Finally, an endeavor like Ritual Design Lab has a paradox at its heart. If I contact the Ritual Design Hotline and the team solves my problem by creating a ritual for me, I am implicitly buying into the notion that I’m not capable of creating one myself. By outsourcing ritual design, I am, to use Steinlauf’s idiom, objectifying rather than subjectifying it; I’m reinscribing the old notion that we have to look to outside experts for such things. Only now, instead of turning to a rabbi or a priest or a guru, I’m turning to a designer.
Ozenc does not necessarily see this as a problem. In the Stanford classes he co-taught with Hagan, he ran two sessions. In the first, each student designed a ritual for herself. In the second, students paired up: One, the designer, was tasked with crafting a ritual for the other, the client. “The second version is more effective because you might not be seeing the opportunities in your life—maybe someone else can see better,” Ozenc told me. “There’s value in it if someone you trust comes in, and you give that other person permission to design a ritual for you.”
That, of course, is what religious people have been doing for millennia; it’s just that the “other person” might have lived in the year 218, not 2018.
Others who work in the ritual design world—a community few in numbers, but growing on both sides of the Atlantic—are vociferously opposed to outsourcing. “One should never outsource one’s role as a ritual artisan. That is giving away one’s power,” said Jeltje Gordon-Lennox, a psychotherapist and ritual designer in Geneva, Switzerland. She is part of the European Ritual Network, a group that sprang up three years ago to bring together ritual designers in Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands.
“We are all able to craft our own rituals,” she said. “Humankind has always crafted ritual to mark special events, moments, and places. With the advent of urbanization, we became removed from this creative process as institutions took over. Consumerism reinforced our role as end-users.”
And consumerism is still very much at play. Gordon-Lennox offers a service that she calls “ritual accompaniment.” You can hire her to help you design a bespoke ceremony, like a funeral, but expect the process to be both expensive and collaborative. “I charge a hefty rate for what I do,” she told me bluntly. “And I’ve said this to clients: ‘You’re going to pay me rather a lot. And you’re going to work really hard.’”
Ritual Design Lab does not currently charge individuals when creating a ritual for them. “My intention isn’t really to make this a business,” Ozenc said. “It’s more a statement—that people need spirituality even if they don’t necessarily want to be connected to any institutional religion.” Nevertheless, asked if he plans to charge a fee one day, he said, “Not for individuals, but maybe for rituals in organizations, we are thinking about that.”
For Steinlauf, the problem isn’t so much with ritual designers making a living off people’s spiritual needs—rabbis do that too—but with what happens to our ritual life in the process. Customization risks stripping ritual of lineage, and unbundling ritual from religion can produce a self-centered mentality instead of one in tune with broader moral imperatives. “We need to take a breath,” the rabbi said, “and think about the wider implications of commodifying our spiritual life this way.”