Ritual comes in all shapes and sizes. We can do ritual by ourselves, with our family, with our social group, with the larger community or (with the many digital options) with people across the globe! And yet I think there are some qualities that make rituals great that are often overlooked.
It is lovely to attend a ritual where everything goes smoothly, where everyone who has a part plays it perfectly, and where the group meshes together towards the common focus seamlessly. And yet, I absolutely don't feel that is necessary to have a great ritual. I've been to quite a few rituals where a lot has gone 'wrong', but I walked away deeply moved and had a great time.
So what is the purpose of ritual? I think that rituals can have many different goals, but ultimately they all help renew us. They touch a part of us deep inside, that connects to the sacredness of life, and help us to keep that spark nourished and healthy! Even when the ritual is exploring our darker aspects or perhaps it is a light and humorous ritual that encourages silly play, both can replenish our inner resources that get drained through the stresses and activities of life.
I think one of the very basic 'rules' of ritual is that it is a safe place. Everyone at the ritual should feel that they are safe, not only on a purely physical level, but also on an emotional one. This isn't to say that deep and serious topics can not be touched, but simply that the other people at the ritual are there to support you and not to tear you down. It can not be a great ritual if people are mocking or judging others, especially when sharing personal details.
Ritual is often a place where we push our own boundaries, and sometimes we need other people to help us, but ultimately, we should feel like we can say no to the things we are truly not ready for. We should never feel pressured at ritual to do something we are not comfortable with, no matter how simple that act may be. I actually haven't been a pure participant at a lot of rituals. I've often been asked to take a role in the ritual, and sometimes I was uncomfortable stepping into that role, but I have never felt like the person asking me would judge me for saying no. In fact, it was that level of support that allowed me to say yes, to do things that made me uncomfortable, and to slowly raise my comfort level in ritual.
And as much as we do want things to run smoothly, a great ritual can adapt. Life happens! Sometimes the person you thought would do a thing at ritual can't make it, or has to drop out at the very last moment. I truly believe that when we gather for ritual, our hearts are what shape the experience and when everyone is open to the ritual experience, it becomes beautiful no matter how horrible the bugs are, if it starts raining, if it is bitterly cold or blisteringly hot, if someone completely messes up their role, or if the candles won't stay lit. We have the choice to focus on what is going wrong and spiral out of our sacred space into focus on all the things that have happened, or we can shift that energy into moving forward!
One of my very early ritual flub experiences was when I was just learning and me and a friend were trying to do a ritual, but something struck us as funny and we ended up just lost in laughter for several minutes. Once we could compose ourselves, we got back into it, and finished our ritual. Afterwards, we were talking about it and came to the conclusion that it was one of those things that was just part of the human experience. Neither of us felt that the gods or the spirits we had called to our circle felt slighted in any way. We weren't making light of the ritual, and once we had settled down, we were able to refocus and complete what we had started.
And I think that is a very important thing: to finish, even if you have to drastically alter what you had set out to do. A great ritual has a start and an end. If you start ritual, you need to also close it. If something happens in the middle that calls you away, whether it is something from within the ritual, like a participant doing something unexpected, or from without, like a natural disaster, the ritual should be attended to as soon as possible. You may be able to pick it back up and continue on. Or you may have to do a quick ending to allow everyone closure. Even with something as simple as saying, "We thank all who have come this day to our ritual, but due to unforeseen circumstances we need to close this circle and end this ritual. Be blessed as you go forth!"
Ritual is an amazing thing and it is the simple stuff that makes rituals great. It is the heart and soul of the participants, the willingness to drop into the moment and to work towards whatever the focus of the ritual is. Ritual does not need fancy tools or perfect conditions to be great. So never fret if your ritual takes an unexpected turn or two. That doesn't mean that it isn't still a fantastic ritual!