Since I began leading First UU Austin’s Pagan Alliance last fall, I’ve learned that much of hosting good public ritual consists of general hosting etiquette: helping guests relax and engage, for example, and signaling to them when it’s time to transition from one activity to the next. But there’s much more to creating a container for ritual and coordinating pagan community than mundane hosting etiquette. Below are five of the most significant things I’ve learned so far.
1. The circle starts forming long before the sabbat.
When I was a solitary practitioner, I planned sabbat celebrations a week in advance, two weeks ahead if I was really on top of things. That won’t work, when you’re facilitating for a group. When you open one sabbat circle, it’s time to set a date and make a plan for the next one. Most people will need at least 2 weeks notice to attend.
Now that I’m facilitating for a group, my sabbat planning process involves notifying our church’s Director of Communications of the date and time of our next circle, so that he can include them in the newsletter, and creating and sharing a Facebook event. Facilitating a regular ritual circle involves a lot of planning and administrative work.
2. It doesn’t matter how you cast the circle.
First UU Austin’s Pagan Alliance includes Goddess religionists, Heathens, Reclaiming Witches, neo-shamanists, and plenty of pagan-curious folk. Everyone casts the circle differently where they’re from; some like to chant or tone, some like to visualize, some of us were taught to call call quarters. People come to circle for the experience and for each other, not for the forms, so it doesn’t really matter whether or how you cast the circle. It shouldn’t be too long or laborious; it’s not the main event. Get it done, and move on to the heart of your ritual.
3. On the altar, less is more, but above all, there must be fire.
Our Samhain altar last year was lovely, when we set it up before ritual. It featured an antique cast-iron cauldron, flanked by tall, striking taper candles, surrounded by more candles, seasonal gourds and seeds, herbs for smoke cleansing, bottles of water for offerings, a loaf of bread, and probably even more stuff that I don’t remember. Then participants began arriving, and they had to squeeze their ancestor photos (arguably the most important props for the ritual!) in among all the other paraphernalia. One woman brought incense with a holder that she wanted to gift to the group; we cleared a space. As soon as we began ritual, the wind blew out those dramatic candles towering over a crowded altar.
If all you’ve got is a seasonal altar cloth, a candle, an offering bowl, and a living plant or container of water with fresh flowers, it will be enough. If you must add more stuff to a group altar, do so sparingly. Leave space for people to interact with the altar in ways you didn’t plan.
The Flaming Chalice, the cup and flame, is the symbol of Unitarian Universalist faith; a UU Pagan altar really isn’t complete without it. I’ve found that a hurricane candle holder evokes the cup and flame, while sheltering the flame from wind during outdoor ritual. They’re usually not too hard to find at a thrift store.
4. Pick a story from a single tradition and tell it from several different angles.
Earlier this month our minister led a divination ritual with the runes. First she told the story of Odin hanging himself from the World Tree to gain the wisdom of the runes. Then I led a prayer for wisdom and healing to Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Finally, to raise energy, we chanted about being weavers of the web of life. The actual rune reading was clumsy (see 5 below), but the ritual held, because our storytelling worked. We stuck to a particular mythology and told the story from multiple angles, each of which revealed something previously hidden in the story.
5. One sheet of paper per participant, if you must. Two sheets is two too many.
Participants in a public UU Pagan ritual come from a variety of spiritual backgrounds. You can’t expect people to know the words to all the chants you’re leading, and for some, having a printed copy of what you’re going to ask them to say or sing facilitates participation. But people come to ritual to experience a non-ordinary state of consciousness with like-minded practitioners, not to flip through papers to read silently on their own. Plenty of chances to do that in mundane life.
During our rune ritual each participant drew a rune from a bag. They were then invited to look its meaning up in a packet we provided, but the pages of those packets weren’t stapled. Much paper rustling and confusion followed. But in retrospect I think the worst thing about that part of the ritual was that it involved each person trying to do something alone, rather than together. I have some ideas about how to remedy this part of the ritual for next year.
None of the rituals I’ve facilitated have been perfect, but none have been complete flops either. I’d like to recruit a ritual drummer to our circle, and I’d like to get better at delegating speaking parts. I’d love to continue exploring ways of involving the rest of the circle in storytelling; I adore the use of poetry with a chorus in ritual, I’ve discovered.
I’ll keep turning the Wheel, and I’ll keep learning. That’s my commitment as the facilitator of our circle.