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Dispensing the Sacraments

I’ve been happily involved in Paganism for over 30 years and witnessed a lot of rituals in my time.  It was in 1982 that I began studying the subject of ritual making and my book on that subject, The Spell of Making, was published in 1995.  I continue to learn more every day and have had a wonderful time integrating that material into my workshops on ritual construction.  The book is focused on how to build rituals that are powerful and effective but there isn’t a great deal in it about the presentation of those rituals.  That will be what this article will discuss.  So there isn’t any confusion, let me explain why the title of this article is “Dispensing the Sacraments” but I begin by saying the article is about presenting rituals.Wicca (and modern Paganism in general) is classified as a ‘mystery religion.’ That means that we don’t have a book of scripture that delineates the spiritual truth for us.  We don’t require that you adhere to a firm belief system dictated by an ordained priesthood charged with interpreting holy writ.  Instead, we expect and allow each person to find their own spiritual truths and to interpret and apply them as part of their journey through life.  Our faith group believes that each person, no matter their abilities or way of life, will have their own unique experiences and therefore their own distinctive spiritual truths.  This we call ‘the mysteries,’ for they are only known to the one who experiences them.  We can’t teach others our mysteries; we can only provide opportunities for them to experience their own.  Such opportunities, presented in sacred space, are known as sacraments.  To ‘dispense the sacraments’ is to provide an opportunity to directly experience an ineffable connection to the gods. Every sacrament is for that purpose.  Any act or experience that purposely provides an opportunity to make or increase our connection to the Divine is a sacrament.  It is the role of the priesthood to present the sacraments.

Many (but not all) sacraments are produced (or ‘dispensed’) under ritual conditions.  Rituals present them in symbolic form that speaks directly to the unconscious.  And because the unconscious mind is what integrates all the information that comes to us and provides us with a model for understanding our world, this is an excellent place for the sacraments to take hold and work their magic.

There is no guarantee that a sacrament will actually result in greater spiritual understanding for any particular person.  Everyone will respond to them in different ways.  What might be a wondrous and moving experience for one might be no big deal for the person next to them.  And what may have a profound effect on us at one time could leave us feeling nothing at another.  It’s impossible to predict exactly how a sacrament will impact a person; we are all different from one another and even from the person we were yesterday.  To be a good ritual presenter means you must understand that the sacrament is the ritual’s goal and hone your abilities with this in mind.  In doing this work, you will be exposed to the energies of these presentations many more times than those who only attend them once.  So every time you rehearse or present the rituals that are the vehicles for these sacraments, you will have the opportunity to increase your own spiritual truth.  And every time you see the rite work its magic on another, you will have a better perspective on your own mysteries.

There are (at least) three good reasons for becoming a ritual presenter:  The personal spiritual insights that one gains by participating as a sacrament dispenser are enormous.  No words can describe the wonder of being party to this kind of work.  Everyone who actively presents the opportunity for others to become closer to and in greater harmony with the Divine will find themselves growing in spirit as well.  All of the energy you put into the rites you present for others will return to you as incredible beauty that fills your spirit.

Although I won’t bother to explain why here, your magical abilities will also grow.  Many people don’t give enough credit to the fact that all internal growth makes for greater magical ability.  But it’s an indisputable fact that the more ability you gain in being a good ritualist will also manifest in your magic.

True leadership is through service.  When you become part of a group that serves others in your community, you give a boost to your own social standing.  There’s nothing wrong with enjoying that benefit; we all crave positive interaction with others and this is definitely a good way to accomplish it.  Becoming a ritual presenter is a wonderful way to serve your community.  It will also serve you with more rewards than you can imagine.

Presentation of a ritual is much more than learning the words and what prop to wave about while saying them.  The bottom line about being a good ritualist is that you must be a good actor.  That doesn’t mean you must pretend anything; it means you must feel what you act.  If I were to single out the most important thing I’ve learned from my spiritual studies, it would be summed up in one sentence:

How it feels is what it means.

Try this exercise:  Take a page out of a magazine, an advertisement that features a large face shot where the model is looking out at you through the camera.  Pin it up on the wall next to a mirror.  Stand looking at the picture and say (out loud), “I love you.”  Look at your face in the mirror.  Now turn back to the picture and think of what you mean and feel when you say those words to somebody you really do love deeply.  Form in your mind an image of that person’s face as they look at you when you say the words and how they respond.  Wait for just the right moment to say the words, just as you would wait for the right moment with the person you truly love.  When your heart bursts with love, say “I love you” again to that picture on the wall.  Immediately turn and look at yourself in the mirror once more.  Do you see the difference?

That is acting.

Acting isn’t easy; it takes a tremendous amount of personal discipline.  And it takes a great deal of emotional strength.  Stop and think about a movie and how the actors made you believe in their characters, how they made you feel their emotions and the situations they were in.  You knew it was just a movie, just a story, but you got caught up in that story because of the actors and their ability to convince you they were actually living the story.

There is a cliché joke where an actor is told he is to do something quite common or simple (like pick up a coffee cup) and he turns to the director and asks, “What is my motivation?”  While this certainly might seem like overkill, it also could be an important question.  After all, if you pick up a cup to throw it in anger at someone, you would do it differently than if you just wanted to go get some coffee.  A good ritualist must provide an experience for all of the people in attendance that is real and believable.  That is not possible without the ritualist putting themselves in a real state of feeling.

The use of imagination by ritual actors is key to their ability in presenting the sacrament within the ritual.  Each ritualist must draw from within themselves the feelings that are necessary to make what they do and say have real meaning.  When that happens, each ritualist will convey that reality of meaning in every inflection of voice, each tiny change of expression, and every movement of their body.  Just as in our experiment with the picture next to the mirror: your whole demeanor was changed when you could say, “I love you,” to it and feel it.  Anyone watching at that moment would have been able to believe the picture was of somebody you loved deeply.

One of the criticisms I’ve received about my book goes something like this:  “All that structure and planning in making a ritual kills the spontaneity that makes our rites such magical events.”  I fully understand where that is coming from.  And, although I still strongly believe a ritual should be well thought out and scripted, I also know that it is not the scripted words and directions that gives it life; it is the feelings of the people who present it.

If we are to provide real meaning in ritual form, we must produce emotional connections through our presentations.  So, here we are back in acting class: learning how to emote.  Now, “What’s my (e)motivation?” becomes less of a joke and more like an important consideration.  The emotional impact of a ritual is generated by the ritualists, not the script.  That is why spontaneity on circle can produce such wonderful results.  I’m all for spontaneity; I just think that it should have structure behind it.  The two are not mutually exclusive.

When presenting a ritual, making every movement, every word, and every expression into a reality for those attending is the real work.  It requires a great deal of self-discipline on the part of each ritualist as well as ‘the right chemistry’ between all the people presenting the rite. Taking classes on acting and improvisational theater is a very good idea for anyone intending to do this kind of work.  When practicing a ritual, the person in charge should keep a critical eye on the feelings that are generated by the ritual presenters.  More than any other aspect, this will determine the ultimate success of the ritual for those who attend.  There is a vast difference between pretending and acting a part.

Think back to when you were a child and you and your friends played at being somebody other than yourselves.  Most likely you were grownups: parents or workers, soldiers or bank robbers.  In your imagination, you were these characters and not little children.  Dolls, toy figures, even pets became real companions that assisted you in your imaginings.  Your friends played along with the fantasy and everyone got caught up in what was – for that moment – real to you all.  When a friend pointed a finger-gun at you and said, “Bang, bang,” you didn’t have to think about your response; you either fell over or you dodged the bullet and hid behind the bush/rock/car/ asteroid/force-field/ hapless hostage and fired back!  You might have children of your own now and can see this same kind of play-acting done by them.  Isn’t it magical how a child can produce all the necessary reality they need for moments like this?

It most certainly is; that’s real magic!

All it took was imagination and a willingness to suspend disbelief (another way of saying that you temporarily believed).  ‘Play’ is the word we use for this time when our reality is no longer constrained by what our five senses report to us.  It is also the word used for live theater… such as ritual.  When we ‘play,’ we willfully project and receive a reality that surpasses what normally is perceived by us and the people around us.  In other words, to play is to do magic!

Remember what a sacrament is: a means by which a person may make and/or intensify their personal connection to the Divine… however and whatever they might envision that to be.  There is no way to force this connection but there are many ways to increase the chances for people to experience it.  Becoming better at acting is one of them; pretending is never enough.  Taking on the job of the priesthood demands nothing less of us.