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Rip it or Shut it? (More) Guidelines for Ritual Critique

b2ap3_thumbnail_criticism_20140302-173627_1.jpgThe last few blogs I've posted have been all rants and ravings of mine about the trend in Pagan spirituality to turn rituals into platforms for critique or guests pulling aside ritual leaders moments after the Circle is closed to offer negative, unsolicited "advice." The danger in rushing to critique is that we lose focus of the ultimate goal of rituals: to create change in the world via Magick and/or building safe space for souls to grow, heal, and become reborn, or some other facet. They're not simply an opportunity to show to others our own knowledge. When we do this, our rituals lose their effectiveness. This is also a practice in the whole of the soul. We are entitled to our opinions, but others are not obligated to listen to them--even if we are right.

Yet sometimes, criticism is necessary.

No one is going to get any stronger at what they if they are only flattered and complimented. A good teacher doesn't only praise. A good teacher looks for ways the student might improve and a good student listens to those suggestions. Ritualists are no different and constructive criticism is necessary to building more effective rites.

But who gives the critique? And when is it appropriate?

A few years ago, I attended the worst ritual in the history of the worldb2ap3_thumbnail_omg.jpg
(*note: to all Pagan friends--this ritual was neither led nor attended by anyone I now know. In fact, I think this person only existed in a strange hallucination as I never saw them again, ever. So, if you are wondering if I'm writing about you, there's a 99.98% chance that I'm not.)
It was a Samhain ritual that lasted all of 90 seconds. We kind of cast a Circle--I think. Then we kind of flung our fingers around in the air to release some negative energy. I felt nothing. Other people looked around and kind of blinked. Then, we were supposed to talk to our dead Ancestors which basically meant closing our eyes and waiting for the voices of the Deceased to come through for maybe a minute or so. Someone coughed. I remembered that my Bubba liked soap operas and was trying to focus on the meaning of that when the Priestess said, "Okay, bid Them goodbye. Circle is open. Let's eat." 

Yes, I'm prone to exaggeration. But I'm *not* exaggerating here. It was the worst ritual ever and I wanted to go home and throw my Craft books out the window onto 10th street for the cabs to run over and the drunks to puke upon. The most soulful moment I had that night was explaining the concept of a doughnut hole to a British tourist in attendance, who blushed because he thought I was talking kinky. What a waste of time! Except for that British guy, nothing moving whatsoever. But did that ritual warrant my critique? No. Yes, I'm entitled to an opinion. But the High Priestess didn't ask me what I thought. Even though I thought her ritual was lousy, she was still the one who donated her time to put it together. It would have been rude and unkind of me to run my mouth all over it. It's even possible that someone in that room got something out of flicking their fingers in the air and if so, the ritual was worth it. I was right then, and I am right now--the ritual was not effective by any means in comparison to the incredible rites I've attended since then. But it was not my place to criticize.

Had I been this woman's teacher, I would have sat her down a few days or weeks after the ritual had ended and talked with her about ways to improve its structure. If I hadn't been her teacher but had been her trusted friend or colleague, I would have gently struck up the conversation a while later and discussed my experience on the night, possibly offering a few thoughts on how to improve it if I thought that might be welcome. If she had asked my opinion on the night, I would have suggested we get a coffee on a different date and at that time shared a few thoughts.

The WHEN of my critique would have been *more* important than what I said.
If a ritual needs critique, it needs time. Give it a few days. Better yet, a few weeks. Let the energies do their work. Maybe the ritual was clumsy or awkward, but maybe it will still have its desired affect. Maybe that was the case with that Samhain ritual. Had I murmured to a friend as we walked home everything I hated about it, I would have infected the other participants with my negative feelings--even if they weren't there to hear it. I don't even allow my students to critique their own ritual work immediately afterward, which makes the more perfectionist-prone of the bunch snarl a bit. "If we don't discuss it now....how will we know what to make better about it?" Trust me--you'll know. It will come roaring back to you the next time you sit to write a Rite. "More variety of chants! The ones we used three months ago weighed us down." "Less sage! We almost choked." "More time for set-up! The ritual felt rushed, probably because we were too rushed!" In the immediate, those thoughts will thwart the ultimate impact your ritual is meant to have. But after the ritual has had its time to work, this kind of critique will make the next one stronger. 

If the ritual could have injured someone, that critique is so very warranted.
Last summer, I led a beautiful and successful ritual in a forest, at night, lit only by the moon and stars and a few candles. Part of the Rite including people ritually feeding each other delightful delicacies from the altar, which they had all brought in potluck. It was a healing, rejuvenating exercise and I received feedback for weeks afterward about how wonderful they felt after doing the working.  

One very dear and longtime friend of mine offered a very helpful critique, though, and I am ever so glad she did: "The only other suggestion I'd make," she said. "Is to make sure the food is lit with some kind of light if people are going to be eating it. I didn't have my EpiPen with me and I was worried I'd end up with something that had nuts in it."

Uh-oh. A very important lesson learned. No one died, fortunately. But that could have been extremely bad. This friend, well-experienced in ritual, had the kindness to wait a couple of weeks after the ritual to make that very important suggestion to me.

Are you the right person to deliver this critique?
If you are a teacher and the ritual leader is your student, they will benefit from your constructive criticism. They need it. It won't do them any favors to applaud when you're gritting your teeth against hurting their feelings. Maybe you're a festival leader and the person leading the Rites is insisting on honoring the Gods of the Harvest by splashing wine everywhere and encouraging the participants to drink their fill--when a good contingent of festival attendees are in Recovery. That person probably needs a good fill of critique and in that case, it wouldn't warrant waiting until the energies have settled...but maybe until the guests are out of the room? Do they really need to be involved?


When you should douse these guidelines with mead and set them on fire.
Treat these as guidelines, and bend them when you need to. Let's say you are a festival organizer or even an attendant at a ritual that suddenly has a hateful agenda toward a person or a group of people. Then, you don't owe politeness to the ritual leader. Speak up, walk away, don't gloss over hate or deliberate ill-will. Fortunately, these situations are blessedly uncommon, but hate exists everywhere and no religious or spiritual community is exempt. That is a case in which an opinion, unwarranted or unrequested, is required and required loudly.

Moral of the story--give the ritual time. Your criticism, no matter how valid, can probably wait until the energies of the ritual have had time to settle. Be as constructive as you can be--it's not about showing off how smart you are about rituals, it's about encouraging future ritual work to be even better than before.

I think y'all have had quite enough of me yammering about ritual etiquette. :) At least for now! Enjoy your Mardi Gras!

b2ap3_thumbnail_mardigras.jpg

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Courtney Weber is a Priestess, writer, Tarot Advisor, performer and activist originally from Portland, OR living in New York City.She is the High Priestess of Novices of the Old Ways, a Progressive Wiccan and Pagan Coven and community. Her writings on Witchcraft have been published in numerous publications. She host public Circles in the city, teaches locally and nationally, and is available for Tarot consultation. Her first book "Brigid: History, Mystery, and Magick of the Celtic Goddess" will be released by Weiser Books in February, 2015.

Comments

  • Stifyn Emrys
    Stifyn Emrys Sunday, 02 March 2014

    What I find interesting is that people will seldom offer criticism to, say, a priest or pastor concerning a church ritual. One difference is that Pagans tend to feel a little more free to speak their minds, but another is that Pagan rituals are often far more original - and less rooted in rigid ceremonial tradition - than the rituals of other paths. My wife, a former Catholic, once told me that Catholic churches thrive on sameness: One can be sure of attending pretty much the same Mass, no matter where one is on the planet.

    In most Pagan settings, rituals are highly distinctive. They often serve as outlets for creativity and artistry; personal and community expression that may not match or even closely resemble other rituals, even within the same basic tradition or geographic area.

    I personally like this aspect of Pagan ritual. It's dynamic and empowering. It opens the door for a wide variety of experiences, but it's hardly consistent. Because of this, some may find more to criticize. But to me, criticism should be tempered by an appreciation for the opportunity to take part in a unique experience that wouldn't be possible in a less creative tradition.

  • Courtney Weber
    Courtney Weber Sunday, 02 March 2014

    Thank you for Stifyn! I love your point about criticism being tempered by an appreciation for a unique opportunity. Regarding the Christian situations, while their rituals may not leave room for much critique, many Christian pastors I've met talked about being pushed to be more dynamic, more "inspiring," basically getting everyone juiced up on what they want to hear, even if that's not what the preacher has to say. So, they deal with it in their own way. :) I found this article that talks about the "Anonymous Church Bullies" which is nasty brat-pack of its own: http://millennialpastor.net/2014/01/23/12-reasons-why-it-is-good-to-be-a-church-bully/

  • Stifyn Emrys
    Stifyn Emrys Monday, 03 March 2014

    I was bullied as a child. That's one reason (of many) I left the church: I recognized that many Christians were using their god as a supernatural bully to get what they wanted.

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Sunday, 02 March 2014

    Good rant. Unlike some other religions our clergy are often not trained very well and our rituals get more creative.

    One reason we end up with a lot of mistakes in ritual is because we often have rituals designed or led by inexperienced people. Especially in large groups what worked really well in their usual circle of 8 is a disaster in a circle of 300. As for dangerous rituals, I attended one dark outdoor ritual that included a "Spiral Dance." In practice it ended up more like a "crack the whip" for the last half. The ritual ended with a broken leg of one unfortunate who hadn't seen the crossing legs in the darkness. It was another situation not unlike food shared in the dark, can be dangerous.

    Another ritual design intended for each participant to come up to the Priestess for a personal blessing. For 300 participants that literally takes hours while everyone else got tired of standing waiting. We eventually just left in the middle and went back to our cabin. Little things like avoiding one-at-a-time events are often overlooked by the inexperienced.

  • Courtney Weber
    Courtney Weber Sunday, 02 March 2014

    Thank you, Greybeard. Educating would-be ritualists on mechanics of such things as light, feasibility, and functionality are key things that are now making their way into Pagan education. I hope it continues. :)

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Sunday, 02 March 2014

    Amber K has a good book out on ritual design that deals with and teaches how to avoid many of the beginner mistakes.

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Sunday, 02 March 2014

    Well-said. Learning to create rituals takes time and skill that can be learned. My general guideline is to keep it simple, words to the minimum, and with opportunities for everyone to move around the circle and to the altar, for example to add a flower or pour a libation with a wish or prayer. But no need to talk at length about what is being asked for. 2-5 words will do, with longer conversations afterwards.

  • Courtney Weber
    Courtney Weber Thursday, 06 March 2014

    Thank you, Carol! We just talked about this last night at a class. We didn't even use props and just used internal energy instead. It was effective!

  • Chas  S. Clifton
    Chas S. Clifton Thursday, 06 March 2014

    Graybeard is right—the Wiccan circle-casting works for small groups but becomes tedious with more than maybe twenty.

    But these people know how to do Pagan ritual. And it is all the more amazing since at least 1,700 years have elapsed since the last time that they did it.

  • Chas  S. Clifton
    Chas S. Clifton Thursday, 06 March 2014

    Sorry, apparently I can't hyperlink here. I was trying to link to this video:
    http://blog.chasclifton.com/?p=6332#comments

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