I’ve Volunteered to do a Ritual, Now What do I do?
A practical guide to performing public rituals
You feel drawn to volunteer to do public ritual. You volunteer, commit yourself and then…PANIC ATTACK! You’ve never done a public ritual…where do you start? What do you do? That’s what this article will address and discuss.
One thing to point out right away, there is really no “wrong” way to do a ritual. Whatever feels comfortable to you as the leader should be what you do. However, it is good to do enough research that you don’t end up mixing elements that end up being incompatible – with possible nasty consequences.
The first thing to do is to decide what your ritual will focus on. If it is for a Sabbat, research the various aspects of that day. What or who do you feel drawn to? What activities would be appropriate for the event? Will there be children? If so, how can that be taken into account? If you are doing a moon-based ritual, again, research your subject. Look at what each moon means in various cultures, or pick a subject that has to do with the season you are in, or something in your own life that would appeal to others. With some groups it is traditional (although not required) that some sort of “take it home” activity occur. If you are not “crafty” (and not all of us are) pick something easy or choose to do something more intellectual so that what is brought home is not necessarily tangible, but valuable nonetheless.
After figuring out what you want to do, the next step is to secure a site, and figure out when and what time. Get that information locked down and out to the public at least 3-4 weeks before the event so people have time to plan. Notify local lists, make flyers, put it in the paper if possible, get the word out as much as possible. If you are doing a feast afterwards, make sure you note that on the flyers, along with any instructions such as “bring food appropriate to the Sabbat” or “provide your own plates, cutlery and cups”. If needed, recruit helpers/fellow planners as early as possible also. If it is traditional to plan a feast for afterwards, make sure you also decide what you will bring and keep in mind where the ritual will be held so you can make suggestions as to food or drink to those participating in the activities.
Now it is time to start planning your ritual. Sit down and prepare an outline of what you want to do. This is your “recipe” for the rite. After you have the recipe down, make your “shopping list”. Write down (don’t rely on your memory, write it down!) all the items you will need. By that I mean, not only things like “salt, water, incense” but practical, little things like “bowl for water and salt, matches or firestarter, juice, cups, etc.”. Don’t forget to include those things you will put on your altar or altars. Don’t forget to include your feast offering in your “shopping list”. Also, if you have helpers “assign” them specific tasks in the outline so you know what YOU are responsible for and what OTHERS are responsible for. Make sure your helpers know well in advance what they are supposed to do so that they can prepare.
Once you have your outline, flesh it out. Are you calling quarters? Casting a circle? Doing something different to create Sacred Space? Are you indoors? Outdoors? These things need to be considered. Are you creating one altar? Or several? Make sure you make a comprehensive list of what you are putting on the altar(s) and put a checkmark or something next to anything you might need to buy so you don’t forget. One thing many people don’t remember to bring is an “offering basket/bowl” to be passed around or put on the altar or entrance for donations (assuming, of course, you are hoping to get reimbursed for your expenses). If you are asking someone else to bring libations, or things for the altar or ritual, make sure they are aware of this in advance and contact them a couple of days before to make sure they remembered it. A friendly reminder is usually appreciated and will save the person and you possible embarrassment at the ritual itself.
It is a good idea to make not only an outline, but a “script” of the ritual. The outline is great for your helpers to have so they know who is doing what when. But, unless you plan to do everything “off the cuff”, it might be good to actually write down, where appropriate in the ritual, what you are going to do and say. Memorize this if you wish, or keep it handy to refer to during the ritual. No one will fault you for having “notes”, especially if the ritual is complicated or lengthy. Personally, I would keep a first public ritual simple, but that is up to the individual and what help they have from other people. A lot also has to do with what “tradition” (if any) they choose to follow. Some traditions have very strict and complicated rules that must be followed if the ritual is going to be a true sampling of the tradition and not a rip off.
One thing to be very aware of…if you are doing a public ritual do NOT assume that everyone knows the “proper” way to do things according to the tradition you are using. Chances are, that is not at all true. Also, you might have “first timers” who have no idea what to expect. Before the ritual starts, make sure you explain a little about what is going to happen, any special things the attendees will be expected to do, etc. You don’t have to reveal any ‘mystery’, but a quick overview is always appreciated.
So, what “makes” or “breaks” a public ritual? In my experience it is all about organization and understanding your participants. It doesn’t matter if you base your ritual on Wicca, or Celtic Reconstruction, or Voodoo or whatever, just be organized about it. If you are planning an activity that will take some time and involve only one person or a few people at a time (such as doing divinations), come up with an activity that the others can do that relates to the ritual while they are waiting. Have appropriate music in the background if you just wish people to sit quietly and meditate. If there are going to be children present, be sure they have something to occupy themselves. Having to make “idle conversation” in the middle of a ritual while waiting for your turn at something is not conducive to a spiritual experience.
Questions to ask yourself before you commit to doing public ritual or at least before the day of the ritual:
1. What is my reason for doing this ritual? What do I hope to bring to the larger community OR what do I hope to learn from doing this? (you can actually have answers to all three questions, sometime you both want to give and receive from a ritual)
2. Who will be there? (i.e. children, lots of newcomers, etc). About how many will be there? How is the best way to handle the group size-wise? Where is the best place to hold this type of thing, considering the amount of people expected?
3. Who can I call on to help? Where do I go to find the resources for research I need to do? Do I have the physical tools I need? (i.e. altar stuff, libations, etc.)
4. If necessary, do I have the permits needed? If not, where do I go, who do I see? Do I have the financial resources to carry this out?
5. Have I advertised this event adequately? Do I want to have lots of publicity, or only a little?
6. Am I prepared for this? Have I rehearsed what will happen? Are my helpers all lined up? Are my supplies all bought and organized, ready to go? Have I planned for weather (if necessary)?
The biggest challenge for a first-timer doing public ritual is to be confident in oneself. Prepare, prepare, prepare but also be open to the unexpected and don’t be rigid. Don’t come down on yourself if everything doesn’t go exactly as planned…sometimes it just isn’t meant to. Once you have done the ritual, all the participants are gone, the place is cleaned up, and you are looking forward to sleeping because you are so physically and emotionally exhausted, take a moment and give yourself a “pat on the back”. You just accomplished something you can remember and be proud of the rest of your life. Leading a public ritual is to give a piece of yourself to the community. There is no greater gift than this.
Mariposa is a UU Pagan of 8 years duration. She spends much of her time reading, playing Celitc harp, and writing poetry. She calls her method of writing "Muse-inspired", as she writes the poem complete and whole at one sitting with, usually, only very minor changes. Also, if she gets "inspired" she must right down the poem at once or she "loses it". Mariposa currently holds the Office of Spirit for the Church of the Sacred Circle in Salt Lake City, and is also clergyperson of that pagan church. She hopes to get training to become a volunteer for the "No One Dies Alone" hospice program that sits with dying patients when family and friends are not available.