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
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
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
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
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