Explores the challenges of living and practicing Paganism in a Christian-dominated culture.
Public Rituals: What Works, What Doesn't
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.
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