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.

Self-Compassion Ritual

The weekend after Valentine’s Day this year, one of the members of my pagan group fell ill, and could not lead the regularly scheduled Sunday Circle. Though I did not have a “back-pocket” ritual to fill in for a Sunday Circle, I got a huge Divine Shove to volunteer to lead. The resulting ritual was written in about three hours the day before! It was very clear to me that I wasn’t doing most of the writing (which has happened for the last few rituals I’ve lead) and that Aphrodite was writing through me. My fingers flew across the keyboard, and though I drew inspiration from other rituals I had led as well as from other sources, the spirit was entirely and completely Hers. This ritual was designed for a group of about 20 people, but it is easily adapted to a different size group or for solitary practice. For materials, you will need a small sheet of paper and a writing utensil for every participant, as well as whatever calls to you for an altar set-up to honor the elements and Aphrodite.

Quarter Calls

North

We call to the North, to the element of Earth to be with us today. Please help us to embody our own inner strength, so that we may remain grounded and confident in ourselves. Element of Earth, hail and welcome!

East

We call to the East, to the element of Air to be with us today. Please help us to acknowledge our own intelligence and creativity, so that we may inspire and be inspired by others. Element of Air, hail and welcome!

South

We call to the South, to the element of Fire to be with us today. Please help us to kindle our own passions and playfulness, so that our hearts may always lead the way. Element of Fire, hail and welcome!

West

We call to the West, to the element of Water, to be with us today. Please help us to recognize our own capacity for healing and forgiveness, so that we may heal and forgive ourselves, as well as others. Element of Water, hail and welcome!

Aphrodite Invocation

I invoke the goddess Aphrodite, the great goddess of love, in all its many forms. O Radiant Goddess, shine your light on us, so that we may realize our true brilliance. Help us to foster love and compassion for ourselves and others. Glorious Goddess, inspire us to walk with confidence in our everyday lives. May your fierce and protective love surround our circle. Hail and welcome!

Circle Casting

(Cast a Circle in a way that feels powerful for you.)

Introduction

As I’m sure you know, Valentine’s Day was this past Thursday. If you went out shopping at all, it was hard to miss. Shiny metallic hearts everywhere, a profusion of flowers and chocolates, and orante, sentimental cards. Some of you, like me, might be a sap when it comes to Valentine’s Day. While I don’t appreciate the commercialization, I am enamored with the idea of a day dedicated to love. I’m not particularly thrilled with it being named after a martyred Christian saint, and after a friend sent me an article by Beth Owl’s Daughter, I am now firmly on team “Let’s call it Aphrodite’s Day instead!”

For others, Valentine’s Day is little more than a hassle, or even downright depressing. There’s social pressure to make big romantic gestures, and for those who are not coupled, Single’s Awareness Day is all-too-real. There are a lot of judgements around Valentine’s Day, both of ourselves and from or about others.

Today, I want us to focus on the kind of love that doesn’t need a partner. It doesn’t have a special day, though it is something that we can practice for ourselves every day. That love is self-compassion.

Self-compassion can be a lot of things. For me, it’s about forgiving myself whenever I make a mistake. It’s about letting go of unrealistic expectations. It’s about self-acceptance. It’s about being kind, and knowing that I am doing the best that I can. It’s about choosing to love myself, regardless of the actions of others.

This can be a challenge – particularly in a world where we are flooded with media constantly telling us that we aren’t enough. We aren’t beautiful or handsome enough. We aren’t skilled enough. We aren’t fit enough. We aren’t rich enough. We aren’t good enough to have a partner. Or we aren’t a good enough partner for someone else.

Let me tell you something. It’s not a secret, though in our culture it’s guarded like one – only spoken in hushed tones between the closest of friends.

YOU ARE ENOUGH.

You are beautiful. You are handsome. You are skilled. You are abundant. You are kind. You are compassionate. And you are worthy of love. All kinds of love. Simply by being you.

I want you to keep this in mind throughout our ritual today. First, I am going to lead us in a heart-opening meditation, and then we will have an activity before we celebrate our wonderful selves with cakes and ale.

Heart Opening Meditation

Close your eyes. You are in a safe space here. Let’s make it even more secure by cleansing and shielding. Envision roots sprouting from your feet and burrowing into the ground, anchoring you in the nourishing and ever-loving earth. You see the light at the core of the earth flow upward toward you, bathing your roots in pure energy. Your roots form a conduit for this energy to move up the rest of your body, bit by bit. First toes, then feet, then ankles, until this brilliant glowing golden light has bathed every cell in your body.

Now, if you like, and if it feels right to you, you may see the light cascading upward out of the crown of your head, as if you were growing branches of light. Continue growing up, up, up into the atmosphere, until you have reached the cosmos. Once your branches have found that pool of ethereal energy, you may bring some back down your branches, down into your head, your chest, your arms, and the entire rest of your body. Feel these two harmonizing energies balance within you – earth and sky – and know that you are divine.

You may release these energies if you like, now that you are protected by the earth and the sky. Now, envision yourself surrounded by a globe of golden white light. In this sphere, only love remains and in this sphere only love may enter. You are totally safe.

If you haven’t started to pay attention to your breath, just place your awareness on it now. Feel the steady rise and fall of your chest. Now, sense your heart, or your heart chakra if that makes more sense to you. See your heart start to glow with that same brilliant golden white light. Imagine that you are breathing in and out of your heart. With each breath, your heart gets even brighter, filling your chest with light and spilling out to the rest of your body. You start to feel a warmth fill your heart. With a few more breaths, your heart is glowing like the sun, illuminating everything around it. You feel your insides soften, your heart growing stronger and brighter than ever before. You take one final breath, and you open a door to your heart – a door to the light within. You feel the abundance of light overflowing from you, out into the world, while feeling totally and completely nourished inside. You feel the light you send out return to you, filling you with joy. You breathe here for a moment, finding the equilibrium of your light with the world. If you wish, you may vow to keep this conduit open, so that you can receive and give love freely, always surrounded by your glowing sphere in which only love remains and through which only love may enter. Or, while still keeping your heart door open, you may slowly dim the energy and ground, if that feels best for you right now.

Self-Compassion Activity

I am passing around sheets of paper and some writing utensils. I want each of you to write out the numbers one through five, and I want you to write down five things you love about yourself. It can be anything, but try to focus your list on the human “being” that you are, not a human “doing.” Instead of saying “I volunteer for charity,” say “I am compassionate for others.” Don’t be shy! If you think you have a great butt, write it down! We often shortchange ourselves for fear of appearing arrogant. There’s no room for that here.

After you have finished writing down your five things you love about yourself, I want you to write in big letters at the bottom or on the other side of the card “I AM ENOUGH.”

And now, because truths are even more powerful when spoken aloud, I would like to invite everyone to share what you have written on your card. You don’t have to share all of them, or even any if you don’t want to, but I do invite you to share what you feel comfortable doing so in this supportive group. Please stand up and make your statements, and when you have finished with your list, I want you each to state “I AM ENOUGH.”

Since I asked each of you to be vulnerable, it’s only fair that I be vulnerable with you as well. Here is my list:

1. I am passionate about life, love, and caring for others.

2. I am adventurous.

3. I am beautiful, not despite my scar, but because of it.

4. I am a good friend.

5. I am worthy of love, regardless of others’ words or actions.

And I AM ENOUGH.

(Go around the circle and invite participants to share their lists if they feel called to do so.)

Cakes and Ale

Blessed be the hands that grew the grain, that harvested the fruit, and that baked the bread. Blessed be all hands, seen and unseen, that brought us this nourishment today. Blessed be.

(Share food and drink with all participants.)

Release the Circle

(Release the Circle in a way that feels powerful for you).

Gratitude to Aphrodite

Thank you, Aphrodite, for being with us today. Thank you for your blessings of love, particularly those of self-love. Thank you for shining your light on our beautiful beings. We honor you. Blessed be.

Release the Quarters

West

Thank you West, and the element of water, for your healing energies today. Hail and farewell!

South

Thank you South, and the element of fire, for your passionate energies today. Hail and farewell!

East

Thank you East, and the element of air, for your inspirational energies today. Hail and farewell!

North

Thank you North, and the element of earth, for your grounding energies today. Hail and farewell!


Some sources of inspiration:

Let’s Say Goodbye to That Sad, Martyred Saint! – Happy Aphrodite’s Day! by Beth Owl’s Daughter

Meditation to Open and Heal the Heart by Tess Whitehurst