Ritual, community, and the Passion of Ethan Brand

Brian Angliss over at the Daedalnexus reflects on the loss of ritual in his life here.

I hear where he’s coming from, although for me, the real sense of loss in walking away from Christianity was less about ritual (hey, I was a Southern Baptist, and while we had our rituals, it was nothing like a high Catholic Mass) and more about community. When you abandon the church, especially in places like where I grew up, you’re also making a decision to abandon the social fabric of the culture in which you live. You’re choosing loneliness, in a sense.

The solitary path can lead you many places, some of them wholly wonderful and divine. But there’s also the risk that you’re consigning yourself to the same fate as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Ethan Brand, who went on a solitary quest to find the unpardonable sin. In the end, that sin turned out to be, ironically enough, the rejection of the brotherhood of humanity.

“What is the Unpardonable Sin?” asked the lime-burner; and then he shrank further from his companion, trembling lest his question should be answered.

“It is a sin that grew within my own breast,” replied Ethan Brand, standing erect, with a pride that distinguishes all enthusiasts of his stamp. “A sin that grew nowhere else! The sin of an intellect that triumphed over the sense of brotherhood with man and reverence for God, and sacrificed everything to its own mighty claims! The only sin that deserves a recompense of immortal agony! Freely, were it to do again, would I incur the guilt. Unshrinkingly I accept the retribution!”

I’m not a joiner, and I do not long for the pettiness that helped drive me out of the church in the first place – it’s important to note that “community” entails all the evils of human interaction as well as the barn-raisings and warm fuzzies holding hands and singing “Kumbayah” around the campfire.

But at times, I’m acutely aware that I have chosen to be an outsider, and I understand the price of that decision. Always have. See, for a number of years I went by the name “Random.” I finally got sick of answering the obvious questions about where that name came from, and settled comfortably into Sam, a name that strangers seem to approve of. But the truth is that there is a story behind “Random.” No, [sigh] it’s not about randomness. Just the opposite. Random was a contraction of two names, each a literary character whose story signified something about my spiritual journey. The first element was Elwin Ransom, the hero of CS Lewis’ Perelandra. (I’ll let you do your own research on this one, as I don’t want to be guilty of depriving you of the joy of reading Lewis lesser-known works.)

The second element – Ethan Brand.

Ethan Brand stood erect, and raised his arms on high. The blue flames played upon his face, and imparted the wild and ghastly light which alone could have suited its expression; it was that of a fiend on the verge of plunging into his gulf of intensest torment.

“O Mother Earth,” cried he, “who art no more my Mother, and into whose bosom this frame shall never be resolved! O mankind, whose brotherhood I have cast off, and trampled thy great heart beneath my feet! O stars of heaven, that shone on me of old, as if to light me onward and upward!–farewell all, and forever. Come, deadly element of Fire–henceforth my familiar friend! Embrace me, as I do thee!”

That night the sound of a fearful peal of laughter rolled heavily through the sleep of the lime-burner and his little son; dim shapes of horror and anguish haunted their dreams, and seemed still present in the rude hovel, when they opened their eyes to the daylight.

I trust that my path is leading me toward one of those aforementioned divine destinations and not into the flames, as it did Ethan Brand, but regardless, I don’t expect much of a crowd to be waiting for me when I get there….


4 thoughts on “Ritual, community, and the Passion of Ethan Brand

  1. very interesting
    I had in friend in college who majored in philosophy – one summer we decided we were going to be independent filmmakers. (it was a very hip thing in those days). We sat around the whole summer trying to come up with an original script. We succeeded in drinking a lot of beer and shootin down each others’ ideas, but never made a film. Not even a script.
    We spent so much time trying to come up with something no one has ever done before, that we came up with something that everyone has done before, which is nothing. 🙂
    I’m not sure what the point of this story is, other than maybe there are some limits on individual skepticism and philosophy. So your tale of Ethan makes emotional sense to me.

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