What role does ritual play in the life of the Modern Druid? There is no universal standard for rituals and they can be performed in a manner that the practitioner sees fit. Some people opt for very involved and theatrical rituals, with costumes, scripts and large groups of people. Others prefer a quiet place to sit, meditate and leave a small offering of thanks.
The Oxford Dictionary provides the following definitions of the word ritual:
Ritual Pronunciation: ri.tu.al or ri.chwal
• a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order: ancient fertility rituals
• [mass noun] :
• the role of ritual in religion
• a prescribed order for performing a ritual ceremony, especially one characteristic of a particular religion or Church.
• a series of actions or type of behaviour regularly and invariably followed by someone: her visits to Joy became a ritual
• [attributive] relating to or done as a religious or solemn rite: ritual burial; a ritual murder(of an action)
• arising from convention or habit: the players gathered for the ritual pre-match huddle
Rituals can be mundane in the sense of daily routines such as the daily ritual of getting out of bed and having a shower before getting ready for work, or they can be customary behaviours that we use to honour a special occasion, such as the guest of honour making a wish and blowing out all of the candles on the cake at a birthday party. Rituals in the spiritual and religious sense can be a beautiful way to connect with the spirit and bring meaning to life. Human beings in general seem to be driven by some sort of routine and many people get testy if things suddenly change or their routines and rituals become disrupted somehow. An extreme need for routine in ritual in life is one diagnostic criteria attributed to individuals on the autism spectrum.
Over the past few months, I have found myself thinking a lot about ritual and what the motivating factors are behind what I have often perceived to be a very heavy focus on rituals in Modern Druidry and Neo-Paganism. Upon reading books, websites or promotional materials about Modern Druidry, it would seem that ritual is extremely important to the author or group; perhaps even the primary focus. Most Neo-Pagan festivals feature at least one or more (usually more) rituals that people can attend. It has gotten to the point where I almost tire of the word!
What made this come to a head for me was a realization I came to back in June when I was at The Spirit of the West Druid Gathering. Our special guest, a member of ADF and a published author, conducted a Proto-Indo-European ritual which involved a lot of preparation, memorization of lines and words that were nearly impossible to most of us pronounce from just reading them. The ritual was beautiful and it got a lot of people thinking about how rituals were done. A few hours afterward, I found myself talking to our guest and he was telling me how very important ritual is for him and even more important that it be done right. I was telling him how I really am not fond of overly scripted rituals and am more spontaneous and organic in my preferred ritual style. For instance, I’d much rather just go to a place outside with some seeds and water, take in the atmosphere and just see where my spirit takes me. I absolutely cringe at the idea of memorizing lines, choreographing a group of people and “putting on a show”, even though I can put on the show quite well if I need to!
I seem to be the odd duck among many other Modern Druids that I have spoken with over the past 20 years. Most people love the scripted, rehearsed and “showy” rituals and are not as comfortable with the organic “let’s-see-where-we-end-up” rituals. Why is that, I wondered? I then thought about religious background and asked our guest if he had gone to church in his childhood. He said that he had and that it was a wonderful experience for him. A few other people I had asked that question of before had said something similar. Others had said that they’d had the experience of going to church as children but it was so awful that their rituals were ways of taking control over those bad memories and turning the negative experience with religious ritual into something positive. I then asked if he had a background in theatre and he said that he did. Most of the other people I’ve known who are very focused on the “fanfare” style of rituals also have a theatre background.
It then dawned on me why I’m such an odd duck in this regard! First: I have no theatrical background. My mother and uncle were into it but I was not. I was in one play in elementary school but I’ve never been a big fan and I am not a good actor! I’m not a lover of drama of any sort. My second reason is that I had no church background that either makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside or that I hated so much I have to beat it by developing my own ritual style.
I grew up with parents who absolutely cannot stand organized religion of any sort, so any form of church or religious service attended by my family was reserved only for baptisms, weddings or funerals. My brother and I were sent to Catholic school for two reasons, neither of which had nothing to do with religion: the first was that Catholic school was reported by many other parents to be better than the public schools with regard to education, and the second was that private school was too expensive. They were still fairly new to Canada, having emigrated from England in the mid-70’s, and did not have a lot of money to spend on an education that was close to what they had back home. Catholic school was publicly funded. My mother spent days phoning every church of every denomination in the city because the Catholic school required that the students be baptised, much to my mother’s chagrin. Finally, one Catholic church agreed to baptise all of us kids (my brother, my three cousins and me) at the same time on the weekend before school started. We were dressed in our best and herded off to the church by our parents for what I call the “back-alley baptism”. We were the only ones in the church and our baptisms were done as quickly as possible (about 20 minutes) just so we could get those certificates that the school wanted. We did not set foot in a church again until someone got married a few years later.
When I was in third grade, my parents were called to the school for a meeting with the Principal and the school’s Priest. What the heck had we kids done to warrant a call from the Principal and the school’s Priest?? Were we spitting blasphemous spit-balls at the teacher or something? It turns out that my brother and I were not in trouble for anything we had done, but our souls might be for what my parents were not doing. They were called in to be asked why their kids were never seen at church on Sundays. Can you believe it? My parents couldn’t and told the Principal that they wanted us to make our own choices about religion but that they would take us to church only if we wanted to go. If we didn’t want to go to church, the school and the Priest would just have to deal with it. The Principal and the Priest agreed and we had a very interesting drive home.
About halfway home from school that day, my mother turned to my brother and me in the car and said “Do you guys want to go to church on Sundays? If so, we’ll take you but you don’t have to…” My brother and I looked at each other like my mother was on crack or something. What brought this up? I looked at him and he looked at me while my mother looked a bit nervous. We both finally said “no” and my parents drew a huge sigh of relief in unison. I wasn’t about to give up my sleep-in day on Sunday just to dress up and go to church when I didn’t believe in a thing they were going on about! Neither was my brother.
“Well, that’s that then,” my mother said with a laugh and it was never spoken of again. Life in our happy little household went on as usual and I would have loved to have heard the conversation between my mother and the Principal the next day!
The school dragged us to church several times a year for the big celebrations of Christmas, Easter and the end of the school year. I found the ceremonies boring, tedious and way to long. The constant standing up and sitting down also didn’t help. At school, we had to say prayers out loud four times per day: first thing in the morning, before lunch, after lunch and just before we went home. This involved standing straight by our desks and saying about 4 long prayers. It became a routine before long and I was not feeling anything. No connection to God, no spiritual uplift, nothing. I also found out something else: I really hate routine. After awhile with the same routine, I tend to get squirrelly; so you can imagine what 10 years of this did for me! Since this only happened at school and not at home, all of this ritual was just something that was done at school and had no spiritual meaning for me whatsoever.
I remember asking my father why he didn’t like going to church or anything and he told me that the best connection with God is the one we forge for ourselves. He said that anyone can talk to God at any time and that it was not right for any religion to keep us from directly connecting by forcing us to go through someone else at church. Hypocrisy was another reason he didn’t like organized religion. He found that many people would act so pious and holy at church but would turn around and be jerks for the rest of the week. That sentiment was validated for me every day at school. All of the other kids at my school went to church every week and proclaimed to be Christian, yet didn’t seem to really latch on to the values of Christianity. They were greedy, judgmental, rude and uncharitable. They did not seem to live by the rule of “love thy neighbour”, at least not toward me. The teachers at school often told us in Religion class that people went to confession to be forgiven of their sins. However, from what I observed, they just went ahead and sinned again the next week anyway as if penance would take away all accountability!
In my 8-year old mind, based on what I had seen and heard, church services and organized religion were for people who could not make that connection to God on their own, either through laziness or lack of capability; and for people to rid themselves of all accountability for their horrible actions by laying it all on God or Satan. I had no cherished childhood memories of church and religious ceremonies, but I also did not have any bad experiences with ceremonies that would justify me wanting to empower myself by developing bigger rituals when I embarked on the Druid path. They just meant nothing to me and there was no connection. Therefore, I had nothing to fight against, nothing to prove, and nothing to take me back to that warm fuzzy feeling of childhood. The social aspect that attracts so many people also did not seem to attract me. Perhaps it was because I was attending with the wrong people!
What I did have was my own connection with the Divine. I had taken my father’s words to heart and found that the best connection with God or the Divine truly was the one I forged for myself. When I still sort of believed in what I was being taught at Catholic school, I would sit in my room and do my own spontaneous observance of the Passion on Good Friday and the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. If I felt so moved on a regular Sunday, I would open my Catholic Mass Book and perform the mass myself but with my own modifications to make it more interesting. (I had it cut down to about 15 minutes or so) I often meditated on and even seemed to connect with the Blessed Virgin Mother. She felt like a friend to me; one I could talk to at the end of the day and feel better afterwards for the experience, but she did not have the same “feeling” that I would have expected from this particular figure. I often think it was Brighid I was connecting to when I look back – the energies are the same. When I did my first Imbolc ritual as a Druid, I felt that same energy who introduced herself as Brighid and it felt like coming home.
There was nothing “mystical” or mysterious about my simple and quick little observances because the connection just seemed to be so natural. It was liberating to know that I could just open my mind to the Divine and say my own prayers in my own words, even if those words were just “please help me!” I’d often feel something good in response and I never got struck by lightning for being a blasphemer, so I figured God didn’t really mind the way I was doing things. Another point against organized religion for me: God didn’t mind how I was doing things, so to heck with them! I just went with what moved me and did my best to find out what spirituality was all about on my own.
I wanted to know the truth, but through my own seeking, not just by what others told me. I’d go outside and marvel at the wonder of the world and feel that connection with what I started calling ‘the Universe’ instead of ‘God’. I’d look at how situations would unfold and think about the “order of things”. Why did good things happen to bad people and vice-versa? My father told me that the world does not revolve around any one person and that we all play our parts to contribute to a greater whole. All of our actions had consequences and eventually those bad people would get theirs. Again, I saw that the big questions could not be answered satisfactorily by organized religion and I went the Atheist route for awhile. Being an Atheist really didn’t work for me because I felt this connection to something spiritual. There was a definite presence that I could feel.
It was not until I switched schools and attended a very liberal public and unusual school that I found the answer I was looking for. The school was small and primarily focused on students taking 100% responsibility and accountability for their own education. It was at this school that I would be introduced to Wicca by a few of my classmates. I read some of the books that they had and found that I connected with the Celtic stuff, but not so much with some of the other concepts. I had started reading about the Celts while I was still at Catholic school because it was part of my family heritage. Reading about the Druids really called to me and I felt something I had never felt before: a desire to connect with a particular spiritual path. I loved the focus on truth, the transmigration of the soul, the fact that the Druids were very well educated and were involved with so much more than just rituals and religion. The Celts seemed to have their spirituality well balanced with their everyday life and the Druids helped to teach and maintain that balance. That is what I wanted to do: continue to balance the spiritual with the mundane and focus on that balance in my life.
As I embarked on my new spiritual path, I met a fellow who would become my first teacher. He held a second degree with a Wiccan tradition, but did not seem to be concerned with neither magic nor ritual. In fact the only ritual we did was my initiation and it was powerful. He told me that ritual was something that had its time and place and should not just be done for the sake of doing it. Rituals needed to come from the heart to work properly. It meant more when a ritual was done for the right reasons and with the right intent. He believed in right action and following a spiritual path of personal growth and service. This resonated with me because I am a huge believer in the power of service and right action. At the time, I was volunteering with street kids to help them get off of the streets on my own volition. (Not through an agency) The spells and such that I read in books looked very hokey and I could not see how lighting certain colours of candles at a certain phase of the moon and reciting bad poetry in the form of a request was going to help me anyway. I found that simply writing down what I needed, thinking long and hard about it and then making a plan toward obtaining it worked much better. As an added bonus, it could be done at any time without the fanfare. After my initiation, my teacher left town and I did not see him again for a few years. At that point I was on my own, so I pursued my studies as a Druid on my own.
After about 9 years of self-study and working with a small group of friends, I got involved with the Pagan community in my home town. I attended some public rituals done by various groups and found that I got the same feeling I did when I was in church at school all those years ago: zero connection with the Divine; just a big show. In fact, I found that I had a feeling of resistance from within and without. Was it because the rituals were not Druid ones? I’ve been to a few Druid rituals (other than my own Grove’s) and they have different feelings for me.
As of now (2011), I have been on my spiritual path for 20 years and have conducted more rituals that I can count, both public and private. I’ve done many seasonal celebrations as well as rites of passage and healing rituals and I still find that the simplest and spontaneous ones are the most profound for me because they take me back to my roots: forging that connection on my own and seeing where my spirit takes me.
For example: On November 4th, I went out to my favourite natural area after not being able to go for quite some time (I live and work in an urban setting). It was +22 degrees Celcius and felt like a Summer day, which is very unusual for the Samhain season. The sun was blazing and all was quiet. It was like being in another world away from traffic and noise. As I walked along the path, I took note of all of the plants I saw along the way: wild rose bushes with brown leaves and ripe rosehips, the various prairie grasses all dried out for Winter, the aspen trees that still had a few leaves hanging on for dear life and one plant that looked like a mistletoe (leaves and berries looked the same) but was an actual bush. I went down by the creek and sat on the brown grass for a bit, just enjoying the sound of the trickling water and thought about the blessing received this past year, as well as all of the challenges faced. (This is an activity I regularly do at Samhain)
What was foremost on my mind was a dear family friend of ours whom I had visited in a hospice the day after my birthday just 3 weeks before. She was dying of cancer and had it all through her body. We talked for a bit, but it was a short discussion because she fell asleep. A few days later, she told one of her children that she was “ready to go but didn’t know how”. I knew that on November afternoon that she was still ready to go but didn’t know how.
As I walked, I picked a few rosehips here, some rowanberries there, some of those little white berries that looked like mistletoe and various other seeds and put them in my pocket. With each step, I asked the Ancestors to please let my friend join them as soon as possible because she was “ready to go but didn’t know how”. When I came back to my starting point, I sat down on the grass again, put my little collection of seeds into the running water and said “I have collected the bounty of the earth which I could take unto myself and be nourished, but instead I give this in payment for a friend of mine. Please let her join you soon. She is ready to go but doesn’t know how. Please let me pay her passage.” I sat there watching the seeds wind their way down the creek away from me and then disappear. Suddenly, I felt the feeling that my ritual was over and that it was time to go back home. I stood up and left the offering of birdseeds and water that I usually leave there when I do one of my walking rituals and went back home.
Later on that night, I lay in bed and suddenly felt a warm presence in the room. It felt like something brushed my hand and it was a happy feeling. My husband got into a bed a bit later and I said “I just felt this very warm presence for a brief second. I think our friend finally joined the ancestors and is free from her pain.”
Two days later, I received a call from my mother saying that our friend had passed away on the night of November 4th at around 10:00pm… the same time that I felt the presence in my room. It was almost as if the Ancestors had taken my payment and my friend was finally able to go home. She died peacefully in her sleep, according to her family who were all there when she crossed over the veil. This ritual was obviously profound but had not been planned nor scripted. I just felt this urge to stop at my favourite natural area while I was driving home from work.
The Communal Focus on Ritual:
A few years ago, a member of a global Druid organization posted a challenge on an internet forum hosted by another global Druid organization. He was talking about how Druidry seems to be losing something and was raising a call to action. I responded to it and am posting bits of it here along with some of the points that were raised:
• Complacency and self-satisfaction: Rituals lack “passion” and seem to becoming set in stone – Is that what it is all about? Rituals? I’m sure the ancient Druids weren’t sitting around doing rituals and traversing between here and the Otherworld all day long. I do agree with the set-in-stone remark since I’m not a big fan of scripted anything. I have plenty of passion about being a Druid. Ask anyone who knows me. I put a lot of work into it too! I volunteer, I operate a Grove, I teach, I provide guidance if asked to do so… I serve my community. And I do the odd ritual too! Ritual is not the centre of my life, nor do I believe it should be. Druids of old may have been at the cutting edge of philosophy and understood the cosmos, but they were also very involved with the day-to-day business of their communities, which really wasn’t all that exciting, I’m sure.
• We have been led to fear the words dogma and religion – I agreed with the instigator of the conversation on this one. So many of us, including myself, have come from other religions (perhaps one of the “big three” monotheistic ones) and have somehow been led to believe that religion and dogma are such terrible things. I also agree that the Druids were certainly not “unstructured, undisciplined, ill informed and confused” as many people could be these days. What is wrong with having a set of beliefs? What is wrong with re-ligion (re-linking to the Divine)? I may not the biggest fan of ritual for the sake of ritual, but Druidism is my religion. I feel it connects me with Spirit and the Divine, but not just in ritual – in my every day life! It is my spiritual path and it fulfils me spiritually. I have a strong set of beliefs, ethics, etc. The issue that many have is this: who decides what that dogma and religion are? Who makes the call about who should be leading the world of Druids? Who makes the call about what we should all be believing and practicing so that we can be one recognized body? I say: “Good luck with that…”
• We seem to “have no concept of the Pagan inner mysteries and stagnate in some superficial desire to connect with the seasons and the world of nature” – As a Modern Druid, I am a Seeker of Truth, not a follower of someone else’s ideas of “inner mysteries”. That is one of the reasons I have never been fond of “mystery traditions” and will never teach in that manner either – they tend to teach their own view of what they believe those mysteries are which, in my humble opinion, contradicts the entire concept of seeking the “truth against the world”. (more power to them, of course; it’s just not for me) To me, seeking Truth means making that connection with the Gods, the Universe, our Communities and even ourselves. It also means being realistic with the state of our times and society today, being true to my faith as a Druid and incorporating that into my every-day life. That does not mean I always have to be doing rituals, but it does mean that everything I do, I do with the intent of seeking truth, honouring my Gods, serving my community and growing as a person in spirit and mind.
Some Modern Druids may be of another religion that sees Druidry as a philosophy that fits very nicely with it. Others, like me, practice Druidism as a primary religion. I believe in the Gods as individuals (polytheistic) and have connected with them in my own way. I have learned from them, served them and gained much from the relationship I have forged with them over the past 20 years.
So, where do I stand on the subject of ritual? As my first teacher said: Ritual should not be done for the sake of ritual, nor should it be the primary focus. I love a good ritual as much as the next person, but I also believe that it should be done at the right time, for the right reason and from the heart as nature intended. I always try to go where my spirit takes me and I do my best to maintain a balance between the spiritual and the mundane.
This little pondering of ritual has turned into a rather large pondering, so I’ll finish off here!