I’ve been thinking and writing about rituals recently, as I roll out a series of pieces detailing each phase of the Atheopagan ritual structure described in the Atheopagan Ritual Primer.
Some naturalist Pagans express concern about the ability of humanistic/naturalistic/Atheopagan rituals to create truly transcendent experiences. Faith, it is suggested, sets the table for a far deeper experience; as atheists, we will inevitably have our rituals denatured by our lack of belief.
It is fair to acknowledge that Atheopagans could potentially experience this problem. But I don’t think the characterization has to be true. I think we just have to work a little harder.
Yes, we must create ritual space which enables us to background the analytical mind and carries us into the glowing, liminal Presence of the Ritual State without actually believing that there are invisible beings or swirling magical energies around us. But we have the ability to do that: I’ve been through and helped to create some truly profound ritual experiences, and I’ve never been a believer.
So here are some thoughts about developing depth of feeling and meaning in rituals, and some logistical and creative recommendations based on my ritual experience.
First, a word about the question of SETTING: where to do a ritual. In Nature is best, but not always practical. When working indoors, it becomes that much more important to use effective ritual techniques to help celebrants to achieve the Ritual State.
Nature presents its own challenges. Without walls and a ceiling to reverberate from, sound tends to disappear. Wind and temperature can create conditions ranging from simply annoying to completely impossible for certain kinds of rituals. I attended a ritual on the beach once where we were to write down something we were ready to let go of, and put it in the fire. Unfortunately, it was so windy that many of us ended up ritually casting our wishes into the wind and the dune grass instead of the fire…not to mention that our “circle” became a horseshoe as celebrants avoided the column of smoke pouring sharply to one side.
Safety and privacy are preeminent in choosing a setting. A location where a ritual may be interrupted or where passers by may be able to observe the festivities can make it hard for celebrants to enter the Ritual State. In some cases, a person may have to be designated as a Ward, to prevent nonparticipants from coming within view of the ritual. And take it from me: don’t circle on someone else’s private property without their permission. Not only is it rude and possibly dangerous, your celebrants will spend the entire ritual looking over their shoulders to see if the owner is coming.
So WHY do rituals? What is their purpose?
Well, first of all because it feels good.
Secondly, because it enriches our lives to celebrate around the seasons and ritualize the passages in our lives. It enhances happiness.
But perhaps most importantly, because it’s good for us. Not only are the community and celebration and connection and expression and openness and love that can be experienced in ritual circle a joy in life, but ritual can also be profoundly healing of psychological wounds, as well as helping to facilitate healing of physical ones. It’s powerful. It works.
So my recommendation in terms of making rituals meaningful and healing and transformative is to GO FOR DEPTH. Ask people to inhabit their hearts and work with what is there. Don’t be afraid to trust the work.
Here’s an example; at this year’s Pantheacon, the Atheopagan ritual I led after my workshop was an absolution ritual. I could have gone for something shallower: a simple Springtime celebration or welcoming and fellowship ritual. But I wanted to do something that would be personal even to a group of strangers. Something that would be of service to them. So I urged them to call forth an embarrassing or shameful memory, something that makes their chests crawl when they think about it (we all have them), and to hold that feeling.
And then, wearing the Mask of Compassion, I absolved them of these. Dipping my fingers in a chalice of rainwater and water from the Chalice Well at Glastonbury Tor in England, I drew three circles on the forehead of each celebrant, saying: “You are pure. You are absolved. You are clean. It’s gone!”, my hands raising open at the last phrase.
I’m sure there was a broad range of experiences among celebrants given the diversity of the group and the setting (a hotel suite), but several participants reported they had felt powerful shifts within them. It was a very short ritual among a roomful of total strangers, but they nonetheless felt something of value.
My point here is that even under the most difficult of conditions, rituals that touch people and real healing work can be done. It’s worth taking the risk of going deep.
Also important in creating deep experiences is to REMEMBER AWE. Don’t forget about the glory of the Cosmos. Read pertinent poetry, or tell some part of the remarkable story of life’s evolution on Planet Earth. Remind celebrants that it’s all happening, right now–the vastness, the enormity, the infinitesimilitude. Life, pulsing all around. A great joy can be invoked simply by reminding us of what we already know: the Earth, the Universe are profoundly beautiful and interesting, and we are truly blessed with this life.
When appropriate, HUMANIZE the inhuman. Use the God-Mask technique to personify Qualities when appropriate. Call forth the Mask of Courage, or Compassion, or of a god or goddess if you work with these metaphors. Any Quality the celebrants will be encountering or working with will be much more compelling if there is a face they can speak to: far more so than simply talking to the air.
I also encourage you to PRACTICE. Practice entering Ritual Space on your own. Work with your Focus, if you have one, or arrange some symbolic objects just for the ritual. Celebrate full moons as well as the Wheel of the Year to get more practice. The more rapidly and deeply you are able to enter Ritual Space, the more amazing your experiences in ritual will be, and the more adept you will be at leading group rituals yourself.
Do these things, and your rituals will be in no danger of seeming “denatured” or weak tea. They’ll be transformative and meaningful.