Thursday, 14 May 2009

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

British Reclaiming Beltane Ritual, Portsmouth 2007

My friend Paul posted on his blog recently about his frustrations with less than perfect rituals, and it has got me thinking. I know where he is coming from. Anyone with a few rituals under their belt will have experienced how widely the quality of ritual can vary, from good to bad through to downright ugly. Paul's post has got me really thinking about what makes a good ritual, what makes a for a satisfying ritual experience? And what makes a ritual disappointing or ineffective, boring or pointless?

Some of it of course is due to the quality of 'performance' (for want of a better word) of the participants. Obviously some people are better suited to this than others - the person with self-confidence, a strong, clear voice, a good sense of timing, a flair for the dramatic, for example will be great at circle casting, invoking, ritual drama, etc. Other important skills are the ability to sense and move the energy of the ritual and its participants, an awareness of the other participants and their needs, and an ability to think on ones' feet and ad-lib if necessary. Then of course there are the skills for specific tasks: leading a trance, drumming, fire tending, story telling, energy raising to name but a few.

Not everyone will have all these skills. Infact most people will not have many (if any) of them when they start out doing ritual. And herein lies part of our problem: to learn these skills you have to practice them. And that means your first few attempts at practising them in ritual will probably be pretty shaky. But the good news is that pretty much all of these skills can be learned - and as with most things in life, practice makes perfect.

In the meantime the ritual as a whole will not be perfect, because the person practising and learning new skills is not yet perfect. But I can live with that. It may take time, but I am happy to take that time and trust that progress is being made. Paul quoted Isaac Bonewits as saying "Sincerity is not a substitute for competence", but as I replied, "Sincerity is NOT a substitute for competence, that's true. But how do you get to be competent without practice?".

I also said "...I'm comfortable with the odd fluffed line/inaudible invocation/need for prompting. I'd rather have that and a down-to-earth, inclusive ritual where everyone feels a part of what's going on than a high-falutin' word-perfect affair where the HP & HPS 'perform' the whole thing flawlessly and the rest of the group serves as a mute audience to proceedings. But that's just my personal preference."

In this respect my background in Reclaiming Witchcraft is probably a big factor. Starhawk uses the acronym EIEIO to describe Reclaiming style ritual thus:

"Ecstatic: in that we aim to create a high intensity of energy that is passionate and pleasurable.
Improvisational: We value spontaneity within the overall structure of our rituals, encourage people to create liturgy in the moment rather than script it beforehand, to respond to the energy around us rather than predetermine how it should move.
Ensemble: In our larger group rituals, we work with many priest/esses together taking different roles and performing different functions that, ideally, support each other like the members of a good jazz ensemble. We encourage a fluid sharing of those roles over time, to prevent the development of hierarchy and to allow each person to experience many facets of ritual.
Inspired: Because we each have access to the sacred, we are each capable of creating elements of ritual. Although we honor the myths, the poems, the songs and the stories that have come down to us from the past, we are not bound by the past, for divine inspiration is constantly present in each of us.
Organic: We strive for a smooth, coherent flow of energy in a ritual that has a life of its own to be honored. Our rituals are linked to the rhythms of cyclical time and organic life."

Personally, I really value all of the above ingredients in a Reclaiming ritual, though obviously they can have a downside too. Sometimes the inspiration just isn't flowing, or the improvisation stumbles or feels forced, or the ensemble aspect means people with less experience or a bad headache that day fluff their lines or forget the chant or invoke the elements in the wrong order. But for me what is important is that perfect or not, everyone is truly involved, truly in the moment and truly part of the whole.

Not that I don't appreciate a perfectly-executed, truly smooth-running, meaningful and transformative ritual. In an ideal world, that's what I'd like all rituals to be, and what I strive for each time I'm part of a ritual. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't, and I'm grateful to Paul for making me think deeply about why some rituals really work well, and why some really, really don't.

As part of that process I've been looking back at the rituals that have made a big impression on me. What did the really good ones have in common? What about the bad ones? And what about the ugly ones?

The really good ones seem to have had the following in common: good planning; a clear intention; a clear understanding by the participants of the intention; genuinely transformative power; honesty; beauty; smooth and powerful energy raising; good priestessing*.

The bad ones? Unclear intention; confused participants; long, boring, or overly repetitious content; messy energy work; lack of focus; poor planning; slapdash priestessing etc. I also find I dislike pointless rituals - those held merely for the sake of doing a ritual, and those where people just want to get off on the energy, instead of raising energy for a specific purpose (getting a high off it is not a specific purpose in my book!).

The ugly - ugh. Priestesses acting out of ego instead of in service to their community - there are plenty of divas out there. Ritual being used as a space to settle personal scores/pick fights/point score/wield power-over. Priestesses being completely oblivious to the energy or needs of the ritual participants. Ritual performed whilst seriously intoxicated**.

Luckily, in my experience the ugly are pretty few and far between, and the good pretty much outweigh the bad or the mediocre (or perhaps I'm blocking those memories!).

In future I intend to keep the lists above in mind to try and ensure that the rituals I am involved with hit the mark and hopefully avoid the pitfalls. But I will also bear in mind that nothing and no one is perfect. I was pretty hopeless at ritual when I started. Now I have a fair degree of competence, and I believe I am improving all the time. I look at people more experienced than myself and aim for their level of skill. And hopefully when I attain it, I will aim to polish and perfect it still further. There is no finish line to cross, we are all works in progress. And in the meantime, as those works progress, the rituals will continue to get better and better.

So Mote It Be!

Water Altar, Carmarthenshire Pagan Community Network Summer Solstice Ritual 2007

* In Reclaiming we tend to use the word 'priestess' for both - well, actually all - sexes. We're just like that. ;-)

** I'm not against the use of psychoactive substances for ritual purposes per se. Whilst all public Reclaiming rituals are drug and alcohol-free (to make them safe for those in recovery from substance addiction), I have nothing against the use of plant allies/psychoactive substances or whatever you want to call them in non-pubic ritual if they are treated as a genuine sacrament. What I really dislike is people getting recreationally f***ed up on drink or drugs just for the hell of it and then attempting to do ritual. It's disrespectful and pointless.


Rose said...

As a little sign of appreciation I have tagged you. Please accept this as a thank you rather than a tag you are obliged to pass on...

Isaac Bonewits said...

People often forget that I also say, "Nor vice versa!" Ritual is an art form and like all art forms can be, as you say, good, bad or ugly.

My book "Neopagan Rites" has a lot about what makes for good public ritual. Based on this post, I suspect you'd agree with most of it.

Yes, practice makes better (never perfect), but the Gods always deserve the best we can give Them.

bright blessings,

Paul Rousselle said...

Isaac - an issue with Neo Pagan Rites is it seems to assume the people performing the rituals can be competent to start with - the groups here are those of University students, many of which have never experienced rituals, and in Carmarthen, where the same issue can be with the adults. Our Drumming skills are awful, and people are not confident for example, so it is quite difficult to offer the beauty you may suggest.

I once listened to a talk you and Pheadra once did through DruidCast, and you spoke that sometimes all we can give the Gods in terms of rites are daisies (to give the analogy of gifts to parents) we picked from that garden, rather than fully grown, blood-red roses - and certainly, I feel there is a lack of that implication in the book. We can only offer our best, and only with time can we think to offer them bouquets of roses and meadowsweet - but rituals may be lacking until then until we can all be what we when them to be.

Not all groups are gonna have experienced ritualists (but thankfully we have Susan here) or experienced drummers or bards, or singers.
And sometimes, organising a ritual to the formal complexity with the many roles that you suggest is simply not achievable if the liturgy will only attract, say, 6-10 with only one or two experienced souls.