I believe that the priestess or priest of Isis should try to develop some facility with ritual. This is more important if you are involved in any kind of celebration with other people, less important if you work entirely solitary. But even in solitary work, having some ritual skill will benefit your spiritual work by making it more graceful—and therefore more effective.
Ritual is important because it is a communicative art and a vital key for the practice of religion. Ritual is how we DO religion. Throughout the world—almost without exception—the practice of religion involves the practice of ritual. Even quiet, private prayer or meditation is normally ritualized in some way. Whether by folding your hands, sitting in a hatha yoga asana, counting a rosary, or simply lighting a candle, some sort of ritual pattern is incorporated in spiritual activity.
As a means of communication, ritual goes beyond what we are able to express by speech alone, dance alone, music alone, or intellectual effort alone. Because it can combine all these things and energize them with the power of symbolism, ritual allows us to communicate with the Divine and with other people beyond our normal capacity. Some things, particularly the ineffable, sacred things we are trying to express in a relationship with Isis, can only be expressed through ritual.
Ritual takes us beyond the body-mind/soul-spirit split. It gives us a holistic way to communicate with and relate to Isis. It is a primary tool of the priestess or priest of Isis for worship and spiritual growth. And, I think, it is particularly appropriate for an Isis priestess or priest because of the strength of the ritual tradition in Egypt and because of Isis’ designation as Goddess of Sacred Magic, which is often practiced through ritual. Also, from my exposure to other priestesses and priests of Isis, the Goddess often seems to gift Her priestesses and priests with rituals that they are to share.
The effects of ritual
Ritual is completely natural to human beings. It is an essential human activity. In fact, it is a primal activity. Some of the earliest evidence from our cave dwelling ancestors is evidence of ritual.
As animals, there are biologically based rituals in which we engage—for example, sexual behaviors. As human beings, we also take part in social ritual. We shake hands when we meet each other; we mark life passages such as marriage or death with ceremony. Ritual like that gives us ways to interact with each other; it gives us a way to understand each other, especially at times when words fail, such as funerals.
And then there is sacred ritual. Sacred ritual not only helps us recognise changes in our lives, it helps us create changes in our lives, and—important for the priestess or priest of Isis—it provides us with a means to worship.
Ritual is not just a set of actions we move through. Ritual is powerful because it affects us as human beings. It affects us psychologically and it affects us physiologically, both of which, in turn, feed back into our spiritual selves.
Probably many of you are familiar with the work of psychologist and brain and human potential researcher Jean Houston. She has done extensive work on what she calls psychophysical exercises. These psychophysical exercises include such things as:
• Working with the kinesthetic body (ritualists might call this the astral body)
• Learning by having a conversation with a personified aspect of the self
• Personification of an object to discover its “essence”
You will no doubt recognize these as elements of ritual. Houston concludes from her studies that these ritual exercises give people the ability:
• To learn more quickly
• To think on multiple tracks at once and
• To tune into the symbolic and mythic parts of themselves at will
She says that these ritual therapies work much better for her patients than talking therapies alone because talking therapies involve only one part of the person’s being while ritual involves the whole person.
I strongly agree.
Ritual addresses the whole person, moving us toward wholeness. And wholeness is one of the keys to spiritual growth. So ritual is one method for achieving wholeness.
Some of the basic components of ritual include chanting, singing, drumming, spoken invocation, moving in circles, dancing, meditation, and repeated patterns.
Researchers have studied just such ritual methods and their affect on the brain and the human nervous system. There seem to be two main things that ritual does in the human system: it triggers our emotions and it decreases the distance between us and others—including the Divine. Rhythm affects the brain’s neurological ability to define the limits of the self. It physically breaks down the walls we put up between ourselves and others and between ourselves and the Divine. Ritual helps us find self transcendance.
On the non-spiritual side, ritual has been proven to lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate, lower rates of respiration, reduce levels of the hormone cortisol (which affects adrenalin), and nd create positive changes in immune system function. So ritual is good for us physically.
Ritual affects our emotions as well. Strong rhythm or repetition has been shown to produce positive limbic discharge (the limbic system is part of the brain that deals with emotion among other things), which results in intensely pleasurable feelings. If this continues, the amygdala gets involved; the amygdala is another monitoring part of the brain that is connected with the fear-arousal system. Some researchers think that the combination of the pleasure and the slight fear arousal could produce the feeling of religious awe. The stimulation of the hypothalmus (a main controller of our nervous systems) can trigger pleasurable sensations—including feelings of ecstasy.
Built for spiritual experience
All this does not mean there’s no magic in ritual. Far, far from it. What it means is that our bodies and brains are DESIGNED as great, holy receivers of magic. We are built to receive magic, to transmit magic, and to create magic. We are creatures of magic.
What’s more, sacred ritual is more than just an opportunity to exercise our brains or cause a pleasurable sensation in our nervous systems.
Our physical bodies are created this way so that we CAN receive the blessings of ritual and communication with the Divine. Our bodies are not the mere cause of the effect; they are its result. As the ancient Hermeticists would say, As Above, So Below: we are a microcosm reflecting the way the macrocosm works. Our bodies do not make us experience the spiritual. They enable us to experience the spiritual. We have evolved this way because the spiritual is real and valuable and we need to be able to experience it.
Ritual profoundly affects human beings. Whether this is in the form of a large scripted group rite, a drumming circle, or an unscripted intuitive rite, ritual is one of our most powerful tools for human growth, spiritual expression, and Divine communion and the priestess or priest of Isis should be skilled in the use of some type of ritual.