First, I want to thank everyone for their honest and thoughtful comments and posts regarding Staying the Path Part 1: Deities. I'm always fascinated by both the parallels and divides found between people's individual paths as well as how different people relate to what they consider to be divinity. If you haven't shared your thoughts and would like to, please do so!
As I mentioned in my previous posting, I find that I am able to stay my spiritual path because it is flexible and changeable. I don't need to cling to outdated ideas and methods that no longer serve me, I can transition and my path will wend and wind differently to open up new avenues to me. This has been the case with my relationship to Deity and it has been even more so true when it comes to my approach to ritual.
When I first put a title to the feelings I've carried, unnamed, since youth I threw myself into book after book in the library's 'New Age' section. I devoured any and every text I could lay hands on, which admittedly, was sort of slim pickings mostly revolving around Wicca and Astral Projection. Having always been a bookworm and having long been enchanted by fairy tales, folk lore and mythology I had some vague sense of what I was looking for but none of that was mirrored in these books. Somehow, and I think it was the excitement of having even some of my feelings validated, I didn't let that get to me.
And so, I let that innate knowledge I'd gathered from my other readings slip away and began to do things by the book. As a solitary and the only pagan I knew of, I had no one to turn to for advice or teaching. We were still in the stone ages of dial-up internet and sparkly personal Geocities web pages. Those tangible bound pages were all I had to learn from and so, I did my level best to follow their tutelage.
I can remember being vaguely paranoid at the time that my parents would find out I was practicing 'the craft' and would flip the fuck out on me and played all manner of other terrible, scary scenarios in my teenaged brain. Thinking back, I don't think some of the books helped with this paranoia as many of them had passages on people finding Wicca to be scary and others had chapters devoted to keeping it a big secret. In any event, this paranoia made me incapable of leaving up a permanent altar or looking for what I needed to create one openly. I gathered what I could, a small knife, a ceramic cauldron that I'm sure was from Hallowe'en, candles, incense, a small bell, a fancy book to write in and kept it all in my underwear drawer. Where else do you hide things from the world when you're a teen and you live at home?
When I did set up my altar, on full moons, new moons and sabbats, it was set up exactly like the diagram in the book. Dead center of my bedroom on a little table, elemental candles in their proper places, things related to the God on his side and things related to the Goddess on the other. I lit my candles, walked around that circle several times with my salt water, incense and sword. I can remember twinges of doubt that I didn't have the right stuff, that my tools weren't elaborate enough, that I didn't have statues and that all I had to pour into the chalice at the time for cakes and ale was a wine cooler - probably pina colada flavored, since again I was an uninformed teenager and when the book said wine I wasn't about to swap it out for spiced rum! (Yes, I had booze stashed in my drawer with my ritual tools, there wasn't much room for underwear for a bit!)
I did everything as I was told, read the words that were written, made the proper gestures and got the offerings as close as I could and.... I waited to feel something. Anything. But I never did. And I'm not going to lie, it was sort of brutal as far as let downs go. All I had done before to feel connected was pray and talk to the Gods but now that I was following the elaborate rituals in the books to honor them they were silent afterwards. Even my beloved Artemis and Hermes were mum. Those twinges of doubt became full blown feelings of failure and after a year of nothing, I packed everything away and felt spiritually lost once more. If what I felt in my heart was similar to the things written in these books, then why wasn't I able to connect or feel maybe just a little something? Ritual left me feeling a bit tense, a bit drained and honestly? I didn't really enjoy doing it as much as I had expected to. And admitting that made me feel terrible. Like I had forsaken the Gods who had brought me through childhood into Adulthood.
I gave up everything when I packed that stuff away. No more card reading, no more calling on the Olympians, no more calling myself a pagan. In a fit of depression and anger, I locked my spirituality up and pretended it didn't exist. This lasted a few years and brought me into my early 20's. The age of good internet connection speeds, the online blogging explosion via Livejournal and bookstores popping up like mushrooms after a solid rain.
Through an afternoon's perusing of Borders, I found that the 'New Age' section had grown up. Now it included all manner of books not just based in Wicca, but in Witchcraft, Polytheism, Shamanism and things I had never even heard of before. I immediately began going there on my lunch breaks to read books at the cafe tables. As a poor college student I couldn't afford to buy them but I could pick up some good points in an hour's time to take home and research online. Again, there were the heavily choreographed rituals with their very specific layouts but there was also something new interwoven amidst all that; the notion to follow your gut and not to do something if it doesn't connect you to your higher power or if you just plain don't like it. I was floored and honestly, a little pissed off that I had let go of my intuitive nature years before. Here was the freedom I needed, the validation that in not enjoying ceremonial ritual there was nothing wrong with me. Immediately I wanted to smack myself upside my own head for being so fucking stupid and when I looked up from the book on the table, for the first time in 4 years, there was Hermes smirking at me across the table.
Now my altar is set up however I want it to be set up and it changes not just seasonally, but whenever I feel called to do so. I don't crowd things on there that mean nothing to me, no heaps of tumbled stones, no fancy knives or expensive cauldrons that I would feel horror at burning something in. It houses my practical tools; the old cast iron cauldron, the wand I made from a stick my husband brought home because he thought I'd like it(I did), a shell and a bull's horn, keys, feathers, bones, coins and sometimes artwork depicting the deities I'm working with or honoring at that time. I work and worship at this altar, it isn't just a display of pretty objects to be dusted on occasion. And most importantly, it no longer hides in my underwear drawer! It now permanently resides in my bedroom, where it is the first thing I see upon waking and the last thing I see before sleeping.
When it comes to ritual now, I've let go of keeping it scripted and choreographed. The biggest difference for me these days is that I almost never cast a circle now and when I do, it is almost nothing like the ones I used to. For me, ritual can be as simple as saying a few words of praise or gratitude under the light of the moon or over a candle or as elaborate as setting up the altar, lighting candles, burning incense and making it a bit more ceremonious. I go with my gut and I no longer force myself to do things just for the sake of doing them; the Gods and Spirits won't be offended if I go to bed with a headache on the night of a sabbat rather than half assing a ritual that my heart isn't behind. Whatever I do and whatever words I say though, come directly from my own heart and spirit, not from a book. On the rare occasion that I do find a ritual that speaks to me, that I love and feel called to perform, I will tweak it to make it my own - whether that be through timing, offerings, magic work done during or the wording of it.
These days, ritual is a very personal and very heartfelt thing and it connects me to those I work with and worship in a stronger fashion than I've ever experienced before. When I finish, I find myself relaxed, tired, tingly and most importantly, I have felt something.
So lovelies, to continue our conversation, let's discuss your take on ritual and altars. Do you have an altar? Let's hear about it/them and how you use it! Do you perform rituals and if so, how do you do so? Do you prefer the ceremonial approach or do you fly by the seat of your pants? Or, do you fall somewhere in the middle? How have your feelings towards these things changed as you've walked your path?
Just a quick note to add, I don't find anything wrong with Wicca, or ceremonial ritual and I hope that in recounting my own experiences I haven't given off that impression. While I know that it works extremely well for some people, the opposite is true for me. And while some of you may scoff at my wild witch ways, they work extremely well for me.
As this post has gotten very, very long, I will touch on magic in yet another post. I hope you'll come back and weigh in on that one as well!