Planning Initiation Rituals

Planning Initiation Rituals January 15, 2011

If someone asks you for an initiation, your first questions should always be “why?” and “what do you hope to gain by initiation?” Most likely the response will be vague, something along the lines of “I don’t know, I just feel like I need to be initiated.” This is a perfectly legitimate answer. Our mainstream culture has done away with most rites of passage, but the need for them still exists, on our spiritual paths as much as in our ordinary lives. Additionally, there is a long tradition of initiations in religious and spiritual orders, from the Eleusinian Mysteries to Christian practices such ordination – and especially in traditional Wicca. It is common for Pagans to feel like they should be initiated, even if they don’t know exactly why.

These first questions begin the process of setting appropriate expectations as to what an initiation can and cannot do.

Obviously, if you are a leader in an organization with an established initiation practice, you will initiate who that organization says can be initiated and you will do it in the manner that it prescribes. And if you are not a leader in such an organization, you cannot provide a “real” initiation in that organization’s tradition. If someone wants a Gardnerian initiation, he or she must join a Gardnerian coven and work through their training program. I can find a Gardnerian initiation on the internet and I can perform it as well as most Gardnerian Wiccans, but no Gardnerian will accept it as legitimate – nor should they.

Remember the first of Isaac Bonewits’ three types of initiation: the recognition of a status already gained. An initiation can strengthen your dedication to Nature and the spirits of nature, but it cannot make you a Pagan. It can mark your commitment to the study of magic, but it cannot make you a witch. It can confirm your devotion to your patron deity, but it cannot make you a priest or priestess. These titles and the status they imply come gradually, with lots of hard work. An initiation is not a shortcut.

So a large part of initiation is formalizing and solemnizing commitments. But an initiation should be more than a series of vows and proclamations – it should be something the candidate experiences with all the senses. In some traditions this takes the form of an ordeal: a difficult, often torturous challenge. Although I have experienced a very challenging (and ultimately, very positive) ritual ordeal, in general I’m leery of them. Part of that is because Life tends to supply all the ordeals we need. A bigger part is because ritual ordeals can go very wrong. Remember the two people who were killed in a sweat lodge run by New Age guru James Ray. There’s dangerous religion and there’s stupid religion – make sure you know the difference.

Also, question your own motives in designing ritual ordeals. Yes, ritual flogging is part of a traditional Gardnerian initiation. No, this is not an opportunity to indulge your S&M; fantasies. A candidate who asks for a ritual ordeal places a tremendous amount of trust in the person conducting the ordeal. Make sure you are worthy of that trust.

Issues of danger and ethics aside, my biggest reservation with ritual ordeals is that they are highly unpredictable. It is possible to fail an ordeal. It is also possible that the ordeal will be completed but that the transformation will be nothing like what anyone expects. This uncertainty makes ordeals very powerful, but it also makes doing them inside a formal ceremony rather problematic. My preference is to do ordeals as stand-alone events where there is no pressure – on the candidate or on the organizers – to make the results conform to anyone’s expectations or ritual script.

At the core, all rituals are re-enacted myths. This makes mythology a great source for ritual experiences. Death and rebirth is common in initiation rituals, but there are many other choices. If a candidate is working with or resonating with a particular goddess or god, consider re-enacting one of that deity’s myths. If you’re designing a ritual intended to become “standard” for all members of your group, you will need to be more generic. The key is to make it a tangible experience – this is something candidates should do, not something they watch.

Bonewits’ third type of initiation is “a method for transferring spiritual knowledge and power.” What knowledge I have transferred has been through teaching and not through ritual (although ritual is a powerful teaching tool) and I have no special powers to transmit. But when the time is right and the participants are right and the surroundings are right, amazing things can happen. If a candidate receives insight, blessings, or a jolt of energy, it is because the gods have chosen to provide it. My experience is that they frequently do, but not always, and it depends far more on the candidate and where he or she is on his or her spiritual journey than on anything the officiant does or doesn’t do.

By talking with the candidate, a ritualist can discover what the candidate is looking for and what experiences are likely to be meaningful. The ritualist can also set the candidate’s expectations for what the initiation can and can’t provide, so that the ceremony is neither disappointing nor overwhelming.

In a future post I’ll talk about the process of composing initiation rituals.

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