I was in a discussion a week ago that reminded me of another one sixteen years past. None of the same people were present, but there were two things strikingly similar: conflation of the different senses of the term “ritual,” and some people feeling the need to apologize for their use of ritual, or express aversion to it.
The two main senses of “ritual” are “a traditional set of actions done in a special order for religious or spiritual effect.” and “actions done in a particular sequence by rote or out of habit.”
The first I will call “invocation,” and the second, “washing the dog.”
The method of invocation has probably come down to you from generations of your ancestors. You probably wash the dog the way your Mom did, or you invented your own dog-washing ritual.
How did these things get confused? It is a bit complex. You have a special way of washing the dog (assemble shampoo, towels, and other necessities in the bathroom; run water; entice the dog to enter; trap the dog in the tub and shampoo it in a particular pattern, rinse thoroughly, dry partially. let the dog out, making sure your bedroom door is closed, etc.) Every step has a purpose, and you can smell if it worked.
You probably have a special way of shaving or dressing. If you listed out all the steps, it would sound like a ritual. If you are putting on vestments, it is one.
A spiritual ritual has parts and its steps come in a particular order. Most of the time, these come down from generations back. There’s nothing wrong with this, but sometimes people lose track of what the ritual is supposed to do, and then we have the spectacle of priests washing the dog when they tell people they are transubstantiating wafers and wine (I am reminded of Dion Fortune saying that the Anglican Mass had lost its magic, but at least some Roman Catholic priests were still making something happen. Your credulity may vary). Those priests probably know they are stuck in a rote, but most of them have acclimated themselves.
Maybe the confusion is inevitable. We have a ritual for washing the dog so that we can do it even when our minds wander. An invocation is supposed to make our minds focus intensely on a spirit or other target, but some parts, if not all, need to be done from memory.
One key is that humans have evolved with ritual. Ritual of the invocation sort speaks to a deep part of the Self. I will give a personal example. I have several friends who need help with legal issues (not the orange jumpsuit kind), and many more with health issues. I could say “my thoughts and prayers are with you” and move on, but they did not ask to have their dogs washed. So I picked a Sun hour of Sunday, went to an outdoor altar with water, a gold candle, amber incense… invoked the directions and planets in an old Hermetic way, and then used old and new words to center myself in the power of the Sun God and ask that the issues my friends have be swiftly resolved with justice surely served.
This has always worked better than a quick mumbled prayer and a scant two seconds of attention. Why am I still doing this in 2017? Because many generations of Magicians and Witches have done it. There’s a deep groove there that leads nearer to the Source.
It also feels good (not that all magical operations do).
There’s one more road leading to this particular crossroads: practices where you wash your dog as an invocation. These include things like daily meditation, or doing the Headless Rite or Resh on a schedule, because it opens one up, making the other things work better. For that matter, mindfulness practice calls on one to make a meditation out of literally washing the dog!
This sounds like a digression, but it is not: you can ensoul a talisman by a sudden, intense invocation, or by frequent mindful use. Every day when I get up, I put on my medicine bag and my other “charms” while singing the Cherokee Morning Song. This is a reminder for me and an empowerment for my charms.
That’s just one more tool in the Old Ways Toolbox.
In summary, use ritual freely without being used by it. The Magus rules the stars; the Fool is ruled by them.