Ceremony has always been central for me. Recently I have had the great good fortune to sit in sacred circles here in North Carolina with a medicine woman from Ireland named Trish Cameron. Fire ceremonies with Trish feel like a culmination of my early love of ritual and my many decades of circling with women.
From my First Communion in 1955 onwards to my Catholic boarding school in the 60’s, complete with silent retreats, I was immersed in ritual. Girls got to sit on the Mary (left) side of church, where we could gaze at her benevolent statue that seemed to mother us. Gregorian chant captivated my ear, that plainchant which sounded on only one note at a time with no regular rhythm, with mysterious Latin words that rolled their wonderful vowels in my mouth as I sang them. I basked in the beauty of the altar with its rich spotless cloth and always fresh flowers. I loved the golden chalice and the bright vestments of the celebrant that looked so flowing and feminine. I swooned to the smells of beeswax candles, frankincense, and myrrh.
I felt the purification of dipping my hand in the Holy Water font. During special days, when the round white host called the Eucharist was displayed in a fantastic vessel called a monstrance, I was transported. When the host was hidden behind the golden doors of the tabernacle, I imagined a magic land behind those doors.
I especially relished the contemplative feel and the deep quiet of the church when there was no one else present to disturb it. That was during grade school lunch hour, when my best friend Cathy and I escaped from the playground to the church for respite.
We had heard stories from the nuns about the saints overcoming horrible obstacles because they burned with love for the Divine, so Cathy and I prayed to become saints ourselves. We were desperate to forget our difficult childhoods, to feel ecstatic the way the statues in church looked. St Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower; St. Christopher, the kind man; Tarcisius, the beautiful boy who clasped the Divine to his breast even as he was beaten to death by bullies—we wanted to have what they had, those saints with the rapturous expressions.
Was that ceremony? Maybe it was only the paraphernalia, the dazzling tools, the beauty of the high ceilings and the safety of the church pews during lunch hour, that met such a central need in me. The actual Mass never had the allure of the lush trappings, particularly after it dawned on me that the ritual ceremony didn’t include me as a girlchild in any way. But love of ceremony’s consecrated setting and sacred tools stayed with me, so that when I was initiated as a witch in 1976, I felt like I was coming home. (Called the Old Religion, the term Paganism comes from the Latin paganus: of the land, country dweller, one who lives by the rhythms of nature.) Wicca confirmed all the sensory world as treasure.
Now, instead of simply witnessing it or participating passively in a set ceremony, I could create or co-create ceremony for myself. Wherever we found ourselves as circling celebrants, the circle itself became our church. That’s when I began to understand ritual’s real purpose.
Although a specific purpose varies in every ceremony, I like the general description given by MariJo Moore: “Ceremony is a necessary human act to regain balance with All-that-is, and is the highest form of giving back to earth so she can replenish her supply for humankind. It unites us with all of creation as well as the realm of the ancestors. It allows us to raise our consciousness and shed the illusion of separation.”
Whether I sit alone at my altar or circle with others, ceremony creates a vessel for the evolution of my consciousness.
During recent ceremonies led by the impeccable Trish Cameron, I stepped between the worlds and traveled to a truly profound level of awareness. Claiming my path of light and my emerald flame, I crossed the threshold into Brigid’s smithy. And how She tempers me! More than ever, I realize how ceremony has always been a linchpin in my life. How grateful I am for every rite and ceremony– from marking moon phases, making merry over a new season, celebrating life transitions– to honoring the risks and glories of Life itself.