Monday, September 24, 2007

A Gathering of Spirits Harvest Festival

Yesterday I drove to Fair Oaks (Sacramento area) for the annual A Gathering of Spirits Harvest Festival honoring Pagan Pride Day. I picked up Dorothea, the PSR student who's doing field work by working with CHS, at the El Cerrito Plaza BART station and headed northeast early in the morning so we could have our tables set up by the time the gates opened. Weather was iffy.

When we pulled the car up to unload, we were greeted by Krom, one of the few Sacramento Pagans I know, who used to be active in the late CCVLC-CoG. It's always nice to encounter someone you already know when you go someplace unfamiliar, which is not to say that everyone wasn't friendly and gracious. They were. Tracy showed us our tables (two, one for CHS and one for me as an author). Brighde had already left her chair and knitting there. In spite of wind and occasional rain, we set up a nice display, pulled back from the edge to avoid drips and splashes, that included not only flyers for CHS, but also for Reclaiming Cauldron of the Valley and Serpentine Music. We arranged several chairs next to, instead of behind, the tables for people to chat about CHS out of the rain.

Our booth, with the CHS banner and the tripart display Brighde made and our fancy new flyers, looked great. I neglected to take photos, even though I remembered to bring my camera. Oh, well, it does me no good sitting in my market basket all day.

Festival organizer WinterSky, wearing a gorgeous golden gown, lead the opening procession, followed by four people holding Elemental masks on sticks, drummers and chanters.

Not a lot of people came to my talk, but then again not a lot of people came to anybody's talk. I think that most of the people there were busy with booths and rituals and other jobs and that the general public hadn't arrived yet because of the weather. This was the first day of a two-day festival, and it rained in the late morning. I think that kept attendance down, even though we enjoyed a glorious sunny afternoon.

We chatted with lots of folks, which was fine with me since one of my favorite things to do is talk with other Pagans -- about what they do, how they do it, what their experiences have been, what training they've had and/or synthesized, how they experience deity, how they are accepted by their neighbors, how public they can comfortably be, and that sort of thing.

The Association of United Pagans, sponsors of the Stanislaus Pagan Pride Day (Modesto) on October 6, had a booth. It was fun to be able to chat with them without the distractions of their having to be running a festival.

I went to most of a talk Michael Gorman gave. Michael's part of Grove of the Oak, a Sacramento OBOD (Druid) group, whom I had on the panel I produced at PSR in '06. Later we attempted to chat, but he was in great demand and being dragged around, and I won't compete for someone's attention. Another time, one would hope.

On a coffee quest shortly after we arrived, I met a lovely woman named Heather. Later I spent a lot of time chatting at her booth. Turns out we have a lot in common; she brought her children up in Marin County. An artist who works in many media, one of Heather's websites is here. I hope to see her again, most likely at the Dickens Faire.

Miria now sells healing stones exclusively, lots and lots of beautiful stones. I learned more about them hanging at her booth. She's a Reclaiming person I like and don't see often because we don't live near each other.

I only had two brief opportunities to check out the vendors and other offerings. Dorothea, Brighde and I took turns, plus Brighde wanted to spend some time with her friends in the Sierra Madrone Grove ADF booth.

I had fun getting to know Dorothea better on the long car rides, and look forward to our drive to Modesto in October.

We left around the time the ADF ritual was beginning. I was exhausted and we had a long drive back to the Bay Area. On the way home we stopped by the Trismegiston covenstead, Book Haven, in Berkeley, where Corby had gone to join in their Equinox ritual, for some post-ritual conversation and comestibles.

International Day of Peace Observance

Sister Marion censing the peace pole.

The activist Dominican Sisters of San Rafael, under the direction of Sister Marion Irvine, previously mentioned in this blog, observed International Day of Peace. The UN General Assembly, by Resolution 36/67 in 2001, declared September 21 to be an international day of peace.

We gathered near the Dominican peace pole on the amidst tall old trees and sunny patches of flowers on beautiful grounds of Dominican University on an utterly exquisite early Autumn day. The peace pole has the words "May peace prevail upon the earth [sic]" on each of its four sides in four languages: English, because we are an English-speaking society; French in honor of the birthplace of the Dominican order; Spanish for our neighbors to the South and many in our community; and Arabic because so much war is taking place in Arabic-speaking parts of the world. (These are the reasons Sister Marion gave.)

We opened with a call-and-response prayer that was printed in the program, as were all the prayers and songs. I wasn't comfortable saying some of the words -- it began, "We believe in God...We believe in Jesus Christ, who came to heal us, and to free us from...oppression..." -- so I didn't say them. The rest of the opening prayer was about human rights, solidarity of all peoples, justice, freedom from hunger and violence; I was down with that.

There was also a time for community sharing when we were asked to say what thought or feeling had brought us to the gathering. I said I was aggrieved at the needless and senseless deaths of our American children and Iraqis of all kinds that was taking place in Iraq. Sister Marion repeated each reason given, reinforcing it.

A procession around the university grounds preceded the re-dedication of the peace pole. Since Sister Marion had announced as an interfaith ceremony and invited MIC members to participate, I asked her if I could contribute a chant. It was that chant we used for the procession. I learned it from the EarthSpirit Community in Massachusetts, specifically from MotherTongue's new album, "Weaving the Web of Life." My understanding of the chant's genesis is that the woman who wrote it did so right after 9/11. Her heart was roiling, so the chant begins, "Peace in my heart," and extends to "peace between our hearts," ending with the all-embracing "peace in the heart of the world." (You can hear a bit of the chant here.)

The procession.

I remained at the mike singing the chant while others walked, but I was told by several people after the conclusion of the ceremony that they kept the chant going the whole time and loved it.

After the re-dedication, the kindergarten and first grade students of St. Raphael School sang "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," with gestures. They were adorable.

Although the ceremony was designed to honor all faiths in peace, and included three prayers in the program, all the prayers were from the Abrahamic traditions. They included "A Christian Prayer for Peace," "A Muslim Prayer for Peace," and "A Jewish Prayer for Peace." All were recited in unison by everyone there. I wonder if the sisters sought the prayers from those folks or if they chose them themselves. I was puzzled that they didn't have a Jew and a Muslim read the Jewish and Muslim prayers. In any event, I know they tried to be inclusive. I did introduce myself and say that the offering of a chant I had brought was from the NeoPagan community. Several people, including some of the nuns, came up to me afterwards and thanked me for bringing it. That felt good. It also felt good seeing and hearing all those people, especially the little children, chanting a Pagan chant. Not that there's anything that would peg it as having been written by a Pagan from a Pagan perspective, since in my view has universal appeal and applicability. That's exactly why I chose it and why I offered it. I want to see our face, or taste our flavor, in interfaith situations.

We concluded by offering personal blessings of peace upon those standing near us. I felt good about the whole affair.

Note: Photos are from Dominican Sisters website; more here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Retreat Day with Two Nuns

Yesterday I spent a restorative day with others in the Marin Interfaith Council at one of our quarterly retreats. The theme was balancing the inner and outer life, taught by Dominican Sister Marion Irvine and Brahma Kumaris ("daughters of Brahma")* Sister Chandru.

Sister Chandru, who speaks very quietly with a melodic Hindi accent, told us about the founding of Brahma Kumaris by Brahma Baba (Lekhraj Kripilani) in 1936 in an area that was then in India but is now part of Pakistan. At that time Hinduism was dominated by males, and Baba thought there would be benefit in giving women charge of a group dedicated to peace. The movement began with 300-400 young women aged 16-21 years, and has now grown to 8,500 centers in 100 countries.

Brahma Baba
The Brahma Kumaris sisters at Anubhuti Meditation and Retreat Center**, the location of the retreat, were in mourning for their late leader, Dadi Prakashmani, who had died only a few days earlier. (Dadi means respected elder sister.) Dadi Prakashmani was one of the original sisters to whom Brahma Baba entrusted his entire worldly estate and the administration of the order; she joined when she was 14.

Born in Mumbai, Sister Chandru uses the masculine form of her given name, Chandra, because in her youth when she joined Brahma Kumaris, Brahma Baba told her she was like a son to him.

The Brahma Kumaris practice a form of meditation called Raja Yoga. It is a method of relaxing, refreshing and clearing the mind and heart. It helps you look inside to rediscover and reconnect with your original, spiritual essence. Meditation enables an integration of your spiritual identity with the social and physical realities around you, restoring a functional and healthy balance between your inner and outer worlds.

We spent the latter part of the morning, through lunch (delicious fresh vegetarian lovingly prepared and served by residents of the retreat) in silent meditation. We sat, and later walked the grounds or the labyrinth.

Sister Marion is a hoot. Really unshakable. When she was 47, overweight and smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, she took up running to relax after her workdays as principal of a grade school. Soon she became the oldest to ever qualify for the Olympic Trials. She even made it into Time magazine. Here's a photo (about halfway down the page) of her in her running days. She's now 77, with the spirit of a youngster and the sass of a woman who knows who she is and enjoys life.

She told us a bit about the founders of her order, the 12th Century CE Spaniard, St. Dominic de Guzman, and St. Catherine of Sienna (the youngest of 25 children!). In general, Dominicans seek to purify themselves from 'evil' by asceticism. The sisters established places of retreat for itinerant friars during the Late Middle Ages.

Dominicans have three orders. Sister Marion is in the third, or active, order. The second is contemplative, and the third is completely cloistered.

Dominican sisters, also known as the Order of Preachers, live their lives supported by four common values, often referred to as the Four Pillars of Dominican Life, they are: community life, common prayer [both liturgical and contemplative, according to Sister Marion], study and service.

Of course, we Witches know the Dominicans as the propagators of the Inquisition, the authors of the Malleus Malifacarum (published in 1487), torturers and burners of heretics, and she did mention the Dominicans' persecution of the Albigensians. I actually considered mentioning Kramer and Sprenger, but just didn't think it was a good time to get into that particular discussion.

Sister Marion is a native San Franciscan and product of Dominican schools. In high school, she observed that her teachers, all Dominican sisters, seemed happy in their lives and work, and since she considered herself to be a rather upbeat person, she was attracted to that life. She claims she never had a mystical experience that lead her to join, and she's never had one in the sixty years she's been in the order.

I did manage to jump on a potential teaching moment when we were talking about the power of collective prayer, chant and meditation focusing on a common goal. I pointed out that this is another name for what we might call 'spellwork.'

Sister Marion showed us a teaching method used in her order wherein a short passage of the Bible is read aloud slowly, and really listened to. After a brief period of silence, they are read a second time. I volunteered and found myself in the odd position of reading just a few verses of the Gospel of Luke.

We Pagans don't have a sacred text, per se; however, I intend to try this practice with a few lines of poetry, lyrical words about Nature, or maybe part of The Charge of the Goddess. I think it could enhance our understanding. As I get older, I find I enjoy contemplative spiritual practices at least as much as more active practices, if not more.

There were some things said that were mistaken assumptions on the part of the teachers, particularly assumptions about monotheism from Sister Marion.

Although we usually think of Hindus as being polytheists, the Brahma Kumaris seem to pay little heed to individual deities. Instead, their focus is on world peace. The artwork at the retreat was comprised of a surprising number of white sculpted angels -- a large angel stood at the edge of the labyrinth -- plus photographs of temples and assemblies of people, and mystical paintings of colors and images drawing the eye into "the one."

I find enrichment in every retreat I've attended. This is the fourth. I missed the one at the Vedanta Society in West Marin, but attended two at Santa Sabina Center and one at Green Gulch Zen Center, plus several International Day of Prayer breakfasts at Congregation Rodef Shalom.

Our director, the Rev. Carol Hovis, has a real talent for putting together interesting spiritual leaders to present on topics relevant to all of us. She's someone other interfaith folks might consider looking to for creative ideas leading to greater religious tolerance and understanding.

*Brahma Kumaris means ‘daughters of Brahma.’ Seminal to the vision of world renewal was the revelation of the important and prominent role of women as spiritual teachers. Brahma Baba correctly foresaw that core values based on traditionally feminine qualities – patience, tolerance, sacrifice, kindness and love – would increasingly become the foundation of progress in personal growth, human relations, and the development of caring communities. To maintain the emphasis on this vital core of leadership, he named the organisation the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University.

** Anubhuti means 'to experience."

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Sing a Song of Summer

Summer & Macha at the Summer of Love

My friend Summer and I spent last Sunday afternoon in Speedway Meadows in Golden Gate Park enjoying a glorious day with thousands of others at the 40th Anniversary of the Summer of Love. We didn't know each other in 1967, although we were both in San Francisco. We met through the home birth movement in the '70s when Summer was a birth coach and we were both young mothers (well, not so young). Summer had a daughter and identical twin sons; I had Deirdre. Deirdre and her boys were both Geminis born in 1976.

Since then, we've tickled each other's funny bones, tipped a shot of Jameson's, celebrated birthdays and other good times. Summer inspires me to be a better person. It's not that she does or says anything in particular. It's just that when we have long talks, she gets me thinking about things in a more loving and compassionate way. Having Summer as a friend has enriched my life.

We arrived around 11:15 a.m. with folding chairs and table, rainbow umbrella and food. Every time we looked around the crowd was denser, with people streaming through the gaps in the trees on the paths down into the meadow. There were vendors and lots of good food to buy, but the lines were endless; we were glad we'd brought our own picnic. Here are a few more photos:

Peace & Flowers and Flower Children

All Ages

Believe it or not, that's Grace Slick and
the Jefferson Airplane up there on the stage.