Ordeal and Community

I’ve been facilitating and participating in Ordeal rituals for damn near a decade. One fairly constant aspect of my experience, whether I’m the Seeker or the Guide, is that these rituals tend to be individualized. They are crafted start to finish for one person, with one goal in mind, and the experience of the Seeker rarely affects any larger community.

This is completely understandable. Ordeals are not for everyone, of course, and there is no reason everyone should walk that path. It also plays into the near fetish we Americans have for the individual who exists outside of/rebels against/is distinct from the larger community. Especially in the case of Ordeal work, since so many Ordeal mechanics actively contradict the mores of the larger community. There are logistic concerns as well – getting a number of Seekers undergoing the same Ordeal in the same location as the number of skilled Guides needed to pull it off is incredibly challenging.

While understandable, this individual approach to Ordeal is really unfortunate. It misses an unbelievably huge part of the picture.

There is no question that, historically, some Ordeals have always been solo. There are times we simply have to walk alone, and these rituals emphasize that. However, we tend to forget that there are plenty of examples throughout history and around the world of group Ordeals too. Ordeals that, while affecting people in individual ways, are experienced by many at once. Ordeals that are supported by and provide support for the larger community. Ordeals that, instead of emphasizing the division of the Seeker from community, actually help to further entrench them in community.

I was recently privileged enough to present about Ordeal work and co-facilitate a group Ordeal ritual at Dark Odyssey’s Fusion event in Maryland. I was humbled, awed, and simply blown away by the way doing Ordeal in a group as part of the larger community utterly changed the experience for everyone involved.

Fusion is an interesting event. Up to 1500 people attended this year, all focused on enjoying time to be their authentic selves without the need to hide or defend. In addition to all the amazing programming being offered, this was the first year that a dedicated Ordeal Track was available – a panel of classes, challenges, and shorter rituals all leading up to a capstone Ordeal ritual.

At the end of the day, twice the expected number of people followed the Track. The first offering – essentially Ordeal 101 – was attended by an incredibly diverse group. I don’t think any of them knew each other prior to showing up for this. They were awkward and a bit stand-offish with each other at first, but that changed as we progressed through the preparation as a group. Seekers did the classes together, met the mini-challenges together, and shared a deep need to push themselves through this intense experience in a search for personal transformation and change.

Over the course of three days – just three days! – I watched the connections form. Just how far this group had come from that initial discomfort with previous strangers was markedly visible as we geared up for the final Ordeal ritual.

We met up that night and I gave them a 5 minute warning before beginning. These fellow Seekers, strangers just three days previously, spontaneously held hands in a circle and expressed their support for each other, their faith that they could all make it through to the other side. They were ordered to silence, and they simply continued to support each other non-verbally. One made sure everyone had water, another passed around supplies, and comforting touches were everywhere.

Each Seeker walked the path of Ordeal alone. Many of them were in tears before we even really started. A few hit their limit before the end of the path. But at the end, all were escorted to the same area for aftercare. Even after their own trauma (and yes, it was trauma) they gave their fellow Seekers support, and in many cases they were each other’s aftercare.

After the event (and some much-needed rest) everyone gathered together to process, as a group, what had happened and get some closure for the experience. It was 90 minutes of sharing and commiserating, laughter and tears. Before it broke attendees exchanged email addresses, made promises to keep in touch, hugged and held and honored each other.

I saw a group bond in days, cemented by the Ordeal all experienced. Three weeks later many who went through the experience are still in contact with each other – and with me, which I treasure. I have no doubt that many of them will continue to process the experience together, regardless of physical location, because that’s what the survivors of something transformative do for each other. That kind of support is not possible when Ordeals are undertaken as a solo event, and for many that support is what made the event as transformative as it was.

The larger Fusion community had a part to play in this too. It was in no way a solo experience, and it wasn’t limited to the Seekers who actively walked the path together. The entire Fusion community participated in the Ordeal Track and benefitted from it. People who were totally uninvolved offered cuddles and encouragement to the Seekers as the track progressed. The day after the capstone ritual everyone seemed to assist with aftercare, from offering hugs to giving space.

People in the community also expressed a feeling of being supported by those on the Ordeal track, even if they had no personal involvement at all with the proceedings. It seemed to register to some almost as an act of community service, and members of the community felt supported and valued as people just because the option to do this kind of thing was available for them too.

The importance of this kind of community involvement and support for the experience – especially something that mainstream culture finds “weird” or “scary” – cannot be overstated.

We craft these rituals, we plan these experiences, and they are transformational and powerful and everything else, but when we do these things alone the experience is limited. I want to experience this group-in-community setting for Ordeal again, and try to duplicate this type of experience in other groups, with other communities.

Because honestly? I desperately want to see more of this. I want to watch another group bond over shared trials and successes. I want to see those who participated in this year’s track participate in next year’s track, mentors and examples who can say “we did this and you can too”. I want to see these connections continue to grow and deepen and develop, expanding to accept new people and expressions.

So many of us who dance the edges of spiritual experience, who push ourselves past not just our own limits but the limits society attempts to place on us, can find ourselves walking a very lonely road. Our experiences sometimes set us apart from others. But no man is an island, and totally rejecting/being rejected by a larger community can limit us.

Conceptualizing Ordeal as part of a larger community bridges that gap, making everyone a part of the process. Our spiritual work becomes not something limited to ourselves, but radiates outwards in a tangible way. Fostering connection without sacrificing individual experience transforms not just ourselves but our world, one community at a time.