On Pagan Values

As I mentioned at the end of last week’s article, many of my fellow Pagan bloggers have been setting space aside to discuss the topic of “Pagan values”. I didn’t know whether this was something I wanted to address, since I’ve usually viewed this blog as a place to discuss my local congregation and my experiences in running it, and I don’t feel like I have the authority to go around telling the entire pagan population what to do. (Unless it involves something I find intensely stupid and wasteful, like, say, an electronic petition “defending” us from Kathy Lee Gifford.) Hek, I barely have the authority to dictate what my own Grove does. But I do enjoy taking part in big online events, at least once in a while, and since I didn’t have anything more pressing to write about this week, I figgered, what the Hekate!

So then I spent the week thinking about what kind of pagan value I wanted to address. Some ideas flitted through my mind as I drove around town doing my job, but nothing jumped out at me as the “must discuss” topic. Tolerance of others’ beliefs as an expression of our own polytheism? Ah, but not everyone who considers themselves Pagan also considers themselves polytheistic, and besides, I couldn’t find a way to write that without making it sound too self-congratulatory for my tastes. I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable when Ian Corrigan writes articles like that, and Ian’s a way better writer than I am. I also thought about writing something exhorting my Pagan brethren (is there a better not-all-male word for that? “Sororen”? “Sistren”? “Siblen”?) to be a little less self-obsessed, to do more outward-looking in our practices, to do more open ritual and public service work. But as important as I think that is, even I can’t justify it as being an inherently “Pagan” value. Solitary practitioners and mall private groups have a role to play in our religion, even if that’s a part that I have no personal interest in. Maybe write something about ADF’s Nine Virtues? But again, it’s not something that applies to all Pagans, and in any case, it’s already been written about by a better writer than me.

In the end, the one idea I kept coming back to, the one I decided to write about this week, wasn’t about the values that Pagans hold, but what Pagans value. Not just because of my love of puns, but the double meaning of “value” did seem to lead me in that direction. And during the last year, I’ve found myself thinking more and more on that aspect of our religion. How much do we value our path? How much of our time and energy and money do we as individuals choose to put into it? Are we really as dedicated to our path as the folks in other religions are, or is Paganism more of a glorified recreation, a hobby? Actually, that question doesn’t really apply. Most people are quite willing to spend their time and money on their hobbies.

No, I’m not expecting every Pagan out there to be completely selfless, or even mostly selfless. We each come to this path for many different reasons, but usually at least some of our reasons are based on self-interest. It makes us feel good to be with the gods, we like the buzz of energy work, we think that one person who did the Bardic Invocation is cute and want to hang out with them… Even us clergy-types, who have chosen to run ourselves ragged pursuing a vocation that gives us no money and the prospect of an early stress-related death, get some personal benefits from it. (If we don’t, then we’re probably being complete idiots.) Part of reciprocity is expecting to get something for yourself as a result of your practices – ah, but the other part of reciprocity is the giving, isn’t it? And too often in my not quite twenty years as a pagan, I see people buying fancy altar items, and not donating to a Pagan church or charity. (Or even non-Pagan ones.) People ask for counseling or hospital visits from an unpaid volunteer Pagan clergyperson, and never offer any kind of recompense. People who ask for blessings from the gods or other spirits, but never make any kind of offering before or after. There’s got to be a balance here, folks. If studying the ways of the Ancients and their religions has taught me anything, it’s that their practice was about building community through establishing proper hospitality with each other and with their gods. If we don’t at least try to do the same, we’re nothing more than an obnoxious pre-Christian form of a Renaissance Festival. (Actually, I’m being unfair again. The folks at RenFest are far more supportive of each other than that.) Like most clergy types, I want the members of my religion to strive to be better people than they are, and I’m always a little saddened when they can’t seem to manage it, and greatly saddened when they don’t even want to try.

“But wait!”, I hear some of you cry from across the ocean of cyberspace. “What if I don’t have money to give?” I’m with you there, folks. This week I had to once again delay renewing my ADF membership because I couldn’t even manage to get $25 together after covering other bills. Put me in the “sad at myself because I can’t seem to manage it” category on that one. But I have other things to offer, and I’m sure you do as well. Write an article or a poem or a book review for a Web site or a magazine (I hear they still publish a few of those), volunteer time to your local recycling center or other worthy group, or Hek, just do a ritual for your favorite deity, not because you need something from them right this minute, but just because you like them. Keep at least part of your Pagan outlook focused on looking outward, and if we all manage to do that, then we’ll have something resembling a real community.

OK, enough rambling on this. Next week I’ll renew my local writing focus and tie it in to this article by telling y’all exactly what non-cash-related things you can do for Shining Lakes Grove.

Rev. Rob Henderson
Senior Druid, Shining Lakes Grove, ADF

PS – If you just can’t get enough of me talking about pagan stuff, you can read a new interview at: http://www.examiner.com/examiner/x-12870-Southeast-Michigan-Pagan-Examiner~y2009m6d22-Interview-with-a-Druid–Rob-Henderson-of-Shining-Lakes-Grove

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As Blind Melon Once Sang, “No Rain!”

So in last week’s article here, I was already worrying about the prospect of rain on Saturday right during our solstice ritual, especially after last year’s downpour. And right up until Thursday night, the Weather Channel was saying 60% chance of thunderstorms between 2 and 5 PM. But as summer storms often do, this one sped through quickly, and by Friday the prediction was for lots of rain Friday night, some rain Saturday morning, and none after noon. So no postponement of the ritual, and onward we went!

The “lots of Friday night rain” bit certainly came through. It rained heavily as I brought the candle carrying the Grove flame down to the fire circle, and I managed to get the resin sticks lit and into the firewood while Kris held her umbrella over it. It took a while for anything but the resin stick to catch fire, and I was genuinely getting worried, but the wood did eventually take. A few lightning flashes and thunderclaps later, Kris had run up to her car, leaving me, Sean, Rod and Liz to bless the fire in the rain. (Hmm, “bless the fire in the rain”, sounds like a song lyric.) After unloading the various ritual gear I had brought into the safety of the firewood stand, I left with Gen (who hadn’t even gotten out of the car) and Rod and Liz left as well. Sean and Kris stayed the night, and I’m told Mike and Allison came out later and they all tended the fire through the sporadic heavy storms through the night. (I still think the Grove should pay them for actually managing to do that.)

Saturday morning was sunny, so I rode with Gen into Ann Arbor, then took the bus to the corner of Maple and Miller and walked to Botsford from there. Gen thought I was insane for not just waiting at the flower store for her to drive in, or at least driving to Botsford and then back to downtown to pick her up, but when leading the ritual I prefer to spend at least an hour before the rite getting attuned to the space. (See, I can be spiritually finicky sometimes!) So I got there around quarter to one, got the fire circle area set up, and then Rod and Liz arrived, bring both the ritual regalia and new member Barbara with them, so we got the circle set up earlier than usual. Rod suggested a few different things to do for the ritual, as he often does after going to Wellspring or other festivals and seeing how other Groves do things. >8) Nothing major, though, he recommended that we have a sacrificer make the offerings rather than the person saying the invocation (which I’ve seen done before at ADF rites, so I knew it was a decent idea, just different from how we’ve done it before) and also to pause after the portal openings and Kindred invocations to tell people to feel the presence of the portals/Kindreds (which I hadn’t seen before, but sounded reasonable enough as long as it didn’t take like five minutes at a time).

Ritual time came, and people came, some later than usual. (And after we had the nemeton ready early, aww, I was tempted to actually start at 2 this time!) With a decent mix of our established members and some new faces as well, we started late (nearly 3 I think?) because it took us so long to get the ritual fire started in the nemeton, but things went very smoothly. Bright sunlight lit the leaves of the trees above us, but very little direct sun came down to the nemeton itself, which suits my skin just fine! Liz and Barbara acted as sacrificers and it went well, we may well make that change permanent, and also the pause to feel the portal/Kindred presence was good. When we passed the focus object around the circle, about half of the people there had something to say aloud, way more than we usually get out of our quiet bunch. With a new baby (the first High Day rite for Jan’, Paul and Val’s three-week-old), some job interviews for our “employment challenged” members, and word that Nancy’s cancer surgery had gone well the day before, I guess we had a lot of things to praise! We had also asked folks to bring along the first fruits of their garden to offer, but only Gen, Anne and I brought anything. And all I brought were a few leaves from the basil and mint plants I have growing in my window. Well, traditions sometimes need time to get popular! The group offering of flax seed into the fire, and our traditional “Sun Litany” where folks cheer both Bel and Danu, both went well, and when we burned the sun wheel, despite the wetness of the wood and the difficulty we had starting the nemeton fire, it went up quickly and beautifully. The omen was good (Algiz – Thurisaz – Sowilo, “the power of the sun protects us”), and so we blessed and drank the lemonade (“Behold, the lemonade of life!”) and burned sheets of paper upon which we had written things we wanted Bel and Danu to help us increase in our lives. We then welcomed Barbara as a new member, and Paul and Val held the cauldron (and Jan) for the cauldron blessing.

Back up at the ritual circle, Matt Rindfleisch (friend of mine and Gen’s) had finally shown up as he had promised, and after spending way too much time assembling the grill he had just bought, made hot dogs. The potluck actually had a good selection this time, there were meats *and* starches *and* desserts, and plenty to go round. The only downer was the muddiness of the area around the fire circle. Whle the nemeton and the path down to it were fairly mud-free after Friday’s rains, the torrents had washed away a lot of the wood chips used around the upper circle, and there was a lot of open muddy ground. In my sandals, my feet were pretty well mud-caked by the time we packed up and went home. I think most folks stayed until at least 6, maybe we need to change the listed times for the rituals on our calendars, it seems like people are staying later and later. (Of course, if it actually had been raining the whole afternoon, I imagine folks wouldn’t have stayed!)

So, even beyond Rodney’s criteria of “there was a good omen and no one died”, I think this was a really good ritual, nothing exceptional or mind-blowing to it, but if the point of regular public ritual is (as I think it should be) to provide stability and comfort to the people as well as to honor the Kindreds, then this one was a perfect example of how to accomplish that.

Next week, I may actually write something about Pagan values, like everyone else has been doing for June. Well, one value in particular, and I bet it’s one that very few others have talked about. Which one? Stay tuned! (Wait, can one stay tuned to a Web page? What would the new equivalent be, “Keep refreshing”?)

Rev. Rob Henderson
Senior Druid, Shining Lakes Grove, ADF

Summer Daze

Last night’s Game Night was a rousing success! We doubled our attendance from last month! Granted, that means we had six people there instead of three, but still, double is double, especially during the summer when I generally expect our attendance to decrease. We managed to play two games of Carcassonne before adjourning for the night. Oh, and there was pecan pie. I think the pie may have had something to do with the increased attendance. We’ll have to bring punch next time and see how that affects things.

I know I’m not supposed to play favorites with nature, being a Senior Druid and supposed to love all aspects of nature and all that, but summer is definitely my least favorite season. Granted, there are things I like to do that can only be done during the summer months (Cedar Point, baseball, the farmer’s market down the street from my house, reading by sunlight at 9 o’clock at night), but ultimately the heat is always a downer for me. In the depths of winter I can always put more clothing on. In summer, there’s only so much I can take off, and even less that I can take off if I’m in public. And summer also brings an increase in family commitments and out of town trips for our Grove members, and so our attendance drops noticeably. Sometimes I thing that paganism hibernates in the summer, much as bears do in the winter.

The summer solstice rite also seems to give me more problems that any other High Day rite. Besides the obvious issue of trying to do a ritual outside without drenching my robes in my own sweat, it also seems to be the ritual most likely to get rained on. Last year’s downpour isn’t one I’m going to forget any time soon! (And this morning’s extended forecast on the Weather Channel calls for rain Friday night and scattered showers on Saturday. *sigh*)

And of course, the most disastrous High Day rite we ever did was in the summer of ’98, when our attempts to reenact the wedding of Lugh and Ana met with nothing but resistance from the gods, and we had to end the ritual with no return blessing (still the only time we’ve ever done that) and later restructured our yearly liturgical structure because of it. Yeah, in hindsight trying to force the gods to do something (even something they had agreed to do in years before) was a bad plan. On the bright side, it did prove that we actually can get several bad omens in a single ritual, and that not every ritual works. If you’re going to take part in The Grand Experiment That Is ADF, you do have to expect a few of the test tubes to blow up, and try to learn from it. So this year, as we’ve done for the last ten years we will honor Bel and Danu at the rite this coming weekend.

But enough pessimism, I still have a ritual weekend to get ready for, and a newsletter article to write, and a Call for Nominations to put together, and e-mails to answer, and all the usual hectic pre-ritual stuff. Hopefully I’ll see many of you at Botsford this weekend, and hopefully we’ll be dry the whole time!

Rev. Rob Henderson
Senior Druid, Shining Lakes Grove, ADF

Twenty-One Lessons Times Three Books Equals…

Wow, I think this is the first weekend since Mother’s Day that I haven’t spent at least part of the time either reading something for the ADF Clergy Training Program or writing something for it. I have a few months before I need to submit the next two courses as part of my personal schedule, and it’ll be a few weeks ’til I manage to get the books I need through interlibrary loan anyway. I guess I’ll just have to read that lesbian comic strip compilation I mentioned earlier. (And good news for those who care, both of the courses I submitted last weekend have been approved. Eight down, four to go for First Circle.)

Jumping from the topic of good academic books and books that are fun to read, my thoughts turn to a book that is neither. Earlier this week someone posted to one of the ADF mailing lists that a third book in Douglas Monroe’s “Merlin” series was being published. This wasn’t a huge surprise to me, as I’m pretty sure I saw somewhere online a few years ago that he intended to do a third one. Not that the lack of surprised came with a lack of sadness. Having been my Grove’s official phone and e-mail contact for over ten years, I know all too well how many people come to us thinking that we’re Druids just like in that Druid book that they read. (The cleverer ones work out that this may not be the case when they see that we have actual, y’know, women in the Grove, some of them officers.) Happily, at least a few of them politely ask what I think of the book, and when I tell them about its inaccuracies and that it has little to do with our practices or those of the Ancients, they say, “Oh thank god, I thought it was just me.”

For those not familiar with the work, ADF founder Isaac Bonewits’ web site has a decent summary and debunking of it. (Ceisiwr Serith wrote up an excellent point-by-point list of the inaccuracies it has, but he doesn’t seem to have put it on his Web site anywhere that I can find it, and I won’t pass along someone else’s material without their permission.) I’ve not read the whole thing through, but I have read portions of it, and if I really thought that this was what Druids did, I’d rather be a Wiccan. Or a Buddhist. Or more likely I’d just call myself a Neo-Hellene. I’d rather spend five minutes explaining to every single person I meet what that means, than try to explain why women have no magical energy of their own and must drain energy from men to do spellwork.

(As an aside, yes, I’ve heard the rumor that Monroe was convicted of statutory rape against teenaged boys. Sadly, I can’t find a link to any current info about this online. If it’s true, then yes, I think that’s awful. But whenever possible, criticizing a work should be about the work itself rather than the author’s personal life. I think there’s plenty of bad stuff in 21LoM to talk about without citing court records, and anyway, if I refused to read the works of anyone who was a pederast, how many ancient Greek authors would I need to disregard? But I will admit that hearing about this did put the whole “men generate magical energy and women don’t” chapter of 21LoM into a new context for me. And may I add, (retching noise).)

So when this new book was brought up on that mailing list, some people did make the argument that often comes up, that just because the “authentic Druid practices” that the book cites were made up in the 19th century doesn’t make them spiritually invalid. And ADF Clergy person though I be, I have to agree with that basic sentiment. There are plenty of religious and other traditions based on flimsier evidence than that, and ultimately what we find satisfying or comforting in a religion is personal, maybe the most intensely personal thing we believe. I won’t complain about someone using this book for their own spiritual practices if they find that it works for them – well, actually, I will a little. A spiritual path that has that much disdain for women isn’t much of a spiritual path. But if you’re a man and you really don’t ever intend to have a meaningful relationship with a woman in this lifetime, hey, knock yourself out. There are worse things that you could be doing with your time. The better solution would be for Druids from ADF and other groups to write better books and get them out there. (And yay to our Arch Druid Skip Ellison for having written some, now if only we can get them onto as many shelves as Llewellyn can!)

Ultimately, then, how do I feel about these books and the man who wrote them? I can only answer that by relaying the story of a young man who came to our Grove’s Lughnasadh festival in 2002. This was the last year that we held it at the Emrich Conference Center and it was a big four-day deal. The young man – let’s call him “Frank” for the purposes of this story, he’s a nice kid and I don’t want to embarrass him, not to mention I do take clergy confidentiality issues seriously – came with his mother because he was all excited about Druids, and he paid us a membership fee that weekend and told us he was going to come to as many of our events as he could. And as often happens in these cases, he never came back. The over-enthusiastic ones seldom do. I did send him a few e-mails to see if he was all right, but he never responded. Ah well. Part of a Senior Druid’s life is dealing with the fact that not everyone belongs in your Grove. So life went on.

A few years later, with no warning, Frank sent me an email saying he really needed to meet me in person to discuss something. (This is the bit that I can’t discuss in detail for confidentiality reasons, but since it has to do with a teenaged boy, you can probably assume that there’s a teenaged girl involved in any big perceived moral quandary.) So we met, he asked how the Grove had been managing since last we talked, and I asked him what Druid things he’d been doing. He said that right after that Lughnasadh, he signed up for Douglas Monroe’s e-mail list, and decided that that was more what he was looking for. Fair enough. If that kind of Druidry was really what Frank wanted, SLG was never going to be the place that he would find it. So after sharing my own thoughts on the issues at hand, I asked him if he’d talked to Mr. Monroe about his problem. Well, yes, he had asked him about it on the phone, and Monroe had flat out refused to talk to him about it. “Wait a minute”, I thought to myself. “The leader of a Druid group can’t answer one of his own student’s questions about girls?” The snarky voice in my head made a comment about pederasts being the last people to ask about girl problems, especially when you’re one of the cute young boys hanging on their every word. (And yes, “the snarky voice in my head” is also known as “the voice inside my head”.) So in the absence of any moral/ethical input from Monroe, Frank came running back to me, because I’m a clergyperson and I actually try to help people with stuff like this, instead of acting like I know everything the ancient Druids did and then not being able to deal with real life. (I still occasionally ponder whether I’m the metaphoric “wife” or the metaphoric “mistress” in this particular scenario. Probably the wife.)

So in the end, whether Iolo Morganwg was on to something when he made up those ancient Welsh texts, whether the Britons had a cool recipe for soup made from a New World plant, whether all women are black widows, none of that matters to me as much as my one indirect encounter with Douglas Monroe. Any spiritual tradition that leaves its devoted practitioners in the lurch when a real problem comes along is no spiritual practice that I want to be involved with. Knowing that my Grovemates and ADF will at least try to help me when the going gets rough means more to me than all the tea in China. Or all the pumpkin blossom soup in Wales!

Rev. Rob Henderson
Senior Druid, Shining Lakes Grove, ADF

The Service of Orders, or, Initiate Good Times, Come On!

Wow, another late night, with me not getting my Clergy Training program work done until after 10. But done it is, at least for a few months! Since I’ve been getting a few questions about what particular courses I’m doing as part of the CTP, I was hoping to find a page on the public portion of the ADF web site that would actually list the courses. No luck there, but Vice ArchDruid Kirk Thomas has it listed on his Web site (along with his own coursework), for those curious. Other than a rewrite on IE Language I, all I have left to do before getting my official First Circle status are: Magic I and General Bardic Studies I, due at the end of July; and Research and Composition, due at the end of September, per the schedule I gave to the Clergy Council.

Of course, not every pagan wants to be clergy, and given how stressful the role can be, I don’t blame anyone for not wanting that role if they don’t feel a calling to it. But still, many of our members want to engage in more serious studies of our ADF traditions, something a little more advanced than the Dedicant Path. As a result, Ian Corrigan put together a proposal for a new training program within ADF: the Initiate Path. At last weekend’s Wellspring, they held a ritual to officially initiate the Initiate Path. (Since I was stuck here at home because I can’t afford to go to festivals these days, I wasn’t there, so I can’t say much about the ritual itself. You can read about it here and here, assuming that Rod and Jamie have their journals set to public.) Its structure is similar to the Clergy Training Program, but with more trance work and less scholarly work. Some people have been wondering what an Initiate’s role will be within ADF, and for now, my answer is going to be, “I have no idea. Let’s let them work on that for a while and see what they suggest.” As with many parts of the Grand Experiment That Is ADF, I’m happy to let the motivated folks do the trailblazing and see what happens. There are certainly worse things that ADF could be doing than training its members in advanced meditation and magical techniques!

I’m also looking forward to seeing the development of Orders with ADF. These are a long way from being made official, but the plan is to allow subgroups within ADF to dedicate themselves to a particular deity or other spirit or group of spirits, and let them develop their own rites and customs around it. Early suggestions have included an Order of Brighid and an Order of the Dead. I personally would love to have an Order of Ana here in SLG, though I guess I could argue that we already have one, given how many specialized rites and customs we’ve developed around her over the years!

Speaking of local activities, while it was far from an official Grove event, I was very happy to officiate a Roman-style baby naming ceremony over the weekend. I don’t want to go into too much detail, since a naming ritual is by definition one of the most personal rituals anyone can take part in, and I do want to be sensitive to the privacy needs of others. I will say, though, that I personally loved being able to take part in such a ritual, and I really felt very strongly that we were all taking part in a renewal of the ancient ways there, a really meaningful way to honor the gods and rediscover the ways of our ancestors all at once. Like the realization coming to me that, for poor Roman families living in tenement housing, ritual probably did involve everyone cramming around a lararium in the corner and everyone bumping into each other as they took turns at the altar. That’s something I would never have picked up on just by watching movies and TV shows about rich Roman families living in large estates, although maybe once I finally finish all the reading I need to do for the CTP, I can get back to reading the Marcus Didius Falco mystery novels. I bet those have a scene like that in there somewhere.

I think I’ll leave it at that for now, given how late the hour has gotten here. See you next week!

Rev. Rob Henderson
Senior Druid, Shining Lakes Grove, ADF

Related Reading:
ADF’s Training Programs: http://www.adf.org/training/index.html