Raising the Bar: Rituals that Pagans Look Forward To

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I hear a lot of Pagans talk about rituals that are not engaging, and I hear from Pagans who stopped attending Pagan events because they didn’t find any connection to the divine, or to community, through the public rituals they attended. And, I’ve attended my fair share of rituals that were not engaging at all.

I’m curious what others would like to see change with Pagan rituals. When I teach ritual classes I often begin by brainstorming. “What does bad ritual look like?” Think about that for a moment. What rituals engage your personal frustrations, whether the ritual is overly silly, overly serious, or just ho hum.

I would like to see a makeover of public rituals; or at least, of many of the public rituals that I’ve been to.

Basic Public Speaking Training
I think rituals can be lackluster because, in part, while we may get training in the ritual liturgy of a specific tradition, we’re not necessarily trained in the professional skills needed of a ritualist. I’ve heard priest/esses invoking elements and deities with what was probably brilliant poetry, but either I couldn’t hear their voices, or they had no inflection in their voice because they were reading it off a piece of paper.

I’ve heard ritual facilitators ramble on for 10 minutes about a topic while the participants around me kind of chatted with their neighbors;  he was droning on, and we couldn’t really hear him anyways.

In the vein of seeking excellence in Paganism, I have seen some amazing rituals, and I really believe that dedicating to the craft of excellent public ritual is worthwhile for the whole community, so I’m writing this from a sincere place of love for community.

Some of My Biases
I find find rituals that are just about doing ritual to be boring. Ie, “Oh, so it’s Pagan Pride, I guess we should do a ritual.” I tend to like rituals that have a deeper personal growth component. I also have a love/hate relationship with old time seasonal customs; I like the idea of them and the connection to the past, but many of those customs have no meaning or context for my urban ritual audience.

Or, they can bring up gender or other issues that are challenging in a modern context. One item some find offensive in ritual is the great rite represented by the chalice and the blade–that symbolism might work with a particular crowd that’s keen on occult/alchemical symbolism, but for most of the Pagans with a feminist leaning, it’s offensive. I don’t really want to associate a penis with a blade.

I also have a bias toward ecstatic energy work, so I find that I enjoy a good chant, but many of the really bad Pagan chants out there that I’ve heard in rituals don’t do anything for my spiritual experience.  I love a musically interesting chant, preferably that doesn’t have a predictable rhyming pattern, but that’s simple enough for a group to learn.

For my part of the ritual excellence quest, I spent years learning how to be a professional ritualist at Diana’s Grove, and then honed my skills after by offering community rituals, later traveling and teaching. I try to bring tools for ritual excellence to my community as well by teaching the ritual arts, and what makes a good ritual regardless of tradition. It’s possible to have a public ritual, that honors the season, and that is inclusive of the many folks present even if they are solitary and used to their own way of doing things, while also making space for people to go deep and have a transformative experience.

Ritual Focus and Intention
At Diana’s Grove, the rituals didn’t really honor the sabbats at all, though somehow I feel more connected to the earth and the cycles of the land doing rituals there. Diana’s Grove rituals were based on the monthly intensives, and followed the arc of whatever myth or story was being used that year for the Mystery School. Reclaiming rituals typically honor the sabbats, but there’s usually a focus on personal growth work as well.

If I’m offering a sabbat, I look at what’s going on in the earth, and look at what’s going on in the community, and I craft a ritual to give people personal work to do that is reflective of the season.

And it’s true that if someone’s attending one of my public rituals once or twice a year, they probably won’t get to have as impactful an experience, because I believe that about half of a ritual’s effectiveness is the ritual skills of the facilitator team, and about half is the involvement and investment of the community. So if they don’t know anyone and aren’t really invested, then they probably aren’t giving as much of themselves, and the way I see energy working, they don’t get as much back either–I look like energy as blood flowing through a pumping heart. I have to give in order to get, or it just sits there and stagnates.

Emotional Connecting
It’s hard to open up like that, and I can speak from my own experience. While I find that every Diana’s Grove ritual I’ve been to has transformed me in some way, there were a lot of rituals I had a hard time allowing myself to emotionally connect. Maybe I had a bad day, or a disagreement with someone in community, or I had things on my mind and was frozen over.

I also have difficulties in general emotionally connecting to people. I also have a difficult time getting into a trance state, so there are a lot of times when many people in the group around me are deep in trance, and I’m kind of hanging out and metaprocessing things.

Facilitation and Connection
Having done so much facilitation work, I personally now find it’s sometimes easier for me to have a trance experience when I’m facilitating the ritual; maybe facilitating keeps my conscious mind busy enough that my emotions can come out.

I also tend to have spiritual/divine communion experience when planning rituals; that moment of the shiver up the spine when I know the gods are there, part of the ritual, and that the working will work for the community.  Often that’s where I get my most profound experiences if I’m facilitating a ritual, before the rite for the group even happens.

Emotion and Better Ritual
The point is that getting a group of people to open up and feel is really the key, I have found, to creating more profound rituals, rituals that people enjoy and look forward to, rituals that actually give them the opportunity to connect to the divine.

I really feel compassion for folks who don’t find they are getting anything out of public rituals. I think it’s partly poor facilitation on the part of the ritual leaders, but, it’s also that some of us just have a harder time opening up

I wonder how much of this comes from ritual form stagnation–where what many people were taught as the proper form for a ritual in their tradition, interferes with the ability to  bring in or adapt ritual tools and techniques that would make the rituals more inclusive and engaging.

One-At-A-Time Logistics
To get into the nitty gritty of ritual facilitation, this is the biggest mistake I see people make as facilitators. Even little things like when people must line up at an altar to do something in the ritual, or when each person must smudge the person next to them in a circle. That can take a long time even with 13 people; with 80, insisting on the one-at-a-time form is excruciating.

At the same time, physically involving people in participating in a ritual is one of the most effective ways to actually engage participants, giving them buy in and a reason to emotionally connect.

It’s just that it’s usually one of the things that’s the most poorly facilitated. One-at-a-time logistics like smudging and cakes and ale are a part of many traditions’ rituals. But those, and other logistics, are often handled in a way that leaves the group bored instead of engaged.

Feedback on Rituals
I find it’s a delicate balance to offer feedback on rituals. I’m not trying to insult someone’s tradition and hard work. I’m talking about actual facilitation techniques and actual impact of ritual components on participants. Which ones work and which ones don’t.

As I hear of more and more people who say they don’t go to community rituals because they’re bad, boring, silly, or in general just don’t inspire them, it’s really important to consider these things.

It’s also worth pointing out that the ritual components that work on one group my not work on another. I work best with open-language trance journeys, rather than guided meditations which tell me exactly what I’m seeing, or with shamanic drumming which has no specific guidance other than the drum beating.

What Works?
I work best in an ecstatic tradition where there’s lots of movement and opportunities to interact during the ritual, and where we close out with singing, dancing, chanting, and drumming, ideally with more post-ritual drumming too.

Some people really don’t like active rituals like that. People are different. Things that work for one person won’t work for another.

I’ve seen some people who really resonate with intensely scripted rituals and liturgies.  Some people really resonate well with the really silly rituals, or with the really formal ones.

I find that I work well with rituals that are intense–where there’s space for joy in our spirituality, but not likely anyone’s casting the circle in a tutu with bubbles, unless it’s a follies night with a talent show 😀

Those of us leading rituals need to continue to raise the bar of excellence. We need to work to make rituals more impactful for our So–I wonder what leaders offering public rituals can do to raise the bar in ritual excellence, and to make rituals more impactful for participants, as well as more inclusive of different ritual styles, and more traditions than just Wiccan.

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