Sunday, November 9, 2008

Ritual - the Core of Pagan Religion

This short article was originally written to answer a critique on a witchvox page, but never got sent, so, up it goes here... next some more immediate stuff...

Ritual – A Road to the Gods
Ian Corrigan

Fairly often, in our Neopagan revival, someone comes along who would like to try to wake us up to some perceived failing. They have a seen a fault, a lack or an overabundance, that they think could be fixed if People Would Just Act Right. One of the stranger complaints is that witchcraft has ‘become’ full of ritual and symbolism. Such iconoclastic preachments usually suggest that ritual is somehow false, pretend or empty, and that ‘all we have to do’ is some vaguely-defined internal process, and we can have all the things we think we want from ritual.

Personally, I think such attitudes are a huge mistake. Ritual, symbolism and lore are the heart of what makes religion function. To try to set them aside is to take most of the strength and depth out of spiritual practice. Our Pagan movement needs to become more involved with well-designed, well-performed ritual – not with half-baked spell-casting or self-healing fads, I think, but with rites that truly bring humans closer to the divine.

Ancient magic and religion relied utterly on ritual, symbolism and spiritual tools. The more traditional and close to the land and the spirits one goes, the more one sees cultures with detailed and formal ritual and spiritual objects – idols, wands, cups, drums, and all. The notion of abandoning the making of images and tools would simply never occur to a traditional practitioner – it would be like giving up the use of one’s voice.

I think that modern thinking on religion and ritual has been wounded by two big historical trends. The first is the Protestant reformation. A couple of the Big Ideas in that reworking of Christianity were the Priesthood of All Believers, and a (more or less) strict removal of ritual, images, sanctified objects, ritual prayers, etc. This rejection of ritual and magic has infected most of the English-speaking world. The second big trend is materialism and the reductionism that comes with modern thought. In our entertainment culture, we often mistake cynicism for wisdom, and in terms of ritual, we sometimes think that the similarity of ritual to theater speaks badly of ritual. Theater, drama and fiction all are reductions, dissections and taxidermies of powerful sacred tools.

The oldest and deepest of human spiritual traditions all acknowledge that in order for spirit to be made real in the world, it must be brought into matter. This is our special ability as humans – we are able to create symbols and images through which the immaterial power of the Gods can be brought more directly into the world of mortal life. This is, I think, the work of Pagan religion – to bring the divine into matter, to lead our common mind away from the mundane into the wild and high, even when we find it in objects made by our own hands (or purchased at a witch-store).

The human ability to shape matter is just one of the clear evidences that we are players in the spiritual cosmos. We can also speak – one of our greatest material and spiritual powers - and we can learn to perceive spiritual things. Through these abilities we make our spirituality happen, and it is in ritual that these abilities are best combined. Ritual is the crown of human creativity, in which music, poetry, shaping (as in images and tools), are combined with human will and the skills of trance and vision to reach out toward the divine. As a Pagan, I don’t believe in any omnipotent or omniscient being – only in the divine in its many persons. The Gods need human help to consistently give their blessing to our lives, and ritual is one of the main ways to help.

With the aid of ritual, all other spiritual goals become more reachable. Modern Pagans are using ritual to develop devotional relationships with the Gods and Goddesses. I think that old influences from ceremonial magic and ‘occultism’ did lead some Pagans to view the deities as ‘impersonal forces’ to be ‘used’. I think that model is becoming less popular, and being somewhat replaced by a model that deals with the Gods and Spirits as persons, in personal love and respect. That personal relationship is fostered and enabled by ritual.

I think it is true that the divine exists inside each of us. The divine is in all things, I think, and can be found in a stone, or a tree, or you or me. But since the divine exists in all things, it exists both within me, and outside of me. There is much to be seen that is not within me, at least not the ‘me’ that I live with daily. To seek the divine in a mountain, in the moon, in an idol or in the poetry of a ritual makes perfect sense, as long as I remember that the same ‘god shape’ probably also lives in me. In fact, I think that when we awaken a god in ourselves, it tends to attract the god-parts that are outside us, and when we invoke a deity from outside ourselves, it tends to awaken the god-shaped part in ourselves. So, by using images, poetry and theatrical ritual, we are better able to bring the Gods into our ken, and thus become more like them in our selves. That’s certainly what the ancient wise ones did, with workings like Eleusis.

When we bring the spiritual into the material, we make it real in our lives. It is easy to contemplate the divine as some immaterial abstract, but when the God is present before you, the business becomes rather more immediate. Without the boundaries of matter, the divine has little meaning or impact on the world as we know it – that’s why all ancient Pagan ways made limited locations and focus-points for the gods, where they could come through and humans could reach out.

The divine is not limited to the gods. Lesser spirits, including our own, partake of the divine, and so do small material things, like crystals. The work of human hands is a divine work, in which our own power of shaping and creating brings form out of potential, according to will. When we make a wand, or a shrine, or a robe, we make a form, a material reality, for a small piece of the divine. I don’t really even see this as metaphor – to the extent that the gods are literally real, so is our power to make magical material things.

I think that to attempt to do religion with mental skills alone, without ritual, objects and images, would be to have only half a thing, at best. To me, that seems like doing music only in one’s head. One can, of course, produce fine melodies and lyrics in the mind alone – but what a waste not to manifest them in matter!

When something has no boundaries, no limitation, it has no real existence. Everything that is real has its limitations, and so, I must think, do all the real manifestations of the divine. I think humans help the divine to be real, by offering it limited forms. If Pagan ways are going to continue to grow and thrive, as they are doing, I think we can only be more diligent in our efforts to manifest the divine in our material world.

For me, ritual is one of the most accessible methods we have for accomplishing the manifestation of the Gods and Spirits. It is the use of human art and skill to bring powerful symbols into meaningful patterns, leading the human mind into perception of the divine. Far from needing to ‘see beyond’ rituals and tools, I think we need to get down into them, to really learn to use their (and our) power to bring the divine into the mortal world.

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