We all have rituals. They are the actions, the words and the thoughts that, through repetition, become the markers against which we judge our progress through life.
Most of these rituals are just the little day to day things that we never even really stop to consider. We might call them habits, if we bothered to notice them at all.
Some few rituals come more rarely, monthly perhaps, or even yearly. Not all of them are pleasant, (who likes doctors visits or doing their taxes?), but if we are lucky, there may be more of these occasions that we look forward to with longing, than those which we dread.
As I write this we are just about a week away from Lá Fhéile Bríde, which is the modern Irish name for ‘The Day of Brighid’. It is the Celtic celebration, more commonly known in Pagan circles as Imbolc, which falls on or about February 1st.
I have a number of rituals which are associated with this particular celebration that I could share with you. I could write about the symbolic relighting of the hearth fire, my offerings to the goddess of free verse and raw milk, or the reading of the omens in land and sky.
These are all important rituals to me, although I am better about keeping some than others. There is one very personal ritual which I associate with Imbolc that I look forward to more than any other.
Ever year, as the calendar turns to February, I watch a movie.
I watch my favorite movie.
Because, I can think of no better way to celebrate Lá Fhéile Bríde, which the ancients called Imbolc and the Christians renamed Candlemas, than with a repeat viewing of ‘Groundhog Day’.
Now, I could say, at this point, that the American celebration of Groundhog Day is, in itself, a faint memory of the ancient Imbolc traditions that were carried into the new world by Irish and Scottish immigrants. The links between the ancient holiday, the secular holiday and the odd-ball comedy of the same name are there, if you want to find them. But there is seriously no need.
The movie is deeply spiritual in its own right.
I may be getting ahead of myself.
If, somehow, you are unaware of the plot, it goes like this:
Phil Conners (played by Bill Murray) is a self-centered weatherman assigned to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Trapped there overnight by a blizzard, he awakens to find that the previous day, February 2nd, is repeating, over and over and over again. Nothing, not even death itself, can release him from this seeming eternal hell.
The film’s director, Harold Ramis, has said that while he did not intend the movie to present any particular spiritual viewpoint, he was surprised by the variety of groups, from Buddhists to Evangelical Christians, who felt the movie spoke to them.
“So instantly people were identifying the film as ‘teaching’, and in such a parochial way, each seeing it as an expression of their own particular point of view, without recognizing that it was, in fact, a universal point of view.”
—Harold Ramis – Director
So, what do I see there that compels me to slip the disc into the DVD player year after year?
Maybe the thing that draws me back is the sly way in which an alternative understanding of deity is presented to us. In one of my favorite scenes, Bill Murray’s character Phil is explaining to Rita, his television producer and love-interest (played by Andie MacDowell), that he is repeating the same day, again and again…,
Phil: I’m a god.
Rita: You’re God?
Phil: I’m a god. I’m not “the” God… I don’t think.
To prove his point he then moves about the busy cafe in which the scene takes place, telling her things about the other diners which he should not possibly know. When she asks him if what he is doing is “some kind of trick”, this is his response…,
“Well maybe the “real” God uses tricks, you know? Maybe he’s not omnipotent. He’s just been around so long he knows everything.”
Most people probably just see this as an irreverent joke, another throw-away line in a stream of one-liners, but to me it hits very close to home.
I’ve never believed in that one, omnipotent, omniscient being that so many people center their faith around. For me, the gods are very much like us, except that they are not bound as firmly by the same physical laws which restrict our movements. For example, I have never believed that the gods experience time in the same linear fashion as we do. Perhaps, I have often thought, the gods exist eternally within the moment, and so are able to be, where they need to be, when they need to be there, if not everywhere at once.
Indeed, as the movie progresses through repetition after repetition, and Phil becomes more altruistic in his intentions, we witness the creation of a being, both more and less than human, effectively immortal, who through movements mostly invisible to the those around him, is able to shape the world, even as he is shaped by it. He is the master of every skill, the knower of every secret, and yet powerless against a finality which, in this state, he himself cannot experience.
So yes, there’s a glimpse of the gods, hiding there in plain sight, but I’m drawn to this movie for other reasons as well.
Maybe it’s because it’s not just another movie about redemption.
Phil Conners is not redeemed. He has nothing to be redeemed for.
Phil is a cynical, sarcastic, jerk.
So am I, a lot of the time.
These are not sins for which we must seek redemption. These are character traits all too commonly found in those who are prone to self-reliance and disinclined toward being “team-players”. We call ‘em like we see ‘em, we don’t go in for the ‘touchy-feely’, and if that makes us unpopular, well, that’s okay, because if you want something done right, you had better be glad there is someone willing to do it themselves.
Phil is not redeemed at the end of the movie. He is renewed.
After repeating the same day over and over again for years (centuries? millennia?), he has found a way to renew himself, to turn his great strengths away from self defense and out toward his community. He is given the chance open himself, to try again to find his proper place in the world.
It’s not really a new concept.
Some ancient cultures have been known to celebrate yearly rites of renewal as the Winter gives way, at last, to Spring. These celebrations are seen as an opportunity to take what we have learned from the last turning of the great wheel and apply that knowledge and experience to the coming year.
I feel like I could have explained all of that more succinctly.
Let me try again:
We all have rituals…,