A Surprising Encounter

by Andras Corban Arthen
This week, the European Congress of Ethnic Religions organized a ceremony for all participants around an old Celtic tripod of stones on the grounds of Vyšehrad, the original settlement that eventually became Prague. There were more than two-hundred of us there, the largest gathering of pagans in this city in modern times, according to a couple of the locals.
As the ceremony began, I looked around and noticed a thin young woman standing a couple of people away, who seemed to be staring at me very intently, an odd expression on her face. I refocused my attention on the ritual, but a little while later I noticed the same young woman, still staring at me. This happened several more times over the course of the ceremony.
After standing in place for a couple of hours, my back began to give out and go into spasm. The pain spread down my legs and started becoming unbearable. There was no place to sit other than the ground, and I learned long ago that, under those circumstances, the ground is not my friend. I began to think about leaving the ritual to look for a bench or a large rock – just someplace, anyplace, to sit. I started feeling sorry for myself.
Mercifully, one of the ceremonial leaders announced that the ritual was coming to a close, and that we should take the hands of those standing next to us. Knowing that I only needed to hold on for a few more minutes, I reached out for the hands that reached back on either side.
Suddenly, the young woman I had noticed earlier squeezed between me and the person to my left, grabbed my hand, and held it tightly; we remained that way for the duration of the ceremony. Only when it was over, and people started to move away, did she let go of my hand. She turned to face me, then, with downcast eyes, and apologized if she had made me feel uncomfortable. I assured her that she hadn’t, but told her that I had wondered why she’d been looking at me so oddly.
Andras at ECER

Photo by Irena Jankute

She told me that I very strongly reminded her – both physically as well as in the way I had spoken at the ceremony – of her teacher, someone she loved very deeply and to whom she was profoundly grateful because of all he’d given to her. He was a prominent and respected biologist, she said, and had been her mentor and best friend for many years. Just last week, however, he had died in his sleep and she was heartbroken. She started to shake a little.
I took her hands in mine, and told her how sorry I was to learn that she had just experienced such a great loss. I told her that her teacher must have been a remarkable person, to have earned such love and devotion from her. I suggested to her that her feelings and her memories were very real, and that, in them, her teacher continued to live and there she could find him.
She asked me if I would give her a blessing, which of course I did. Then she asked if she could hug me. I held her close, and felt how fragile she was, as if she would shatter into pieces at any moment. I felt her pain: so sad, so deep. Tears ran down my face. We stayed like that for a while, breathing together, being still in the moment. And then something shifted, and she let go; the being pressing against me no longer felt brittle – not strong, to be sure, but stronger, firmer.
We separated, and I saw her face fully for the first time. Her eyes were clear in the dimming light, her sadness replaced by a slightly quizzical expression. On impulse, I gave her one of my cards, told her I’d be happy to hear from her, and invited her to visit me if she ever came to the States. She thanked me, told me she’d write, then turned around and walked away. I took several steps in the opposite direction, and realized that my pain was completely gone.

Monday, Indigenous Plenary and spirituality that does not back away at the last day of 2015 Parliament

by Kate Greenough Richardson

Choir of Parliament participants perform

Choir of Parliament participants perform “Songs of the Earth” cantata, Monday at 2015 Parliament (by Kate Richardson)

I actually slept a little later this last morning of the Parliament (10/19), and stayed in to write up my notes over coffee at the big table in the house that became the ‘study hall’ while we were there.

Though there were still more fascinating workshops available all morning and into the afternoon, many of us went to the Indigenous Plenary at 10:30. I am sorry that I did not get the names of the all the speakers. The messages they brought were powerful and moving, and cut straight to the heart of what the Pagans I know are reaching toward in their spiritual awareness and practice.

  • Te’Kaiya Blaney sang beautifully, and later spoke about growing up struggling with her identity as indigenous. At first it seemed painful, but she embraced it, and it has become a source of strength and hope.
  • Chief Arvol Looking Horse called to stop fracking and the KXL pipeline, and spoke of World Peace and Prayer Day.
  • Wande Abimbola, Yoruban Ifa leader, said “it is stupid to divide the world into living and non-living things. All things are living.” He also said it’s time for the world to shed itself of the bigotry of color and faiths.
  • Arnold Thomas, native of the Great Salt Lake basin reminded us that the earth is not in trouble, it is humans that are in trouble. He asked everyone to stand, and ordained the entire audience to go “convert people to love Mother Earth.”
  • Rangimarie Turuki Rose Pere, a Maori grandmother sent a call to stop the Trans Pacific Partnership trade alliance. She spoke of how we are universally connected and can not be separated even if think otherwise. She said, surround the people who hurt you with love, only attack the bad energy behind them. And if you cannot do that, move into neutral! She sang a song wishing peace, Love, Joy and Truth to the universe. Then she turned to her grown grandson that she walked onstage with, and said that this work must be done in partnership between genders. He performed a short haka, and she joined in.
  • Our own friend and travel companion Inija Trinkuniene came on with Andras‘s introduction, and told of how the ancient sacred oak groves in Lithuania were cut down in an effort to convert the indigenous people there to Christianity. But oaks have acorns, which sprouted again, and are growing new sacred groves. She offered a blessing by casting grains of wheat.
  • Steve Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) of the Indigenous Law Institute, said that it would be a grave mistake to work on climate change without working on paradigm change. He called for the revocation of the centuries old “Doctrine of Discovery”, which still impacts indigenous Americans when dealing with legal and government issues.
  • Angaangag Angakkorsuaq, an Eskimo-Kalaallit elder from the far north of Greenland said it is too late to stop climate change. In his 68 year lifespan he has seen the ice go from 5km to 2km thick. Animals, plants, earth – they will be fine. It’s humans who will suffer. Millions will perish and there’s nothing you can do about it. And yet, his message was of hope.

There were more speakers, and I was glad that they each took their time on the stage to say their piece, even though it made the plenary last far beyond its allotted time. I was glad that I had already heard some of these messages in other forums and plenaries; they weren’t quarantined in some special forum but permeated the whole gathering. [Watch the whole video of the Indigenous Plenary and part 2.]

Shortly after the plenary ended, Mary Lou Prince and Patty Willis’s piece finally, Songs of the Earth cantata, was performed, to much appreciation. A choir of 144 voices, 30 or more different faiths, joined with the piano and string quartet to bring the words and music to life. Singing in this really made a lovely capstone for my Parliament experience.

Then it was all over but the Closing plenary. Blessings and appreciations, and the welcome news that the next Parliament will be in 2017! When there is so much going on in the world, and such great need for people of faith to work together, why wait 5 years between gatherings.

During the following evening, there was packing, leave-taking, divvying up of expenses, and such. A carload of us went to watch the sun set over the lake, but I was not among them. I was sorry that I didn’t get to connect directly with the land lying under the city pavement, but at least in each direction between and beyond the walls of buildings I had glimpses of the mountains, I smelled the breeze and the rain, I added a buckeye picked up from the sidewalk to EarthSpirit’s ancestor altar on the booth table. I touched some lovely old sycamores that grow beside some of the city streets. And one morning Isobel and I saw a quail cross the street just as if it were an odd looking pigeon.

I’m writing this post after several days full of catching up with the tasks of the life I left behind when I entered the world of the Parliament. This morning at last I have time to sit and reflect, and try to think consciously and carefully about how to weave some of the threads I grasped there more fully into my regular life. There’s no doubt that this experience has shifted my energy, and given a substantial, pragmatic boost to my native determined optimism. The question now is, how best to put that determination to good use?

For one thing, I’m more than ever convinced that some kind of regular spiritual practice that connects me with the mystery of the whole of existence is a great source of strength and guidance. It was inspiring to be among so many people who have found that connection by so many pathways. There are great problems in the world, and the spirituality I witnessed does not back away, but faces them with courage and love. I wish the same for you and us all as we travel this path between birth and death.

It was inspiring to be among so many people who have found that connection by so many pathways. There are great problems in the world, and the spirituality I witnessed does not back away, but faces them with courage and love.

Grain blessing by Inija Trinkuniene at Indigenous Plenary, Monday at 2015 Parliament by Eric Arthen

Grain blessing by Inija Trinkuniene at the Indigenous Plenary, Monday at 2015 Parliament (by Eric Arthen)

Women’s Rites – Honoring and Celebrating the Cycles of our Lives on Friday at the 2015 Parliament

By Jennifer Bennett

“Women’s Rites” panel with Ruth Barrett, Angie Buchanan, Deirdre Arthen, and Isobel Arthen on Friday at the 2015 Parliament, by Andras Corban Arthen

“Women’s Rites” panel with Ruth Barrett, Angie Buchanan, Deirdre Arthen, and Isobel Arthen on Friday at the 2015 Parliament, by Andras Corban Arthen

In the Women’s Sacred Space at the Salt Place Conference Center in Salt Lake City, UT on Friday midday there is a circle of about 20 women. The room certainly doesn’t feel like it’s in a conference center. It’s dimly lit and all four walls are covered, floor to ceiling, in deep maroon red velvet drapes that are differing sections of embroidery, tassels, mirror work and fringe. There is a corner covered in red cushions and thick, soft pieces of fabric under them on the floor. There is a muffled sort of peace and serenity pervading the room — a timelessness.

Sitting together in one curve of the circle are (from the right) Isobel Arthen, Deirdre Arthen, Angie Buchanan and Ruth Barrett; the rest of the circle is filled in (and some fringe around the back) with women of all ages and styles of dress. There are even one or two men. Some take notes, one is spinning wool, everyone is focused on the four women, who take turns speaking.

Isobel Arthen begins telling the story of the Coming of Age rites done by EarthSpirit Community for young women (and men). Having been through it herself she is very careful to hold it sacredly and only describe those parts of it that are for “public consumption”, so to speak. The gathering of the girls for each Rite, each year, from within a larger gathering of the Community…so the community can see them go and wish them well and hold them in community for this important passage. Then their coming to a circle of women who will welcome them to womanhood with special ritual prayers, activities, blessings and stories. Then, the welcoming of these girls — now passed on into young womanhood — back into the Community. Eloquent and self-assured, Isobel is a sparkling spokesperson for the importance of this Rite for all girls.

Deirdre Arthen then speaks about the Rite of passage of birth — the rites and rituals that have become part of the EarthSpirit Community and have grown over the years around the women who have given birth and chosen to do so within Community. “Whatever the hospital will let us do…!” from incense and candles to dancing (apparently great for laboring women!) and chanting. Deirdre then lead the group through a chant about the sea and waves, which she has used many times (and herself) to help women “ride the waves” of labor pains. She also spoke about a necklace that has “made the rounds” for about 30 years from one pregnant woman to the next — handed from new mother to pregnant mother — among many EarthSpirit Community women.

Angie Buchanan then began talking about her upbringing as one of the Traveling People and how, no matter what the situation, women were the anchors of the home. She spoke of how many women and siblings made up her household and how normal and supportive that women-centered world seemed to her. Later in her life, when she had grown up and moved out on her own, she found herself really missing…longing…for that sisterhood. So, she created Gaia’s Womb. She spoke of the connections made by many women, over the years and about how sisterhood is for all women of any age. All ages can learn from each other just by being together.

Ruth Barrett then stood (“I need to move and talk with my hands.”) and talked about the aging and Crone-ing time of women’s lives. Having done crone-ing rituals for many years (“…on women much older than myself, before my time came.”), she had, for herself, come up with two very definite “definitions” of who is a Crone. Fifty-eight years old, at least, and through a second Saturn return. Elder and Crone are not necessarily the same thing. Ruth repeatedly pointed out that a Crone-ing ceremony ushers a woman into an entire other part of her life — one to be anticipated with joy and excitement for the creativity and promise it holds.

If all women were blessed enough to go through these ritual times with a supportive community, the world would be a much different place. Blessings on these women and their work in creating these places and rituals!

Sunday, Community in action at the 2015 Parliament

by Kate Greenough Richardson

Priestesses Panel, Sunday at 2015 Parliament by Kate Richardson

Priestesses Panel, Sunday at 2015 Parliament by Kate Richardson

Sunday is the last full day of the Parliament. Again, it started early, though I missed the 7am morning observances in favor of an extra bit of sleep. I’m not alone in feeling that some of the best stuff is in the early hours, when there are rituals and practices shared. You get to experience the flavor of things rather than just hearing about them. But it does make for shorter nights!

This morning at 8:15 I attended a panel discussion about what it means to serve as a priestess, and how to embody and sustain that role. The panel had incredible wealth of experience: along with Deirdre there were seven other women, including Vivienne Crowley, Angie Buchanan, Selena Fox, Phyllis Curott, and Starhawk. The discussion was filled with wisdom and humor, centering around taking care of community and of self, maintaining a personal practice, and connecting with the web of existence.

After this I had some time to help get the booth up and running for the day. It’s wonderful to be in a place where people with questions and interest stop by to learn something about Paganism in general and EarthSpirit in particular. We get to practice and fine-tune our ‘elevator speeches’ that carefully pack much information in a small space of time, giving people ways to connect and learn more if they wish. But the booth is a steady hub of activity, so eventually I had to leave to write up my notes from the day before!

Rehearsal for the cantata was at 1pm, and let out just in time for me to get to the Langar before it closed up at 2:30. The crowd had thinned by that time and I was seated near the ‘kitchen’ where buckets and dishes were being filled with food for the servers to take around. I was close enough to hear that a couple of the Sikhs in the kitchen were maintaining a steady chant the entire time they worked, interrupting it to issue instructions to servers or children. The menu had the same format but different dishes: rice, naan (bread), salad, fresh fruit (bananas and apple slices), and two hot dishes – today, saag paneer (greens with cheese) and kidney beans. Nourishing, and delicious.

I took a few pictures of some activities and installations in the hallways on my way to the plenary at 3:45. As at the Parliament in Melbourne there were Buddhist monks making a sand mandala, but this one was on a smaller scale, with amazingly delicate detail. Nearby a table invited people to write messages on ribbons to be taken to the upcoming climate summit in Paris. I made a ribbon for myself; today I plan to add one on behalf of the EarthSpirit Community because I know that many of you would resonate with this action.

The Climate Change Plenary had plenty of substance but I also thought it left plenty of questions unspoken (link to video). Speakers all agreed on the urgency and the complexity of the problem, and mostly spoke to the fact that it underlies so many of the other pressing issues facing us all. Al Gore’s daughter Karenna moderated the session and presented a videotaped address from her father. Katherine Hayhoe, climate scientist and author, who pointed out that addressing climate change is not a question of conserving resources, but of not using resources that are available. Jonathan Granoff, a lawyer with focus on nuclear proliferation called on us to ask all our political leaders 3 questions: What are you doing to protect the climate? What are you doing to eliminate poverty? What are you doing to eliminate nuclear weapons? Chief Arvol Looking Horse urged us to remember that the Earth is the source of life, not a resource. Francois Paulette from First Nations in Canada talked about the environmental devastation already being experienced in the northlands, and said “your way of life is destroying our way of life.” The final speaker was Dr. Saleh Abdullah M. Bin Himeid, imam of the great mosque in Mecca. He spoke through a translator, about the need to address climate change, poverty and extremism, and called for people of all faiths to work together.

Burundi drummers at Morman Tabernacle at 2015 Parliament by Kate Richardson

Burundi drummers at Morman Tabernacle at 2015 Parliament by Kate Richardson

I dashed out of the plenary to save a few seats at the Mormon Tabernacle for the evening concert of sacred music. Many of us managed to attend despite the overflow crowd turned away at the door once it filled. It was a lovely way to end another full day, with prayer, dance and music from many cultures and traditions (including some rocking Burundi drummers, and the Lion drummers we’d seen at the Emerging Leaders plenary) After it ended, though I had meant to get to bed early, I ended up going out to a nearby pub for supper and a beer, and conversations about the day’s events with EarthSpirit friends.

It’s really great to see how this group has been working together to take care of each other and make sure we can all get the most out of this experience. Wren has served as chauffeur for this whole event, making it possible for those less able to walk to get from place to place. Cerillion has been provisioning the kitchen in the house. A team of us has made sure that there’s always somebody, and usually two people, at the booth. And everyone is checking in to make sure that people are getting to go to the sessions and events they most want to. This is our community in action!

Sons and Lovers of the Sacred Feminine at the 2015 Parliament

by Rowan Morrigan

Sons Lovers panel with Drake Spaeth, Donovan Arthen, Claudiney Prieto, River Higginbotham, and Ivo Dominguez Jr at 2015 Parliament by Rowan Morrigan

Sons Lovers panel with Drake Spaeth, Donovan Arthen, Claudiney Prieto, River Higginbotham, and Ivo Dominguez Jr at 2015 Parliament by Rowan Morrigan

EarthSpirit Community’s Donovan Arthen spoke on Sunday in an all-male panel titled “Sons and Lovers of the Sacred Feminine” at the Parliament today. Drake Spaeth was the moderator and the other panelists were River Higginbotham, Ivo Dominguez Jr, and Claudiney Prieto.

Donovan talked about how he didn’t worship the goddess but experienced the feminine archetype through his relationships with the women in his life. I found his from-the-heart recounting of watching his sister being born at the beginning of her life and now serving and supporting Isobel today as she facilitates the emergence of young people here at the Parliament, so moving, so touching, and ultimately, so humbling. All the men talked about how to ‘show up’ in the face of many aspects of contemporary feminism and vision of goddess spirituality. Donovan talked in particular about being confronted as a male and the subsequent confusion as the culture searches for life-giving images of being The Feminine today. What drives Donovan to show up in the midst of this? Humility and surrender … to allow ourselves to sit down.

Saturday, Another full and rich day at the 2015 Parliament

by Kate Greenough Richardson

Mayan dancers at the 2015 Parliament

Mayan dancers at the 2015 Parliament

As I sit at a table in the “Gathering Place” to write this Sunday morning, I can see a couple of tables of buddhist monks in saffron robes, several Mayan performers are walking by with ankle shakers of seed pods, and it looks like some kind of chorus is taking the stage in the far corner. I’ve had to make my peace with how many things I would really like to hear, see and experience I’m simply going to miss. Luckily, with so many EarthSpirit friends along for this journey, it’s likely I’ll get to experience many things vicariously.

Saturday was another full and rich day at the Parliament. It started early, as I sat in Deirdre’s morning observance at 7am, entitled “Devotional Chanting for the Earth”. About 40 people showed up to join singing some off our favorite chants, starting with “We Are One With the Soul of the Earth” and ending with “Peace in My Heart”. People really came to sing, and stayed with each chant long enough to really sink into it. I felt grounded and centered as I went off to start my day.

From there I went to the second of a two part workshop called “Healing Hearts at Wounded Knee”. There I learned from Chief Arvol Looking Horse of an annual observance that is a 9 day ride following the trail taken by Chief Big Foot to the massacre at Wounded Knee. This year the arduous ride is being done in prayer that war and genocide should end. The organizers dream of a world wide ceremony to take place Dec. 29th at noon in every time zone, to honor and hold this intention of peace. They ask people to gather in wounded places that need healing. I signed up for their email list, and hope to pass on details as I learn them.

There was rehearsal for the cantata at noon, and from there I passed through the smudge gate to the sacred fire to make an offering, on my way to the Sikh’s Langar. This is a free lunch offered to all the 10,000 people attending the Parliament, and it’s an astonishing and moving demonstration of the power of service and generosity of spirit. You take off your shoes, and receive a scarf to cover your head, then get seated on the ground in long rows. Sikhs move up and down giving out plates then filling them with delicious vegetarian food until you are satisfied. You’re then invited to move to tables for tea and sweets if you wish. It really makes you wonder how hard could it be to feed every hungry person on the earth.

Langar, free meals served by the Sikhs at 2015 Parliament

Langar, free meals served by the Sikhs at 2015 Parliament

I was tired and filled with contentment and gratitude after my meal. After checking to make sure the booth was covered, I spent the rest of the afternoon watching performances by various groups. I saw Mayan dancer in full regalia, a Navajo hoop dancer, a Canadian Mohawk flute player, Cambodian classical dancers and Devotional dancers from India.

Then it was time for the evening plenary. The topic this time was Focus on War, Violence and Hate Speech. The speakers were hugely inspiring. Many spoke with great passion, calling out the institutions that promote and perpetuate violence, and asking us to search our souls for the commitment to active defiance of these evils. I had heard of some of the presenters – Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, and Jane Goodall. Others were equally impressive: among them, Allan Boesak from South Africa, Karen Armstrong who was presented an award for her work, Dr. Tariq Ramadan who asked us not to give emotional applause, but to think.

The evening ended up with a little party at the spacious and somewhat swanky house where some of us are staying. Cerillian had put together a tableful of festive nourishment, and many of us had the chance to meet or catch up with a couple of Parliament board members as well as each other. Honey and the Sting did a little impromptu performance of a few songs before the evening ended and we all went off in search of a good night of sleep.

We are always thinking of our dear friends and family back home; with these posts I can at least imagine I’ve got you in my pockets as I go through the day!

People of the Earth at the 2015 Parliament

by Rowan Morrigan

Inija Trinkuniene speaking about the survival of the Romuva religion in Lithuania.

Inija Trinkuniene speaking about the survival of the Romuva religion in Lithuania.

To a packed room, the “People of the Earth: The Surviving Indigenous Spiritual Traditions of Europe” presentation was a wonderful description of the history of indigenous people in Europe by Andras Corban Arthen, and an example of keeping a living tradition intact through the Romuva religion in Lithuania by Inija Trinkuniene. I think many people did not realize that Christian Europeans were the conquerors of the pagani (the people of the land) long before they went on to conquer the Americas and other lands. Once Andras set the stage with that, Inija showed how her tradition survived, largely due to Lithuania being the last hold-out to Christian European colonization. The photo on the screen shows a core concept of Romuva: the living fire.

Andras Corban Arthen speaking of the history of indigenous people in Europe.

Andras Corban Arthen speaking of the history of indigenous people in Europe.