Ritual is a shared, community activity, but often it’s also very personal. Other people’s rituals, even when technically in the same tradition, can therefore feel a bit strange. Quirks of ordering, precise language use and the like are either familiar and comfortable, or they aren’t. For example Druid Camp uses ‘know that you are honoured here’ where many would use ‘hail and welcome’ and because I deliberately use neither, I can be easily thrown by both.
There are many good things about leaving behind our own ways of ritual and pottering along to see how it works for others now and then. It’s a chance to connect, to learn and to see our own ritual habits from a different perspective. This is all good, so long as we respect the right of our host to undertake ritual in the way that they see fit. That in turn can make for some interesting balances between meaningful participation, honouring the methods of the host and being comfortable with what you do and say.
Striking that balance can be challenging enough with people doing their Druidry a bit differently. It’s harder again when you go into a different Pagan group and do not know the forms exactly, but this is nothing compared to going outside of Paganism altogether, and that’s something we often have to do. The dominant religion for celebrating rites of passage remains the Christian Church, in all its vast and disorientating diversity. The odds are that people who matter to you will want Christian rites of passage and will want you to be there.
I don’t like pretending to go through the forms of a religion I do not honour – that seems innately disrespectful. Failing to participate in any way that is disruptive, would be an unkindness and an insult to the people who have invited me. I try to find my balances around quiet presence and witnessing and very understated non-participation. It helps that I am entirely out as a Pagan, so no one who matters to me has unrealistic expectations about what I can be called upon to do.
With most rites of passage, it is enough to go along, witness and be happy for the people involved. Afterwards, there will probably be something involving cake and a chance to do something more personal. The exception is funerals. All of my immediate ancestors thus far have had Christian burials, or Christian crematorium services. These I find tremendously difficult. A funeral is an important moment in the grief process, and the time of collectively undertaking to say goodbye to the departed. Shared tears and mutual support and, for the Christians, reassurance about the eternal love of God, the eternal life in Jesus Christ, Heaven, forgiveness for sins and the such. All concepts rooted utterly in Christian faith, and likely to be meaningful to Christians. Where the departed, and most of the bereaved are Christian, there is no doubt about it – this is the right thing to do.
Where the dead one was Christian, I can hardly saunter off and have a little Pagan moment for them at my leisure – that would not be respectful and it wouldn’t feel right. What it leaves me with are some practical challenges about how to work through grief in the context of what is, for me, the wrong religion. How to handle a painful service when the words make no emotional sense to me? I haven’t really got an answer for this. In many ways the time that feels resonant for me is what comes after the service, when there is often a sharing of food and stories; that innately human response to loss and pain. It doesn’t really matter then who believes what, we just share what we have.