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Towards a Full Moon Ritual   Leave a comment

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Full Moon, May 18, 2019 @ MAGUS Gathering. Photo courtesy Marianne Gainey.

With last night’s May full moon, and searches from this blog for the words “full moon ritual”, it feels like time to talk a little more about ritual. Google “ritual design” and you’ll find many helpful sites. John Beckett’s helpful A Pagan Ritual Outline derives from his own long experience.

Ritual is at heart a form to focus awareness, like a melody focuses sound, like a kata or “form” focuses movement in the martial arts.

OBOD founder Ross Nichols observed that “Ritual is poetry in the world of acts”. That is, it’s distinguishable from other actions we do by its intent, its shape and form, and often by care for its appeal to the senses. Poetry and song rely on rhyme, rhythm, melody, harmony, counterpoint, emotion, symmetry, repetition and variation (chorus and new verse). It’s no surprise that effective and memorable ritual draws on the same components. Theater also underlies ritual with gesture, movement, surprise, audience participation, intonation, staging, lighting, costume, etc.

The full moon, by its shape, suggests completion of a cycle, a high point or climax in a developing change, a major turn in a process (you can’t get fuller until you empty again). More imaginatively, it can also suggest an open eye, a womb, a mirror of the sun, and so on.  These and many other associations and symbolic patterns can feed into a moon ritual. (Take a moment and write down your associations for the sliver of new moon, and you’ll be on your way to a new moon ritual.)

It helps to work with an outline or script — not as something prescribed, or to be rigidly followed without thought, but from a sense of flow and sequence. Even “spontaneous” ritual, especially for solitaries, often flows from a sense of rightness at the moment. In neither case do you need something written down to read from or use as a guide. But if that helps, or makes a big difference in quality, why not use it? Think of a favorite song you know by heart. Is knowing it so well a weakness?

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Li Bai (Wikipedia/public domain)

A few lines of the famous poem by Tang dynasty poet Li Bai (701-762), rendered more or less as “Drinking Alone with the Moon”, offer us a ritual moment:

Among flowers sits the jug of wine.
I pour alone, no other friend nearby.
I lift the cup to invite the moon
and with my shadow we make three.

(That’s my plain rendering. You can read multiple and more poetic versions of the whole poem here. The Chinese words: hua1 jian1 yi1 hu2 jiu3/du2 zhuo2 wu1 xiangqin1/ju3 bei1 yao1 ming2 yue4/dui4 ying3 cheng2 san1 ren2.)

Sometimes simplest is best. The experience of the moon shining through the flowers onto the wine, the solitary drinker, the cup, and the whole evening all around participate in the ritual just as much as the few words the speaker says to welcome the moon. Yet the ritual wouldn’t be complete without the words, because they’re called for. How does the solitary drinker “know what to say”? What fits the moment. And being alone (and possibly already a little mellowed with wine) helps shape what fits the moment. The moon is both familiar and wholly new in the moment, as are the feelings and thoughts of the drinker. A poem becomes a ritual. A ritual becomes a poem.

“Bigger” rituals work the same way. And planning and preparation can be just as effective in providing a form for rituals where gods speak, fire falls from the heavens, and the Earth Mother whispers her deepest secrets to gathered mortals.

In a Druid triad of ritual, three things happen: you open the door to the ritual, the heart of the rite takes place, and then you close the door. In Li Bai’s poem of informal ritual, the wine, moon, cup, speaker, flowers and moment each play their parts to open the door. The moon is present, and the flowers and wine and place. The speaker feels the moment, says the words, drinks, and the moment passes. The poem-as-script (re-)establishes the moment, records it, and closes it when the poem ends. Or think poem-as-ritual-photo. It’s not actually the speaker performing the ritual, but it records some part of it.

Let’s expand on the Druid triad of ritual. Below are twelve components to consider as you develop a ritual:

1–INTENTION — why are you performing the ritual? The whole ritual follows from this. A clear intention, large or small, leads to effective and enjoyable ritual.

2–MATERIALS NEEDED — cycle back here to add to your list as you develop the ritual. “Keep it simple” is a good principle. Ritual stuff isn’t the main event. But lacking the one or two things you DO need in the middle of the ritual, once the script grows to include them, is a real downer. That ritual knife, candle, bell, bowl of water, smudge stick now needs to be there. Do you need ritual clothing, body marking, etc.? Make sure it gets on the list.

3–PARTICIPANTS and ROLES — how many does the ritual need? Again, cycle back to update your “cast of characters” as your ritual plans develop. In the event of missing participants, how can you double up on roles?

Is there something for guests to do who aren’t speaking or performing major ritual actions? Can there be? Do participants — or visitors — need to prepare in advance in some way? Learn a short chant by heart? A melody? A ritual gesture? Vigils, fasts, prayer, meditation, questing, etc. can help participants bring their full ritual selves to the rite from the beginning.

4–PLACE and TIME — flexibility is key, especially if weather, reservations, or schedules have other ideas for your ritual. Pre-planned alternative locations in case of rain, etc., announced in advance, keep crowd control, confusion and disappointment to a minimum. Is accessibility an issue for any participants or visitors?

5–RITUAL HOUSEKEEPING — “Please turn off your cell phones!” Run through any details guests need to know. “This is what we’ll be doing. Don’t break the circle, or cut yourself a door in it, or ask a ritual celebrant to do so for you. Restrooms are at the end of the hall, or 20 miles away; find a tree. That’s north, so this is west.”

6–FORMAL OPENING — some combination and sequence of purification, grounding, centering, welcoming, proclaiming ritual intent, honoring and inviting Others to be present. Bells, singing bowls, incense, water, fire, salt, chant, drums, etc. all can help. Casting a circle, establishing sacred space, erecting or acknowledging altars, redefining the status of participants, the place, objects nearby or some combination of these may be appropriate. Choose who does these things, and why, and how others can take part. Less talk is usually better. So is simplicity.

7–The MAIN RITE — what you’ve gathered to do. Re-enacting a myth; marking the changed status of a participant through initiation, etc.; celebrating the season, a date, festival, harvest, planting, boat-launch, new home, new family member, etc. Healing, defending, strengthening, commemorating, blessing, gifting. Where you do the stuff specific to your tradition, practice, gods, calendar, and so on.

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MAGUS 2019 Maypole!

8–FEAST, ritual meal, distribution of ritual objects, etc. — a piece of maypole ribbon, a slice of apple (showing the star), a drink, a stave of ritual significance, a card or picture, stone, sea-shell, etc.

9–READINGS, Music, Poetry, Blessings, Prayers — this important portion of a ritual can accompany the Feast, etc. to help sustain the ritual energy, hold focus, minimize side chatter, etc. It also gives everyone present a chance to contribute personal requests, blessings, songs, etc.

10–CLOSING — reverse what you did for the opening: thank Others you invited, uncast the circle, return ritual elements to their original places, desanctify what need desanctifying, take down the altar. Ring the bell, beat the drum formally, close the ritual. Re-establish the world before the ritual began. Again, simple is good.

11–ANNOUNCEMENTS — upcoming events, requests for help with clean-up, calendars, thanking visitors, etc.

12–CLEAN-UP — leave the ritual space as pristine — or more so — than when you arrived. Make this a ritual act of service and gratitude.

Conversation following the rite can be an opportunity for formal teaching, Q-and-A, casual discussion, ritual debriefing and a post-mortem “how did it go?”, planning for another event, a meal at a favorite restaurant (which can be announced on Meet-up, etc., as an outreach tool).

Were you expecting a script for a specific ritual here? No need — you know enough to develop one of your own better suited to you, your situation, your practice and your intention. And after a few run-throughs, you’ll be on your way to developing your own ritual design “best practices”.

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Looking for more detail? Check out Isaac Bonewits’ excellent Neopagan Rites: A Guide to Creating Public Rituals that Work (Llewellyn, 2007), available used for just a couple of dollars.

Some Notes for Druid-Christian Ritual Design   2 comments

In the previous post I looked at the beginnings of a Druid-Christian ritual, letting the two traditions talk to each other through their images, rather than drawing on theology or metaphysics. (Druids and Pagans generally do have theologies — many of us just haven’t explored them in great depth or gotten them down in writing yet. Practice usually is more interesting, anyway.)

Name a purpose, and we can draft a Druid-Christian rite for it. Want a wedding, or a blessing, or an initiation? Both traditions have rich materials to draw on. Among other references and resources, Isaac Bonewits discusses ritual design at length in his book Neopagan Rites: A Guide to Creating Public Rituals that Work. Note Isaac’s focus on public: I use private Druid-Christian rituals that might not appeal to others, given our different histories and experiences with religions.

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Shansui, the Chinese word for landscape: “mountains (and) water”

Already tired from too much thinking? Use the image above. Enter the scene. Walk that beach. Feel the warm, wet sand between your toes. Feel the wind play through your hair. Listen to the awen of the waves, calling. Salt air, seagulls.

Looking for a calendar, a whole set of practices and observances? The Pagan festival year lines up quite well with classical Christianity, for reasons that have been thoroughly (endlessly) explored and documented. Who knows how many Pagans sit in pews with Christian relatives at Yule and Easter, knowing other names, and sensing both kindred and at times estranged presences and energies?

For foundations for daily practice, one need look no further than the example of J M Greer’s The Gnostic Celtic Church, where Greer notes:

… personal religious experience is the goal that is set before each aspirant and the sole basis on which questions of a religious nature can be answered.

Greer also asserts as a piece of (Universalist) belief:

… that communion with spiritual realities is open to every being without exception, and that all beings — again, without exception — will eventually enter into harmony with the Divine.

What do I want and need? Do I even know? How can I find out?

The world’s spiritual traditions offer hundreds of variations on practices to answer just such questions. It’s good to check in from time to time, asking such things, living with the questions till they bud and leaf into answers, or into more beautiful questions.

As Mary Oliver sings, “So many questions more beautiful than answers …”

We change, and our practices need to keep up. Singing the awen, or other sacred word, is one tested and proven practice most traditions put forth for those seeking a new path, or a new branching along a path we know already. I sing till things clarify. Often for me this may take weeks, or months even … “Patience”, says one of the Wise. “Is not this our greatest practice?”

(But I just want to get to patience NOW …)

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Smudge the whole cosmos, if necessary

Greer outlines practices for those interested in exploring a “Gnostic, Universalist, and Pelagian” Druidry. The ceremonies, rituals and meditations include the Hermitage of the Heart, the Sphere of Protection, the Calling of the Elements, the Sphere of Light, a Solitary Grove Ceremony (all but the first deriving from Druid AODA practice), and a Communion Ceremony that ritualizes the “Doctrine of the One”:

I now invoke the mystery of communion, that common unity that unites all beings throughout the worlds. All beings spring from the One; by One are they sustained, and in One do they find their rest. One the hidden glory rising through the realms of Abred; One the manifest glory rejoicing in the realms of Gwynfydd; One the unsearchable glory beyond all created being in Ceugant; and these three are resumed in One. (Extend your hands over the altar in blessing. Say …)

If you tried out Greer’s prayer above, who or what did you bless? If you didn’t, why not try it now? Say the words aloud …

Looking for a short form? Abred (AH-bred), Gwynfydd (GWEEN-veeth), Ceugant (KAY-gant).

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I’ve looked before at these lovely Welsh names for the levels of being according to Celtic lore:

With the love of triads and threes that marks so much of Celtic art and story, it’s no surprise that the Celtic conception of our spiritual journeys should mirror this same triplicity. From the starting point of Annwn, the Celtic Otherworld, we move forth and back through three states of manifestation and consciousness, in a kind of dance that sees us revisiting old lessons until we’ve fully mastered the material, spiralling through different forms and perspectives.

Most of us hang out for a considerable time in this present world of Abred, this place of testing and proving. From here we proceed to Gwynfyd, a world of liberty and freedom beyond the pale shadows of these forces in our present world. Back and forth between Abred and Gwynfyd, with dips into Annwn here and there. And last comes Ceugant, an unbounded, infinite realm. By definition, no end point, but a new beginning. The horizon recedes.

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And lest someone coming to the beginnings of Druid-Christian practice from the Christian side wonders how to begin with all of this stuff, consider this.

Nicholas Whitehead opens his curious book Patterns in Magical Christianity like this:

Christianity is a magical religion. This is not so controversial a statement as some might think. For all religious traditions are potentially magical by the simple fact that they embody or employ symbols, myths and rites that are mediatory, that intend or enable the translation of spiritual energies between levels of reality (pg. 13).

The author outlines a set of characteristics of such magical symbols, noting they

  1. “are inherently appropriate”. He gives the example of a plant, with roots in earth, flower in the air, and “within its stem the life bearing sap rises and falls. Because of its intrinsic structure, the plant is a symbol for the ideal spiritual life … we live upon the earth, with our roots within the land. We are nurtured by the soil in which we live. Yet, without losing our connection to it, it is our destiny to rise above the land, to flower in the crowning glory of the light … Again note that we cannot make the plant into a symbol. It is simply is a magical symbol by virtue of its inherent structure and its role in the rhythmic life of the cosmos”.
  2. “always participate in a greater reality”.
  3. “enable the translation of energies between levels of reality”.
  4. “are trans-rational”.
  5. “are polyvalent”.
  6. “tend to assemble in groups” (pg. 16).

Of course there’s a tremendous amount to unpack here — which is why it takes Whitehead a book to do so, along with a set of exercises he has developed in a workshop in order to put these precepts to the experimental test. Rather than debate them, which is a head trip I (mostly) don’t plan to take, they’re worth simply trying out, just as one would test the statement that water freezes at a certain temperature, rather than debating whether the claim is true. Of course adding salt, raising a wind over the surface, setting the container in a vacuum, and so on, all change the experimental parameters.

In the same way, my beliefs, intention, mindset when I experiment, past experiences, and spiritual awareness will all figure quite largely in any results I achieve. I’ve found I’m more interested in learning how certain things are valid or operational for me. That is, do they help me get somewhere worth reaching? Otherwise, an inner nudge or whisper usually alerts me: Move along — these aren’t the droids you’re looking for. Later I can play the thought and reason game for what it’s worth. Sometimes a lot, sometimes quite little.

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IMAGES: Pexels.com

Greer, John Michael. The Gnostic Celtic Church: A Manual and Book of Liturgy. Everett, WA: Starseed Publications (Kindle)/Lorian Press (paper), 2013.

Whitehead, Nicholas. Patterns in Magical Christianity. Sunchalice Books, 1996. (More recent editions exist, though I haven’t yet been able to find one.)

4: Druid and Christian — The Holy   Leave a comment

[Part 1|2|3|4|5]

“You can’t just draw a circle, step inside, and say it’s sacred. You just can’t!” said an acquaintance this last weekend.

In fact, you can.

“I can call spirits from the vasty deep”, says Glendower in Henry IV, Part 1 (Act III, sc. i).
“Why, so can I, or so can any man. But will they come when you do call for them?” responds Hotspur.

It’s a valid question.

We say “it’s sacred” the same way we say we love. It’s wishful thinking, or it’s meant to seduce, or it spills over from a heart already overflowing. Or a hundred other things. And we can usually tell the difference, being the fine-tuned crap detectors that millennia of gossip sessions rubbing shoulders with the neighbors have made us.  If not, give it time. And as Zora Neale Hurston quipped (about love), “Everybody can do enough to satisfy themselves, though it may not impress the neighbors as being very much” (Dust Tracks on a Road, pg. 203). The same holds true for ritual.

Access to the sacred is the big-ticket item, and if you’re at all insecure about your own access, you’re more likely to try tearing down the competition.

But rather than argue from a position of dogma, if I really want to know rather than simply score cheap points, I need to join the circle numerous times, attend mass the same number of times and then — maybe — I might be able to compare notes. Adjust as needed to fit the two practices I’m intent on assessing. And most important of all, deserving of seeming to be tacked on at the end here, because I’m saving the best for last: I need to bring equivalent reverent attention and curiosity to each rite. Otherwise, why bother?

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So we begin our rite together, Druid and Christian, Christian and Druid:

Now ask the beasts, and let them teach you,
and the birds of the heavens, and let them tell you.
Speak to the earth, and let it teach you,
and let the fish of the sea declare to you. [Job 12:7-8]

We call to the great bear in the starry heavens, power of the north …
We call to the hawk of dawn soaring in the clear pure air, power of the East …
We call to the great stag in the heat of the chase, power of the south…
We call to the salmon dwelling in the sacred pool, power of the west …
[OBOD ritual, adapted]

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More than anyone else in recent decades, Isaac Bonewits looked at ways to improve liturgy. Yes, we can connect with spirit, with the holy, in any number of ways, and on our own. But when we do so publicly, communally, we usually do it in ritual. How can our rituals be good? And then, how can they be better?

You can find four excerpts from his book Rites of Worship on his website. In
Dramatic Tension, Humor, Play and Pacing in Liturgy“, he examines links between theater and ritual, noting

Pacing is something that anyone familiar with the theater will tell you is absolutely crucial to the success of a performance … The only way to learn pacing is to experiment a lot with modular design and to rehearse the people in your group to find their skills and limits. A five-minute guided meditation may be too long for some groups, too short for others. Taking thirty seconds to bless each person in turn is fine if you only have a small group, but can be a disaster with a large one. A chant that naturally builds to a peak in three minutes should not be dragged out for ten. Many problems with pacing are solvable by artistic means, especially musical …

We may think one rite’s sacred and another isn’t, in other words, when what’s really going on is the holiness is leaking out of a rite through inattention to theater. It was, after all, a burning bush and not a burning blade of grass that God used to catch Moses’ attention.

For private rites, I ponder Jesus’s counsel:

When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing … on the street corners, so people can see them. Truly I tell you, they already have their reward. But when you pray, go into your inner room, shut your door, and pray …

Private circle, inner room: we set apart sacred space in order to perform a (second) sacred act, just as much as we perform a sacred act in order to set apart sacred space.

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