Dramatic Tension, Humor, Play
and Pacing in Liturgy

(Version 3.0)

an excerpt from

Rites of Worship

Copyright © 1994, 2001 c.e., Isaac Bonewits

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 weren’t 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 can’t 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 congregation’s focus after a minor disruption of the mana flow. I’ve 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 entirely.

I don’t 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 Adler’s Drawing 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 can’t 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 don’t 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 group’s 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, there’s a thin line between empowering the participants and letting some destroy what others have worked hard to achieve.

Copyright © 1994, 2001 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. Unlike his other sharetext postings, this text file may NOT be freely distributed on the Net, since it is part of a published book. Click here to buy it from Amazon.com.

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