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So my recent Heathen Heretic article and its reception (both of which you may find here: http://www.witchesandpagans.com/Pagan-Paths-Blogs/beltane-offerings-not-the-post-i-intended-to-write.html) led me to a certain epiphany with regard to the way so many of us approach ritual. Let me begin by saying that I'm always surprised when people purposely, or so it often seems, miss the point of my articles. A colleague recently pointed out that much of my writing provokes people past their comfort zones and that too rather surprised me: that people would draw lines against experience and narrow their worlds down to such small, grey places. Oh well. we do and everything in our world encourages us to do this so I guess i shouldn't be surprised. Still, there is nothing in my practice that should be radical to someone engaged in deep devotion with their Gods. Nothing.
So when my call for respect and piety as part of the ritual process raised such a din, I was rather surprised. Then I realized, that as with so much else, it all comes down to what one determines is the purpose of ritual. It's more than just determining to place the Gods at the center of the experience, though that is a huge part of it, rather it's understanding why we are doing any of this ritual "stuff" in the first place. What's the point? Whom does it benefit? Obviously I believe it's if not crucial, at least desirable or I wouldn't be doing it. I think we forget that there are two sides of the equation in any ritual process: the human side and the Other (Gods, ancestors). The ritual itself is a conversation, ideally a dance between those two factions. It's a means of communication and experience. I suspect that's what makes rituals that are focused on the Gods so threatening to some: they put something greater than we above the sum total of our limited human experience. They connect us with that Other.
In response to my initial article, one woman told me privately that I had to remember that not everyone has the level of devotion she and I exhibit, that the majority of attendees to any ritual were laity. I found that comment very enlightening. Of course, I also found the reality of ritual demographics completely irrelevant to the ritual process itself. I don't think ritual is there to entertain or amuse the people. I think ritual is something that enables us to be in right relationship and communication with the Holy. It's a means, a technology whereby people are able to do that. A well enacted ritual nourishes us as much as it hopefully pleases and nourishes the Gods. If we're clergy and the majority of people attending our rites are laity then we have an even deeper obligation to be good role models, to resist watering down our rites to cater to the inexperience and in many respects indolence of those attending. It's not about *us* and it shouldn't be stripped of its power in order to accommodate us. Gods know our people need good role models most especially in the areas of devotion and liturgical practice! That is a huge part of the problem right there: by and large our communities lack good role models in the realm of ritual praxis; then, add that to the overwhelming majority of converts (in Heathenry at least) from Protestant denominations with their emphasis on gnosis through textual study rather than actual experience and ritual praxis, throw in a mix of people coming from new age practices which in my opinion are really little more than shallow feel good pabulum, or thinly veiled monotheism and you've a recipe for….really boring rituals, rituals that forget the Other part of the devotional equation, rituals where the primacy goes to the people and their comfort, rituals that might be disrespectful and even impious.
As i said in my first article, there are ceremonies that attend to the needs of the people (weddings for instance, or house blessings, or coming of age ceremonies) but devotional rites are not that type of ceremony. For many other Heathens and Pagans I encounter, ritual is apparently only about tending to the needs of the people, with the Gods coming in (at least as seems to me) a far second. In some cases, I've come to suspect that the rituals are structured to keep the Gods as far away as possible, to dispense with sacred obligations in as unsecured and terse a means as possible, and to prevent actual experience and certainly to eschew ecstasy. For those of you reading this, if this is the only kind of ritual experience that you have ever known, I'm sorry. I feel sorry for you and I very much wish that your experiences had been different.
I was talking about this with friend of mine from school, a seminarian (and brilliant Latinist, I might add) and he quipped that with all the infighting centering around this issue and in response to my article, we all sounded like a bunch of Catholic vs. Protestant liturgists in the debate on ritual and in many respects he's right. This is something that Christianity has wrestled with at least since the 1960s and probably beyond. In fact I'd take it right back to the Protestant Reformation and the iconoclasms that followed. The tension between traditional Deity centered ritual and feel good, accessible people centered ritual mirrors the tensions between traditional and modern modes of worship. I recommend reading this article here for a glimpse into what I'm talking about: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/afewgrownmen/2013/04/why-traditional-churches-should-stick-with-traditional-worship/.
What we're really dealing with is the commodification of spirituality and the moment we start looking at spiritual engagement in that light, it loses any measure of integrity or power. My Latinist friend put it succinctly: "And remember this: We are all a bunch of corporatist, capitalist, decadent, self-absorbed whores, aka consumers. We consume. One of the products we consume is religion."
I would like to think my friend is just being overly cynical but it does make me wonder. The above mentioned liturgical divide mirrors one that I see again and again cropping up in Heathenry: is what we do for the people or for the Gods? Y'all know where i stand on that one. Anything less than a Deity centered practice for me is spiritual masturbation. I was very, very lucky to have extremely good ritual training, both within the Fellowship of Isis and academically with ritual studies classes. Add on a seminary background, and twenty years running rituals and to my shock, I find i'm comfortable letting that process flow. (There was a time, when I was just starting out, where leading a ritual scared me!). I know that my job when I lead a ritual is to prepare properly, to hold the space, to guide people into a space and a head and heart place where they have the potential to engage with the Powers, and when that is over, guide them back to Midgard space again. My job is to hold the doorway open through which the human part and the Other part may have a conversation. My job is to ensure that the energy flows and focus stays on the Gods.
Now a couple of those commenting on my last article said that Heathens are devotionally aware, they just show it differently than I. If that is true than I think that maybe we're working off two very different ideas of what it means to be devotionally aware. I have found that once you've been in a ritual grounded in absolute respect and piety, where everyone's absolute focus to the best of their abilities is on joyously honoring the Gods, you know the difference and you know what you're missing. You know when devotion is present and when it's not. Piety and respect should not be be classed as 'mysticism." There's nothing 'mystical' about it, save that it's all too often as rare as a god damned unicorn in our communities. Devotion isn't mysticism either. These things might take you into mystic straits as it were, but they are not in and of themselves "mysticism." Nor should Heathen rites be the polytheistic equivalent of Protestant Sunday mass where you go, give up a brief amount of time where someone else does all the work, and then hurry off to potluck and coffee hour feeling good about yourselves. We can do better than that, for ourselves and for our Gods.
This isn't a game. The Gods are real and there are right and wrong ways to go about honoring Them. The right way isn't about any specific technique or tool, or garb or ideology, it's about respect, pure and simple. The Gods are capable of telling us what They want. They do it all the time. Proper ritual is a container within which we are able to safely --as much as anything sacred can be safe, which is often not so much--engage. This reality clashes up against western hubris, which for generations and generations has taught us that we're the apex predators of the world, we're the center of the universe, the dominant intelligence, the reason d'être that the sun shines. There's very little in our culture that encourages us to go beyond ourselves. We fight baggage we're often not even aware we're carrying but it's a fight in which the Gods and ancestors can help. The alternative is a ritual praxis and a religion that is all about reinforcing people's narrow comfort zones, reinforcing their arrogance, their hubris, allowing them to mill about playing at being sacred --with good hearts, mind you, I don't fault that but play is still play--and excluding direct engagement with the Gods. The alternative is a religion that has very little to do with the sacred. Those of us involved in restoring tradition and building lineage need to ask ourselves if that's the road down which we wish to walk. For me and mine the answer is a most definite no.
(the picture here is a photo taken two hours after our Beltane ritual to Freya, of the altar with all the offerings laid out).