Several months ago I participated* in a large group ritual led by a friend of mine. As far as rituals go it was competently written, competently staged, and felt “professional” for lack of a better word. Even though the ritual looked fine on the outside I couldn’t escape the idea that there was somehow something “wrong” with it; for all the good qualities this ritual possessed there was a part of it that just didn’t sit right with me.
Most evenings my wife and I walk through our little neighborhood. We nominally walk for the exercise, but my favorite thing about our little excursions is that it gives us time to really talk to one another. Often that talk turns to our own personal practice and a few weeks after the ritual that wasn’t sitting right we spoke about it. She diagnosed the problem immediately once our little discussion began; the ritual had lacked a spiritual core. She’s of the opinion that a great ritual connects you to something greater than yourself, and when she said it I found myself in total agreement. A ritual competently performed doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t connect those in the circle to something outside themselves. In many ways that connection is one of the great mysteries of Pagan practice.
The word “mystery” has been associated with Modern Paganism from the very beginning. Traditional Wicca is a mystery tradition; to fully practice it you have to be an initiate. It’s increasingly difficult to imagine a world without books full of Witch ritual, but up until the 1970’s that was most certainly the case. Wicca was a true mystery, with only the barest of details known to the outsider.
The word “mystery” is contained in the most well known (and possibly cherished) piece of Modern Pagan liturgy ever produced: Doreen Valiente’s Charge of the Goddess. In its next to last sentence The Charge shares what Valiente calls “the mystery:”
“And thou who thinkest to seek for me, know thy seeking and yearning shall avail thee not, unless thou know this mystery: that if that which thou seekest thou findest not within thee, thou wilt never find it without thee.**”
Here the mystery is something both within and without. To know the gods one most know themselves, and to find a greater truth involves more than just standing and observing.
This all leads me back to that ritual a few months ago and my conversations about it afterwards. To put it simply my friend’s ritual felt wrong to me because it lacked mystery. It wasn’t lacking mystery in the sense of “I know what’s coming next,” but mystery in the sense that it didn’t connect me to a higher power or idea. Talking about the Wheel of the Year is one thing, feeling it and experiencing it are something else, and that’s when the true mystery of Pagan ritual done properly comes to the forefront.
Sometimes that mystery is glaringly obvious after ritual. Drawing down deity is certainly a mystery in several different senses of the word. No one knows what’s truly going on in a scientific sense while it’s happening, and when it does happen it’s direct interaction with deity. Powerful and mysterious it gives those gathered a doorway into a world not generally experienced in mundane life. It’s a moment that unlocks hearts and minds and is truly transformative.
It’s important to note that not all moments of Pagan mystery are as grand as drawing down the moon. The truly special moments are rare, but great ritual always provides a chance to feel something, to grasp something outside of ourselves. When putting this piece together I asked myself if all of my rituals truly had a moment of mystery in them, superficially I said “no” to myself. The mysteries contained within my own rites were so clouded that I completely missed them at first glance. Just because the mystery feels smaller than something like a drawing down doesn’t mean it’s not there.
On the outside Beltane always feels like it’s going to be an easy ritual to write. It’s about the Spring, copulation, and the Maiden moving into the next phase of her existence, but the things that make it great can also make it difficult to build a ritual around. Most of my Beltane rituals are about finding the still young and flirtatious lover buried inside each of us, and that’s the mystery. In my last Beltane ritual “thou art Goddess/God” were the phrases containing the mystery, words to hopefully reawaken the sacred within ourselves. That’s mystery, that’s good ritual.
The mystery doesn’t have to be completely deity-centric either. I have been to many rites where the purpose of the ritual was to reaffirm where all of those gathered stood on the Wheel of the Year. When a High Priestess can articulate just the right words so that I feel like I’m looking down on top of Ostara and understanding just where we all are at that part of the year . . . . . . it connects me to something greater than myself. I know why the seasons turn in scientific sense, but to feel it in as spiritual sense; that’s the mystery.
A few of my coven’s sabbat celebrations revolve around games. Planning a game for the middle of ritual sometimes feels superficial to me. “What exactly are people going to get out of it?” I sometimes ask both my wife and my computer screen, and then we play those games and I remember their purpose. There’s the laughter; real and genuine, and then there are the times when you can almost see the lines being drawn from heart to heart. Love, friendship, and how those relationships are built is another mystery, and to see it happen in front of my own eyes in a spiritual setting is even more mysterious. How does the human heart work? I don’t know, but the positive energy I get just from writing about it is empowering.
(Updated: In this piece I use the idea of ritual as a way to touch the greater mysteries of Paganism. While I most certainly think ritual is an effective vehicle for this type of thing, it’s certainly not the only way to get there. Meditation, reflection, and sometimes simply just being outdoors and allowing ones self to be a part of all that is can work just as well as ritual, if not better. There are always many different ways to divine truth.)
The real mystery of Modern Paganism is not found in secret rites or whispers in the dark, it’s found in the moments that are bigger than ourselves. Sometimes those moments are between the seeker and the sought; the gods and those humans who embrace them. Other times it’s about the mystery of the Mother we all stand upon and how she sways in the various currents we call nature. There are also the mysteries of love and friendship, and when one can feel those building in the circles we practice in, we are all better for the experience.
*I participated in the sense that I was there and was consciously involved in the ritual. I didn’t participate in the sense that I had a line to say or was leading the ritual.
**There are several slighly different versions of Valiente’s Charge online and in various Books of Shadows. I used the version found at the Doreen Valiente Foundation.