Ritual is as old as humans have been human. It is primal and it is primary to shedding the veils between our ordinary world and the divine. Until the latest chapter of ‘civilized’ culture, it has been woven into the very fiber of our lives.
Now we are often without it. Many think of ritual as ‘routine’, what we do when we get up in the morning, but ritual is much, much more. Ritual may be practiced on public holidays or at major sports events but without the intention of accessing the divine, it will bring us no further along than we were at its beginning.
If you are called to bring sacred ceremony back to our public arena, this is a beautiful community service you are stepping into. It is also something that is not easy to learn how to do effectively. There are many elements to this art form, from handling people, logistics and delegating as well as listening to Spirit and taking care of oneself in the process. Because of this, I have written an article in hopes of empowering those that hear the call of public ceremony.
What is ritual?
Ritual may be dressed up differently across cultures and occasions but at its bare bones, ritual is always the same. It always has a beginning, a rising of energy, a culmination and a closing. Each of these sections are vital to making up the whole.
Here is the skeleton of ritual.
Beginning. In the beginning, we somehow create sacred space. Some people like to call the directions; some like to cast a circle, some like to stand still and become very, very present of their place on this physical planet. During this process, there is a cleansing of this area being temporarily claimed in time and space. One might use sage, cedar, bells, brooms. What we are called to the most, brings most passion. As we are called, we call back. We call out to our helping spirits to join and support us.
Rising of Energy. We open ourselves to the sacred circle, now sealed and claimed in time and space. We are certain that we are safe to be vulnerable, as the more vulnerable we can be, the greater the energy evoked. We dance, we sing, clap hands, drum, sit quietly and pray. This honoring, this blending with need and passion blends us from the mundane right into the places in-between. In between this world and the ones of the spirits.
Culmination. In the same way that a musician feels the peak of an improvisation, we feel when the energy is most potent, when it is time to do our work. It may be work of divination. It may be prayer. It may be a soul retrieval for someone else or an invocation. We have planned carefully and designed all aspects of the ritual to reflect our intention and we do it with utmost focus.
Closing. When the work is done, we allow the energy to fall. We offer gratitude to the spirits for helping us and ground excess energy by sending it safely home. Home to the earth, to the ones we pray for, to mother ocean, to flame. We come home ourselves, sound in our bodies and ready to manifest the gifts we have received in the world we live in. The circle is opened. And if it’s really good, we celebrate each other through the sharing of food.
This is ritual at its most basic expression. The power of its effectiveness is determined by the clarity of intention and the ability for participants involved to let their guard down and really invest. As a public ceremony planner, the more you can design your ritual to be accessible to everyone, the more people will feel good about it. When people know their role, they are able to invest energetically. When it comes to healing, truly, most everyone wants to help so give them the chance!
I believe that public rituals that are performed by a few, while everyone else watches can be disempowering. Rituals with highly specialized roles work better for small groups where members have common training or at least common understanding as to what metaphysics are being practiced so they can get behind it. This also might work in a workshop setting where there is an expectation of time spent on instruction.
In open public rituals there is no time to give on much beside an explanation of the main intention and how participants can take part. People come from too many different backgrounds and as we do live in an entertainment-based culture, we all want to get right to it.
Planning the Ritual
Graphic by Patrick Corrigan. http://drawingbreath-comic.blogspot.com
Before knowing who is coming, where it’s going to be or what color the candles will be, you need to fully understand the intention. Everything else follows from there. Intention of the spiritual work will be your guide in whom you invite, what the flyer looks like and possibly everything else down to what time of day, depending upon your ceremony style.
This intention will fail to draw a gathering if it came from your brain or your favorite book. Intention-choosing is really more like intention-finding. Use your community relationships to listen, listen, listen to what people are yearning for. It didn’t take a lot to figure out that people needed to have a way to express prayers for Mother Ocean in the last year or so. Sometimes the yearning can be heard in unexpected ways. For instance, if a community of people is becoming cerebral, too caught up in city life, then a Spirit of the Land ceremony might be appropriate.
Organizers must have many relationships that cross many different sub-cultures. Community is nothing if it is not relationships. Relationships are everything. They are how you are capable of keeping your ear to the ground of the broader spiritual communities. They are the fibers of community, the elixir of life. They model respect for other leaders. Through this type of bridging, cross-pollination starts happening and you start to hear people exclaim that they keep running into the same people at events. This is community, yeahh!
In finding the intention, we remember that the spiritual work we do is not fully ours. It is shared, so in sharing and listening we discover what community needs. What needs to be balanced. At the same time, as an organizer, your labor of love is going to be most powerful if you are working on a cause that you are passionate about. So find the cause that serves both you and your community. It won’t be too hard.
Crafting the Ritual
Once you know what you are doing, energetically, everything else falls into place. All your decisions get easier. You may want to craft the actual ritual yourself or you may want to include a few more people. In a later section, I will talk about the process of crafting with other people.
Be sure that you have at least one tangible way that people can contribute their personal prayers to the ritual. This could be through adding something to the fire or releasing something in the water…there are many ways. Public rituals run the risk of being alienating without this crucial part.
Once the ritual is designed, you have the opportunity to bridge-build in your community, if you feel you have a strong enough base to do that. Take a look at your plan and ask yourself if there are sections or elements that would be best handled by some other talented person. For example, I wanted to invite the African drumming community but knew that if I spent my focus honing the drum circle during the event, I would not be able to do my job. I invited some local drumming teachers and they were thrilled. They were not pagans or shamanic practitioners, but they were well skilled in the ability to read and ride energy through the drum.
Contact these people early in your process. It is an honor to them if you are able to do this before the flyers even go out. This allows them to give input that may change core logistics. If their presence is crucial, make sure you align your schedules.
The actual flyer is your main invocation. It is THE call to community to come and gather. It states the purpose, place and how people can get involved. It is a highly, spiritually potent document, so try to make it reflect the energy you are attracting. Put it out about 6 weeks in advance and then again 6 days beforehand.
When you make your call, ask for help! People love to help make something big and awesome happen. Figure out how to answer the question, “What can I do to help?” What a beautiful question. If someone is asking, they are offering their valuable energy to making the event strong. Plus, you might be about to make a new friend! Or better yet, this person may be about to meet a great friend through their volunteering for you. Never turn someone away that wants to help. The more the merrier, they say. Have small jobs and big jobs so no one feels overwhelmed or unneeded.
Ask people who you know love this event and are connected to other communities to spread the word, even if they personally cannot come to the event.
Let everyone know how much they are appreciated. Let them know several times. This powerful work of connecting people before the event is yoru way of sharing power with other, making our webs stronger. It is also what will keep you from burning out on your 7th ritual.
I advocate for free events. There is time for classes, workshops and healing clients and there is time for play. In a city where park benches are pulled up so that homeless people can’t hang around, we are gravely lacking in places to gather. There are a lot of people who cannot afford classes and more that think they can’t afford classes because they have not experienced the good medicine of what they are missing.
So give. Don’t make it a promotional event. Just give. It will come back in ways you cannot guess, as giving for the sake of giving is contagious. If you have to charge to cover the rent, make that clear on your flyer and talk about how pitching in is what is makes these events happen. People love the thought of barn-raisings. If there will be a food, make it a potluck and ask volunteers to bring utensils made from recycled materials.
You are creating a temporary autonomous zone where people can have a shared, powerful experience, make new friends and feel like they are part of something important. This is more valuable than apple pie. This is hot apple pie with hand-whipped cream and a sloppy hug from somebody’s grandmother. Do it.
When I am ramping up to a public ritual, in some sense, I become a conduit for the entire ceremony. I feel the energy. I hear strong intuitions about the shape of things. I can’t sleep. I wake up with new inspirations and run for my pen. I become possessed with the spirit of the ceremony. It builds – and then a few days before the event, it falls out of me and I know that it is no longer mine. It is out, fully with the spirits and those that have honed their course to meet up with us. It is out of my control. All I have left to do is show up and do my job.
The Ceremony. People are going to be late. Even if you ask them not to. Get over it. Ask the spirits to help create a cone that allows for that. Ask the spirits from the moment the first flyer (invocation) goes out to start preparing sacred space ahead of time for you. With you.
People who did not respond before are going to ask if you need help when they get there. Be ready. Don’t forget to find a few people who are willing to stay and cleanup. Crucial.
Chances are, your audience is going to be spiritually mixed. In this time, we are in the midst of another spiritual renaissance so your audience likely represents explorations of all parts of this tangled forest of earth-based spirituality. Be aware of a strong resistance to being told how things are, in the spiritual realm. This comes from people who are still running from organized religions that hurt them very badly. It is common for one to stick to only one chosen modality…or refuse to commit to any one path, as a result of this kind of wounding.
Because of this, be sure to use generic spiritual language in the flyer, email as well as in the ritual itself. We want to leave all doors open for people to engage. I don’t even call specific spirits out loud when I call in the directions. I do invite others to practice whatever they are used to when opening sacred space. This includes verbally stating that inviting Jesus or other deities that alternative cultures may shun, is welcome. Most of the time people are too shy, but it’s always nice when someone takes a twirl or sings their spirit song.
In these public things, the level of inhibition is not to be judged. We just focus on saying the right things to make people feel welcome and safe.
The more a community has worked together, the more you can ask of them. People who know each other are more liable to get silly and growl like bears or chant to the rain or dance in the dew.
In any case, know your audience.
Be very, very clear in your introduction as to what the intention is, how that is being carried out and how people can engage. Are there slips of paper for people to write on? What are they for? Where do they go? Where is the energy being directed at the culmination? Who are the key people and how are they serving us?
Then, try to let go. Have a strong beginning and then get out of the way. Allow people to make mistakes, enjoy the mishaps, disappear into the crowd if your presence is making people follow only you. Love people through it. Introduce yourself to new people and make them feel welcome.
Hang out for a while and–learn from my mistakes–ENJOY yourself. Spend a few minutes with your friends. If you didn’t get enough volunteers to cover all the bases, let some things slip so you can get a hug or two. Bring your own food and water and don’t let your blood sugar drop. Ask for help. Always ask for setup/clean up help ahead of time or you are going to walk away feeling like you need a time clock to punch.
Closing. When the ritual is over, energetically close the circle yourself again and ask for a clearing from spirit. Emphasize the importance of closing because new people often like to hang onto the metaphysical high and don’t realize they can keep that good stuff while still coming home to their bodies. Thank everyone you see for all that they did. Have a happy party in your mind with your helping spirits and receive. Receive the blessings they are bestowing on your for doing this beautiful work.
I really hope this is helpful. If you have questions feel free to write in, and I will do what I can. This will be a living document for a while as I go through revisions so your questions will help me, as well.
May your ceremonies be blessed.
May you find kinship and cheer in your community.
May we all commune in the happiest way with our spirit friends.
Addendum: Crafting the Ritual with Friends/On-the-Spot-Ritual-Making Style Ceremonies
Now up until this point, I have been talking about doing it with an organizing committee of one plus. You and your spirit allies. This is not ideal, as things are way more fun and power-packed with an actual guiding circle, but to get to that point, you need community. So somebody’s got to hunker down and start.
I love to co-create rituals with a circle. This can be dynamic, spirited, spirit-led and very deep. It also can be cantankerous, filled with questions and egos and misunderstandings, so you need a strong facilitator.
This is what you have to do.
Keep your eye on the prize, the prize being the Intention of the Ritual. As I mentioned before, this is the vital life of the entire event. It is the artery, the guide and the ruler. It also makes circle confusions much less confusing because if there is question about whether to use a suggestion on the table, what the circle is looking at is not who suggested it or why, but how it fits into shared Intention.
Coming up with an Intention can be simple like “sending love to Mother Ocean” or (if celebrating a Sabbat) can become more complex. The big markers of the year like Summer Solstice or Fall Equinox can be honored in as many ways as there are people.
So I play this game of having everyone journey or meditate to hone their own personal needs and spiritual hungers are for the agreed theme. We do this with no regard to structure or possibility. Dreams cannot be hindered. Then we lay it all out on the table to see how it fits together. We find common themes, crucial things for some people and less important things that someone might willingly take off the table. Don’t let someone take something off the table just because it doesn’t fit when it is clear that this person really needs it. There is always a way to weave it all together.
Weaving into One
Then comes the weaving part. Really fun. Highly creative. If one person want to honor the death of the sun and another wants to honor the birth of the moon, how does that work in one ritual? Come to it with a sense of fun and other people will join you. You are still working on energetics of the intention, how the energy is traveling through the ritual, not how any of this will be expressed.
When the Intention is set, read it back clearly to everyone to make sure all present are on the same page. This is the time for changes.
My advice to you is the bigger the audience for the ritual, the more simple the ritual should be. Otherwise complexity will hinder public engagements. Simple chants, simple explanations. Keep the major energy work down to two things. Maybe three. One is really good.
OK, now that the intention of how the energy is being used in the ritual, you are ready for what I call dress-up. Do we want lavender or dragon’s blood? Should one element be a meditation or a dance? The possibilities are endless. If someone shows up on fire to copy something from a book they love and it doesn’t really fit, ask them what about the book-spell or poem is calling them. Honor that. Ask them how it serves the Intention. There is something important there for sure, so find it without compromising the integrity of the ritual.
Then you run around and get all your stuff and make a big deal and meet up at the beach.
Once you get this process down, it is SUPER fun to do it with a bunch of strangers at the ritual itself. In order to make this feasibly fast, you set the Intention for everyone ahead of time. Tell yourself that the ritual will be designed in no less than an hour, stick to that and have fun with it.
For example, I might put the call out to anyone who wants to co-create a ritual to honor the Puget Sound. We all meet on the beach and I ask people to call out why they love the Sound. In this case, I don’t try to get everyone’s voice. I only use what comes without prompting. There is no time to have deep process, especially with a mixed group of spiritualists.
Let’s say one person feels it is a great woman. Another person is sad about how urban development affects the sea creatures. When we come out of the process, there might be 3 people making a goddess in the sand while others are singing along the water line. Then we weave these elements together as we put candles in the sand and we all connect to the Moon to allow our prayers to be stronger. Perhaps we have cast sacred space by running around in a sand circle, laughing.
Oh my goodness, this way of doing ritual is super, super fun for everyone! It is a creative process that everyone got to be part of from beginning to end. People feel like they did something, they were included and their contributions were important. Friendships come out of such stuff as this.
It’s all about intention. The rest falls into place.