My spiritual life has included a slow move from private, often solo ritual to ever-larger group rites. Literally beginning alone in the attic of our community house I found my first circle of 8 or 9 people, and spent the next years working in ‘covens’ of no more than that number of folks. However the 1980s saw the invention of Pagan Festivals and soon I found myself involved in efforts to do magical work, or produce spiritual results, for randomly assembled groups of 50, and 100 and more people, using methods developed for those smaller groups.
But this article is not about how to do ritual for big groups. More often than I found myself leading such rites I found myself as one of the folks in the circle, trying to open myself to whatever magic the operators intended. Somewhere between the operator’s skill and my own willingness and ability to participate in receiving, lies the answer to the question “am I wasting my time?”
This article is about the latter – the skills and methods that allow an attendee at a public rite to make the hour into a personal spiritual and even magical experience, and not that of an ‘audience member’. I think that being present at the Sacred Fire, as we Druids do, or coming into the Magic Circle is an opportunity for blessing. However it requires effort, and even skill, to best receive that blessing.
By Blessing I do not, incidentally mean only the sweet calm and excitement of coming out of a rite with the Fire and Water in you. Rather (or in addition) I want to talk about how a regular round of such ritual and spiritual world can help (by ‘magic’, as some might say) to create a magical life of weal and wisdom for those who participate in our Pagan religions.
So, my reader, I’ll assume that we enter into participation in a group ritual with the intention to help the ritualists achieve their goal, and thus to obtain for ourselves the portion of the rite’s result available to us. If you attend a Pagan group’s rites as an observer, or an inquirer, and are not committed in that way, I still suggest that adopting these ideas as an experiment will help you understand what is being done.
Let me begin with a core assumption that positions all the rest of the work:
I Am Not The Audience
A formal group seasonal or spiritually-thematic rite (even a wedding or funeral) can be very like a theatrical. This is no accident, of course – theater grew from the performance of ritual. However the modern Pagan lives in a world where information parades before us almost non-stop, competing for our slim bank-accounts of attention to be paid to them. We ignore vast quantities of signal, triage inputs, and are used to critically assessing all efforts to hold our eye.
All that needs to be set aside upon entry to someone else’s rituals. As I see it we must all come together the way a village might have done, all confirmed in our earnest desire for that good harvest and peace. It is not the job of the ‘priesthood’ or celebrants to ‘entertain’ the assembled folk. A rite of this kind is performed both to and for the Gods and Spirits, and it is performed by everyone whose face can be seen in the light of the Fire. So even if one is two rows back in the gathered folk, it is good to begin by understanding that you are a player in the work at hand, even if not a central one.
Just to belabor this a bit, we can hope that when the Gods and Spirits come to our fire, in answer to our calls, they will be presented a scene of dignified ritual, with a dedicated company that includes all of the folk. It has become my custom to assert that the Holy Ones “see our hearts and know our thoughts”, so it seems proper to encourage us all to join mutually in the focus of the rite. Together we will offer a good sacrifice (sacred work) and seek, in turn, a good blessing.
One of the primary ways of accomplishing that mutuality is through group trance and vision. It is fair to say that ancient ritual did not include periods of focused or directed meditation or guided mutual thinking. My opinion is that lacking the mutual cultural hypnosis of a group of villagers, raised in the ways, we must compensate through deliberate effort.
Successful participation in group ritual requires first the clear intent to participate, and then the willed effort required to do so. Settling one’s mind into concentrated entrancement in a church-basement or backyard, as a distant train rumbles on by and the celebrants rattle papers is precisely such willed effort. Make it your work to listen closely to whatever voice is guiding such work, and allow your inner process to be guided like a caller guides a dancer’s steps.
Participation is enhanced by what I call Basic Trance – a combination of physical relaxation, mental focus, and the suspension of the critiquing impulse for the duration of the rite. This latter is key; a willingness to dive in, to refuse aloofness, to ignore the criticizing voice is one of the primary efforts of will of the work – especially if the ‘performance’ is less than polished. Holding firm to your Center, reminding yourself of your trance by patterned breathing, and deliberately constructing the intrinsic visual forms of the rite (the Circle, or Gates, the forms of the spirits, etc) will help bring a more powerful result.
I’m uncertain what to call the technique of identifying yourself with the words and ideas of a ritual, even when you are not performing them. In this work it is good to be familiar with the experience and feel of personal, solitary ritual – of speaking one’s will firmly into the air, or displaying the mystery-symbols to yourself. As a participant in group ritual all that experience is conferred on the performing celebrants, and must be inferred in turn by the observing participants.
So as participants we make the words of the ritual script, of the celebrants, our words. We can recite them quietly, in affirmation, in our own minds, saying again what was said by our own voice. The ‘speaking part’ ritualists become the representatives of each individual in the company, and all join their intent together around the worlds and images of the rite.
In the Order of Ritual (OoR) used in Our Paganism (ADF Druidiry) special attention is payed to the work of invoking and receiving the Power of the Powers, once the invocations and offerings are done. We teach that ‘a gift calls for a gift’ and the Holy Ones give us their various good things in response to our worship. Most magical religion includes such work, but sometimes it can pass with less emphasis than other sections. Our Order of Ritual includes a specific invocation, usually a litany shared with the whole company, which calls on the Powers to give their Blessing. As a participant it is worthwhile to note this moment in the rite, and be certain to employ it personally.
Our OoR Invokes the presence of a number of spiritual Powers in every rite. Along with the Earth Mother and Fire Gods, we call the hosts of the Three Kindreds, and the specific persons of the occasion. Other traditions will have a different ‘constellation’ of Powers, but in general it is valuable to open one’s awareness to those presences. A Visualization of the assembled Holy Ones is a fine way to open oneself to their blessing. This is followed by conscious participation in the visualizations of blessing the Drink, or the Flames, or whatever symbols the ritual is using. We have never formalized such visions. Many find that our vision of the Blessing has grown and changed over time, but one can always begin by seeing the flow of the Nectar or Mead descending into the cups, even as the material ale or water is poured.
Internalizing the Blessing is a moment that is usually private an individual. Some ritual scripts may include some meditative guidance for it, but often one is left to quietly feel the material blessing, drink, etc, in us physically, and open up to the power of the Powers we have helped to invoke. ADF’s OoR usually includes at least an affirmation that the Blessing has been received.
Group Ritual, Personal Magic
This is the moment when the combined power of the group’s work becomes available for the individual mind. A deliberate effort can make it useful for specific desires or boons. However in my opinion the best use for such magic is to flood the whole body, whole self, in whatever pattern of energy-flow one has used for centering. The Blessing requires very little detail beyond “Let me be whole, and well, and let every good thing that is proper to my way be mine.”
The work of gaining the good of these blessings, in our Pagan ways, relies on persistence. We are offered the Blessing of the Season, each in turn. If we consciously and deliberately accept each in turn we can hope to be blessed with life, strength, beauty, gain, reward, and rest, each in the measure our fate allows. But it all happens at the pace of the sun and seasons, perhaps with Lunar occasions for more detailed work.
Some corners of our modern Pagan scene seem to want to use spellcraft as a method building a blessed and whole life. The use of spiritual power for personal, specific goals (fix my car, chill me boss, etc) can be valuable, but it can also bring us to a point where we have too many lamps to tend, and possible cross-purposes in our several intentions (be rich, or have leisure?) I think that the persistent, slow-burn work of Pagan ‘religious work will eventually result in the Health, Wealth and Wisdom we might seek, and do so in gentle harmony with the turning of the world.