Questioning “The Question”

Does it make me a bad Pagan to have attended midnight mass a few days ago? If so, I’m a baaaa-a-a-ad Pagan! Mom invited me to the pre-mass concert her choir was performing at her church on Christmas Eve, and I stayed for the service. This was the first full Catholic mass I’ve attended since becoming an ADF clergyperson, and the compare-and-contrast aspect was interesting enough to actually keep me awake that late. >8) I was particularly surprised by the very informal was that Father Rick addressed the congregation during his sermon (“Smells and bells, that’s what we Catholics love about church!”) and how, right before we left, he asked everyone if there were any birthdays or anniversaries to be announced. (Yes, some wise-ass said “Jesus”.) (No, it wasn’t me.) This definitely wasn’t what I remembered mass at St. Anthony’s being like when I was a kid. Even after just an hour, it was apparent to me that this was a welcoming, functioning religious community of the kind that we Pagans aspire to.

I bring this up now because, well in part because it happened three days ago and when else would I bring it up? But it also ties in with the topic I’d had in mind for this week anyway. On one of the ADF mailing lists, a new person asked the question, “if I’m not really a polytheist, do I belong in ADF?” I’ve already discussed how personally frustrating it is to keep seeing this same question (or slight variations) asked every few months on our lists for the last thirteen or fourteen years now, and sometimes I wonder if this is some sort of torture being inflicted upon us by a dark deity out there, a variant of “Chinese water torture” or spending time with a four-year-old. Yeah, I know it’s a new question to the person asking, and a pressing one I’m sure, but gods this gets repetitive. (This might actually be the best argument in favor of replacing our mailing lists with forums, since a single thread answering the question would prevent anyone from ever needing to ask it again. Except that my own forum experiences suggest that people never read the old posts, so we’ll just end up with dozens of threads floating around covering the exact same frickin’ question, over and over and over, like water torture being applied by a four-year-old.)

And as always happens when someone posts “that question”, dozens of replied were posted within a few hours, throwing the old “orthopraxy not orthodoxy” and “whether you feel like you belong is the important part” arguments, which are of course correct. The sad part is realizing that people in actual real-world groups never need to ask themselves this question. Anyone attending a Grove ritual, or a coffee hour, or a mass at St. Roch’s for that matter, will know whether they belong without having to ask. It’s only because we’ve allowed people to join ADF from remote locations and give them the tenuous contact of e-mail that people can wonder such a thing. Even I have to admit that e-mail can only fill so much of someone’s needs, and they’ll need to fill in the gaps themselves with whatever information they have at hand, and when those people aren’t as borderline autistic as I am, part of that missing information is whether they’re really accepted by the group.

(At this point during the writing process, I take back what I said about “the question” being the most frustrating aspect of ADF to me. Letting solitaries join without being able to adequately communicate to them that being a sol adds an extra level of difficulty to the process, for fear of coming across like we’re trying to scare them off, that’s more frustrating to me.)

So with “the question” asked, and many other people answering it the usual way, what is there for me to do? Well, if there’s one thing I know how to be, it’s the “Trickster’s Advocate”. Why answer the same question the same way when I can change the question around and answer it in a different way? And so, with a simple inversion, we have: “If I belong in ADF, what do I believe?”

First we have to figure out who “belongs” in ADF, with a slightly narrower answer than “everyone” or “everyone in ADF” if we want this to take less than ten thousand words. So discarding the “we’re an orthopraxy so anyone who does our rituals our way is a member” argument for now, let’s look at the org. Which of us take oaths dedicating ourselves to ADF or some part of it? Not our Dedicants, who only take an oath to pursue the study of Neo-Paganism of some sort. We could go with the members of the Mother Grove (ADF’s Board of Directors), who are encouraged to take service oaths at Wellspring, but the MG members who can’t be there don’t take such an oath, and even then, they usually only remain on the MG for a year or two. Besides which, I’m not on the MG any more, and if I’m writing the article, I need some data I can work with. So the members of the Clergy Council have taken an oath to serve the members of ADF, and they stick around for years and years. Plus, we have our own song. If anyone “belongs” in ADF more than other people do, it’s probably us.

So what do we clergyfolk all believe? Sadly, I haven’t had time to send out a survey so I can make absolutely certain, but I know what we’ve talked about, and I know what I believe, so we have a starting point. Most of us do seem to be strict polytheists, and not duotheists or “all gods are one” types, though if one of us said that they were, it wouldn’t be a problem. And we all think that we belong in ADF, which is really the only bit that matters.

So then, if we do share some beliefs (not a huge surprise, really), what do some of us believe that others don’t? We’re not all Celtic practitioners, of course, though I’m happy to note that the “if I’m not a Celt, do I belong in ADF” questions on the lists all dried up over five years ago. (You’d have thought that the existence of Norse, Hellenic, Vedic, etc. mailing lists on the ADF server would have tipped them off a little earlier than that, but like I said, people seldom seem to check such things.)

Again, I haven’t sent a survey out (might be an actual plan if I ever want to turn this into an Oak Leaves article), but I can be certain of some things that the other priests think that I don’t. The importance of the Earth Mother to our work, for instance, which I’ve addressed here before. “We honor her because RDNA honored her” is hardly a convincing argument, since we’re not RDNA, and “because Isaac honored her” isn’t much better. (If we want to slavishly mimic RDNA, I’d much rather look to their foundation as an act of protest against an authoritarian policy at their college, and require ADF Groves to address social justice issues with some of their quarterly service projects. But that’s just me.)

And on a similar note, I don’t think that Paganism is inherently a nature religion. No, seriously. I’ve nothing against nature worship, I used to be in our local Naturalists Guild back when we had active local Guilds, but at this point I consider polytheism to be the defining aspect of Paganism, and nature worship can be an aspect of that, but it’s not required. (As a Heathen once said when asked if theirs was an earth-based religion: “As opposed to what, a Mars-based religion?”) Worse still, I worry that our constant refrain of “Pagan equals environmentalist” is off-putting to members of other religions, who, believe it or not, sometimes want to take care of the planet just as much as we do. And what better way to annoy them than by telling them they’re Pagan if they do care? I know how livid I get when monotheists say that only their faith really cares about helping the needy, and damned if I’m going to pull the same on others.

So without rambling on too much longer (at least until I decide to turn this into a doctoral thesis or something), it’s clear that we ADF Clergy don’t agree on absolutely everything. We do agree on some things, though. We like being in ADF. The community of ADF is meaningful to us. The rituals of ADF are meaningful to us. And, like every other member of ADF, those are the only ones that we really need to agree on. Part of the Grand Experiment That Is ADF is getting people together who don’t agree on every last thing, and coming up with a system that works decently well for all of them. Whether you “belong” in this Experiment is entirely for you to decide. If you decide that it isn’t, then good luck on your spiritual journey, and if it is, then welcome! And either way, may the blessings of the Kindreds be with you.

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


They Call It Mellow Yule-o

For years now, I’ve thought that the holidays that Northern Hemisphere residents have developed for the winter solstice have been a way to battle the depression that comes with the lack of sunlight. Between obsessing over light and having as much of it around as we can, and customs that require us to run around shopping and decorating and visiting family, we’re sufficiently distracted from the growing daily darkness until the daylight starts to grow once again, and only then do we allow ourselves to withdraw into our homes and be quiet and alone.

Of course, when you’re the Senior Druid of an ADF Grove, the period right before any High Day is a hectic one, no matter how much sunlight you have to work with! I did manage to get my newsletter article written well in advance, so all I had to deal with on Thursday was packing my robes and other ritual items, and then buying ornament-making supplies on Friday before the Fire Lighting ceremony. (Made more challenging by a late phone call from Gen and a second trip to Joann’s, an hour after I’d already been there, but it worked out.) It was just me, Rod and Liz to start with, and I twisted chenille stems for candy cane ornaments while they assembled the candle ornaments for our return blessing. Gen arrived later and helped Rod and Liz thread cranberries. Not content to get home as early as 10, I decided to go to the annual Saturnalia at Paul and Val’s house, and ended up getting home at 1:30. And if that wasn’t enough, Gen hadn’t managed to fill out the newsletter, so I was up for yet another hour taking care of that.

I slept through my alarm (probably to be expected by that point) but still managed to be out the door at 10:30, to get copying done, buy sodas and chicken wings for the potluck, and stop by English Gardens to get a small live tree. I got to the Ed Center by about quarter after noon, giving me plenty of time to carry things in from the car. Rod showed up a bit after 1, and the ritual space was set up by 1:40 – and nobody else was there. Panic time? Nah, even I wouldn’t panic over that. People do tend to run late in the winter, and soon enough, folks were arriving.

By the time we started at around quarter to 3, there were fifteen of us there, not our best turnout but about average for Yule. (We probably shouldn’t have set up so many chairs, though, we ended up with a huge gap where nobody sat.) We processed upstairs and did our usual openings, I was glad that most of the ritual roles were taken by people other than me this time! We called upon Danu and Bel, and passed the wreath (made by Gen) around the circle, where I was shocked to hear Kris promise to be a Biddie next month. Will we actually be able to do a Brídeog this year? After that, we decorated the tree, and did a very lopsided version of Danu’s Wave of Power. Then we offered the wreath, Rod took the omen, which was good (Algiz – Isa – Ingwaz, protection through the winter to bring us fertility), and we handed out the candle ornaments. As is usually the case with Yule, it wasn’t an intense rite, but it was a pleasant one, and with as much of a frenzy as everything else becomes in December, I think that’s exactly what we need.

After welcoming Rob Steiner as a new member and blessing his necklace, we went back downstairs for potluck food, socializing, the raffle, and the gift exchange. (I got metal ornaments.) Cleanup went fairly quickly and I was on my way home by 6, tempted to stop by Mr. Spot’s for hot wings but deciding that I probably needed sleep more.

Next week, I take one of the oldest, most commonly asked questions about ADF, and try to turn it on its ear. Can it be done? Do arguments have ears? We shall see!

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

An Odd Sort Of Security Blanket

Often at this time of year, I talk about “Danu’s blanket”, referring to our Grove’s primal mother goddess.  Since we associate her with water and the cold, her blanket is the snow that comes to the land and quietly lies upon it for the winter. I’ve always thought of this as a sign from her that it is time to slow down and focus on more inward- (and indoor-) focused activities.

Sadly, now that I’m working a job that involves being outdoors all day, my employer doesn’t necessarily feel the same way about the snow. >8) Working last week was actually fairly easy, with only a light dusting of snow to deal with, and temperatures at least close to freezing. After suffering through the heat of summer, I suspected that the cold wouldn’t bother me anywhere near as much, and so far I’ve been right. No, today’s problem was the huge snowfall from the weekend, making it just plain difficult to walk from house to house on my urban routes, or driving up and down long driveways on my rural routes. Well, if nothing else, trudging through Danu’s blanket five or six days a week will make me appreciate the chance to do indoor things more.

The blanket did work out well yesterday, though, as it gave me and Mom a chance to decorate the tree that we got the previous weekend. Most of my ornaments are in storage, but I made sure all of my Grove ornaments were accessible so I could put them on. Giving out ornaments as the return flow for our Yule rituals is one of my favorite of our traditions. Taking every ornament out and placing it on a branch reminds me of that ritual (yeah, either my memory is that good or I do obsess that much about our rites) and just how long we’ve been coming together to honor the gods and celebrate the seasons with each other. Looking at a calendar or mentally browsing through memories is one thing, but seeing the evidence and holding it in your hands is something more.

So what indoory things should I focus on for the immediate future? (Besides posting this article?) Well, getting ready for the ritual in five days, of course. Gen has already found some great ornaments picked out for us to make at the Fire Lighting on Friday, but I do need to buy a small live tree for the ritual, and supplies to make the various bits and bobs we’ll decorate it with. (How many bags of cranberries do we need? It’s like, three, right?) And getting my robes and altar items packed up, and I need to get an article ready for the newsletter. And now that I have a working HTML editor on my computer, I can get those Web updates done – and since it expires in 30 days, I guess that’s a good motivator to get everything done quickly.  >8)

But alas, now I have to get to bed and prepare for another day of hiking through the snow. I’m sure Danu’s teaching me a lesson of some sort, but darned if I know what it could be, besides “you need to get a better job”. Wish me warmth, everyone!

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

Not What I Was Planning

So in theory, at least according to the end of last week’s entry, I was going to write about the various updates to the Web site I got done this past week. The problem being, I still haven’t gotten the HTML editing software working on my now-otherwise-entirely-working desktop system, and a whiney list of stuff I want to do but haven’t been able to get done yet would be, well, more or less the same thing I did last week. And I hate to repeat myself, that quickly anyway.

Actually, I will note one Web-page related item, as an interested person sent me an e-mail this week asking me to e-mail him info about what our Grove does. I was amused that anyone wouldn’t go straight to the Web for that, but it did get me wondering what info I would put in an FAQ list for who we are and what we do. I don’t know that one list  could even cover the topic, if it was trying to address both the complete newbie who had never attended any kind of ritual or even read any book on any kind of Paganism, and the experienced Neo-Pagan who wanted specifics on our ritual techniques and training methods and such.  And of course there are probably people who would see the FAQ list(s) and be weirded out by seeing everything about us laid out so starkly. I’m feeling like the current “look around the Web site and ask us any specific questions you have” solution is probably the easiest for everyone.

So not much else to report Grove-wise, since we haven’t started formally planning the Yule ritual yet. For Samhain’s planning session, four people on IRC to virtually joined the three of us at Rodney’s house, so I’m curious to see whether we get similar attendance this time, or whether it was just a Samhain thing.

The good news from this past week is that we did just barely get our payment to MEC for our suite at ConVocation, so $300 down and $725 to go. And once that’s done comes the planning for food and scheduling room events and such, but compared to getting folks to donate money, that’ll be a breeze!

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