The Paradox of Play in Ritual

Yup, channeling Drawing Down the Moon there.

Our grove is having an ongoing discussion about focus in ritual and the effect of silliness on workings, energy, and ritual results.

We have (almost) seven full members of the grove, and we’re all pretty friendly. We laugh a lot in ritual, get sidetracked over little jokes, and generally have a good time. It’s been brought to our attention that, at times, we dispel any energy we raise because we get drawn onto tangents. We are, in short, unfocused on the work at hand.

That’s one opinion, anyway. Others feel that our silliness is part of our charm: our rituals have a fun flavor because that’s just who we are. Yes, we’re doing serious work, but it’s okay to be a little silly about it. This is our only time together, eight days a year, and part of the magic is spending time together.

So where do I fall in this discussion?

I’m probably responsible for 30% of the goofing off in ritual. I acknowledge that, but I’m not okay with it. I’m also not okay with how unfocused I’ve been getting. It’s not excusable, to my mind, but it is indisputably my fault. As a senior grove member said, only the individual is responsible for his or her level of focus: no one can distract you but yourself.

That’s not the real trouble, though. I’ve started wondering about the level of performance and stunt I’m bringing to ritual.

I’m becoming infamous for doing off-the-wall things: I dressed as a maenad to invoke Bacchus and initiated my “converts” to his “mystery” by feeding them honey from a turkey baster painted to look like a phallus. I portrayed the Earth Mother, partially disrobed, and had people write on my body with markers. I was one of three to perform a masked Green Man dance to an XTC song. I crack jokes and am not afraid to get a little crazy.

I have no idea how any of this happened. I’m a shy person and I have terrible stage fright. On one level, I’m proud of my ritual-related theatrics because I’m doing my very best work for the Kindreds. Part of my sacrifice to them is stepping outside of my comfort zone.

How much is too much, though? I did the baster-phallus when calling Bacchus for bardic inspiration, and part of my plan was to laugh people out of their comfort zone. But our recent grove discussions, and my reading of Isaac Bonewits’s Neopagan Rites has me wondering if my stunts might be a little inappropriate.

Bonewits writes,

How does humor fit into all this? Very carefully. I have seen humor used in ceremonies with positive results on several occasions, both as theatrical inserts in large-scale liturgies, and as quiet quips to bring back a congregation’s focus after a minor disruption of the mana flow. I’ve also seen it used, often deliberately, to drain the power from rituals that are getting to heavy for the jesters (sometimes the clergy themselves!) to handle. Humor is a two-edged blade that should be handled with the greatest of care, or left out entirely.

Furthermore, what if this performance is just for me, a selfish act meant to show just how devoted and creative I am? Is my performance pleasing to the deities, or is it only pleasing to me and my audience? Are our rituals just becoming theatrical productions, far disconnected from the purpose of the High Days?

There’s another upsetting aspect to it, and one I have to face as I advance in my studies: my performances must not just be powerful for me, they must also be powerful for my audience. Though we, as a grove, are arguably doing the rituals for ourselves and for the Kindreds, we’re also putting on public rituals. As such, we are priests and priestesses, liturgists, and congregation all at once, and we have a responsibility to raise energy for the workings. Are we shirking our responsibility by saying that we’re just doing this for us and that if it’s satisfying for us, it must be good work?

That’s a lot of big questions for one little blog post. As so many things do, though, the questions get back to the nature of sacrifice. I am giving to the deities my worship, my love, and my performance, in theory, but it does seem that we’re constantly trying to top ourselves with what we do in ritual. I’ve gotten so distracted with thinking, “What am I going to do for the grove?” that I don’t often think, “What am I going to do for the Kindreds?” And it shouldn’t be about us: it should be about those we’re honoring.

It may be time for me to get back to Druidism 101, to why we make sacrifice and what is sacrifice. And the only way to do that, I believe, is to do the work. Perhaps my discomfort with what I’ve been doing is some sort of sign that what I’m doing isn’t right. If I can’t trust my intuition to tell me about my relationship with the Kindreds, what can I trust?

What do you think, readers? What role should play have in ritual? How do you know if the work you’re doing is the right work? What makes effective sacrifice?

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5 thoughts on “The Paradox of Play in Ritual

  1. Interesting thoughts. Bonewits is right about humor in ritual. It must be carefully done. For me, the best humor in ritual is when it’s quick sexual innuendo (when dealing with traditionally sexual beings) or if it’s a response to an accident. A grove that takes itself too seriously when someone makes an honest mistake needs to lighten up.

    Some of what you’ve done sounds really cool. To call on Bacchus, what you did seems pretty appropriate. He’s a God of chaos and sex, for goodness’ sake! I bet he really appreciated it! My grove hasn’t done anything that interesting! LOL But you’re right to reflect on what you’re doing. In some cases, you could be channeling the spirit in question and they want some action like that. In others, maybe it is you trying to show off.

    And I say that as someone who worries about that *myself*. Sometimes I make offerings that show a lot of skill. I sometimes wonder, “Am I doing this for the deity or to show off?” There’s a real possibility it’s both. Neither is necessarily bad, considering the ancestors we’re venerating also loved to boast!

    But, if you are concerned, lay off for a ritual or two. Try to do something more meditative instead. Write a letter and toss it into the fire without reading it aloud for anyone to hear. Offer hand-picked flowers. Do something quiet with pantomime. One of my grovemates did an interpretive dance once and it was quite moving.

    In regards to newcomers… it can go either one of two ways. They will either love your grove’s personality and feel comfortable, or they won’t. That’s just that and it will be that way no matter how you behave. If they really want to be part of a Druidic community, they will keep coming and get to know you all beyond your antics. 😉

    As long as you don’t get goofy durning certain rites – like to honor the dead, bless a newborn, or something a little more serious.

    If you guys are worried about acting silly because you’re just excited to be together, Muin Mound has made our gatherings all-day affairs. We start with socializing and a light lunch. We move into our business meeting (putting socializing on hold again), then have a workshop where we can once more be chatty. We put our socializing aside for ritual, then get back to it for potluck. We’ve actually had some discussion about keeping the socializing outside of business and ritual because things became a bit long or unfocused. Our toast and boast segment sometimes became kidnapped by people who wanted to share a life story. This lead to a really earnest discussion about what toast and boast is for.

    Good luck with all this! Keep us updated because, really, you’re not the only group who struggles with this balance. 🙂

    • Phew. This comment makes me feel about a thousand times better: just knowing that other groups have the same issues and other individuals have the same struggle over the ‘hows’ of sacrifice makes me feel that I’m not crazy and that these are normal growing pains.

      I really like your idea of a return to simplicity. That’s great advice. I think I’m going to make an effort at Lughnasadh to make my contributions quiet and sincere, rather than loud and, well, self-centered.

      Thanks for the input! You really have reassured me. 🙂

  2. Bonewits had a lot of wisdom to pass on, but I think that a lot of that book speaks to his own personal biases and perhaps a reaction to the antics of the Reformed Druids from whence he came. Additionally, I feel that much of what he says is focused on trying to do public ritual for really large groups where most of the attendees are spectators rather than participants. I think you have a lot more leeway in small groups to find what works.

    But, I would say that the people you should be asking are your grove kin. Sit down with them either individually or as a group and have the discussion; how much play do we want in ritual? does it help or hinder? should it be limited to certain High Days and not to others? If people are willing to talk openly and honestly about it you should be able to come to a consensus.

    • I do agree that Neopagan Rites frequently presents Bonewits’s personal taste in ritual as fact — and who actually has time for ritual dress rehearsals? There’s no way our grove could manage that.

      We have actually discussed this as a grove, and I’m sad to say that, while we agreed we’re unfocused, a number of people actually *like* that aspect of our rituals. They like the informality, I think, that comes from being able to stop mid-ritual and discuss, say, Harry Potter. There are a few of us who want to work harder and try to stay “on task,” but we did not manage to bridge the divide. The most we could agree upon was additional discussion later, which, unfortunately, probably means never.

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