What makes a good ritual? What makes a ritual that works, that becomes so loved it becomes part of the identity of a community, part of the body of culture that defines it and makes it unique? What makes a ritual that becomes a tradition?
A good ritual must work on four levels at once – mythical, emotional, intellectual and physical. It needs all four elements: fire, water, air and earth.
It is pitch dark and very cold. Midwinter. The longest night. In a rough circle around the unlit bonfire there are nearly sixty people – babies, teenagers, grandparents. Next to the bonfire, hidden by the dark, are the gifts: one for each person, handmade by whoever drew their name from the hat six weeks ago.
The soft murmuring of voices stops as fire lights up in the dark. Two people with fire torches walk to the centre of the circle, and pick up their gift. Starting from opposite sides of the circle, they begin their circuit, gift in one hand and torch in the other, round the circle until they find the person it has been made for. Illuminated briefly in firelight are flashes of faces, eyes sparking, cheeks flushed with excitement.
Will he stop at me? Flash, flash, flash – one by one all the people of my kith and kin, my tribe, are lit up, their faces bright with excitement. And the dark and the cold and the firelight and the silhouette of the giant apple gums behind and the immortality of stars.
It is one of those images that stays with me forever, in wide screen technicolour, so complete my nose reddens with the cold. These are mystic experiences, moments in which you experience the full glory of being. Most people are blessed with only a few of them in a lifetime.
They happen so rarely, it is hard to identify what makes them happen. They are generally recognised as being spiritual experiences, though no religion can claim a monopoly on them. Two things seem to be necessary. You need to be in the presence of one of the great “mysteries”, the meaning of life type questions. And you need to be in a state of consciousness receptive to it. Then sometimes, out of the blue, it is there.
It is not the gifts themselves that make this ritual work so well, though some of them are amazing works of art. It is the handmaking that is important. Each person in the circle has spent the last six weeks meditating on how to delight another person. First they have wondered what to make – what does she like to do, to wear, to play with, what kind of things does he treasure? Then they have spent time in the meditation of making, and then in the anticipation of giving and in mentally rehearsing the delight of the recipient.
Most people start by protesting “but I’m no good with my hands, I can’t make anything”, and then surprise themselves. Most people say, almost with surprise, that wonderful as it is to receive a present, the making and giving is the best part. It is love given substance, and this kind of love is one of the great mysteries.
Good rituals are often silly fun. They are always things that everyone can participate in. They are nearly always experiences that enthral the smallest children along with their grandparents. But they are not just a party. Good rituals all involve some evocation of one of the big questions – birth and death, responsibility and freedom, love and fear, sensuality and ambition, fate and will. They are called mysteries because what wisdom exists in the community about them cannot be rationally dissected and communicated wrapped up neatly in words.
It can be communicated though, through the symbol language of art. Ritual like the other great art forms – painting, music, theatre for example – is capable of communicating wisdom experientially. Because it is so participatory, it can be a particularly powerful art form – like being in a masterpiece.
The best rituals do not pretend to be a handing down of received wisdom They simply face the question, and the answer is evoked in the ritual itself. There are sixty meditations on the nature of love in the circle, no individual could dream of so profound an answer, and there is no way to say it in words.
Mystic experiences do not happen for everyone, or even anyone, every ritual. I don’t think I could stand it if they did. However all good ritual has a taste, a promise of it. Good ritual makes us remember it is there. And every so often, much more often than in ordinary life, it puts us in touch, touched by, touching the infinite.
Repetition is a powerful cue, and one of the hardest things to create when inventing or reinventing them. Already our most loved rituals are those that have been going the longest and repeated most often. Midwinter solstice was one of our earliest inventions. A generation has now been celebrating it as long as they can remember, is passing it on to their children, and each year enriches its cargo of remembered associations. As I prepare for it, these associations are already creating a special state of consciousness.
Most of our ordinary social discourse is very unauthentic. We steer clear of anything that is really important to us, anything to do with deep emotions or primal issues. We steer clear of any form of self-exposure, including creative expression.
We fear being judged as sentimental or showing off or socially inept. We fear exposing precious and vulnerable experiences or insights to be ridiculed or stomped on. We fear arousing feelings in others that are embarrassing or threatening or uncontrollable. There is a real reason for some of the fear. Deep emotions can be confronting and dangerous. Rituals are not encounter groups. In designing them you need to take some care that the ritual is appropriate to the group, the challenge is not too big, and the limitations are in place to make it a safe space.
But at the same time living your life without ever communicating any deep, personal, life affecting stories and insights is lonely and alienating. It leaves people with no basis for empathy and thus compassion. And lacking a body of knowledge developed through sharing this important stuff, we create a society that may be clever but is not wise.
One of the things that allows this space is that a sabbat is not an ordinary day, not just any day. It is a solstice – ‘the sun stands still’, the stillness at the peak where everything hangs suspended. It is a time out of time, a liminal time, a special day. Yule is the longest night and that makes it numinous. It opens us to perceiving ourselves as vulnerable. At Yule it makes mythical sense to open to the awareness that at the bottom, at the longest night, at the darkest place, there is love and there is hope. Around the bonfire we stand at that turning point feeling the dark, feeling the light about to return.