Your Responsibilities In Ritual

During an Ostara Ritual with my local, mostly-open Pagan group an elder in the tribe was caught texting during the ritual. Had the texter in question been a newbie I doubt anyone would have said anything, but because it was someone who should have known better, I heard about it afterwards from over a dozen individuals. Obviously playing on your cellphone during ritual is a no-no, we all know that, even when we aren’t necessarily living up to the ideal.

When it comes to our responsibilities during ritual there are the obvious things like cell-phones, speaking out of turn, and paying attention to the proceedings. No one needs me to state the obvious, but when we attend a ritual we also have obligations outside of general circle etiquette. That’s easy to overlook, especially when you don’t have an active role in the rite. Too often I see people who are just watching a ritual instead of participating in it. What makes Paganism so unique is that it’s an interactive spirituality.

One of the things I disliked about the Christianity of my youth was that the rites of Protestant-type churches are often passive. There’s a prayer and a sermon from the minister, and all of those things are about sitting and listening. I guess I was involved in the dirge-like hymns, but those mostly made me sleepy. I know that not all churches are like that, but even in the most engaged congregations I get the feeling that people are there not to be a part of the show, but to watch the show.

In Paganism you are always a part of the show, even when you don’t have a line and aren’t calling a quarter. You have a responsibility to be engaged and to add your energy to the proceedings. Even when attending the worst ritual ever you’ve got an opportunity to touch something beyond the reality of everyday mundania.

Calling the quarters/watchtowers/insert-thing-here should always be a group experience. When someone is calling the element of water you should be opening yourself up to that element. Picture it in your mind’s eye, feel it around you; you don’t have to say anything to call an element. Make the quarter call your own by participating in it, and all without having to make a sound. You aren’t absent from the process simply because you don’t have a defined speaking role. Circle castings are the same way. When the circle’s being cast, “see” it in your mind’s eye, feel the power coming from that athame or sword. It’s not a time to yawn, it’s a time for you to be involved.

This same type of process comes up again during calls to deity. Even though the spotlight isn’t on you, you are still a part of the proceedings. When someone calls to deity your heart should also be calling out. Picture that goddess or god in your own mind, attempt to feel that power in the circle with you and everyone else there. Your chances of genuinely reaching Freyja are much higher when everyone at the ritual is calling out to her on some level. This doesn’t mean you should shut your brain off from whatever your ritual leaders are saying, it just means you should follow along with them.

One of the most difficult parts of ritual is summoning up enthusiasm for things you are not generally interested in. Ritual “middles” can be all kinds of different things: art projects, sacred dramas, dances, chants, divination, spell-work, guided meditation, energy raising, and the list goes on and on. Some of those different things can even be done in multiple ways, and there are bound to be certain activities you aren’t into. Staying attentive is especially difficult during such moments, but a good ritual attendee does just that.

When I’m stuck with an activity I don’t particularly care for I approach the situation as an adult, and treat it like a day with the in-laws, I play along. That might not seem like much of a solution, but it certainly beats tuning out of everything. I’m not particularly into making hearts when Imbolc turns into a pseudo-Valentine’s Day craft fair, but I’m going to participate. While participating I try to hide little cynical me and see if something positive breaks through, and to my surprise it often does. Sometimes I find myself transported back to my elementary school years or perhaps I have an interaction with someone I didn’t previously know (or know well). Whatever the situation is, it’s not going to improve by me sitting and sulking in a corner because we ended up doing something I’m not a big fan of.

If what the circle ends up doing is more reflective, I play along there too, all while letting my mind wander a little bit. For example ,there’s a chant that a lot of people in my area like to do, and for the life of me, I just don’t get it. To me, it sounds like something from the mouth of the Swedish Chef (bork bork bork!), but I’ve got to participate. So I shut down my brain, try to chant as many of the words as I possibly can, and then move inward. (I really have to do this for the particular chant in question, if I don’t I start giggling.) Is the chant about a deity? If it is, then I seek that deity in my mind’s eye. I try to let the chant wash over me, even though I find the water unpleasant, and who knows? Maybe something good will happen will happen as a result. As a long as I keep one ear on the ritual I can nod out of the things I’m not a big fan of with no one being any wiser (until now at least).

At a lot of very large rituals the working of the rite is often a sacred drama, enactments of moments like the battle between the Oak King and the Holly King. When watching those kind of activities I see them through a sacred lens. That’s not my friend Angus wielding a sword it’s the Oak King himself. I try to find that little piece of the divine within the circle and then magnify it.

Sometimes bad rituals just happen, and there’s no escaping it. It could be the weather or a lack of preparation, all sorts of things. But even when faced with the world’s worst ritual we should still try and help our friends and circle-mates. Projecting negative energy at the proceedings is only going to succeed in making things even worse. Try to stay positive and to project some good vibes at the folks leading the ritual, it might be enough to get them over the proverbial hump. Like attracts like, and if we focus on the good instead of the bad, we will end up with more of the latter.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    I liked sermons and Bible readings.

    Sure, they are a passive part of the service, but that’s okay, isn’t it? Nothing wrong with storytelling or hearing about how that story can be interpreted into a modern context. Just so long as it doesn’t dominate.

    Mind you, I left Christianity for the single reason that I shifted beliefs.

  • John Beckett

    Excellent recommendations. Even during the passive parts, you should be engaged – otherwise you’re passing up a prime opportunity for the gods to speak to you.

    Where were these pictures taken? It looks like a professional studio…

    • JasonMankey

      Do you really think Angus and I might be vain enough to have shots taken by a professional in a studio? You thought right.

  • Kathryn O’Connor

    a very well written article. I remember the ‘good ole days’ when the only thing we had to worry about was someone breaking circle

  • Julian Rixon

    Some very good points here. As an ethnomusicologist it interests me greatly and I’ve seen a fair amount of this in more standard social situations. It’s very true that ritual requires active group engagement – but it’s also true that ritual provides the framework for engaging in such a group activity and allowing your mind to reach an altered state. Personally I’d have clobbered the texter! Good article!

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    In Germanic society, it was forbidden to take a weapon into a hof. There would be a designated area at the entrance of the hof for people to deposit their weapons. Perhaps you could add this aspect into the rituals?

  • PhaedraHPS

    I teach a workshop on how to be a good ritual participant; your essay could be a hand-out :-) The concept I use and the way I learned it, was that it is the participants’ responsibility to “hold the field.” That means adding to and maintaining the energy the ritual leaders are creating. “Active” participation can be, as you say, on the inner level. By managing your own energetic participation in the rite, you are not just elevating your own ritual experience, you are helping everyone else present have a better experience, too.

    As far as the cell phone, I wish I could be shocked, but having spend more than a couple of decades observing so-called “third degrees” and “elders” who couldn’t ritual their way out of a paper bag, I can’t say I am. However, that elder might not get invited to my rites in the future. I guess this is one argument in favor of robes (or skyclad!) over wearing street clothes in ritual; it’s harder to bring inappropriate items into circle. Heck, we used to make a point of taking off our watches.

    • JasonMankey

      I did start our next open ritual by walking into the center of the circle with a sledgehammer and promising to destroy some cellphones if I saw them out during the rite.

      I’m going to steal “ritual their way out of a paper bag” one of these days.

  • Birch Wind

    “What makes Paganism so unique is that it’s an interactive spirituality.” — as someone who was active in the Pagan community, with a small coven I would say that from what I have experienced now, at a Reformed Jewish Synagogue , and various Christian churches (and myself now a Progressive Christian Minister) , there are many levels of interaction. :) From sharing in the Eucharist, to shaking hands, holding hands, recitation of prayers as a group, chanting, singing as a group, putting on a community meal. I found my way back onto a Christian path, after being Pagan/Wiccan for years TOTALLY by surprise and it really is amazing how interactive religious practices can be. Your religious path is Your Journey and the church or temple you chose is just a part of the ‘survival kit’ taken along for that journey.

  • salemwitchchild

    Well said and couldn’t agree more. :)

  • Anna Calhoun

    Jason, kudo’s to another fantastic article touching a topic that needed to be addressed, even though everyone should already know better. I LOVE putting my energy into a ritual, you are so right that it not only helps everything but it helps you find a connection with the activities going on and makes it all a personal experience.

  • Sabrina M Bowen

    Very much agree! I think one of the MANY things that pulled me away from Christianity was how boring church and bible study were. I grew up Jehovah’s Witness. We went to “church” 3 times a week for 1-3 hours each, had family bible study twice a week and then we had a lady from the church that came to do a “non-family” bible study each week as well. In ALL of this, it was our job to sit up and shut up! The most “interaction” we got was answering the odd question here and there to ensure that we knew what we were being told. Door to door was “interactive” and extremely humiliating. Talk about a disconnect from the Spirit!

  • Shauna Aura Knight

    I absolutely agree with this; participants do have a responsibility to support the work of the ritual. Even at a basic level by not doing things that are distracting, like texting. However, what I’d offer is that there’s also some responsibility on behalf of the facilitators to ask for what they want. I mean–yes, the elder you refer to should have known better. But, whenever I do a ritual, I almost always have people who’ve never been to a ritual before. They grew up with a cell phone plastered to their face, and it just might literally not occur to them that cell phone use in ritual is considered rude.

    I often ask people to silence their cell phones before rituals and classes, among other agreements. I think it is always useful for facilitators to outline what behavior is appropriate before a ritual, rather than making an assumption, particularly if it’s any kind of a public ritual.

    I can’t blame someone for doing something I’m not ok with if I didn’t actually ask them for what I want.

    For instance, I ask people to engage in mutual respect, and then I outline some of what that might look like, including not assuming someone who is crying wants a hug. I tell people, “If someone is going through something and crying during our journey into the Underworld, I ask that you give them the respect to ask for a hug if they want one, and to not assume they want one.”

    I also ask people to engage in the ritual with their voices, bodies, intentions, through singing, dancing, and speaking, and that they can dance in the center, or they can hold the energy at the edge. Which is important given that I facilitate ecstatic, participatory rituals.

    But, what you outline above is important too–and, I think there are a lot of Pagans who don’t necessarily intuitively know how to support a ritual with their thoughts/intentions like that. For that matter, there’s a whole skill to watching the facilitators of the ritual just to see what they are trying to get the group to do. I watch like a hawk so that if a ritualist is trying to get a group to do a physical action, or sing a chant, I can support it and help out, to do my part as a supportive participant.

    In essence, I take responsibility as a facilitator to let people know what behavior is ok. Because, often enough, people don’t know.

  • Bryon Cake Smith

    I disagree with the introductory premise. Pagan religions, traditionally, were not
    participatory religions. This is still
    true in traditional pagan religions like Hinduism and Shinto. When you go to a Hindu temple, you pay a
    priest to offer a service to the deity of your preference while you watch from
    outside the sanctum. From what I hear,
    the situation is similar in Shinto shrines (though I haven’t had the privilege
    of visiting any of those yet.)
    Christianity, par contre, is a highly participatory religion in which
    everyone is expected to have a direct, personal relationship with the deity and
    priestly ceremony has almost no place. The
    same can be said of Islam and modern Judaism.

    • JasonMankey

      You should probably read my definition of Paganism to understand the context in which I write. Shinto and Hinduism are not Paganism as I define the term on this blog.

      As for Christianity be highly participatory in a group setting, I just don’t see it. Maybe it is for some people, but it was never that way for me.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      Whilst you are likely right, historically, contemporary Paganisms have almost nothing in common with their historical namesakes.

    • Soliwo

      Priestly ceremony has no place in Christianity? Have you never been to a traditional catholic mass?

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    That may be the hardest thing to get people to understand, there is no audience at a ritual, because that is so different from what they ran into at the church. If everyone is not participating than you get one of those dead seeming rituals because a lot of people are just there and not taking part. One of the best rituals I attended was when things went very wrong and the people were asked to help in calming the situation down. Then I saw real ritual and real magic, in spite of the fact we have everything from experienced to party goers. Bit the situation hit and drew them all into the ritual. That was the one that taught me that magic was real.

  • Diane King

    Why would there even be a phone near a ritual?? Really excuse me but how F*g rude can one be??? I think I would have cut a door and kicked their ass outside till it was over. Couldnt be much of an elder to a pull stunt like that, I mean was someone dying??? was there an emergency???? Maybe Iam old and cranky but I dont know of anyone who would have let that go on… if the ritual bores you so much just leave, crap like that makes circles fall flat. And dont even get me started on the mumbling , people who lack words, or dont know how to call a quarter, or dont participate… if you dont do those things why are you even bothering with rituals to begin with?? SMH )O(