Ritual holds a special place in my heart. It can be either formal, or casual. And either way, when done well, ritual adds that something special - a little zing - to our lives.
As an animist, ritual can be full of surprises, mostly from Spirits interjecting their much-beloved "two cents."
Just starting out on a truly spiritual, animist path, we can encounter ritual of varying styles, all from different (but particular) branches of Paganism, Neopaganism, Shamanism, Druidism, and many others. All of the different styles of ritual that we can encounter can be confusing, but they all serve a purpose.
Here, I've tried to summarize the very basic stuff I've encountered about ritual design over the years. (And a few things I've learned that weren't taught to me in any formal sense of the word.)
Ritual varies in its purposes, and the types of ritual we find seem to follow suit. There's an old saying that, "form follows function," and quite often, such is the case with ritual. (Although I've seen quite a few "plug-and-play" rituals over the years.)
Purposes of ritual practice can include:
Rituals can transform mundane tasks into sacred time and space. When we mindfully water the plants, or mindfully take tea, or make it a point to slow down and enjoy the morning cup of coffee, these are rituals. Being mindful during these times brings the sacred into everyday life, instead of leaving it set aside for a specific time.
Rituals can help us to feel safe, and balanced. Life can be turbulent in our modern age. But humans really are creatures of habit - we’re not meant to be in a constant state of chaos. With everything in life constantly changing, it can upset our internal balance - it can make us feel chaotic, turbulent, ungrounded.
But ritual gives us the space to be fully in our bodies, and to be in touch with who we are. Ritual can help us to stop being people who just mindlessly go through the motions day in, and day out. Ritual can help us to learn how to give ourselves gentle reminders to come back to the present moment.
And through those gentle reminders throughout our day, ritual can help us become grounded fully into our bodies, so that we can be wholly present in each moment.
Ritual can foster connection. Being in a group that does regular ritual feels amazing to me, and I think a lot of people could benefit from that.
But not everyone wants to be part of a group - some people prefer being by themselves, and that’s okay. But when ritual is included as a part of life that is spent with others, it fosters a sense of interpersonal relationship. And when that’s the case, quite often, ritual can virtually force that interpersonal relationship to be a healthy one.
But even without others around, ritual can help us to foster a deeper connection with ourselves - with that inner part of us that is in constant connection to the Divine.
Ritual encourages habits of self-love. A lot of us - especially Gen-X, myself included - practically raised ourselves. My parents’ divorce was hard enough - I was left with one parent to raise me. But then when that parent checked out mentally due to illness, I was forced to grow up very early, and to start being the parent, taking care of my mother, and myself.
As a result, I lost the sense of needing to care for myself. It took a lot of years for me to understand that, if I didn’t take care of myself first, I wouldn’t have the bandwidth to take care of anyone else.
Ritual encourages us to set aside time for ourselves. But it also demonstrates to ourselves a level of self-love that we may not have had before. Subconsciously, we begin to realize that we’re worthy of the care we’ve needed for so long, and we begin to give ourselves permission to say “No” when we mean “No.”
There are differences in full-on ritual, and the simple rituals we can do in our daily lives. Both are ritual, and both have their advantages.
A simple ritual we can do is to light incense, and a candle every morning when we have our cup of coffee. It can help us to become present, grounded, and aware. And then we can carry that same presence throughout the day.
Those simple rituals that bring the sacred into the moment are some of the most wonderful times in my life. These simple rituals - like having coffee with a lit candle while I contemplate the Universe in the afternoons - are what I refer to as “rites.” Because they’re more casual than formal, and they involve no preparation except a few deep breaths to center myself, and focus.
There are also longer rituals, which I tend to refer to as “ritual,” or as “ceremony.”
These are more formal than casual, and they tend to take on a more religious tone. My Sabbat celebrations, for example, are more structured, and formal, whereas my daily practice is more free-flowing, and casual. These formal rituals - or “ritual proper” - always involve an opening, a middle, and a closing.
The opening of a ritual is a way to mark off the space. It changes the atmosphere of the space you’re in physically, and it helps to make the moment more sacred.
This can be as simple as lighting incense, and saying a prayer to the Bright Ancestors. But in most contexts, it’s safer to demarcate an energetic boundary between yourself, and the realm of the Spirits.
For example: some people use an athame (a ritual knife) to draw an invisible boundary of energy around the ritual area that then expands to create a sphere or an egg of energy in which the ritual takes place. In Pagan groups, we might call this “Casting Circle.”
There are others who perform what is called a “Compass Round,” which accomplishes much of the same purposes, but is performed completely differently.
Still others open by evoking protective helping spirits at the four cardinal points, and others will add to these four cardinal points the zenith (above), and nadir (below).
How you choose to open is completely up to you.
In the middle part of the more formal ritual is where you plug in your main activity.
If you’re performing a healing ceremony for someone, this might be where you have them lie on a massage table, waft some appropriate incense smoke around them, and play a Tibetan singing bowl at each chakra point.
Or if you’re celebrating (as an example) the Yule Sabbat, you may light a tabletop/indoor-use Yule log, and sing an especially meaningful song of the season (I have sung “Invocation to Mother Holle” by Ruth Barrett). Once that’s done, perhaps have some homemade cake appropriate to the season, and a cup of warm cider, leaving a bit of both as an offering to the Spirits.
The closing of the ritual, in many groups, is done in the exact reverse of the opening.
So if you invited protecting spirits from the four cardinal directions, and the zenith, and nadir, you’d go in reverse order, thanking them for their assistance, and inviting them to stay or go as they so desired.
If you constructed an energetic boundary for your ritual, you would go in the reverse, taking it down, and either allowing that energy to drain into the Earth or into your offering, or just hang onto it if you feel it unnecessary to ground it. Some do, some don’t.
Even though it’s not absolutely essential for you to force yourself to do a formal, structured ritual for any reason at all, I recommend them. Many people enjoy the structure of a set-aside time, and place for celebration of an important event.
We’ve already covered some of the benefits of ritual, but as a recap: if you feel better by turning mundane tasks into sacred time, and space, or if you feel you need to feel safe, and balanced in your life for any reason, ritual can help with that. Performing solo ritual on your own can encourage, and/or enhance feelings of self-love, even if we don't consciously realize it. (And who doesn't need a little more self-love these days?)
Within a group context, ritual fosters interpersonal relationship, and connection. But in a solo context, ritual (especially structured ritual, with the installation of energetic boundaries) can help establish, and build interpersonal relationships, and connection with the Helping Spirits, which is really what my path is all about anyhow - earth-based, mystical animism. To me, the Spirits are very, very real (and to me, that's a very broad group of entities, both human, and other-than-human), and both casual ritual (or "rites"), and formal ritual have helped me to build that relationship with them. Establishing those relationships, to me, is the most important part of any spiritual path.
The sytlings of ritual among varying traditions can run the gamut. But essentially, there are basic purposes of ritual that remain the same in virtually every group or tradition that I've seen use ritual regularly. And the benefits of ritual are just as accessible, whether the ritual is formal, or casual. Most rituals have three parts: an opening, a middle, and a closing. And in general, any group ritual can be adapted as a solo ritual - and vice versa.
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