I recently attended a public pagan ritual, 50 or so people in a large circle, a spirit/dream catcher hanging in the center. Three individuals dressed like flying nuns, in red (because who doesn’t love red flying nuns?), strutted around asking people if they had been good or bad boys or girls, and those who had been naughty were spanked with a ruler. Laughter and giggling filled the space from those who were oh, so, naughty… even if those individuals looked a bit crestfallen with the “spankings” they received.

As the ritual began, the nuns transformed into two stripper/burlesque icons and a genderqueer sexualized being, hard pierced cock dangling before them, denim vest and oh so tight spandex pants.

It was entertaining. There was some stuff about weaving dreams, work that I had done a number of times before, and a piece about chaos/chance that led to others weaving our dreams for us.

It was entertaining. But I felt empty around it.

Ritual can be entertaining – but why have so many public rituals become entertainment? Pieces to keep the masses amused… but not connecting on a deeper level? This is not meant as any sort of indictment of that specific ritual. It has applied a lot of places. It is simply an easily accessible example for me today.

In “Teaching to Change Lives,” Dr. Howard Hendricks shared a student anecdote:

“When is the church going to get out of the entertainment business? I don’t go to church for entertainment. I can go to a good show in downtown Dallas if I want that.”

And before that he himself states:

Forget the “busywork.” Don’t involve learners in activities for which there’s no meaningful objective. There’s nothing a human being resents more than busywork.

The second is currently ringing home in my life with a partner who is in graduate school. However, so much of the public ritual I have attended over the years feels like busywork to me. The point I can see is to get community together face to face – and as a reason, I will grant that is a pretty awesome one. But if we are going to do that as a reason for rites, then let me actually meet my congregation! Here I am, in the opening ritual for a large pagan gathering, and all I come out of the ritual seems to be that there are a some sexy or intriguing looking people here, that I only kinda sort of know some of them, and that the ritual main folks have some cool moves and kick-ass costuming, but don’t have their script memorized. It feels like busywork.

Now, do I want all public ritual to be deep and profound stuff that blows my head off. Not really. But help me plant some seeds for the future, perhaps. Learning does not always happen in the moment, but give me some seeds to plant in my soil.

I’m in a hotel ballroom – one of the sterile spaces at PantheaCon. As I walk in, I have a colored ribbon (mine was black, but other colors were going out too) tied around my wrist, and am handed a straightpin. Alright… you have my attention. Ritualists in long, nearly identical robes are spaced around the hall (it became a hall quite quickly in my head), and the DJ in the corner is doing some music that seems to fit with the mood of everyone else. We are ushered into seats as the ritual begins.

Over the course of the ritual, magical square dances seem to take place (yes, I am poking fun at the OTO, mostly because I think the square dancing shit with waving arms actually works as a magical technology), long speeches are truncated down to the main concept with some flowery bits to keep us engaged, and the DJ occasionally pumps some thunder noises for effect (and folks laugh, on purpose). They reveal why -we- are here, to help free four deities from the clutches of The Lurker at the Threshhold, deities who were conflated by Crowley as being part of the Lurker, but had no bloody association. We become the assistants to a heroic endeavor to descend into the underworld, and in all honesty, they probably got to use our creativity and energy as a battery to fuel the spellwork they were clearly doing. It became real, and useful – even if it involved pulling giant stuffed snakes our of black fruit-of-the-loom outfits, popping balloons full of glitter, and staring at a hot nearly-naked asian boy.

It entertained – and did something. Not everything in magical work has any sort of entertainment value. In fact, a lot of mine is pretty darn dull to an outsider. I am chanting repetitively while playing with my prayer beads (which look like a strap of leather covered in rivets wrapped three times around my wrist). It’s me sitting on the ground staring at a candle. But really, it’s the work.

But let it do something, let it plant a seed, let it trigger, let it do. And you know what, are there plenty of people who likely got stuff out of the opening rite I attended? Likely. But I wasn’t one of them, and it got me thinking. Hell, I guess that means it did do something, didn’t it?

In his book, Hendricks shares:

I used to sit in class and think, Man, this is sad. This has to be the weakest course I’ve had yet. And I’m paying for it! […] I expressed my feelings to a visiting missionary […] When you’re in class, try drawing a line down the middle of your notepaper. On one side keep your class notes as you normally do. On the other, write down what you would do differently if you were teaching the course.

I have no one to bitch at but myself. I’d say I have a pretty high ratio of “you have to be part of this to make it work” ratio in my rituals, but I don’t always take the time to get group buy-in, and I need to do that more. Where are folks coming from, and is the planned Work a good fit for where they are at? And, to be square honest, I don’t often do what is so important to the Work continuing – making sure the Work is continuing.

So many times I see folks, myself included, have aha, brain-bursting, epiphany-filled experiences. And then, when they get home, nothing. No change. No transformation. They change back into the shape of the mold they had built for themselves (or moved into years ago, built by others). Then, they come back next year and go “OH, yeah, I can change, I said I would and I will!” And they repeat from the year before. Over and over again, the 101 course. Over and over again, the aha junkie, the catharsis junkie, the high from the first time feeling. But it takes practice to follow a practice.

And as a teacher, and ritualist, I tend to be the visiting voice. I come in and go, LOOK, here is some shit to consider, here is some stuff to wake you up a bit, here is a golden key! But… six months later, where has the consideration led? How has being awake been? Where did you put your golden key?

Mind you, I use the system I live in as an excuse. With almost four thousand folks on my facebook account, how can I possibly have direct, ongoing, interpersonal dialogues with each of them? As it is, my email backs up, I feel incapable of delivering quality and attention to those who do reach out… as much as I truly long to sometimes. It is one of the reasons I am considering private practice… do do that continuing work – even if the idea also scares the bejesus out of me (which, wow, talk about Christian-centric sub-language in our culture embedded in my tongue).

Let me wake, then shake the sleep from my eyes, go to the shower, get dressed, and then throughout the days see the magic and wins in the small. The paper-pusher who says “honey” at me to call me up. The elder Japanese tourists eating lobster opposite my vegan sushi, each of us smirking at the cross-cultural trade. The guy who holds the door open for me, and reminds me to hold the door open for the next guy. Then, let me do my work and my prayers with grace, fueling me for conversations rather than leaving me drained… and then, tomorrow, let me wake up again and do the dance with different music and a slightly different step.

But, this does mean we do need those wake-ups. Those moving evangelical gatherings where The Lord is lifted up and His presence his felt. The tribal drumwork gathering that has bodies shaking, quaking, gyrating under the full moon. The passionate conversation at 2am with someone else in your career field at the dull conference who reminds you why the hell you got into Cyber Security in the first place.

So maybe it’s not horrid to do the busywork… if it plans openings for the wake-ups. If it gives us the confidence or tools to do the day in-day out. If it has meaning. But otherwise, why am I taking this hour or three to stand around and watch stressed people play roles they aren’t invested in, with people who are crestfallen for having not gotten the spanking they actually wanted… unless it is to see how sexy they are and to be in a circle together… which may be more of the point.

I pull out my prayer beads and ponder my rituals planned for Fusion. The Ordeal of Love, and the Closing Circle. Finding the balance between engaging, tilling the ground, seed-planting, laughter, harvesting, shaking folks up, tearing them down, composting, and whatever else I’m trying to do. What is the point anyway? Learning, after all, isn’t about the teacher. Learning has not happened if the student did not learn. And that can be helped by the teacher (or priestess, or Imam, or Guru, or friend), but it will not happen on the teacher’s timeline, or how expected. It’s not about me.