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People offering alms to Buddhist monks in Luang Prabang, LaosKaikeo Saiyasane/Xinhua via Getty Images
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Feeding the Spirit

Learning how to participate in religious rituals that are not our own

Mary Lane Potter
November 10, 2022
Kaikeo Saiyasane/Xinhua via Getty Images
People offering alms to Buddhist monks in Luang Prabang, LaosKaikeo Saiyasane/Xinhua via Getty Images

Ritual is breath to me, breath and water, food and fire, home and wonder. The way humans move their bodies together in time—in intentional sequences of actions, to sanctify time and space and nourish the spirit—defines my way of being in the world. Growing up in an immigrant evangelical community, I was formed, marrow and bone, by communal and individual sacred rituals, and I developed a need for the self-transcending power of shared gesturing toward the sacred that has persisted through decades of change. Now, as a Jew, I live in a quite different world, but one that is also rich in sacred rituals ancient and modern, shared and creatively adapted across centuries and cultures—repeated practices that hallow the everyday world.

Though sacred ritual is often neglected or devalued today, the power of ritual to invoke presence, deepen meaning, strengthen bonds, and sustain individuals, families, communities, and peoples seems to me a wonderous thing, as does the variety of rituals people perform. My first taste of difference came at age 7, when I spied on the Irish Catholic family that lived next door, the only non-Dutch Calvinists I knew in our community. They didn’t read the Bible and pray at the table after dinner as we did; they prayed with beads and crossed themselves before images hung on walls. We lit candles only on Christmas Eve and birthdays; a candle burned on their kitchen counter most weekdays. They rode their bikes on Sundays; we weren’t allowed to. These differences captivated me, seeding a lifelong curiosity about religious and spiritual practices other than my own.

Despite this need for ritual in my life, my awe at its power, and my deep and abiding wonder at the varieties of religious experience and the creativity of ritual, when presented with an opportunity to participate in a ritual of another’s tradition or community, I’m often bewildered. I fumble around, flummoxed, not knowing what to do. Step aside? Stand back? Stick a toe in? Jump in? Dive deep and start swimming? I’m also hindered, I must confess, by a lingering fear born of shame. Will I be caught out as one who doesn’t belong and be shamed or thrown out, the way I saw those who broke the church’s rules barred from communion, publicly humiliated, or excommunicated when I was growing up? Will I do it wrong? Will I embarrass myself? Will I offend someone?

Like many of my generation, born in the Western world during or just after WWII, I was never schooled in the sacred art of navigating the boundaries of religious communities and practices. Our world was one of absolutes and certainties we were born into, not competing religious claims we could choose among. The rituals of my childhood and adolescence, for example, the Lord’s Supper and baptism, were firmly closed to outsiders, even other Protestants, and we insiders were strictly forbidden to participate in the rituals of others. Participating in a Catholic mass or a Quaker meeting, or even attending a service in a Catholic or Pentecostal church, was dangerous: It put one’s standing in the community and one’s eternal salvation at risk. There was no need to question whether one would participate or not, no room to reflect on how one might participate. But now that we find ourselves in a world offering more and more opportunities to encounter religious and spiritual practices unfamiliar to us, reflecting on how to navigate the boundaries of ritual has become necessary, even urgent. We need to ask how we as individuals might participate in unfamiliar sacred settings, and how communities draw the lines of participation for those who belong and those who do not. When we don’t pause to ask these questions, we risk overstepping boundaries—or holding back, and missing opportunities to deepen our experience. I felt this urgency most recently as I fumbled my way through two Buddhist rituals in Laos.

I went to Luang Prabang as many do, hoping to feed my spirit. It is a holy city. Founded 1,200 years ago, it rests in a valley at the foot of a mountain range spanning northwest Laos and northern Thailand, where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meet, a narrow finger of land formed by a sacred confluence, blessing flowing on three sides. In 1359, to help spread Theraveda Buddhism, the Khmer king gave the ruler of the northern Lao kingdom a 32-inch bronze and gold leaf Buddha standing with his palms facing outward, making the mudra, or sign, of dispelling fear. This image, the Phra Bang, known as Delicate Buddha or Buddha Image, resides on the grounds of the royal palace in Luang Prabang and gives the city its name: Royal Buddha Image. More than 30 wats, temples or monasteries, both old and new, small and large, humble and gilded, anchor the city’s streets. One, Wat Chomsi, sits atop a sacred hill, Mount Phou Si, overlooking the rivers embracing the city and the mountains cradling the valley. The monks who live in the wats hang out their saffron laundry for all to see, chant with giant drums and gongs in open pavilions for all to hear. And every morning at dawn hundreds of them form a line at one end of the peninsula’s main street, Sisavangvong Road, and walk single file up one side of the street and down the other, processing along sidewalks crammed with tourists and locals waiting to drop food into their begging bowls.

Now that we find ourselves in a world offering more and more opportunities to encounter religious and spiritual practices unfamiliar to us, reflecting on how to navigate the boundaries of ritual has become necessary, even urgent.

By chance, I arrived in Luang Prabang in October during Boun Lai Heua Fai, the annual Festival of Light or Fire Boat Festival that marks the end of Vassa, a three-month retreat, and monsoon season. Colorful bamboo and waxed-paper boats—some more than 50 feet long—were displayed on the sidewalk outside every wat and shop in town. Each creation was more enchanting than the last, all carrying cargo of delicately fashioned temples, stupas, thrones, dharma wheels, stars, lanterns, flags, bodhi trees, and lotuses. The larger boats were shaped like phoenixes, dragons, fish, and nāgas, the serpentlike creatures some believe live in the depths of the Mekong, which was once named Nam Nyai Ngu Luang, Great River of the Giant Serpent. These dry-docked boats were waiting for the evening of the full moon, when their candles and lanterns would be set alight and families and groups from the city and its 58 surrounding villages, many in their tribal dress, as varied and colorful as the floats, would parade them, drumming and singing, from Wat Mai, down Sisavangvong Road, to the tip of the peninsula, where they would wait in the courtyard of the largest wat, Vat Xieng Thong, for their turn to descend the steps to the Mekong carrying their boat on their shoulders, lower it into the water, guide it to the strong current, and release it, burning, down the river.

The night of the launching, after watching the glowing boats glide down the temple steps, I walked along the bank of the Mekong among the partying crowds, enthralled by the burning boats trailing fire through black water as fireworks colored the moonlit sky. The mood was ecstatic. The almost unbearable beauty of a chain of vessels carried along by a flowing river, being consumed by flames as they traveled, seemed to lift everyone’s spirits. It was a vision of life, in all its glorious and heart-rending ephemerality, a wonder so arresting I had to keep stopping to still my heart as I followed the procession down the river. A vision of the gorgeous mystery of our existence, the holy, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of Rudolf Otto. Many of the smaller boats were quickly devoured by fire, or they sputtered into dark skeletons that drifted toward shore. The large boats glowed as they sailed, moving slowly, gracefully, turning this direction and that on their journey, or heading straight down the middle, all moving farther and farther from the place they began.

At the far end of Sisavangvong Road, I followed a group of revelers down the bank to a floating dock, where, one by one, people were releasing circular platforms of banana leaves decorated with flowers, betel nuts, incense, and a lighted candle, pushing them out as far as they could toward the middle of the river so the current would carry them, burning with hope and promise, as far down the river of blessing, the Mother of All Things, as possible before returning them to shore. I was holding my own float, crowned with saffron marigolds, given to me by my guesthouse host. Earlier that day, I had asked several people about the meaning of the ritual. Like most traditional rituals, it opened to diverse meanings. “It’s an offering to the nāgas, the spirits of the river,” my host explained. “Some older people still make this offering daily, bringing fruit, leaves, flowers, rice, lao [whisky distilled from sticky rice].” “It’s a prayer for the new year,” a woman said, “to send bad luck away from one and bring good luck to one.” Two teenagers told me, “You make a wish for the new year, and hope for the best.”

The silence of the scene—no cheering or reveling here—and the care with which each person approached the river and released their vessel pulled me forward. Fear of intruding upon or violating the sacred space of another, a familiar hesitancy, held me back. This time, I did not let it stop me. I lit my candle and joined the line. When my turn came, I stepped onto the dock, submerged with the weight of too many bodies, splashed to the end, bent down, and let my offering go. It felt like the ritual of tashlich on Rosh Hashanah, when we Jews cast bread upon living water as a sign of casting off our sins of the past year and recommitting ourselves to living lives of justice and lovingkindness in the new year. What good fortune, I thought, to witness such a celebration of light and renewal, and to take part in it, in my own way, alongside so many others, all of us engaging in parallel play of the spirit. Watching the river push my float back to shore, where it joined many others caught in the mud and trash, most with their light extinguished, troubled me only a moment, before a still, joyful gratitude returned.

The next morning I got up early to walk back to Sisavangvong Road to witness the feeding of the monks. Still floating on the unexpected joy of the drama of the lights and ritual of release, and, eager for more, I sat down in the first empty place I saw, across from the post office, near Wat Mai, where the parade had begun the evening before and where monks begin their procession. I didn’t want to miss a moment of this experience. Before I could settle, a woman thrust a shallow basket of rice and several small, individually wrapped candy bars and other commercial sugary snacks to me, gesturing how much it cost. Confused and surprised at the amount, I shook my head no, but she set the basket at my feet and insisted. OK, I thought—fair enough, the price of admission. She needs to earn a living. I don’t want to be an ugly tourist. I paid her.

As the monks passed me, striding with firm intent more than solemnly processing, I scrambled to put a rice ball or candy bar in each monk’s bowl or sack. In seconds my basket was empty. Immediately the woman swept away the empty basket and set a full one at my feet, asking the same price. I paid her. I was so busy keeping up with filling the monks’ sacks and paying her that I barely saw the monks. Were most old, young? Well fed, malnourished? Solemn, serene? Were they blessing people as they passed? To me, spinning like a Tasmanian devil caught in a capitalist nightmare, they were an orange blur. When the vendor set a fifth basket before me, I stood up and walked away.

How, I wondered, does one participate in the rituals of others without becoming a spiritual tourist or falling into spiritual consumerism?

Frustrated, I walked the length of Sisavangvong Road, following the route of the fire boat procession, toward Wat Xieng Thong, where the boats had been launched. As I approached the wat, I noticed fewer tourists and more local women lining the road. The women sat on chairs or stools, huge pots of home-cooked rice standing beside them. As each monk passed, the woman would place a small ball of rice in his sack, lowering her head in reverence. The monks bowed in return, in gratitude and blessing. Several monks had their own ritual with the women. As a woman dropped rice balls into a monk’s sack, he dropped into her waiting basket a few of the sugary snacks they had collected from tourists. They were emptying their begging bowls of junk food to make room to receive more rice as they continued down the other side of the road, completing the ritual circle of feeding. What the women did with the snacks, I don’t know. Give them to their children? Give or sell them to the women selling food baskets to tourists by the post office? Eat one or two? But whatever the outcome, their wordless trading stayed with me, a rich, compassionate exchange between monastic life and lay life, communal life and individual lives, women and men, rice and gratitude, reverence and blessing, need and nourishment, matter and spirit. It seemed as great a wonder as boats flaming down the river of life.

After the monks had completed their circuit and the crowd began dispersing, I ran into two Canadian travelers I had trekked with a week before in the mountainous jungle north of Luang Prabang, near Nong Kiaw. They had been provided with balls of rice by their guesthouse and had enjoyed feeding the monks. “There’s a stand near Vat Xieng Thong that sells rice,” they told me. “You could have bought some there. Better luck next time.” For a moment I felt dejected, wishing I had come prepared with rice, as they had, instead of blundering in, so eager to experience an exotic event, I had almost missed that beautiful ordinary moment between the women and the monks; so eager to have a rare “spiritual” experience, I had almost missed being present to the spirit of this exchange. Would it have been better, I wondered, to have participated as my fellow trekkers had? Was theirs the “right way” for non-Buddhists? But if I had done as they did, sat where they sat, I might have missed the exchange between the women and the monks. What then? Should I have stood by and observed the action rather than taking part in it? How, I wondered, does one participate in the rituals of others without becoming a spiritual tourist or falling into spiritual consumerism?

Spiritual tourism or consumerism, what might be called terminal spiritualism, in which spiritual practices are no longer cultivated as a means for discovering and realizing meaningful goals but pursued as ends in themselves, has been one of my biggest worries in life—perhaps because I have experienced and witnessed that the spiritual life in its many life-giving forms can be an inestimable treasure and I do not like to see it devalued in any way. I worry that in our search for meaningful experiences, as we seek out new traditions and practices to find what may fit, our longing may lead us astray. Eager to feed our spirits, we’re tempted to devour spiritual experiences rather than enjoy them. Instead of cultivating wonder at the diversity and beauty of the world and deepening our experience of it, we may act, unintentionally, as if every experience is ours for the taking. We may even pursue and amass exotic spiritual experiences the way we pursue and amass designer goods and status symbols. Urged on by good intentions (Truth is universal, All paths lead to the One), we may rush in, seize upon, and appropriate practices that appeal to us in others’ traditions, without stopping to wonder at their beauty, their wisdom, their glorious difference; without asking, What does this ritual mean to this community? How does it feed their spirits? What can it mean for me? How can it mean for me? Can I participate in this ritual with respect and depth and enjoyment? How?

The questions raised by my experiences of sending a fire offering down the Mekong and feeding the monks in Luang Prabang are ones I’ve been living for years. But only after fumbling my way as a non-Buddhist through these two Buddhist rituals back to back did I begin to wonder in earnest how to walk in beauty in a world blooming with so many colors of the spirit. How could we think about ritual, communities, individual identities, and boundaries so that we could learn to participate more gracefully and graciously? For me, the path led from an impoverished notion of participation to one that embraces and encourages discernment and diversity.

Participation is not a binary concept. Most communities are not hermetically sealed; they’re porous. The question is not, to participate or not? Are you inside or out? The question is, how does one participate respectfully and meaningfully in a ritual belonging to and observed by another? Not asking these questions leads to misunderstandings, disrespect, hurt feelings, violation. When I was a lay leader in a small synagogue in the South, a non-Jew visited our Shabbat services for several weeks, each time charging onto the bimah, insisting he open the ark with the Torah scrolls. I explained to him each time that this was an action only members of our community could perform, and he, a Christian, one actively proselytizing us in our lobby each week, arguing that we didn’t understand the prophesied true Messiah, was welcome to join us in prayer from the pews, but not to participate in opening the ark. Rejection clouded his face. He argued. Got angry. Left. I knew some of what he felt. Before I converted to Judaism, during Shabbat services one morning, I wore a large traditional tallit I had just purchased, excited to pray in it. Afterward, the rabbi complimented the beauty of my tallit, acknowledged my intention, studies, and observance of the commandments, and gently told me to wait to wear it until after I had lived longer as a Jew and formally joined the community. After the shame and rejection wore off, I saw how my enthusiasm, my need to belong, my failure to think communally instead of individually, my presumption had led me to crash the boundary of this community I had grown to love. I am still grateful to this rabbi for his kindness in teaching me respect for a community’s boundaries, patience, and humility, and for showing me that there are many ways to participate in, be present to another’s rituals, including being a spiritual “participant observer.”

“Participant observation” is the research technique used by anthropologists and sociologists in which a researcher is accepted into a culture or community that is not theirs to deepen their understanding of that community’s structures, relationships, and values. Participant observers are not objective observers who stand outside the community. Neither are they subjective observers, standing inside as members of the community. They are in but not of the community or culture they are studying, with both sides of the relationship, the researcher and the community, committed to the health of that relationship. This approach was popularized by Bronisław Malinowski, Margaret Mead, Franz Boas, Zora Neale Hurston, and others in the last century, and though it has undergone criticism and revision, it is still in use. Today, five ways of being a participant observer are recognized: non-participation, passive participation, moderate participation, active participation, and complete participation. Each can be an appropriate and meaningful choice for someone contemplating participating in a ritual or tradition that is not theirs. Each is a way to give oneself time and space to pay attention to the world in the way they choose.

One can choose not to participate in a ritual, that is, not to be present during a ritual. Many people today make the choice not to attend or to walk away from a ritual, for many different reasons—because they had no religious upbringing and have no desire to engage in religious practices of any kind; because, though born into a religious community, they have chosen to leave all religious practice behind, finding ritual practices irrelevant, empty, hypocritical, restrictive, oppressive, or abusive; because, as members of a specific religious tradition they have decided or agreed not to participate in the practices of other traditions; or because, despite being curious, they may be put off by what they consider the distastefulness, violence, immorality, or danger of a practice, such as speaking in tongues, exorcism, or snake handling. Though eager to discover and embrace the variety of contemporary women’s spirituality, I have chosen not to participate in certain feminist goddess rituals, and I have walked away from a healing and empowering ceremony led by witches and warlocks. Though clearly meaningful to others, these were not traditions and practices I felt I could participate in wholeheartedly, even passively, as an observer.

How could we think about ritual, communities, individual identities, and boundaries so that we could learn to participate more gracefully and graciously?

Choosing to be a passive participant, a bystander witnessing a ritual, is a choice I have made many times in my life. This is how, decades ago, I participated in a Catholic charismatic prayer meeting where people spoke in tongues, in a blood-drenched sacrifice to the Hindu Goddess Kali in a valley in the mountains of Nepal, in the worship of the Kumari Devi, the living Goddess Durga, in Kathmandu, and in the celebration of Kwanzaa in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. I could have chosen to participate this way during the feeding of the monks in Luang Prabang, too, as many tourists do. By standing to the side and paying attention to what was happening from the very beginning, I might have seen and understood much more about what it means for lay people to feed Buddhist monks. That distance might have given me room to absorb different aspects of the experience than I did and reflect on them. But I also might have missed the interaction with the vendors and the reverence passing between the monks and women.

Many other times in my life I have chosen to be a moderate participant observer. As a moderate participant, one takes part in a ritual, but behind a clear boundary set by the community, neither fully outside nor fully inside, between. I experienced this when attending a private weeklong Sundance on Rosebud Reservation in the 1980s. Non-Native Americans were welcome to participate, not by entering the sacred circle, but by standing inside the arbor surrounding the circle, and moving and praying in support of the dancers inside the inner circle. This wise welcome-stand-there-and-not-here is what my rabbi reminded me of when he welcomed me to pray among the congregation in the pews but requested I not wear a tallit or ascend the bimah and offer a blessing before the ark before I had become a Jew. This is perhaps how the two Canadian travelers had fed the monks. They had been invited, by the town, the monks, and the host of their guesthouse. They had come prepared with the appropriate food. And they sat among other tourists, not among the women near the wat. This, I hope, is the way I participated in the Fire Boat Festival. I had been invited. I did not join the parade or touch a boat. I stood behind the people crowding the wat steps. I waited until the line diminished to set my float in the Mekong. I did not assume I understood what they were doing, and I entered out of my experience, reaching toward theirs.

Yet another way to experience a ritual is to choose to be an active participant in another’s tradition, or a “fellow traveler” to use Harvey Cox’s lovely words. In The Future of Faith, Cox writes that once he “realized that Christianity is not a creed and that faith is more a matter of embodiment than of axioms,” a way of life built on trust more than a set of beliefs, he “began to look at people I met in a new way.” He realized, as a Christian, he had “an unusual opportunity to participate as a ‘fellow traveler’ in the liturgies and holidays” of his Jewish wife’s traditions. Not a Jew, he would not, for example, ascend the bimah and open the ark. He would not be the one to make kiddush, sanctify the wine, on Shabbat evening or lead the Passover Seder, but he could pray and sing and dance and eat and converse with the community. A fellow traveler inhabits a closer between than a moderate participant, walks a concentric circle closer to the heart of a community, but a clear and transparent boundary remains. Inhabiting that between space, so close yet not completely inside, enables one to pay attention in yet another way, to both sides of the encounter. As Cox says, being a fellow traveler enabled him to learn things he “had never known about [his wife’s] faith” and things he “had never realized about his own.”

The year I studied Jewish traditions and lived in and with a Jewish community, I was a fellow traveler. I could have remained a fellow traveler. Instead, after much prayer and reflection, I chose to become a “complete participant,” a full member of the community: I converted. Complete participation is a choice for those who convert to or otherwise join a new community and those who are born into religious or spiritual communities. As the sociologist Peter L. Berger argues in The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation, we’re all heretics today, for the Greek word herein means “to choose.” After the Enlightenment, religion can no longer be taken for granted as an inheritance. We must all choose if we will or will not be people of faith, how we will participate in the traditions and rituals of our own chosen faith, and how we will participate in the faith practices of others.

Each of these ways to participate in the rituals and spiritual traditions of others can deepen our understanding of another’s faith, traditions, and rituals and give rise to meaningful experiences. Each one can be a respectful choice. The point is to choose, after discerning which kind of participation the circumstances and one’s own identity and commitments call for and allow. Not by rushing headlong in a race to consume new information or amass new experiences to feed our insatiable spiritual egos; not by giving in to feelings of rejection or exclusion when we are welcomed and asked to stand there and not here; not by insisting on a universalism in which all rituals and traditions are homogenized or distilled to a bland essence palatable to all, in which their life-forming, life-giving taste is stripped away. But by taking the time to discern—in patience, humility, respect, and humor—how to participate, in this ritual, at this moment. Not by eschewing all spiritual practice or by being gluttons of the spirit, but by choosing when, how, and with what we will feed our spirits. By nourishing our spirits with wonder at the myriad creative ways human beings gesture toward the sacred. And by having compassion on our bewildered selves, bumbling our way through a world blooming and buzzing with opportunities to experience the sacred, fumbling toward love, stumbling toward light.

Mary Lane Potter is a theologian and writer whose books include the novel A Woman of Salt and the story collection Strangers and Sojourners.