The “After Ceremony” or a Lesson in Ritual Flexibility
Constance, May 30, 2016: Dozens of people have gathered in the Luther Church to attend an ecumenical church service in commemoration of Jerome of Prague, who had been burned the very same day, 600 years ago. Among the participants are members of the churches, including the Czechoslovak Hussite Church and the Catholic Church, politicians, notably the president of the Czech parliament as well as the mayor of Constance, pilgrims, citizens and, last but not least, Karolína and myself, researchers from the Masaryk University, Brno. The official ceremony was a paradigmatic example of its genre: Church music, speeches and blessings, dignified, but nothing out of the ordinary. When we left the church, little did we know, that this would not be our last ceremony for today…
After the ceremony is before the ceremony. Stepping outside the church, we met a Czech couple, Hussite pilgrims in a biker outfit. During the following conversations we were introduced to many of their fellow members of the Hussite Church, priests and lay persons alike. They invited us to participate in their private “after ceremony”. We met at a spot at the Rhine river, not beautiful, but easily accessible by car as well as by foot. The plan was light small candles in by boats made out of corn leaves and let them float on the river, in which the ashes of Jerome have been thrown 600 years ago. The wax of the candle and the flame, that was the idea, would eventually ignite the boat, which burning to ashes will finally sink into the Rhine River – a script likely inspired by Viking burial rituals or even Boromir’s final departure in Lord of the Rings.
Upon meeting at the Rhine river, the participants soon realized that it was not possible to follow through with the script as planned. The wind was blowing harsh that day, which made it impossible to keep the candle burning for even a second. The ritual was in danger of failing, when the Hussite bishop – who already had commented the day before on the rainy weather in Constance arguing that it contained an important lesson about the about the impossibility to control all aspects of our lives – attempted to rewrite the script. Pointing his finger upward to the sky he declared: “It seems that someone does not want the boats to be burnt”.
After considerable laughter, the new script, adapted to the unfavorable weather conditions, was accepted by the ritual participants. Not only because everybody seemed to have an invested interest in the ritual to succeed, but also because this “divine intervention” made somehow sense: Why should Jerome be burnt another time, symbolically speaking? One after another, the participants of the small “after ceremony” watered their boats, candles unlighted, in the Rhine river.
The boats were driven, not according to the original plan, by the force of the wind up-stream, towards the lake of Constance. Again, the bishop intervened on behalf of the ritual proclaiming: “And Jerome too was someone who always went against the current”.
Watching the little boats travelling upstream, we drifted slowly into the after party of the “after ceremony”, conversing about life and religion and drinking Moravian wine out of a bottle. If the ritual ends well, all ends well… or so it seemed.