Monday, November 9, 2009

Writing the Right Rite: Lessons of Experience

Although I've been slowly cultivating a personal practice of meditation and ritual as a solitary Druid for several years now, until last week I'd only ever participated in exactly one Pagan group rite — and then, not even as a Pagan myself, but as an academic, observing and collecting data via field research. But last week, in honor of the founding of Sycamore Circle, Jeff and I celebrated our first "group" ritual — an intimate Samhain rite in the backyard.

Autumn Altar, close upI'd never written a group ritual before; in fact, I'd never really bothered to write down the rituals I usually did for holy days and other magical work. For the most part, I utilized the basic outline provided by AODA to open the grove — declaring peace to the four quarters, welcoming the energies of the four directions, and reciting the Gorsedd Prayer (also called the "Bond of Druids") — performing the opening from memory and then proceeding to improvise whatever central work I'd intended, often lighting candles and reading poetry, followed by personal meditation and pouring libations. I disliked the AODA's closing of the ritual; the mythological references to Arthur and Excalibur didn't speak very strongly to me, and I found the closing unbalanced and too abrupt, without the appropriate thanking of the directional energies or the necessary time needed to ground back into ordinary mundane consciousness. So eventually, I began supplementing the AODA outline, adding a circle casting with the three elements (calas, gwyar and nwyfre), and repeating, in reverse, a simplified form of the invocations at the close of each ritual. Still, the core substance of each rite, between these two formal bookends of movement and speech, remained fairly quiet and internal. No elaborate gestures, prayers or chants, and only occasionally some overt use of tools to charge or direct energy. For the most part, my personal rituals were a way of creating a nemeton, or spiritual sanctuary, that was within the physical world but also set apart from mundane space-time, a consecrated place in which I could sit in meditation and do inner work with heightened psychological and spiritual potency.

This worked well for me as a basis for private ritual activity, but because so much of the activity was internal and unspoken, I knew it wouldn't serve for group work. Group ritual must, it seems to me, be about acting out the spiritual life together in community, particularly in a way that is aesthetic and powerful. Guided meditations might play some role, to heighten emotional connection and focus attention, but the primary activity of group ritual must be external, visible for all participants to witness together — like a play, dance or musical performance. I knew it would be a challenge to write out as physical acts the kind of meditative work that I usually engaged with in solitary rites. Where I might effectively imagine myself at once in a beautiful inner grove standing before a flowing stream or a flickering bonfire, now I would have to find ways to represent and invoke these experiences with physical objects immediately present in the real, external circle — objects with which all participants could safely interact in ways that were still moving and meaningful. A bowl of water had to become more than just a bowl of water; an altar had to be a place of aesthetic focus and not just a storage place for tools.

It took me about a week and a half to come up with and write out the small group Samhain ritual that Jeff and I ended up performing. The writing itself was an intense experience. There were times when I found myself inadvertently composing in rhyming couplets or stumbling upon phrases that seemed absolutely lovely, simple and satisfyingly concise. Other times, I went back to the same brief prayers and chants over and over, rearranging single words or copy-pasting whole parts of the rite into different orders, struggling to realize some sense of aesthetic balance. Eventually, the rite as a whole began to come into focus; when I could not remove or revise anything more without some adverse effect to the flow and sense of balance, I knew I was finally finished. For a time, I was quite honestly a bit enamored with the ritual I had composed on paper. I would open the file at random to read through it during the day, tweaking or just turning the words over in my mind and imagining the actions and gestures of the presiding priest or priestess. I set about organizing the main roles into a form that could be effectively performed by only two people, and then sent it along to Jeff to begin memorizing.

Jeff has very little experience with writing and performing ritual. The word "none" comes to mind, actually, although this isn't strictly true as he has attended a few small rituals with Hopman's Order of White Oak. Still, as he himself admitted, few rituals had really moved him or meant much to him, perhaps because he was usually more distracted with herding and helping children through the rites. I had not anticipated the effect lack of experience would have on our performance; I thought to myself, well, all the "stage directions" are right there in the script, and the chants are easy enough to memorize with a bit of practice. But on the day that we'd planned to hold the rite, Jeff became increasingly nervous, struggling to remember the order of the prayers, chants and blessings, and lacking the confidence to improvise those invocations and actions he could not remember. I began to realize that, without a solid understanding of the theory behind the rite, it could all seem kind of random and befuddling. I worked to coach him during the last few hours before we began, explaining some of the structure and printing out two decorative scrolls for invocations to Cernunnos and the four directions. In the end, his nervousness and my own feeling of uncertainty kept both of us distracted from really experiencing the ritual as powerfully as I had hoped.

Of course, I failed to anticipate other things as well. In the past, I had performed most of my personal rites indoors, and what few outdoor rituals I'd engaged in had been informal and simple, rarely involving more than a bit of lit incense or, maybe, a candle held close during sitting meditation. Now blessed with a backyard and understanding neighbors, I was excited to be able to perform a formal outdoor rite for the first time. I eagerly incorporated the sprinkling of herbs and water to trace a literal circle upon the ground (already outlined in tiny pumpkins and gourds) to open the grove, and during the one part of the rite I included a dramatic lighting of a cauldron fire in the center of the altar, to symbolize the fire of life springing up and persisting through the dark winter days. What I hadn't anticipated... was wind. It didn't even feel all that windy that night. But, while setting up the altar and decorating it with pressed leaves the children and I had collected earlier that week, the breeze soon swept every single one to the ground, leaving the altar sadly bare. Later, as I sprinkled water around the circle, my fingers quickly became numb, and then painful, with the cold damp.

And best of all — the cauldron refused to light. At first. After Jeff had broken circle to slip inside for matches (after the lighter clicked and clicked without a spark to catch), it took five attempts before the rubbing alcohol in the tiny cauldron finally suffused with a hot blue flame that spread and anchored itself firmly in the dark iron pot. But even then — there was still the wind. And though I'd had practice burning alcohol in this same cauldron before, never had I stood on a windy night, watching the flames leaping dangerously sideways towards the bowl of dried herbs and the mortar full of ground incense, expecting at any moment for the whole thing to go up in flames. Jeff and I stood "in quiet meditation," as the script read, waiting for the flames to eventually die down as a signal to end the rite... but our gasps belied the reality: tension and worry. There was relief, more than anything else, when one final gust of wind blew the fire clean out and I quickly slapped the lid back on and began the ritual closing (thanking Cernunnos, sardonically, for blessing us with his wild presence).

Jeff insists that this whole experience was entirely appropriate, and it is true that we had sufficient water and blankets to stamp out a fire in case of emergency, but still I would have preferred a safer wildness, or a less dangerous symbolic center for the rite. On the other hand, it certainly proves that, no matter how many books on ritual theory you read, nothing compares to attempting the thing in real life and learning just how powerful even a light breeze can be, or just how dark it is, even in a city, before the full moon rises over the horizon. The experience also brings home to me the utmost importance of working up to formal ritual, beginning at the beginning with a thorough understanding of the theory and an established comfort level with the basic structure. As much as I loved writing a full-blown formal ritual to celebrate one of the most important holy days of the Druidic calendar, I have decided to revise my approach in the future, and develop a course of study to gradually introduce elements of ritual to the inexperienced. Jeff has agreed to be my guinea pig for this experiment, and periodically I hope to share these developments and learning experiences for others to read and try on their own.

Meanwhile, dear readers, I would love to hear about some of your experiences with ritual — both private and public, solitary and group. What disaster stories do you have? What lessons have you learned the hard way, and what potential pitfalls have you learned to avoid? How did you learn to write and perform effective ritual, and how might you go about teaching others?


  1. I think Jeff was right - an unexpectedly wild flame sounds like an appropriate response from Cernunnos.

    Creating ritual is really about creating an experience, and you don't always get to pick what that experience will be - either for yourself or for the other participants. All you can do is set the thing up to the best of your ability and let it take you where it's going to take you.

    I think it takes practice to get good at ritual - not just the process of writing and creating it, but also for participating. You learn what works for yourself and what doesn't and how to adjust your own attitudes and expectations to get the best experience possible, and I don't know any other way to learn that except through practice. If you want to learn to be a good ritualist, attend lots of rituals. It sounds like you learned quite a bit from this one already.

    One of the things I love about going to festivals is the opportunity to attend rituals done by a variety of different people from different paths and traditions. You get to see lots of different approaches to the same fundamental task and can learn so much about what to do and not to do, plus there's usually plenty of time afterward to sit around the fire and dissect the experience with other people who are also figuring out how to be ritualists.

    I love your Cernunnos invocation - mind if I borrow that some time? Promise I'll be careful with open flames...

  2. Most of my rituals are solitary. In addition, I'm not as young as I used to be, and I'm sharing space with a non-Pagan, which means I have to be more respectful/tasteful with my spreads.

    At any rate, the point of ritual is repetition, in my mind. There's ability for growth and
    dynamic within any good framework, but it ought to come back to the same basic elements at some point. My own samhain/bealtaine rituals are a (somewhat bizarre) mix influenced by eclectic wicca, Hellenismos, and catholicism (?!). There is my own new(ish) addition of writing names of invoked gods/goddesses in sand, reflecting older animism beliefs as well as my art as a writer.

    At any rate, it all ought to mean SOMETHING---either trivial or deeply personal. Every last thing should have some sort of easily-remembered significance. Ritual tends to fall apart when the meaning behind the items is lost; it's just up there for the sake of props then, and acting with props is never the same as doing.

  3. Nettle, I think you're absolutely right! I know for sure that my own solitary practice never really became meaningful and powerful until I began working regularly with the same basic techniques, learning how to tweak and adapt and adjust to suit my needs and the circumstances. Part of me was thinking that having experience in solitary ritual would simply and easily translate into "group" ritual work--but after the Samhain rite, that part of me now seems to be the loudest one insisting, though a bit embarrassed, that of course it's more complicated than that! ;)

    I'm eager to plunge into regular group practice in one form or another, but there are some things I find daunting. For one, as awesome as they sound, I'm just not in a situation where I can attend many festivals where I could get more experience in group ritual (both financially or location-wise, not to mention Jeff and I have four little ones to be worrying about every weekend!). I'm hoping this won't be too much of an obstacle to overcome, and I think regular practice with local folks would do almost as well... except then I feel as though I need some good excuse to do a full-blown ritual every two weeks or so. Limiting group rites to eight times a year just doesn't seem enough to provide a solid foundation... But then any given ritual seems to call for at least some rehearsal and prep work.... So I go back in forth in my mind between feeling the urge for biweekly or monthly group work, and feeling intimidated by the thought of trying to pull that off. I'm sure, like most things, the reality will be a compromise through which I'll discover things I wouldn't have even been able to predict. ;)

    And yes, please definitely feel free to use the Cernunnos invocation. :)

  4. Daniel, I know what you mean when you say that it all ought to mean something--in fact, I think that's part of what I was just saying to Nettle, about how I'm unsure how to go about justifying a big, full-blown ritual every few weeks, mostly for the sake of practice and experimentation... Holy days and festivals provide good reasons to get together in ritual, but it seems that doing so too often threatens to make it... well, a bit mundane.

    On the other hand, I'm also a big believer in trusting the subconscious to dig up symbols that have power and meaning even if those meanings aren't obvious or even conscious. It's definitely not a good idea to use this herb or that ritual tool simply because you read about it in a book. But listening to your own inner promptings and allowing yourself to do and say things that might not "make sense" to you rationally is really important. I began my own personal practice of pouring libations not by thinking through a way to make regular symbolic offerings to Spirit, but because something in me really loved the look and feel of pouring water over stone. There was no reason behind it, but it felt right. Later, I meditated on the action and clarified its meaning and purpose for myself, but only afterwards, after I'd allowed myself to explore and experiment.

    I've found this to be true with writing and other forms of art as well--you have to open yourself up and allow yourself to play with the materials around you. Really, I think one purpose of creating and consecrating sacred space is to open up a safe place in which play can be both freer and more deeply connected with the subconscious and with Spirit. My intuition tells me that a rite in which everything had a one-to-one correspondence with some Symbolic Idea or Meaning would soon become boring and meaningless. Maybe that's one reason why much of Christian ritual no longer feels powerful--the meanings behind the acts have been so refined and explored and codified that they no longer function as pointing towards the inherent mysteries of the world.

  5. Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.