Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Theatrics Of Religion

On a forum I am on, someone brought up the subject of Paganism and its theatrics and how she has not been able to achieve the deep practice she wants because of being embarrassed. MaddLlama said*:

"I felt like it was too theatrical, like I was just some person in weird clothing with weird objects who likes fantasy books, movies and RPGs just a little too much. It always just felt fake and I didn't know how to move past that and just get over it."

This made me think about my own experiences and I realized that I had felt about it in a similar way when I was younger. I felt self-conscious and silly performing the rituals that I had found in books and that feeling of self-consciousness was renewed again when I started working with a group in my late teens/early twenties. But I remember that the feeling wasn't as bad within a group.

As I sat and thought about how I would answer the above statement, I realized that there are "theatrics" in all religions. Each religion has their trappings: their clothing, their tools, and their ways of ritual and ceremony. I think that a lot of Paganism seems like it is over theatrical because the ritual is in the company of either just yourself (if you are solitary) or in the company of a fairly small group of people. We are so used to thinking of a ceremony being for a large group rather than in terms of being for the self.

With larger groups, there almost needs to be more ceremony or structure if you will. There needs to be clues so that people are on the same page and know what is going on. Otherwise, certain aspects of the symbolism is lost. For example, in the beginning of the service, there is always something that clues people into the fact that that the service is starting. It helps people to get into the mindset of worship. (Not that smaller groups or solitary work doesn't need this structure, it maybe just needs a different structure.)

One example of this needed structure is that in many churches, candles are lit at the front of the room. Back in the early '80's, I was an acolyte for the church I went to at the time. I was part of the ceremony (the theatrics, if you will) that signified the beginning of the service. In the UU church that I currently go to, lighting the chalice helps to signify the beginning of the service. When I have a private ceremony to connect to the gods, I often light candles as well. It is something that helps to set the mood and get me thinking about things of a spiritual nature. Of course, there is also more symbolism that goes along with it as well.

I personally have trouble with the idea that I "need" to have all those tools that the so-called beginner books list to be able to connect with the gods. It took me a while to realize that it is not true that I need them. I do know people who do use them as a part of their symbolism and that is fine, too. I see the things that we use as tools that help us to symbolize the ideas that we are representing when we worship. What works for me, doesn't necessarily work for others as we each have different views of the overlying (and underlying ) symbolisms. My ideas of how I should worship come from how I view my connection to the gods. My "trappings" tend to be few as I see them as more of a hindrance. (The more "tools" I use, the more I am concerned if I'm doing things "right.")

About as theatrical as I get is lighting a few candles and maybe sing a song (to the horror of those passing by). Other than that, most of the time, I am silently sitting at an overlook about Lake Superior thinking about my relationship and connection to the divine, my friends and family, and myself.

I wonder if this is something that many people think about as they are first learning about Paganism and as they first start to practice their beliefs. I wonder if this is something that holds many people back from considering themselves Pagan. And I wonder how people work through these feelings to get to that sense of deep practice.


*Quoting MaddLlama with permission.

14 comments:

Kay said...

Damn blogger lost my comment. Oh well, here goes again ...

I the belief that one needs to have a formal altar and dozens of props holds back plenty of individuals from delving a bit deeper. I know it did me. It took me years of studying various religions to know that I'm pagan at heart, theatrics be damned.

I think I actually commented on the thread you're referencing, and in it I said that my magical practice consists of lighting a few candles, focusing, and doing active listening meditation (as opposed to 'empty' meditation). If weather permits, I forgo the candles, and do the meditation outside.

Sojourner said...

LOL I hate when blogger loses my comments!

Kay, you and I seem to be thinking along the same lines. It has taken me a while to admit that I, too, am a Pagan at heart. It just going to take me a while longer to figure out which Pagan religion is the one I'm most interested in, although it looks like I'm heading towards Heathenry.

It sounds like we have a similar practice. I, too, prefer to be outside and love to do a type of walking meditation. I'm lucky that I have some great parks near-by.

Erik said...

Any decent liturgist will tell you that great [public] ritual is, by definition, great theater... the purpose of [public] liturgy is to enhance the worship experience, to help the congregation reach that place where they can open up and be receptive to the Presence(s) - and the easiest way to do that for a group is to pile on the subconscious cues and guide them to the place they presumably came there in order to go.

At home, my practice is a lot like y'all are describing here.

Spider said...

I agree ... Having stuff around is nice sometimes to use, but I don't NEED it. I think there seems to be a theory going round the Pagan community that we have to follow this path or the other, do this and do that, but who wrote the book on all this .. No-one !!

Spider..

Kay said...

Soj,

I really hope you find a home, paganwise, in Heathenry or something else. I'm not sure where I'm going or what I'm doing, as I'm getting incredibly mixed signals, inside and out.

Sorry, this is off topic.

Sojourner said...

Erik said: the purpose of [public] liturgy is to enhance the worship experience, to help the congregation reach that place where they can open up and be receptive to the Presence(s)

That is a good point. I'm guessing that within a good group setting, becoming receptive to the presence(s) would be easier due to some of the clues that are being presented. They start with the priests and ministers and continue with those that are in the congregation. Some people pick up those clues better from someone who is "leading" the group and some pick them up better from their peers.

And then there are some that find their own clues. Maybe that is one of the reasons why many in Paganism have a preference for being solitary. (I'm talking beyond the fact that most don't know any other Pagans near-by.)

Sojourner said...

Spider said: I think there seems to be a theory going round the Pagan community that we have to follow this path or the other, do this and do that,

I guess I see that happening more with people who are new to Paganism. Maybe it's in the beginning when people feel that they "need" to be doing "just the right thing." When we are new to something, we need something to guide us, so we hold on to what other people are doing instead of doing what works for us.

Thanks for the comment, Spider! I look forward to you adding to the conversation around here. :)

Sojourner said...

Kay - Don't worry about being "off topic" cause I don't think you are. :)

I think that there always doubts when you begin following a new path. In the end we will find the paths that make us happiest in which we feel at home.

You're not the only one that is going through a change in direction! (But knowing that doesn't make it any easier, I'm sure.)

Spider said...

I'd just like to wish you the best on your search, its just a pity that "eclectic" seems to be a dirty word in some Pagan circles.

Hope you don't mind me putting a link on my page to this one:)

Sojourner said...

Thanks, Spider!

For me, it depends on how eclectic is used. If they mean that they don't have a particular tradition and use all traditions and faiths to learn, I'm okay with it. When people take it to mean that religion is what you want it to be (basically that you can make up your own religion), well.... I have a problem with that.

Go for it! I don't mind at all.

Emily Lilly said...

One thing we've found is that the ritual and overt symbolism is extremely powerful and meaningful for our young children. To act out these things is to bring them forcefully, truthfully into the living world. They pick up on it, respond to it, and expand on it absolutely instinctively.

Perhaps the ritual is a way of sharing and communicating the inner experience.

Sojourner said...

Emily said:

Perhaps the ritual is a way of sharing and communicating the inner experience.

I would agree. Also, if you go into the psychological side of things (especially when you look at psychologists like Abraham Maslow), ritual and symbolism are the two of (very few) that were are able to express our spiritual experience (he also uses the word "mystical") so that others can share in the experience.

He also brings up the idea that religion is a personal, private affair. Ritualization, symbolism and the "tools" are what helps us to share it with others.

Maslow talks about a lot of this in his book Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences. Some of the information is a little outdated, but I think this is a great book about the religious experience.

Thanks for you comment Emily!

Morninghawk said...

Great post. It got me thinking more about this. I wrote my response as a post on my blog, Hawk's Cry.

Erik said...

Emily Lilly,
...ritual and overt symbolism is extremely powerful and meaningful for our young children. To act out these things is to bring them forcefully, truthfully into the living world.

Yes! You have hold of something very deep there, but it's not just true for kids.

Ritual repetition does indeed have the power to actualize the beliefs and worldview that the ritual encodes - not in some magical sense, but by encoding that worldview into the participants' own; it operates at the symbolic level, largely bypassing the consciousness. I am suddenly thinking of it as analogous to training "muscle memory", as in martial arts or other sports; where specific actions are repeated to the point that they become reflexive and arise spontaneously when needed, much faster than would be possible if you had to stop and *think* about them.

This is so going into the new post I'm working on about embodied spirituality... thanks!

(NB: I thought I published this comment last night, but I don't see it; apologies if it duplicates.)