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The Ancient Tradition That Can Keep Your Family Together

03/05/2015 06:09 EST | Updated 05/05/2015 05:59 EDT
Hemera Technologies via Getty Images

Stephen King said it best: "Sooner or later, everything old is is new again." That's certainly true with fashion. I'm on board with the return of wrist watches and bootcut jeans. But I'll pass on the perms and trucker hats, thank you very much.

Old traditions also have a way of becoming new again. That doesn't necessarily mean we're moving backward. In fact, there are some Old World principles and practices that would do the New World good.

The ancient Vesta tradition is an example of an old faith that is making a comeback. It is a tradition that reaches back to distant antiquity but whose dynamic nature and ability to reflect progressive 21st century humanist and secular values is making it a popular choice for those who identify as "spiritual but not religious."

To me, that's a good thing. To me, that fills a void. I'll explain.

I've never been a fan of organized religion, particularly the Abrahamic religions. I can't get behind what I interpret as androcentric doctrine, supernatural claims or the rejection of science. Nor can I sign up for worldviews that, directly or indirectly, support misogyny, homophobia and violence. Just my opinion, of course.

Yet despite a happy, fulfilling atheist upbringing and a skeptical nature, I've always been drawn to ritual and symbolism. They just resonate with me on some level, and I've heard many people express a similar sentiment: "I love the ritual and symbolism of religion, but I can't buy into the doctrine or beliefs."

And there's the void. It's that empty space that exists between ritual and reality, a space that longs to be filled by some kind of deeper meaning. Not everyone feels it; however, many do.

One of the places people often feel the need for deeper meaning is in their marriage and home life. That's where the ancient Vesta tradition comes in. That's where the old meets the new.

While many couples and families embrace Christianity as a family-focused religion, the truth is that the Vesta tradition has a much longer history of being associated with marital and family solidarity. Indeed, Vesta was the focus of the family unit for a thousand years before Christ was even born.

Conceived in antiquity as the beloved Roman goddess of the home and imagined to reside in the household hearth, Vesta provided both the practical and spiritual focus of family life. Her home-based rituals were -- and still are -- sweet and simple, the most common being meal-time offerings or libations where family members sprinkle flour or olive oil into her flame.

The purpose of this practice isn't just to feed her spirit, it is to symbolically nourish the family unit and keep it strong. Again, this meal-time ritual was being practiced by women, men and children for countless generations before the first Christian man said meal-time grace.

Another strength of the Vesta tradition is that it extols marital and family devotion above all else. This is often done through the presence of a lararium, a type of family altar that contains a Vesta candle or oil lamp alongside mementos of family members living and dead.

This absolute reverence to the marriage and family unit is different than the Abrahamic religions which prioritize individual devotion to their god over devotion to the family unit. And unlike newer religions which insist on scripture-based morality or belief, the older Vesta faith does not ask parents to "outsource" the morality or beliefs they impart to their own children but rather to look inwards to what they know is right and wrong.

Of course, this is just a superficial look at a belief system with great depth. There are more aspects of the Vesta tradition that are increasingly being practiced by people who tend to favour equality and humanist values over religious values, and who prefer private worship as opposed to public spectacle.

To me, it can't hurt to try and bring more meaning to marital and family life. Although the divorce rate is declining, it's still hovering at around 40 per cent . That's a lot of miserable marriages and broken homes.

The situation is even worse for cohabiting couples, where the rates of relationship breakdown and the dissolution of family units is much higher still.

As a couples mediator, wife and mother, I know -- professionally and personally -- that marriage and family life comes with its challenges. I know that the reasons for divorce and broken homes are complex, varied and well beyond the scope of this article.

Yet regardless of a couple's specific problems -- broken trust, poor communication, pissy interactions, undesirable personality types, a lack of positive role modes, intimacy issues and so on -- there is one constant I've noticed when it comes to divorce: Couples and families who are in crisis almost never have a strong sense of solidarity. Some never did.

There is little or no sense of shared identity. Instead of going through life as a united front, they splinter into their competing interests and desires. And a marriage and family that is splintered is soon to break apart entirely.

As an ideal faith that enhances marital and family solidarity, Vesta is a tradition that never truly fell "out of fashion." The idea that it naturally died out as people turned to Christianity is propaganda that has been pumped out for centuries. The truth is, the first Christian emperors were religious intolerants who criminalized Vesta worship through a brutal policy of forced Christianization. It was not a belief system that people wanted to abandon.

Perhaps it's inevitable that everything old is destined to be new again. Maybe that's just the way the world turns. Considering the current rates of relationship and family breakdown, it may be wise to look to the past as inspiration for a few "new" ideas. After all, many people are discovering that ancient traditions fit nicely in the space between ritual and reality.

To learn more, visit NewVesta.com

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