Sunday, May 04, 2008

Ritual Lamentation

I went to a one day workshop last Saturday at the Theatre School at Depaul University: "Deep Song: Ecstatic Voice and Lamentation; Exploring the Ancient Art of Ritual Lamentation" taught by Marya Lowry, a professor of Theater Arts at Brandeis University. I was in very learned company: voice teachers at DePaul, etc. and was in a bit over my head, but it was insightful and interesting, nevertheless. Hearing what these people could do with their voices was incredible. Listening and watching, I was transported to different ancient cultures and fragments of childhood memories.

Lamentation is a lost concept today. I've only heard mention in the bible. My parish for a long time was Holy Innocents (the children Herod ordered murdered in his attempt to do away with Christ) so I danced and prayed and enacted the shadow side of Christmas and was familiar with the haunting passage, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for children, and she would not be consoled for they were no more.”

I've been through a traumatic time the last couple of years. And, while the trauma itself has been difficult, the lack of support from friends has been really painful. In the workshop, I realized that part of the problem is that our society doesn't provide any structure, any sanctioned social mechanism, for people to provide that support. Traditionally, lamentation was such a vehicle. It created a space for people to grieve with communal support. When lamenting, the community allows a person (usually a woman) to give full vocal expression to her grief while, at the same time, keeping her safe. There is an ebb and flow. The supporters provide a background "harmony." If the person who is lamenting is going into dangerous territory, the others will rise up with their voices, supporting and validating her grief while at the same time overpowering her, bringing her back to equilibrium. The community encourages, endorses, and protects all at the same time.

Today, psychologists recognize that we cannot process our emotional upheavals solely verbally. Talk therapy doesn't work for trauma. We need to integrate the right and left brain, to do full brain processing. Wailing was an ancient mechanism for achieving that. The community was given an opportunity to support a grief-stricken person nonverbally. There are times when words are just not effective. Friends don't know what to say, and when they try, they often stick their feet in their mouths. By empathizing with the feelings through sound rather than words, people can acknowledge a person's pain without having to articulate logic and reasoning. It's easier and healthier for everyone. Today, we say, "Don't cry" and people don't. So, there's all this suppressed pain in our society that hasn't been given an outlet. Marya said that there's a "flattening" - a narrower and narrower range of acceptable emotions; not being allowed to grieve also diminishes our ability to feel the opposite.

So, in a small group in the workshop, I experienced that supportive role: letting someone wail and then rising up to catch her. It was incredible. Marya also encouraged us to try "chest beating and hair pulling" - actions I've only heard described in the bible. These are lost gestures in our civilized society. And, so in that circle, I tried beating my chest, providing a drumbeat with my body. The combination of beating my chest and vocalizing was very powerful. Traditionally, Catholics "strike their breast" three times during the Penitential Rite, "I have sinned through my own fault . . ." which is at the beginning of Mass. It's not taught anymore (except in very traditional churches) -- why are we stripping all the movement out of our worship? (Because we don't want to dwell on the negative?) I had never felt the primal power of "striking my breast" when I did that highly ritualized version of the gesture, but at least it was there. Now, even that remnant of the ancient practice has been sanitized out . . .

It's clear that lamentation has been suppressed because it's so powerful: through lament, people can rouse themselves to action. The workshop was also referred to as "dangerous voices." Lament can empower and lead to protest. The voice work moved from laughter to grief fluidly. Emotion moves, evolves, transforms.

Marya is interested in lamentation from a theatrical perspective. The workshop was not a place to deal with raw laments. It wasn't a therapy session. But, how would one create a lamentation circle in our current society? People today are not trained in such vocal support. In ancient times, it was part of the culture so people learned it from their parents and grandparents. It's a lost art. How can we reinstitute such a powerful and important ritual today?