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Effective Public Worship Is Good Theater

Author: Janice Van Cleve
Posted: May 11th. 2008
Times Viewed: 3,221

Blending the ideas of theater and ritual may at first sound sacrilegious. However, there is plenty of historical basis for such a blending. The Greeks used theater performances to promote their new patriarchal religion. The medieval church in Europe enacted plays on cathedral steps to teach Christian myths. The Mayas choreographed elaborate performances in front of their temples to portray celestial mysteries. Even today, most Catholics readily acknowledge the power of smells, bells and stained glass windows as essential elements of their faith practice.

Still in all, the concept of “theater” bears with it a sense of human contrivance that some folks would not comfortably equate with religious ritual. I certainly numbered myself among them when I was still Catholic.

I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church. I never questioned how a mass was put together. When I finally broke with the church over its anti-gay policies, I went through a considerable crisis of faith. Very early in that crisis, however, my appreciation of church ritual as theater burst upon me in a flash of realization.

All these years I had helped set up the altar, pour the wine, and make ready the vestments. I knew the symbolism behind each tool, each movement, and the colors and seasons. Now, however, I finally saw the stage! Those little doors on either side of the sanctuary and the passages behind the façade – that’s so the priests (actors) can appear from different places wearing different costumes. The stairs to the altar may symbolize Golgotha but their effect is to give the audience a good view. Modern spotlights and microphones, while convenient, also support the analogy of theater. Finally, there is the script. The songs and chants build audience participation in the dramatic plot that they help enact.

It was only when I began helping plan Wiccan rituals, however, that the scales finally fell from my eyes. I remember the first circle I ever attended. I admit I was a bit frightened. After all, this was Pagan stuff and even as a recovering Catholic, the animosity of papal doctrine against Paganism lingered in my memory. A circle of women was sitting on the floor around an altar cloth. On the cloth were candles and incense, communion, and a collection plate. Bingo! I knew these symbols! They were just being presented on a different stage.

Then I thought back to the many new rituals that were introduced into Catholic practice as a result of Vatican II. They were wrapped in the trappings of tradition, but now I saw clearly what they were. They were new. They weren’t there the year before and they were there now. No way were they “traditional”. Somebody created them!

I looked back upon all the rituals and blessings large and small I had experienced over the years and suddenly realized that they were all created by somebodies. They were changed and refined over the years and added to from other traditions. Practices that didn’t work quietly disappeared. There was nothing intrinsically sacred or magical about any part of them. They were all created and staged by people to create certain effects.

The sacred element in every case did not come from the scripted play; rather it emerged from the participants in the moment when the ritual was presented. It was the power of public myth, which transformed the staged drama into a spiritual experience.

The fact that crowds of people can be moved in one way or the other is well known to advertisers, rock stars, sports promoters, politicians and priests. No one doubts that the public’s sense of reality can be suspended for a time and that they can enter altered states – even created ones.

No one questions that people can come away from a sports event, theatrical spectacle, or religious ritual moved or inspired in some way, even to the point of making changes in their lives.

President Lincoln said “You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time.” I prefer “suspend reality” to “fool” but the point is that people can be transported in this way and often they participate in sports, theater, or ritual precisely to be transported. People often desire to escape their daily lives or they seek a new vision, an inspiration, a hope, or a meaning for it all in a public setting with its own script and plot.

But what does that mean for ritual planners? Are we merely cynical manipulators of crowd psychology to create illusions? Is public worship really, after all, just a human contrivance? Does the knowledge that ritual is a human creation demean it?

Part of the answer to these questions, I think, is in intention. Blacksun, in his book, “The Spell Of Making, ” states that intention is everything. Intention is the basis of ritual. Serious ritual planners actually intend to design a series of activities that will help participants enter an alternate universe.

Furthermore, ritual planners usually participate in the same myth as their audience. The words and movements they incorporate into their productions have the same meaning for themselves as they have for those who will witness them. So the act of planning a ritual can be in a way an integral part of the public worship ceremony that is being planned.

Another part of the answer, I believe, is that the underlying reason for religious ritual seems to be that it taps into the very core of the human soul. From stone circles in England to pyramids in Mexico to temples in Nepal, humans have created public expression of their connection to the divine in every time and every place in which they have existed. Ritual planners use the current public myth to create a circuit between this spiritual undercurrent and the daily lives of their audience. In this sense, planners are really contriving the connection rather than the substance.

Now public myth varies from people to people and time to time. Some believe in deity or deities who exist outside of themselves, who have identity independent of humans. Ritual planning for them can be seen as a public service, drawing humans to a divine will.

Others hold that deity dwells within each one of us. In their case, ritual planners create the stage upon which the participants project their internal deity.

And there are those who hold there is no deity at all. For them, ritual planning serves a psychological need that is no less necessary just because it is totally human. Deity or no, spirituality itself appears to be an essential aspect of being human, which planners serve in creating ritual.

Finally there is the issue of design itself. Airplanes are an example. There are many ways to fly, from hang gliders to balloons to aircraft. Engineers design these vehicles. They refine and copy and test and blueprint. Inspectors inspect and mechanics fix. All this human engineering and fine-tuning, however, takes nothing away from the actual flight itself. The objective is to get from here to there – and don’t even the engineers fly?

Ritual planners refine and script the rituals and even make contingencies for rain, key persons who don’t show up, and candles that won’t stay lit. This is not demeaning to the ritual at all. In fact, it often happens that the better scripted and directed rituals actually free participants from worrying about details to get to the real purpose of the ritual itself.

So is public worship really ritual theater? In many important ways it is. It behooves those planning and directing rituals to be aware of the principles of good theater. They need to take into account crowd size, location, tools, timing, drama, color, scripting, casting, costuming, and staging. They need to anticipate last minute changes or weather conditions if outside. They need to create a practical, reliable vehicle that they and their audience can use for their purpose.

As I look back now on all those Catholic masses, Jewish shabbats, and Pagan circles I have attended, I realize that they were all planned by human beings not unlike myself. Some were better than others and some just covered their mistakes more gracefully. Yet they were all rituals created by humans to do pretty much the same job.

Knowing this doesn’t take a thing away from their value. It doesn’t matter to me who designed the ritual or what tools they used. I personally find Wiccan practices and imagery more effective for my magical work, but I can at least appreciate the elements of other rituals.

Knowing that all our rituals are of human origin helps to avoid ideological competition and religious wars. In fact, ritual planning in any tradition quite possibly may contribute ideas I can use in my own practice. After all, the bottom line is to be effective. Being effective is what good ritual planning is for.

Janice Van Cleve; Copyright 2008.


Janice Van Cleve

Location: Seattle, Washington

Author's Profile: To learn more about Janice Van Cleve - Click HERE

Bio: Janice Van Cleve is a priestess of the Women Of The Goddess Circle in Seattle. Her writings have appeared in Witchvox, Widdershins, Open Ways, Voice of Choices, and other publications and she teaches ritual at Pagan gatherings in the Northwest. Copyright 2008.

Other Articles: Janice Van Cleve has posted 29 additional articles- View them?

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