Ceremony has been a part of human life since humans have been on Earth. Evidence contained within human evolution shows that there is an innate need within human beings to believe in a Power greater than his or her self, and to seek ways to pay homage to that Power. The result has been the development of sacred rites down through time. Ancient peoples worldwide were profoundly religious, though not in the sense by which we understand "religious" today. Religion and spirituality were so intricately entwined in everyday reality that they were intrinsic in everything the people did. For most, this was taken for granted, as it was believed that everything possessed some degree of spiritual and religious significance. This has been seen in cultures from the Sumerians to the ancient Egyptians, to the Maya, to the Native American tribes of North America. The gods and the "sacred" were everywhere, permeating all thingsincluding human body, mind, and spiritand influencing every aspect of life.
Ritual and ceremony empower human beings. Each provides a forum within which initiation can occur. Sacred rites unify people, offering momentary escape from the mundane. Rites satisfy the inner human longing for contact with the sacred, and provide an opportunity for contemplation of the cosmos and its mysteries. Furthermore, religion and spirituality constitute what has generally been called magic, which may be defined as a spiritual "force" that exists throughout the universesimply put, a divine principle. The practice of magic is then, in essence, the "acting out," physically, of what one believes. Following a religious or spiritual path that engages the practice of ceremony is nothing new. Getting the most out of the practice is the primary aim, and is the focus of this writing.
THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN CEREMONY AND RITUAL:
Although the words ceremony and ritual are generally accepted to mean the same thing, in my mind there are differences. Ritual is a formal rite that has been practiced the same way down through timeno changes, no exceptions. Ceremony, on the other hand, is much less formal, and allows the practitioner more spontaneity, creativity, and freedom in terms of how and when the ceremony is performed and for what purpose. Rituals represent tradition, whether religious, cultural, or even familial in origin. From this perspective, it could be said that ritual(s) is an "inheritance" that is passed down from generation to generation. Ritual preserves tradition, as well as belief systems, and religious principles and tenets.
Compared to ritual, ceremony is rather whimsical in nature. I view ceremony as a celebration. The ceremonialist uses his or her ceremony to celebrate life, events, the gods and goddesses, and nature, as well as to mark extraordinary times in one's life such as those celebrated in Rites of Passage. The ceremonialist is free to write and perform the ceremony from the heart. Ceremony is not a slave to proper timing nearly as rigidly as is ritual; nor is the ceremomialist bound to specific dogma regarding the way the ceremony must be done.
There are, however, some similarities between ritual and ceremony that deserve mention, the most important of which involves the ethics of spiritual/religious practice in general. Because ethics represents a moral code and embodies one's moral values and principles, both ceremony and ritual must be an honest expression of the same. This leads to the necessity of a clear, conscious evaluation of one's motivation for performing a ritual or ceremony in the first place. It is unethical to break tradition when performing a ritual, for example, or to engage one's self or others in activities of a religious or spiritual nature for which you and/or they are unprepared, or for which you/they lack the knowledge necessary to be engaging in acts that could possibly result in harm on some level. Another similarity between ritual and ceremony involves the fact that both are "tools" by and through which one can get in touch with the Sacred in whatever form one desires.
Ritual and ceremony are cathartic. Both can serve to bring one into a closer, more intimate relationship with the Divine. In doing so, rites become therapeutic by liberating one from the ties that bind one to the earth and the physical world. Performing sacred rites can facilitate healing, abundance, and many other benefits that nurture and educate us.
PREPARING FOR RITUAL OR CEREMONY:
Preparing for the performance of a ritual or ceremony is a matter that involves the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual levels of one's being. Prior to the sacred rite, the physical body should be properly cleansed. This can take the form of a literal bath or a symbolic one, depending upon the need and desire of the practitioner. One should also enter into a sacred rite emotionally balanced with one's own self and others. We must leave anger, prejudices, doubt, fear, and other negative feelings behind, if only for the duration of the rite. (Hopefully longer!) Mentally, the mind must be focused on the matter at hand, on the reasons for the rite, and on the energy that one will be dealing with as a result of the rite. Keep in mind that neither ritual nor ceremony is for the purpose of theatrics. They are, rather, acts that are based upon conscious realization of the proper code of conduct in order to achieve the proper consciousness-raising results. The mind must be clear and free of negative thoughts and ideas. Finally, on the spiritual level, one must be consciously aware of the divine within one's self and within all that exists. This brings about a sense of "at-one-ment" with all elsethe state that is needed to experience the rite to its fullest potential. In other words, the soul is the greatest contributor to the success of a sacred rite, and retains the purest energy the rite generates so that the body and mind might continue to be nourished long after the rite is over.
THE MAGIC CIRCLE:
Ancient esoteric teachings speak to us in the language of symbolism. Of all known symbols, the oldest is the circle. The circle has no visible, detectable beginning or end and, in that way, speaks to us of the nature of immortality, eternity, and unity. The motion of the circle is unceasing; its form unchangeable. No members of the ancient (or modern, for that matter) priesthoods would have performed their sacred rites outside of a magic circle. The circle forms a boundary around the ground upon which the ritual or ceremony takes place, essentially making it sacred ground. The circle also provides the practitioner with protection by keeping negative energies and entities outside its parameters. In addition, the magic circle assures that the energies generated by the magician is contained within its boundaries, thus guaranteeing that the energies will build up and intensify.
A ceremonial circle may be cast literally by drawing a circle on the ground, or perhaps using stones, crystals or some other minerals, or even shells. It may also be drawn symbolically through visualization techniques. Visualizing the circle as white or blue flames, as a halo of white light, or as a psychic shield is common. The circle encloses the participant(s) in a sphere of energy that is much more pure than that which lies outside the ring. Any magical tools such as a balefire, candles, incense, musical instruments, feathers, or other sacred paraphernalia should be placed within the circle prior to and during the rite.
In every sacred rite, be it a ritual or ceremony, the gods and goddesses (or other entities and forces) are invoked. The leader of the rite, usually a priest or priestess, fulfills the role of assuming the power and form(s) of the deities being called upon. In some rites, the other participants also have the opportunity to take on the same, and thus experience a condition and power equal to that of the leaders. The magical circle should be taken up when the rite is completed if it is comprised of physical objects, or allowed to fade away in the mind's eye if it is a product of visualization.
As a rule, every sacred rite begins with an Invocation to the deities in the form of the gods and goddesses of a particular culture, as totem animals, or simply as "forces" that manifest themselves in energy patterns. As the invocation is being voiced, participants should sit or stand quietly with eyes closed, so as to allow their minds to be free of mundane or negative thoughts. Ideas and/or images stimulated by the invocation will begin to rise within the mind if one has made sure that the mind is tranquil and free. During this quiet time, the deities can communicate with the ceremonialists. At times that "communication" takes the form of ideas, visions, and images that come to mind and serve to focus participants on the higher forces and entities that have been called. It can also manifest as a "voice" heard intuitively. Many beginning practitioners have doubts as to the validity of these types of visions or sounds, fearing that they may be nothing more than the product of an overactive imagination. Well, in truth, that is precisely what they are! Imagination. All seasoned ceremonialists and religious practitioners are well aware that the imagination is the most valuable and powerful "tool" we have at our disposal. Over time and with practice, the results of spirit communication and awareness of the Sacred will greatly improve, moving from fleeting impressions to solid, reliable communication experiences.
RITUAL AND CEREMONY AS "TOOLS" OF PSYCHIC DEVELOPMENT:
In my opinion, there is no better way than through the practice of ritual and ceremony to open or awaken one's psychic ability. For all the reasons discussed thus far, it must be added that the performance of sacred rites carries one into an altered state of consciousness. That altered state, in turn, exposes one to forces and entities that cannot be experienced in the normal state of human awareness. It introduces one to the invisible realms of reality, and brings about a "shift" from an ordinary perspective of things into an extraordinary one by comparison. Ritual and ceremony make the world come alive. What was invisible becomes visible. What was dark becomes light. What was mundane becomes sacred. What was commonplace becomes profound. Ritual and ceremony provide a forum within which we can develop a deeper understanding of our environment, both physically and universally, and help us gain a greater knowledge of the role we play in the scheme of things. They help us fuse ourselves with the Whole; and fusion assists us, at the same time, with our understanding of our own uniqueness as well as our "sameness" with all else. This acts, ultimately, as a stimulus to one becoming more adept at hearing, seeing, thinking, and feeling with the intuition instead of the intellect.
Without the frequent practice of ritual and ceremony, the higher planes of reality, the essence of the gods and goddesses, and the power of the body, mind, and spirit may never be known by the individual or by collective humanity. If we insist on filling our lives with mundane issues and activities and leave no time or room for sacred rites, we surely cheat ourselves. If we do not recognize and understand the importance of ritual and ceremony, we lose, or never even gain, the larger degree of upliftment and inspiration that they provide. We may never experience unification with all that exists, or feel a true sense of closeness with that which, though we cannot see it, we know exists. We know intuitively. Sacred days, sacred events, sacred places, and sacred powers may escape us. Left merely to our own human devices, we may forget the importance of making contact with the Divine, and we may forget the joy that comes from celebrating the benefits that come from regular spiritual practice and religious worship. Be it a ritual that honors a religious tradition such as that honored by the Catholic Mass, the Native American Sweat Lodge, or the Sundance, or a ceremony designed to celebrate the beginning of a season, the Full Moon, a birth or death of a fellow human, or the annual sowing and harvest, these sacred dramas can and should become an integral part of life on Mother Earth.
© 2002 Page Bryant
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