circle round and celebrate
circle round and sing
circle round and share stories
circle round and reach out a hand
On Wednesday, I placed a soft blanket on my lap. I invited my cat to be comforted. His breath was labored. His body was clearly shutting down. The will to live is stronger than any other emotion or drive. He wanted to live. He was bewildered. He knew he was losing the battle. He collapsed on the blanket, took two long inhales and let out a long moan that was the end of his life. The sound of death is perhaps unlike any other. The sound of that sigh – I cannot describe. Poetry has no language here - my words utter only stupid rhetoric. To experience this is more than can be expressed, but I try. I try because it is vastly important to me to know what death is and to not hate life for its cruel finality. Right now, it is difficult to feel peace with this life. I struggle to understand why - despite the ache of the body and the deep, known suffering - the will to live is so strong. When he passed, it was not like some say, this ethereal light leaving. His eyes shone bright. His body, warm. It was my light that diminished. My eyes were those that shut, unwilling to see the end. I could not sense the sweat and blood, or hear the hum of awaiting insects near the dirt that would cover him.
Most of my life I have been afraid of getting close to anyone. I covered my pain in drugs and alcohol, escape and romance. I hated my body - the body that knows everything - the cells that die and generate, the hold of lonesome evenings, the sharp brutality of disease and ache. Death has been marked in my life with distinct dreams of an understanding my body knew but my mind refused. My paternal grandfather died when I was 16. I remember a dream I had immediately following his passing. He sat in his armchair and warned me of events to come. Later, I would dream of my paternal grandmother who asked me to refute the truth. When I said I would not, her body fell into the earth as I tried to hold her. With each attempt to catch her fall, she fell deeper and farther away from me. My maternal grandfather died a few years ago and I went for a drive along the Sierra Estella mountain range. Somehow I knew he was there, up among those gneiss and schist peaks, looking over the desert valley, a terrain that must have seemed so stark and foreign to him. Whether the Estrella's were the projection of my grandfather's strength, or he was actually there - watching over me one last time - matters little. He was there when I was born. I was to witness his departure. It's an unspoken deal we make in love and community - offering protection only to know there are some things our efforts can never overcome....
I mentioned in my past two posts that you can cleanse yourself before and after spirit work, and banish spirits as need be. Some of you may already have your own cleansing and banishing practices, but here are a few basic ideas to start with.
Cleansing Self, Space, and Items Beforehand
Some people feel better about their ritual work if they cleanse themselves and their ritual area prior to getting started with the rite itself. Cleansing is at least as much about getting yourself into the right headspace for ritual work as it is about removing unwanted influences from your working space. The best cleansing rituals are not just physically active, but psychologically convincing....
In a comment to my previous article, Anne Niven wrote:
"But anytime we start getting into defining "piety" I start to twitch. I believe that there's absolutely no "right" way to serve the gods. Why? Because I believe that only personal gnosis can impart that information. And personal gnosis is just that -- personal. Which is to say, what's pious for you is, indeed, pious -- for you. But it might not be pious for me. In fact, what's pious for you might very well be *impious* in my relationship to the very same deity."...
Seriously, folks, argue and disagree with me all you want, but do so based on what i say, not the misinterpretations you project onto what I say. I find it particularly interesting that in the course of the comments to my two articles on ritual (both those posted and those I received privately), quite often I'm being accused of everything BUT promoting piety and respect in ritual. Why is that such a difficult and challenging concept? It certainly wasn't for our ancestors. Piety was a central concept to the majority of ancient polytheisms, though of course the words used to describe this behavior varied from culture to culture. Plato, for instance, wrote an entire dialogue ("Euthyphro") in which the definition of piety was the central issue under discussion. The ancient Romans considered it a necessary and sacred virtue and one simply cannot read writers like Cicero, Pliny, or Seneca (to name but a few) without finding exhortation after exhortation to pious behavior both within one's temples and without. Why is it so difficult for us moderns? Because it is. I don't quite know why, though I have my suspicions, but it really is.(1)
Unlike Plato, who had his character Euthyphro define piety in part as 'what is dear to the gods,' i would, in addition, define it as 'right behavior toward the Gods.' Piety is a curb and a guide to our behavior. Of course, right behavior implies precisely that: that there is a right and wrong way of behaving, that there are standards. Standards do not imply tyrannical theocracy. They imply behaving properly and mindfully as the occasion and interaction demands. Now I've written about the opposite of piety here: http://krasskova.weebly.com/1/post/2012/05/pagan-blog-project-i-is-for-impiety.html for those who might want to take a peek. I'm going to let that stand and speak for itself, because there actually is a right way of doing things and it's not that difficult to figure out. You know what else? The Gods and ancestors are more than capable of telling us what it is if we do the work and listen. Of course that might lead us to a reordering of our priorities but c'est la vie.
Piety, by the way, is a far, far different thing from orthodoxy. In nothing that I wrote on ritual, did i demand any particular orthodoxy beyond piety and respect. I did not mention what Gods people should honor.(2) I did not exhort readers to any particular ritual style or practice. It's not about any specific action or belief. It's about attitude and awareness, about the way we approach our Gods and ancestors. By exhorting piety, i'm not demanding that everyone become a mystic. I'm saying that we should behave with proper decorum and respect when in the presence of the sacred. What it comes down to, I suspect, is that many people simply don't *want* to be pious. They don't want to be respectful. They don't want their spiritual world to revolve around anything but themselves. Otherwise instead of bitching when I mention piety, we could start talking about ways to show it; because really, if right behavior toward the Powers isn't valued in our communities, then what is? That's the seed from which all good things flower....
So my recent Heathen Heretic article and its reception (both of which you may find here: http://www.witchesandpagans.com/Pagan-Paths-Blogs/beltane-offerings-not-the-post-i-intended-to-write.html) led me to a certain epiphany with regard to the way so many of us approach ritual. Let me begin by saying that I'm always surprised when people purposely, or so it often seems, miss the point of my articles. A colleague recently pointed out that much of my writing provokes people past their comfort zones and that too rather surprised me: that people would draw lines against experience and narrow their worlds down to such small, grey places. Oh well. we do and everything in our world encourages us to do this so I guess i shouldn't be surprised. Still, there is nothing in my practice that should be radical to someone engaged in deep devotion with their Gods. Nothing.
So when my call for respect and piety as part of the ritual process raised such a din, I was rather surprised. Then I realized, that as with so much else, it all comes down to what one determines is the purpose of ritual. It's more than just determining to place the Gods at the center of the experience, though that is a huge part of it, rather it's understanding why we are doing any of this ritual "stuff" in the first place. What's the point? Whom does it benefit? Obviously I believe it's if not crucial, at least desirable or I wouldn't be doing it. I think we forget that there are two sides of the equation in any ritual process: the human side and the Other (Gods, ancestors). The ritual itself is a conversation, ideally a dance between those two factions. It's a means of communication and experience. I suspect that's what makes rituals that are focused on the Gods so threatening to some: they put something greater than we above the sum total of our limited human experience. They connect us with that Other....
Here in my part of the South, public rituals are few and far between, so I'm happy to participate in any of them. Regardless of what one might think about the effectiveness of an open public ritual, there is something to be said for the energy of being in a large circle of people who believe in the Goddess and the sacredness of the Earth. It is fortifying, especially when it so often seems like we Pagans are lone islands in a sea of Christianity.
However, public rituals can be challenging. You are working with, potentially, a lot of people of different experience levels and beliefs. As a priest or priestess, your challenge is to get all these people’s energy and focus together in a harmonious way. It takes equal parts stagecraft and intuition to pull it off successfully.
In my belief system, worship (including ritual) is participatory; standing around listening to one person call the quarters, invoke the God and Goddess, lead the Work, and dismiss the circle feels no different from attending a play. If I didn't participate in anything, I leave feeling disappointed and unsatisfied. As Amber K states in her invaluable book, "Covencraft," ritual "should be creative, transformative, awakening, and energizing."
It takes the work of several people to pull off properly. This is not usually a problem in my private circles, where everyone has enough knowledge and experience to jump in and lead any part of a ritual. But public rituals, as I said, include people who may have no idea what any of this is about. So my advice is to include as many experienced priests and priestesses in both the planning and the execution, so “newbies” can see the collective nature of our worship (plus it’s less work for one person).
First, however, the intention for the ritual must be clear. It seems as if this should go without saying, but many of the public rituals I’ve participated in did not have an explicit purpose. It is impossible to bring everyone’s focus together if no-one knows what they are supposed to be focusing on. Are you blessing and dedicating a sacred space? Celebrating a rite of passage? Honoring the cycles of the earth? Be clear in your intention, and state that intention at the beginning of the ritual.
Like any group effort, a ritual needs a leader, or at least a manager. That is the role of the High Priest or Priestess. Like a stage director, s/he holds and focuses the group’s attention and energy. S/he explains (briefly) each part of the ritual for the benefit of any newbies. S/he determines, using intuition, when the group is ready to move from one section to the next, neither rushing nor holding back the group’s energy.
Having someone else call the quarters isn’t a necessity, but I think it adds to the energy of the circle and gives more people the chance to participate. If possible, try to get volunteers ahead of time, and if they are experienced enough to invoke without a script, so much the better. Whoever calls the quarters and/or casts the circle, they must have enough knowledge and experience to create a strong boundary; public spaces are by definition more open and unprotected than private ones.
This brings me to guardians. If your ritual is held in a public space, it can be hard to ensure the physical boundaries of the circle are respected. People wander in late. Curious onlookers want to poke their noses in. The guardian or guardians stand outside the circle to protect its boundary, politely but firmly turning those away who would disrupt it. These can be the same people who called the quarters, or not. Because their attention is focused on the exterior of the circle, they can’t really participate in the ritual beyond this role.
So you’ve cast the circle and it’s time for everyone to drum and chant to raise energy (remember to state for what purpose this energy is being raised!). This part, in my experience, is usually the most awkward and least successful part of public rituals. However, I don’t think it’s hopeless, as long as someone exercises practical leadership.
First, let’s talk about drumming. For a drum circle to coalesce, there must be a steady, simple bass line that everyone can follow or link to. Other, more talented drummers can improvise around it, but most people just want to follow the leader. The Priestess (or whoever will lead the drumming part) needs to have the deepest, loudest drum, and must commit to playing a simple, steady rhythm. Complicated solos will confuse the less rhythmically inclined (and are more appropriate for higher-toned drums anyway). The Priestess/drum leader can then gradually build the rhythm faster and faster, building energy in a natural, cohesive way.
Chanting is another ritual component that challenges both organizers and participants. Most circles don’t have hymnals (or “hernals”). For public rituals, my advice is to pick one or two very simple chants, such as “Earth my body, water my blood/Air my breath and fire my spirit” or “She changes everything She touches and/Everything She touches, changes…” Chants or songs with multiple verses leave too many people feeling lost and unsure, which is the exact thing you do not want in ritual. In addition, it can be helpful if you have a few “plants” in the circle, people who know the chant and are willing to sing it loudly and confidently. This helps shyer participants muster up the courage to join in.
Last, obviously, don’t forget to ground and center! Large group energy is by its nature bigger and harder to handle. Don’t let anyone go home scattered or spacey.
A rehearsal or practice run before the actual ritual can be invaluable for ironing out any kinks. It’s best if you can do it in the actual space where the ritual will be held, so you can see where people will be, how loud to speak, how fast or slow the flow of people might get, etc.
The goals of public ritual are twofold: first, the stated intention of the ritual itself, and second, to bring people together for a meaningful, positive experience. I think with these simple techniques, both goals can be achieved.
The other day, on my own blog, I published a blueprint of what a typical weekday looks like for me, in terms of my regular devotions for my god-Husband Odin. This rundown did not include any of the little rituals I do for the other gods and spirits I deal with, nor any of the more involved things I do for Odin on special occasions, weekends, or just because I want to do something extra for Him. It was only a bare bones outline, without any details as to words said or precise gestures involved, but no sooner had I posted it than I really wished I could delete it.Why is that? I wondered (once it had been established that no deleting would be allowed). I think it's because the post at once felt so personal and at the same time didn't seem to accurately depict what my devotional time with Odin really feels like, since any type of schedule, written up like this, is going to read more or less like a "laundry list" of actions. I also doubted whether it would prove helpful to anyone else.
But then one of my friends commented that it helped her to see how a devotional life can be composed of a series of small actions which, taken together, add up over time to so much more than the sum of their parts. I think that's a really good way of expressing it. A bunch of little actions which may not seem so significant on their own—such as brewing coffee or pouring a drink, sweeping around the altar, or taking out your prayer beads on a bus ride—can, over time, feed and nourish the growth of a deep and intense connection. Devotion is the art of training the mind towards focus on the gods, and just as with athletic training, this does not happen quickly or overnight. Bearing this idea in mind, I thought a more general follow-up post, on some things to keep in mind when setting up your own "training" routine or developing it further, might be in order.
I love this time of year. Where I live, here in upstate New York, the summer’s heat has given way to autumn’s chill, the leaves are shifting into colorful hues of yellow, orange, and red, and the farmer’s markets are filled with pumpkins ready to be carved....
I've written before here about how, in our household, Samhain starts early. For us it begins at the end of September, during the week when we've repeatedly lost beloved pets and on the day when, two years ago, I pledged my service to the Wild Hunt. This year, that day was marked with an inadvertent bloodletting when the Hunt, not satisfied with the efforts I had made thus far on their behalf, aided me in slicing open the knuckle of my right index finger almost to the bone with a pair of sewing shears. (Followed, of course, with a expensive trip to the emergency room and several weeks of limited ability to do anything--including typing and crafting--with that hand. The Hunt does not play.)
It continued the following week when I made a trip to one of the city's oldest cemeteries (and bear in mind that here on the west coast, "oldest" means the 1800s, and the most ancient looking monuments, crumbling with apparent age, are not truly ancient at all but merely rain-damaged). I brought with me home-brewed mead and bone meal, to feed the dead, and locally harvested apples for Sleipnir, Odin's giant eight-legged steed. (Eight legs, by the way; have you ever thought about that? Why does He--the horse, that is--have eight legs? Spiders have eight legs. So does a casket, when borne aloft by four mourners. Sleipnir is, indisputably, a horse of death, a steed to carry one to the land of the dead--which, throughout the Norse myths, is exactly what He does.) I discovered an area devoted to the Civil War dead, which startled me because it seemed the wrong coast for that, but the monument statue of a soldier in uniform and the plots of the military dead exuded an aura of welcome for me, a kinship with the "once human" contingent of the Hunt, with Odin's fallen heroes. Here was succor and support, and so it was here that I marked the stones with my blood, freshly drawn from my finger (not the one with stitches!) using a lancet. (The dead were especially interested in and enthusiastic about the mead, by the way!)