(Forgive me for the sort of semi-stream-of-consciousness ramble that this is — I have lots of complicated thoughts about beauty and purity and ma’at, and this is my best attempt at getting them out in a readable, coherent stream.)
When I think of ritual purity, I always think first of the beauty of ritual: the candlelight, the curls of incense in the air, the hushed illumination of the gods’ images.
Ma’at and purity aren’t always beautiful, though. Sometimes purity means getting your hands dirty to get them clean again. Sometimes ma’at means pain.
When my family home was flooded after Superstorm Sandy, we spent two weeks cleaning mud out of every room. The mud clung to everything. It was like a thick slime that coated the wood floors of our living room and dining room. It made it difficult to walk. It smelled. It left stains on our clothes that have never come out. I sacrificed a good pair of boots to that mud, wanting to keep it from finding its way between my toes. (It did anyway.) In spite of wearing gloves to keep the majority of the muck away from my skin, it found its way all over me. I would absent-mindedly brush hair out of my face, only to find I’d left swipes of mud all along my cheek.
Purification can be big. It can encompass numerous aspects of our lives. It is sometimes bigger than the preparations we make for ritual. Sometimes, when we do ritual in a state of purity for a long time, that purity begins to creep into our secular lives and slowly drag us into a greater state of balance. Sometimes that stings. We’re creatures of habit, us humans, and the process of realigning our priorities and our routines can be terrifying. In the process of cleaning up our lives, the “muck” sticks to us. We try to wash away the things that cause us grief, but they cling to us stubbornly; clinging to our toes despite our best attempts to keep them away. It’s not beautiful. It’s messy, and gross, and uncomfortable.
And yet: we do it anyway. Ma’at is not about being pretty all the time. Ma’at is about balance, action and reaction. Ma’at is about movement, the constant subtle shift of the scales in either direction. Ma’at is about conscious awareness of ourselves and the consequences of our actions. Whether we know it or not, we feel the subtle shifts in the scales we rest upon.