Call it irrational, but ritual does us a power of good

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Go to Ghana. It's a country where, if you walk like your bum is chewing gum, they love you. Voluptuous, comely women are a delight to the eye. In Kenya I found that Swahili men go nuts for nice arms and feet - just about all they can see as their women are veiled. And how about this to shake up the notion of how we see ourselves? Among the Gabra, a nomadic group in East Africa, the greatest status a man can reach is to ritually become a woman. When he passes the oldest male age range he carries out female roles and rituals. He lives his last years as a woman - an honour!

A NEAT ritual I experienced and watched other women experience, was when I was living with the Kayapo Indians, forest dwellers in the Xingu River region of north- west Brazil. Many of the young women seemed to have attachments to a number of different men and were known as "the friends of many". When they got pregnant, they went through the ritual of having a forest baby, to avoid arguments about paternity claims. The baby would then be accepted by the community. The medicine man asked me how old I was and if I would like to get pregnant again. I said I wouldn't mind, so he said he'd show me how. While I was musing about the most direct chat-up line in town, he dragged me off into the forest in search of certain tree barks. These were then ground up into a powder and mixed with water. I had to drink these at various times and sit in a stream naked from the waist up while bunches of leaves were slapped around my back. What that was for, I don't know. Maybe he thought I was too old and wouldn't get pregnant. Vines were then wrapped around my waist and after three days and nights he looked me straight in the eyes and told me I was going to have a female child. I knew you needed sperm to be pregnant but what if it worked? How was I going to explain it to my husband? I panicked and asked for the soft penis plant, another vine which I had to wear around my waist. Fortunately, they have plants for almost everything.

WATCHING television is one of the few rituals we have left in the West (it too is a good contraceptive). Nothing can entertain like television. Still, for a ritual, it isn't experiential enough. Sad really, because "it is in ritual that communities come together to heal, to celebrate, to bring out people's talents, to unite generations in a common origin story and therefore in a common morality." They're the words of Matthew Fox, the theologian. Visiting him is a high point of any trip I make to California. Defrocked by the Vatican, deemed dangerous by the Pope, he is a spokesman for one of the most vibrant spiritual movements in the world today - Creation Spirituality. Based in downtown Oakland, the University of Creation Spirituality is remarkable for its pragmatic approach that embraces the body as it enhances the soul. Matthew believes many of the self-esteem problems that plague our society have to do with our divorce from the world of ritual. Watching television, boozing down the pub, gardening - they're about as ritualised as we let ourselves be. Matthew Fox astounded us all when he came and talked to my companyabout some of the great theological mystical thinkers that were being denied us in Catholic teaching. In telling us about the early Christian thinkers censored by the church, he reawakened the link between Christianity and the pursuit of human rights. That's why Matt's is a message I'm happy to spread. It's part of my ongoing education. E-mail Creation Spirituality Network: www.csnet.org

AS A believer in wisdom coming with years I'm waiting in wonder for the revelations that will hit me in the next century. Will they be different from the ones we discovered in the 1960s? In that special decade, we realised that there is no ultimate truth, that our beliefs are direct expressions of our choices. And we acted on our beliefs. Watching recent BBC programmes about that much-maligned period re-awakened thoughts about the power and passion of youth.Young people are more affected now than in the 60s by the ravages of unemployment. That's why I'm intrigued by the lack of protest by students. I don't know when the ability to be outraged got lost - but I can't understand why our young people haven't marched in protest against the Government on issues that affect them personally, never mind issues such as Bosnia that should instil in them, as in all of us, a sense of moral outrage. There are more students now than ever. Where is the ritual of dissent? I know the young have tried to create their own rituals with drugs and dancing, two staples of rave culture which show a hunger for transcendental experience. But imagine channelling that primal hunger for connection into something positive.

MY OWN exploration continues unabated, though not always by dissent. I was taken quite willingly by my daughter Sam to the annual Prostitutes' Ball (or "sex workers" as they prefer to be known), at the Seaman's Mission in downtown San Francisco - an event which celebrated behaviour as ritualised as any I've encountered. I love going to market, trading and sharing, but I felt out of my depth in this bazaar of the bizarre. Dramatic live- action tableaux recreated S&M scenarios. As the willing victims were trussed up and whipped, I too was struck - by the way people seemed to be into hearing, rather than feeling, the lash on their skin, a light swishhh. It was cerebral, almost academic. There was no visual evidence of sexual arousal. Then in the midst of this throng of every conceivable human shape, size, age, and gender, somebody I was convinced was Bob Dylan sidled up to Sam and muttered, "What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" Some rituals never change. "Don't ask me, ask my mum. She dragged me here," replied Sam.

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