The Purpose of Ritual

Saturday night while lying in bed I was checking Facebook on my phone (bad habit!).  Teo Bishop is a Pagan writer I have come to enjoy and scrolling through my newsfeed I saw his status update said, “I think my whole life just changed” with an update to a beautiful post on his blog. Quite clearly, Teo had one of those transformative experiences in a ritual led by T. Thorn Coyle at Pantheacon and his response was to realize the following:

My focus has been directed toward liturgy, which I continue to believe is a valuable tool. But at this moment, charged with the energy of an army calling out to a Queen, I recognize the need for something greater than just ceremony.

Ritual and ceremony are not the same thing.

The tools we use for ritual are tools, and they are not the same thing as the juicy, bloody, fleshy, powerful potential of what ritual can be. There must be magick.

There must be.

There must be a movement of that stuff in the belly of bellies, in the gut of all guts. The words you speak are only useful if they mean something. They have to mean something. If you are going to speak — if you are going to stand before an altar and recite words to your Gods — you better say something that matters.

Wow.  My heart beat faster just reading what he wrote!  I’ve been there.  Those moments in ritual where you get that searing kiss from the divine, you are forever changed.  Those moments demand a response.  You cannot go back to living your life the way it was before.

Just the next day, I read the latest post at The Allergic Pagan.  John has found himself in a spiritual slump.  He sees that his passion has been misplaced, perhaps.  He finds joy in creating liturgy, in writing ritual, but when it comes down to performing ritual the spirit leaves him and he is uninspired.  All his work falls flat, at the very moment where it is supposed to rise up and perform.

The ritual words and gestures become disconnected from the acts of imagination which brought forth the ritual in the first place.  Many people advise going through the motions, faking it till you make it.  But I think I am at an age now that I can safely say that I just do not have the constitution for this.  I have to feel it, every time, or I quickly become disillusioned.  Ideally, every word and gesture of ritual would come to me as “something unique, never to be repeated, and inexhaustible” (Heidegger) — the antithesis of what many people associate with the word “ritual”.

I want ritual to feel like Geoff Bartley’s “The Language of Stones” (sung by Sarah Stockwell):

The strangest landscape begins to look familiar.
I can walk this country in my sleep:
signs of divination,
the Maze of Emergence,
the ritual dreams for saving the soul of the world.
The sounds are as intimate as breath.
Our lips move over the syllables like a blind woman’s fingers over the face of her first-born.
Insects hum at the forest’s edge and the sun stops overhead.
Smoke rises from a ring of river stones and the ashes are thrown downwind.
The smell of sage and cedar will be on my skin forever.
Everything becomes sacred.
Bits of thread flutter from the bushes,
as if marking a trail.

This is, I think, what Novalis described as the “romanticizing” of the world, which makes us aware of mystery and wonder of the world, and  educates the senses “to see the ordinary as extraordinary, the familiar as strange, the mundane as sacred, the finite as infinite.”  But how to accomplish this is the question.

Too often ritual, even my private ritual, seems more like the Prairie Home Companion skit “Midsummer Unity Festival”, a series of mechanical gestures disconnected from the rest of my life.  The tragedy of this is that the purpose of ritual is precisely to create the sense of meaning and experience of connection.  I need to find a way to connect the enthusiasm I have for ritual creation with the actual practice of ritual.  In other words, I need to find a way to make ritual feel like an act of (re-)creation, rather than an act of repetition.

Teo and John are experiencing ritual on opposite ends of the spectrum right now.  One, caught up in the shaking joy of an ecstatic experience that he did not expect.  The other, held hostage by his inability to become enchanted and surrender to the moment, despite his clearly dedicated work to do so.

What is ritual for?  Why do we do this?  What is the purpose of lighting the incense, calling the quarters, purifying ourselves?  Why do we work to set clear intention and imbue everyday objects with magical significance so that we can work with them as symbols?  Why are we doing all of this?  What is the purpose?  Are we sure that we have a purpose?

I remember reading a scene once, I think it was from the Mists of Avalon.  A Priestess was calling on the Goddess.  She likened it to being a small child, standing at the feet of a great and powerful mother, and reaching up and tugging on the Mother’s skirts.  Yes, the attention will be given.  It will be given freely, and with love.  It will be given wholly.  It will be given without reserve.  And you have every single right to ask for it.  You deserve it. It is your birthright.  But you are asking the sun to stop moving across the sky and to focus only on you.  What are you going to say?  What is your spirit calling for?  What is your need? Are you fully committed to the moment, to the transformation, to the miracle that could take place?

I come to Ritual to be transformed.  I come to Ritual with a need for change.  I come to Ritual because there is a seed within me that needs the full shining of the sun to grow.  I come to Ritual because I am ready for the energy that will be raised to begin a shaking and quaking inside of me that will rearrange my being.  Sometimes the transformation is small. Sometimes it is large.  But it is always necessary for me to become more fully of service on this earth.

This is how I understand Ritual: It is the process of seducing Talking Self into suspending her disbelief so that Younger Self can take control, understand my need, and then go whisper it into the ear of God Self.  That is the mechanism that is occurring.   That is the art of changing consciousness at will.

I am grateful to have found my way into a tradition that understands ecstatic practices, the importance of raising energy, the energy of improvisation in ritual, and that I am learning how to use those methods to enhance Ritual as a means for transformation in my own life.

What does Ritual mean for you?  How does it operate in your life?

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