Building Sacred Space
Written by: Michelle Belanger
A ritual is any specific set of actions which you perform in order to achieve a higher, spiritual state. Ritual can be done by one person alone, and such solitary rituals can be very intense and fulfilling. But most rituals exist for the community: they celebrate some aspect of belief which everyone shares or they mark transitions in people's lives that the community should be witness to. Everyone involved in a ritual gives energy to it, whether they're actively participating or not. For this reason, you want everyone involved in a ritual to be in a proper and positive frame of mind. It's hard to feel sacred about a ritual that makes you feel strange or silly, so if anyone has any problems being comfortable with a ritual, then don't have them participate. It's better to have them sit out than to have their undesirable emotions and uncertainties affecting everyone's sacred space.
Another important element in good ritual is performance. The duty of the priest or priestess is to make the ritual mean something for everyone. Charisma plays a certain part in this, but a good priest has the ability to affect everyone around him on a subtle level as well. It is the priest's responsibility to build sacred space and to draw everyone into the experience of that sacred space. Every thought and action during the ritual should be elevated toward something bigger than ordinary experience.
The real purpose of ritual is to draw the community together and to unify them in a common experience of subtle reality. Leading ritual, then, is a great service to the community. It reaffirms beliefs, brings people in contact with something profound, and helps them feel more balanced in their ordinary lives.
When we perform rituals and ceremonies, we are building sacred space. This is a realm which exists within yet apart from our ordinary reality that allows us to come into contact with the extraordinary. In sacred space, our sensitivities are heightened. Our thoughts and feelings are in an elevated state. Building sacred space may seem like something esoteric, but it is not difficult at all. Since the energies we harness for magick and ritual are within and throughout all things, in a sense sacred space is all around us. We only need to learn how to harness it.
Sacred space is really just a frame of mind. You can build it wherever and whenever you please. Once you get used to it, you can carry a little of it inside of you at all times, so that even in the midst of the most mundane environment, you can find a stillpoint and be at peace with yourself. All it takes is the ability to step aside from your ordinary way of thinking and reach toward something finer and more attuned to the energy of the universe.
By defining ourselves as Wiccan or neo-Pagan, we often take up the roles of both priest and lay person. The vast majority of Wiccans and neo-Pagans are solitary practitioners. Which means, when it comes down to the fundamental aspects of worship, we are the only ones running the show. Where Christians, Jews, and even Muslims can go down the street to the neighborhood church and temple and sit in on a ritual that someone else performs for them, Wiccans and neo-Pagans are necessarily more hands-on. This puts a lot of responsibility on our shoulders, especially when it comes to running ritual which is the formalized expression of worship. Generally speaking, a ritual is any specific set of actions which you perform in order to achieve a higher, spiritual state. Ritual belongs to the sacred part of our lives, as opposed to the too-often more prevalent secular (or profane) aspect of our lives. In order for ritual to succeed in connecting us to the sacred and moving us toward mystical experience, we must achieve a certain frame of mind before and during the ritual. This frame of mind involves thinking and acting in ways which differ from the ways we think and act on an ordinary day-to-day basis. It helps to think of ritual as a sacred space which we build for ourselves, starting from within our minds and moving outwards.
Some of us need stricter, more dramatic rituals to help us move beyond our ordinary way of thinking, because we find it hard to separate ourselves from the secularity of everyday life. Others of us tread the line between the sacred and the secular every moment of our lives, and for these few, ritual may be a very informal, spontaneous thing. It really differs from person to person, and the most difficult and time-consuming part of following any mystical path is exploring your possibilities and finding out exactly what is right for you.
So how does one prepare for ritual so the proper frame of mind is achieved? There are a number of different ways, but essentially all of them serve to make a distinct separation between your ordinary get-up-and-go-to-work reality and the sacred reality of mystical experience. It helps to think of things in a dualistic manner. There is ordinary reality in which we live most of our daily lives, eating, working, socializing, and then there is non-ordinary reality.
Non-ordinary reality is the realm of dreams, the realm of mystical experience, and the realm of ritual. Non-ordinary reality is not limited like ordinary reality and it does not follow the same strict rules. In ordinary reality, we rarely have time to think of things such as spirits and magick; it is in non-ordinary reality that we may encounter spirits, speak to them, even work magick. The difference lies not only in our perceptions between the two forms of reality but also in our experiences and our ways of thinking in the two realities. It is usually helpful to think of the two realities as existing, almost but not quite, in the same space. They are layered, one over the other, like a double-exposure on a film. The stronger exposure, the one which comes through most clearly at first glance, is ordinary reality. When you look at the picture, it is difficult at first to see and make sense of the bits and pieces of non-ordinary reality which filter through. They can be obscured by the overwhelming images of ordinary reality. They are shadowy, only partially perceptible, elusive.
It is easy to discount our perceptions of non-ordinary reality as illusions and fantasy. However, though non-ordinary reality relies very heavily upon our imaginative capacities for us to perceive it, it should not be mistaken as imaginary. In its own way, non-ordinary reality is as real as ordinary reality. It is simply a different quality of reality.
In general, ordinary reality is practical, rational, realistic, and mundane. Non-ordinary reality breaks all the rules, all the boundaries of ordinary reality. It is non-rational and surreal, the realm of myth and magick. These two realities have been known by many names to many cultures. The non-ordinary reality may also be called the subtle reality. It has been known as an ethereal or even an astral reality. In all these senses, it is seen as being at once real and not-real, perceptible yet ultimately intangible. If these things sound like paradoxes, to a certain extent they are. Non-ordinary reality is essentially paradoxical. It breaks and redefines all of the rules. And the greatest paradox of all is the fact that, though we spend almost all of our lives living entirely within the confines of ordinary reality, it is the hidden aspects of non-ordinary reality which gives our mundane existence its depths and its dreams. (If you find you still have questions about the difference between ordinary and non-ordinary reality, I suggest you consult a work on shamanism. It is the shamans special function to mediate between these two realms and a more profound discussion on how they interact with one another will be found in any of the shamanic texts referred to in the bibliography.)
Ritual, ideally, takes place in non-ordinary reality. But how do we get into non-ordinary reality? The simplest and most common way is through our dreams, but this is impractical as far as ritual is concerned because we want to be awake and in complete control of our actions during ritual. So how else? Meditation also takes us into the realm of non-ordinary reality, as do trance-states which can be induced through meditation, ecstatic dance, and a number of other ways. A more subtle way of entering non-ordinary reality is to simply separate yourself from ordinary reality.
onsciously remove yourself from your ordinary existence and cross over into a more magickal, surreal, and ritualized one. We can do this by consciously altering our dress, our appearance, and our surroundings in ways that make it clear to us that a change has taken place and a threshold has been crossed.
It is this sense of threshold, really, that serves to delineate between the two realities. In truth, both aspects of reality exist simultaneously and in the same space. Thus, of course, we are constantly moving through both ordinary and non-ordinary reality. Our perceptions alone keep them separate, and when we wish to cross over or become more aware of the subtler aspect of our existence, all we really need to do is make a conscious effort to do so.
Exactly how you alter yourself and your surroundings is primarily up to you. Most practitioners of magick and ritual have ceremonial robes which they wear before and during ritual work. Priests, Rabbis, and Priestesses all have certain costumes which indicate when they have entered the realm of ritual. You may not want something as elaborate as a robe, though most prefer something loose and flowing. Your ritual garb should be impressive to you - impressive enough to really drive home the point that you are not going to simply be going out to eat in these clothes. Impressive does not necessarily mean expensive, however. As the vast majority of pagan and Wiccan rituals are performed out in the open, it is important that you design a ritual costume which you will not have problems getting wet or muddy. Your clothes are not going to help your ritual frame of mind if all you can think about are dry cleaning bills! Your ritual garb should also allow you freedom of movement. It should not constrict your arms or legs in any way, as you may need to dance, kneel, or gesture with your hands.
You may want a very plain, simple robe for ritual. The most common colors for robes are white and black, though you are free to choose any color that suits you and your intentions best for your ritual wear. Traditionally, white signifies protection, peace, purity, truth, and healing. White is almost always worn by those who work with healing energy and strictly beneficial white magick. Green is healing, growth, fertility, and prosperity. It is of often associated with nurturing and caring aspects of the goddess. Green can also be associated with the Horned God, especially in his aspect of the Green Man. Red is used to signify sex, passion, energy, and courage. As a color of power, red is often used in rituals involving empowerment or the gaining of power over another. Yellow is the color of the mind, clairvoyance, and divination. Purple is the color of magickal power and mysticism. It is worn as the color of the adept in many traditions. Black is another color adopted by the adept. It represents the absorption of negativity and is also the color of shadow and night magick. Blue is a soothing color associated with tranquility as well as healing. It is another color associated with aspects of the Goddess, especially in her aspect of Queen of the Stars.
Ultimately, you should go with what you are most comfortable with, and don't be afraid to change your choice in color or style if you feel compelled to. At the core, your ritual items have only as much significance as you put into them, and when they cease to mean something for you, or their meanings change for whatever reason, you should not feel bound by habit or duty to keep things exactly as they are.
Your ritual robe is usually tied with a cord at the waist. Most often this is a red cord, though, again, the colors can vary according to the season or your personal taste. You may also want to add jewelry to your ritual attire. Silver jewelry seems to often be preferred by Wiccans and neo-Pagans, and with a moderate budget, there is a wide variety of rings, bracelets, anklets, arm-bands, pendants, and circlets which you can obtain. You may choose your ritual jewelry for the magickal significance of the stones and gems it has in it, or you may simply choose it because you like the way it looks on you.
In addition to a ritual robe, you may also wish to adopt a ritual mask. The purpose of the mask is to alter your ordinary appearance and move it into the realm of non-ordinary reality. Your ritual mask may be an actual, physical mask which you made (or had made for you) and wear during ritual or it may simply be a certain pattern of facial make-up which you apply as part of your ritual preparation. In this sense, masks have been used in ritual the world over, in every culture and tradition. At the core, the mask holds something of you, especially if you personally made it, and yet it is something else entirely, a semblance which you take up or put down, symbolic of your entering into or departing from the reality of ritual space. Remember, the goal here is to create a distinct break from your ordinary reality. You should try anything you can to wipe away all traces of your mundane life and elevate yourself into a new and different existence.
As you prepare yourself in a manner which distinguishes between your ordinary everyday self and your non-ordinary, ritualized self, so you must prepare your ritual space. In most religions, the ritual space takes the form of the altar and the temple. These places are set aside from ordinary reality as the sites for sacred events and rituals. The true temple of your ritual experience should be carried within yourself. This is often referred to as the Astral Temple. This is the sacred space you have built within your heart, that unique stillness and sense of tranquility which is achieved through deep meditation. Adepts of many traditions have made great use of this inner temple when building their sacred space on both internal and overt levels.
But how do you build, let alone comprehend, a temple that does not exist in time or space? The Freemasons have the most practical and grounded approach to this astral temple: through a series of extended visualizations, they build the temple in their imagination, stone by stone. Ideally, when their temple is finished, their image of their personal temple will be so clear and concretely defined that they can enter a meditative state and visit the temple as if it were a real place in real time. Not everyone has the discipline nor the imaginative capacities necessary to build such an elaborate and concrete astral temple. However, everyone with practice, meditation, and a controlled act of will can build a sacred space within themselves that they can use as a focus during ritual. You may want to link your astral temple with a place you remember from your childhood, or an imaginary realm you favored in literature. It can be any sort of clearly visualized image that helps you achieve a peaceful, meditative, and sacred frame of mind.
If you have properly prepared yourself for ritual work, your temple will be located within your heart and your will. Since you carry your temple within your self, it follows then that you may perform your ritual, your sacred exercises, anywhere. So long as you remain centered and connected with that sacred space you have built up within yourself, you need not be limited by any physical location. However, it helps to make an outward show of building a sacred space around you as part of your preparation for ritual, and this is the role of the altar.
Much has been written concerning the Wiccan and neo-Pagan altar. In general, you should build two altars for yourself. One, your fixed altar, should be set up in your home. Ideally; you should set aside an entire room for the purposes of worship. This room should have minimal furniture and it should be decorated with objects which you find spiritual and inspiring. Statues, posters, crystals, chimes, anything that you can collect over the years that has some magickal or ritual significance for you should go in this room. The central piece of the room should be your formalized altar, set up on a table or bookshelf. If you are a traditional witch, the altar should have the traditional trimmings: wand for fire, cup for water, sword for air, salt for earth. More liberal witches may deviate somewhat from the traditional formula.
In general, incense and a safe incense burner should be present as well as candles and devotional statues or similar symbols to represent your deity or deities. You may wish to add fresh flowers or branches to your altar as the season permits, and you should change things around periodically so the set up doesn't grow stale. Part of a living religion is its dynamism, and you should avoid getting into a rut in all aspects of your worship.
Depending on your personal tastes, the altar you create may be very simple or it may be very elaborate. When creating or consecrating your sacred space, you should follow much the same method you employ when preparing yourself for ritual. You may wish to add certain decorations or items to the area. As with everything, these should have symbolic significance for you and should serve to delineate your sacred space from your everyday space.
In an apartment and other urban setting where space is a crucial consideration, it may not be possible to set aside an entire room for worship. There's nothing wrong with this. In all cases, you should make do with what you have, letting your creativity and inspiration make up for what you might lack in terms of space and available materials.
Your second altar should be a portable altar. This should consist of a cloth that you can put down on the ground or an available tree stump out of doors, as well as incense, an incense burner, candles, candle holders, a small athame (try to stay within the legal limits for blades in your state as police officers are not always very open-minded), devotional items, a cup or other vessel for water, a vessel for earth, and matches. Try to get the self-lighting matches as the little paper book matches are very difficult to light in even the slightest outdoor breeze. This altar should be kept in a small trunk, satchel, or case that is easy to store and transport. This is the altar you will take with you when you travel to pagan gatherings at parks or campsites for special events or group ritual. It is also the altar you will take with you when you go outdoors to your personal ritual sites and open-air temples.
For Wiccan and neo-Pagan purposes, the temple is not necessarily any single fixed place but can and should be located in a number of different places. Pagan altars were traditionally located on mountains, hilltops, and in sacred groves. Some were set up alongside sacred wells or springs. Even if you live in the city, you may want to incorporate some of the outdoors in your ritual space. Find a local park or even a cemetery with a peaceful and inspiring setting that you will feasibly be able to perform ritual in. After all the very word pagan originally meant country dweller. By choosing this word to define ourselves and our spirituality, we link our spirituality to nature on a fundamental level.
The first few times you try setting sacred space up for ritual, you should experiment with your ritual preparations. After a while you will learn what works best for you. Don't ever do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable or awkward. All of these ritual items and preparations I have discussed are guidelines only. They are designed to be used as a focus, to help you concentrate on the essence of the ritual itself. If at any time the items or costumes used to help a ritual detract from the ritual itself, you are doing something wrong. You have lost sight of your purpose. The idea is not to become so bogged down with toys and tools that you no longer recall what you were holding the ritual for in the first place. The idea is to help the ritual have as much profound, personal meaning for you as it can possibly hold.
The ritual itself, even, is only a tool, and should be used as such. You and the goals you seek to achieve through the ritual are the real essence of the ritual actions. When it comes down to it, whatever way you choose to perform your ritual is fine so long as you never lose sight of your self and your goal.