Thoughts on the Public Face of Storytelling and Ritual

At Pagan conferences and gatherings, I tend to be seen carrying a yellow or white legal pad. That is me and my note-taking. And I have a copious amount of the stuff. Despite that, I suck at detailing where and when I wrote these notes. Some are easy to remember, others – well, not so much. This afternoon, while I was waiting on a particularly rough query to run its course, I flipped through one of those legal pads and came across a question I had written, but with no side context or anything else associated with it. usually, these are the signs of a “thought out of the blue” that happens to me from time to time. Like a stray bit of conversation fires off a neuron in a completely different direction.

Where did storytelling go? Why does storytelling seem to go the way of the Dodo? Are we collectively too meek to be leaders when it comes to the Bardic Art?

Well, its not a totally fair question. Storytelling has not disappeared or gone the way of the Dodo bird. It certainly does exist, just in formats that we do not see immediately as storytelling – movies and songs, for instance. We see storytelling easily in book or written form. Discernment is not that difficult for plays, although seemingly cloaked in plain sight much like the movies. However, the format we seem to crave the most happens around the fire at the campsites or around the firepits of the backyards. And it is here that this art seemingly shrinks into the darkness beyond the fire’s reach.

Much like anyone else out there, I have a running theory as to why this seems to be the case. However, as I dig deeper and deeper – I begin to understand that my theory fits into smaller segments and regions than it does as an expansive concept. See, I notice that there is a lot of fear towards public performance. So many folks are afraid of flubbing their lines, having people laugh at their momentary fsck-up, and/or being the butt of a joke. or maybe some of them are allergic to the spotlight, such as me. Or a combination of things. Or maybe something different, but the point is still there – being adverse to being in the spotlight for whatever reason.

I see this a lot in public ritual as well. Nine Hells, I was definitely there. I remember my first Gulf Coast Gathering. The main ritual has parts divided between the three grades. As a fledging member of the Bardic grade, I was super nervous at having a speaking role during the ritual – even though I had the ritual script in my hand. Everyone wanted the parts that had the fewest lines or one of the directions that spoke best to their personality. Me? I volunteered to take the part with the most spoken lines. Why? Because no one else wanted the role. yeah, that is definitely me – championing the underdog, in this case, the ritual role that no one else wanted. I was seriously working myself into knots getting ready for the role. Here’s a hint – I did just fine. I flubbed a line, and no one got upset. The next year, I participated in more than one ritual, again with the same speaking role as a Bard, and I started to add vocal inflections, vocal volume, and to a smaller degree, gestures. I got compliments on what I did, which was nice, but I had more than one person comment on how what I did in that role (which is the first speaking role in the ritual – another sweat-inducing panic moment) helped set the tone for the ritual.

Moments like this, standing in front of the fire and thanking the Gods for the safe travels of all, used to frighten me. (Picture by John Beckett)

So what in the Nine Hells does any of this have to do with storytelling? Well, the public ritual is as much about storytelling as it is about being a rite of worship. We tell the stories of the Gods and Heroes of our mythologies. We have to step out there and be ready to take our role, be our part, become what we are in the ritual – a part of the story. And stop worrying if we stumble and fall. Just get up and do it. If you trip and fall, brush off your cloak, get up and finish. And remember where that fscking tree root is next time!

Two years ago, again at Gulf Coast Gathering, I did something I had never done before – I got up at the Bardic Fire and told the story of the Screen Door Boar – a Bardic Initiate adventure from the previous year. Getting up to tell the story, very few people knew what I was going to do. I was literally scared to death, again afraid that I was going to flub a part of the story, which I did at least three times. My bigger worry was holding people’s attention and being entertaining for them. Apparently, I was. But I seriously was nearly brought to a stand-still a few times, thinking that I was doing things wrong. Again, the point – try. Even when you don’t succeed, you still learn. And if you want to be a storyteller, try again after polishing up what you are doing. It takes practice. practice leads to confidence. Confidence brings out the best in you and allows your story to shine. But to get there, you have to try.

Back to my theory. When I was in high school back in ::mumble-mumble:: (1980-1984), we had classes in Public Speaking and Drama. Some of us really got into both or one of these classes. Others, not so much. Some who got into Public Speaking also got into the Debate team. All of these put students in front of other people to speak. Their work was criticized, refined, massaged, and improved over time. Repetition and experimentation in technique helped people get better over time. Again, some excelled at this. Others, it was not their area of comfort and ease. Sound familiar? Repetition? Refinement? Improved technique over time, coupled with hard work and patience? That is correct – nearly the same formula for ritual or even magick. I know some schools still teach public speaking, have drama clubs and debate teams, but the emphasis seems to be less and less than it was back when I was in high school.

So are we collectively meek as leaders when it comes to the Bardic Arts? Possibly. Sometimes, I feel like leaders can stifle the creative growth of some of the more timid members by continually casting these folks into the smaller speaking roles. Some folks who lead are worried about the way a public ritual goes because of the way it affects the people who have come to join in the ritual. Flubbed lines, stuttering speech and the such can stifle some of the ecstatic expression of a ritual. That is a proper role for a leader to consider when designing a ritual. But the growth of group members is also a role for a leader to handle as well. That requires patience when helping others realize their untapped potential. It also requires carefully challenging these folks to step up into these difficult moments, encouraging them when they are having trouble feeling their way through the role, and providing constructive critiques of their approaches.

Part of most Pagan practices are rituals and gatherings where individual expression can not only shine, but make the difference for the adherent as well as the participant. Growing that expression in others is not the easiest thing in the world to do, much like growing crops in your backyard or allotment. You have to spend time with what you are growing, nurture it, give it the chance to be something beyond what even you envision, and know when to get out of the way and just let things grow. And that takes time, experience, and learning on your part as a leader.

Thankfully, at Gulf Coast Gathering, I have had fellow OBOD members who have helped me to be more open and outgoing and less of a wallflower. I have helped to make ritual experiences fun, informative, and reactive for many of the new folks that have come to the gatherings. My experience in helping out has allowed me to develop relationships with others that come regularly to Gulf Coast Gathering (and some not so regularly) that I likely would not have if I had not been shown how to come out of my shell. This coming year, I hope to find a wallflower or two to add to the little band of rogues and tricksters that has been slowly developing in size and scope. Why? Because these gatherings are about learning, worship as individuals and community, advancing on one’s Spiritual path – but it is also about being fun. And to be honest, participating is a lot more fun than watching everyone enjoying their time. #TwoQuid

Improvising in Ritual? Learn the Basics First…Trust Me.

So, let’s ditch out of the talk of the impending “Storm”, shall we? There are plenty of folks writing their own perspective of that…plus, my focus is really elsewhere. Instead, let’s drift over to working within one’s own personal Spiritual practice and walk down a favorite trail of mine: improvisation.

Wholly committing to improvisation implies taking risks. It’s a philosophy of leaving yourself open to possibility and leaving yourself open to magic.  –Dennis McNally

The quote comes from the authorized biographer of the Grateful Dead, Dennis McNally. The reference is to the musical style of the band. In hundreds upon hundreds of shows, the band never played the same song the same way twice. Certainly, there were elements that were replicated as faithfully as possible, such as primary riffs and rhythm tempos, but solos were off-the-cuff – and sometimes even the primary elements of a song were taken in directions by various band members. As a group, they were tight enough to work with each change. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

I enjoy the music of the Grateful Dead (and its various spin-offs and incarnations) – enough so that I have somewhere around 2900 tracks, totaling approximately 18.7 days’ worth of continuous music. There is, for me, something truly magickal about the way they approach their music. So free, so pure, with a nearly jazz-oriented approach to just playing for the sake of playing.

A good part of what makes my Paganism comes from this perspective as well. Off-the-cuff, impromptu rituals for one (remember, I practice most of my rituals alone) that leave me so alive and in-tune with the world around me. It truly is a gorgeous thing to behold, at least for me. But there is a key to being able to work on such a high tight-rope without a net (so to speak), and it is similar in nature to playing music improvisationally.

Learn the Basics As Best You Can

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A picture taken by John Beckett at this year’s ADF Texas Imbolc Retreat. For some reason, John takes really awesome pictures of me. The dude has a seriously awesome touch in photography.

Musicians will probably say that individual solos are some of the things that they get to enjoy the most. That moment allows them to showcase what they are good, or even to experiment with a style or technique that they normally don’t get to display. It is a moment of creativity and playfulness that is the crux of why they enjoy playing the instrument of their choice. But before they could get to boogie down on these beautiful moments, they had to learn to play their instruments. That means taking on the basics, and practice, practice, practice. The same can be said for ritual. Learning the basics of the ritual format that you use is essentially to being able to spin off into riffs on what you would normally do.

And I actually speak from experience on all of this. When I first started on my Pagan Path, I was doing things within Wicca. Now, Wicca is not the right format for me. But in my initial training with the American Tradition of the Goddess, I was to learn their format for rituals. To say that I did not enjoy their format is an understatement. So, when my moment came to show what I had learned, I handled the ritual as impromptu as I could. I refused to use the traditional quarter notations, nor did I call the Guardians of the compass locations in a proper manner either. I themed the entire ritual concept around wolves, as the group I was working with were formed around the concept of wolves. It made sense to me. It worked, for me. I wound up being scolded for not following the proper format. I was also praised – by the same person – for my creativity.

Now, all of that had a negative impression for me. It also deeply imprinted upon me how Wicca was not the appropriate place for me to be. Several months later, I parted with the group and became the Solo Pagan that I am today. What I failed to understand was that the creative part was acknowledged, but would have been better accepted if I had shown my understanding and adherence to the basic concepts first. Now, a few decades past that point, I have grown a bit more in who I am, and comprehend the need for basics to be found first – and once those are understood, you can futz with the workings to see what you get. The basics give you the foundation that allows you to stretch your creative muscles across – sort of the same manner in which the bass player and drummer provide a background on which the guitarist can improvise without losing the crowd as to the familiarity of the song.

Do Not Be Afraid to Fail

I grew up in a family where failure was not an option. I was seriously afraid to bring bad grades home, as my typical punishment was to get the strap from my father. Sure, we could talk about the “abuse” that it was, but the point is that I was not provided the opportunity to fail. And in not knowing how to fail, I was always afraid of not being successful. Same goes true for ritual. I always obsessed over the idea that I *had* to get it *right*. Even if I had never done it before. I had to succeed. Failure breeds experience. When I did not get things right, I always examined the “why” of things…I always tried to see where I missed the point or where my effort fell flat. In essence, I was learning.

Thanks to a whole lot of folks within the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, I have learned that failure is nothing to beat yourself up over. Every year, at the Gulf Coast Gathering, there are mishaps, bad statements, incorrect placement of individuals, misunderstandings of where and when a person should be at this point and time in the ritual. Everyone makes mistakes. Even some of the more experienced folks have had their issues too. And instead of folks scolding others…there are gentle reminders and nudges to get people back into their roles and say their parts. This is lighthearted laughter and friendly cajoling over missed or misspoken lines. There is no judgment. There are plenty of smiles, hugs, and words of encouragement. Because people need to be allowed to fail, so that they can learn from those experiences.

Do Not Be Afraid to Succeed

And then there is the opposite side of that perspective: success. And I suffer from this more than anything else. The other day, I noticed that a recent post of mine, Devotional Practice – My Approach, had reached a level of reach on Facebook I had never seen a post achieve. My reaction was not one of “Wow, that’s amazing!” Rather, it was one of “Oh Gods, what is happening?” I am not really geared for large-scale success, because I truly do expect things to fail. This is a mindset trap that I need to dislodge myself from going forward, but I am sure there are others out there that feel similar.

So, you do the ritual. In the middle of the ritual, you try some magickal working. It has never worked before, why should this be any different, right? Except that it does work. Whatever it was that you were trying to do, happened. What’s next? Well, let’s not get a big head and think that everything else will work if we do things the same way again. After every ritual, I make notes about what I did. If it was a public ritual, I write notes about the part I had in the ritual (if any). How I felt afterwards. Was it indoors or outdoors? Anything of significance to my mind’s eye goes into those notes. And when I get ready for another ritual, I go through those notes. I note my previous feelings for similar rituals. And in my preparations, I try my best to find anchors from the previous ones to help me stay grounded and focused in this current one. And I decide what a “success” will be to me in today’s or tonight’s ritual. And I aim myself in that direction.

Now, one side of this that I have intentionally left out – how I approach all of this with my own devotional work. Why? Because everyone approaches that very differently. Even two people approaching the same God or Goddess. Our individual connections to the Gods are unique between us and each of Them. Trying to tell someone how to approach something so personal and distinct, in my opinion, is not useful whatsoever. Open yourself to your own Gods, and They will guide you on what is appropriate and what isn’t. That’s about as much advice as I dare give in that direction. I am not here to create a dogma of belief for anyone, other than myself.

Just remember…ritual can be your own free-form expression to the Gods. But like any improvisational musician, you need to understand the basic framework of ritual. For me that is the framework within OBOD. Once you are comfortable with that framework, then improvisational work will become a useful tool in your workings. Yes, I did it backwards…and there is a lot I am still unlearning, so that I can relearn it in a proper framework. But I still have the heart of an Al Di Meola or a Pat Metheny when it comes to personal ritual. And improvisation is still such a joy to me…even if I did learn it in a manner that makes learning regular frameworks a bit difficult for me. I hope you can take something away from this post, and place it into what you do – and have the Awen spring up unexpectedly in everything you do.  –T /|\

Three Drops of Awen – From Kristoffer Hughes

 

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Morning at the ADF Imbolc Retreat fire…

I am currently trying to get myself prepped for three events happening in my life over the next eleven days. I am packing for the ADF Imbolc Retreat in the Texas hill country, a professional conference in Corpus Christi that starts immediately on the heels of the retreat, and Pantheacon just a single day after I return from Corpus Christi. So, essentially, I am packing three different bags for three very different events. Yeah, I have lost my mind.

 

 

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My book of quotes

A while back, I had lost my “quotes” book, which is a small leather wrapped notebook that I carry with me nearly everywhere. In my determined unpacking from an event last year, I had placed this on a shelf in my office, and then set my two bottles of Bushmills’ whiskey in front of it. Given that I am carrying whiskey with me to Imbolc, I pulled the bottles out to pack and re-discovered the notebook. Naturally, I started thumbing through it and came across several quotes I had written down from last year’s Gulf Coast Gathering, which Kristoffer Hughes had attended. I thought it might prove interesting to explore some of what was said…

 

The Druids of the future will look to the Druids of today for reference when it comes to ritual.

Given all the navel-gazing I have been doing over the last few months concerning legacy, and how the Druids of the future will stand on the shoulders of the Druids of today who are standing on the shoulders of the Druids of the past – this quote was quite interesting to find as the first in my little book. My notes next to this state that documentation is key for the future understanding of the past. And that rituals can help restore order to that which is in chaos.

I admit, there are times when I look at the state of what I perceive to be our current Pagan community, and I have moments of despair over the constant arguing and fighting. And it is difficult for me to see a way forward where there may be cohesion and agreement. I want to have the grand vision of a larger, vibrant world-view, where Paganism is readily accepted on equal terms to Christianity, and other world faiths. With the constant turmoil, arguing over definitions, terminology, and trying to develop standards of who is “Pagan enough” just do not seem like strong forward reaching efforts to me.

And then I get the feathered wing to the back of the head, as I am reminded again and again that a myopic view of the world is the narrow focus that needs to be avoided when looking long-term. There is plenty of documentation taking place through books, blogs, conferences, podcasts, videos, and retreats such as the one I am about to attend. When I start focusing on all the squabbles, I miss all the wonderful things that do move things forward. The multi-faith efforts that happen throughout the world, the growth of the wider community in areas of ritual and daily devotion, as more and more Pagans reach out to find a deeper connection in their spiritual lives, as well as a stronger commitment to their Gods.

Druids are not defined by who they are. They are defined by what they do.

Part of what I am learning about myself is that service to others is paramount to who I am. Whether that be through this blog or stepping back into my local Pagan community or being a mentor to others seeking to find deeper connections in their own lives – living my life is about reaching out to help others. And through that point of individual service, no matter how great or small, I learn a bit more about who I am and what I am capable of. As well as a good dose of humility, which I have been sorely in deep need of.

We all strive for meaning in our daily lives, as well as meaning to our overall existence. For many, that is a concept that is difficult to deal with – the struggle is definitely real. And I can definitely add – it is a lifelong battle. Sometimes, you can feel that you have a complete handle on things, and then a single event can collapse all that confidence like a house of cards in a hurricane. In the end, it is the actions that provide the glimpse at the depth of meaning behind who we are. The individual intention, beyond anything else, gives motion to our actions. When we live an intentional life, we give focus to what we do, how we do, and why we do it. Which oddly enough, dovetails with the last quote I have from Kristoffer…

Your job is not just to know ritual but to understand the “why” of ritual.

Honestly, I can read book after book, article after article, and listen to talk after talk about ritual; practice performing the entire script of what needs to be accomplished; work on the flourish of my hands; perfect the intonation of the words that are spoken – none of that means anything if I do not have a clear understanding of the ritual’s overall meaning. All the book knowledge in the world will not breathe heart and soul into what I am attempting to accomplish with the ritual. All the acting skills in this world, the Nine Hells, and beyond the veil will not mask a lack of heart and passion geared behind the “why” of the ritual. A poorly followed set of words, motions, and movements will pale when that individual is doing so with the passion and fire synced to their desire to do all of this for the appropriate reasoning and intent. And this is one of the reasons that I have always felt so in tune with my impromptu, unscripted, off-the-cuff rituals that just whisk me away into the moment. It might seem “wrong” to someone else, but it is a moment of pure perfection for me.

In a little over a week, I will make my way to Pantheacon, where I will have the pleasure of seeing Kristoffer’s smiling face, and hopefully, experience a massive bear hug. I am looking forward to attending a handful of presentations as well, where I will hopefully get to add to my quote book. And I am thoroughly over the moon at finding my little friend once again…

Slowing the Pace, Reading the Stories, Doing the Rituals – Looking For Quality Over Quantity

One of our problems today is that we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit. We’re interested in the news of the day and the problems of the hour. It used to be that the university campus was a kind of hermetically sealed-off area where the news of the day did not impinge upon your attention to the inner life and to the magnificent human heritage we have in our great tradition – Plato, Confucius, the Buddha, Goethe, and others who speak of the eternal values that have to do with the centering of our lives. When you get to be older, and the concerns of the day have all been attended to, and your turn to the inner life – well, if you don’t know where it is or what it is, you’ll be sorry.

Greek and Latin and biblical literature used to be part of everyone’s education. Now, when these were dropped, a whole tradition of Occidental mythological information was lost. It used to be that these stories were in the minds of people. When the story is in your mind, then you see its relevance to something happening in your own life. It gives you perspective on what’s happening to you. With the loss of that, we’ve really lost something because we don’t have a comparable literature to take its place. These bits of information from ancient times, which have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religions over the millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage, and if you don’t know what guide-signs are along the way, you have to work it out for yourself. (The Power of Myth, p1-2)

This lengthy quote from “The Power of Myth” really got my mind to wondering about a variety of things, such as how different our individual approaches to the aspects of Spirituality that appeals to us may have been if today were just ten or twenty years prior. “The Power of Myth” came out in the late 1980s, a time frame where I had just started on my own Pagan Path. Therefore, some of what Campbell references here is very clear in my somewhat fuzzy memory. The news cycle had started to shorten with the arrival of cable news networks. Compared to today’s endless 24x7x365 news blitz, the starting point from much of this was much shorter. Even in this changing moment for news reporting, the traditional news cycle that was handled as a combination of daily newspapers, national news broadcasts at 5pm local time, and local news broadcasts in the morning, noon, evening, and late-night (10pm local) still ruled the roost. Today’s constant, non-stop news cycle is a hallmark of the fast-paced, constantly on-the-go lifestyles we have adapted to. And in some cases, this go-go-go lifestyle is all that one may ever have known throughout their life. And that fast-paced, constantly “on” pace provides little time or need for classic learning behaviors. Through this, certain aspects of our lives are swept aside as “unnecessary”, ‘unneeded”, or “unwanted” because there is not a quick, neat correlation to this new, quicker paced lifestyle.

John Beckett recently did a second installment of his Q&A posts, what I gather to be a monthly installment for his blog. I read the first version with curiosity, and was very intrigued by the questions asked of him, as well as his answers. For his second installment, I decided to play along. I decided to utilize a topic I knew would resonate deeply with John – ritual. I have witnessed a few of the rites that John has had a hand in creating – and these are wonderful moments to catch. The way he layers meaning, symbolism, and intention into rituals is truly a wonderful thing to behold, in my not so humble opinion. So, for his post, I did a rapid fire of quite a few questions, thinking he would pick one or two to answer. I did not expect him to answer ALL of the questions, but he did and with his usual insightful perspective.

[From John’s Post]: I’d like to see more ritual acts of devotion, especially simple things like saluting the sun in the morning and/or evening, and the moon when it’s visible at night – little things that done consistently remind us of our connections to Nature, the Gods, and our ancestors.

[My Response]: Yes, all of that makes for a daily practice that becomes more intense, more personal, more connected. And I cannot state how much of a difference it can make in one’s life. The focus it provides is quite intense and intentional. I have always wondered if a lack of personal rituals around moments in our lives is a catalyst towards the de-emphasis of how connected we are to the world around us. I would tend towards “yes” but I don’t really have any empirical evidence to prove my supposition.

The above is from my comment on the blog. And coupled with Campbell’s previous quote, I can see where aspects of all of this have started changing the perceptions of how people relate to Paganism, Druidry and personal Spirituality in our new, faster-paced, “modern” world. Daily routines and rituals, such as my morning ritual of greeting the Sun at dawn (something I try to do every day), have been pushed aside that there is more time to cram in to the information overload that we gorge on daily. We’ve pushed classical education to the side, so that we can focus on educating students on subjects that “matter” in the workplace…mathematics, writing/grammar, and technical topics – each essential to a student’s education, but a major de-emphasis on history and philosophy, where students are provided the opportunity to stretch their theoretical legs around concepts revolving around ethics, moral principles contained within stories and tales. In essence, we have pushed our mythologies, our rituals, our daily rites off to the side in the name of convenience. We aim for speed, efficiency, maximum profit for minimum effort…rather than finding the quality in what we have. Quantity over quality to utilize a phrase that was dictated as a “standard” in modern business practices in my MBA degree program.

img_9678Recently, I posted about taking a drastic change in my approach to my Ovate studies within OBOD. I termed this as “diving deep” into my studies, moving at a pace that allows me to bring a certain degree of quality to my understanding of the material. The approach will lengthen the time that I work at these studies, but thus far, it has enhanced the depth of what I am learning by allowing me to take some of the side-trails in what I find in my studies. In this manner, I am allowing myself to branch further out in these studies than I had originally planned on doing. Rather than approach the studies on a plan of do(x) then(y), I do(x) until I find a natural end to the studies of (x). Only then do I move to (y). The previous methodology was focused on accomplishing this set of studies on this particular day. Then moving forward into the next set of studies which were to be done on another certain date. Quantity over quality. After just a handful of Gwers, I started to realize that I was not learning anything in this methodology.

I do not pretend to have any answers to how to live life. Not even for myself. I muddle through life like everyone else does. However, I am increasingly left to wonder if we tried approaching life with a bit more intention, we might be able to improve some of the quality that we seem to be missing. If we brought back rites of passage – such as proper celebrations of birthdays (as a singular, very secular instance), we might find more joy in life? Perhaps, we could tone down the pace in which we devour our news cycle, and choose to consume aspects of daily life at a much slower pace – we might find that quality we all seek? I know when I approach my life with a bit more deliberate intention, I slow down quite a bit. And to be really honest, that change of pace has made all the difference to my attitude in life. Truly, I cannot say that any of this will work for everyone else, but bringing back our stories, bringing back some intention in our daily routines, setting time aside to honor our Gods, our Ancestors, the Spirits of Place – surely, if all of that provides a better connection to the world around you, helps you find a small niche in this world where you truly feel you belong…wouldn’t that be worth it? For me, it has been….

Review: The Art of Ritual

I started down my Pagan Path back in 1986, when I initiated into a Wiccan tradition. The concepts of being closer, more in touch, more connected with the Natural world were strong attractors for me. Some of the concepts of God and Goddess were difficult to completely comprehend, even with my own personal research into the Greek Gods and Goddesses. But the chasm to leap over wasn’t that wide, so it was a part of Wicca I understood well. Ritual, on the other hand, was an area I approached with great trepidation. This was completely unfamiliar territory – being a part of a ritual ceremony, playing a role, memorizing lines that just sounded odd to me. And to be honest, there wasn’t that much out there to help me, aside from my new coven-mates – most of whom I could barely remember their names. Damn, I really wish that Rachel Patterson‘s book, “The Art of Ritual” had been available then!

I love Moon Books, and their authors are folks that I tend to read a lot. I picked up this book because it approached an area that I still have issues with – thirty years down the Path. Most of my rituals are impromptu, and utilize very few of the “tools” that a lot of ritual ceremonies seem to. In fact, the only tool I typically seem to have on-hand is my staff. It doubles as a walking aid, as well as an impromptu weapon if the need arises. So when the Awen grabs a hold of me and has me calling Quarters and casting a circle, my gestures are punctuated by my staff. Most of the typical tools that most people associate with ritual are essentially foreign to me. Guess what?  There’s a chapter about that in this book! And the materials are explained very well, without going into ad-nauseum detail. While some of the descriptives are aimed towards a Wicca-centric knowledge-base, Rachel does a wonderful job of writing this in a manner that doesn’t have that overarching feel.

Then there’s the section about ritual preparation, as well as very well explained examples of some of the phrasing that is seemingly commonplace. What I wouldn’t give to jump into a TARDIS with this book in hand when I was first learning ritual concepts in my infant steps within Wicca. It would have saved many an awkward moment for me, not knowing if I was asking a stupid question about the way something was said. This would have been complete gold for me at that time. So I am envious of those newbies taking their first steps within Paganism with a handy guide such as this.

There’s also a detailed look at the Elements and the roles that each play within a basic ritual concept, as well as some conversation on energy working, calling the Gods and Goddesses, and preparing one’s mental frame of mind. The second part of the book focuses on an explanation of various types of rituals, the concepts behind each, as well as some advice on how to prepare one’s self for rituals. But that’s not all…. The section on ritual planning, in my opinion is worth double the price of the book, in my opinion.

Again, I wish that I had some of this written somewhere that I could have studied and worked with in my early steps on my Pagan Path. Instead, I am envious of those that will have this resource available to them, and will be happy that I will too. Even if it may be thirty years into my steps to where I am now. I can only hope that through my study at this late point on my own Path, that I will become a better ritualist – not only as a solo Pagan, but also in the future when I get the chance to work with groups. Rachel, thank you for writing this gem.

Learning the Basics Allows For Deeper Change

“I’ve run into kids that can play ‘Wait’ better than I can, but what’s the point? Being a technician is only part of the equation, and I’m trying to study the other half–songwriting” Vito Bratta

The quote is from Vito Bratta, the original guitarist of the hair-metal band, White Lion. His point is quite interesting, particularly in how it relates to what I manage to do in my own studies in Druidry, Paganism, and Polytheism. When I first started down this Path, I was focused on the intricacies of ritual methodology – how you called the Quarters, how you moved your wrist when you did this, or the “proper” inflection of your voice when pronouncing that. It was all about technique and the direct application. In other words, the technical aspects.

Technique and technical stuff is good – particularly for supporting frameworks, but focusing too much on all that stuff makes everything rote behavior, in my opinion. Step exactly here. Breathe this many times. Blink this many times. Wave your hand just so, while pronouncing things this way. Its important, definitely, but the real magic comes when you work off of that to create. When you improvise. When you extrapolate. When you add things that feel “right” that weren’t part of the original recipe. That’s when stuff gets real, in my opinion.

Vito’s point, particularly about songwriting, applies here. You have to understand the manner in which you make your instrument sing. You have to know the basics. You have to understand the technique, before you can improvise from it. Back in the late 1980s, when I was first on my Path, this was a concept I did not fully grasp. As a result, my rituals felt stilted, my magick work suffered. I needed to spend more time grasping the basics.

In the late 1990s, I finally turned my attention back to doing just that. I scraped everything I knew about ritual, as I practiced it. I worked on the basics – the wording, the structure, the gestures, the inflection of the voice. I discovered what worked for me, as well as what didn’t. I spent time working out why things didn’t work, and then experimented with changes until I found what worked. But before I got to that point, I had to understand the concepts. That meant working with each aspect that I wasn’t grasping, mulling over it in my mind, and examining it from every angle. It was work. But it was necessary.

The result is a framework that I work my rituals around. Certainly, over the lengthy study period of my Bardic grade with OBOD, I added elements and concepts from what I learned; but the framework remains nearly the same as back in the 1990s for me. I have added concepts, thematics, and structure from OBOD’s materials that have altered my ritual process slightly. But prior to making those changes, I studied what I was doing – both what I was changing to, as well as what I was changing from – to be sure that I wanted to keep the change.

Changing things, particularly those related to some of your core beliefs, is not an easy task – nor is a short process. Time, effort, study, practice, observation, contemplation….all of that needs to be taken into account before a decision to change is made. And there’s never a reason to make a change for the sake of change. From my perspective, if you are approaching the concept of change out of that need, you have already doomed it to failure. Or watered it down enough to where it holds no meaning.

I am passionate about using my rituals to connect to the environment around me, utilizing it to connect with the Gods. I understand that others may not see ritual from this perspective, but it is where I am coming from. I am not trying to provide a be-all, end-all concept or process. Merely proposing a thought about how to approach a potential change. Your mileage and warranty will definitely vary.

Change is Inevitable

Its always been done this way. It worked for Joe Schmo back in 1872, it should be just as relevant for us today, right? Maybe. Maybe not. Do we cast our circles with this certain element in that particular cardinal direction, or can we change things up? Is it set in stone that this is the way that ritual has to be done, or can we alter things without angering the Gods and Goddesses? Essentially, it comes down to tradition versus experimentation. Or if you prefer, structure versus free-form. And I sit somewhere in the middle of this entire conversation. Because, in the end, its not a debate. Its a matter of personal preference.

There are elements and appointments that are ascribed into the very stone of our ritual souls. Water goes here, Fire goes here, Air goes here, Earth goes here, Spirit goes here. Rarely is there an element of argument as to “why”, and even more rare is the question of “what if we change it up by putting Air over there instead?” And nearly every traditionalist I know is gasping for breathe. Well, possibly. But it does begin to beg the question of whether change can be a good thing or not.

Major League Baseball is going through some of this right now. Changes to the rules concerning how intentional walks are conducted, where a pitcher must throw four pitches outside of the strike zone. Now, the change decrees that a pitcher merely has to point at first base and the batter automatically goes there. No pitches thrown. All done to “speed up” the game. Instant replay has made it to baseball. Certain types of plays can be challenged by the manager. Previously, the manager could challenge the play all the way to the next pitch that was thrown. Now, managers have thirty seconds to make the same challenge. And there is an unlimited number of challenges that can be over the course of the game. Ironically, this one aspect has lengthened the time of the games, nullifying the no-pitch walk. Now, there is talk of removing the Wins/Losses statistic from a pitcher’s accumulated statistics. Its considered to be a poor metric of pitcher performance, given that a Win or Loss is determined more by team play than it is via pitcher performance.

Every single one of these changes, along with the proposed statistical change, have been met with skepticism and outrage from old-school baseball types, such as myself. It changes the game, and evolves it into something that is slightly different than it was before. But the essential rules of the game are still the same. There are nine-innings that have to be played. Each team’s chance in the inning happens until three outs are made. The bases are still 90-feet apart. It still takes three strikes to get a hitter out without a batted ball into the field of play. Four balls outside of the strike zone give the batter a free pass to first base. The scoring rules have not changed whatsoever. In essence its the same game it was.

The same holds true for ritual – to some degree. Change any of the elements, and it changes the formula for the ritual. But the intent of the ritual is still the same. And for me, the formula based aspect means far less than the intent behind the entire ritual.

Now, let me add a few notations of where I am coming from. I am a firm believer in free-form ritual. Outside of the framework that OBOD provides for ritual, I have never done the same ritual, intentional or not, in the same manner. I merely utilize whatever comes to mind at the moment. One short ritual I did down near the banks of the Red River went along these lines:  face each cardinal direction, say the word “Please” out loud, and then step right into main aspect of working – which at this time was merely making a quick space where I could meditate for a few moments. Rather than reaching through a long, somewhat wordy intonation, my single word request was enough to quickly build what was necessary for me. For me, its not the framework that really places the emphasis, but rather the mindset that I had at that moment that mattered most. In fact, I could call to the cardinal directions with a simple “Yo!”, so long as my mindset is in the right place.

There is; however, a matter of decorum and respect where the Gods and Goddesses that comes into play as well. Given that the Gods that I work directly with are Tricksters, irreverent perspectives are sometimes quite welcome. So, I would note that free-form aspects are not useful where Gods and Goddesses that require strict, proper form within rites, requests, and prayer.

Free-form ritual works for me. The simplicity of my rituals lends to the easiness of how being fluid with style, and framework is useful for me. Were I to do a more structured ritual, where certain things must be done at certain times, in certain manners, and stated in certain ways; I would follow the syntax as stated. Coloring outside the lines would likely not be useful or obtain the desired results. For certain aspects of celebratory rituals, I can see where bending the rules is a bit more appropriate. Or as Morpheus tells Neo in the movie The Matrix:  “Some rules can be bent, others can be broken.”

Because adaptation is the key to evolution. And yes, I do believe that Paganism is evolving. I do not believe that the rituals we present to our Gods are the same as the ones presented to Them back in the mid 1800s. Nor do I believe these rituals are the same as the ones that go back into the mists of Time. I also do not believe that our rituals of today will be the same rituals presented to our Gods in the 2100s or even beyond. Our rituals today are the rituals we have today. Some will change. Some will be altered to one degree or another. Some will never be utilized again. But these are our rituals today, in whatever form we give to them. Much like baseball has changed over the years, and will continue to change going into the future – so will Paganism. Because change is inevitable.