I was very active in the Methodist Church during my high school years. I was president of my church youth group, and went to both Sunday School and traditional worship services. I actually kind of liked Sunday School, at least it presented an opportunity for learning, and it rarely put me to sleep. Worship service was an entirely different animal. Dirge like hymns, meandering sermons, twenty minute prayers . . . . . .zzzzzzzzzzz. About the only time it was interesting were on the days when the traditional sleepy structure was abandoned. Waving palm leaves may not be your idea of a good time, but getting the opportunity to do just that was like finding a worship oasis in the middle of a dry dry desert.
One of the things that surprised me most about the comments to my recent Interview With an Atheist Pagan piece was the negativity directed at Amy B’s comment that “I see religious ritual primarily as a form of entertainment . . . . . Properly done, Pagan ritual involves an all-body experience and lots of theatricality.” I just didn’t get the criticism, shouldn’t ritual be entertaining? Great ritual almost always involves “an all-body experience” along with “lots of theatricality.” The rituals I attend are full of those things, even the smaller gatherings of just a few people.
Public ritual is really about two distinct e-words: entertainment and experience. Without a level of entertainment it’s nearly impossible to get to the experience. We’ve all been to rituals that begin with a snooze-fest of a guided meditation/grounding that leads directly into inaudible quarter calls and circle castings. Engaging ritual is entertaining ritual. Little things, like people speaking loudly and clearly when calling the gods, keep people tuned into the ritual going on around them. You can write the greatest ritual script in the world, but if nobody can hear the words being said it’s not going to do anybody any good.
Theatre began as ritual, and to some degree group ritual is still theatre. If you are doing ritual for twenty or more people you have to think of stagecrafty things like blocking and picking up on your cues. Competent ritual is entertaining because it keeps the circle focused on what’s going on. For most of us, ritual has a purpose outside of entertainment, but when a ritual is entertaining it’s easier to focus on that purpose.
At Beltane I like to enact the yearly courtship of the Maiden and the young Horned God. I often do much of that through humorous dialogue, which hopefully provokes a little laughter due to its entertaining nature. I need the jokes and the set up in order to get to my greater point in the ritual, in this particular case the idea that “love is always given, never taken.” I’m sure I could simply say that line in the context of a monologue but how exciting is that? Does it raise any energy? Does it engage everyone (or even anyone) in the circle? The entertainment is what draws people in and makes people receptive to the message.
Many Pagan rituals are about the experience, that transcendent moment when the gods manifest or the energy in the room becomes heavy. The experience is about bridging the worlds and creating a moment that feels transcendent. It’s impossible to create the experience without keeping everyone engaged. If the ritual is so incredibly boring that everyone has tuned out by the time the meat of your rite has begun you are probably sunk. That’s why entertainment is such a vital part of any ritual. The best High Priestesses and Priests are show-folks whether or not they realize it. “Breathe in . . . . .” she said, and she said it in such a way that I believed that my one breath was the most important thing in the world for that one moment.
Even when constructing a ritual about the experience there has to be a level of entertainment in there too. I did a super-serious Samhain rite this past year, but we tried to keep the build-up interesting. Lines were rehearsed, staging was considered, eye-popping altars were carefully constructed, we even argued about the lighting. We seldom think of those little things as entertaining, but atmosphere helps to dictate ritual.
One of the problems with creating the experience is that everyone is going to interpret it differently; the experience can’t be dictated, it can only be set up. At my Samhain Ritual the “working” of the ritual was to travel to the edge of the Summerlands and possibly reunite (however briefly) with the souls of lost loved ones. I can’t force that experience on anyone, either they are open to it or they are not. All you can do as a ritual planner is set things up so that type of experience has the ability to manifest. Because you can’t force people into an experience the whole set-up has to remain entertaining even for those unwilling (or unable) to take that step with you into the unknown. In our case we had music, access to a gorgeous room decorated with the proper accouterments, and just the right energy*; even if you didn’t believe in the immortality of the soul there was still enough there to keep people engaged.
Are rituals strictly about entertainment? To most of us, certainly not, though often times that can be the sole point of a ritual. Unless someone is going out of their way to “fake” a religious experience (like a drawing down) there’s no crime at all for looking at rituals as a form of entertainment. If devotions to the gods were drudge-like duties most of us probably wouldn’t engage in them. There’s something there that’s fulfilling, and that fulfillment entertains me.
*Yes, I’m a little full of myself when it comes to that ritual, but it was that good!