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Phase One: Starting the Rite

The Clear-Cut Beginning: Consecration of Time

Every ritual, whether religious or not, should have a clearly designated beginning. This can be signaled by a bell ringing, by the clergy showing up in full regalia, by candles (or a chalice in Unitarian Universalist rites!) being lit, or in some other fashion. What's important is that the participants receive the cue telling their subconscious minds the ceremony is starting.

One of the primary purposes of religious ritual (most of phase two in this discussion) is to re-create the cosmos and thus to assert and reinforce our ideas about reality and meaning. The declaration of sacred time returns us to when the deity(ies) first made the cosmos (however our culture or subculture may conceive of it and them). As Mircea Eliade puts it:

By its very nature, sacred time is reversible in the sense that, properly speaking, it is a primordial mythical time made present. Every religious festival, any liturgical time, represents the re-actualization of a sacred event that took place in a mythical past, "in the beginning" ... Man [sic] desires to recover the active presence of the Gods; he also desires to live in the world as it came from the Creator's hands, fresh, pure, and strong. [Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane. Emphasis in the original.]

When we declare time to be sacred, we are declaring our intent and ability to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when the world was new, the animals could talk, and deities were seen everywhere. We step outside of normal, mundane, or secular time and into eternity.

The Consecration of Space

Having begun with the consecration of time, you immediately need to consecrate a bit of space. In a place normally used for religious activities, all you need to do is walk into the temple or grove with a proper intent, and the sacred nature of the place will become activated (that is, you'll notice it). In a location that is not normally viewed as sacred, you'll need to mark the perimeter of the area you plan to use. This can be done loosely by having a procession go around the area, or (if you're short on maneuvering room) by having everyone hold hands while singing a song or chant about sacred space (and time, if possible, to reinforce that consecration).

The perimeter of your ritual area can also be set up tightly by physically marking the edges of the area, followed by ritually consecrating those edges. The choice of a loose or tight boundary depends upon the precise kind of magical/religious activity you intend to do. More specifically, it depends on how critical it is to keep certain types of mana in or out of the working area, either temporarily or permanently. Either way, the re-creation of the cosmos requires that the chaos of mundane space be symbolically kept at a distance for the duration.

Purification of the People and Site

Most religions will pause at this point to bless the participants and/ or to purify them in some fashion if this wasn't done before the ritual. [See Chapter 11, Ceremonial Baths.] Most Paleo- and Neopagans don't have a myth of original sin (although Neopagans generally approve of originality), so they don't try to cleanse the participants from some sort of innate evil, but rather to help them to focus on the events at hand by clearing away all irrelevant or incompatible thoughts.

If you had been cooking an Indian curry, and then decided to bake an apple pie for dessert, you would naturally wash any lingering curry powder off your hands before starting to cut up the apples. If you were a doctor who had been working with disease victims and then had to attend someone else with open wounds, you would make sure that your hands were thoroughly sterile before touching her. If you had been doing a weather spell, and your mind was full of low pressure zones, jet streams, and cirrus cloud formations, and you then desired to do a fertility spell for the crops, you would need to clear your mind of all those weather-oriented thoughts before attempting to get fertile.

In the first two examples, neither curry powder nor microbes are necessarily evil (though some would argue about either), but their leftover presence could cause the results of your later activities to be less than satisfactory. The washing of hands can be a powerful symbolic act, so it should come as no surprise to know that many cooks and surgeons make a much bigger fuss over cleaning themselves than either the culinary or the medical arts require.

In the third example, again, what you want to get rid of is not evil, wicked, or sinful, just inappropriate. Here a physical cleansing of your self (and the working area and tools) becomes more obviously symbolic. As in other rituals, what you are doing is giving your subconscious a series of cues, in this case to wipe your internal blackboard clean so that you can start writing new thoughts upon it.

Obviously, someone who feels that she/he does not belong there because they have done something wrong will need special attention. Purification from tainted mana (but not from moral responsibility to make amends) would then be appropriate. Hunters, for example, who had just slaughtered animals they considered their four-footed siblings, would want to be cleansed from their "blood guilt" (that's the usual anthropological term) before rejoining the tribe's ceremonies.

Similarly, a special blessing may often be done on the physical area where the liturgy is to take place. This reinforces the concepts of sacred space and time in the minds of the participants, and can magically charge an area to more effectively control the expected flows of mana. An actual exorcism of the ritual area shouldn't be necessary, especially outdoors (unless you forgot to check out the vibes of the place first). But if you or someone else has been doing magical or religious rituals (or any activity for that matter) of an incompatible sort in the same location recently, you'll want to psychically clean the area, either along with an earlier physical cleansing or else at this point of the liturgy.

There are a wide variety of ways to exorcise an area; you should choose a style that fits with the rest of the ceremony. Most of the time, your exorcism should focus on the idea of cleaning and tidying up, rather than driving demons out (there aren't that many demons around anyway). You may want, however, to take this opportunity to set up wards (psychic defenses) around the site to prevent disturbance by unfriendly mortals, should that be a matter of concern.

Centering, Grounding, Linking, and Merging

Centering is a term used in Neopagan and New Age ritual technique to refer to each person finding the center of awareness within him/ herself. If you close your eyes and say to yourself, "Where am I in this body, anyway?" some people will find their center behind their eyes, some in their heart area, some in their belly, and some elsewhere. There is no right or wrong place for your center to be (at least not for the purposes of most ceremonies) from a poly theological aspect. However, from a movement-awareness viewpoint, you might be better off to move your center of awareness to the solar plexus region, tuck your pelvis under, and otherwise stand or sit in a fully relaxed manner, in order to open your body up for the maximum internal flow of mana.

Grounding, on the other foot, is one of those technical terms that is commonly used for two very different ideas. The first is to make a physical and psychic connection to the ground, both as a source of physical and psychological stability, and as a source of mana from the Earth Mother. The second is as an electromagnetic metaphor for draining off excess mana into the ground (or occasionally into your ceremonial tools) just as a lightning rod grounds electricity.

The Earth-connecting sense is the primary one at this point in most rituals. However, draining off excess mana may become equally important here if members of the group are overwhelmed with hard to handle emotions, especially unpleasant ones such as grief, anger, or fear. Then grounding becomes a matter of combining the two methods: entering the healing darkness of the Mother, discharging the excess emotional energy (mana), and being reborn as a stronger person, ready to continue.

The next step after grounding, regardless of which method you have chosen, is to psychically link (make direct connections) with the others present and then to merge into a group mind. That's a scarysounding term, but it's probably just what Tom F. Driver in Liberating Rites (following Victor Turner in The Ritual Process), calls communitas, a sacred recognition of community without hierarchy or social limits. Others use the term "group mind" to refer to a type of communal telepathy, in which each person has a direct psychic link to everyone else present. Think of it as getting everyone present on the same wavelength, experiencing the same emotions and seeing the same visual and mental images. Just as multiple musical instruments simultaneously playing the same notes can produce resonant sounds, more powerful than the sum of their parts, so too, minds functioning in psychic resonance can produce much greater psychic power and control.

All this is usually done through guided meditation or prayers to encourage individual centering and grounding, followed by a reminder to the congregation of what they have in common (ancestry, beliefs, relations to the divine, ete.) , and some sort of meditation, song, or other activity designed to promote a sense of unity and to begin the coordinated circulation of mana by the group.

Specification of the Ritual Purpose and Historical Precedent

Once the group mind has been created, it is reminded of the purpose of the ritual, which might be pure and simple worship, the celebration of a holiday, an effort to bring rain or heal sickness, or any other purpose that the members of the group have agreed upon. This gives everyone the intellectual, artistic, magical, and spiritual themes they need to concentrate on during the course of the ceremony. With a small group, this step is easy to forget, since everybody already knows all this. Yet if one newcomer or unexpected guest attends, they can generate a lot of confusion in their ignorance.

Just as importantly, the members of the group mind are told that what they are doing is traditional, that it has been done before by their ancestors or predecessors. Often the ritual is said to have been invented by a deity, or to commemorate a deity's actions, during an especially sacred time (usually the creation of the world or the early years after it). The sacred time experienced by the participants in the sacred space is identified with the original sacred time. The universal human need to make this cosmic identification between the sacred space/time of the ritual and the sacred space/time of the creation of the world (or at least of one's sect) is a major reason why people will say pseudo-historical nonsense in their ceremonies. They're not consciously telling lies, exactly. They are living in mythic time, an experience that enables them to make necessary psychic connections to the collective unconscious, as well as providing a source of both power and self-confidence.

Specification of the Deity(ies) of the Occasion and Reasons for Choice

Next, the participants are reminded about the deity or deities who is/are to be the focus for that occasion, and of why the deity/deities chosen is/are appropriate. In a group that normally only worships one or two deities, this step can be very short, but in the more polytheistic ones it's important that everyone know which of several possible deities is/are the focus of worship for this particular event. Even in a duotheistic system, since both the Lord and the Lady have multiple names, particular "faces" or aspects need to be selected and the reasons for their choice explained.

Next: Phase Two: Re-Creating the Cosmos

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Last updated on Monday, April 11, 2011.

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