Creating a Living Ritual
Written by: Michelle Belanger
House Kheperu has a number of rites and rituals that we perform, mainly to mark the passage of our members from one degree or level of dedication to the next. Examples of these rituals can be found on the Rituals page, but it is important to know that the rituals that appear there are not exactly what you would see if you were to stand in our circle when a ritual was being performed. This is not because we are trying to mislead you with what we've printed there. We've tried to capture at least the spirit of some of our rites upon that page. But our rites and rituals change every time we perform them. We can write down the general gist of a ritual, but we can never really capture the real thing on the page. A good rite, a living ritual, is something which happens in the moment, something which is built by the energies and personalities of everyone who is participating in it. The person who is leading the ritual adds their own touch to it. The person for whom the ritual is being held also influences the wording, the tone, and the feel of things. And every single spectator, each person who is not directly involved in the action of the ritual but who serves as a witness and an observer, all of these people add their subtle changes, as well.
The result is a ritual which is wholly unique for that point in time and for the people who are involved in it. It is potent, and it has very profound meaning for everyone involved. It is impossible to record the words that go along with a ritual like this. The words just come. What we can record is a basic framework for what the ritual is supposed to accomplish. This serves as a guideline that the ritual priest must be familiar with - so familiar with, in fact, that he can decide, right then, on the fly, what is appropriate to focus on, what he should change, what to leave out entirely, and what may need to be inserted for the rite to have the maximum impact and meaning for everyone involved. Yet even with these on-the-fly alterations, the ritual priest must still be able to pick up where he left off, maintain the overall continuity of the ritual, and bring things to a solid and meaningful conclusion.
I call this Living Ritual. It is very similar to an improvisational performance in theater, only applied to a ritual setting. It is not an easy form of ritual to pull off, because there are so many variables involved once things get going, and there is never the easy crutch of a scripted rite to fall back upon. In order to perform a ritual like this, the ritual priest must have an excellent sense of timing and a keen ability to judge people. He should know a good deal about people's emotional reactions, and how to maximize upon those in ritual space. He should know what symbols and phrases are meaningful not only to the individual but to the group as a whole, and he must know how to manipulate these for maximum effect. A background in theater certainly helps.
Ritual means nothing if it does not impact us upon a very profound level. But everyone who has chosen to participate in that ritual has asked to be affected on that level, and through their shared participation, they also serve to heighten that level, pushing it to an even more intense state. The group comes together as a whole, opening themselves up to deeper experiences, to spiritual revelation and emotion, and it is the responsibility of the ritual priest to understand this, understand what is needed, and to guide the rite toward that end.
All of this makes the ritual sound like some kind of psychodrama. But that's only because it is. Our own theatrical tradition comes down to us not from stages that were meant to merely amuse, but from the Greek tradition of dramatic ritual that was part of the yearly celebrated mysteries. Theater and ritual have always gone hand in hand. Recreational theater still has a phenomenal impact on the emotional and mental state of those who observe it, not to mention those who actually are involved in the performance. It is a potent psychological tool, and why would something this profound be used merely for recreation when it can be harnessed and used to affect a more personal spiritual response in observers and participants?
Ritual is about stepping out of our ordinary space and crossing the threshold to something more profound. Think about going to the movies. When you enter the theater, you have made an agreement with the people behind the picture: you are going to suspend your disbelief, and for the course of the movie, the trials and triumphs, the joys and fears of the characters on the screen are going to become, at least for a little while, more real to you than your own life. You are going to live, for two hours, vicariously through them, and you will come away as if you had actually experienced all of those emotions yourself. Participating in a shared reality like that speaks to us on a very deep level. And in ritual, we are not just simply stepping through the doors and entering that Other space for the sake of recreation. We are stepping into a shared space with others who are important to us, to celebrate ideas that are important to us, and to strive toward something which we believe is nothing less than sacred. There is nothing more potent or more personally transformative than an experience of that kind.
So you see, a ritual priest has a very great responsibility to fulfill. He has to not only maintain that feeling of Other space, that sense of the sacred, in a general way, but he must also maintain the heightened sense of reality that everyone has come to the ritual to experience for each individual person. This requires a massive amount of presence and charisma on his part, as well as a very deep understanding of how the energies in such a group work, how to harness them, focus them, and keep them cycling through everyone so there is no lull in the intensity. Living Ritual is a direct, intense, and immediate experience. It is not only a very personal sort of ritual, but it is also a very personalized ritual. Which is why it must change moment to moment, as the need for such change arises, and why no one ritual, even if the framework and overall intent is the same, can be repeated precisely the way it was in a time before.
Tips for Creating Living Ritual
So how do you go about writing a Living Ritual? Well, we've found that you first have to throw out your expectations of what a ritual should look like, at least on the written page. There's just no neat way to write down one of these rituals, and even if you try, you're going to wind up rewriting it almost completely the very next time you hold that particular rite. If you do write one down, you're going to end up with something that looks more like a collection of rough notes, possibly with diagrams and a few isolated bits of dialogue that you will hope retain some semblance of their wording when applied to the actual rite.
Sound chaotic? Of course it does, but this is what it should be. You need to have just enough order in place to account for the natural chaos that will inevitably occur. A static script cannot possibly bend in the directions you will need it to bend if you are going to achieve true Living Ritual. What you need is a framework which you can build upon once you are actually involved in the ritual itself. This framework should be designed to be flexible but it should also have stable enough parameters that you have a clear beginning, middle, and end to the ritual. Everything in between really will depend upon what you want to accomplish with the ritual, what it's meant to celebrate, how many people are going to be involved, and what symbols and language you will need for the maximum impact of the rite.
As a general rule, the beginning of a ritual is marked by two things: establishing community and establishing the purpose of the ritual. These two things can be part and parcel of the same speech which opens the ritual, although this is not always the case. The middle of the ritual is a peak in the ritual action. It is a focal point of interest, where the main purpose of the rite achieves a climax and can then begin moving toward resolution. This is usually accompanied by some overt ritual action which acknowledges that climax and which marks it as special for everyone involved. The end of the ritual is when things conclude. The climactic point of the rite is given resolution. The ritual priest offers an interpretation or explanation for why what has just been shared is important to the community. He takes the climax out of the realm of the individual and makes it something that is pertinent on a communal level. This is the point where even the observers to the ritual are given meaning which they can attach personally to what has just occurred.
Establishing community is usually achieved through a group prayer or charge which covers the basic beliefs that are shared by the community. These basic beliefs are the identity of the community. They are the mortar which hold the individual members together, and they are why each of those individual persons has chosen to participate in this rite in the first place, and share something special with everyone else.
Establishing purpose usually takes the form of a proclamation. The ritual priest explains why everyone has gathered together and what specifically is to be separated. If the ritual is something which focuses on one individual, such as a rite of passage, then that individual is brought forward and acknowledged as the focal point of the action to come.
A great deal can vary from here on out depending on the purpose of the ritual, the symbol system of the people involved, and the technique of the ritual priest. In general, there is action, and it moves toward a climax. This action involves spoken words, and the main dialogue will be that of the leading priest, but others will very likely have spoken parts as well, as they respond to the dialogue of the priest. Ritual actions may occur here, such as the taking of vows or the sharing of wine. Very rarely is this simply dialogue - an actual physical action which represents the ideas and beliefs expressed in the dialogue at this time has a very potent affect. It is a ritualized action, and as such it becomes a symbol for the meaning of the entire ritual. Usually the climax occurs when this ritual action takes place.
From the point of the ritual action, there is more dialogue which interprets and explains what just occurred. Blessings may occur here, or words of advice, or songs, or something else which takes the specific action(s) and puts it in the realm of individual meaning for every person present. The opening was an affirmation of why that group has something to share. You should not achieve closure with the ritual until everyone has actually shared something to reinforce that feeling of community.
Of course, this framework gives you a lot of room for improvisation. Sometimes it's hard to fill in those spaces, especially because there are no real guidelines for what is appropriate and what is not. On the whole, it is much easier for the ritual priest to just recite something out of a book, but it will never have the direct and personal impact that a living ritual can have. With a book or a memorized script, you are not in danger of saying the wrong thing. When put on the spot, however, things get said that maybe you never intended, but they are almost always the truth. They are spoken from the heart, in the heat of the moment, with all the masks we ordinarily wear stripped away. This, above all else, is the real source of power in Living Ritual. It forces us to be ourselves in the middle of the ritual space. There are no pretty words we can rely on except what we pull up out of our own hearts. No book or set formula exists to serve as a barrier between the leading priest and everyone else. It is all raw, immediate, and just the way it is.
Below you will find some questions that may help you when designing a living ritual of your own. They don't necessarily cover everything, but they should make you think enough about the ritual you are planning to probably come up with the questions that were missed.
What is the purpose of the ritual?
People come together to celebrate ritual for all manner of things. Usually, the main purpose of ritual is to mark a rite of passage. Marriages, baptisms, funerals, all of these are rites of passage. They mark a transition from one state to the next. A rite of dedication or the passing from level of initiation to the next, these are rites of passage as well.
Another purpose for ritual is to commemorate an event. Perhaps your group gets together every year to celebrate their founding. That would be a commemoration. Seasonal rituals commemorate events, although these usually aren't events as we think of them in a mundane sense, such as an anniversary, so much as a celebration which is tied to myth. Christmas commemorates the birth of Christ. Independence Day commemorates the "birth" of the United States.
If a ritual is not intended to mark a rite of passage or to commemorate an event, then it is probably just a community ritual. Community rituals are no less important that the other two types discussed above. In some respects, they are far more important, because they are what help to build the sense of unity and shared purpose within the group that holds it together. A very loose version of a community ritual is an annual family reunion. Everyone gets together and celebrates their bond as a family. Traditional meals are shared, traditional games are played. No one calls it a ritual, but that doesn't make it any less potent or significant. Community is why the other types of ritual hold any kind of significance for us in the first place.
What kind if meaning is it supposed to have for those present?
What do you want people to go away with from this ritual? Keeping in mind that the emotional level of sacred space is significantly heightened, determined what kinds of emotions you want to evoke in people. Is this ritual one of pure celebration, or is it meant to be a ritual of atonement, where everyone seriously reevaluates their lives and determines what needs to be let go. Is this a ritual of farewell? Is it something that will involve more than one strong kind of emotion, like a funeral where the life of the deceased is celebrated at the same time that his loved ones say farewell?
The emotional content of the ritual is very important, because you have to be prepared for intense reactions. It is not uncommon for people in ritual - even celebratory ritual - to be moved to tears. It is your responsibility to make certain that the language and tone of the rite is respectful of that, and that, by the end of the ritual, there is some kind of emotional closure for everyone, so they can go away feeling better about things. Catharsis is a power and transformative tool, but only because the person going through it feels cleansed at the end.
Who will be involved in running the ritual?
Who do you have to play the main parts in the ritual? Who will be the leading priest, and what are his strengths or weaknesses? Does he have the presence and charisma to pull the ritual off? If it is a very potently emotional ritual, this is a crucial consideration. Some community rituals are pretty light-hearted affairs, and it won't have a negative impact on anyone if the leading priest is also light-hearted about the rite. But a priest who cannot maintain the solemnity and respect required for a more somber ritual, such as a funeral, may actually hurt the ritual. The rite is only as powerful as the people involved in it, and it certainly only has what power those people allow it to have, but the keystone for this power, the central pillar that must be able to hold it all up is the priest. If the priest is weak, then no matter what effort the other participants may make, the overall ritual can crumble.
Who will this ritual be open to?
Carefully consider who you will and will not allow to the ritual. Some rituals cannot be open to the public. Some rituals are so intensely personal, only the priest, the person involved, and a few hand-selected friends can participate if things are going to go smoothly. There is a level of trust that each participant must achieve in order to truly let go and experience all that the ritual has to offer. If the presence of just one person shatters that trust, then the ritual looses that much potency.
Respect is also a very important thing to consider among those who may potentially participate in a ritual. Some rituals, like celebrations of community, can be open to children or individuals at any level of initiation into the group. But other rituals deal with much more profound ideas and beliefs. These ideas and beliefs hold great significance for the people celebrating them, or else they wouldn't be celebrating them in a ritual at all. Do not disrespect the sanctity of those beliefs by allowing people who either do not understand those beliefs or who cannot show them the respect they deserve in the confines of the ritual. This sets a precedent for some exclusivity in ritual, but the fact of the matter is, especially where beliefs are concerned, some things are exclusive. You do not want to expose a raw initiate to the mystery of mysteries - not because that is a great secret of the faith, but because a raw initiate probably won't even know what it is he's looking at.
What symbols do you want to use?
Symbols, phrases, and style of language can be very crucial to a ritual. Symbols, of course, have to be pertinent to the group in order to have any meaning. If a group is organized enough in its beliefs and its sense of community to be holding rituals, chances are it already has a number of established symbols which have significance for its beliefs and its community. Symbols like this add power to the ritual by giving everyone present a convenient focus for the ideas and beliefs which the symbol represents. If an Otherkin ritual is being held, no one needs to explain the meaning of the Septagram. The entire group understands the meanings, and part of that understanding defines them as a group in the first place. The Septagram then, like the Christian Cross, serves as a representation of the common beliefs of those gathered in the ritual.
As a group develops its own feel, certain phrases, words, or types of language also become part of that group's identity. When designing a ritual for that group, it is your responsibility to be familiar with these words and what they mean, not just on the surface but on a symbolic level as well. If there are specific prayers or standard responses, such as "So Mote It Be," which hold great significance for everyone present, then these should be worked into the rite. A lot of this really deals with the unique identity of the group for whom the ritual is tailored, but the basic idea is you're not going to conclude a Wiccan prayer with "Amen" and expect all the participants to resonate with that. The importance of the words is what the community attaches to them, and if the community attaches no importance, then there will be less of an impact when those words are used in ritual.
What tools do you want to use?
This again is a concern which is very dependent upon the beliefs and symbol system in place within the context of the community. What tools are ordinarily used by the members of the community, especially when delineating their sacred lives from the mundane. For example, do individuals within the community tend to light candles when they are meditating? Then candles should probably be lit for the duration of the ritual. Do members of the community tend to use incense to clear and declare their sacred space? Then incense should also be used as part of the ritual.
Some communities have very involved tools, and these have as much meaning and impact as the basic faith-symbols of the group. Wine, shared as a ritual drink, is a very symbolic ritual tool, and it finds its way into rites from Judaism to Christianity, and even to Wicca. Some tools can even be symbols in and of themselves, such as the wand in Wicca or the compass in Freemasonry. These are actual objects which can be used physically or symbolically during the course of the ritual which have deep meaning for the participants.
If you use a ritual tool, you of course need to understand what it means. The tool has significance because it represents something, and that representation must be pertinent within the context of the ritual. You're not going to have someone jump over the broom in a baptismal rite. That has meaning only for weddings, unless for some reason your particular group has totally reworked the meaning of that tool.
Some groups prefer to work without any ritual tools, but as covered above, even candles and incense fall under this category, and these can be found in practically every religion the world over. So consider carefully the content of the ritual and the impact certain actions need to have. If having a physical object can help reinforce the meaning of that content and those actions, then by all means use it in the rite. Just try not to get bogged down in tools. When not used properly, ritual tools can be very distracting. Too many ritual tools tend to obscure the ritual rather than clarify and accent its meaning.
How do you want people to feel when you conclude the ritual?
This goes along with the emotional content you want to cover in the ritual, but it also impacts how you want to achieve closure with that impact. As discussed above, when done correctly, Living Ritual evokes a very powerful emotional response from the participants. You need to figure out where you want this response to take people, how you want them to leave the ritual and take it out into their lives. You really need to understand the psychology of your group in order to answer this question. You need to know what kind of emotional release they might need, and to what level that might be healthy. You need to be able to judge how far things should go, and you need to be able to pull it all back together into a meaningful whole. A lot of thought should go into this, and into the whole experience of the ritual, because of the deep psychological, spiritual, and emotional affects you can have on your participants with your rites.
This is nothing to take lightly, and you should always consider what you are trying to accomplish with as much wisdom and maturity as you can muster. Ritual is supposed to improve people's lives. It is intended to show them new aspects of themselves, help them to let go of old ways of being, and in general give them a tangible transformative experience that they can hold onto when they return to their everyday lives. That might seem like a tall order to fill, but I've seen it done. I've done it myself. And in the end, there is nothing more rewarding than feeling the impact that you have had on everyone in guiding them through this deeply meaningful experience. It's an accomplishment, and it's worth all the care and effort and stage fright you might have to endure when planning something real.