This month the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair, New Jersey, where I attend, is focusing on the theme of beauty. Beauty is everywhere, especially in nature.
The Rev. Scott Sammler-Michael said in his sermon that entire industries criticize how we look. He said they tell lies that we need certain make-up, surgery, or some new diet to begin to approach “beauty.”
This made me think about our rituals and how we are always looking for the perfect items to make them look “right.” Yes, it is nice to have a statue(s) of deity or deities, or that golden chalice for the offering. That perfect altar cloth. Candles matching all four directional colors can look really nice. Moreover, that cloak for the ritual, it’s okay if it is not new or if you don’t have one.
Some of us may not realize “the show” is not what makes a ritual great. Especially for beginners conducting a ritual for the first time sometimes going broke to get all the props. They see all the items for ritual and stress about having them. I’m not saying not to get these items, I have quite a few myself. What I am saying is that you can have a beautiful ritual with no shiny objects or without any tools.
My elder, the Rev. Foxxy Pullen told me for her first ritual she used a plastic knife as her athame. She believes new and unused for anything was more important than being a black handled and old athame. She often tells her students in Three Fires Grove, a learning community, this story. Then she assigns us to write a ritual using only found tools. She said that sometimes you don’t have time to prepare with “proper” tools, as for an example sending healing energy.
One ritual Sacred Wheel CUUPs conducted at UU Montclair for Mabon had mostly acorns that I collected from my yard. It was a very basic altar set up with white candles in each direction. The only extras that I had placed were stones that matched the colors of the directions. We had no altar cloth, only some fake leaves from the dollar store covering the table. Sure, the stones were a nice touch but it was a very basic set up. Yet, the group and attendees loved it.
For two years now during the pandemic, I conducted our rituals on Zoom. No real altar, no community cakes and ale, no sitting together, it was a complete virtual experience. I spoke with friends of mine who also lead rituals. They said that they found it difficult to lead rituals online. Additionally, when and if they did they said it was impossible to do cakes and ale.
I looked at them puzzled and thought to myself, I didn’t find it challenging. Okay, it was different as we were on separate computer screens joined together by Zoom. Anytime I mentioned a circle I changed it to the square boxes on the screen, it was an adaptation. When I send out the invite, I request people to bring something for cakes and ale. During the ritual, I will say the usual customary sayings “May you never hunger” and “May you never thirst.” They repeat it and we all drink and eat.
One of the great things about the Pagan belief system is there is no right or wrong way. There is no rulebook that we abide by saying we are condemned to hell if we don’t do this. So why are we making it so? We can make it as elaborate or as basic as our budget allows. The gods do not care how our altar looks, what they do care about is our intent. Keeping it clean and neat is really the most important thing to remember. Our ancestors probably did not have a gold plated chalice or a brand new altar cloth. Most likely, they used leftover material. There is beauty in the natural.
No, virtual ritual is not ideal, but it is doable. So is a multi-platform ritual, which we did for Ostara and we will do for Litha. The trick to that is not to turn your back to the camera. Just be sure to include the virtual participants as well. They are not there just to observe, though if that is all they want, that is fine too.
The most basic of rituals can be beautiful. Those online ones Sacred Wheel CUUPs ones we have conducted for two years get some great feedback. I have used photos of past altars and shared music videos. We might create a craft or do a working. People enjoyed it and said so; they were appreciative to have something. They were grateful just to be a part of the community, even if it was a virtual one. I was glad to do them, no glitz, no glamour, just pure beauty.
So, before you create your next ritual, I challenge you to do something off the cuff. Leave the shiny stuff packed away and use only the “tools” you find in nature. Gather items outdoors that relate to that sabbat. Make it a group project. See the beauty in this experience, at least once.