In many ways, ritual is one of the cornerstones of most Pagan practice. Perhaps not the ornate, formal and complex rituals that are detailed in many books, but definitely the ritual observance of different events. I think that a lot of people have a particular vision of what ritual is, and I believe that ritual is so much more than is commonly included in it's definition.
Lets start by looking at the fancy book rituals. These were something that really drew me in when I was first learning. I loved the idea of these play-like rituals, where there were costumes, scripts, distinct movements and everything had layers of meaning. I still like this type of ritual, although it is very rarely a part of my practice.
I think these rituals have use. They are great for beginners who are just learning how to do things. They give you a framework and all the details, which is wonderful if you aren't quite sure what your own style is yet. In some ways, it is like a paint by numbers piece. The outline is there, and there is a handy little key to show you which colors go where. You make a nice piece when you are done, and you can typically see why different colors go where they do. The more you do, the more you start to know the colors before you look them up, and the more you think of different patterns you might like to paint or alterations to the outline that you might like better.
Formal rituals are also good for groups, especially groups that may have open invitations or include people who aren't as familiar with ritual structure. I have been to wonderful free-form rituals and have also participated in rituals that floundered because the participants weren't sure what they should be doing (even those who were nominated to do specific actions like calling elements). What structured rituals give is a cohesive, working model with which you can run a ritual. This is especially great if the person hosting the ritual isn't wanting to do all the work themselves or doesn't have a lot of people who are comfortable stepping into different roles without a lot of direction.
But ritual isn't always these grand productions. Ritual is, at it's essence, a set of actions that is done a particular way. It doesn't have to be spiritual or religious at all. Most of us have rituals we do every day that we may not even be aware of. I do the same things, in the same order when I wake up and when I get ready for bed. These are daily rituals for me. If I don't get to do them, I feel sort of disjointed.
What ritual brings to the table is consistency. Whether it is a ritual you do every day (like daily prayer or meditation) or one you only do once a year (like Sabbats), each time you do the ritual, you are adding another bead onto the string. Alone, each ritual has power, but when you look at them all strung together, they become more than the sum of their parts. Each time you do the ritual, you are reminded of the other times you have done it. This adds both weight and meaning to the rituals.
The repetition of ritual behaviors lets us both build upon and fall back on the bones we have set up. Our lives all have times of ebb and times of flow. Some days we may find ourselves particularly inspired or deeply spiritual. At these times it is natural to take the rituals we do and deepen them. We may spend more time on it, or rework parts of it to better suit our needs. We may find ourselves spending hours planning new layers for our rituals or creating art or tools that we will use in them. Other days we may feel particularly drained. While we know that we want to do our rituals, we may not have the energy to really throw ourselves into it. Because of the nature of the ritual, we can let ourselves rely on our past experiences to honor the ritual and often we may find that just making the decision to go through the actions gives us a sense of peace and comfort that helps us through the hard times.