Ritual Criticism

It’s probably not obvious, but I’m pretty sensitive about my Paganism.  I’m not sensitive about matters of history or theology; we can agree or disagree until Ragnorok and still be friends.  Some of my favorite Pagans are people who bicker with me about the origins of gods or the age of Wicca.  More academic type pursuits (and the disagreements about them) inform my Paganism, but they don’t define it.  What’s most important to me as a Pagan is interacting with deity, and forming a personal relationship with it. 

In many ways, ritual is the most public demonstration of that relationship.  As a result, I take my ritual writing very seriously.  Not every ritual is going to be this amazing, transformative experience.  The rituals that really stick with us are usually great because a whole lot of things fell into place:  the location was perfect, the High Priestess was right in the middle of an extraordinary day, deity chose to show up, perfect love and perfect trust were obtained for that one fleeting moment . . . . . . You can write the best ritual in the history of humankind but if it’s raining outside during your outdoor Midsummer Ritual it will probably be less than effective. 
While there will always be things outside of your control during ritual, there will always be a lot that you can control.  If you are a writer, you can write moving calls to deity and the quarters, and even if you aren’t a writer you can scour books and the internet to find things that work for you.  Even in a group of 100 people you can create a working that involves everyone around you in some way.  You can also rehearse your ritual beforehand so you aren’t stumbling over words and performing Cakes and Ale before the Charge of the Goddess because your pages got mixed up. 
I know that every ritual I do in a group setting is not going to change the world, but I always try to make sure I get the little things right.  I try to make sure my rituals make sense and fit in with what’s going on around me seasonally.  No one wants to just be “talked at” during ritual, so I do my best to create “things to do” during ritual.  Sometimes that might mean an art project, a game, or something as simple as everyone lighting a candle. I’m always hopeful that I can create something that engages those around me in some way, and if that way is meaningful to them I’ve really succeeded. 
Since my wife and I have been a part of many diverse Pagan groups over the last 15 years, our eclectic rituals tend to showcase that.  One of the reasons I will always be an eclectic Pagan* is because I like adding things to ritual and putting my own stamp on the proceedings.  I like to be surprised during ritual; I think it’s a good thing when someone casts a circle in a style I’m not familiar with.  Living on the West Coast (a true hot bed of Modern Paganism) I enjoy experiencing as many different types of ritual as I can.  If I wanted everything to be the same all the time I’d avoid eclectic circles and only focus on one tradition.
I was recently told that some people did not like the way I “presented” a recent ritual.  Hearing an ambiguous criticism has put me in self-examination mode trying to figure out exactly what went wrong with my ritual presentation.  I admit to having a lot of idiosyncrasies when it comes to ritual.  Those 15 years of shared ritual experience with my wife has resulted in us nearly having our own “tradition,” and when you add in the differences between ritual in the Midwest and on the West Coast, things might even seem stranger to some people.  I don’t think that what I do is extremely unorthodox:  we call quarters, cast a circle, call the gods, do a working, have cakes and ale, and then thank everyone for showing up.  I’ve been to a lot of rituals where the “Gardnarian Magnet” gets thrown out the window.
There are some things I don’t like that some might see as standard during ritual.  I hate robes.  I’m not a ceremonial magician, an ancient Druid, or a monk; wearing a robe when everyone around me is wearing jeans just isn’t my style.  I’m also not a refugee from the SCA, so I tend to avoid the medieval peasant look.  Both robes and SCA style garb are fine for ritual, they just don’t generally work for me.  Skyclad is great, but it’s not something that everyone always feels comfortable with, and at open eclectic ritual it’s not really an option.  Just because I don’t dress like an extra from The Princess Bride or a former member of the Golden Dawn doesn’t mean that I don’t dress up for ritual.  I have some beautiful crowns and circlets for my head. I have a deep and abiding appreciation for tunics, slightly tattered bluejeans, and anything else that makes me look like I’m in a rock band.  I might not wear a robe, but it’s always obvious that I’ve dressed up for ritual. 
(I’m extremely jealous of my wife and how much more diverse her wardrobe is allowed to be.  In a long white dress she’s Aphrodite and there are never any comments of “she’s not wearing a robe.”  I guess I could wear a long white dress too, but the comments directed at me would probably not be very flattering-though I do have great legs.)
My wife is allergic to incense so we try to avoid using it in ritual.  I’ve never been convinced that having someone wave a stick of incense in your face is all that cleansing anyways, so we tend to start ritual with a symbolic hand-washing.  It’s not something that works all the time, I’ve lead rituals with 300 people in attendance where such a thing would be completely impractical, but it works pretty well for groups of 30 or less.  Have cermaic pitcher full of rose water will travel so to speak. 
My wife and I also have a thing for chimes and cymbals.  We use sound to cleanse ritual space and signal transitions during ritual.  It also looks pretty cool.  I was recently told that it’s off putting to see someone do that at the start of ritual at the four cardinal points because it looks like we are calling the quarters.  Perhaps that’s the type of thing that deserves pre-ritual explanation, but I think people tend to catch on pretty quickly once we come back around to the East and say “We call to the spirits of air . . . . .”  (As I mentioned earlier, I like being surprised during ritual, and probably assume that most other people feel the same way.  I’ve never understood the desire to know everything that’s going to happen before hand during a ritual.  To me that’s like going to see a movie after reading the Wikipedia plot synopsis.  I also tend to circle with pretty smart people and feel as if they’ll probably pick up on whatever I’m doing fairly quickly.)
Perhaps some of the criticisms of “Mankey style ritual” have everything to do with my attitude and nothing to do with the things we do that might be alien to some people.  I take my faith and my gods seriously, but I also think that ritual should involve laughter.  There are times for extremely solemn ritual (Samhain) and times for lighter ritual (like in the middle of the day in April).  I admit that my love of hard cider and rock and roll has creeped into my rituals over the years.  My wife and I use the phrase “here’s to life” in ritual and we totally co-opted that from the song Mekong** by The Refreshments.  If “water shared is life shared” can be lifted from a Science Fiction novel, I fail to see the harm in lifting a phrase from a rock song.
My gods want me to be happy and they don’t mind the occasional dick joke and understand the rock and roll as a sacrament thing. “Merriment and mirth to me are great honor” is a line from The Charge of the God** and it’s one I hold dear.  Ritual is a celebration of life, which means that’s it OK to smile when you are calling the quarters, and that it’s even acceptable to tell a joke or two during the proceedings.  Life is an experience full of joy, lust, sunshine, pain, heartache, and happiness.  During the course of a year ritual should encompass all of those feelings, but individual rituals don’t have to ride such an emotional roller-coaster.  
As an overly Public Pagan I expect my fair share of criticism. There will be people who don’t like everything I write on this blog, and there will be people who hate my workshops and dislike the way I do ritual. Disliking those things doesn’t have to be personal. I have been to some very crumby rituals put on by people I love and respect; I disliked the ritual but I continued to love my friends. What bothers me is when the critique is a whisper in the corner. Let me know what you hate so I can improve. We don’t learn if we don’t know what we might have done wrong. I aim to please, but despite my best efforts, I know that I won’t please everyone. That won’t stop me from trying though.

Here’s to life!

*I’m an also an initiated Witch in addition to being an eclectic Pagan, in a perfect world (and this world is pretty close to that) I like being able to do both. 
**Unfortunately, there’s not a good version of Mekong available on YouTube. I chose this one because the video is better than most, and I was in the audience that night.

***I admit to using my own version of The Charge fo the God so I guess I could get it to say anything I wanted it to, but that’s pretty equivalent to ““Let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you” from the Charge of the Goddess.


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