Ritual

[Updated 19 May 2019]

/|\ INTRODUCTION

From small rituals like shaking hands vs. bowing, or saying your culture’s equivalents of “please” and “thank you,” to family traditions at the holidays, and outward to public ceremonies like reunions, annual festivals, weddings, funerals, ship-launchings, inaugurations, dedications, etc., ritual pervades all human cultures.

Even animals exhibit ritualized behavior, if we count things like courtship displays, and dominance/submission behavior in pack and herd animals. What is instinctive in animals becomes (potentially) conscious among humans, and though anthropologists and psychologists have developed a range of explanatory theories, none captures all the richness, variety and potential power of actual ritual.

Whenever I catch myself thinking “empty ritual”, I realize I’m what’s missing. Ritual is simply a form, like a recipe or dance move or martial arts kata. And like a kata, it’s “a routine or pattern of behavior that is practiced to various levels of mastery,” as the Wikipedia entry for kata puts it.

So if my heart isn’t in it, if the pattern-making doesn’t hold my attention, if it doesn’t carry significance to me, it will naturally feel empty to me — because I haven’t filled it with my dedication, my energy and imagination, my preparation, my sense of participating in something larger than myself. The essential component is me. If we want meaningful rituals, it’s up to us to create them.

Families and friends develop rituals to celebrate their relationship — you may have our own examples of a favorite gathering-place, in-group slang and allusions to past shared events opaque to outsiders, and so on. Humans are meaning-seekers and pattern-makers. Ritual is one expression of how human consciousness works.

Reginald Ray, in his book The Indestructible Truth, puts it this way:

Through ritual, genuinely undertaken, one is led to take a larger view of one’s life and one’s world; one experiences a shift in perspective—sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic. This shift feels like a diminishing of one’s sense of isolated individuality and an increase in one’s sense of connectedness with other people, with the nonhuman presences of our realm, and with purposes that transcend one’s usual self-serving motivations.

Ritual is a way of reconnecting with the larger and deeper purposes of life, ones that are oriented toward the general good conceived in the largest sense. Ironically, through coming to such a larger and more inclusive sense of connection and purpose, through rediscovering oneself as a member of a much bigger and more inclusive enterprise, one feels that much more oneself and grounded in one’s own personhood. Through ritual, one’s energy and motivation are roused and mobilized so that one can better fulfill the responsibilities, challenges and demands that life presents.

/|\ IN THE WORLD OF ACTS

“Ritual is poetry in the world of acts”, exclaims Ross Nichols, founder of OBOD. That means, like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington croon, “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”. Rhythm, accent, echo, silence, pace, imagery, the senses alive, bodies moving to the beat of the sacred, the blood, the breath, the tides of nature and the cosmos. These things figure largely in “good” ritual.

The late founder of ADF, Isaac Bonewits, had much to say about what makes for effective ritual. 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 whole burning bush and not a single burning blade of grass that God used to catch Moses’ attention.

/|\ THE WHEEL OF THE YEAR

Ritual is simply another tool, and Druidry as an earth-centered spirituality includes the ritual celebration of the seasons. The eight-fold seasonal cycle common to Wicca and Druidry and many Pagans generally is a modern conception. It appears to be the happy result of a collaboration, or at least of mutual influence, between Gerald Gardner and Ross Nichols. In the middle of the last century they were inspired to merge the four Fire Festivals of the Celts of early February, May, August and November with the equinoxes and solstices. The names* we give the holidays may vary, but roughly every six weeks you can find a festival marking the turning of the Wheel of the Year.

Ritual can be magically simple, and needn’t take place only on one of the “Great Eights.” Ritual needs nothing more than you and your intention. You visit a favorite meadow or grove or stone outcropping, and you whisper to yourself a favorite poem, a child’s verse, like “This is my rock” by David McCord:

This is my rock
and here I run
to steal the secret of the sun;

This is my rock,
and here come I
before the night has swept the sky;

This is my rock,
this is the place
I meet the evening face to face.

*The Wheel of the Year

October 31 – November 2: Hallowe’en, Samhain/Samhuinn, All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, All Souls Day, Todos Santos, Day of the Dead, Dia de Muertos.

December 20-22: Yule, Winter Solstice, Alban Arthan.

February 1-2: Imbolc, Oimelc, St. Brigid’s Day, Groundhog Day, Candlemas.

March 20-22: Spring Equinox, Ostara, Alban Eilir.

May 1: May Day, Beltane, Bealtainne, Walpurgis Night.

June 20-22: Summer Solstice, Midsummer, St. John’s Day, Litha, Alban Hefin.

August 1: Lughnasad/Lunasa, Lammas(tide).

September 20-22: Autumn Equinox, Alban Elfed, Mabon.

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/|\ COMPONENTS of RITUAL

Below are twelve ritual components to consider as you develop your own:

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. Include the actual list at the beginning of your script as a reminder.

“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 your 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.

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).

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Posted 29 October 2015 by adruidway

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