The Four Pillars of Ritual
Written by: Michelle Belanger
In the past ten years, I have done a lot of work with rites and rituals. I've attended numerous rituals held by Wiccans and Pagans. I've run some Wiccan and Pagan rites myself, and of course I have designed, written, and run Kheprian rituals.
One thing all of this ritual work has taught me is that ritual operates on several different levels. Some rituals only hit upon one or two of these levels, but good rituals, really good rituals, encompass them all. I've given the matter some thought, and after going through quite a few books on the topic and comparing the written theory to what I've experienced in practice, I think I've got an idea of what these levels are and how they affect the ritual. These levels of meaning are so important to the impact and success of the ritual, that I have chosen to call them the Pillars of Ritual. They are what holds the ritual up, what makes it work, not just for the group, but for the individual. They give it meaning and impact, intensity, and depth. There are Four Pillars, and if any one of these is not present in a ritual, that rite is generally incomplete on a very fundamental level.
The Four Pillars of Ritual, as I see them, are the Sacred, the Psychological, the Dramatic, and the Energetic.
- The Sacred Level of ritual is that level which contains the sacred and symbolic content which has meaning for the entire community. This is the level of the ritual that encodes the belief system in a meaningful manner, it touches upon myths and shared beliefs. This is not so much the words, but the meaning behind the words. The words are just vehicles for this meaning.
This is really the most basic level of ritual, and the very reason for having a ritual in the first place. The Sacred Level of a seasonal Pagan rite, for example, is what makes that rite important and appropriate for that time of year. Any myths that go along with that rite, any specific charges or prayers, any symbolic ritual actions - these are all part of the Sacred Level of the ritual. It is the Sacred Level of the ritual which ties it to the belief system of the group and makes it pertinent to them as a spiritual community. In many cases, without the Sacred level, there would be no need to have the ritual in the first place.
- The Psychological Level of ritual takes the beliefs and symbols of the group and makes these meaningful to the individual. The Psychological Level of a ritual gets the individual involved and speaks to him on a direct and personal emotional level. Aspects of a ritual that are part of the Psychological Level of that rite include songs, chants, or ritual actions which make each person get involved in a portion of the rite. Anything which requires each person to participate and requires them to apply the sacred meaning of the ritual to their individual lives, is part of the Psychological Level of the ritual.
Quite simply, these activities, within the context of the ritual, have a deep psychological impact upon the participants. When designed with this in mind, these ritual actions can help people work through attachments, overcome negative habits and behaviors, or achieve an emotional catharsis. When the Psychological Level of a ritual is missing, it becomes just a symbolic framework with no direct meaning for those present. And when the rite is over, and each person returns to his or her own life, there is little meaning they can take away for themselves.
- The Dramatic Level may seem superficial in a way, but it is still an indispensable part of meaningful ritual. The Dramatic Level is in part the wording of the rite, but it is also how those words are delivered. The Dramatic Level of a rite relies heavily upon the skills and charisma of the person leading the ritual. Little things can really injure the Dramatic Level of a ritual. If the leading priest does not enunciate clearly, if words are jumbled or mispronounced, if the words are not delivered with the right tone or emotion, then the Dramatic Level of the ritual suffers greatly.
For example, if the leading priest were to take a very casual and even joking tone with a very serious rite, say a funeral, or even a marriage, that detracts from the meaning and impact of the ritual for every person present. The lines - and it helps to look at the wording of the ritual as if it were a script - have to be delivered with the proper meaning and respect. If the person leading the ritual does not take it seriously or if they do not have confidence in what they are doing, then the participants are likely to lose focus. The tone of the rite will degenerate into something silly or uncomfortable, which is everyone's loss.
- Finally there is the Energetic Level of the ritual. I feel that this is one of the most crucial levels of ritual, but also the most overlooked. Very few people have a real grasp on how energy works between individuals, let alone how to harness that energy and focus it during a rite for the maximum power and impact.
Everyone rite and ritual occurs in something called sacred space. Sacred space is that realm of feeling and being that is removed from and slightly elevated above our ordinary day-to-day existence. When a Wiccan priestess casts the circle and calls the quarters, she is establishing sacred space. This is much more than the words and actions that she performs when establishing that space. The words and actions serve as a focus for the way she is manipulating the energy of the place to create a clear and protected pocket of sacred space wherever the ritual is being held. Knowing how to manipulate the energies of yourself and the surrounding area is one aspect of the Energetic Level of ritual. Once sacred space has been established, the leading priest must then maintain that space and connect every participant into that higher, sacred level of awareness. This, too, requires a manipulation of energy. The priest must be aware of not only his own energy but the energy of every person in the rite. He needs to be able to reach out to all of these people and connect them on that energetic level, keeping the energy circulated through the group and building it through the climax of the rite. This also is a significant part of the Energetic Level of ritual.
Everyone who participates in the ritual gives energy to it. This energy is charged with a feel that is uniquely them, and it is additionally charged with any emotions they are feeling as they experience the rite. Using this energy to heighten the emotions of the entire group, pulling it out of each person and feeding it back to them in a more heightened state, these are all things the leading priest must do on the Energetic Level of the ritual. All of this energy is then focused and directed toward a cause, such as healing or change, or it is simply given back to each individual in its heightened and refined state so that they will all carry the "charge" of that ritual back into their ordinary lives.
The Energetic Level of ritual is perhaps the hardest to master and the trickiest to perceive. With the first three Pillars of Ritual, there are obvious gestures, actions, and words that serve as focal points for the ritual priest. With the Energetic Level, however, the priest's perception and influence occurs completely on the subtle level. His focus and charisma on the Dramatic Level can help add potency and direction to the Energetic Level. Each individual's emotional response on the Psychological Level helps them to participate, knowingly or not, on the Energetic Level by giving emotionally charged energy to the rite. And the group focus that is achieved through the shared symbols and belief system helps to connect everyone, which makes it easier to build the sacred space and maintain the cycling of energies throughout the group. But unless the leading priest is aware of these subtle energetic interactions and knows how to harness them for the maximum impact of the rite, the presence of the energy can actually work against the purpose of a ritual, drawing focus off of certain key parts, draining certain individuals, making others uncomfortable because of clashing or out of sync energies, and sometimes heightening emotions to such a level that many of the participants go away feeling worse than when they actually started the rite.
A ritual can be held that is missing one or more of these pillars. It happens all the time, especially among groups that are relatively new to running ritual. Generally, the Sacred Level is always present, and when it isn't, most people don't know enough to call the activity they just engaged in a ritual anyway (a family reunion with traditional foods, activities, and so forth, fits the schema of a secular ritual, for example). When the Psychological Level is missing, the rite has little to no impact on the individuals who participated in it. It was usually just empty words and actions that they engaged in out of an obligation to a shared belief system. Some sects of Christianity have degraded to the point where their rituals are like this, totally lacking any personal significance for their participants.
We've probably all been to a ritual where the Dramatic Level was missing or dreadfully mis-handled. Rites like this are unfortunately as laughable as they are pathetic. And nearly every non-Kheprian ritual that I've attended has been missing the Energetic Level to one degree or another. I feel this is mainly because energy and the way it interacts on a subtle level between people is very poorly understood by our culture today, and even those people who understand in theory that it is there have very few resources at their disposal to help them learn to perceive and work with it.
The best rituals are those that contain all Four Pillars in a balanced mix. There should not be too much emphasis place on any single one Pillar, because that will lead to problems with the ritual as well. Basically, if you look at the Four Pillars as actual supports, then the best approach is to make certain that the weight of the ritual is evenly distributed between them all, and that each Pillar is about the same size and strength as every other one. That way, they serve as a solid foundation for the ritual work and everyone involved can go away having been spiritually fulfilled as a community and as individuals on a conscious level and on a deeper level that speaks more directly to their subtle selves.