Thursday, December 22, 2011

Loving Yule

The altar has been erected with loving care, each item carrying meaning and intent.  Similarly, the hearth has been laid with care, the cauldron of gifts on the fireplace apron.  Witches gather and greet one another.

The priest sings incantations as he prepares salt, water, and incense.  During the course of the ritual, a newer coven member may stumble a bit on wording, but is quickly, gently, and lovingly righted on his footing by more experienced colleagues. The ritual unfolds seamlessly and gracefully.

We meditate on the year and the darkness.  All candles are extinguished.  Out of the darkness, a priestess lights the center Sun candle, then the other candles on the altar.  I am struck by the beauty of the poetry she speaks as she brings back the light.  A priest takes the flame from the altar candles and uses it to ignite the hearth fire.

We dance around the old year's dry wreath, chanting:  "Horned One, Lover, Sun, leaping in the corn, deep in the Mother, die and be reborn."  The priestess calls a drop and places the old wreath on the fire, where it roars and brightens the whole room.  In some years, this act elicits cheers.  This year, however, we gaze in silence -- contemplative, reflective, awestruck, warmed, renewed.  We see a bright year ahead

After some time of communal silence, we exchange gifts from the cauldron, each a surprise to the recipient.  We share culinary delights that each of us has brought to our common feasting.  We engage in sacred conversation -- sacred because it takes place within the sacred circle.

We are rewarded for our efforts and our honoring (or maybe not by our efforts) by the return of the Sun, without whose light we and the many beings with whom we share this glorious green egg cannot thrive.

I am sustained, nourished, renewed by the sharing of this annual rite.

Solstice blessings to all!  May your year be warm and bright like our burning wreath.

Monday, December 12, 2011

AAR Annual Meeting, Part V

Shawn Arthur of Appalachian State University presided over the Contemporary Pagan Studies session on Pagan Analysis and Critique of "Religion on Monday afternoon. 

Suzanne Owen's paper described "Definitions, Decisions, and Druids: Presenting Druidry as a Religion."  In England, where they do not have separation between church and state, residents are asked to state their religions on census forms.  For religious groups other than those of the state religion to thrive, they must be sanctioned or approved or in some way officially recognized by the government.  In recent years Druids have sought, and eventually received, such recognition.  Dr. Owens' paper detailed their efforts.  During Q&A, Patrick McCollum noted that this case in England has been useful in efforts here in the U.S. for inmates who are Druids (and other Pagan inmates) to assemble as a group in prison chapels for worship and ceremony.

Dr. Christine Kraemer, Cherry Hill Seminary, delivered an excellent paper on "Perceptions of Scholarship in Contemporary Paganism."  Of course, since Christine is Chair of CHS' Department of Theology and Religious History, I'm confident that she's knowledgeable and current on such matters.  She offers several examples of Pagan critiques of Pagan scholars and their responses -- Ronald Hutton, Ben Whitmore, Aidan Kelly, Don Frew, et al.  While confirming the value of these critiques, she also cites Richard Hofstader's contentions, propounded in his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life , that this attitude is "historically rooted in deeply held American values such as egalitarianism and democracy." He claims that nineteenth-century evangelical religions have influenced American thought so that it expresses "more heart-centered than head-centered values," and that this attitude is found among modern amateur Pagans as well.

Helen Berger, Brandeis University, delivered a paper called "Fifteen Years of Continuity and Change within the American Pagan Community" that follows up on her earlier studies.  She noted that religions either die or change.1  Among the changes she found in her follow-up studies are: 
  1. The population of American Witches and Pagans2 who are female has increased from 65% to 71%.
  2. Pagans are geographically more evenly spread, pointing towards "normalization."
  3. Pagans are more educated than most Americans; 98% have high school diplomas compared to 87% for the rest of the population.
  4. There are fewer "older" Pagans.  I don't recall that Helen specified what age would be considered "older," but it appears that more of her respondents were "younger."  This fact, coupled with the fact that religions either change or die, reinforces the need for us to explore the notion of eldership, as I've been doing.3
  5. Seventy-eight percent of those surveyed claim to be solitary; 86% of "younger" people consider themselves to be solitaries.
These data provoked lots of questions.  For me, I wonder if the fact that so many claim to be solitaries reflects perhaps: A dearth of teachers and/or training covens? An unrealistic expectation of what covens are? An indication of poor social skills and difficulty getting along with others or building trust with others?  A move away from a more private practice and towards a preference for larger-group or community rituals?

Caroline Tully, University of Melbourne, delivered the final paper, "Researching the Past as a Foreign Country: Cognitive Dissonance as a Response by Practitioner Pagans to Academic Research on the History of Pagan Religions."  Caroline is someone many of us have known for some years online, but on this, her first trip to the U.S., we had the good fortune to meet her and hang out.  Her paper reminded me once again of a phenomenon in Paganism that I call a "yearning for authenticity."  Many people, not just Pagans -- Christians are a fine example -- seem to require evidence of antiquity or of a long unbroken (or broken and reclaimed, revived, reconstructed) tradition to cite as a claim of authenticity, to claim credibility.  I am not among them.  On the contrary, I see much syncreticism in almost every religion of which I have some knowledge.  I don't think a religion is more or less authentic because of its alleged antiquity.  I think it's authentic if it speaks to its practitioners' spiritual needs, if the practice of its forms offers meaning and comfort,

Later I attended the Comparative Studies in Religion Section session on Noncanonical/Nationalist Reinventions of Religions' Narratives of Origin, Christopher Patrick Parr, Webster University, presiding.  Chris, who teaches religious studies and I had encountered one another at other sessions and we had a friendly chat before the meeting began.  The subject intrigued me.  Pagans have many stories of their origins. All religions and ethnicities and groups of people seeking to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world, or seeking to define themselves, and seeking a sense of group solidarity and cohesion, have narratives of origin.  We Pagans have a few ourselves.

I apologize ahead of time for confusion about which speaker was speaking about what, since the program only listed their names and not the titles of their papers.

The first speaker said that there were numerous neopagan nationalist groups in Russia who posit an advanced Russian civilization before St. Cyril, and that they claim a conspiracy of silence on the part of monks and others to suppress knowledge of this earlier time.  These groups are more bookish than outdoorsy and do not perform outdoor rituals.  They claim a mysterious Russian or Cyrillic or "planetary" alphabets comprised of 147 characters, and that the monks' theft of this alphabet paved the way for aliens and alien culture to proliferate in Russia.  Slavs had an autochthonous alphabet and writing before Cyril.

To me, the most interesting paper was about Buddha Shakyamuni and Mother Earth, or Mae Thoranee.  Mae Thoranee is a Thai and Laotian Earth mother figure found beneath the Buddha in statues and paintings.  The fingers of the Buddha's right hand touches the earth.  A tiny image of Mae Thoranee appears underneath the larger image of the Buddha.  This Mae Thoranee foundation upon which the Buddha rests reminds me of the appellation of Mary as Mother of God found in Catholic prayer.

Mae Thoranee, protrectress of the land and its fertility, exists in localized versions.  She is both animist and Buddhist; the soil is her spirit and the trees are her children.  Merit is stored in the water in her hair.  She is shown wringing water from her hair, pouring the waters of merit to redistribute it among any wandering spirits.  One of the slides showed a statue of Mae Thoranee in the act of wringing water from her air on the grounds in front of a civic building.

Another paper was about Takeuchi Kiyomaro (1874-1965), a priest of the Shinto sect known as "Takeuchi-bunsho," dating from the 3rd-4th centuries CE.  The speaker told of how this sect, and others, asserted the superiority of the Japanese people.

* * * * *

Tuesday morning, the last half-day, and which session to savor? I was interested in:
  • Ethics Section, Economic Ethics and Political Reform, in particular, "Whole Foods or Whole People?: The Madness of Neoliberalism and the Paradoxical Political Economy of Hunger" and "Reforming Economic Excess: Towards a Solidarity Economy."  I don't know how much effect a bunch of academics talking about these topics might have to influence economic change or to fill empty stomachs.
  • North American Religions Section, Industrial Effervescence: Manufacturing Economic Selves and Producing Religious Collectivity in American History, in particular, "Gilded Age Railroad Brotherhoods as Industrial Religion" and "Parts of a Whole: Ecological Consumerism in a Global Age." I find the whole culture of railroads fascinating, and know little about it.  I'm also intrigued by brotherhoods, lodges, and other "in-group" organizations.  I suspect we could learn more about creating group cohesion, group identity, group solidarity from studying these phenomena.
  • Women and Religion SectionPerforming Gender and Identify through Song in South Asia, "Dancing with the Goddess, Singing for Ourselves."
However, I attended the session on North American Hinduism Consultation, California Dreaming: South Asian Religions Encounter the Counterculture.

"Utopian Settlements, Californian Vedanta, Huxley, Isherwood, and Friends," presented by Smitri Srinivas of UC-Davis, described places and people I've heard of or encountered in my years in California.  It was interesting to hear these times spoken of from a historical and analytical perspective when one has some awareness of how they have influenced one's life.  I say that as a person who lived in the heart of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury during the 1960s.

"The  Reception of Kundalini Yoga in California and Its Relation to Sikh Dharma/3HO," was presented by Michael Stoeber, himself a practitioner of kundalini yoga.

"California Hinduism: The Shiva Lingam of Golden Gate Park, 1989-1994," by Eliza Kent, Colgate University, related to a new audience a story I like to cite when the topic of sacred images and sites comes up.  I remember when this occurred; it's a wonderful tale.

Jeffrey J. Kripal of Rice University and Shana Sippy, Carleton College offered thoughtful responses.  I'm familiar with Dr. Kripal from my readings about my matron, Kali Ma.  He wrote Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna as well as other writings on Kali.

I enjoyed comments from people of a certain age, myself included, during the Q&A session at the end of the session.

As I was leaving the room, I was pleased to encounter Samir Kaira, a friend from the Hindu American Foundation.  I had expected to run into others from that organization over the course of the Annual Meeting, but other than seeing Dr. Mihir Meghani at the Pagan studies reception on Saturday night, I saw no one.  No doubt this is because there were so many intriguing sessions and they probably focused on the Hindu related ones while I focused on the Pagan ones.


1.  Interestingly, it is our survival, and the changes necessary to ensure it, that motivate my work.

2.  She did not, to my knowledge, make a distinction between the terms Paganism and Witchcraft.

3.  Please see my survey on Survey Monkey  Note that this survey has been extended to January 15, 2012, so if you haven't already participated, I invite you to do so now.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

AAR Annual Meeting, Part IV

On Monday morning I attended the New Religious Movements Group on Religious Appropriation of Secular Culture.   All five papers interested me from a nascent-culture perspective.  First was "Haunted Ground: Nature's Nation form the American Metaphysical Perspective," followed by "Summer Camp and New Paradigms of Sacred Space in New Religious Movements," by Ann Duncan, Goucher College.  In past posts on this blog, I've commented about Reclaiming's Teen Earth Magic, a summer camp for adolescents.  Many of these teens are alumni of the annual Witchlets in the Woods family camp.  Summer camps have been a part of American religious life since at least the early 19th Century, if not earlier.  I attended both Girl Scout and Methodist Church summer camps in the 1950s.

"From HippieCrits an' Jesus Freaks to the Twelve Tribes: the Integration and Reinterpretation of Vietnam Era Pop-culture into a Fundamentalist Communitarian Movement's Ideology" had great potential, but I think this was the first paper the two young scholars, Bryan Barkley and C.A. Burriss, University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, had ever presented because they fumbled a lot when their Power Point Presentation didn't respond as they'd planned, and as a result they lost time and had to abbreviate their talk.  It dealt with a Christian camp created by counterculture boomers, presuming to appeal to younger seekers, but the reality turns out to be that there's a lot of transiency.  People come but don't stay long.  I think only six people have been there any length of time.

I'm only minimally knowledgeable of the many Pagan attempts at creating Utopian communities, but I do know that it is a desire for, a yearning for, a belief in the possibility of a "better" world that motivates many Pagans.  "Better" means different things to different people, but one might reasonably assume "better" would include plenty of nourishing food, warm, comfortable shelter, clothing, loving family and community, the pursuit of "right livelihood," education, music, art, all in an atmosphere of safety, mutual love and trust, a spirit of cooperation, working together for the common good.

Shannon Harvey spoke on "'Eat Your Way Back to the Godhead': Reducing Karma and Calorie-intake Using International Society of Krishna Consciousness Cookbooks."

But it was the final paper that I found most intriguing, "Hoop Spiritualities: The Hula-Hoop and Embodied Spiritual Practice," presented by Martha Smith Roberts and Jenna Gray-Hildenbrand, both from UC Santa Barbara.  Both scholars are hoopers themselves.  They undertook this study because anecdotally they learned that hoopers underwent spiritual experiences when they got "in the zone," and they themselves had had similar experiences.  They surveyed many hoopers from around the country.  Hooping appeals more to women than to men, although among the men there are charismatic teachers.  Some hoopers spin for many hours a day.  Respondents described their experiences as being meditative, offering a sense of oneness with the universe, a sense of peace.  Hooping rebalanced them from the stresses of their daily lives.  It created an altered state of consciousness in the hoopers.  The sense of being a part of the world both increased and decreased with this sense of wellness.  It increased a feeling of interconnectedness yet allowed hoopers to let go of worldly concerns.

As Roberts and Gray-Hildenbrand described their findings, I was struck by all the parallels I was seeing between hula hooping and Pagan religious practices.  First, hoopers are literally working within a circle; most Pagans construct sacred space in a circular form.  Hoopers have no guru and neither do Pagans, although we do have organizers, ritualists, writers, and leaders among our illustrious co-religionists.  Hooping has no doctrine. We call the space we create one that is "between the worlds."  Hoopers feel suspended between the worlds.  Respondents described individual spiritual experiences in the course of hooping, as Pagans do of experiences in ritual, and their experience/learning is embodied.  More women practice Pagan religions, as more women spin hula hoops "religiously."  I spoke to Ms. Gray-Hildenbrand after the session, since any Q&A time had been eaten by delays of one kind or another.  She agreed with the similarities I had observed, and said that as it happened, a large percentage of their survey respondents identified as Pagan.

While I attended the NRM session described above, I forewent a Wildcard Session on Gods and Monsters of the Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Imagination.  The session addressed ideological and material exchange among Greco-Roman, Anatolian, Mesopotamian and Levantine cultures in the form of shared religious and mythological themes from the Bronze Age to late Roman civilizations.  The five papers were "Hearing the Chaoskampf in Iliad 21," Further Parallels in Greco-Anatolian Disappearing God Rituals: the Hittite Kursa Hunting Bag and the Dios Koidion (Fleece of Zeus)," Syncresis and the Cult of Isis in the Greco-Roman World," The Greek Gigantomachy and the Israelite Gigantomachy: Giants as Chaosmacht in Israel and the Iron Age Aegean," and "The God Aion in a Mosaic from Paphos and Helleno-Semitic Cosmogenies in the Roman East."  Don't they sound juicy?

Monday afternoon I was tempted by several sessions.  In particular, the
  • Native Traditions of the Americas Group, Resilience and Revitalization in Indigenous California.  "Asumpa (To Flow): Native American Language and Cultural Revitalization through Hip-Hop," Melissa Leal, UC Davis.  This whole session sounded intriguing.
  • North American Hinduism and Yoga in Theory and Practice Consultations, panel on Mother India Meets the Golden State: California Gurus and West Coast Yoga.
  • Religion in Europe and the Mediterranean World, 500-1650 CE Consultation on the theme of Mapping Medieval Boundaries: Textual, Physical, and Institutional, two of four papers, "The Anachronistic Crone: Margery Kempe and the Hands the (Re/Un)Wrote Her Theology of History" and "From Dominican to Benedictine, form Benedictine to Dominican: Religious Women and Reform in Late Medieval Italy."  The second paper interested me because I have formed friendships with two Dominican sisters1 in MIC, and I have heard them speak of the powerful feeling they experience when they consider that they have 800 years of tradition behind their work.  I don't quite understand how Catholic religious orders work, but I understand that the Dominican Order includes friars, nuns, and congregations of sisters and lay members.  I also know that Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, Dominicans both, wrote the Malleus Malifacarum (Hammer of the Witches) that was so cruelly employed during the Inquisition against segments of the populace I identify with.  Regardless, the Dominican sisters I know are wonderful, caring women.              
  • Religion in South Asia Section and Hinduism Group, Mughal Bhakti: Devotees, Sufis, Yogis, and Literati in Early Modern North India. Paper entitled "Bitten By the Snake of Love: Jogis, Tantra, and Mantra in the Poetry of the Bhakti Saints."  The San Francisco Asian Art Museum's current exhibit, "Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts" compliments this session.
  • Indigenous Religious Traditions Group, Sacred Mountains in Indigenous Traditions.  Of the five papers, two interested me: "Places with Personality: Sacred Mountains, Sacred Geography" and "Returning to Foretop's Father: A Sunrise Ceremony in Wyoming."
  • Mysticism Group and Music and Religion Consultation, Music, Mysticism, and Religion.  What can I say?  Isn't that a lot of what we are about?  The four papers that most appealed to me: "The Musical Self: A Nonemotive Reinterpretation of Schleiermacher's Aesthetics of Feeling," "'Drumming' Ritual Identity in Santeria," "From Breath to Dance: Music as a Language of Experience in an American Sufi," and "What the 'Strange Trip' of the Deadhead Community can Teach Us about Religion."  Well, duh!
  • Religion and Disability Studies Group, Metaphor, Language, and Corporeality, in particular "Of Gimps and Gods: Disability as Embodiment of the Divine in Yoruba and Diasporic Religions," by Amy Ifátólú Gardner, UC Berkeley.
  • Western Esotericism Group, Western Esotericism and Material Culture.  Five papers. Egil Asprem of the University of Amsterdam, who spoke first on "Technofetishism, Instrumentation, and the Materiality of Esoteric Knowledge, had joined us on our pilgrimage to Isis Oasis, et al. on Friday.  "The Use of Tracing Boards and Other Art Objects as Physical Aids of Symbolic Communication in the Rituals and Practices of Freemasonry," by Shawn Eyer of nearby JFK University.  (I'm fairly certain that Shawn's path has crossed with mine somewhere along the line, but I cannot place him at the moment.)  I had chatted with the next presenter, Stephen Wehmeyer, at the NCLC-CoG reception on Saturday night, but missed his talk on "Conjurational Contraptions: 'Techno-gnosis,' Mechanical Wizardry, and the Material Culture of African American Folk Magic."  Henrik Bogdan of the University of Gothenburg's paper was ""'Objets d'Art Noir,' Magical Engines, and Gateways to Other Dimensions: Understanding Hierophanies in Contemporary Occultism."  If I'm not mistaken, Bogdan published a book about Asatru a few years ago that caused a stir.  The final paper was "Storming the Citadel for Knowledge, Aesthetics, and Profit: The Dreammachine in Twentieth Century Esotericism."
    Though many of the papers speak from the rarefied air of academia's ivory towers, one can also see how many are relevant to, and informed by, contemporary 21st Century (CE) culture.  Pop culture and embodiment flavor much of this year's studies.  The reader can see from the samplings mentioned here and in my other blogs how the AAR can be viewed as a banquet table laden with a glorious intellectual feast.

    Please check this blog in a few days for more about the rest of Monday and Tuesday morning.

    1.  Sisters may be confused with nuns.  Nuns live cloistered lives.  Sisters live and work in the public world.

    Saturday, December 03, 2011

    AAR Annual Meeting, Part III

    Here are a few of the intriguing sounding presentations I missed on Sunday:

    • New Religious Movements Group, Strategies of Legitimation in New Religion, one talk in particular:  "Jungian Archetypes, Metagenetics, and Kennewick Man: Scientific Discourses and Racial Theory in American Folkish Asatru," Carrie Dohe, University of Chicago.
    • Ritual Studies Group, Case Studies in Ritual Practice, three papers: "Homa: An Exemplary Asian Fire Sacrifice, Holly Grether, UC Santa Barbara; "Dismantling Gender: Between Ancient Gnostic Ritual and Modern Queer BDSM," Johathan Cahana, Hebrew University, Jerusalem; and "Ritual as Technology of the Body in Early Confucianism." Ori Tavor, University of Pennsylvania.  The second paper seemed especially helpful given ongoing discussions of gender within contemporary Paganism.
    • North American Hinduism Group, Constructions of Hindu Selves and Hindu Others in North America, in particular "Sightings and Blind Spots: The 'Protestant Lens' and the Construction of Hinduism," Michael Altman, Emory University.  Again, because we are a new religious movement, and because there is a phenomenon identified in the field of ritual studies known as "the Protestantization of religion," whereby immigrant religions strive for assimilation by adopting a Protestant church structure, I thought this talk might offer insights and ideas that might prove useful to us as we Pagans establish ourselves within wider society.  We can learn what methods and templates suit the organizational structures and institutions we create and adopt or adapt them, and we can learn what customs, roles, policies, and forms don't suit us and might compromise our uniqueness.  In other words, what to emulate and what to avoid.  As someone who's been deeply involved for the past ten years or so with establishing a Pagan seminary, I'm acutely aware of the tendency to parrot the "overculture" -- because it's easiest, because it's what we're familiar with.  At the same time, I try to consider whether these forms and roles are concordant with who we are.
    • Death, Dying, and Beyond Consultation, Death in Popular Culture, featured "The Power of Death and Dying: Images as a Means of Conversion and Modes of Shaping Afterlife Beliefs in Nineteenth Century America," The Guide of Souls: Characteristics of the Psychopomp in Modern American Media," (there's that pop culture theme again) "Shimmering Between the Symbolic and Real in Pan's Labyrinth and The Fisher King," and "Jewish Ghosts: A Content Analysis of Some Jewish Folklore."  This is just one of the death and dying sessions I'd have liked to attend.  I did, however, run into my friend Megory Anderson at Starbuck's between sessions.  Megory founded the Sacred Dying Foundation, on whose Advisory Board I serve.  We met when we were both researching books on death and dying; there is a Pagan blessing from The Pagan Book of Living and Dying in the alternative religions section of her book, Sacred Dying: Creating Rituals for Embracing the End of Life.
    • Anthropology of Religion and Ritual Studies Groups, Ritual and the Construction of Sacred Space.  Right up our Witchen alley, right?  Of the three papers, I was most intrigued by "A Trip to the Spring: A Four-Generation Water Ritual at Shingleroof Camp Meeting."  Summer camps seem to be one of the ongoing themes addressed this year.
    • Templeton Lecture, Martin J. Rees, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge and Astronomer Royal -- pretty impressive title, huh?  It appears he's also titled, Baron Rees of Ludlow -- gave a lecture entitled "Our Final Hour: Can Our Species Determine the Fate of the Earth?" I figured that Dr. (or might the proper title be 'Sir' or 'Baron'?) Rees, a theoretical astrophysicist and winner of this year's Templeton Prize, would be offering his scientific perspective on this rather daunting topic and that he was probably well worth listening to, but alas, I had no time to attend.
    • PlenaryAddress, New Thoughts on Solidarity, considering the relationship between sexual and religious minorities in the context of the right to appear in public [?]... [and] the affiliative meanings of queer in light of new efforts to separate queer politics from anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles," Judy Butler, UC Berkeley, panelist.
    • The theme of the Body and Religion Group was Somatospiritual Development: Matter, Symbol, Transformation, again reflecting notions of both embodiment and the embodied spiritual experience and secular culture's influence.  Of five papers, one, "Muscled, Mean, and Sometimes Moral: Professional Wrestling and the Embodiment of Cultural-Ethical Tensions," Dan Mathewson, Wofford College, interested me most.  Our religion(s) is an embodied practice, meaning that we do our rituals, we perform them with our bodies and voices, rather than listening to an authority figure, often presumed to be more spiritually evolved or "closer to God" than the assembly, tell us what to say and do.  We often explain this to mainstream religious practitioners as being experienced rather than revealed (i.e., revealed to Moses or some other mortal).
    The Tony Blair Faith Foundation held a session on Religion and the Internet.  Had I perfected the art of bilocation, I'd have attended this for two reasons: one is that I wrote a book called Witchcraft and the Web: Weaving Pagan Traditions Online, which discussed the effects the Internet has had on Paganism and the Pagan presence on the Web. The other is that I made the acquaintance of a lovely man named Dr. Ian Jamison, a Face to Faith Teacher Trainer with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation -- and he reads this very blog!

    What I've listed here is just a sampling of the many sessions that I was interested in yet had to forgo in order to go to ones I felt were even more important to me to attend.  These should give you an idea of the breadth and depth of studies given voice at this annual meeting of 10,000 people -- religious studies scholars, religious leaders and practitioners, religion journalists, seminarians, publishers of religious titles, and many more.  You can also see how difficult making those choices is.  You can also see thematic threads having to do with pop culture and secularism, mixed and revived cultural and religious practices, legitimation, multiculturalism. All the while, the elephant in the meeting rooms, sometimes named, was Occupy San Francisco nearby and the Occupy Movement in general, as I've mentioned before.

    Check back here in a few days for more detailed posts about the sessions I did attend.

    Wednesday, November 30, 2011

    Contemporary Pagan Studies Sessions at AAR

    There are always dozens of alluring presentations going on at the AAR; usually the most compelling are scheduled simultaneously.  This year was no different.  I passed up so many that I wanted to attend, but unfortunately I have not yet learned to bilocate, or even trilocate.  Sunday was a big day for Pagan Studies.

    The first morning session was a joint one presented by the Contemporary Pagan Studies and the Religion and Ecology Groups on the theme of "Elemental Theology and Feminist Earth Practice."  Starhawk and Rosemary Ruether shared the panel, with Marion S. Grau, Jone Salomonsen,1 and Heather Eaton responding.  Naturally, due to the theme of the session and the fact that Occupy San Francisco is only a few blocks from Moscone Center West where we were meeting and some AAR folks visited the encampment (not to mention the fact that Starhawk and others are there nearly daily), the subject of the Occupy Movement arose, as it did in several other sessions.  This also led to talk about group organization, leadership and no (overt) leadership, egalitarianism, consensus process, and related aspects of group dynamics and movement health and sustainability.  One of the first questions addressed to Starhawk and referring to groups and group process was whether we (meaning, I assumed, any of the groups in which she's active, but after speaking to the querist after the session, learned was Reclaiming) had any "rituals of reconciliation."  Wow!  This took me aback.  I had never thought of such a thing, yet it seems so obvious.

    Rumination on Reconciliation

    Most of the groups I've worked in over the years, 95% of which have run by consensus process, have had problems with divisive issues, difficult people, personality conflicts, and similar disturbances.  This is just part of being human and interacting with other humans.  As often as not these episodes (or ongoing disputes) lead to one or more members leaving the group.  These individuals are usually hurt by the leave-taking, and in addition their loss to the group can leave a rend.  The group itself can ritualize the leave-taking, and sometimes they do, but that doesn't account for the disharmony within the leave-taker(s).  Of course, it is not a group's responsibility to heal the person who is longer a member; if that were possible, the person probably wouldn't have taken the extreme measure of disaffiliating in the first place.  So where does reconciliation come in?  Somehow I can't imagine that some of the people I've seen leave a group would seek to reconcile.  Not that I don't view that as a positive act towards the ultimate healing of all parties involved.  I do.  Perhaps it's worthwhile for us to consider how we might create such a ritual, even when we have no candidate seeking to be reconciled.  I do think we're all in this together, and we are best served by at least operating in harmony with each other, with other groups and such, even if from a distance.  So enacting a ritual of reconciliation, with or without the presence of the hurt former member, could have beneficial effects on all parties involved.  This is something I'll have to ponder.

    The afternoon session of the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group addressed "West Coast Pagan Practices and Ideas."

    I had been looking forward to my friend Kerry Noonan's paper on "Wish They All Could Be California Grrrls?: The Influence of California Women on the Goddess Movement and Neo-Paganism," but unfortunately ill health prevented Kerry from being there.  This paper was about us!

    Dr. Christopher Chase of Iowa State University spoke on "Building a California Bildung: Theodore Roszak's and Alan Watts' Contribution of Pagan Hermeneutics."  I always appreciate and learn from Christopher's presentations and this one was no exception.  Learning more about influential people you know or know of and who are of your time and place is so much fun.

    Kristy Coleman was the last presenter, on the topic of "Re-riting Women: Dianic Wicca."  This is another topic I know fairly well; it's of my time and place.  Dr. Coleman pointed out that Dianic Craft, as promulgated by Z Budapest, Ruth Barrett, Circle of Aradia, and emanating from Los Angeles and beyond, will be meeting to celebrate their fortieth anniversary this December.  An impressive milestone that speaks to sustainability and ongoing relevance.

    Fritz Muntean, co-founder and Editor Emeritus of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, responded.

    The final session I attended on Sunday was the Religion and Ecology Group's "Author Meets Critics: Bron Taylor's Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future" featured panelists Sarah Pike, Lisa Sideris, Laurel Kearns, and John Baumann, Bron Taylor responding.  The panelists read papers critiquing Bron's book and pointing out what they saw as weaknesses, oversights, or distorted emphases.  The general tone, but for Sarah's paper, was that it wasn't "Christian enough."  Bron disagreed, and so do I.  This is an important book that I hope many people will read.

    Sunday evening's Special Topics Forum featured a "Conversation with Gary Snyder, 2011 AAR Religion and the Arts Award Winner," presided over by Mary Evelyn Tucker.2  I've long admired Gary Snyder and his work, even have a quote of his on the back of my business card: "Find your place on the planet.  Dig in, and take responsibility from there."  Alas, I wasn't able to make it.

    Because of my involvement in the world of interfaith relations, I had also wanted to attend the Wildcard Session on "Institutionalizing Interfaith: Emerging Models for Educating Religious Leaders in a Multireligious Context," addressing "How do we train the next generation of spiritual leaders, rooted in their own religious tradition with the skills and motivation to work across faith lines?"  The panel, as listed in the program, was comprised entirely of Abrahamics.3  All the more reason for me to have been there, since I would have spoken up about my own real multireligious experiences working in interfaith.  I guess it's good that they're addressing this topic as being seminary-study-worthy.  We Pagans have been developing interfaith trainings for nearly 20 years, and in fact, Cherry Hill Seminary's 2012 Leadership Institute, "Transforming Our World," will include a session on "Our Place in the World of Interfaith."


    1.  Dr. Salomonsen is the author of Enchanted Feminism: The Reclaiming Witches of San Francisco.

    2.  I have never met Mary Evelyn, but have known of her work since the late '90s when I served on The Biodiversity Project Spirituality Working Group with her husband, John Grim.  Not that he'd necessarily remember me, except that I was the lone Witch among the dozen participants.

    3.  The Abrahamic religions are those that sprang from the legacy of Abraham, i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

    Monday, November 28, 2011

    Thanksgiving Eve Celebration

    Once again this year I joined the Rev. Paul Gaffney and the folks at Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy for a Thanksgiving Eve celebration with the homeless population of our city.  A significant part of the ceremony is the gathering of offerings -- primarily sleeping bags and socks -- and blessing them for their use in keeping people warm and cozy through the cold, wet winter months.

    Some of the ritual contributions, mostly drumming, poetry, and singing, came from the homeless population.  I've come to know a few of them over the years and to appreciate their talents.  In particular, we have enjoyed the singing of Cup Bach Pham, a woman from Southeast Asia.

    Among the religious leaders who participated were Fr. John Balleza, the new priest at Church of St. Raphael and Mission San Rafael Arcangel; Dr. Laura Stivers, a religion and philosophy professor at Dominican University; Qayyum Johnson from Green Gulch Farm and Zen Center, the Rev. Dr. Curran Reichert of Community Congregational Church of Tiburon (site of the 9/11 Contemplative Service for Peace reported on earlier); the Rev. Dr. Liza Klein of San Rafael First United Methodist Church; and others.

    Most touching, to me, was a personal story told by Clair Mikowski from Congregation Rodef Shalom about her parents' immigration to this country and some of the things her mother taught her.  She delivered this story on the day her mother would have turned 100 years old.

    Among the musical offerings, Taneen, from the International Association of Sufism, sang an evocative sacred chant.  They have performed at MIC events in the past and I always look forward to hearing them.

    Corby usually accompanies me to this annual event and sings with me.  This year he was away for the holiday.  I was fortunate in that my friend Gwion from North Bay Reclaiming joined me as a Pagan presence.  I told an abbreviated version of the story of the abduction of Kore, later called Persephone, by Hades and the searching and grief of her mother, Demeter.  It's a familiar story to many non-Pagans, and since we are celebrating harvest and the fruits of field, orchard, and barnyard, it seems perfect.  We followed the brief story by singing "Demeter's Song" by Starhawk.  I love the song.  I love the melody and harmonies.  And I especially love the theology, or worldview, it illustrates.

    After the service we moved to a room nearby to share seasonal comestibles.

    Sunday, November 27, 2011

    Ritual in the UU World

    Before the big NCLC-CoG-hosted party on Saturday evening, I attended the Unitarian Universalist Scholars ad friend Discussion on the theme of "Celebrating Embodied and Transformative Worship and Ritual."  As a ritualist, I was intrigued by the topic, and as someone scheduled to teach liturgical design at a UU seminary, I was doubly intrigued.

    The first panelist, Dr. Robert N. McCauley of Emory University, explained that in UU there are two kinds of members: anti-ritualists and non-ritualists.

    The former are those who were reared in religious traditions with extensive, prescribed ritual practices.  They were pressured to participate in and perform these rituals and they experienced pressure to conform and censure for non-participation.  In addition, many carried the Protestant attitude that rejected the elaborate rituals of the Roman Catholic church in favor of simpler rites.  Further, one would assume, they did not find the rituals to be satisfying or enjoyable, the result being that they were anti-ritualists.

    The non-ritualists, on the other hand, had little experience with religious rituals in childhood, perhaps from being brought up in secular families.  They were uninformed and indifferent; hence, non-ritualists.

    Both groups overlook some of the benefits of shared ritual practice.  Rituals help create a shared identity and enhance group cohesion.  They foster a sense of "morality and ritual connection."  They separate the shared ritualists from non-belongers, and increase in-group cooperation while fostering out-group hostility.  They way I would put this is that shared rituals create bonding among the participants.

    One of the examples Dr. McCauley used to illustrate his points was the cargo cults of Melanesia, a fascinating phenomenon of which I had been ignorant.

    "Special agent" rituals, "those in which the relevant supernatural being is the agent of the action," acting either as the giver or the receiver.  They are performed only once, since the result is considered to be permanent.  Rites of passage are special agent rituals, which usually involve high levels of sensory pageantry (music, aroma, garb, implements, lighting, etc.) and are done once for each "ritual patient."

    I'm intrigued by Dr. McCauley's work and intend to explore it further.

    The Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones of the First Unitarian Church of San José (California) spoke of using storyteller's art to embody the other. [her emphases]  This is a familiar ritual technique in Reclaiming Tradition Witchcraft, particularly in the contexts of WitchCamps.  Embodied learning and experiencing the divine in the physical body is a distinctive characteristic of the Craft.

    Dr. Emily R. Mace addressed the phenomenon of rituals within the overall UU world that draw liberally upon other, non-Christian sources, usually interpreted loosely.  To me, this tends to foster a reliance on scripture over lived experience.  While this borrowing from other religious sources acknowledges a wider range of wisdom, it also brings up the problem of cultural appropriation.  I'm sensitive to this phenomenon, yet I view most religions, including the Abrahamic faiths, as being syncretic in many ways.  In addition, we live today in a wildly diverse multicultural world, one where we are exposed to all manner of religious and artistic expression of the spiritual dimension of our beings.  If we learn from those exposures, if we find value in their teachings, if we consider that those teachings enhance our spiritual lives, can incorporating them into our personal practices be wrong?  I know this topic is a big bugaboo, but we do need to view it clearly and discuss it honestly.

    The Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake of Starr King School for the Ministry, serves the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, "the nation's first interracial, interfaith congregation," founded in 1944, whose mission was "to create a religious fellowship that transcended artificial barriers of race, nation, culture, gender, and social distinctions," is a dynamic presence who speaks in a deep, resonant voice.  He explained that the church is comprised of folks from diverse backgrounds who do ritual together.  They create shared experience; they find common ground.  He claims that members don't have to be religious, they only need to share values and want to do ritual with others.  "Isn't that community?" he asked.

    He claims that "worship is radical."  An individual may be nobody in society but in ritual he or she is somebody.  Shared ritual deepens the spiritual lives of the people who participate.  He explained the overall format of the Fellowship ritual, which follows the sequence of Matthew Fox's Cosmic Mass, i.e., four phases progressing from via negativa (grief and sorrow experience) to via positiva (dance of joy, delight and celebration of existence) to via creativa (communion with the divine) to via transformativa (receiving energy of the ritual to, as Dorsey says, "fire souls with the energy of apostleship," or to transform society).  These phases include meditation, which can be yoga or breathing or standing and singing; drumming; music for "sitting in the presence"; "the word" (sermon).

    The speaker and I share the goal in ritual of not having it become routine with too much repetition, but rather to mix things up, add elements of surprise, and make them participatory.  We also both believe that singing without reading the words can allow for "singing from the heart."

    Where we differ on ritual practice is the inclusion of preaching.  I want ritual to foster an experience, or experiences, or lead to insights or clarity or serenity, or whatever.  I don't want to listen to someone tell me how to live or what's going on around me.  That doesn't mean I don't love an eloquent, inspiring orator; I definitely do.  But I don't necessarily want sermonizing as part of my ritual experience.  Perhaps this antipathy comes from my Christian childhood, which was full of preaching, but in any case, in ritual I prefer embodied experience .

    The Rev. Clyde Grubbs, recently retired from the Throop UU Church of Pasadena, was the last to speak, but not before I had to leave.  This session has refined my thinking about ritual and inspired me to follow up on some resources I hadn't known of before.

    Friday, November 25, 2011

    Pre-AAR Annual Meeting Field Trip

    Julie Epona © 2011
    L-R: Raina, Egil, Macha, Tim, Mary, Chas, Christine, Nick 

    On the Friday before the meetings got into full swing, a caravan of eight (Chas Clifton of Colorado; Egil Asprem, a Norwegian student living in Amsterdam; Mary Hamner, a student from NC; Christine Kraemer of Boston; her friend Nick; Timothy Miller, a professor at the Univ. of Kansas; charioteer Julie O'Ryan; and me) took a field trip through Marin and Sonoma Counties, passing near to many significant places (Druid Heights, Sausalito houseboats, Olompali) on our pilgrimages to three sites.

    After picking up Raina Woolfolk O'Ryan-Kelly in Rio Nido, we drove to Isis Oasis in Geyserville, home of Loreon Vigné and her many exotic cats, brilliantly plumaged birds, and other animals.  The weather was damp and gloomy, so after we toured the temples, studio, lodge, and the rest of the retreat center, we gathered in the toasty dining room to share tea and some tasty "occu-pie" the folks at Isis Oasis had made and brought to the locals at Occupy Geyserville.  I bought Loreon's latest book, Lots and Lots of Ocelots.  Loreon is one of the few individuals who has successfully bred ocelots in captivity.  She has also bred servals.  Both ocelots and servals are gorgeous, precious animals whose population is threatened by the encroachment of humans into their native habitats.

    After a lunch which took nearly an hour to be served, we drove on up to visit Cat Yronwood and Nagasiva at the Lucky Mojo Curio Co., where Julie's son and Raina's husband, Aidan, works.  I took a few photos that weren't that good, but others took more that I hope to see soon and post when I acquire permission to do so.  In the meantime, here are two shots of Cat's reading room and an altar inside.
    By this time some of us were late for appointments in San Francisco; however, instead of returning, we proceeded to the home of Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart to view her spectacular collection of goddess images.  We weren't able to stay long and really immerse ourselves in her collection and hear all her many stories.  Another time, I hope.

    Forgive me, readers.  I had this post looking good, only to discover I'd inadvertently posted it to the California Corrections Crisis blog.  I got all messed up trying to move it to the Broomstick Chronicles.

    Tuesday, November 08, 2011

    It's a Generational Thing: Musing on Our Youth

    Greg Harder  © 2011

    At this year's 32nd Annual Spiral Dance Samhain ritual, amidst about 15 glorious altars, the East altar in particular delighted me.  I found it beautiful with all the white and lights and several different kinds of knives.  One of my most valued magical tools, the blade clearly fosters discernment, allowing us to separate this from that, truth from fantasy, fact from fiction, the pertinent from the irrelevant.  With it we can delineate crisp boundaries when we want them.  We can envision blue flame when we trace sigils in the air with the tip of the blade..

    Also on the altar were feathers and wings, a recorder and a violin and bow, an open book of musical notations, and other books.  Books!  Intellect!  Something I value highly and find undervalued and underused in many Pagan communities.

    When I asked who created this altar, I learned it was the youth from Teen Earth Magic (TEM).  They obviously have learned their magical symbolism well.  From the looks of the altar, they also enjoy working together to create something of beauty to share with their larger community.

    Calling the Beloved Dead

    Once the ritual had begun, I sat watching various invocations being offered, waiting for the activity I had really come for, the big, intoxicating spiral dance itself, when I was shocked out of my complacency by a powerful invocation that stood out among all.  About six young adults came into the central circle amidst the big crowd, and they called, "Beloved Dead, we call you."  From various parts of the crowd arose black-veiled persons, each making her or his way to the center and joining one of the living callers in an embrace.  In silence.  The reverence, respect and love embodied in their invocation honored the memory of all those we love who have passed from this world of the living in a way not often seen.  With minimal words, masterful movement, and solemn silence.

    I learned that this invocation of the Beloved Dead had been created by guess who?  The young people from TEM, with the help of dancer and performance artist Keith Hennessey.

    These are kids who grew up in our community.  Many attended Witchlets in the Woods family camps with their parents when they were younger, then joined the older kids in TEM camp.  I know a few of them a bit and one well.  Many of their parents are the generation of my children.  When my contemporaries were young parents, our Craft was truly occult, being hidden deep in the dark recesses of the broom closet.  As a movement, we were comprised of younger adults rather than having grown up in Pagan families.  All of us had sought, and ultimately found (and/or created/co-created), an alternative, more spiritually satisfying religion from the ones, in any, in which we were brought up.  Most of us came to Craft from mainstream Abrahamic religions.

    I'm heartened to know that these children are hearing our ancient, and new, stories, learning songs and magic, being steeped in Pagan ideals, all changes that enrich our Pagan culture.  As it behooves younger people to listen and learn from those who've walked a Pagan path ahead of them, so too it gladdens the hearts of those of us who are older to listen and learn from our vibrant youth.  Only when all of us -- the full spectrum of humanity, from the Beloved Dead through all the ages of the living, to the yet-to-be-born -- work and play in concert can we enjoy a religion that draws upon ancient wisdom, applies our knowledge and creativity to the present we inhabit, in pursuit of a sustainable world for all humanity.

    Tuesday, September 13, 2011

    MIC Contemplative Service for Peace

    Like so many millions of Americans across the country, we here in Marin County stopped to remember the events of 9/11/2001. There were about a dozen events listed in the local newspaper commemorating that day, so I wasn't expecting too many people to come to this one offered by Marin Interfaith Council, but come they did, about 80 in all. In speaking with others who were there, I learned that some were not religious people, but simply wanted to come together in community for this occasion. They didn't want preaching, of which we had none (and if we had, I likely would not have participated).

    We gathered in a circle around Community Congregational Church of Tiburon's new labyrinth. One arc of the circle was shaded by a small grove of redwoods, and another opened onto a vast view of the Golden Gate and the Golden Gate Bridge. A central altar table held a staff (gift to the church from the woman who consulted on building the labyrinth), a blue glass novena candle, a Tibetan singing bowl, and a small statue of Lady Liberty. I placed the last two items there. Lady Liberty's torch held a small candle. There was a light breeze blowing, so I didn't expect to be able to keep a candle lit. Those who saw me about to do so told me not to bother. Still, it was important to light it, so I did. It burned for a few seconds, maybe a minute, and blew out.

    The Marin interfaith singers opened the gathering with "Dona Nobis Pacem," a lovely song that most, if not all, religions seem comfortable with. I know I am.

    We were welcomed by the Rev. Carol Hovis, Executive Director of MIC, and the Rev. Curran Reichert, pastor of the host facility. I was encouraged to hear Carol speak of the religious dimension of the 9/11 attacks and of the fact that all religions have their dark sides.

    The Rev. Jeremy Levie of Green Gulch Farm and Zen Center, read from the Buddhist tradition. Rabbi Henry Shreibman, a reconstructionist Jew, recited in Hebrew from the book of Lamentations, then spoke the words in English. Then MIC intern Abby Fuller rang a bell signaling silent meditation.

    From Brahma Kumaris, a Hindu order, Sister Kyoko Kamura played flute while Sister Roslyn Seaton read.

    Group chanting and silent meditations occurred between readings.

    Sister Colleen McDermott, of the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael, read a Roman Catholic meditation.

    Following another period of silence, in honor of Lady Liberty, I read "The New Colossus," by Emma Lazarus, written in 1883 and inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York City Harbor.*

    As I walked back to my seat on the other side of the labyrinth, I stopped to relight Lady Liberty's torch. It lit, and it stayed lit.

    After a musical meditation by Stephen Iverson, Music Minister at Sleepy Hollow Presbyterian Church in San Anselmo and Cantor at St. Rita's Catholic Church in Fairfax, a youth leader, Nura Heydari, from San Rafael Bahá'í Community, gave a reading.

    Author Nafisa Haji of the International Society of Sufism, gave the final reading, followed by closing words from MIC intern Abby Fuller from San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo and First Church of Christ Scientist, San Rafael.

    We closed with a group chant that was written by a member of the EarthSpirit Community in Boston as her immediate response to the 9/11 attacks. As I led the chant, I extended my hands to grasp those of the people on either side of me, until the we all created one circle.

    Rabbi Schriebman played taps.

    The magic of the day was that for the duration of the service, Lady Liberty's flame stayed lit. It would flicker and seem to be gone, and then it would leap to life again. Corby and I were watching it intently. I noticed that Carol Hovis across the circle was also watching it. As it turned out, almost everyone was watching that sacred flame, as many of them commented to me afterward. I told them it was magic, which indeed it was. We Pagan priestesses are good at doing magic.

    Corby and I, and others, I'm certain, found each different reading offered something comforting, wise, and inspirational to be gleaned.

    One could not have asked for a more beautiful day to commemorate such a horrendous day ten years earlier. Or a more beautiful location. Healing is happening.

    * I was pleased to learn that my colleague at CHS, Holli Emore, read the same piece at an Interfaith Gathering for Peace in which she participated in Charleston, SC.

    Saturday, July 30, 2011

    Memorial Procession

    The sound of drums drew people together to a circle made of flowers under the trees in Albert Park in downtown San Rafael. The Rev. Paul Gaffney, of the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy, welcomed us to the "14th Annual Memorial Procession in Honor of Those Who Have Died on the Streets of Marin County," beginning with a brief meditation.

    A man whose name I don't know played a Native American flute, followed by an offering of incense by the Rev. Michaela O'Connor Bono of Green Gulch Zen Center, and a blessing by the Rev. Liza Klein of the First United Methodist Church of San Rafael.

    Bearing our flowers, we proceeded in silent reverence up the street lined with palms, as Paul sounded a bell.

    It was strange walking by diners sitting at little tables with crisp linens and glasses of wine on the sidewalk and in the windows of restaurants, since they did not appear to know what we were about. We had no sign. Our silence and reverent attitude, together with the ringing of the bell, made it obvious were about something serious. The distracted part of me wanted to engage these folks in conversation about the very fact that we have homeless people in this rich country of ours, to ask them for money to support the chaplaincy, but I refocussed my mind back on the lost ones......

    We arrived at the courtyard of St. Raphael's Church, built at the site of Father Junipero Serra's Mission San Rafaél. Some years ago this same group planted a tree in memory of those we were honoring this day on the church grounds, and it was around the base of that tree that we laid our floral offerings.

    We were joined by others who had been waiting in shade of a tree in the courtyard, and welcomed by Fr. John Balleza, who has just taken over as pastor from Fr. Paul Rossi, and who is new to Marin Interfaith Council.

    This annual memorial was scheduled later in the day this year than it has been in the past, partly due to the scorching sun and uncomfortable heat of the earlier afternoon. This made for a welcome more shaded venue.

    People took turns reading the names of everyone known to have died homeless in Marin County since 1995. After each name was spoken, all assembled repeated it together. This act stirred several mourners to tears as he or she heard the name of a loved one and grieved openly in community. I think this is a healthy part of the grieving process, which is one of the reasons I so look forward to hearing each name when I gather with my co-religionists to honor the Beloved Dead on Samhain night.

    As I have in past memorials, I offered a prayer for those who have died violently or in great distress, concluding with an appeal to the Mother of Justice that justice be done. Then I taught a four-line chant written by Starhawk and Anne Hill. When everyone had learned it, we sang it together for a while. This year I didn't try to break it into a round -- it's beautiful when done as a round -- and it seemed to flow more smoothly. There were also fewer people this year than in past years. Usually there a contingent of Dominican sisters come. I think the singing went better this time because some people had sung it in the past and because we were in a cooler space. In any case, some people harmonized and overall it sounded really sweet. I trust it did its job of allowing us to blend our voices in song for the dead.

    Paul concluded the ceremony with a reading from the prophet Isaiah.

    The Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy "provides a compassionate presence for those who are living outside."

    If you are a Pagan and you are reading this, especially if you've ever considered doing any work in the world of interfaith relations, you might consider participating in such events in your area. If there is no homeless chaplaincy, there are surely other activities directed toward aiding less fortunate residents of your community. Consider offering your assistance in their work. There is no need to bring religion into it, except in a gentle way. There are no theological discussions, no "whose god(s) is/are better, more real, more authentic, more powerful, more righteous, or even if you have a belief at all, rather than your lived experience with the numinous divine as you've perceived it. Further, it's easy to join in these efforts without compromising the uniqueness of your Paganism in the slightest. Instead, by sharing something of your ways, you not only educate others about who we are, but also you dispel fear and enrich the overall experience for all participants, yourself included. By joining with other people of other religions in projects beneficial to the commonweal, we help mend tears in the fabric of society.

    Blessings of the living land,

    Friday, July 22, 2011

    Gossip Is the Sticky Stuff

    Gossip is the sticky stuff that holds us together as community. It’s the mortar holding the stonework of our edifices in place. Without gossip we fragment and disintegrate.

    I realize that the word gossip has negative connotations. It's a term associated with the shallow, trivial, meddlesome. But, really, it's just engaging in conversation about friends, family, and even foes.

    How many times when you encounter a friend do you ask how she's doing, and she asks you the same? And those queries and responses lead you to ask logical follow-up questions about others? Or they lead you in a new direction that concerns news of others? You ask because you care -- about the individual, about others in his life, and about your shared community. Well, you're gossiping.

    Where gossip goes south is when someone spreads unflattering information about an individual or group without substantiating its factualness. That's lying. Or when the person doing the telling has malicious intent and puts a negative, judgmental spin on his "news," well, that's not good. And it's not a good use of the sticky stuff that is gossip.

    But when you and your friend (or friends) chat about your lives and the lives of others, it's recreational. Instead of doing harm, your talk helps reinforce the threads of connections binding us together in a religious movement like no other in human history.

    M. Macha NightMare/Aline O'Brien © 2011

    Note: Some months ago, in response to a solicitation, I volunteered to write a response to the question "What is the function/role of gossip (if any) in the community?" As far as I know, it was never published, so here it is.

    Wednesday, June 29, 2011

    Growing Pagan Elders: An Exploration of Sustainability

    I began exploring the notion of Pagan elders about 15 years ago when the then-editor of The Green Egg asked me to write an article. I'm pleased to say that the article made it into the Green Egg Omelette, an anthology of the best of GE over the years.

    In the Fall of 2010 I created a survey on Pagan attitudes about elders on Survey Monkey. Between then and January 2011, 627 Pagans responded to that survey. I allowed plenty of room for comments. This volume of responses allows us to begin to assess how Pagans feel about this subject.

    I come to this subject from personal motivations.

    As Carol Christ has said, and as I have often repeated – and I paraphrase -- it’s not enough to reject the ways we have been given if we find them unsuited to who we find ourselves to be, because in times of stress we will turn back to those ways. Rather, we need to create effective alternatives. That was one of the motivations for our writing The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, and it is my motivation in exploring the notion of Pagan elders.

    I believe that in order for a community to be sustained, it must include the full spectrum of ages, from the ancestors to the unborn. In between, babies, children, youth, young adults, parents, and elders. Elders may simply be older members of a community. Or there may be an acknowledged group of individuals who play a more formal role in community life.

    We Pagans often speak of ourselves as belonging to a tribe, and in the broadest sense I feel that way, too. But we are not like the tribes of our Native American contemporaries or of our (mostly) European, African and Asian ancestors. Pagan groupings are not like the clans of the Celts or the tribes along the Rhine; not like the villagers in Tuscany or Malta. We lack a common familial ethnicity, mores, lore, culture, foods, songs. We contemporary Pagans do, of course, share lore, music, customs, and a language, but not nearly to the degree that tribes do.

    We arose primarily from the counter-culture. We were seeking meaning and connection in a rapidly modernizing, culturally diverse, and frequently socially fragmented world. In essence, we sought a tribal identity. And we found it -- only the state in which our tribes find themselves is inchoate, rudimentary, immature, not fully formed. We lack the cohesion of a tribe.

    If a tribe is
    a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader : indigenous Indian tribes | the Celtic tribes of Europe.
    then you can see that we are missing several characteristics of tribe, while others exist in a rudimentary form.

    When I was “coming up” as a Witch in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s and ‘80s, there were few real distinctions made among traditions and few elders. We were all Witches. Some of us were Faery Witches, some NROOGD, Garderians, Alexandrian, Georgian, Majestyc, Tower Family, and plenty of unspecified. The only “elders” of which I was aware were Victor and Cora Anderson (Faery, now spelled Feri) and Grandma Julie of the Tower Family.[1]

    In my particular case, I had been doing ritual and magic with a coven, Holy Terrors, and a larger, more public group, Reclaiming Collective, until after some years this particular style of Craft grew to become a tradition in its own right, called Reclaiming.[2]

    Well, a few years down the line and matters began to arise that called for the involvement of what, for want of a better term, one might call “elder.” As a member of CoG who met the criteria CoG sets for the issuance of Elder credentials, to wit: “capable of perpetuating the tradition,” I have long held CoG Elder credentials. I officiated at weddings, memorials, baby blessings, etc. I think this criterion is a valid one, but it leaves the matter of what knowledge, skills, and characteristics an elder must have up to the covens and traditions, since CoG is primarily a federation of covens rather than individuals.

    But I wasn’t very old, only in my 30s.

    I never felt I had anywhere to look, anyone to consult, when difficult community matters arose, not to mention when I had questions about my own psycho-spiritual experiences encountered during the development of my personal and group practice of Craft.

    What happened was that I gradually accrued a circle of friends, a series of friendships, with co-religionists I liked, respected, and admired. They were not necessarily from within my own tradition, although frequently they were. Most were active in other Pagan communities, so they had a similar set of experiences upon which to reflect and proffer conclusions, yet were not directly involved with some of the things about which I sought counsel.

    These same individuals reciprocally consulted me about matters in their own communities.

    For the most part, that practice has worked well. But it’s not appropriate for many matters. For instance, when someone within one’s community (using the term “community” very loosely) feels an injustice has been done, or that someone else has behaved in an inappropriate manner in the context of community work. In the case of Reclaiming, that might be about something someone did or that happened at a WitchCamp or in a class or public ritual.

    One of our attempts at addressing such issues is to have a “listening circle. This is especially helpful if there are two or more parties to a dispute and only one of them wants to resolve it. There is, or at least has been, no way to compel anyone to come parley. Yet if there remains someone who feels dissed, unheard, disrespected, or in some other way offended or transgressed upon, I do not think it’s helpful to disregard that person’s, or those people’s, grievance. In such cases, the aggrieved party seeks out others from within the trad whom she sees as fair, and asks them to sit in a listening circle. Those sought out are always people who have been part of the particular tradition for a long time, often since its beginning. I am unaware of any young people having been asked to serve in a listening circle. All of which is not to say that those sitting in the circle are Elders, per se.

    These listeners usually reflect back to the offended what they hear, and perhaps offer suggestions of either coping or eventual resolution.

    Listening circles do not have the authority of something like a panel of judges.

    How do we assure accountability for one’s actions within a trad? Is this a function of elders?

    There is also the option of mediation if both parties to a dispute wish to resolve it. In that case, an outside professional may be hired. Alternatively, a group of three to five specially selected “elders” might sit in discussion. Discussion usually opens with some informal ritual, lighting a candle, setting or creating sacred space – such a conference may be done in the context of a sacred circle – or with a prayer or solicitation to a particular deity.

    This whole question of Pagan elders is an open one, and will remain so for years as we grow our communities and work to keep them healthy. I have suggested some of the criteria that's been used, or might be used.

    The elephant in the living room is what happens to Pagans when they grow old and less able to care for themselves. Should we consider gathering funds for their care as many communities do? Should we begin establishing homes or retreats or other places where we can house our elders in comfort as well as assuring them space at our gatherings and in our homes?

    Although this is a subject for another blog, and much, much more discussion, I believe, as I said early on in this blog, that if our communities are to survive and thrive, we need to address the notion of elders, both as a precious resource that can contribute and enrich our lives, and as a group we need to assist as they age.

    * * * * *

    [1] Today there are several lines of Faery and at least two lines of Tower Family.

    [2] Some consider Reclaiming to be a line of Faery/Feri.

    Monday, June 20, 2011

    MIC Annual Meeting -- Vote Your Values

    On a hot evening in at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in San Rafael, Marin Interfaith Council held its annual meeting. Executive Director Rev. Carol Hovis updated the gathering on the status of the council -- what MIC has sponsored, review of budget, thanking various members for specific work, honoring outgoing and incoming officers, etc. Author Nafisa Haji, whose second novel, The Sweetness of Tears,1 has just been published, and who represents the International Association of Sufism, has concluded her term as President and is now freer to promote her book and work on new ones. The Rev. Rob Gieselmann of St. Stephen's Church in Belvedere takes over. Other Board members' terms are completed and new members have come onto the Board.

    Among the announcements, Robert Plath,2 founder of Worldwide Forgiveness Alliance, invited everyone to the 15th annual International Day of Forgiveness on August 7, preceded by workshops on August 6. The honorees share incredibly inspirational stories of forgiveness in their lives. I hope this event is widely celebrated in other towns and cities as well.

    Anne Ryan, a former intern with Marin Interfaith Counsel and recent graduate of Dominican University, who now works for CompassPoint, gave a presentation entitled "Vote Your Values: An Interfaith Conversation about the California Budget Crisis." Using a power point presentation and giving more relevant facts about the state budget crisis than I could note, Anne also had us do some role-playing and small-group discussions at our tables.

    As a result of one of these discussions, when we were talking about the prison system, I made the point that there are only five religions recognized by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: Protestant, Roman Catholic, Judaism, Islam, and "Native American." Five Abrahamic faiths and one vague name for several belief systems, but one that benefits Native American inmates, and sometimes can benefit Pagans. I pointed out that in that room there were far more than five religious traditions. Perhaps it is assumed that Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and others don't commit crimes? I spoke briefly about Patrick McCollum's lawsuit in the 9th Circuit. News of this situation was met with dismay.

    Among the few facts I managed to note were:
    1. A one-half cent sales tax would generate $3 billion in one year. Of course, this would impact the poor more severely than the wealthier population.
    2. California ranks 48 in the nation on education (spending per student, and teaching results). For a state blessed with so much wealth, this is shameful. It would be shameful even if California were not so prosperous. It's just flat-out shameful! We do our children a disservice by leaving them ill prepared to earn their livings and to compete for jobs.
    3. Among the states where oil is extracted, 21 of them tax the oil companies. The only state that doesn't is California. Imposing such a tax seems an easy partial remedy to our budget shortfall, and a no-brainer but for the pressure of oil interests on legislators.
    4. The state income tax rate for income exceeding $250,000 per year (only on the income that exceeds that amount) is currently 9.3%, which is very low. Increasing that tax to 10% would generate an additional $6 billion in revenue and would affect only 2% of the population. Another no-brainer were it not for political opposition.
    5. California legislators are working on a domestic workers' bill of rights, guaranteeing minimum wage and other benefits commonly extended to wage-earners (as distinct from salaried employees). This can only be a good thing.
    6. Eliminating the death penalty would save the state $125 million annually.
    7. Nonprofits are the second largest employer in the state.
    Among the questions she posed, one was, "What did you learn in your home about taxes?" I didn't hear anyone say s/he had learned anything at all about taxes. (Americans are so uptight about money. They would rather reveal intimate facts about their sex lives than speak about their earnings or their personal wealth, not to mention the same if they were to admit to being overextended and/or impoverished.)

    One of the Jewish members explained their attitude towards charity, saying that they contribute to organizations in order to preserve the pride of the individual recipients of largesse.

    I have known for many years that California has the eighth largest economy in the world. What clicked for me most strongly as a result of Anne's talk was that the money is here! It is in this state, and it just has to be channeled, by way of taxes, into schools, infrastructure, social services, and the many other needs of a large and diverse population.

    As always, MIC has provided its membership with valuable knowledge to help us set priorities and work towards a more just world for all.

    Other groups can avail themselves of Anne's presentation by contacting CompassPoint.

    1. I enjoyed reading her first novel, The Writing on My Forehead, from which I got a better sense of the Pakistani American experience.
    2. Bob and I first met in San Francisco in 1964, in what was a previous life for both of us.