In the Circle of Earth and Sky: Four Directions Ceremony in conjunction with Four Elders

by Chris LaFond

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Francois Paulette

Indigenous Elder Francois Paulette (Dene) led the sunrise observance on Monday, accompanied by elders Be’sha Blondin (of the Sahtu Region), Trina Moyan, and a Mayan Elder. I arrived at 6:45 for the scheduled 7 a.m. ceremony, but as I arrived, Bob Goulais (Anishanaabe), who is the co-chair of the Indigenous Working Group of the Parliament and was there as a fire tender, announced that the ceremony would begin around 7:30 a.m. because the elders wanted to wait until the Sun had actually risen. He explained that the Parliament insisted on scheduling all the morning observances at 7 a.m., despite the fact that most of the presenters wanted an actual sunrise ceremony. I was left wondering why, at an event like this, such a simple request could not be accommodated.

So I had forty-five minutes to wait. But as so often happens, the highlight of the moment happened outside of the scheduled event. Mr. Goulais said that while we waited, he would offer us a teaching about the fire. He then told us his people’s story of creation, which began with the thought of the Creator, and spiraled down through space, to the Earth, and primarily through the Fire. We learned about the “happy hunting grounds,” as

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Bob Goulais

he explained with a smile about that place from which our spirits come and to which they will go when it is their time. We heard several of his people’s teachings about the Earth, many of which have been confirmed by science today: the fire at the center of the Earth, the idea of action and reaction, and more. He finished with an explanation of the roles of men and women in his community, and how and why men have become the fire keepers.
At 7:30, the Elders had arrived, and Chief Paulette gave a brief instruction to all, after which we were given a small handful of tobacco to offer. As Mr. Goulais drummed and chanted (we joined him in raising our voices when he got to the “exciting parts” as he had invited us to do), we moved in a sun-wise circle, and one by one, facing the East, offered the tobacco into a small basket. When all the participants had completed their offerings, a Mayan elder took the basket of tobacco, while Elder Trina Moyan took a basket of food in her hands. Together they faced the East and offered prayers, then moved around the circle, stopping again for prayers to the South, West, and North. Finally, they emptied each basket onto the Fire, completing the offering.

The Mayan elder then explained how the teachings of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas are strikingly similar to those of the Indigenous peoples of Australia because the Original Teachings had been given to all peoples. Ms. Moyan told us that her prayers at the directions had been for all people at their beginnings, their youth, their adulthood, and their elderhood, that we might live good lives and guide others in doing the same. Elder Be’sha Blondin then gave a final blessing, exhorting us to live a simple life, and to clean and heal the Earth.

The ceremony concluded with the Elders beginning to move inside the circle, spiraling around to shake the hands of and greet each person there. The whole circle followed them in until it was whole again, where it began. As we all headed off to our next destinations, I couldn’t help humming to myself, “In the circle of Earth and sky, my heart flies to yours. We gather, we remember, and the pattern endures.”

EarthSpirit is at A Parliament of the World’s Religions this week in Toronto!  You can find more updates here and on our Facebook page.  

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The Zoroastrian Boi Ceremony

by Chris LaFond

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Tehemton Mirza, Mobed

On this chilly Sunday morning at 7 am, about 40 people gathered at a small park outside the Metro Toronto Convention Centre to join the Zoroastrian Fire Ceremony. Tehemton Mirza, the Mobed (Zoroastrian priest), greeted us as we gathered around the warmth of the fire just before the Sun rose. First he thanked the representative of the First Nations, who was present to help tend the fire, for hosting us on their land. Then he explained that he was going to do an abbreviated Boi Ceremony, a fire blessing. Each attendee had been given a dry piece of wood to offer the fire at the end of the ceremony. What followed would be familiar to any pagan today. He chanted a long blessing over the fire in Farsi, and at the point in the prayer where he intoned “Dushmata, Duzukhta, Duzvarshta,” (Bad thoughts, bad words, and bad deeds), he rang a bell nine times (three for each) to banish these.

During the ceremony, the Atash (Sacred Fire) asks in the prayer, “What did the walking friend (the devotee) bring for his sitting friend (the Sacred Fire)?” This was the invitation for the attendees to place their individual pieces of wood on the fire. At a certain point, sandalwood is offered to the fire, being particularly sacred to the rite. This morning, the First Nations attendee also offered cedar, sage, and tobacco, the sacred offerings for the particular land that we are on here. Toward the end of the chant, the Mobed asked the Fire to bless the devotees:

In thy family, may the flock of cattle increase!
Unto Thee may there be an increase of heroic men!
May thou have an active mind!
May thy life be active!
May thou live a joyous life, those nights that thou live!

The blessing is reminiscent of many of those from the Gaelic highlands.

After the prayers, and the final pieces of wood offerings were given to the Fire, each attendee was offered some ash that had been removed and cooled earlier, so that we could put a small bit on our foreheads in a sign of humility and respect for the Fire.

Having concluded the ritual part of the gathering, the Mobed drew attention to the very close parallels between the Zoroastrian ceremonies and those of our First Nations hosts. He spoke of the three different kinds of sacred fires, and he introduced a female Zoroastrian priest who was present, pointing out that there is equality among men and women, and this includes women’s participation in the priesthood.

We concluded as the Sun’s rays poured over the buildings around us on the first rainless day we’ve had since the Parliament began.

EarthSpirit is at A Parliament of the World’s Religions this week in Toronto!  You can find more updates here and on our Facebook page.  

Holding Integrity: A Lesson from Chief Arvol Looking Horse

by Chris LaFond

Arvol Looking Horse

photo by Balkowitsch, used under a Creative Commons license

On Saturday, I attended a workshop titled “Pipe Ceremony,” presented by Arvol Looking Horse, Lakota. Mr. Looking Horse talked about becoming a sacred bundle keeper when his grandmother died in her eighties, which was young for a bundle keeper. As a consequence of becoming a sacred bundle keeper, he began to live in ceremony all the time. He was told that he could not ever use a gun or weapon, he could not use foul language, could not run for political office, and he could not raise his hand to swear an oath to the U.S. flag.

What I find impressive about his presentation and his life is his willingness to take on a responsibility for his community that defines how he will live for the rest of his life. His role in his community is not merely the person who keeps the bundle or offers the pipe. His entire life is now a ritual.

Most modern pagan communities don’t have such a rigid differentiation of roles.  In fact, we often have a difficult time staying in ritual for more than an hour or so, even when there is nowhere else to go and nothing else to do.  Few of us live in the kind of tight-knit or geographically-centered communities that would allow for such a lifetime dedication. But the model might serve even for those of us who take on temporary roles within our own groups. If you are responsible for holding a particular piece for your community, perhaps you might try letting that role infuse your whole life, at least until you pass that role to another.  Instead of looking at your responsibilities as something that you do, maybe try to think of them as who you are.

EarthSpirit is at A Parliament of the World’s Religions this week in Toronto!  You can find more updates here and on our Facebook page.  

The next fire

by Chris LaFond

Burning away the failures of the year.
two years, really, maybe more.
Beehives, empty of bees
Yule trees from seasons past
Tomato plants and squash, stricken with blight
the dross of life quietly accumulates
Before I know it, there are
Mountains of trash
that I’ve been clinging to and
Saving beyond any usefulness.
Now the fire takes it away
on a warm fall day.
I face my failure and I feed it to the fire.
Flame cares not for successes and failures,
it hungers for both equally and consumes
leaving me free to learn,
free to be here today.
Tomorrow I will seek the next fire.

Parliament: Australian Pagans Speak

by Chris LaFond

On Monday morning, panel of five pagans from Eastern Australia spoke individually on their own practice of paganism and the progress that they have made in engaging in interfaith work in Australia in recent years. She’ D’Montford spoke on dispelling the myths surrounding the word ‘witch’, and on the meaning of the pentagram. Glenys Livingstone presented her own work on what happens when European paganism is transplanted to the southern hemisphere. Her term for what she does is ‘PaGaian’, that is, pagan and gaian, which stresses the whole earth connection of all life. Glenys also spoke of her work in re-imagining deity using feminine motifs.

Gede Parma, a twenty-one year old energetic man defined witchcraft as an “ecstasy-driven, earth-based mystery tradition.” He presented his work in the Sydney area in founding a coven that has already hived off and is starting to spread to other parts of the world. Fabienne Morgana talked of growing up on an Australian farm the size of Rhode Island, and how she came to paganism when her parents’ spiritual traditions simply didn’t speak to her in the wilds of Australia.

Finally, Linda Ward spoke to us of her work in the interfaith movement in Australia, and how just a few short years ago, we (pagans) were blatantly refused a seat at the interfaith table. In the last three or four years, they have made tremendous progress and are now an important part of the dialogue here in Australia. She argued that a pagan ethical system is by its nature already interfaith, since it has to take into account all beings of the earth and diversity in all its forms.

It was very exciting to see the strides being made in such a short time!

Parliament: Sacred Envy

by Chris LaFond

This morning, Sunday, I attended a panel discussion entitled “Sacred Envy: Exploring What We Love about Our Own Faith, What We Admire in Others and What Challenges Us in Both”. The panelists were Rabbi Brad Hirschfield (who designed the presentation), Sr Joan Chittister, and Imam Feisal Rauf.

The format was simple: each of the panelists would address one of four questions, and then a few audience members would get to make comments on the same issue. In answering each for ourselves, we were asked to consider where we were right now in our own faith/spiritual landscape. 

1. What do you love about your own faith?
2. What do you envy or admire about the faith/religions/rituals/etc. of other traditions?
3. What would you most like to change about your own faith (or what embarrasses you most about it, what do you see as its greatest weakness, etc.) and
4. What would you like to see change in the traditions of others.

The panelists addressed all of these questions directly and candidly, even the more confessional questions of what they are most embarrassed about in their own traditions (almost universally, the repression of women was mentioned as one of those challenging issues). The final question of what you don’t like about the faiths of others, or what you might challenge others of those faiths to change was handled deftly and delicately by the panelists.

Instead of rehashing the whole presentation here, I’d like to offer my answer to these questions, reminding the reader that we were asked to answer them based upon where we are right now in our own spiritual landscape (these answers may change with time).
What I most love about being pagan, and the approach of EarthSpirit to paganism, is the connection to the web of life, and not capitulating to the human temptation to believe that our own species is better or more important in the larger web than any other particular one.
What I envy most about certain other traditions (Catholic, Islam, Judaism, in particular) is the commitment to pursue the intellectual side of spirituality. While paganism stands high and above most other traditions in being experiential, sometimes what is needed is more thought and reflection on those experiences, and integration into the larger web.
What most bothers me about current paganism (and neo-paganism) is the superficiality with which many of us approach ethical issues. Life is not as simple as “And it harm none…”, and many situations call for much deeper thought than that.
What bothers me about many other traditions is the widespread belief among many practitioners that their way is the only true way.
The panelists were, of course, some of the best representatives of the interfaith efforts of their own traditions. In finishing, Rabbi Hirschfield spoke about the “end of the story” of each of our traditions; that is, what it is that we believe should happen to achieve peace, salvation, etc. His closing statement was quite provocative, and challenged us all to think about what level of diversity we are willing to tolerate. He said “We have got to have an end of the story that has greater diversity than we are willing to participate in.”

I leave you with this question: How much diversity are YOU willing to participate in?

Saturn, Cosmic Gardener

by Christopher LaFond

XI The Old Man from 'The Pythagorean Tarot' by John Opsopaus; with permission from Omphalos.org

The EarthSpirit Community is currently finishing its first Saturn Return. At the same time, a number of the founders and members at the heart of the community are in the midst of, or heading toward, their second Saturn Return. This provides all of us, as a community, the opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going together.

Hey, come back here!

Let’s start with: What is a “return?” If you hang around with anyone who knows even a little astrology, you may hear about this “Saturn return” thing a lot. A return is when any planet in the solar system, or the Sun or Moon (which astrologers often include with the catch-all term “planet”) returns to the same place in the zodiac as it was when you were born. Every year, you experience a Solar Return; this happens within a day or so of your birthday. The Sun returns to the same degree in the zodiac as it was in your birth chart. Astrologers often cast a chart for that exact moment, and use that chart as your chart for the twelve-month year beginning at your birthday. You’ve probably heard the expression: “Happy Birthday, and many happy returns.” This refers specifically to Solar Returns, and is an astrological expression. The Solar Return happens yearly, while the Lunar Return occurs monthly. But the Saturn return happens only once every twenty-nine years.

Traditional astrologers (those who practiced the unbroken astrological tradition up through the 17th century) referred to returns as “revolutions”. The original (and still primary) meaning of “revolution” comes from the verb “revolve”, that is, to turn or spin around something. Implicit here is a re-setting of something; sort of “proceed to Go, collect $200”. On some level, it’s a new beginning, a restart of the energy of whichever planet is returning. So a Venus return is a resetting of the love/lust principle, a Mars return a resetting of the energy/aggression principle, etc.

The word “revolution” only later came to refer to a usually violent overthrow or resetting of a political entity; and even then, not all revolutions are violent. But the different variations in the meaning of the word “revolution” give us some hints as to what to expect from a planetary return. Classical astrologers pointed out that there was something karmic about any planet returning to its place in a natal chart. While a return doesn’t give you a totally clean slate for that planet (after all, it’s still in the same sign as when you were born, for good or bad), it does give you a fresh opportunity to work with that planet within the confines of its condition in your chart. For example, if you have Mars in a difficult sign, it will still be in that sign in any Mars return, but you have a chance to realign the way you connect to and focus that energy for the next cycle.

So, why all of this about revolutions and returns? Because in order to understand what a Saturn return is, we have to understand the basics of what a return is.

Here we go again!

As mentioned above, Saturn “returns” in about 29 years to its natal position in a chart. There is a lot written about the first return: time to finally claim your life as an adult, time to accept responsibility for yourself, time to start a new family, time to cast off anything that isn’t authentically “you,” etc. Some of these reasons are what’s really going on with the “dreaded” 30th birthday.

But what about the second Saturn return? This occurs usually between age 56-58, and obviously, we are at a very different place in life than at our first Saturn return. While it’s impossible to predict what will happen to everyone at this second Saturn return, there are a few generalizations that can be made. First the caveat. Your Saturn return (first, second, or third) will reflect where Saturn is in your own natal chart: what sign it is in, and what house. These factors are not to be underestimated, and will influence greatly your experience of this return. But most people undergo an experience of the Universal Saturn at a return. So what is this Universal Saturn? Saturn was originally a god of agriculture. The image of the Reaper is an image of Saturn with a scythe, ready to reap what has been sown. As a matter of fact, the word “Saturn” comes from the Indo-European root /sa-/, which means “to sow”, as in to sow seeds at planting. So Saturn is all about sowing and reaping. We have come to focus a lot more on the end of this process, the reaping or dying, perhaps because of the fear that is often associated with it. After all, there is often a lot more emotional investment in what is yet to come than in what has already happened.

If Saturn is about reaping what we’ve sown, then that might make many of us nervous, fearing that we haven’t done enough, that we won’t measure up. I suspect that this fear is even more acute in North American society, with our idealization of youth, and our Puritan roots and work ethic: nothing short of perfection is good enough. Since perfection is impossible, we have much to fear. It’s easy to look back at our second Saturn return and see all the failures in our lives, all of the ways that we’ve messed up, and how we could have done things better. Also evident to us is all of the things that we’ll never do, since we are more acutely aware of the passage of time at this point. After all, Saturn later became identified with the Greek Cronos (time), and Saturn/Cronos is the origin of the image of Father Time. In a society that worships youth, the potential for being terrified of old age is high.

But what about all of those things that we’ve done well in our lives? What have we done right? What positive differences have we made in the lives of those around us? What is it that have we planted in our 56+ years that is now coming to fruition? Many of us have given birth in one form or another to children, grandchildren, relationships, careers, ideas, businesses, communities… These are all things that we’ve planted, with or without intention. Saturn challenges us to be intentional, to choose well the seeds that we will sow in our gardens, to limit the amount of weeds that we allow to grow and distract us (or to learn what those “weeds” may be used for). The second Saturn return is the time to decide what we will allow to grow in our Winter Garden. It’s no longer spring time, and not everything will grow; we must choose well. Our first two Saturn cycles have given us the opportunity to see what kind of gardeners we are: what we grow well and share with our community, and what we should leave for others to grow and then share with us.

Whenever I plant seeds, I read the package for the instructions on how to cultivate them. Inevitably, I ignore the part that says to trim the seedlings back when they get to a certain height. Why would you want to thin your row of veggies? I want as many veggies as I can grow in my limited garden! But over the years, you learn that not pruning back the plants makes a mess of your garden, and robs many plants of the nutrients that can only go so far. In the end, you often get more fruit from fewer plants, if you grow them correctly. This is the lesson of Saturn.

So at the second return of the Cosmic Gardener, here are a few questions that we might ask ourselves: What is the bounty in my life that I have harvested from my many years of sowing? What have I learned about the “weeds” that distract me and rob the nutrients from my life? In the coming years, what do I want to continue to plant? How can I pace myself so that I can continue to cultivate what is most important to me?

As I write this, I find myself exactly at the half-way point between my first and second Saturn returns. I look forward in fifteen years or so to throwing myself a Harvest Festival Party, similar to the Harvest Festivals that many of us attend and host every August and September. I encourage you to do the same. Celebrate your harvest. The act of celebration will help you to decide what to plant next.


[Image: XI The Old Man from The Pythagorean Tarot by John Opsopaus; used with permission from Omphalos.org.]