via John Mainer: Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting: Latest cost of empowering hate
I used to act. As a result, I hate acting. Hate fake-it-til-you-make it. Hate playing the part. Hate rote actions being done “just because.”
But ritual always involves a certain amount of pageantry, and doing specific actions simply because history and trial and error have borne out that it’s the thing to do.
It’s easy to understand why pre-planned shows of devotion don’t seem to make much sense. You can’t pull religious ecstasy out of a can. It doesn’t work like that. It definitely seems like it would make more sense to wait for these spontaneous experiences, and take them as they come.
So how can we approach ritual, and accept the way it functions, without feeling like we’re faking something?
Understand the Why
Think about your birthday. Getting gifts is a standard thing, at least when you’re younger. They’re not spontaneously given, they’re given to you because on that day you’re special and that’s what they’ve learned to do. People are commemorating you successfully living through the year, and giving you something nice to congratulate you for it. And then everyone sings a song and eats some cake.
That is literally a ritual!
In that situation, you’re the important figure being celebrated. Gifts are offerings. And then there’s socializing and feasting.
Religious ritual is the same. Except instead of the birthday boy or birthday girl, you’ve got a deity. Instead of presents and well wishes, you’ve got offerings. And instead of the birthday song, you’ve got group prayer in the form of a blot. Or Sege. Or whatever the equivalent term is in your particular path.
It is normal human behavior to ritualize events. The passage of time, births and deaths, the divine, and forces we have a hard time wrapping our head around are easier to understand and approach if we have a structured and tangible representation of it.
You have your birthday whether there’s a party or not. But it feels more “real” with some kind of activity to mark it. I know that I have trouble processing that I’ve aged if I don’t mark it with something special. I also know I’m not alone in that.
That’s the purpose ritual serves.
It is very, very hard for me to do something if I don’t know the “correct” way to do it. I take tasks handed to me very seriously, and I like to do things in a proven way. Sometimes with a twist, but I need a frame of reference before I work. It’s hard to take a calculated risk if you don’t know what you’re even calculating.
That’s not a big deal when it’s cooking dinner or doing busywork. But when it comes to dealing with higher powers, the lack of structure can be terrifying. Knowing that there are exact rules also helps prevent any risk of a boundary violation. Ritual, in a way, serves the role of etiquette when dealing with higher powers.
When you are shy, and new, especially in a group setting, ritual lets you know exactly what to do and what not to do. And knowing these things can actually be immensely freeing.
Don’t Underestimate the Social Component
The best rituals I’ve ever been a part of were conducted with about twenty of my closest friends. I am generously including strangers, since they’re just friends you haven’t met yet.
I really can’t emphasize the importance of the social aspect of ritual enough. When you are by yourself, or your only accompaniment is gods, you’re very limited in the feedback you can receive over your actions. It’s a toss-up whether gods will give you feedback, and we’re not particularly accurate judges of our own behavior. I’m speaking from a place of anxiety. I am a terrible judge of how I come off to people.
By contrast, when surrounded by people who are committed to giving you helpful feedback, eager to guide you in your work for the gods and community, you have a far better idea of whether your behavior is serving the right purpose.
And on top of all that, knowing that you’re in a setting where everyone is either familiar with what you’re doing, or at least respectfully curious, can be a massive relief. Nobody is going to think you’re weird. Nobody is going to judge you.
You’re allowed to relax.
Most rituals I’ve been in involve some sort of pre-ritual that serves the purpose of grounding, and easing people into a slightly altered mental state. This is important, because it helps you feel more open, more connected, and more flexible about what will happen.
Ritual, in practice, is far less scripted than it would seem. Something will always go just a little bit wrong. Candles and torches don’t light, you get splashed with the libation, someone drums off beat, or intones the wrong rune.
You’re not doing ritual to be perfect, you’re doing it to be nice. It’s about getting people together to remind the gods they’re loved, to enjoy community with your coreligionists, and to–hopefully–put you in the state of mind where this is easier to achieve.
And maybe you’ll still feel like a weirdo for doing it! But hopefully you won’t feel pretentious. Because pretentiousness is about fluffing up our egos, and that’s not what ritual is for. Ritual will not make you pretentious.
And, hopefully, you’ll feel at peace with being weird. Because what group ritual is great for, in terms of the mundane, is reminding you that you are not alone in that weirdness.
We all know that I’m a fussy jerk about UPG, and this sort of ties into my fussy jerkitude. But I’m actually not going to go after UPG here. I’m going after a general refusal to read the lore and background info, irrespective of reason.
There was a kerfuffle in one of the Lokean groups I’m in, where someone claimed that Loki doesn’t want her to read the lore because it makes him look bad.
This strikes me as odd, that he wouldn’t want people to know about his achievements. Loki is far more helpful and productive than he’s given sufficient credit for in pop culture. Before Ragnarök and the events in Lokasenna complicated everything (though I have…uh, thoughts on Lokasenna), he’s kind of charmingly annoying at worst in the mythology.
But even if your practice is driven by personal gnosis and focused solely on one god, you need to respect that these gods, the understandings of their personalities, and their stories come out of a specific cultural context. To learn that context, you really do have to read. And not just the myths! You need to read academic analysis and some history to get an understanding of the lore. The hard part is finding a good source, but that can be fixed.
There was an earlier instance in another group where a story was recommended, but it came from the Prose Edda. Which is disappointing. Nobody likes Snorri. Quite a few people didn’t like him when he was alive, either. And filtering distinctly Pagan lore through a Christian sieve is a very real issue, but that’s not a reason to outright refuse to read him, like the person receiving the recommendation did.
I left the group for other reasons (failing to weed out racists being a big one), so I have to paraphrase. But it was something to the effect of “as soon as someone mentions Snorri, I’m out.”
Let’s take a minute here.
Refusing to read the Prose Edda cuts out a huge chunk of the lore. Frustration is not a reason to cut yourself off from it. That is what we have. We have to work with it. Denying yourself useful information in your spiritual practice is a very special kind of petty. And it just means you’re hurting yourself.
It’s also just…baffling to me. The majority of Lokeans I’ve seen were in fact encouraged to study, myself included. I genuinely do not understand, based on both my observations and direct experience, why you would be told to actively avoid information.
My practice really languished without study. Picking up tidbits as you go only gets you so far. You can only subsist on crumbs for so long.
And the payoff is vast. Because I have a better idea of what to expect, and how to tell the difference, I don’t have to spend nearly as much time obsessively watching myself or grappling with unknowns. My scrupulosity issues have improved. I feel like my understanding of the gods has become so much deeper than it would have been if I was just locking in on the first things I heard, and waiting for direct ecstatic experience.
Because people lie. To others, and to themselves. And it is so much easier to brush off a lie if you have a robust frame of reference.
We’re a religion with homework. You have to do your homework.