I left off last time with the question of what you do with an altar. Well, what do you do?
Ritual, is one possible answer.
If altars and shrines are about meaningful places, ritual is about meaningful actions. The word ritual comes from the root rei-, ‘to count’, going back to when we first learned to measure time by the heavenly bodies. That allowed us to predict – and celebrate – seasonal events like the migration of animals and the ripening of crops, and personal ones like the imminent birth of a baby. Repetitive events, and the rituals that went with them, gave us a sense of structure and security.
We haven’t lost that sense, either. Mention the song, ‘The Wheels on the Bus’, to the frazzled parent of a toddler, and observe the kill me now! look on their face. They know all about how small humans still find repetition comforting. Bigger ones do too; much as some of us hate to admit it, we like routine.
Some routines – morning yoga stretches, writing in a journal before bed, a contemplative cup of tea – are basically ways of saying, ‘Hey, stop, pay attention – this is important!’ Symbolic actions, no matter how small, make us focus on the moment. On a wider social scale, so do the rituals we use to welcome babies, get married, and mourn the dead. Wider still, our culture has holidays on which you send anonymous love tokens, hunt for eggs, or hang up stockings, because everyone knows that’s what you do.
As I write, we’re coming up for what Christians call All Hallows’, pagans call Samhain, and my husband calls the Festival of Orange Plastic. Which begs the question: what do you do when rituals either grow less relevant, or get co-opted by the cult of the Almighty Dollar? The answer is that ritual is a flexible tool, and there’s no law that says you can’t tweak existing traditions, or create your own. A great Jewish storyteller once pointed out that rituals and the rules around them were made for people, not the other way round, and rituals, however time-honoured, are no use if they don’t speak to you and your situation.
I’ll come back to ritual in this blog, but for now, here’s an example of a basic, simple ritual that’s about paying attention to yourself, your place in the universe, your creative powers and your intent to use them. It’s based on the altar setup I mentioned in my last post, but you can easily adapt it to whatever setup you happen to have.
Before starting, make sure you have privacy and won’t be disturbed.
Stand or sit (whichever is easiest) in front of your altar. Close your eyes for a moment, and take a few deep breaths to relax yourself. Be aware of your body and its position in space.
Open your eyes and say something like:
I am here. I am safe. All is well.
Light a candle, for Fire. Look at its light. Remember those times when you’ve had the first spark of an idea and how it felt. Say something like:
Power of Fire, power of inspiration, help me to be open to the spark that gives life to my art.
Dip your fingers into the bowl of water. Sprinkle some, or dab a little on your forehead. Think about the feelings you express through your artwork. Say something like:
Power of Water, power of emotion, help me to express deep feelings, and to touch the hearts of others.
Now light the incense. Watch the smoke rise, smell the scent, and think about how you use your powers of logic, reason and research to your creativity. Say something like:
Power of Air, power of thought, help me find ways to put across my ideas, and let them be understood.
Pick up the symbol of Earth (in this case, a stone) and hold it in your hand. Feel the weight and solidity of it. Think of the materials you might use to make something, of the actual physical process of creation. Say something like:
Power of Earth, power of the senses, help me to shape my art and bring it into being.
Look at your representation of Spirit. Clear your mind and be open. Say something like:
Power of Spirit, Source of all creativity, help me to show your power and beauty to the world.
If you have images on your altar of particular gods or spiritual beings, you may want to honour them briefly by name. If you have pictures up of any of the artists who inspire you, feel free to address them too. (They’ll listen.)
Stay at your altar for as long as you want to.
To finish, say something like:
Spirit, gods, goddesses, powers of the universe, guides, guardians, muses and mentors, thank you for being here with me. Inspire, guide and and protect me, now and always, here and everywhere. Thank you, and blessings to you.
After this or any ritual, first, and most importantly, make sure your incense and/or candle(s) are safely extinguished. Then go get yourself something to eat and drink, for grounding – a cup of tea and a biscuit will do. If you have any reflections, ideas or insights arising from the ritual, write them down before you forget them. (And trust me, if you don’t write them down, you will forget them.). You might want to keep a special notebook for this purpose.
How often should you carry out this ritual, or your version of it? Daily would be nice, but we live in the real world, and we have jobs and families and a trillion and one other things that need doing – and anyway, the best answer is that there’s no ‘should’ about it. This is about checking in with your creative powers, and whatever frequency you feel is right for you, is right.
Basically, pay attention…and see what happens.