About the EarthSpirit Community:
EarthSpirit --- of which I am a director --- is an organization dedicated to the preservation and development of Earth-centered spirituality, culture and community, with a particular focus on the indigenous, pre-Christian pagan traditions of Europe. Founded in the late 1970s, with its base in the state of Massachusetts, EarthSpirit was incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1980, and its membership now extends throughout the U.S. and to 46 other countries. For more information about the EarthSpirit Community, go to
About a Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions:
The Parliament of the World's Religions is the oldest and largest interreligious body, dating back to 1893. The Parliament's mission is to cultivate harmony among all the various religious and spiritual communities and to foster their engagement with the world and its other guiding institutions in order to achieve peace, justice, and sustainability. The Parliament is convened approximately every five years in different cities around the world, and brings together some 10,000 people from every continent of the planet. I serve as one of two pagan members on its Board of Trustees. To learn more about the Parliament, go to
PLEASE NOTE: Since this is (at least as of right now) a travel blog, the entries below are in chronological order. If you're used to seeing the latest post in a blog at the very top, that's not how this one is organized. To view the most recent postings, please scroll down.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Thursday, 20 Sept. --- Hello Monterrey

As the plane circled over Monterrey, I had a good view of the beautiful green mountains surrounding this city, part of the Sierra Madre Oriental, and in particular the Cerro de la Silla (Saddle Mountain, so named for obvious reasons see photo) which apparently dominates the view from every part of town.

While waiting in the snaking customs line to get my tourist card, I noticed a group of four Sikh men standing further back on the line, a bit too far for a conversation. I nodded and smiled, they did the same, and so, I suppose, officially began my interreligious experience in México.

Once past customs, I looked in vain for the person who was supposed to meet me and drive me to the hotel; there were several people bearing cards with names on them, but none were mine. My plane to Monterrey had been delayed for two hours, so I imagined that must have caused some hitch in the arrangements. The people at the information desk couldn’t help me, so I figured I’d just cruise the terminal (it’s not very big) and see what I’d come up with. Sure enough, a few minutes later I espied through the crowd some familiar turbaned heads and, along with them, a smartly-dressed young woman ushering them out the doors. (I have long ago learned that Sikh men, besides invariably being very gracious, devout and friendly people, also provide an invaluable service to the interfaith community as convenient points of reference, with their colorful turbans (dastaars) and full beards when in doubt, look for the turbans!)

The young woman turned out to be Susana, my greeter, who was very relieved to see me since she wasn’t sure when my plane would arrive. We waited at the curb for a few minutes for our van to come, and there I also met Michelle, a very friendly Yoruban from Atlanta. On the ride into town, Susana told me that she’d be my personal assistant during my stay here, and would be glad to take me on whatever errands I needed to do once we got unloaded at the hotel.

The Holiday Inn Fundidora is a glitzy, modern hotel which is part of a complex of buildings designed to accommodate conferences, conventions and expositions. It includes, within short walking distance of each other, the hotel, the Cinterplex (a business and exposition center where most of the Encuentro’s events are taking place, alongside the Bridal Fair…), a huge auditorium, a modern multi-purpose arena (Black Eyed Peas, indoor soccer, assorted conventioneers), an arts center (currently featuring an exhibit entitled 'Isis and the Feathered Serpent' think maybe I’ll go to that one…), a Sesame Street theme park, and last, but not even nearly least, a House of Parrots. It’s also the start of Paseo Santa Lucía, a modernistic walkway around an artificial river, which winds its way for a couple of miles into the center of the city.

After getting settled at the hotel, we had a dinner where everybody was introduced, we were given some necessary materials, and were told a bit about the next day’s events. We’ll be getting a private tour of the complex in the morning; then, in the afternoon, a group of indigenous peoples who have been walking for more than a week from various parts of México will arrive at Parque Fundidora, and we’ve been asked to greet them when they arrive. I’m really looking forward to that.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Friday, 21st September --- Ordinary start to an extraordinary day

Today was an intense, remarkable, unpredictable and confusing day, one of those where you can look back a dozen years hence and see how all manner of important changes in your life are so clearly traceable to that particular moment in time. Or maybe not (check back in twelve years and I’ll tell you for sure). Right now, though, it sure feels like something happened and is building up inside of me, though I haven’t had the time or the space to sit with it and really explore it, and realistically I might not be able to do so until I return to Glenwood.

It began ordinarily enough, with a private tour of the Cinterplex, a sprawling, multi-leveled building with vaulted ceilings.
Most of the workshops and panels will be held in one very large hall which has been partitioned into several rooms, each capable of holding about 200-300 people. But they’re just partitions, with no ceilings, so it appears that there could be a lot of sound overlap between adjacent rooms
we’ll have to see… In between the tour and a brief orientation meeting, I made friends with Pal Ahluwalia, one of the Sikhs I’d met at the airport, who spends half the year teaching political science in Melbourne, and the other half at the University of California at San Diego.

Afterwards, most of us had lunch together in the hotel’s dining room a typical buffet with the predictably bland American fare (it is, after all, a Holiday Inn), but just enough Mexican touches to make it tolerable.

At lunch, several of my tablemates asked me to tell them about my religious background. Over the years, the most effective way I’ve found to address such questions is to say that I practice one of the indigenous European pagan traditions. So many people have 'stuff' with the word 'pagan' that, used by itself, it can easily put people off. But the indigenous traditions are usually very much respected in the interreligious movement for what should be obvious reasons, and putting paganism in that context can help people look at us from a different, more accurate, and (apparently) often unexpected perspective.

After lunch, my 'assistant,' Susana, was supposed to take me somewhere to change some money and to buy a cheap cellphone that would work locally. She was not free, however, at the time when I was, so she asked her friend Silvia to take me on my errands instead. Silvia was very nice, and extremely patient while we dealt with a clerk at the cellphone store who couldn’t figure out how to sell me one that worked.

On the way back to the car, while walking through the shopping mall, I had an unexpected flashback to the days of my youth. I had stopped for a moment to look at something in a window while Silvia kept walking ahead. As I followed her, I noticed a bunch of young guys ogling her as she approached them, and sure enough, when she drew near them they started making kissing noises and whistling at her. I took a few quick steps to catch up to her, took her arm so they would know that she wasn’t unaccompanied, and turned around and looked straight at them. Immediately, the young guys lowered their heads and looked away, pretending they hadn’t been doing anything. I guess all those childhood lessons in Hispanic alpha male behavior never quite totally fade away…

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Friday, 21st September --- At the Indigenous Walk

Soon after returning to the hotel, I heard drums outside my window, a likely sign that the Indigenous Walk people had arrived. I put on my Celtic tabard, as I usually do at these events when I’m in 'official capacity' mode, and went out by the side of the Cinterplex.

Sure enough, amidst clouds of burning copal there were may
be a hundred people in various forms of traditional indigenous garb, most wearing ankle rattles apparently made from some sort of nut. Some were playing drums, others played flutes or a variety of stringed instruments; still others played bird-shaped whistles that made a loud, crackling sound unlike anything I’d ever heard. They represented many different cultures and regions of México Rarámuris, Mayas, Wixarrikari (Huichols), Náhuatl, Zapotecs, Q’iché, and many others. Silvia came along with me, and lent me her camera for a while since I’d left mine behind. (For a 10 min. video of the Walk, go to http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=354279101937647341 )

People had formed themselves into three circles. The innermost one was mostly composed of the elders and leaders of the Walk, some of them quite aged. The second circle, perhaps a dozen feet away or so, appeared to include the remaining walkers, most of them First Nations people, though not all. The third and largest circle was the audience, everyone else who’d come to watch. Silvia and I stood in this outermost circle for a while next to a group of Buddhists and Sikhs, until someone came and asked us if we were presenters at the Encuentro. When we said yes, she asked us to step into the second circle.

The indigenous walkers would do a ceremonial dance or two, then a few different elders and leaders would speak, and the pattern would repeat. Most of the speakers touched on similar themes the economic plight of their people; the erosion of their spiritual practices and their assimilation and secularization into mere folklore; the loss of their tribal lands; and the lack of support from government officials. A handful of women, who seemed to be Walk organizers, would move between the first and second circles, giving directions to the dancers and orchestrating the next round of speakers. One of them carried a wireless microphone which she used to announce whatever was about to happen next, and which she would hand to the speakers so they could be heard (an interesting juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern). Another, a woman dressed in a bright yellow dress, was at one point talking with a group of dancers, when she suddenly turned around and looked right at me with a puzzled expression, then went back to what she was doing.

A little later she joined the inner circle again so that I could barely see her, but soon it was her turn to address the crowd. She was introduced as Fabiola Poblano Ramos, and her message was not much different from what several previous speakers had said, but she expressed hers with such intensity, clarity, and poetic eloquence, that I spontaneously burst into tears. I wept not only for her people, but for mine, for those untold numbers of my European ancestors who lost all that they had their spiritual practices, their homes, the lands on which their families had lived for hundreds of years through coerced conversions, forced assimilation, enclosures, clearances, marginalization, the raising of alien temples upon their sacred ground, legal proscriptions against the use of their ancestral tongues, and the transformation of once-vital religious symbols into safe and meaningless bits of folkloric trivia. I wept for those who’d been imprisoned, tortured, and killed because they would not conform, and whose existence is even at this moment being denied by myopic scholars scrambling for a place on the latest, trendiest academic bandwagon.

I imagined them standing at a moment like this in their own history, facing extinction, facing oblivion. Perhaps they did not realize the imminent and devastating changes threatening their ancient ways. Perhaps unlike the copper-skinned, feather-bedecked peoples standing before me, singing and dancing for their lives most of my own paler ancestors could not read the cryptic writing on the blood-stained wall of history. But surely there had been some who could; surely there were those who’d had foresight of the inevitable. What did they think, at such a juncture? What did they feel? What might they have made of a gathering such as this one? They would have had no supportive circle of sympathetic onlookers to embrace them with solidarity; no kindly turbaned and saffron-robed travelers from distant lands to bear witness to their pleas. So I had no choice but to weep for my own lost ancestors, and for the tired but relentless women and men before me, struggling to retain their identity, refusing to join the ranks of the forgotten.

The tears passed, the event continued. A few minutes later, Fabiola made another of her rounds between the first and second circles. She passed by me, then suddenly wheeled around and came to where I was standing, reached out, and grabbed my hands. “Brother,” she asked me in Spanish, “why were you weeping?” She caught me completely by surprise I couldn’t imagine how she’d noticed what had been going on with me from the place where she’d been standing in the inner circle.

So I introduced myself, explained what I was doing at the Encuentro, and told her about the complex of emotions I’d just been feeling. She listened carefully, not letting go of my hands, then told me to follow her and led me into the inner circle, toward an aged Indian woman.

The woman (I later learned that her Spanish name was Amalia Salas Casales) took my hands from Fabiola, gave me an encouraging and mostly toothless smile and told me, in Spanish, that I had been brought to this place for a reason, and that my troubles would be taken from me. She then placed her hands on each side of my head for a few moments, while she muttered some words in her native language, then slid them toward the back of my neck; finally, she placed her right hand on the top of my head.

Something happened. Something opened up, right where her hand was touching me. It was a very physical sensation, a feeling of something being pulled apart; almost as if someone were ripping off my skin under anaesthesia, so there was the sensation of pulling, but with no pain.

And then I saw it: an ear of corn growing right in the front of my head, and she was pulling the husk apart, exposing row after row of ripe, full kernels gleaming under the blistering sun, as bright and as yellow as Fabiola’s dress, until the entire, single horn of grain was laid bare.

And with the shedding of the husk came a release, a letting go, a sense of peace that felt very familiar, but which I hadn’t experienced for a very long time, and it brought with it a feeling of strength and centeredness, of fitness and belonging.

The entire thing took maybe a minute of linear time, but it felt like forever. Amalia said something else in her Indian language, then nodded at me in a way that conveyed both that everything would be fine, and that she was pleased with her own work. Then Fabiola took my hand again, and led me a bit further along the inner circle to stand in front of a tiny Wixarrika man wearing a blue tunic, who looked to be about a hundred years old, but had the kind of inquisitive, all-encompassing eyes that one mostly would see in a child.

I knew by the clothes he was wearing, and by the hat sitting on his head, that he was a mara’akame, a spirit singer, a sort of shaman (his Spanish name, I found out later, was Don Custodio Rivera de la Cruz). Fabiola bent down and spoke to him softly in the Huichol language, and he listened intently without ever once taking his eyes off me. When she was done, he nodded, reached up his hands to pull me down toward him, then brought his face very close to my forehead, as if he were examining something closely. Then he let go of me, stepped back, and nodded vigorously, then moved away. Finally, Fabiola brought me to an open space in the inner circle, and asked me to stay there while she went off to talk to some other people. Eventually, she returned and stayed by my side, occasionally taking my hand as if to reassure me.

The ceremony continued, with the dances and the speeches. Every so often, Fabiola would lean over and explain to me a little of what was going on. “This is a planting dance,” she’d say, “watch how the dancers’ feet land softly, not hard on the ground, and rub the soil to loosen it, to open the way for the seeds.” Or, “this dance is to honor the sun; when they leap, it’s as if they’re flying, to get closer to him.” At one point, a Wixarrika musician played his traditional violin, while the mara’akame sang one of their spirit songs in a very high-pitched, reedy, but totally mesmerizing voice.

The sun was overwhelming, and I was dehydrated and feeling a bit shaky. I was also becoming very aware of the time, since the opening plenary was about to start in less than an hour. Thankfully, the woman with the wireless microphone announced that the last of the marchers was about to speak, and that he would be followed by a small break before the second part of the program, which sounded as if it would be an open forum to discuss various issues relative to the First Peoples. An elderly Indian man stepped up and began to speak in Spanish; it didn’t appear that he would be talking for very long, so I figured I’d excuse myself and leave for the plenary as soon as he was done.

That’s when Fabiola asked me if I would address the gathering, tell them who I was, why I was there, just as I had told her. Again, she caught me completely by surprise. I said that I was very honored for her to ask me, but protested that I had nothing prepared to say, and that I didn’t really feel it was proper for me to speak, since I hadn’t taken part in the march. She grabbed both my hands, and very emphatically said something like, “You are our brother, and you belong here along with the rest of us. The spirits have brought you here for a purpose, and now they want you to speak to us. There is something important we must hear from you; all the elders agree that you must speak and give us a blessing.”

When she said the word 'blessing', I immediately thought of a brief one from Scotland that I could offer. But otherwise I was dumbstruck, literally couldn’t think of a thing to say, my mind went blank. The Indian man had begun to thank everybody, signaling that he was about to finish. I figured I might as well give it a try, and see if anything happened.

Then somebody led me to the center, and put the microphone in my hand. I don’t really know what I said, because all of a sudden my mouth opened and stuff came pouring out, and I only remember bits of it, and then there are bits that other people have told me. But I guess I introduced myself, and said in Spanish that I was at the Encuentro to talk about the indigenous European traditions; that I had been very deeply moved by their ceremonies and by their words, that I understood their plight, and my heart went out to them; that I knew many of them had European blood also running through their veins, and that I knew in many cases that blood had been forced on them violently through the rape or forced marriages to which their indigenous ancestors had been subjected, and that they might very well hate the European colonizers whose blood they carried; but that they should also know that blood connected them to even more remote ancestors from Europe who were also tribal peoples, who also venerated the Earth and the Sky like their Indian ancestors. I said that what European colonizers had done to to the First Peoples of the Americas, of Africa, and of other continents, they had done to their own people first; that very little of our ancient traditions had survived, so we had lost almost everything, only a few of the old languages remained, a great deal had been converted into soulless folklore; that we were barely hanging by a thread, that most everyone had long forgotten that our traditions had ever existed, or refused to believe that any had survived. But that the land and the fire and the moon, the mountains and the sun and the rivers had not forgotten us, and by not forgetting they helped us to remember, and, through that remembering, our ways could live again, for what is remembered is not lost. I called upon the various religious representatives present at the Encuentro to take active part in the preservation of indigenous traditions, and that preservation required much more than just words or apologies: among other things it required reparation, it required autonomy, and it required restitution, including the return to their sacred lands of ancestors whose remains were currently kept in coffins of glass in museums all over the world. I also said that, while no one has the authority to speak for all in our traditions, I felt confident that everyone in my community would join me in expressing to them our solidarity, our support, and our love; then I finished by offering them a brief Gaelic blessing of the sun, moon and stars. Or something like that.

Whatever it was I said must have been to their liking, since it was followed by a lot of shouting and whooping, the pounding of drums, and the blowing of whistles, horns and conch shells. Four of the elders, including the two who had interacted directly with me, came over and hugged me and stroked me, and Fabiola kept smiling and nodding. It was a very moving experience for me, and I feel that, for us, a bridge was crossed and an important connection was made.

The dances began anew, and I seized the moment to go sit on some steps and center myself a bit. A few minutes later, a white woman with short blond hair came and sat beside me, and thanked me for my remarks. She said her name was Helen Samuels, an Irish-American expatriate whose parents had moved to México during the McCarthy era, and she’s lived here ever since. She said that when I spoke my blessing, it was the first time she’d heard her ancestral language spoken in this country, and she was very glad that the 'European tribes' were represented at the event. Helen works with indigenous communities all over México, and helped to coordinate the Walk. She also works with gangs of punks in México City, and sees the gangs as instinctive attempts by these young people to find their own tribes. So, she takes them out of the city to visit indigenous villages, to stay and work with Indian peoples so they can see what a real tribe is like, and apparently, the young city punks go through very deep personal and spiritual transformations. I think this is a brilliant concept, and am delighted to have met Helen and to have had a chance to speak and connect with her. I’m hoping we’ll be able to meet again once I get down to México City.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Friday, 21st September --- Opening Plenary

So I hurry toward the Arena, where the opening plenary is about to begin, and run into a small group of Encuentro presenters, staff and volunteers, and tag along with them. The Parliament’s Mexican team has done a great job recruiting young (mostly in their early twenties, it seems) regiomontanos – the term people from Monterrey use to describe themselves – to volunteer for the event, and so far all the ones I’ve met have been very enthusiastic and solicitous.

A couple of the volunteers in our small group fall into step with me, and want to know about paganism, and what I’ll be talking about. “I’m here to tell you about your ancestors,” I reply, “your ancestors from Europe who were tribal peoples and venerated the Earth, just like your indigenous ancestors from this land.” Then I breathlessly give them the two-minute version (it’s really important to have a two-minute version) as we rush along to make the plenary in time.

“¡Qué padre!,” they exclaim. (¡Qué padre! – literally, 'what a father!' or 'how father!' – and its variant, muy padre – 'very father' – I soon learn, is the current slang expression of approval in vogue in Monterrey and, they tell me, all over México, similar to our 'cool,' 'awesome,' 'word,' 'wicked bitchin’,' or whatever happens to be in fashion nowadays in the States. Here, everybody uses it, and no, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the conventional meaning of 'father' [end of Spanish lesson]).

We needn’t have hurried. Though we’re two minutes late, the plenary hasn’t started, and won’t start for another half hour. I sit with my two new young friends and, without my asking, they get me a couple of bottles of water, since I’m panting and dehydrated from standing in the sun for a few hours during the Walk ceremony. They want to keep talking about paganism, but Dena Fokas, the Parliament staffer who is helping to organize the Encuentro, sees me and asks me to move up to the second row, with the rest of the presenters.

From there, I get a pretty good ground-level view of the Arena Monterrey, and it looks quite a lot bigger than from the sides. The place seems to be only half full, but then somebody tells me that it holds about 18,000 people, so that means there could be close to10,000 attending an event that apparently has hardly been advertised – not bad.

The plenary finally begins, with the usual introduction of, and speeches by, various political dignitaries. Both the governor of Nuevo León (Monterrey’s province) and the Secretary for Religious Affairs underscore the point, in their remarks, that México is a secular country, with a constitution that establishes the separation of church and state, and equal rights – including religious rights – for all Mexicans.

They do so diplomatically, of course, so as not to unduly upset the Catholic hierarchy which wields such political and economic power in this land. Needless to say, they don’t mention that it’s one thing to have those rights in principle, and quite another to be able to actually exercise them (to a one, all of my Mexican pagan friends who’ve attempted to avail themselves of those rights – by trying to create pagan churches with legal standing, for instance – tell me they’ve been thwarted by government bureaucrats and by the actual regulations that define the establishment of religious entities, which are heavily based on the Catholic model. And not just pagans, but other small religious communities such as the Unitarian-Universalists and the Quakers, have had the same problems).

The governor is sitting in the front row, just two chairs away from me. As he returns after his speech, I lean over and tap him on the shoulder and tell him in Spanish how inspiring and welcome his stand in support of equal religious rights was, and that I hope he would be willing to champion the cause of minority religions should they encounter discrimination. He is startled, but like any good politician recovers quickly, thanks me, and assures me that he will do anything in his power to insure the religious rights of all Mexicans, and that, should I hear of anyone having such problems, to refer them to his Secretary for Religious Affairs. I thank him, we shake hands, and as he turns there is an immediate huddle of the advisers that flank him, surely wondering what the hairy man in the weird clothes had to say. There’s a lot of nodding, and the plenary resumes.

One of the speakers is the man in charge of the Dialogues section of the Forum, of which the Encuentro is the first; I've been told by several people that he seems to have some 'attitude' toward our event, and has been rather uncooperative. He greets everyone, then apologizes to all the Jews for the unfortunate scheduling of the event during Hannukah, but says it was unavoidable. Of course, it isn’t Hannukah, but Yom Kippur, a mistake that probably slides right by most of the audience who may have never met a Jew in their lives (not a lot of them in Monterrey, it seems…), much less be familiar with their religion and holy days. But it doesn’t for a second escape the notice of the presenters, among whom there is a lot of looking around and head-shaking. And, of course, he has not a word of apology to the pagans for holding the event over the autumnal equinox. The gentleman doesn’t know it, but he’s now scheduled to have a little chat with me a bit later on…

Bill Lesher, president of the Parliament’s board of trustees, gives a brief talk in his usual engaging, folksy style; then Dirk Ficca, the Parliament’s executive director, discusses the event at length, but reads his remarks completely in Spanish. I am so proud of him! Most Americans don’t seem to understand how very much it means to people from other lands when we make an attempt to communicate in their language. This is particularly true of Hispanics, and goes at least double for Mexicans, who generally feel slighted and put down by their northerly neighbors (I wonder why?)

I make a point of telling Dirk later on what a great thing he did. He blushes a little, then gives me a bit of a shy smile. “Was it really okay?,” he asks, “I thought I stumbled a lot.” I assure him that he did just fine, that to Hispanics, every little stumble and mispronunciation is actually something endearing, and that he won over a lot of people's good will tonight. As he walks away, he’s beaming, as well he should.

Then, all the presenters are invited to go up to the microphone, introduce ourselves, say where we’re from and what spiritual path we follow, then sit on a long row of chairs they have set up for us at the back of the stage. When my turn comes, I introduce myself in Spanish, which is what I’ll speak at all the events of the Encuentro. When I mention the part about 'indigenous pagan traditions of Europe', there is a noticeable stir among the audience, though it’s very hard to read the reaction, since there are very bright lights shining directly in my face. We sit up on the stage while a couple of other speakers address topics of relevance to the interreligious movement, then resume our places on the arena floor for the final event of the evening, an 'indigenous ceremony.'

It is fascinating – essentially, a reprise of what I had just witnessed barely an hour before, at the end of the Indigenous Walk outside the Forum: the clouds of burning copal; the blowing of bone whistles and conch shells; the painted, costumed dancers and drummers, both women and men, some wearing elaborate headdresses made of very long and multicolored plumes…

But something is different, something is missing – and then it hits me: there are no elders. Outside, there had been easily two-dozen or more people in their sixties or older, some of them quite aged. Here, onstage, the oldest person seems to be a man in his late thirties, perhaps early forties. Then I begin to notice other small, but telling details: here, all the dancers have lithe, athletic bodies, and their dancing is just a little too polished, too professional; and yet, occasionally I’ll catch one or another of them casting sidelong glances at the rest, as if to make sure they are in the right place, making the right moves. In contrast, among the dancers at the Walk there was a much greater variety of body types, and their dancing had seemed completely unselfconscious, yet totally focused, with the easy grace and confidence that comes from having performed the same movements over and over since childhood.

More than anything, though, the ceremony at the Walk had been charged by a raw, visceral, compelling power; what I am witnessing at the Arena is much more aesthetically pleasing, but has no power beyond its beauty.

The 'ceremony' on stage goes on for quite a while and – perhaps because I am now carefully looking for them – more revealing details emerge. At one point, the dancing stops and a couple of the dancers sing and speak, addressing the audience. Their voices, like their movements, are theatrical, professional, revealing the patterns and emphases so typical of Spanish oratory, which sound quite familiar to a native speaker like me, though they might easily go unnoticed by someone from a different culture. The speakers at the Walk had done so extemporaneously and totally from the heart, with the deep sincerity that grows from what is lived, and which casts a mantle of inconsequence over such concerns as proper grammar and clear enunciation. My thoughts go to that ancient, frail Wixarrika singer, with the voice that sounded like a wavering, withered string on a primitive violin, threatening to snap at any moment – surely he would not have passed whatever audition was required to stand upon this stage.

So here it is, plain as day, the contrast between traditional religious ritual on one hand, and artistic folkloric performance on the other. Surely, to most of the audience at the Arena – and almost certainly to my fellow presenters at the Encuentro – what we are witnessing onstage would appear to be 'the real thing;' and perhaps it truly moves and inspires them, making it, in effect, 'real.' Doubtlessly, I would have thought and felt exactly the same, had I not had the opportunity to experience something different, something which went beyond the 'reality' of the Arena stage.

This is what we lose through cultural erosion, through religious repression and marginalization, through a mindless drive toward a 'progress' solely defined by materialism and consumerism: we lose important levels of reality, we lose layers of experience and of meaning, we lose some of our deepest, most primal and direct connections to the Sacred.

I am reminded of The Witness, the brief but incisive parable by Jorge Luis Borges, and ask myself some of the same questions he raises: What dies with me, when I die? What is lost? What is forgotten? This subtle, but deeply meaningful distinction I have witnessed so clearly today between religion and folklore, between spirituality and performance – will it still be there for my grandchildren, yet unborn, to experience? (Because the telling of it is not enough, it must truly be experienced.) Or will one be subsumed by and disappear into the other, and be lost as so much else has been lost from so many other cultures, from so many other lands?

Finally, the plenary comes to a close. As we begin to exit or to mill about on the Arena floor, attendees and presenters alike, I espy the Director of Dialogues off in a corner, talking to an assistant. I make a beeline for him and, as soon as he’s free, introduce myself and ask him, as politely as I can, if he’s aware that he apologized for holding the event on the wrong Jewish holiday. He immediately winces which tells me that probably some other presenter has beat me to the punch and apologizes profusely for that. I inform him that this is, indeed, not just a sacred time for Jews, but for pagans as well, and that it would have been very nice if we could also have been included in his apology, since there had been some of us in the audience tonight. A glazed look comes over his eyes. “Pagans?,” he says, “What do you mean, pagans? There are no pagans in Monterrey!”

I’m about to give him the five-minute version, when I feel a tap at my elbow. It’s Eduardo, a local pagan university student with whom I’ve been corresponding, and had arranged to meet after the plenary. I decide I don’t really want to waste my time with the director, who seems rather close-minded, so I just say, “Pardon me, but this is one of those non-existent pagans from Monterrey that we were just talking about, and I must meet with him now, thank you for your time.” The director looks a little perturbed; I don’t think he’s having a very good night.

Eduardo and I start to chat, but we are interrupted by a small group of young people. They ask if I am the pagan presenter. When I say yes, they request to have their picture taken with me, which is fine, of course.

Eduardo and I resume our conversation, but almost immediately the previous scenario is repeated. May we have a picture with you? Yes, of course; pardon me for a moment, Eduardo. Here you go, nice to meet you. Now, where were we? Oh, sorry; yes, sure, a picture is fine. You, too? All right, wait one second…

And so it goes, for more than half an hour – one person after another, or groups of them, interrupting our conversation to have their picture taken with me. I’m so focused trying to juggle both things, that I don’t really pay attention to what is going on around me, but at some point, when I do, I have to stop in disbelief. The Arena is by now essentially empty but for a handful of Forum officials standing in a corner, and security guards who are busy ushering out the few remaining members of the audience. But there I am, on the Arena floor, still surrounded by somewhere between forty to fifty people waiting to get a picture with me.

I am stunned. Such a thing has not ever happened to me before in my life. This may be commonplace for rock stars, for famous actors, but not for the likes of me. There’s a brief moment of something like panic, because I don’t understand what’s going on, because this is so very strange and surreal. Then I catch a glimpse of the Director of Dialogues, still standing in the same corner where I left him. Some assistant is talking to him, but he’s looking straight at us, shaking his head, his mouth open, an incredulous expression on his face. I realize what he’s thinking: "are all of those people pagans?" Fine, let him think a little, it’ll be good for him…

So, I relax and go with the flow, bantering with the crowd amidst a succession of camera flashes, until I feel a hand firmly gripping my arm. It’s Susana, my assistant, coming to my rescue. She’ll tell me, a bit later, that she was up in the stands, looking for me to see if there was anything I needed, when she suddenly saw me down in the Arena, in the middle of what she described as “a sea of people.” She didn’t know what was going on, and feared that I might be in trouble, so she hurried down the steps to come to my aid.

I’m only too glad to see her. She tells those remaining in the crowd that I must leave now, but that I’ll be around all weekend if they didn’t get a chance to have a picture taken with me (I’m beginning to imagine what Brad Pitt's life must feel like, a very sobering thought…) She flies in her high heels up the steep Arena steps and I gladly follow along, a little shaken by what has just happened. When we get to the top we meet up with Silvia, who, along with their friend Miriam (another volunteer), has made arrangements for us to go out for dinner and drinks. They already have two of their cars waiting for us outside, and they take me to La Cañita, a Spanish restaurant in the Barrio Antiguo, the old part of town which is experiencing a revival as the trendy area for restaurants and nightlife.

There, in a blessedly calmer environment, they tease me mercilessly about my being a rock star (a spiritual rock star, one of them clarifies), about how they’re going to be my bodyguards for the rest of the weekend, and are going to start charging people money for getting their picture taken with me, and also will start charging for giving out their own autographs, since they fully expect to get famous by hanging around with me. It would be hilarious, if I weren’t still in a mild state of shock.

We order some food, and they tell the waiter that I am in desperate need of a vampiro, which seems to be their cocktail of choice. It turns out to be a sort of tequila-based Bloody Mary, an interesting combination of sweet and sour which can easily be downed too fast if one’s not careful. After a couple of those, and a variety of sausages, cheeses, and omelets, I finally start to feel a bit more settled.

But I am still bewildered by what just happened at the Arena, and ask my new friends, in all seriousness, if they have any idea why all those people had wanted to have their picture taken with me. I tell them that I've always found the popular fascination with 'celebrity' to be something puzzling and distasteful; and, while I've occasionally been in some small way on the receiving end of it within the pagan movement, it's usually made me feel uncomfortable, though at least there I could understand it, in that I've been around that community for a long time and so have built up some level of name-recognition, if nothing else. But what's so baffling about what happened tonight is that I’m completely unknown around these parts. It’s obviously not about me as an individual, I say. It’s not like I’m a famous author or anything like that; and I didn’t play any special role in the plenary, nor did I say or do anything noteworthy, other than introduce myself along with all the other presenters. I could imagine that the mere fact of being a presenter at this event could lead somebody to think I was somehow prominent, and I suppose it wouldn't have surprised me to get a couple of requests for a picture or an autograph, but not however many dozens there wound up being that's what I still find so confusing.

Miriam, who’s an inveterate tease, replies that it must be that people saw me in their company, and therefore decided that I obviously have to be someone very special or important. Silvia says she doesn’t really know, but that clearly something unusual is going on: she saw small groups of people getting their photos taken with some of the other presenters, but nothing like what happened with me, where there were easily over a hundred. She also recognized some of the faces at the Arena from the ceremony at the Indigenous Walk, and wonders if, having heard my remarks there earlier, perhaps some of them had been talking about me and somehow the word had spread. Susana thinks that may be part of it, but that there’s something else going on; that, somehow, my being there represents something special to people, even if they don’t know what it is, but that they feel a need to respond to it.

“What do you think that might be?,” I ask her. “I'm not sure,” she says, “but when you first told me what paganism was, I got goosebumps and I had this sudden urge to hug you and to cry.”

As I am about to find out, she’s not far off the mark.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Saturday, 22 September 2007 --- Panels, Pagans and Plenaries…

Today began the actual presentations that make up the bulk of the schedule for the Encuentro. They will focus on three key themes, each of which will have several subtopics: Exploring Our Values, which will include introductions to the various spiritual traditions present here, the telling of life stories illustrating the essence of those traditions, and discussions about the values they engender; Matters of Life and Death, which will address reproductive issues, HIV/AIDS, armed conflict, and euthanasia; and Living Together, the most extensive of the three categories, encompassing topics such as poverty, the plight of indigenous peoples, globalization, family violence, the transmission of values, the role of religion in society, reclaiming a sense of the Sacred and respect for the natural world, etc. Most of these will take the form of panels, although there will be several expository workshops and a number of religious observances, ceremonies or meditations which will be held at the beginning of each day.

I took part in my first two panels today. Originally, I had only been scheduled for one, but yesterday they asked me if I’d mind doing an extra one, since one of the other presenters apparently had visa problems and could not attend at the last minute. The panels follow a pretty standard format, with the moderator giving a brief overview of the subject, to be followed by three panelists, each of whom speaks for about fifteen minutes, at which point the floor is opened for questions and comments from the audience.

My first panel, on Reclaiming a Sense of the Sacred, was meant to address such questions as: Why should we care about the Earth’s ecology? If we knew that eventually technological innovations could sustain life on Earth indefinitely regardless of our impact on the environment, would we still have an obligation to protect the natural world? Should an obligation to protect the environment rely on a sense of reverence for nature? Or a sense of the sacred in nature? What do religious and spiritual traditions tell us about our duty to the natural world?

The panel was moderated by Nancy Martin, a professor of religious studies at Chapman University in southern California, who offered a very well-organized and insightful introduction. Unfortunately, the first panelist not only didn’t have a good grasp of the topic, but on top of that kept repeating certain statements ­ which he apparently found fascinating – for instance, that our bodies completely regenerate themselves every 7-8 years, so that over our lifetimes each one of us, in effect, winds up having several bodies instead of just one – though they were not particularly relevant. Moreover, he ran significantly over his allotted time, and twice ignored the moderator’s requests that he finish, so that the remaining panelist and I had to cut our remarks short, and had no time left to field questions from the audience. Not the best way to start, but those things happen.

As part of my remarks (and as I plan to do in my other panels), I made a point to spend a few minutes at the start giving some background about paganism in general, given all the misconceptions that people so often have (a two-to-five-minute version, again, comes in real handy). That also makes it easier to slide into the more defined themes of the panel in a way that clearly shows how pagan principles and values can address the specific questions being asked.

In this (very abbreviated) case, for instance, after giving the short introduction, I started by talking about how religions arise from interactions with that great Mystery that envelops us the 'Sacred' in the panel’s title and which various cultures have named Brahman, God, Wakan Tanka, Anam, Tao, etc., and evolve from there to provide the members of any given religion or culture with a way to relate in an ongoing basis to the Sacred. The nature of the Sacred is transpersonal, in the sense that it is not only greater than any individual person, but than humanity itself, as it includes far more than we can begin to perceive or comprehend. Over the course of time, however, many religions wind up placing considerably more emphasis on the human side of that relationship than on the Sacred, usually for laudable reasons such as addressing poverty, hunger, disease, violence, and other forms of suffering. But, depending on how they carry out that process, they risk losing their fundamental connection with the Sacred and becoming primarily social institutions, which in turn increases the chances that they’ll fall prey to other, less commendable human concerns such as politics, money, or even militarism. That dynamic has become particularly pronounced among the 'mainstream' religions of the Euro-American world.

So, how is it possible to reclaim the connection with the Sacred? The pagan traditions of Europe, as is true of most of the so-called 'indigenous' traditions from other parts of the world, offer a very fundamental and effective model the essence of paganism is the direct experience of the Sacred through the natural world. Nature is a mirror of the Sacred: it includes us, but also transcends us; parts of it are perceptible to our senses, but as a whole it defies comprehension. When we find ourselves in a direct, deep connection with Nature which is to speak about wilderness, because Nature, by definition, is untamed it is almost impossible not to feel that profound and visceral sense of mystery, of awe, of wonder, and of connection with everything that characterizes the very experience of the Sacred. And this model is of particular value to our culture, in that mainstream 'Western' religions have long and often fostered a view of Nature as lowly, base and gross, something that a remote God put in the hands of humans to do with as we saw fit a theological rationale to use (and abuse) the rest of the natural world for our convenience and profit, leading to the environmental disasters that we face today.

My presentation was very well received, and afterwards there were, again, a couple of dozen people wanting to talk and to have their picture taken with me. I was still not very comfortable with that, so I figured I might as well ask those who were there. “I’m happy to pose with you,” I told them, “but I’m nobody important, nobody famous. Why would all of you want your picture taken with me?” “Because we like you,” said a few of them. “Because you’re nice,” said others. That was sweet to hear, but not what I was looking for. Then this one young man spoke up: “It’s all of that, yes, but it’s really because we can’t believe you actually exist,” he said. “Yes, yes,” several of them joined in, “it’s because we want to make sure you’re real, so we can show our families.”

“What do you mean?,” I asked them half-jokingly. “Of course I’m real. You can see me, you can touch me, I’m just like you, just like everyone else here, nothing special, so what’s with all the pictures?” “No, no,” said the young man who’d spoken up, “there is something special about you, don’t you see? We didn’t know that we had European ancestors who were indigenous, who weren’t Christian. We didn’t even know that people like you existed. And by coming here, you’re giving us a piece of our heritage that we were missing, that we didn’t even know we had. So we’re very happy, and that’s why we want our pictures taken with you.”

At that moment, a young woman stepped forward. I had seen her the previous afternoon at the Walk; she had been one of the dancers, in her mid-twenties, I’d say, and my eyes kept drifting toward her during the ceremony, because her looks were so striking her skin was a deep, dark bronze, and she had the fairly typical Mesoamerican aquiline nose, but the rest of her features were Caucasian, and her hair was blond and curly. “When you spoke yesterday outside,” she said, “and you talked about our European ancestors, and what had happened to them, I burst out crying, I couldn’t help it.” (I had noticed her doing so.) “Then I got a ride back to where I’m staying,” she went on, “and I cried some more, I cried myself to sleep. And while I was asleep I had the most beautiful dream I dreamed that my Mexican Indian ancestors and my European ancestors were all embracing, and that they were all looking at me with big smiles. And when I woke up I felt so happy, and now I feel like something’s happened to me, like I’m complete, somehow.”

I was so moved that I really didn’t know what to say. How do you respond to something like that? Certainly no personal response would be suitable, because it wasn't personal it had nothing to do with me as an individual, but rather, as Susana had sensed, with something greater, with something I represented for them, that put them in touch with a piece of themselves, with a part of their heritage that had been missing and that, upon being retrieved, clearly mattered a great deal. So I just shut up, smiled, and let the flashes flash, as many times as they wanted.

Later, over lunch, I had an interesting conversation with Nancy Martin. She said that, in the past, she and others in the interfaith movement have been turned off by some of the pagan presentations they have attended because they made us seem, as she put it, as if we were “playing at religion,” as if we were not taking our spirituality, or ourselves, seriously enough. But she added that putting it in the context of the indigenous Earth-centered traditions, as I had done, and emphasizing the ancestral connections and the relevance to environmental issues had helped her to understand paganism in a very different way, and to take it seriously. This was very welcome feedback, because it addressed certain concerns that I and some other pagans who are involved in the interfaith community have also had. It’s not really a question of how we 'present ourselves,' because it isn’t a question of mere appearances. Rather, it’s a question of what we choose to emphasize in our spiritual practices, in our spiritual lives, out of the wide-ranging gamut of possibilities to be found in the pagan traditions.

After lunch, I took part in my second panel of the day, on the Role of Religion and Spirituality in Society. This time, my fellow panelists were Fabián Salazar, a Catholic theologian from Colombia, and Princess Adetokunbo Abimbola, one-half of the Nigerian couple who are here representing the Yoruba religion. I was particularly interested in what she had to say, because I have noticed a scarcity of representatives from the African traditional religions at most interfaith events. The princess was very brief and soft-spoken in her remarks, but one thing she did mention was that, in Nigeria, the indigenous religion is not at all in danger of extinction; just the opposite, it is thriving, and stands on a par with Christianity and Islam. Another interesting point she made was that, in her country, it is very common for people to belong to and practice all three of the main religions, and that it is ironic sometimes when some Christian churches 'claim' a certain number of people as their own, ignoring the fact that most of those same people also consult babalawos and pray at the mosque.

This afternoon, the group of young Monterrey pagans with whom I’ve been corresponding for about a year had planned to meet at a park in the center of town. I’d been trying to arrange a ride there with one of the volunteers, but hadn’t had any success yet. Right after my second panel, a group of three young locals whom I remembered from the plenary the night before, and who’d been at my previous panel, approached me and said that they’d been interested in paganism for a while, had really liked what I’d had to say, and were wondering if I could put them in touch with some local people. “As a matter of fact…do you have a car?,” I asked. They did funny how these things work out…

So the four of us squeezed into their vehicle and took off for Plaza Hidalgo, in the middle of which stands a huge fountain dedicated to Neptune, where I thought we were supposed to meet. There were several interesting groups of people gathered all along the fountain, but none that had the right 'vibe.' Finally, a couple of cell calls later, we all managed to find each other and repaired to a small café in the Barrio Antiguo.

The Monterrey pagans proved to be lovely people (did I mention they were young?). They’ve mostly communicated through an internet forum, and occasional face-to-face meetings, but some of them are now at the point of forming an actual working group. I asked them if there were others in this city, but they didn’t really seem to know. Unfortunately, my visit with them had to be brief, since my three companions and I needed to get back to the Forum for the evening’s plenary, which consisted of a Sacred Music concert. So, having had to cancel our food order, which was taking an inordinate amount of time (as seems to be par for the course here), we squeezed back into their tiny car, taking with us Paola, a new member of the Monterrey group, who was also interested in attending the plenary.

The concert was very nice not quite as diverse in musical styles and cultures as the one we had in Barcelona in 2004, by the side of the basilica of the Sagrada Familia, but that was to be expected. It included Yoruban invocations by Wande Abimbola (the husband of Princess Adetokunbo); some traditional Indian dancing and ragas; a group of eight Sikhs, chanting along with tablas and a harmonium; Sheikh Suhail Assad, who sang verses from the chapter of the Koran that is devoted to Mary; and even a Mexican Seventh Day Adventist barbershop quartet (no, I’m not making this up…)

Afterwards, I ran into Paola, and grabbed a bite to eat with her. She’s a delightful person, with wide, wondering eyes that seem to want to swallow the world. She's attending college here, but her family is from Oaxaca, in southern México; her grandparents are indigenous people, who still speak the old language. She was very curious about my community, which I had mentioned during our brief meeting at the café. I told her about Rites of Spring, and her eyes got even wider. She said it sounded like something out of a fairy tale, like a dream. I told her she was right, that it was a dream that many of us have been dreaming together for close to thirty years. She wanted to know if she could come, if she could dream with us. I said yes, of course, that we’d welcome her with open arms; her eyes got very moist.

We said good-night. I went up to my room and lay in bed for a bit, going over the day’s events in my mind. I was recalling my conversation with Paola about Rites of Spring while drifting into sleep, and I dreamt of home.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sunday, 23 September 2007 --- Another Round of Presentations, and Rumi Returns

Today I finally got to give my one-and-a-half hour presentation on paganism. Despite being relatively early in the morning (9AM) and on a Sunday, at a time when you’d expect most regiomontanos to be in church, the room was almost full, probably because in my previous panels and random conversations I’d been telling people that this was the thing to go to if they wanted to learn about our traditions a little more in depth.

This gave me a chance to address in greater detail some of the questions and comments that various people had raised in my previous presentations, chief among them the use of the word ‘pagan’. This is, of course, a very common and quite understandable concern which a lot of us have long ago learned to anticipate. The most effective way I’ve found to deal with it is to suggest that when people react at all negatively upon seeing or hearing the word ‘pagan’, what they are in fact experiencing at that very moment is the surfacing of a very old, inherited, internalized prejudice which more than likely they didn’t even know they had – a classist, cultural and religious prejudice which I, too, held once upon a time. Most often, people will not have thought of it in quite that way, and if it is presented in an evenhanded manner, without any sense of placing a guilt trip on them, they will generally be intrigued by the idea and open to considering it.

Then I go on to explain the origin of ‘pagan’ as a neutral term, in Roman times, to refer to the farming and herding peoples that lived beyond the walls of Rome, in rustic villages on the edge of the wilderness, and, by extension, their customs and traditions, and I also point out that the Latin name for such a village, pagus, from which ‘pagan’ derives, comes from the very same root as our word ‘pact’; hence, the original pagans were the ‘people of the soil’ or ‘people of the earth’, the ones who retained longest their pact or bond to the land. Then I move on to the later use by the Romans of ‘pagan’ as a pejorative label equivalent to the modern ‘rube’ or ‘hick’, and implying a general contempt toward their way of life, their spirituality, etc.; and, finally, to the eventual Christian adoption of that term, with an even more generalized negative or contemptuous meaning, to apply pretty much to anyone who wasn’t Christian, whether in Europe, or subsequently among the various indigenous populations colonized by the Europeans. In closing, I make the case that ‘paganism’ is simply the most accurate and useful generic label for the indigenous, pre-Christian traditions of Europe, and, in light of the information just provided, invite any of those present who may have had a negative reaction to that term to revise their perspective about it.

In my experience, most reasonable people, upon realizing that they’ve been harboring some sort of prejudiced view, are more than willing to be open-minded and let go of it. This is especially the case among members of the interreligious community, who are particularly sensitized to the harm that various forms of prejudice have caused, and continue to cause, around the world, and are keenly aware of the very common patterns of social injustice perpetrated by colonialists against the indigenous populations of every continent.

After my talk, probably close to twenty people mentioned how eye-opening it had been for them to think of their responses to the term ‘pagan’ as a form of prejudice. One particularly gratifying comment came from a middle-aged Catholic nun, who told me something like, “I am very involved in promoting diversity and social justice here in México, and I detest any form of prejudice, and take pride in being very open-minded and accepting. But that word ‘pagan’ has always bothered me, and I came here this morning prepared to be offended, and even to argue with you and to defend my religion. And if you had just talked about the original meaning of that word, I would still have argued semantics with you, and I would have told you that it didn’t have that meaning any more for most people, and that it simply wasn’t a good word to use. But by talking about prejudice, you made me look at it not as something external, like the meaning of a word, but as something much more personal and internal, like my own feelings, and where they were coming from. So I want to apologize to you and to your people because I’ve realized that I was, in fact, being very unfair and prejudiced toward you, and even if it was in thought and not in deed, it was still an injustice on my part, because I was still keeping alive in my heart some of the same prejudices that caused very real injustices to be committed against the indigenous tribes of Europe, in a way that sounds so similar to what’s happened here in my own country. Don’t get me wrong, I am a practicing Roman Catholic, and very proud of it, and I was born a Roman Catholic and expect to die a Roman Catholic. But there are some things that have been done in the name of my religion that I am not proud of, and today I found a little bit of that inside my heart, that I didn’t know was there, and that really bothered me. But now I can be rid of it, and even think that, despite being Catholic, maybe there is a small piece of me, after all, that is also pagan, and that makes me a little excited!”

As rewarding and delightful as that interaction was, the good feelings from it were soon tempered by one of the panelists at my next event, a discussion on ‘Religion and Values’, which struck the single discordant note among all my experiences at the Encuentro. The moderator began with a clear, comprehensive exposition of the importance of values as the actual practical manifestation of spiritual beliefs and concepts of the Sacred, the vehicle through which one’s spirituality is actually lived. But as soon as the panelist (a very conservative lay Catholic who apparently is something of a ‘religious media personality’ in México) spoke, he reminded me of several of the more dogmatic and self-righteous teachers I had as a schoolboy – unordained men who nevertheless adhered to a much stricter orthodoxy than did even the ordained clergy.

He immediately took umbrage at some of the terminology used by the moderator in his opening remarks, calling them intentionally vague and relativistic: “Hay que llamar al pan, pan, y al vino, vino,” he pronounced (“we have to call bread, bread, and wine, wine – the Spanish equivalent of ‘calling a spade a spade’, only somewhat more emphatic.) “What is all this talk about ‘spirituality’? The proper term is ‘religion,’ of which, as we well know, there is but a single true one. And what about this nonsense of ‘the Sacred’? The correct term is ‘God’ – singular, masculine, and almighty.” It went downhill from there…

The panel format which the Parliament adopted for the Encuentro hardly left any room for panelists to have much direct interaction with each other. I imagine this was a deliberate choice in order to minimize the possibility of confrontational exchanges – in its events, the Parliament always emphasizes the importance of sensitivity, respect, and positive dialogue among the various religions, yet knowing full well that this can be, at times, a very difficult standard to maintain. That was certainly one of those times for me, and, had the panel structure allowed greater interaction, I don’t know if I would have had the patience to refrain from challenging some of my co-panelist’s more offensive comments, even if only to point out the incongruity of adopting such a dismissive, disrespectful attitude at an event whose official theme was ‘With All Respect, in Every Respect’. Then again, there was probably not much point in engaging someone whose opening statement was, “I am going to be addressing my remarks exclusively to those here who are Catholic, or believers in the One True God” – not exactly the concept of ‘interfaith dialogue’ as it is generally understood.

Still, I was glad that there were people like this man at the Encuentro. One of the more common complaints voiced throughout the interfaith movement is that these gatherings typically draw only the more liberal or progressive members of the various religions, and that, for true dialogue to occur, and for real meaningful and lasting changes to take place, we must figure out ways to also engage the more conservative religious groups. Often, when conservatives or fundamentalists attend interfaith events, it is with the intention of proselytizing or of seeing ‘what the enemy is up to’, which, of course, can simply lead to greater polarization. But perhaps if more people like the panelist in question get some direct exposure to the interfaith movement, and are able to let go enough of their preconceptions or their cynicism toward points of view different from their own, an actual, fruitful dialogue can begin to develop.

In the afternoon, I attended the world premiere of the film ‘Rumi Returning’, a beautiful, sensuous film about the mystical Sufi poet, timed to coincide with the 800th anniversary of his birth. The film features interviews with various Rumi scholars, and scenes from places where he lived, along with readings of his poetry. In these times, when there is so much misunderstanding and prejudice toward Muslims, this film highlights some of the most inspiring and profound elements of Islam – if nothing else, just experiencing the passion for the divine in Rumi’s poems can be enough to induce a sense of sacred ecstasy in anyone, regardless of their religion.

By the end of the movie, I realized just how tired and sleep-deprived I was, so I decided to skip the evening plenary and maybe get to sleep early for a change. When I got back to the hotel, though, I ran into my ‘Three Amigas,’ who invited me to go out for dinner with them. They took me to ‘El Rey del Cabrito,’ one of the best-known restaurants in Monterrey, which features the culinary specialty for which this region is renowned throughout México: goat.

The place was a trip – large, gaudy, and loud (not so much in a physical as in a psychic sense). There were stuffed animals of all kinds everywhere (I’m not talking about toys here, their taxidermy bill alone must have been astronomical…): antelope, rams, snakes, birds, goats, bears, squirrels, and, at the back of the ground floor, two African lions mounted as if they were fighting. The second floor (accessible via a tiny, wooden elevator that could scarcely fit the four of us) was a tad more sedate, commandeered by a huge bronze statue of a sitting Buddha. The food, though, was great; I’m generally not all that fond of goat meat, but this was easily the tastiest I’ve ever had.

By the time the Amigas drove me back to the hotel, I was definitely ready to hit the sack, especially since the next day, my first presentation was at 8:00 in the morning.