Don’t wine and cheese your Rites.

Wine  After our Summer Solstice ritual, I was taking a much-needed trip to the potty when I overheard a   conversation. One talker asked the other how they liked the ritual.

“It was okay,” said the question-answerer. “I would have preferred the tempo of the guardians to have slowed down maybe a beat and a half….and the chanting was…” The talker then went on to pick at a few other details while their companion replied, “Oh? Oh. Oh….”

My ears sizzled like the grilled cheese I burned while typing this. Being offended comes in layers. Spiritual leaders (hopefully) eventually learn to peel them away so they don’t start rocking in the corner with a fist in a mouth.

Layer 1.) How dare ANYONE criticize my gorgeous ritual! It was totally Divinely inspired, if you didn’t notice. And gorgeously crafted with style, effect, and MAGICK, MOTHERFUCKER!
Release Layer 1: Go back to sleep, Ego….it’s not about me….I don’t do this for compliments.

Layer 2.) How dare ANYONE trivialize the ritual into beats and points when my Coven spent their whole Saturday and the month before this preparing it as a gift to the community…hauling their asses to Brooklyn from Jersey, Connecticut, and Westchester to do it, no less! What is this, a restaurant? Who are we, your waitstaff? WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?
Release Layer 2: You’re not the mama-bear…the Coven is capable of defending themselves and frankly, you just moved Layer 1 to Layer 2 as it sounds far more noble to the rest of the world. Seriously, Ego. Go back to sleep and stop bothering me while I’m on the can.

Layer 3.) There are people here who have had some intense experiences this afternoon. I saw it in their faces, I heard it in their words. Maybe you didn’t find the Divine, but they did. Can you give them some space to sit with that? Do you have to push them into an Amazon.com review before they even get out the door?

Layer 3 didn’t move. I found the root of the problem, only lightly dusted with the soil of ego–but not choked by it.

Faruza

I could think thousands of less-hot people to be compared with…but honestly, I’ll stick with Faruza. :)

It felt like going to see theatre with the college boyfriend who trashed every actor he ever saw..or the other college boyfriend who thought theatre was a dumb major, anyway. Or the post-college boyfriend who laughed when I cried at the symphony. Or the chatty tourists smacking gum or clicking away at their phones, right in view of El Anatsui’s incredible tapestries, barely bothering to look up or respect that people in the museum were spiritually humbled by their beauty. Or the companions who smiled sweetly at my discovery of Witchcraft and Tarot, but never shied from jokes about wolf-moon t-shirts and Faruza Balk. This is going to sound dramatic, but these times chipped at my heart a bit. They were experiences that moved my soul with a gentle hand, and ouch. A few pointed opinions or vocal disinterest may not be any more pointed for hurt than a gentle scratch with a fingernail–but do it to freshly sunburned skin and DAMN. That shit hurts.

I wanted to run out of the bathroom and shout, “DON’T SCRATCH THE SUNBURNED!!!” but that would take a lot of follow-up explanation and just come off as annoying. I let it go to clean up hummus containers and chip bags.

It’s probably a First-World Pagan Problem infesting NYC that there are so many awesome rituals to attend that people can afford to be picky about what they do. This weekend alone, I think there are four Lughnasadh rites happening within twenty minutes of one another–not even counting the things going on during the week. We are not lacking for community, skilled leadership, or Magick. The problem is that with so many choices, people start critiquing rituals like they would art or movies. Post-ritual fellowship can easily descend in to the wine-sipping, cheese-snacking critique one would see at galleries. The talk becomes about talking about the ritual, rather than what people experienced, saw, discovered. People have begun attending rituals for the sole purpose of critiquing rituals.

“Oh, just shut it out…” Is the go-to advice column–in the United States, anyway. Stay true to your own opinions and shut out those you don’t like! That’s well and good at a political debate over turkey at Grandma’s house, but the purpose of ritual is to open-up. We need to become vulnerable in order to receive the work of Spirit. Like art, going in with your heart locked and mind doing all the experiencing, is a huge waste of a admission ticket.

"It was all right 'cept the Quarter Calling had a Rosicrucian vibe I feel is totally oversaturated in the post Neo-Pagan movement."

“It was all right ‘cept the Quarter Calling had a Rosicrucian vibe I feel leans towards the point of over-saturation in the post Neo-Pagan movement.”

About a year ago, I attended an initiation for a young man into a Tradition that was not mine, but I was invited to witness. I didn’t understand all of what was happening, except that whatever it was meant a great deal to the young man. He wept. He wailed. He was reborn and came out of his blindfolded ordeal like a newborn fawn into the sun. But when I left the ritual, one of the  companions I’d come with had dissected the ritual into all its bits and pieces before we’d even gotten to the subway…something about the use of ritual space not being in proper accordance with some sort of symbolism associated with the Kabbalah or another sort of astrological correspondent I had never even heard of. Most of all, my companion was irritated that the ritual leaders had not built a ritual that was “inclusive enough of the experiences of the attendees.”

I was very uncomfortable. First of all, the ritual hadn’t been about the attendees but about the young man receiving initiation. Why in the world would anyone complain about it not being inclusive of the people whom it was never about in the first place? Second of all, who cared about the use of space and the blah-blah-mumbo-heebie symbols of whatever-the-fuck? The initiate had just gone through what had probably been one of the most grueling, terrifying experiences of his short life and here we were, barely a block away, and discussing the mechanics of the ritual? It felt like Olivia Newton John and Friends bickering about the way the lugnuts had been installed on John Travolta’s tires instead of celebrating the way he creamed that other guy off the road at the end of Grease. 

But it was more than that. Unlike an art show, a movie, or even a play, once we’d left the ritual space, we hadn’t quite left the ritual. Sure, the Circle may have been closed, but we’d given and received Magickal energy from a whole host of people for well over two hours. Rituals are living, breathing things. They pick up what you put into them, days after the Quarters are released. You may think you’re in a “safe zone” by discussing how you “really felt” when you head out of the room, but energetically, it’s no different than if you turned to your neighbor during the energy raising and said, “AGAIN with ‘Hoof and Horn’? Is anyone original these days?”

Psychically, the Universe was being told that the mechanical details of the ritual were more important that the movement of Spirit, itself. Not a good precedent to set for working with Spirit in the future.

First of all, how are you to know whether you’re not trampling all over a profound moment? Oftentimes, spiritual revelations come under the guise of blank faces.

Second….the ritual isn’t over just because the High Priest/ess said so. The work performed and energy raised will continue to spin and spawn over the coming days and weeks. After all that hard work, are you going to focus on tiny bits of rust on the instrument strings? Or will you sit with how the music made you feel? Can you allow others to have the space to feel that moment, too?

Most importantly…Spirit will take its cues from us and frankly, It doesn’t seem to like wasting its time. If we, as supposed Spirit workers are more obsessed with picking apart inconsequential details of the ritual, it seems likely that Spirit would lose interest and possibly stop showing up. Why should It have to compete for our attention with our perfectionist tendencies? Or worse, It might just feel like blowing apart our rituals all together. Why wouldn’t it?

Okay–moral of the story. Learn from rituals, but don’t nit-pick them. Trust me, my Coven of media specialists, writers, musicians, and copy-editors is wont to pull our shit apart and play the “pick out the not-perfect” bits. But we’ve finally learned that rituals should not be discussed for at least a few weeks after something is done. We file away moment of imperfections, suggestions for improvements, other ways to get to be even better at rituals into our mental rolodexes and take them back out when the time to plan our next ritual arises. We give respect to the experiences of those in the space, and the Spirit for attending. All other quirks can be worked out at another time.

I can’t lie…I’ve been to some rituals that made me cringe. 

Crappy Liar Club of Which I am a Member.

Crappy Liar Club of Which I am a Member.

But I have to respect the fact that other people might be affected negatively by my piss-poor perfectionist attitude. I have to respect the fact that the energy of the ritual is still going after the fact. I can learn from the mistakes of others–and the mistakes I myself make–but if it’s a serious mistake that I will want to avoid next time, I’ll remember it.

This weekend, at your Lughnasadh or Imbolc
Turn off your analytical brains for a time. Give yourself space to be present with the ritual. Sure, you’ll probably see ways something can be done better or differently and chances are, you’re right. But save those comments for your next ritual planning session a few weeks or months down the road.

And speaking from the underground art world.…art critics often end up hating art and book critics often end up burning paperbacks (figuratively). Is that what you want to do with your spiritual practice as well?

Something to think about at this next turn of the Wheel.

Have a blessed Sabbat, everyone!

Lughnasadh

Imbolc

36 Comments

  • Valerie Freseman says:

    Hi, Courtney- great advice. But how do you handle critiquing people who are just learning how to do ritual?

    Public rituals vs. student rituals are another thing entirely- I still think the ideas you have laid out apply, though.

    • panpanbrid says:

      Hi Valerie! Whether student or public, I still think the “give it space” idea applies. When I have students lead rituals, we generally sit down a week or two after the Rite and talk about its strengths and areas that could use improvement. No matter the leadership, a ritual is still a sacred space and needs room to work on the participants. Sitting down to work out the critique after some time has passed helps the student focus on major areas that need improvement, such as their methods of energy raising, etc., but not get them into the track of focusing on tiny details ala “Was the Air object four inches too far to the North? Did that impact the Earth elemental?”

    • Dana Corby says:

      Valerie, that’s a good question. The truth is, unless you have been asked for advice, don’t give it. And I mean asked for advice, not just “how did you like it?” The answer to that is always ‘damn good for a beginner.’

      And if you ARE asked for advice, you don’t tell the freshman ritualist what was wrong with it, you say things like “I could see what you were trying to do here, but I think if you try doing X you’ll get better results.” Anything less conciliatory is going to feel like an attack.

  • Blima says:

    This essay could not have been more timely. I’ve been stewing over this issue for a long time. Thanks for putting my mind at rest.

  • Eridanus Darryl Kummerow says:

    You hit it! It isn’t all mechanics. It is about experience.

    Waiting a week or two is a great idea. The energies and magic need to settle into their respective places. Whoever has led the ritual will be ready to talk, examine, and understand the kudos and the CONSTRUCTIVE criticism.

    Constructive criticism is about change. You have tried to not let the chant become a dirge is a comment the person can use to change the issue. You are a doodyhead* is an insult and something a person cannot change.

    I, once, 22 years ago led a hand fasting. Since I barely knew the couple**, and only saw the ritual 15 minutes before the start. I did what I could. It was weak, but it moved the couple and allowed them to experience the touch of magic. To me it was weak. To them, it was meaningful. To the group that accosted me outside of the room to tell me how powerful I was and all the colours of energy they saw… I left them to it.

    I am judgemental. I prefer to discuss my judgements away from the episode with those I trust. I will give constructive criticism if asked and able. I shut up or change to humour when around people who won’t be able to handle it** or would put them into a foul mood where more harm then good will happen.

    Courtney, what a good and strong article! We need to hear this more.

    I wish we weren’t like crabs. When in a bucket, when one looks like it will escape, the others will do whatever they can to bring the escaper back down. I feel, sometimes, our co-believers are like crabs. When one is about to or has a breakthrough, the others will drag them back down any way they can. Which means :
    1) People who have discovered something will be shut up and/or vilified in their community;
    2) The discoverer must go at least 50 miles away to teach those communities what they have discovered***;
    3) Eventually, someone from more than 50 miles away will come teach what the discoverer has taught them : and,
    4) Everyone will talk and learn what the discoverer learned because a known name teacher came and taught them****.

    ~Eridanus

    *One should not use doodyhead unless it is in reference to doody***** is on or smeared on their head and/or face.

    **Statements not listened to are heard. Therefore, one must take into consideration the fragile egos involved. And humour can defuse many moments.

    ***Anyone who is from more then an hour away, or more likely needs to stay overnight, and comes with luggage is a teacher. Well known or not.

    ****Because distance is proof of being a (good and/or well known) teacher. Knowledge has nothing to do with it.

    *****Doody, for this response, is meant to include any excreted waste product from a(n) animal(s) (defined as non-plant and non-mineral).

    • panpanbrid says:

      I’m a huge fan of calling everyone a Doodyhead. It’s meant in love. :)

      Thank you for your kind words, E! :D

  • Hjartafinn says:

    Hi Courtney, an inspired post — I’m only sorry that it had to be inspired in the way it was. Otherwise well-meaning folks sometimes fall into the trap of feeling they have to find *some* fault with the work, great or small, whatever that work may be (film, stage performance, song, painting, architectural design, book, body, magical ritual…) when asked their opinion. Else, maybe they don’t have a very sophisticated or discerning eye, or they’re too easily pleased. They may not realize that in most situations it’s okay (yay, even graceful and appropriate) simply to praise and enjoy something for what it is.
    Of course, in the context of being a teacher, or one who’s constructive criticism has been solicited, that’s another matter. But, as with magic itself, timing is everything. :)

  • Ohmygoddess. This is so spot on, and I am sometimes an offender on the “Siskel and Ebert Do Ritual” routine. (Hopefully, never again.) Would you have any interest writing on the PaganSquare site? If yes, please contact me via email, if no, I’m still your fan!

  • Steve Smith says:

    Excellent article on a prevalent issue in Pagan leadership and community across the board.

    I’ve led enough rituals of large enough size to know that most of the time, criticism of a ritual is just an outlet for a difficult personal experience. We who step into the center become targets, because we’re supposed to be able to take whatever the community dishes out (why else would we be in such a coveted spot, right?). As you say, a person must process things in their own way sometimes, and sometimes that way can be a little ugly or hurtful.

    The question I find myself asking is – how can we, as ritualists, encourage more positive behavior in our participants without obliging them to silence? I wonder if there can be a specific time and place for public feedback; I’ve certainly learned that it’s of vital importance to have a “grounding crew” on hand to help people process difficult experiences post-ritual, but that’s not the same thing. Maybe if participants feel more broadly that they have the power to make themselves heard, they will feel less afraid and less urgent about needing to criticize things during or right after the ritual itself.

    Thanks much for the food for thought – I’ve been looking for some inspiration for an article for Circle. Is it alright to cite you?

  • Sunfell says:

    My own ritual participation days are behind me now (no active Pagan communities in my area at all) but this brought back some memories.

    Every ritual is experiential. Everyone gives something different, and everyone takes away something different. It’s telling that some participants are disengaged enough to nit-pick it, but that is their problem, not the celebrant’s. I liken it to what I call ‘movie-lock’ that state of entrancement that a good story, play, or performance gives that makes you forget where you are.

    I’ve been to some crappy ceremonies, but refrained from nit-picking them. Variety is the spice of life. And good manners are the lubricant that keeps us civilized.

  • Rowan Badger says:

    Does the same ‘wait-a-bit’ logic apply to positive critiques for you?

    I ask because a couple of times I’ve been coming down from ritual, and someone has come up to me and said, “I really like how you did such-and-such, because it triggered this really cool experience for me,” and my response, in that space, was literally “BUT IT WASN’T SUPPOSED TO DO THAT IT WAS SUPPOSED TO DO THE OTHER THING!” (thankfully I did not say that; I said, “Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it.”)

    Now, once I’m out of the energy space, and into a more evaluative frame of mind, I can view that as “Oh, hey, I planned this thing but this other person, operating from a completely different context, had a profound experience completely outside of my intent, and wow, what an interesting exploration of perspective. How do I take what this other person experienced, and work to encompass it in future workings?” But in that moment all I can think is that I worked really hard on something and really worked to create a specific intent, and maybe I did it wrong and the thing that I meant to happen didn’t happen and especially when I’ve been asked to do a ritual for a purpose then maybe I failed the person who asked me. I wonder if I ‘did it wrong’ for everyone.

    I tend to limit my critique to simple positive elements, speaking less about my experience and more saying things like “I really liked how you used the fire imagery. It was very powerful,” or “I have not seen someone combine music and lightwork like that before; that was really cool and creative!”

    If I have an actual critique, I tend to wait and see more than one of a person’s rituals, because maybe if *everyone* said “I really like how you used fire imagery” and *no one* commented positively on the way they used water imagery, they’ll look, themselves, at what they did right and spread more of those elements through ritual as they learn. I’d rather be sure that someone genuinely thinks the use of loud recorded music that drowns out the speakers is an idea worth keeping before I point out that it might not be.

    • panpanbrid says:

      It probably should apply, but I have a tough time not complimenting my team after rituals, so I put it in the context of thanks for their work as a whole. :)

  • Blacksun says:

    I was told years ago that to even discuss a ritual afterwards was completely wrong. Simple fact: yes, the energies DO keep on churning. If the participants meddle with that energy, they’re just screwing up whatever focus and direction was given to it when it was shot off. Such idiocy should not be tolerated wherever and whenever it happens. And the ignorant jerks who do it should be shamed in public.

    How do students learn to make good ritual? The same way anybody learns. Not through telling them what is bad but by telling them what was good. DUH!

    • panpanbrid says:

      I’ve been told that as well, Blacksun. Not picking apart the good parts is AS difficult for me as dissecting the rough spots, if not more!

  • Denise says:

    Interesting perspective, Courtney. It is disappointing when a ritual does not spiritually reach each attendee. Though it may be Ego, I agree to a certain extent, I think it’s important for the facilitators to reflect (not criticize) for themselves about what worked for them and others. Attendees, often though not always, come up after a ritual to say, “oh when xyz happened, it really moved/affected me” or “that was a really beautiful/powerful/fun ritual, thank you”. This is assessment enough post-ritual-bliss. I agree that the ritual must be absorbed before its dissected.

    Your words have brought back a past thought: like there are different learning styles ( I’m a teacher), there are different spiritual-connecting styles. Teachers, when planning a lesson, constantly think about how they can reach their students and so teach the same learning goal in as many ways as possible (auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc.). The same applies to ritual crafters, IMHO.

    However, there are those who will always nitpick because that’s who they are. Sometimes it’s just a you-do-it-different-from-me and other times it’s a I’m-unhappy-with-me-so-I’ll-be-unhappy-with-you kind of attitude. It’s the old glass half-full, half-empty or always full perspectives.

    I’m in agreement: breathe, absorb the spiritual, reflect (journal?), and then assess (facilitators, attendees, students, etc.). Thank you for my early morning reflection!

  • Anna Greenflame says:

    This is one of the reasons why I stopped leading public rituals, even though we mainly did receive kudos. Also, as our attending public diversifies in background, training, and Pagan flavor, it becomes harder to write ritual that works well across that broadening spectrum and is still rewarding for those of us doing the ritual.

    I did learn a valuable lesson several years ago. I sought training with a group very different than my home group. I went to a ritual and felt/saw absolutely zip nothing. For me it was a letdown. But afterwards, the enactors, who were doing the ritual, were excitedly talking about all the things *they* had experienced, which were obviously genuine and profound. How grateful I am for that lesson. I don’t think all rituals are going to reach all people; perhaps the “frequency” of energy generated at a given ritual is simply going to act more powerfully on the people who already resonate with that “frequency.”

    • panpanbrid says:

      Thank you, Anna! I think you’re pointing out a valuable insight: as our public diversifies, it is going to stretch the ritual leaders to find new ways to create meaningful rituals. In the case you’re mentioning, though, I’m curious as to what was going on in that the leaders were experiencing profound things but the participants were not. That would be something I, as a ritual leader, would take time to investigate later on…

      • Steve Smith says:

        The key to contemplating the subject, in my mind, is to consider the differences in the experiences of the highly engaged ritual facilitator, and the general participant, going into a ritual.

        Who knows more about the intent of the ritual – the facilitator, or the participant? Who knows more about the form of the ritual? Who knows more about the aspects of the deities or archetypes that will be used? Who gets to decide the location of the ritual, the time of day or night, and the temperature of the room? Who is more likely to know not to wear something flowy or gauzy due to there being many lit candles, or because there’s a portion of the ritual involving standing close to a bonfire? Who knows how long the ritual will take (and thus who’s more likely to hit minute 90 with a full bladder and a growing sense of resentment)? Who is more likely to be uncomfortable or frightened by encountering an unfamiliar ritual practice?

        And, who’s going to be more ready to engage with a ritual experience – an empowered, informed, included, and welcomed participant, or an analyzing, nervous, or uninformed spectator?

        The key to alleviating these discrepancies is context. Before the ritual, I can tell the participants who I am, what the ritual is about, what the philosophy behind the intent is, and what they can expect to see. I can tell them how they’ll be included, remind them that they can choose to do or to not do whatever suits them, and still invite them to push their edges. I may not be able to set the thermostat to everybody’s ideal temperature, but I can certainly provide blankets, fans, or open windows; if I’m going to be outside, I can tell people ahead of time what to dress for. The more context and choice a ritualist offers, the more engaged their participants can be – and vice versa.

  • […] “Learn from rituals, but don’t nit-pick them. Trust me, my Coven of media specialists, writers, musicians, and copy-editors is wont to pull our shit apart and play the “pick out the not-perfect” bits. But we’ve finally learned that rituals should not be discussed for at least a few weeks after something is done. We file away moment of imperfections, suggestions for improvements, other ways to get to be even better at rituals into our mental rolodexes and take them back out when the time to plan our next ritual arises. We give respect to the experiences of those in the space, and the Spirit for attending. All other quirks can be worked out at another time. I can’t lie…I’ve been to some rituals that made me cringe. But I have to respect the fact that other people might be affected negatively by my piss-poor perfectionist attitude. I have to respect the fact that the energy of the ritual is still going after the fact. I can learn from the mistakes of others–and the mistakes I myself make–but if it’s a serious mistake that I will want to avoid next time, I’ll remember it.” - Courtney Weber, a Wiccan High Priestess, on learning to not “wine and cheese your rites.” […]

  • Critiquing a ritual right afterwards is like critiquing your lover right after sex. Even if it wasn’t perfect, enjoy the closeness of the moment. Talk about it later.

  • […] drive me to want to analyze the ritual right after (though I’ve tried to stop since reading this post) so I get to hear what’s working for people, though I do also want the constructive feedback […]

  • […] drive me to want to analyze the ritual right after (though I’ve tried to stop since reading this post) so I get to hear what’s working for people, though I do also want the constructive feedback as I […]

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