The following is an excerpt from Rites
of Worship: A Neopagan Approach, my book on liturgical
design, preparation and performance. Unlike my sharetext postings,
this text file may NOT be freely distributed on
the Net, since it is part of a published book.
Good drama always involves some uncertainty
on the part of the audience as to what will happen next. Will
the Winter Solstice sun actually return? Will the May Queen wed
the Green Man? Is the Corn King really dead? No matter how familiar
the participants are with the story, they should experience at
least a moment or two of uncertainty. (Thanks to Diana Paxson
for bringing this to my conscious attention.)
As the liturgist, you have the task of inserting
uncertainty into the ritual in such a fashion as to facilitate
rather than disrupt the mana flow. For example, in the old Reformed Druids of North America rituals,
after the sacrifice (leaves and twigs from a tree) was offered,
the presiding clergy asked the four winds whether the sacrifice
had been accepted or not. A stiff breeze, a sudden bird call,
or other omen was expected (and usually received!). In the summer
half of the year the clergy would declare that all was well,
and in the winter half the sacrifice would be announced as unaccepted.
This worked well as a way to introduce controlled dramatic tension,
except for the fact that sometimes the omens would not behave
properly (showing up when they werent supposed to, or not
appearing when they should). This disturbed some folks.
In the early versions of the A.D.F.
Druid rite, this request for an omen of sacrificial acceptability
was omitted. Eventually we inserted it back again, in a less
constrained fashion. We now throw the runes (or do some other
form of culturally appropriate divination) to see what sort of
responsive blessings the Deity(ies) has/have in mind for us.
If the answer is strongly negative, then we assume that the Deity(ies)
is/are not pleased and we skip to the last phase of the ritual.
Otherwise, we use the received omens to tune, omit, or even completely
replace, our intended thaumaturgical or theurgical workings.
This is the point where drama, which came
out of the temple, goes back to its religious origins. We cant
afford a contrived solution to every uncertainty in a worship
ritual, though this is normal in mundane theatrical presentations.
If we actually believe in the deities we worship, then we have
to be willing to accept that sometimes Their answers to us will
be different from what we wanted or expected and we have
to be prepared to deal with such answers.
How does humor fit into all this? Very
carefully. I have seen humor used in ceremonies with positive
results on several occasions, both as theatrical inserts in large-scale
liturgies, and as quiet quips to bring back a congregations
focus after a minor disruption of the mana flow. Ive also
seen it used, often deliberately, to drain the power from rituals
that are getting too heavy for the jesters (sometimes
the clergy themselves!) to handle. Humor is a two-edged blade
that should be handled with the greatest of care, or left out
I dont recommend invoking Trickster
deities, such as Legba, Loki, Coyote, etc., let alone deities
associated with chaos (such as Eris), into a Neopagan ceremony.
These entities have a habit of destroying any non-traditional
rituals at which They actually show up. Most of Them have a nasty
streak to their characters
especially Eris, who has become
a fun deity only in the last thirty years, and then
only among members of the Discordian movement (see Adlers
Down the Moon for details). Tricksters need to be handled
with the greatest of care and respect, using the techniques that
have been developed over the centuries by the people who originally
worshipped Them. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Neopagan
ceremonies in which these deities are invoked, whether formally
or informally, do so in order to provide a convenient excuse
for poor liturgical design, preparation and/or performance.
All this does not mean that you cant
have a sense of play in your liturgies. Play is a very
important human activity (see Homo
Ludens : A Study of the Play-Element in Culture by Johan
Huizinga for many interesting ideas about why) and there are
many occasions when playful elements are perfectly appropriate
in a worship ceremony. If you are invoking deities who are associated
with childhood or adolescence, for example, playfulness can fit
well into the emotional patterns of your rite. Parental deities
are often playful when interacting with their worshippers and
an acknowledgement of this is often appropriate, especially if
They are pulling gentle tricks on us. Bacchus, Dionysus, or other
rowdy divinities often enjoy having Their worshippers play games
and get silly.
However it is usually not appropriate to insert
playfulness into liturgies designed to worship deities associated
with death, hunting, war, asceticism, etc. Healing deities, on
the other paw, are sometimes serious, sometimes playful, and
a small bit of humor and play is often helpful when doing a healing
spell, especially if the sick person is present.
Pacing is something
that anyone familiar with the theater will tell you is absolutely
crucial to the success of a performance. A liturgy should be
designed and performed with each segment flowing smoothly into
the next. You dont want segments to either slow down to
the point where everyone gets bored and their attention begins
to wander, nor to speed up to the point where people lose track
of what's happening. The only way to learn pacing is to experiment
a lot with modular design and to rehearse the people in your
group to find their skills and limits. A five-minute guided meditation
may be too long for some groups, too short for others. Taking
thirty seconds to bless each person in turn is fine if you only
have a small group, but can be a disaster with a large one. A
chant that naturally builds to a peak in three minutes should
not be dragged out for ten.
Many problems with pacing are solvable by
artistic means, especially musical. So make sure that your groups
singers and musicians are involved in the design and rehearsal
activities from the beginning. And when scripting your ceremony,
avoid open-ended cues. As my friend Magenta put it,
When planning a large ritual, never
have a time when everyone says something without some check on
what is said. Don't have as part of the ritual [the cue to],
tell your story. Some people will be too shy to say
anything, and some will want to talk for an hour. Instead, have
people, say your name and three words that describe you.
Most people can say that much, and the person looking for an
outlet will have to look elsewhere.
Open-ended cues can also lead to people taking
your ritual off in directions you never intended, and may not
like. Remember, theres a thin line between empowering the
participants and letting some destroy what others have worked
hard to achieve.