...all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.
Most people who have any experience with Paganism are familiar with this phrase. Most of us have heard this phrase invoked when justifying any sexual orientation or practice -- including some practices that make most of us shudder. In fact, some people consider this one of the most troublesome phrases ever encountered in the Wiccan and general Pagan community because of some of the activities and behaviors it has been used to justify.
And while I certainly agree that people who have used this statement to justify some rather reprehensible behaviors, I do not agree that it is right to blame it on the above phrase. Instead, I argue that the fault should be placed where it has belonged all along: with those who have misused such a declaration without truly understanding it.
To truly understand it, we must look at this statement in context. "All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals" is not a complete quote in and of itself. In fact, it's not even the full sentence that clause appears in, at least not in the source I'm using. (1) This is a clause in a single sentence taken from "The Charge of the Goddess," a piece of Wiccan lore generally attributed to Doreen Valiente. The full paragraph (again, according to the way my source divides the Charge into paragraphs, others may vary) reads as follows:
Let My Worship be within the heart that rejoiceth, for behold: all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals. And therefore let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you.
Notice that the sentence immediately following the well-known phrase begins, "And therefore let there be...." This phrase makes it clear that this following sentence is a continuation of the same train of thought rather than the beginning of a new subject. In essence, it indicates that the virtues listed in this new sentence are directly related to "all acts of love and pleasure." In effect, the charge is listing characteristics that are essential to "acts of love and pleasure."
This is the major flaw in many arguments where the "all acts of love and pleasure" clause is used to justify dubious behavior. Those who propose that argument are attempting to define "acts of love and pleasure" by their own superficial, self-serving, and ego-centric definitions. The problem is that the rest of the charge does not permit this, because it clearly says that in order to be an "act of love and pleasure," a given act or behavior must possess and uphold these virtues. Indeed, any act that does not demonstrate these virtues cannot by definition be an "act of love and pleasure." So let us take a look at each of these virtues and their implications.
The first virtue called for is beauty. This means that each act -- and its results or consequences -- must be something that will be found to be pleasing to behold. During and after the act, all people involved with or affected by it must be able to look and take pleasure in it and see the beauty in it. Ugliness -- be it physical, emotional, or spiritual -- that comes from such an act immediately disqualifies it.
The next virtue is strength. All acts must come from and support a place of strength. The person who draws on "acts of love and pleasure" as a way to cover or make up for their own weakness -- or worse, to engender weakness in another -- has turned away from love and twisted pleasure into something it was not meant to be. In this sense, strength is antithetical to neediness. A true act of love and pleasure is not done out of neediness, but from a position of mutually empowered desire.
Power, the next virtue, is related to strength. In this sense, I would argue that the "power" here is one of choice. A true "act of love and pleasure" involves choice, and a person performs such acts by their free will rather than through coercion or inner compulsion. In this sense, acts involving more than one person are about equality and mutual choice. The person who emotionally manipulates another into such an act is no better than the person who does the same with physical force.
The next virtue, compassion, is about mitigating one's own power when dealing with another. This is about taking the other persons needs, desires, rights, and general well-being into account. Acts where one is only concerned about one's own strength, choice, appreciation of beauty, and any other virtue still falls short of being truly about "love and pleasure."
The next virtue, honor, is equally important. My own experience has taught me that if we do not keep our integrity intact, then we become nothing. Because of this, it's all too clear to me that without integrity in our relationships, they too become nothing. The person who cannot maintain their character cannot know love, so how can they commit an act of love?
Humility, like compassion, is about the other person. Whereas compassion reminds us to think of the other person, humility goes one step further and reminds us that it's also about the act itself. A true act of love and pleasure (2) is about a bond between two souls. Unless we are willing to take our proper place rather than allowing our egos to bloat, there can be no love shared in any real way.
It's strange to think of mirth as being an important aspect of love and pleasure, it's nonetheless important. Mirth is about being able to lighten our hearts and enjoy the love we share. Perhaps if we as a society learned the value of mirth in all aspects of our relationships, there wouldn't be nearly as many tales about "performance anxiety" and similarly distressing problems.
The final virtue, reverence, again brings us outside of ourselves. It's about respecting oneself, the other person, and the act itself. It's an understanding that if we are going to truly declare this an "act of love and pleasure," it is indeed sacred. Reverence teaches us that sacred things should be treated as something special.
Now that we've looked at the virtues listed -- those which must absolutely exist, lest an act fail to truly be about love and pleasure -- it's time to look at the beginning of the first sentence. Before declaring all acts of love and pleasure to be rituals of the Goddess, the Charge first calls for the Goddess's praise to be "in the heart that rejoiceth." This is equally significant. Immediately following this clause and as a lead-in to the well-known clause comes the connecting phrase, "for behold." This tells us that a rejoicing heart is also significant to all acts of love and pleasure. Indeed, for hearts that rejoice are the end result and direct effect of a true "act of love and pleasure." As such, one who truly wishes to evaluate whether their proposed "act of love and pleasure" should not only consider how well it reflects, possesses, and upholds the virtues we've discussed, but should also consider the resultant state of the hearts of those involved.
While some may find the suggestion that "all acts of love and pleasure" discomforting due to the behavior of some unethical people, I still find it a truly liberating and profound statement. However, it is important to understand what actually qualifies as an "act of love and pleasure" to truly appreciate the concept. Otherwise, one risks profaning the profound through ignorance.
(1) I've copied all quotes from The Charge of the Goddess from an online copy hosted on the Starkindler Website.
(2) It's obvious I'm referring to sexual activity between two people. I've tried to be vague about it in most places, as I firmly believe that there are other "acts of love and pleasure" rather than just sex. I also believe that this phrase is also talking about our platonic and familial relationships and how we handle them, too. Most of what I am saying can be applied to such situations equally well. However, most people who abuse the "all acts of love and pleasure" clause are doing so to justify sexual activity. As such, I felt it equally important to cover sexual relationships directly to some degree.