This Friday is our quarterly women’s retreat and, because we have multiple reasons to be coming together, it is composed of several interlocking rituals. As I prepare the ceremony outline and choose the readings and structure, two perspectives are on my mind. The first, from Ruth Barrett in her classic Women’s Rites, Women’s Mysteries:
When you are speaking an invocation in a group ritual, remember that you are the conduit between the elemental energies and the will of the women in the ritual circle. You will need to project your voice, speaking out so that everyone present can hear and feel the invocation. This is particularly critical if you are outside, where sound can easily be lost. Personal ritual invocations need not be spoken with such projection, but it is still best to speak them aloud. Speaking aloud gives the elemental forces within you an opportunity to come fully forward. It is a form of self-witnessing. How and what you hear within ritual space may be different than how and what you hear in a state of ordinary consciousness. Try invocation both ways, aloud and silent, to hear, see, and feel the differences for yourself. As you become more sensitive to ritual energy, you will feel the energy in the room shift or drop, depending on what is happening at the time. In some Wiccan traditions, invocations are passed out and read from a printed page. This can have a profound and unpleasant effect on the energy of the ritual, and the invocations can sound and feel flat. Whether you are preoccupied with memorizing exact words or speaking them from a page, there are energetic consequences. If you rely on the left, linear side of your brain completely for delivering your invocation, there won’t be much change in the energy of the ritual space. However, when you be-speak your invocation and you truly embody the essence of the Goddess and the elements, the energy builds rather than drops.
Ruth Barrett. Women’s Rites, Women’s Mysteries: Intuitive Ritual Creation (Kindle Locations 2204-2212). Kindle Edition.
I do tend to pass out readings on a printing page, just as she describes and for a while I’ve felt kind of bad about that—like if I was “better” at this, I’d remember everything, OR be able to spontaneous compose fabulous perfection on the spot. However, in the course of my Ritual and Liturgy class at OSC, I read this section in one of our lessons:
“While it is fine for some rituals to provide space for participants to speak from their hearts, for the most part there should be little extemporaneous speaking. Select poems or write words that mean exactly what you wish to convey, and practice delivering them for the best possible effect.”
Reading this made SUCH a difference to me. Like I said, I’ve felt bad about “needing” written material to read from during rituals. I kept thinking that as I “evolve” as a priestess I will “grow up” and not need pre-selected words and readings, but will be able to spontaneously speak and guide the ritual. As I read the above quote, I realized that my process of carefully choosing and selecting opening and closing readings for my rituals as well as poems and quotes during the circles is actually legitimate and possibly very helpful.
I do appreciate that over-reading can contribute to a lack of life in the ritual and I’m gradually finding a good balance there. I know that in my personal experience of them, our women’s rituals have improved in the feeling like they are working as we’ve continued to refine our approach and choose our words and activities. We moved away from including a time for general talking and discussion and into more structure, which helps “hold” the energy and momentum of ritual, rather than letting it leak out in the form of side conversations or long personal stories. (Conversation.discussion then happens after we end the ritual and have potluck snacks and make a project together.) In another book I just finished reading, Jane Meredith explains the layers of ritual:
Firstly there’s the outer layer; which is composed of the actions you take. What matters here is what you actually, physically do. It might include making altars, offerings or dedications; dancing or going out into nature. It might include cleansing in the form of a ritual bath, a fast or a time of meditation and prayer. It is the form of the ritual and functions as a container for the other aspects of ritual. When this outer layer exists on its own, it is sometimes called an empty ritual. Then there’s a second layer. This consists of what is happening within you, and it is encouraged and supported by what’s happening in the outer layer. Being willing, being true, carrying out not just the actions but the intent of your ritual or journey make up this second layer. You may find it helpful to whisper a mantra under your breath, to focus on an image or to chant or drum for a while to take you further inwards. When these first two layers are in concert, the ritual will feel satisfying and alive. There is yet a further layer. This is the mystical one, and may be different every time. It is the moment when the ritual takes off, when you slip across from one realm into another, into the sacred; into the realm of the Dark Goddess herself. In this layer you will feel the divine all around you and within you, and you will sense yourself as being in an altered, perhaps luminous space. This does not happen every time you do a ritual, no matter how well you are managing the other two layers. It is enough to work with the first two layers and invite this third one to manifest. A ritual will still be meaningful without entering the third layer; though it may be more memorable and feel more powerful when you do slip across the boundary into this realm.
Meredith, Jane (2012-05-25). Journey to the Dark Goddess: How to Return to Your Soul (pp. 42-43). NBN_Mobi_Kindle. Kindle Edition.
People have sometimes been “scarred” by past experiences with hollow, meaningless, and rote rituals they may associate with religion and have trouble understanding that a good ritual is evocative of something very different from that experienced in mainstream religion. As I explained in a previous post:
Notice that what is NOT included is any mention of a specific religion, deity, or “should do” list of what color of candle to include! I’ve observed that many people are starved for ritual, but they may so too be deeply scarred from rituals of their pasts. I come from a family history of “non-religious” people and I feel like I seem to have less baggage about ritual and ceremony than other people do. An example from the recent planning for a mother blessing ceremony: we were talking about one of the blessingway songs that we customarily sing–Call Down Blessing–we weren’t sure if we should include it for fear that it would seem too “spiritual” or metaphysical for the honoree (i.e. blessings from where?!) and I remembered another friend asking during a body blessing ritual we did at a women’s retreat, “but WHO’s doing the blessing?” As someone who does not come a religious framework in which blessings are traditionally bestowed from outside sources–i.e. a priest/priestess or an Abrahamic God–the answer felt simple, well, WE are. We’re blessing each other. When we “call down a blessing” we’re invoking the connection of the women around us, the women of all past times and places, and of the beautiful world that surrounds us. We might each personally add something more to that calling down, but at the root, to me, it is an affirmation of connection to the rhythms and cycles of relationship, time, and place. Blessings come from within and around us all the time, there’s nothing supernatural about it.
I also think, though I could be wrong, that it is possible to plan and facilitate women’s rituals that speak to the “womanspirit” in all of us and do not require a specifically shared spiritual framework or belief system in order to gain something special from the connection with other women.
Barrett explores this concept as well:
Sadly, many women describe their previous experience of religious ritual as meaningless. This response is usually derived from experiences of religious traditions that are male-focused, with little to no attention paid to the realities of women’s lives and experiences. When women empower themselves to ritualize passages that they deem as significant and to which they can ascribe their own meaning, like a snake they shed their old skins and emerge into a new reality, a new conscious awareness. The mundane world of the previous moment becomes transformed and they are brought closer to greater understanding of the sacred. Women who create and participate in their own life-cycle rituals are saying that their lives are important, that their stories matter, and that every human life is a gift to present and future generations.
Ruth Barrett. Women’s Rites, Women’s Mysteries: Intuitive Ritual Creation (Kindle Locations 308-312). Kindle Edition.
As I’ve also written before, in keeping with Carol Christ’s work, for me, thealogy absolutely does begin in experience. I do not think that everyone needs to share my personal experience that the Goddess path and the Pagan path are different ones and I do not think the two paths need necessarily diverge to different ends, just that they do exist separately (and, yes, there are scores of different pagan paths as well). It is important to my own mind and experience that a Wiccan path to Goddess is not the only path and I believe that an overemphasis on the Wiccan path can cause some women to turn away from explorations of feminist spirituality.
After I trained as a Cakes for the Queen of Heaven facilitator in 2007, I discovered something every powerful in the resources of the Unitarian Universalist Women and Religion organization. At the conclusion of the training, I had profound sense of THIS is what else there is for me! It was a pivotal moment. I started to realize that my strong draw towards Goddess actually had a place and a home under the UU “umbrella” and that I didn’t have to self-identify as pagan or Wiccan in order to explore a relationship with Goddess. Before, I felt like it was “Wicca or nothing” and Wicca was not a personal match for me for a variety of reasons. Cynthia Eller notes that feminists coming to neopaganism, “often had little patience for the measured pageantry and role-playing that characterized some neopagan rituals…” (page 38, emphasis mine) and this was true from my own experiences too. My brief encounters with Wicca felt “hokey” and inauthentic, my experiences with Goddess felt deeply meaningful and true in my bones. It took a long time for me to realize that it was both acceptable and possible for there to be multiple paths to Goddess. On a related side note, in an article from Brain, Child magazine, the author describes her overall experience at a Beltane ritual and says that she, “can’t deny a sense of detachment as well; the theatrical component makes me feel like I’ve been involved in some kind of interactive Medieval play rather than a genuine spiritual experience. Maybe group ritual isn’t for me.” This immediately made me think of a great series of posts by the Allergic Pagan on the subject of pagan embarrassment. Some of these embarrassing elements are part of why I’ve never embraced the pagan label and instead moved towards Goddess spirituality instead [a move for which I have UU’s to thank]. In my own experience, “measured pageantry” is the best description I’ve read of why I fail to click with it, otherwise known in my personal vernacular as: hokeylicious.
So, to read or not to read during ritual, that is the question. What do you think?
Hi Molly —
I’m a UU Wiccan or, probably better stated, a Wiccan UU. I’ve had both kinds of negative experiences that you describe here. Some pagan pageantry feels overly flamboyant, and therefore, not real to me. But some UU ritual I’ve experienced is so overly scripted as to lose all its vibrancy. What works for me is evocation of the Goddess and the elements in chant, dance, drumming, story, and poetry. I think reading poetry can work. I think reading directions or other kinds of invocations or reading stories is stultifying. Ritual for me is enacted not just through words, but also through the body, so that it’s doubly imprinted and therefore, deeper. And especially chant, dance, and drumming work through our bodies.