Ritual Rummaging   Leave a comment

John Beckett (6 January 2019) writes:

A ritual is a series of interrelated actions designed to accomplish a spiritual goal. It may be a celebration, but it’s more than a party. It may honor certain spiritual persons, but it’s more than singing praises. It may work magic, but it’s more than a spell.

Couple this succinct overview of ritual with OBOD founder Ross Nichols’ “Ritual is poetry in the world of acts” and you’ve got a fair bit to go on, if you want to do some rummaging about in ritual spaces and energies.

ross_nichols

Ross Nichols leading a procession of the Cornish Gorseth in the 1970s. Wikipedia Creative commons.

For starters, form matters. What makes a lively seasonal festival ritual more than a party? After all, some parties also have a form. If it’s a birthday, maybe there’s a welcome period for everyone to assemble, settle in and get something to drink. Then food — a buffet or even a formal sit-down meal — followed by presents, and then games, or dancing, or some other group activity. Or maybe the whole evening is food, mingling and music, with presents dropped off on a designated table. There may be formal start and ending times, or apart from one announced activity — often, the food — there’s no set beginning or close. “Show up when you can”. Still, people often know what “birthday party” typically means. There’s some kind of loose format in most people’s expectations, unless the invitation says otherwise.

If a ritual has assigned roles, it can begin when all the participants have assembled. Beckett talks about how ritual ideally doesn’t have an “audience”. While it’s a performance, no one should be so detached as to be merely a spectator. At our most recent Vermont OBOD seed group celebration of Winter Solstice, we held a ritual “post-mortem” discussion as some dishes for our potluck dinner were warming in the oven. With just enough members attending that foggy evening to carry out the ritual-as-written, it’s true each of us “had a part”. But more importantly, as one member observed afterward, it’s what we do with and for other participants during the ritual that makes the difference. “I support them”, she said. While one person is assigned to speak the words that “call North”, for instance, everyone else can do so, too. Add your intention. Feel the direction. Visualize, sense it on your skin. Imagine the participant serving as North to be garbed appropriately for the direction, crowned and armed with symbols of earth. In fact, if we expect North or any of the other directions to manifest and be a palpable presence, just such group energy and support are essential. Otherwise, what are we doing calling the directions?

I’ve queried the opening words of the standard OBOD ritual format before, in previous posts. “By the power of star and stone, by the power of the land within and without, by all that is fair and free, welcome to this Rite of …” Lovely, but what IS “the power of star and stone”? And if I don’t know, then how do I know I want to call on it, invoke it, welcome the assembled group with and by it? Is it the same as “the power of the land within and without”? Do either of these have anything to add to our rite?

Or let’s say I chose to forego seeking and supplying a merely intellectual equation: “power of land = X”. I let the words move me wherever and however they’re meant to, trusting the ritual and relying on our group’s reverent and “heart-ful” performing of it to answer such questions in due time, if at all. Let the intention and the energy of the assembled members carry me over any rough spots, and all will be well. OK, but then how do I support the herald who proclaims these opening words, if I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing? If we all imagine different things on hearing the words, we generate a diffuse generic energy (or nothing much at all) that may not come anywhere near to what the “power of star and stone” could do, if we knew what we were about.

Mean clearly, and you can carry people with you.

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

franco-zeffirelli-1968

Olivia Hussey as Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film version of the play.

Listen to an informed performance of Romeo and Juliet and when Juliet says these words, it’s the third “Romeo” that she stresses: “O, why do you have to be Romeo? Any other name would be fine. But no: you turn out to belong to my family’s enemies!” If you don’t know what you’re saying, you can’t mean what you need to mean. The words won’t mean what they could. Understand what Juliet says, and her next lines make perfect sense:

Deny thy father and refuse thy name
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy …

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Dionysus in ’69. Photo by Brett Brookshire.

Because drama is a component of ritual, films and plays have something to teach us about owning the words and actions of ritual in deep and creative ways. Ancient Greek drama was sacred to Dionysus. In Athens, no weapons were allowed in the theater precinct during the Dionysia Festival of tragedies and comedies. The ritual of theater was an act of worship, a sacred thing dedicated to the god.

Serious about addressing ritual glitches, the crew of MAGUS ’17 asked participants to memorize their parts. Come ready to speak with intention, since you won’t need a piece of paper in front of you. Improvise, once you know the energy of the traditional words. Call North, and let us hear and feel North. I was North, a small but important part. I did call North, with original words and images I’d been composing orally — I felt their power myself — then flubbed a short line North says a page or two later that I couldn’t remember and couldn’t for the life of me find, for an ungodly amount of time, as I pawed through the printed ritual in my hand. Ritual flow broken, I finally found my place and shamefacedly read off my line.

Fortunately, Druids are forgiving folks. It both did and didn’t matter. Ritual isn’t made or marred by a single person. Smiles and laughter heal many a weak line reading, dropped candle, overenthusiastic blessing with water. It took time before I could laugh, because I was so annoyed at myself — all the more reason I needed to.

Contrast this with my Ovate self-initiation: my wife away for the weekend, all lights in the house extinguished except for a single small candle. I sit on the floor in a dim and flickering circle of light, words of the open and closing ritual at hand, but foremost in my awareness a dedication I speak as the words come to me, along with a palpable sense of witnesses around me as I proceed. The ritual pacing my pace, the words my words, the experience my own and that of those who, I sense, share it with me. Powerful, personal, memorable, unscripted at its peak, and especially potent for that reason.

The two poles of ritual? Both valid, necessary — and each distinct.

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Images: Ross Nichols; Juliet; Dionysus in 69.

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