Our visit to Cedarlight Grove was not only my first Druid style High Day ritual - it was very close to my first public neopagan ritual of any sort. While I've identified as pagan for several years now, I've always been solitary and, for the most part, closeted. So, I was both highly curious and excited, and a little bit intimidated and shy about going. I had very little idea of what to expect, or how welcome strangers would be.
I needn't have worried, though - when we arrived, bearing stuffed grape leaves as our contribution to the pot luck, we were greeted warmly by several people, helpfully shown where important things like the bathroom and kitchen were, and otherwise made to feel as if we were welcome and a part of things.
Cedarlight Grove occupies a suburban plot in Baltimore - there is a wooded grove of mature trees in the back yard, and the house is warm and inviting, with a variety of themed altars scattered around, along with multiple seating areas both inside and out.
Not too long after we arrived, Crystal, Cedarlight's Senior Druid, rounded everyone up for pre-ritual briefing, which I found to be incredibly helpful - the order of the ritual was gone over, with everyone confirming who would be doing what, as well as explanations of what each portion was about. Chants and songs that would be used were gone over, so that we had an opportunity to practice them ahead of time, and warnings about the terrain and environment outside in the Grove were given. By the end of the briefing, I felt much more confident and comfortable, with only some bit of uncertainty about the protocol for offering sacrifices - and that proved to be the only portion of the ritual itself that had me confused, as I'll explain.
We walked outside, and over a small footbridge where we were able to purify ourselves with sage that was burning in a small cast iron cauldron. We walked beyond and found seats arranged in a circle around a central tree flanked by a fire pit to the left and an inground pond surrounded by rocks and plants on the right - this arrangement created the Fire-Tree-Water Cosmos favored by ADF.
In front of the tree was an altar with a variety of objects and offerings on it, and behind us, outside the circle of chairs, was another smallish table loaded with various sacrificial offerings people have brought in. We laid the jar of milk and trio of incense sticks we'd brought on this second table, and waited for the ritual to begin.
Until now I'd only read the ADF style rituals and, frankly, had had a difficult time mentally turning away from the four elements and circle style ritual - but as soon as this began, it all made complete and coherent sense to me.
One part I was really not sure about was handling the Outdwellers - rather than creating a circle that encloses the ritual within protective space, ADF handles spirits and beings that don't belong at the ritual, or who might disrupt it, by giving them offerings of food and ale and shiny things, placing it outside the grove in order to keep them busy. I found this part to be one of the most meaningful portions of the celebration - we were asked to think about those things that were distracting us today, whether it be bad moods, or mishaps, or whatever - and what came to my mind was my RA, which often makes sitting uncomfortable and hard to ignore, and the mosquitoes, which were driving me slighly crazy. With great fanfare, one of the men carried a plate full of goodies and a bottle of ale outside the ritual space, and then snuck back in quietly - both amusing and visually compelling. Now, it may be that the rest of the ritual was simply so interesting that I forgot my little aches and stings, but the simple truth is that however it happened, I was pain free and the bites on my ankles that had been making me nuts stopped itching at all until the next morning.
So... I am sold on that way of handling things.
There were call and response style praise prayers, attention paid to the Gatekeeper (Epona), to the Ancestors, the Nature spirits, and the Shining Ones. The god and goddess there as special patrons were of the Gaulish pantheon - and I am not (yet) very familiar with either one: Teutates, which if I understood properly, handles order and ritual, and Nementona, goddess of the grove, so an Earth Goddess.
At multiple points, we were encouraged to bring up our offerings to each of these, and this is where it got confusing, as I think we offered ours at the wrong point. Actually, I think we didn't bring nearly enough, and we'll make sure to not make that mistake again. I am not sure if this was our own ignorance at fault or if it could have been explained more, but that was the only real confusion I felt.
At a certain point, 'praise offerings' were also made, with people playing an instrument, or dancing, or singing, or simply speaking, as an offering to the gods. An omen was drawn to ask if the offerings had been accepted, and we were told they wanted more singing - so we all sang a few chants and songs, and were told the offerings had been accepted.
An omen was then drawn with a message about letting go of conflict and the need for healing, and by then it was full dark, and very peaceful.
When the ritual was over, we headed inside to share in the pot luck - and I was very happy to notice that there wasn't a quick bustle to get home. People ate, talked, laughed a lot and everywhere on the lot, inside and outside, there were clusters of people sharing time together. To me, that is the primary sign of a good healthy group.
I'm looking so forward to going back again for Samhain - hopefully a little better armed with knowledge, now that the initial shyness of entering a new group is passed. And this time, we're bringing along an interested friend from our UU congregation. All in all, this was a very happy experience that stayed with me over the next couple of days.
An interesting thing on that - the next morning, we went to church at Davies. UUs use a flaming chalice for their religious symbol and as I was sitting there waiting for things to start I noticed something intriguing. At that back of our altar space, there is a large, vibrantly colored painting of the World Tree, leaves falling like yods, birds nestling in the branches, roots burrowing down into the earth. To the left was our flaming chalice. And to the right - a bowl of water ringed with pebbles - our "Joys and Sorrows Pond", where people can share their joys and sorrows with the congregation and leave a pebble in the pond. The three artifacts created the same Fire-Tree-Water Cosmos we'd experienced the night before. I took that as a blessing and confirmation that this is the right path for right now.
Before I end this I want to talk about one thing about the Mabon ritual I wasn't very comfortable with, and I'm still working out how I feel about it - there is much call and response, "Huzzah!" and "Hail the Gods!" - and that part was great, lots of energy. But that same bluntness was used when making requests of the gods, inviting them to join, etc, and each time I had a minor flinching reaction. I don't use that sort of demanding tone - "Hear us! Bless us!" - to people I love... I am not sure why I'd want to use that tone with deities or spirits that I respect enough to want to talk to. This is something I need an explanation for - or to work it out somehow. But meanwhile, each time, I winced and mumbled 'please?'