of scissors. The other Elements form a circle around them and close it by unrolling a dark ribbon hand to hand without speaking.

Quintessence: Who shall unmingle the wine that was mixed, or divide the living child into father and mother? What has been cannot be undone, or become as though it had not been. The separation of lovers divides them not at the point where they were joined, but jaggedly, tearing the spirit.

______ and ______, the time of your parting has come. Parting is not a mutual decision, as marriage is; it is a decision made in the desolation of a single heart, and if one wishes it the other can only endure it. But because even disappointed lovers must not do to each other what is unbearable, part without hatred; begin to recover the grace of solitude.

(The Partners may read formal statements or exchange letters to be read in private. Then each Partner in turn takes the full cup of wine and pours half of it into one of the empty cups.)

Each Partner: The trust between us has failed, or perhaps it has never been. I release you from the pledge we did not keep.

(Facing each other, they drink the wine; then they turn their backs to each other.)

Earth: Now that you are alone, do not disdain your body.

Air: Now that you are alone, do not keep silence in your pain.

Fire: Now that you are alone, do not scorn the life you had together.

Water: Do not be drowned by your grief, nor boiled away by your anger.

Quintessence: Find elsewhere hereafter unashamed faithfulness and unpretended love.

(Each Partner takes a pair of scissors, cuts the ribbon, and leaves the circle. They leave the room by different doors, and in such a way that they do not see each other once they are outside.)



On seeing the moon:

Old stone that floats over the night lands, we remember.


During a snowstorm:

Blessed among all weather is the snowfall, that by crowding the air reveals it, and by covering the earth discloses it: definer of surfaces, angel of edges, bringer of peace.


On seeing a place damaged by erosion or pollution:

Where I have always looked for peace, there is no peace: the signs of unraveling are everywhere. Old sorrow, old moan of roots in the ground, how we increase you.


On looking at a beloved person:

May the planes of this face and the texture of this skin be indelible in air forever.


Against despair in family life or workplace:

I am bound without remedy to people I do not trust. This bond may cripple me, but it will not corrupt my soul: I will not forfeit judgment for the relief of despising them.

The people who oppress me are also souls, full of private tenderness and bitterness as I am. Let me not turn from them in contempt and rage, but remember their weakness. Let the simplicity of what we hold in common return us to each other.


Prayers for abortion:

Before the abortion, the woman goes alone to a dark room, lights one candle, and placing her hands on her belly, says:

In the bitter choices of this world, let me not fail from responsibility, let me not fail from compassion. Let me cede this choice to no other.

Child, if you were to be born, others would suffer greatly. Let us understand each other: you wish for life, but I must not give it to you. If this world were a wider place, I would make your way gentle; but my way is hard and narrow, and I walk it alone. This is my choice where there are no good choices, that the world be less full of desperation.


When she has recovered, she says, holding her empty hands before her:

Nothing is lost, not even the broken, not even the ruined, not even the shamed. I who might have been this child’s mother and am not, am changed: the death of a small thing is on me and must be made good. Let me turn from abdication and aimlessness, doing what I greatly desire and honor, no lesser substitute.