When in doubt, make offerings: orthopraxy as guiding force

Many multi-colored arcs of light, superimposed, cross the frame from lower left to upper-right, with smaller arcs diminishing concentrically toward the lower right. The overall effect is similar to an LP made entirely of traces of light.

Three Cranes Grove celebrated the festival of Imbolc this past Sunday, and it was a hard one for me: essentially, I wasn’t in the ‘right’ headspace. I’d had a nonstop week leading up to it, I’d agreed last-minute to take on more parts in the ritual than I’d anticipated, I had nine hours of choral rehearsal scheduled around the rite, Jarod and I had spent the night with our godson after his mom gave birth — which to be utterly clear, was a joyous duty we were happy to take on, but was just one more thing in a very busy timeframe — and overlaying it all was a pervasive sense of fear and despair surrounding the Trump administration’s activities. I was pretty frazzled. I went to Imbolc out of a sense of obligation, rather than desire. And so, as I posted on Facebook that evening, I was amazed to discover after the fact that even the memory of the rite was deeply moving and grounding. I ended up exploring the issue of why and how my meta-experience shifted throughout the course of ritual with a friend, a graduate student in Old Testament archeology, and in the process of explaining religiocultural differences while also trying to draw parallels to his Evangelical Christianity, I came to a better understanding of the ways orthopraxy functions for me as a member of ADF and as a ritual practitioner. 

In ADF practice (and really in most neopagan contexts I’ve had contact with), belief often takes a back seat to action. It’s not that we don’t have our beliefs — we certainly do — but there’s rather a lot of heterogeneity among our collected beliefs, and so we rely on an orthopraxy to bind us, rather than an orthodoxy. Orthodoxy — right belief — is likely the more familiar of these terms, thanks to its use as a descriptor for particular forms of Judaism and Christianity, but (lowercase) it applies to many belief systems, notably the monotheisms. The many splits, schisms, and heresies of the Abrahamic traditions usually come down to differences in belief: is the God of the New Testament the same as that of the Old? Are modern Jews still required to follow all the prescriptions of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, etc.? Who were the rightful successors of the Prophet Muhammad upon his death? These are questions of right belief, and orthodoxy is critically important to the ways that many (but not all) monotheist religions and religionists self-identify.

The contrast is orthopraxy: right practice. Orthopraxic religions emphasize performing the proper actions, no matter how you believe. We see this in ancient paganisms, for example in the civic religion of Rome, where atheism was largely tolerated so long as the atheist still gave the appropriate offerings and performed other practices central to social cohesion. In the modern era, outside of paganism I think of the Unitarian Universalists, who explicitly welcome a diversity of religious belief, binding it together in community and in basic service format. I’m also told by Episcopalians and Anglicans I know that they often consider themselves more bound by adherence to the Book of Common Prayer than to particular dogmatic points.

It’s similar in ADF Druidry: if you follow the same practices, then you’re working as a collective unit, no matter the belief underlying. We have a Core Order of Ritual, and as long as you’re including the required elements (and not including the few disallowed elements), then congrats! You’re doing ADF ritual. What you believe is… well, not unimportant, since it’s obviously important to the individual’s experience, but it’s not terribly important that all present hold the same view on much of anything. (The line does get a bit blurry because we also try to align ourselves mentally, but even then we tend to use rich sensory practices — mental visualizations, rhythmic music, visible offerings — to do that aligning work, so people can be in complementary headspaces while still holding great difference.)

Usually this feels good to me. I like being part of a diverse group of worshippers nevertheless bound together in community, and I’ve had deep, important experiences with gods and spirits I’d have never encountered left to my own devices. And the broad reach of the ADF umbrella (‘Indo-European paganism’ is a vast panoply) means that together, we can reach critical mass for a supportive community where not everyone has to be ‘on’ all the time, in a way that we never could if we were forming a community centered around the cultus of a particular goddess. Sometimes, though, I get a bit frustrated with it — there are so many varying interpretations even among people worshipping the deity, much less those working in entirely different hearth cultures, and I find myself wanting to just have a unified belief structure for heaven’s sake! We ADF druids spend a lot of time quibbling about big differences, where in a more homogenous group we could move past those divisions relatively quickly and get on to the deeper work.

But then days like Sunday come in as a valuable corrective, because orthopraxy applies not only to the group as a collective, but also to each individual themselves. If I start from a standpoint where I need to be ‘feeling it’ — quasi-orthodoxically — then there would be days (hell, recently, weeks) when I’d do no devotional work, no prayers. But if I start from an orthopraxic standpoint, where performing the action is the primary motivator, then that allows me to set myself into the groove of worship, and open up myself to the gods.

It reminds me almost of performing a piece of music I know well — do a little bit of the opening, and then the rest will follow from muscle memory, and often letting the muscle memory do its thing allows the creative brain to focus on expression and artistry. In the same vein, if I can just get started with the ritual, then my body remembers how to worship, and my creative brain is both freed and entrained to transcend mundanity. I recall once, at a study meeting I attended early in my decision to learn about ADF Druidry, Michael (one of our grove priests) said something to the effect of “when in doubt, make offerings.” I can’t recall the context, but that sentence has stuck with me as a more global by-word. For me, it’s a summation of what I’ve been discussing here: do the work, light the candle, pour the offering. Inspiration and transcendence won’t always come, but they almost certainly won’t if the way isn’t opened to them.

Header image: Flickr/Joe Bower: “Round and round it goes…” License: CC BY-NC-ND.


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