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Concept and Expression in Liturgy

Concept and Expression in Liturgy

Concept, Structure and Expression in Liturgy –
Commonalities and Variances in Druid Ritual

Liturgical Lecture Series
Robert L. Barton

 Our Fellowship is based on revitalization of the ancient religions of the Celtic peoples and the application of those religions to spiritual life in a modern context. As with most religions, many of our activities are conducted in some type of formalized spiritual celebration. Because we are one Fellowship we have a standard liturgical system which is used to train our clergy and as the starting point for the creation of vital liturgies. Yet, because we study and are inspired by so many different approaches, our local congregations have numerous foci which give our rites an exciting and dynamic diversity of expression at the local level. Emerging from all of this is a system which is generally easy to understand with time, but which may at first glance appear confusing to the newcomer.
 Questions arise as to where lay the commonalities that make each rite a Druidic ritual that is consistent with other Druidic ceremonies. Inquiries are also made as to why, if we are one Fellowship with a standard liturgy, there are so many local differences in the way rituals are performed. On the surface it can appear that congregations within The Fellowship work from vastly different directions with very little in common to provide for any type of organizational unity. However, the outward faces of these rites have the same flame burning behind their eyes and despite the various apparel put on these rites, the same heart beats at their center.  
 Commonalities are generally found in the principles of the rites while the variances are usually details of expressing these principles. Theology, cosmology, ethics, general myth, sound effective liturgical structure and progression provide us with the pervading principles found in the standard liturgy.  Specific myths, local identity, social detail and current spiritual need all gift us with the variant colors that we use to paint the outward picture of each ceremony. In common principles we find unity and the comfort of familiarity. Sound liturgical structure - consistent in pattern and dynamics - gives us a sense of order and progression. Variances in expressing these principles engage us with the excitement of newness. And so in The Fellowship we have ritual that has consistency without stagnation and which has dynamic variety without becoming scatological. 
 Our liturgists construct rituals that reflect these three areas of influence.  Upon a loom of good liturgical structure we weave common themes and principles together with specific dynamic expressions to produce effective but beautiful rites.  Many of us have talents that are found in other areas outside of the construction and detail of ritual, areas of the hand and heart of art and action. Those who create beauty in objects or stand with a strong arm to defend the people, they, too, need to understand the differences between the canvas and the paint. This allows everyone, be they clergy, craftsman, warrior or newcomer, to properly express their own spirituality within the context of our ceremonies.
 So let’s take a tour through some of these commonalities of principle that are present in general Druidic rituals, which give unity to our organization. While we are at it we will also explore a few of the wonderful myriad expressions that bring life and vitality to our common standards.
     First and foremost are the Gods and Goddesses of our people for we, like the ancient Celts, are polytheists who worship many deities of life, land, culture and art. Yet with this living polytheology in common between our congregations many of us call on different Gods and Goddesses. A Welsh congregation will call to the Deities of their people, those names so well known from their ancient lands.  A Gaelic congregation may call upon the Tuatha De Dannan, while a Manx congregation looks to that island land of the sea to find the names for worship. Some Groves will have a specific Patron or Patroness who is offered to at every meeting while other congregations will explore associations with many Deities never focusing very long on one. And so, our polytheology provides us with both our most important commonality and our most vital point of variance one from another as we develop our relationships with the numerous deities of our people and peoples.
 Reciprocity - that guest-host relationship - is vitally important to Celtic religion and is at the root of what our ancestors did for and as ritual. We give to our Gods and we receive from them in turn, always maintaining a balanced relationship. We make ethical contracts with our Deities, with spirits and with one another. By this principle of reciprocity we establish and maintain our spiritual and social relationships and our world continues on an ordered path. Contractual sacrifice was just that: a gift made and shared with the Gods in order to build and tend the relationship of the people to the Divinities. Our Fellowship like the ancient Celtic peoples, utilizes formalized reciprocal relationships with our Gods and Goddesses.  
 Centrality is a commonality that is present across Celtic lands and among our congregations. The concept of a sacred center that stands at the heart of our cosmology and to which every part of our world is connected is vital to us as a religion.  Most of us are familiar with the Bilé (sacred tree)  seen in so many Druidic rites, but there are other symbols of the center found in ancient and modern practice. There is the fire altar by which the land was given form and taken for the people. In fact, the sacred fire may be the most common ritual symbol for the sacred center in ancient religious practice. Hills and stones figure strongly into Gaelic Myth and so some of our congregations gather with a stone at their center. Wales has a great pit with a pair of eternally striving dragons and so Welsh rites may be done gathered around a pit. So our center is always seen, but the choices of symbol can vary and can be very particular.
 From the center to the edge. Liminality is another common cosmological concept often symbolized in our rites.  The edge could have been as simple as from where my fire altar is to the horizon that I see. Yet for the Gaels, the sacred Isle ends nine waves from the shore, and the borders between tribes were often at the strands of writhing rivers. Perhaps the sacred groves were defined as all the area that was shaded by the sacred trees and so the edge was found beyond this sacred shelter. We see rectangular sacred places defined by earthworks that were clearly not for practical defensive purposes. And so each congregation decides how to symbolize their sacred space and where their edge shall be. It may be as simple as the area contained within the place where the people stand with their feet marking the limit. Or perhaps the edges of a field where it meets the wild lands, just like those mythic planes cleared in the wilderness to give the people a home. These edges are ever present: defining what is within, what is sacred.
 Mother Goddesses are another commonality among celtic peoples and among our congregations. But how we address them and who we address is as different now as it was in ancient times. Some congregations will deal with “The Great Earth Mother” as total representative of the Earth. Yet, there is as much validity for congregations who deal with a Cultural Mother such as Danu, who was mother of the Gods of the Gaels. Ériu is certainly a land Goddess, for she is Ireland herself but she is not the whole Earth.  There are congregations that work with a specific Goddess and we know that one of the earliest Irish Tribes in the historical records was called the ‘Boandrige’ or People of Boan who is a very specific river Goddess. Still other congregations look at the way some Celtic peoples moved into an area and embraced local Goddesses of the land and celebrated the marriage of a Cultural God to the local Land Goddess. These congregations may actually explore their local land and begin to worship Goddesses of their lakes, plains or rivers.
 Gates are found throughout Celtic material and our gates in The Fellowship are certainly well supported. Fire has been seen as the great re-creator among many peoples, it is fire that cooks things and changes them from their raw natural state to their ordered or useful state. Through wells come blessings and marvelous things, and sometimes terrific things. But the wells give forth blessings of bounty, wisdom and healing. But there are other gates found in the mythic and folkloric material, things such as the mist that shrouds the world and then parts to leave you standing in another world. There are always the Mounds of the Sidhe in Ireland which lead to another world. Gates are a constant presence in our rituals but their use and depiction may vary from place to place and rite to rite.
 Sacrifice is another Celtic Ritual norm that can take more than one form and which can perform more that one function. Some congregations may participate in making a large cosmic sacrifice once a year as a symbol of the renewal of the cosmos. At other times and places we see contractual offerings being made to establish agreements between the people and the Deities. 
 We see the ancient Celtic peoples dealing with multiple realms - our world, a world of afterlife or otherlife, and a world of the Gods of the Sky. Sometimes these cultures have them very precisely defined and even subdivided into further realms while others have a vague land to the West where the ancestors rest.  But we get to chose which one we want to work with and how we approach our view of the multiverse.
 Prayer, chanting, ecstatic dance, music, poetry and many other things are well attested among various Celtic peoples and stand ready for us to draw upon to beautify our rites. We have so many specific practices from so many time periods and places to use in the art of building ritual that we can explore these combinations for generations and not exhaust our possibilities. Some groups use their normal spoken tongue while others invest their time in learning a liturgical language to add a sense of otherness to their rites. These many things are taken from an endless palette of colors and cast upon a strong canvas of good ritual design and organization and we end up with some of the finest liturgical art seen in the world today.
 When I visit a congregation for a rite I am extremely excited because there are so many questions that will be answered. I know there will be a center and an edge but I cannot wait to see what they will be. There will be Deities called but who shall it be? We will share waters but every congregation has an individual way of doing it. How shall we make our offerings and sacrifices? What language or languages will we hear? So many questions and so many correct answers that express the spirituality of the people involved.  Each rite opens like a new flower that I have to identify. I know that it is a flower, they are all flowers in the same field but I still have to count petals look at color and examine each one closely to identify the exact variety.
 So we have a standard liturgy based on commonalities of theology and cosmology. Good liturgical design and flow contribute by providing a solid structure for our rites. Our people are spiritually fed by having the familiarity that these two areas bring. But we must never underestimate the power of the new and different to inspire and so we should continue to explore and draw upon our various sources for the specific expressions that give life to the flames of inspiration. This feeds the spirituality of our people. It allows us to be both the same and different, with a unified identity and the ability to feel and act as individuals or individuated groups.  Different and wonderful parts of a vital and thriving whole. This is how we approach ritual in the Fellowship and I certainly hope that this sort of combined order and freedom is always present in our Fellowship.