I distinctly remember my first Wiccan ritual. The anticipation, wonder, and thrill of being in a circle of women. Given permission to sink into our hearts, to focus on a common purpose, to witness everyone’s beauty and, and to listen to each other’s goals. We were invited to play with movement, language, song, and laughter, to flow with a loose structure, and to improvise what was needed in the moment. The experience was delicious and deeply satisfying, a thoroughly nourishing and wholesome drug.
I was hooked.
I dedicated myself to facilitating rituals and, after a few years, became an ordained Wiccan Priestess. Partly to ensure continual access to this “drug” but also, to help bring something so essential—and so universally lacking— to people who have had negative religious experiences or simply don’t know what they’re missing.
After facilitating hundreds of rituals, I’ve come to believe that like air, water, food, sleep, and love, sacred space is a basic human need.
We can’t be who we are without it.
We can’t be fully human without it.
What is ritual?
One dictionary definition of ritual is a series of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and performed according to set sequence.
Etymologically, the word ritual was first recorded in English in 1570 and is likely derived from the Latin ritualis or “correct performance, custom.” The original concept may be related to the Sanskrit ṛtá or "visible order" in Vedic religion.
According to these definitions, rituals are characterized by familiar acts performed in a group setting for the purpose of preserving and protecting an established order. Their predictability provides psychological security for the people involved.
Participating in ritual is psychologically powerful and emotionally satisfying precisely because of their cyclical, familiar nature.
However, predictability doesn’t tell the whole story.
For those of us who have had negative experiences with religion and for whom predictability as a primary or exclusive focus can be confining or oppressive, I want to expand on these definitions and offer additional insights.
What does ritual do?
Rituals are powerful and nourishing because of the communal experience, the common purpose, and the deep engagement of the physical body (ie. all of the senses). There are endless, exciting possibilities within the dance between the familiar and the improvised and rituals help us go there.
What ritual teaches is the ability to be together with others—including departed loved ones who might have participated in a similar ritual or observed a similar shift in season centuries earlier— and, at the same time, express one’s emotions, observations, experiences, and skills in a way that is utterly unique to that moment. Rituals are about both predictability and the singular moment.
This is not an insignificant lesson.
My lived experience of Wiccan ritual is that we work in a circle (as do people from many traditions around the world) as a way to minimize hierarchy and emphasize our common connections. We look into each other’s eyes.
In this way, we develop and practice two extremely important skill sets (especially for women):
1. to be deeply connected with others, and
2. to express our individuality fully.
Children do this naturally! Adults have to re-learn how to be our full selves with others, to minimize interior judgments, and to step up when we are called to contribute to the whole.
Ritual should be fun—it’s how theatre was born. We love the mystery and beauty of life and get to experience it microcosmically within these circles. We use incense and candles, bells and chimes and musical instruments, movement, flowers, and colorful cloth to engage our whole selves by stimulating all five senses.
Rituals help us express, play, and live in our bodies on this earth, in this place and time.
How is ritual a basic human need?
To paraphrase astrologist Caroline Casey, what we don’t act out in drama, we are destined to live out as melodrama.
As humans, we need these spaces to grow and thrive, to be reminded of our collective destinies, to remember who we are and why we’re here, and to keep us heading in the most productive direction.