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.

What Does It Mean to Be a Priestess?

John Beckett, one of my favorite Pagan bloggers, recently wrote a post entitled “Priesthood Over A Lifetime.” It was a great read, as his posts usually are, and it inspired me to examine where I am in the various stages of priesthood that he outlines. The essential precursor to that, though, is to answer the question “What does it meant to be a priestess?”

I thought about this question for a long, long time before I took my official oath as a priestess of Aphrodite. I knew that being a priestess in a public Pagan community was not a responsibility to take on lightly, and I wanted to make sure I knew what I was committing to before I took that plunge. It is a holy office, and the mantle of priestesshood, while joyous and ecstatic, can be heavy at times and comes with a sacred duty to both your deity and your community.

For me, the actions and responsibility of priestesshood fall into two main categories: 1) Your individual relationship with Deity, and 2) Service to your community. Your relationship to Deity is a highly personal connection that is supported and maintained through both solitary and group practice. Service to your community can be many things, and it is dependent upon the particular community you serve.

Your Relationship With Deity

This is the foundation of priestesshood. Without a strong connection to the Divine, there is nothing for which to be a priestess. You may work with one deity or several. You may be a priestess for one or multiple deities. I think you can even be a priestess in a general sense in the broader Pagan community, though this requires an immensely powerful connection to the Divine. My personal experience is serving as a priestess for one particular deity, but having relationships with several.

My call and desire to become a priestess was born from my deep relationship with Aphrodite. I sought Her out, worked closely with Her, discovered that Her values align with my own, had profound ecstatic experiences with Her, felt the call to serve Her, started doing Her work in the world, and then embarked on the quest of priestesshood. A dedicated, meaningful, and reciprocal relationship with your deity is essential to priestesshood.

This Divine relationship has to be committed. You can’t just meditate and make offerings once a month. Your relationship with your deity must be an ongoing, daily relationship. This doesn’t mean that you have to do the same exact thing every single day, but ideally you are interacting with your deity multiple times a day. This can be through prayer, meditation, offerings, deep listening, or other acts of devotion. This encourages an open channel of communication between you and the Divine. The Gods are a lot more likely to speak to you if they know you are listening.

Your relationship with your deity needs to be profound. If you are going to serve as a go-between for your community and the Divine, your personal relationship must be deep and personally very meaningful for you. You can’t expect to help others connect with your deity if you don’t already have a profound connection. Part of being a priestess is being able to inspire others with your connection to the Divine. This will be difficult if your own connection does not inspire awe and wonder within yourself.

To enter priestesshood, your relationship with the Divine has to be reciprocal. You need to know how to honor and give to your deity, but you also need to know how to receive guidance and messages from them. This reciprocity is what helps to foster a profound connection. It helps others to see you as doing your deity’s work in the world. It helps you to bring your deity into your community.

Service to Your Community

A necessary part of being a priestess is sharing and interacting with others in your community. As a priestess, you are a representative of your deity’s values in the mundane and spiritual worlds. Your community will have certain expectations of you when you take on the mantle of priestesshood, and you must be able to address these expectations and provide resources to those who seek you out. You will need to be responsive to the needs of both your deity and your community.

If you take on the role of priestess for a particular deity, people in your community will begin to view you as an intermediary for your deity in the mundane world. This is a hefty responsibility. You must embody the virtues of your deity to the best of your ability, and try to walk as they would in this world. That said, you are not an avatar. You are still a fallible human, and no one can embody all virtues perfectly. Know that mistakes are going to happen, and make sure to practice self-compassion.

What does your community expect of a priestess? In some traditions, this may be codified and straightforward, but with more free-form pagan communities, the answer will not be as simple. How do you determine what will be expected of you? Ask the members of your community! I had an ongoing and very extensive dialogue with my fellow leaders and other members in my pagan community about the role of a priestess for months before I decided to take a formal oath. For my particular community, the aggregated basic expectations were:

1) To continue in formal leadership as a part of the Council of our group
2) To serve as a touchstone for Aphrodite, leading rituals for Her and meeting
     with people to help them connect with Her
3) To provide general spiritual guidance to new seekers and those looking to
      deepen their practice
4) To be knowledgeable about Aphrodite’s spheres of influence (primarily
      romantic love, sex, pleasure, and self-compassion) and be able to provide
      resources and informal/pastoral counseling to community members about
      these topics
5) To officiate rites of passage in my community.

For your community, this may look very different. Since I belong to a non-denominational Pagan group that has members from many different traditions, the expectations of my community are fairly general, and not locked into a particular path. The expectations of your community are also dependent upon your community’s needs.

How do you know what your community needs? Sometimes this will be a very intuitive thing. You will feel called to lead a particular ritual, only to find out later that it met a need you didn’t know was there (I’ve had this happen several times.) Sometimes it will be less straightforward. You will need to keep an awareness of what is going on in your community to determine what community members might need from you. At times, it will be what the whole community needs – something to unite everyone and bring them together. Other times, it will be the needs of individual congregants.

As a walker between the worlds, you must also know what your deity needs and asks of you. Oaths of priestesshood inherently involve a commitment to serve your deity and to do their work in the world. What is asked of you will sometimes be simple, and other times it will push the very limits of your capability and fortitude, or what you even thought possible. Your directives may not always make sense, though in the fullness of time, a larger purpose may be revealed. Carry out your tasks with integrity and virtue, and don’t be afraid to question. Just because a deity tells you to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it. Your relationship should always be an open dialogue, and you always have free will. Discernment is key. “I don’t feel like it” is generally not a good reason to deny a Divine instruction. Something going against your ethics most certainly is.

Where Am I?

In his post, Beckett outlines nine “stages” in the journey of priesthood: Responding, Training, Practicing, Deepening, Building, Nurturing, Preparing, Transitioning, and Overlapping. He states that these steps aren’t necessarily sequential and can be simultaneous. I didn’t exactly go in order, either. I did a fair amount of Training, Practicing, and Deepening before I made my formal Response to the call for priestesshood.

I think there is a lot of value to “trying out” priestesshood before making a formal commitment to your deity and your community. Figure out exactly what you will be doing, and do it. That will give you the best indication if this is the right path for you. I had a trial period of about a year where I told Aphrodite that I would “try out this whole priestess thing.” I learned a lot, and eventually decided to make my oath.

I trained by reading as much as I could about Aphrodite, Paganism, and magick. I practiced my personal rites, devotions, spellcraft, and communion with Aphrodite. I practiced serving my community through leading rituals, providing spiritual guidance and counsel for members of my community, serving as a resource for Aphrodite’s areas of expertise, and being an active member of our group leadership. Throughout this process, I was deepening my practice and cultivating my relationship with Her.

I’ve still got a long way to go. I am early in my priestesshood, and still figuring a lot of things out. As I recently had reiterated to me – You don’t have to be an expert to be able to help others. There is value in all stages of the spiritual journey.

Brightest blessings to you as you embark upon your own path!