Why I Quit Caring About Formal Ritual and How That Made Me Better At It

I’ve always loved the idea of formal ritual. There’s something so entrancing about saying sacred words and processing deosil in a circle, about setting up a beautiful altar, about inviting in the elements with their representations, and about blessing the sacred space. These things are wonderful for getting into a magickal headspace, and doing them repeatedly over weeks and months and years are what make ritual, well, a ritual!

The formal elements of ritual were essential to me when I was starting out as a solitary new Pagan. Having a tradition that others followed (in my case, Wicca, when I was starting out) with shared sacred words was an extremely powerful experience. It gave me a script to follow and served as a template to learn what was important in ritual. However, I got so caught up in the trappings of ritual that I almost never actually did one.

I felt like I needed to cast a perfect circle every time. I needed at least two hours that I could devote to communing with the Divine, after cleansing and consecrating the space and assembling my altar with my elemental tokens. I needed to say these particular words and do these particular things. With all of these requirements, ritual became a daunting task, instead of a happy celebration. So, years passed where I didn’t do a formal ritual because of various excuses: I didn’t have the tools, or the space, or the time.

When first I joined my Pagan community, my rituals had been few and far between for many years. Finally, I got to see how others did ritual – and everyone’s rituals were so different! There wasn’t a set script to follow, like I had been holding myself to all of those years. There were some common elements, yes, but no one did them in the exact same way. If the members of my community were presenting rituals with such variation, why couldn’t I mix things up in my own personal practice?

So, I tried to make my solitary rituals more regular, experimenting with the different components, trying out new things, and keeping what I liked. This worked well, for a time. I had a consistent personal practice, even if my rituals were just on Sabbats and Full Moons. I love the active participation (ritual is, after all, one of the things that drew me to Paganism in the first place), but something was missing. I almost never did spontaneous ritual, and when I did, it required a bunch of preparation, and didn’t end up being quite so spontaneous after all. I was still stuck in thinking that I had to do things a certain way or they wouldn’t be “complete.” That left very little room for Divine inspiration. My rituals sounded and looked pretty, but I didn’t feel very much of anything.

When I started to more seriously pursue a relationship with Aphrodite, I knew that something had to change. I needed to commune with Her, but I couldn’t take two (or more) hours out of my day multiple times a week to do so. It just wasn’t feasible. I was still in grad school. I was teaching. I had classes to go to, research to do, papers to grade, laundry to wash, dishes to clean, and I still had to eat and sleep. Formal ritual, as I knew it, just wasn’t going to happen.

Fortunately, Aphrodite helped me out with this one. She started interacting with me spontaneously – no ritual needed! I was ecstatic, if somewhat baffled. After all, wasn’t the whole point of ritual to facilitate the experiences that I was now spontaneously having?

This sparked some serious soul-searching about the purpose of ritual and how I was using it in my life and spiritual practice. For me, the purpose of ritual is to get closer to the Divine. I realized that all the fancy words and formulas I had been using were actually getting in the way of my connection with Divinity. I was having much more visceral experiences without those things than I had ever had with them. It was time for a change.

Perhaps the biggest realization I had about ritual involved time. For me to have a strong connection with the Divine, I needed to commune almost daily, if not more often. I simply couldn’t do that with the structured ritual I had been using, so I started to make new ones. Most of them arose capriciously. If I found a moment in my day where I was thinking about or communicating with Aphrodite, I thought about little things I could do to make the moment more sacred. Sometimes what I was already doing was enough (like happily dancing around my living room), and sometimes I discovered things that could be added (like lighting a candle in Aphrodite’s honor before sharing a meal with a friend at my table).

These spontaneous mini-rituals began to permeate my days, and soon started taking up more total time that what I would have previously spent in formal ritual. However, unlike the formal ritual, these moments were so much more meaningful. I felt connected to the Divine in a way I never had before. A few minutes here and there throughout my day meant so much more than a two hour chunk of obligatory fancy-words.

And I wanted to do it. Those mini-rituals brought me such joy – in a way that casting a circle from rote memory never had. It was a positive feedback loop. I connected with the Divine in seemingly small ways, had a profound ecstatic experience, and I wanted to do it again. My daily practice grew – not from reciting passages from books I had read, but from listening and leading with my heart.

When I quit caring about formal ritual, it allowed me to see more clearly the purpose of ritual: to connect deeply with the Divine. This completely transformed my personal practice. I rarely go through a full “ritual” with formal invocations for the elements and the Divine when I practice alone. My private devotions are much more conversational – and thus more strongly integrated into my day-to-day life. I believe this helps me to maintain a more powerful connection with Deity.

In a community, ritual holds an additional purpose. Not only do we want to connect deeply with the Divine – we also want to bond as a group. Having a somewhat-standardized ritual format does help bring a community together. Everyone knows what to expect and how to participate. Even with a general guideline, there are more and less effective ways to do this.

Going through a ritual revolution in my private practice made me rethink how to lead a group ritual. I cut through all the flowery words and expectations to get the the core – connection with the Divine and with other people. Approaching a group ritual with those things in mind was a totally different experience than following a ritual script. Sure, I have a general outline I follow based on the common practices in my group, but I approach these elements differently. If I can think of a way for a guideline to uniquely enhance the experience of the group, it stays. If not, anything is fair game.

While I would argue that the past few group rituals I’ve led haven’t been entirely written by me (Thanks, Aphrodite!), for the conscious parts of the creation process, I focus on the feeling I want to evoke with the ritual. For the Beltane Sabbat I led this year, it was joy and anticipation. For my post-Valentine’s Day circle, it was self-compassion. For the June Full Moon last year, it was courage and bravery through love.

Focusing on the feeling allows me to examine each aspect of the ritual and tailor it to the experience I want to facilitate. There are no words spoken just for ritual’s sake. Every sentence and every action in ritual drives toward the feeling and experience we create as a group. This approach to ritual has profoundly changed the way I lead and participate in group rituals. Throwing away the ritual formulas and expectations allowed me to get to the heart of the experience of ritual and to cultivate that deeper connection, both in my personal practice and with my community.

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