. . . 3 Things I Learned About Leading Large Group Ritual
Here I sit a few days after I and members of my Kindred led the Opening Circle for the Chicago Pagan Pride Festival—my throat still a little achy and raw, the muscles of my back and arms somewhat stiff and sore, and feeling like I am coming off of a mild case of the flu. My mind and heart continue to absorb the experience of channeling the energies of those who gathered to focus their intentions toward healing. As part of my process of making meaning from my experience, I thought I’d write about it for this month’s blog post. Certainly, I learned more than three things but in the interest of time I’ll keep the list short (You’re very welcome!
1. Seek (and Accept!) Help
Twila York, the Event Coordinator for Greater Chicago Pagan Pride, announced a call for volunteers to lead the Opening and Closing Circles several months before the Festival. Her goal is to create opportunities for Chicago-area groups to make their presence known in the wider community, and so the Opening and Closing Circles are usually led by different collectives each year. It’s a great way to keep the Rituals fresh and a chance to see how other folks do things. I asked members of our Kindred if anyone was willing to work with me on creating and conducting the Opening Circle; seven people responded and we got to work.
Writing is an intimate process (sportswriter Red Smith wrote “you simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed” [n.b. this quote is often attributed to Ernest Hemmingway, who was a fan of Smith’s work]), and writing in a cauldron of eight people of differing Pagan persuasions required that we all be mindful about keeping the creative differences at an energy-filled simmer without boiling over into chaos. I strongly believe our diversity was key to crafting an inclusive Ritual. We were cis, queer, trans, straight, bi, male, female, non-binary; a few of us were witches, a couple were Pagan, one was a Hellenist, a couple of us didn’t particularly identify with any specific Path, and one person was an absolute newbie just beginning to explore Earth-centered spirituality. Four of us had experience writing and leading Ritual.
We started meeting six months before the Festival, brainstorming over how to deal with the logistics of holding a large group Ritual outdoors as well as deciding who was writing which part of the Ceremony. As it happened, two of us were able to attend a workshop on Large Group Ritual led by Ambiaka Maupin and Sean-Thomas Gunnell at PSG a few months before the Festival. They generously shared their workshop notes with those who attended, and we in turn shared those notes with our Ritual writing team. The insights Ambiaka and Sean-Thomas shared from their 25 years of leading large-scale Ritual were invaluable as we continued to fine-tune our Ceremony.
2. Practice Makes . . . well, Not Perfect!
Some things that look great on paper don’t translate all that well when put into practice. One issue that quickly became apparent in rehearsals was that I needed at least four hands and a rolling script. Working in the center of a Circle meant I needed to keep moving so that my back wasn’t turned to half of the participants most of the time. As well, working in a large outdoor space meant that no matter how loudly I projected (and I am LOUD) I still needed to be facing the participants in order to be heard. Our group had talked about the possibility of using a sound system but none of us had the funds to purchase what was needed and truthfully the idea of using a mic just didn’t feel right to me. We addressed this issue by assigning a person to hold the binder containing the script, and she and I practiced moving together as I read and she turned pages (and held them down in the wind!).
Speaking of wind, during one of our indoor rehearsals it became apparent that we would need to anchor the silks we were using to cover bowls of water when the breeze from the oscillating fan flipped the fabrics into the water. We had been told the Ritual would be held rain or shine, but wind had not been something we had even considered until that moment. As well, holding more than one rehearsal allowed us to see how the choreographed pieces actually worked, particularly the way we planned to cast the Circle and the way we planned to handle the negative energies we were calling people to release.
A critical part of creating successful Ritual was placing people in roles for which they were particularly suited. Because the way we planned to cast the Circle was fairly dynamic and highly participatory, I asked one of the team members who had a clear understanding of the choreography to lead us off in East and asked her daughter to lead us in South. By the time West was being called the pattern had been established and was easily followed.
When I’m leading Ritual I always keep this quote from Captain Barbossa (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) in mind. If I don’t leave room for the ineffable—if I have tightly choreographed every movement and strictly adhere to the script precisely as it has been written with no deviation—then there is no room for magic to happen (or, at least, that’s how it works for me). Magic is wild and free, unconstrained by script.
Magic also expects you to be willing to work with it, and that sometimes means a compromise between what you think ought to happen and what is actually happening in the moment. Just as I began drumming to gather people for the Ritual, I saw one of our team members striding purposefully away from the area. As the minutes ticked by and people continued to gather, I started thinking about how we were going to conduct the Ritual without her. She had a highly visible, structurally necessary role to play and we could not simply omit her piece—it was a cornerstone of the whole Ceremony. As I continued to drum, the person holding my binder offered to step into the role should it become necessary. Within a few words we had worked it out. As we started the opening chant our missing team member made it into the Circle and we were able to proceed as originally planned. It turned out she had parked her car in the wrong place and had been asked to move it immediately.
My point in this story is that nobody panicked when we had to start without one of our group being present. We had established a deep trust with each other, and an unwavering confidence both in each other and in Spirit. If, in spite of our months of preparation and rehearsal, the Ritual deviated from the script, we knew that we’d be able to roll with whatever came our way and make it work.
We had planned for an inner circle to surround our altar space; we envisioned that those with mobility concerns would populate this circle and had scripted an invocation for them. It turned out that there were only four or five people who joined the inner group—certainly not the number of folks we thought would for certain-sure create a complete inner circle. This transformed the dynamic of the Ritual in ways we could not have foreseen. It was as if the handful of people sitting at the edge of our working area became living extensions of our altar, fully immersed in and woven into our workings. And one of our inner circle sitters turned out to be Selena Fox!
I had not envisioned myself participating overtly in the Calling of the Quarters and the Center, yet when the Invocations started I found myself standing with each of the Lead Callers and shaking the bells on my staff as each section chanted in the responsorial Calls. I had not envisioned myself using my entire body as I charged the Circle to “[S]tomp your feet upon the ground! Clap your hands together or against your thighs! Drum your sacred drums and shake your sacred rattles! Howl and growl and groan and moan and release all that is negative within you! Release it upon the stone! Release it NOW!” I certainly had not envisioned the tide of energy that came boiling forth when the People howled their release into the Circle as I whirled to thrust my hand out toward the lava stone held by one of my Kindred. It was Magic, wild and free, unconstrained by script.
Just one more note to add—not really a Thing I Learned so much as an observation. This was the first Large Group Ritual I have led and I knew when I said “yes” to the opportunity I would also be saying “yes” to a much higher level of visibility than I generally feel comfortable with. Three people mistook me for a MUCH more well-known Priestess; a couple of people a propos of nothing in particular other than I was just standing nearby asked for personal guidance, and a couple of folks told me they recognized me from somewhere else and asked for hugs (I have no idea who they were). It was very odd. Affirming, but odd.
I end with publicly expressing my heartfelt thanks to the members of my Kindred who participated in crafting and hosting the Opening Ritual for the Greater Chicago Pagan Pride Festival: Andrea, Juni, Kelley, Becky, Jon, Elaine, and Jan. It was an absolute honor to work with you!