When you are performing a spiritual ritual, you are ultimately trying to raise energy. That energy may be used to create a sense of community among the participants or it may be used to create change, like in a healing ceremony. Most spiritual or religious traditions have their own ritual procedures. Some traditions have very specific steps, like a Catholic Mass or a Vodou service. Other religious ceremonies may be more free form.

For example, in the South American despacho ceremony, a mandala of flowers, plants, stones and other offerings is made on white paper in order to give thanks, create connection, and align spiritual purpose. A despacho is often performed as a group ceremony for a tribe or community. As each plant, seed, flower or item is placed onto the growing tableau, chanting or singing is performed to thank the spirit. Following the completion of the ceremony, the offerings are bundled up and used to clean members of the group prior to being burned or buried. While the details of the ceremony change from tribe to tribe, this ceremony is a wonderful way to connect with the plants and Mother Nature as a whole.

A Basic Format

In general, many rituals usually follow a basic set-up:

  1. Prepare/create sacred space.
  2. Invite in deity/higher powers/elements/the archangels, or whomever else you want.
  3. Raise energy.
  4. Release energy.
  5. Dismiss deity/higher powers/elements/the archangels.
  6. Ground leftover energy and re-open the space.

Should every single ritual follow this type of format? Absolutely not. As long as it is significant to you (and it works), it doesn’t matter if you follow this basic format or not. Rituals are used (or written in books) because someone, somewhere tried it and it worked for them. That doesn’t mean that you can’t find a different way to work your ritual and it doesn’t mean that their way is going to work for you. Should every one of your rituals follow the same exact format? Not necessarily. Each ritual is an individual work of art and should really have its own distinct flavor.

designing Rituals

Does a ritual need to be written in advance? No. However, if you are the type of person that gets nervous when you are put “on the spot” or if you are doing a group ritual, many times it is easier to script things in advance just to make things flow a little better. Also, if you have things prepared in advance, that also makes the set-up easier. It is really hard to maintain focus if you are constantly having to run out of the space because you forgot something.

So how do you write up your own ritual? Start simple and go with what you know. The format given above is just a starting point.

Congo Square, New Orleans, Louisiana

Congo Square in New Orleans, Louisiana. Perhaps one of the most famous ritual spaces in America today. This space is famous for the dances that took place by the African slaves.

Prepare/create sacred space

If you are lucky enough to have access to a an existing church or temple, sacred grove or other existing natural sacred spot, you may not have to create your own sacred space. However, many practitioners will have to create their own sacred space, perhaps in their living room or backyard. Many do this by clearing the space, raising protective borders around the space and/or creating an altar.

Clearing the space is important because unless you have a dedicated place that you perform rituals, chances are that mundane activities (like sleeping or cooking) also happen in that place. By making the space sacred, you clear the space of all that mundane energy. It will lend strength to your ritual. Many spiritual workers will also use protective borders to protect the practitioners during the ritual. Protecting the space is important because unwanted energies may be attracted to you when you start raising energy. Even if you are out in nature you still may want to do something to clear and protect the space. For example, you find this great spot out by a river in the woods. It’s quiet and serene, why would you need to clear it?  Well, what if 5 minutes before you got there, 2 hikers had a huge argument at that spot? Without clearing the spot first, that negative, angry energy could be drawn into your ritual energy.

An altar can take a million different forms but however you build it, it becomes a focal point for ritual. Many people build altars by placing religious symbols together in a meaningful tableau. Different traditions may have their own specific altar. For example, an altar in a Jewish synagogue looks very different than the altar in a Protestant Church but they both are the focal points of their religious service. Your altar may be filled with flowers, rocks, minerals, art works, or pictures of ancestors. It may be temporary, to be dismantled after the ceremony is over, or you may want to have it up for longer periods of time.

Front of Marie Laveau's crypt, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Front of Marie Laveau’s crypt, New Orleans, Louisiana. This crypt has become a living altar to the great Voodoo Queen.

Invite in deity/higher powers/elements/the archangels, or whomever else you want

Many people will actually combine steps 1 and 2 and perform both tasks at the same time. Inviting higher powers or elements in to your sacred space may help provide focus for your energy. The point of the ritual may be in fact to celebrate or send energy (“feed”) to your higher powers. This step also allows the higher powers or elements to be a witness to what you are trying to do. Sometimes there are unknown interferences in the situation you are trying to help. By asking higher powers to participate in what you are doing allows them to become involved and perhaps minimize unintended consequences or clear away unseen obstacles.

So, how do you do this? The answer can range to the very simple to the very elaborate. The easiest way is to ask (out loud!) for the higher powers to join you. If you are going to ask the elements or use an elemental based circle, then you probably want to face the appropriate direction when you ask the elements to come in. If you are going to invite higher powers, then perhaps you should invite entities that you know something about or with whom you have personal connection.

This step can be very elaborate and beautiful. Singing, chanting, shaking rattles, drumming or the playing of other musical instruments are performed in cultures and traditions around the world. In African diaspora religions, specific chants, drumming, and dancing can all be used to bring the Loa or Orisha down into the space or temple. In a Native American Pow Wow ceremony, dances were elaborate tribal garb and perform their sacred dances while groups of drummers beat out the rhythms.

Raise/focus energy

This is a critical step and there are hundreds of ways to accomplish the raising and focusing of energy. Burning candles or incense, holding stones, meditating, dancing, chanting, drumming…this list could go on for days. You need to generate the energy that you will eventually release to cause the changes you want but you also need to focus that energy. The more you care about your outcome, the easier this step is.

So, what’s the best way to do this?  Unfortunately, you really have to find what works for you. There is no substitute.

Tibetan Buddhist Healing Mandala

A healing mandala created by Tibetan Buddhist monks in Austin, Texas. The creation and destruction of the mandala was the focal point of the weekend long ritual.

Release energy

This is the second critical step. The energy that has been raised and focused must now be released in order to complete the ritual. Even if you are just trying to celebrate your higher powers or cause changes within yourself, you still have to release the energy, its only a matter of where the energy is headed.

You may be releasing the energy out into the universe or you may be putting that energy into some sort of object (called “charging”). In that case the energy is released from the object slowly over time. So which way is best?  Each way has its own benefits and it really depends on the circumstances. Do you want the energy to be released immediately, like helping an abuse victim separate from their abusive partner, or are you charging up a necklace that a cancer patient will wear during chemotherapy treatments?

Dismiss invited elements or higher powers

Why? Wouldn’t it be great to have the gods and angels around us twenty-four hours a day? NO!!! The higher powers and elements bring with them a lot of energy and eventually, you have to go back to work or school or your kids or your life. Too much energy can create a toxic environment in which people become strung out and are unable to carry on mundane lives.

Anything or anyone that you invited into your circle should now be respectfully thanked and asked to leave. Just as if you were throwing a dinner party, at the end of the night you want to see your guests to the door, help them put on a coat and tell them to drive safe (of course, if Dionysus is too wasted to get home, perhaps you can let him sleep it off on the couch).

So, what’s the best way to do this?  Simply thank the powers/elements (out loud!) for coming, ask them to depart and let them know they can always come back. Just like when the entities were called in, different traditions may have more elaborate steps for this part of the ceremony.

Ground leftover energy and re-open the space

Rituals can generate a lot of energy. Any energy not sent out during the ritual should now be grounded. Excess energy left hanging around tends to make people a little nutty. Also, it takes energy input to keep the space up and running. Unless, you have a real good reason to, you should close the space. Often practitioners will dismantle the altar, dissolve any protective barriers and perhaps smudge the space with a sage stick or incense when they are finished.

Timing

Many traditions have their own cycles for rituals. Most religions will have holy days that are set aside for celebrations, feasts, fasting, prayers, or other special activities. The Catholic Liturgical Calendar for 2016 in the US is forty-four pages long! Holy days may be related to specific historical events. While most of the holidays celebrated by the Jews are thousands of years old, Yom Ha’Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, dates from the 1950s and commemorates the souls lost during World War II.

Earth based traditions tend to follow nature’s calendar with many sacred days following the cycle of the sun. Midsummer, Winter Solstice and Beltane are all based on the solar calendar. The lunar calendar is also important across the globe, including in many Asian traditions. Many of us are familiar with the Asian New Year, which follows the Chinese lunisolar calendar, and normally occurs between late January or early February.

Astrological considerations can also be helpful for maximizing strength of a ritual. If you have time to plan a ritual in advance, taking astrology into account certainly can’t hurt. Plenty of people grab their astrological calendars when planning weddings or cesarean birth times.

There are many times, however, when rituals have to performed immediately. Deaths, divorces, and illnesses rarely correspond with the appropriate astrological influence. Rituals need to come from the heart and timing considerations are usually secondary.

Helpful Hints

  • If you are working a ritual for a person or persons that you don’t know (like sending healing energy to earthquake victims) then you can send that energy to a higher power and ask that higher power to use it for the highest good.
  • Include the phrase “for the highest good of all concerned and without violating the laws of free will.” This provides a loophole in your ritual just in case there is something wrong and the ritual isn’t supposed to happen.
  • Never leave anything burning (like incense or candles) unattended.
  • Be sure to ground yourself after a ritual. Eating or taking a shower are easy ways to bring yourself back down to earth.
  • Many times, you may feel really drained after a ritual. Feel free to eat or drink something before cleaning up.
  • This has been said a thousand times before, never try to harm anyone. What constitutes harm? If you don’t want them doing it to you, don’t do it to them.