Shamans: The Ceremonial Leaders of the Future?

When we think of ceremony or ritual or liturgy, we often think of worship leaders whom we may call priests or ministers, rabbis or imams.  Thomas Berry says bluntly that in our time we need fewer priests and fewer professors and more shamans.  (Maybe this explains the demise of so many seminaries in our time.)  We need more intuition, not less. He writes:

Priests from Bačka and Banat in procession enter the church of Doroslovo, Serbia, during Jubilee 2016. Photo by Stebunik on Wikimedia Commons.

In moments of confusion such as the present, we are not left simply to our own rational contrivances. We are supported by the ultimate powers of the universe as they make themselves present to us through the spontaneities within our own beings. We need only become sensitized to these spontaneities, not with a naive simplicity, but with critical appreciation. Where do we find this attunement and critical appreciation?

This intimacy with our genetic endowment, and through this endowment with the larger cosmic process, is not primarily the role of the philosopher, priest, prophet or professor. It is the role of the shamanic personality, a type that is emerging once again in our society.  

The main shaman of Olkhon – Valentin Hagdaev; Olkhon (Baikal), Siberia. Photo by Аркадий Зарубин on Wikimedia Commons.

Given the depths of the confusion in our minds and institutions at this time of history, Berry counsels us that rationality will not carry the day.  Rather, we should open up to and look to “the ultimate powers of the universe.” How do we do this? These powers will reveal themselves “through the spontaneities within our own beings.” Revelations come less through logic than by our being sensitive, open, and aware. This is what shamans do, and shamanism is undergoing a return in our world.

The late Catholic monk Thomas Merton called fifty years ago for a complete overhaul of the priesthood and its meaning.  Here was his candid assessment:

I think the whole thing needs to be changed; the whole idea of the priesthood needs to be changed.  I think we need to develop a whole new style of priesthood in which there is no need for one hierarchical person to have a big central place, a form of worship in which everyone is involved.

A participant attunes with angelic energy at a Cosmic Mass honoring Angels Among Us.

Indeed, our cosmic masses are worship in which “everyone is involved.”  There, “the posse is the priest” and everyone, by the energy they put into their dancing and prayer and meditation of the visuals offered, is a “midwife of Grace” (my definition of the archetypal meaning of priesthood).  A Cosmic Mass is not about one ordained person but about the community at work, “the work of the people” (which is the etymological meaning of the word liturgy).  DJ’s, Vj’s, rappers, lead along with other ritual leaders. 

Such kind of leadership is found in indigenous ceremony as well.  Ceremony is “not a democracy” as Linda Neale reminds us, and it does have leaders who know the tradition.  But it is also radically inclusive and participatory.  No one sits out the dancing and praying, all give what they can give.  It is all a giveaway after all.  It is all without a why as Eckhart would say.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations, p. 362; and Matthew Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey, pp. 84f.

Banner Image: A poet/activist recites during a Cosmic Mass on racial justice. Photo by Katy Gaughan, Washington National Cathedral.

Do you agree with Merton’s assessment that the form of worship needs to evolve so that all can be participants?  How do you see that happening?  Does the Cosmic Mass appear to be such a format that encourages full participation?

A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey

In A Way to God, Fox explores Merton’s pioneering work in interfaith, his essential teachings on mixing contemplation and action, and how the vision of Meister Eckhart profoundly influenced Merton in what Fox calls his Creation Spirituality journey.
“This wise and marvelous book will profoundly inspire all those who love Merton and want to know him more deeply.” — Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism


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6 thoughts on “Shamans: The Ceremonial Leaders of the Future?”

  1. Avatar

    I believe that the universal spirit can be tapped in whatever manner an opening is found. Maybe it is through a shaman, a ritual, a church service, a walk in nature, recovery, a time of meditation, prayer, confession, therapy….. who knows? It is here with us at all times — each of us has a different energetic vibration that can open us to the greater whole. What finds us? The cosmic greatness is a constant from the infinite before and the infinite after — available whenever we open to it.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Sue, I too believe that the “universal spirit” tapped in many different ways. And you offer up the following: “through a shaman, a ritual, a church service, a walk in nature, recovery, a time of meditation, prayer, confession, therapy.” To this I say, “Thank God for the diversity of the spirit and diversity of manifestation.” Its always difficult for me to believe that there is only ONE way. Thank you for your comment!

  2. Avatar

    I hesitate to use many words because they have lost their true meaning in our culture. Shaman is such a word. I personally prefer “heyoka” or even my own “anonemoose monk” to convey the sense of humility and obscurity in surrender to Divine LOVE. }:- a.m.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      I’m happy that you have had a way to make the concept of “shaman” more relevant to you by your use of “heyoka” and “anonemoose monk.” The only problem I see, is that because people don’t know your terms they will not understand what you are or how you want to be perceived. But Patrick, thank you for your comment!

  3. Avatar

    These Daily Meditations I find myself moved by most days. It could be because Matthew responded immediately with a DM to his listserv about the dire plight of the ancient Oak trees in France (Feb 16, 2021 Guardian article…France on the hunt…) when I sent word of it to him. 1000+ ancient oaks were to be slain (are now slain and lying in the forest tagged with white etched tags labeled Notre Dame–like bodies marked with toe tags in morgues) by end of March, 2021 (“before their sap rose”) to rebuild the cathedral of Notre Dame’s spire.

    Today, the message to look toward the shamans among us rather than the priests strikes a true chord with me…as this is a time in need of shamanic gifts in order to see the way forward for the planet. It is my experience that these ancient Oaks broke through a communication barrier and reached many, some like myself, who feel summoned to respond. The kind of listening to the Oaks, to the Earth, requires shamanic skills. We will never move past all the killing if we stay where we are. I, for one, am listening to change the ways I know and act, so that Oak tree communications arrive unimpeded. Thank you, Matthew for your rapid and profound response to these ancient Oaks. It mattered to me, and I believe to them, that you heard and acted. Sharon Simone

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Sharon, and I must say that I am moved by your heart-felt response to Matthew Meditation on the Oaks. Thank you for your comment and may God bless and may we listen to the Oaks!

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