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
www.earthspirit.com.
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
www.parliamentofreligions.org.
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.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Monday, 24 September --- Final Day of the Encuentro: Ceremonies and Good-Night Blessings.


Each day at the Encuentro has begun with several of the presenters offering ‘observances’ – some sort of meditation or ceremony that could give people a taste of the actual practices of a particular religion – and, on this last day of the event, it was my turn to do so. I’d considered several different options before coming to Monterrey, most of which involved being out-of-doors, but had to discard them once I realized that the observances were also being held at the Cinterplex, and that there didn’t appear to be any other more ‘natural’ setting within easy walking distance.

It being eight o’clock on a Monday morning, I had expected a small turnout, but over fifty people showed up. The Catholic nun who’d been at my talk the previous morning was back, and this time she'd brought several other nuns along, as well as a small group of young seminarians. Paola, of the Monterrey pagan group, was there as well, and I recognized quite a few faces from some of my other presentations. There was also a bunch of new people, of course, and a handful of them who were early arrivals seemed a little apprehensive about taking part in a pagan ceremony, especially when I told them that it would be participatory and that I’d rather not have a lot of ‘observers,’ but they seemed to relax a bit once the nuns and the seminarians arrived, all eager to jump right in.

I started with a brief explanation of what we were about to do: a very simple ritual to begin the day by opening ourselves to an awareness of the sacred Earth, of our connection to her and to all of her forces, currents and beings, including each other. I talked a little bit about the significance of the circle and the four elements as symbols commonly found in pagan spirituality, and then I taught them Spanish versions of three chants that we often use in the EarthSpirit Community – Air I Am, We Are a Circle, and One With the Soul of the Earth – each accompanied by a simple and different dance. At first they were a bit tentative, but as we started to move, they became more and more animated (several of them, it turned out, could really sing, especially a couple of the seminarians), so by the time we finished by holding the last note of Unidos con el alma de la Madre Tierra… in multiple harmonies, just about everyone was wearing a huge smile, and as soon as we finished they all began enthusiastically embracing each other, and commenting on how beautiful the ceremony had been, and how wonderful they felt.

They kept me an extra half-hour after our time had ended, standing outside the room so the next speaker could get ready, while they carefully copied down the lyrics for the chants and asked a lot of other questions about paganism. On my way to the next event, as I hurried down the hall past the group of nuns, I overheard one of them talking about how there was nothing in those chants that anyone could object to if they tried to sing them in church, while another wondered about moving the pews out of the way so they could dance…

My next panel was another session of Reclaiming a Sense of the Sacred, and it provided a good example of one of the invaluable dimensions of the interfaith movement – the many and important networking connections that can be made. In this case, one of my co-panelists was Israel Batista, a Methodist minister who is the secretary general of the Latin American Council of Churches. Israel is Cuban, but now lives in Quito, Ecuador. As it turns out, just a few weeks before the Encuentro I had helped to spread the news about a vicious assault on two leaders of the Zapara Indians, Gloria Ushigua (with whom I had personally worked in the past) and Rosa Gualinga in the northeast of Ecuador. I had been sharing the news about the attack against Gloria and Rosa with various religious representatives throughout the Encuentro, so, after the panel, I spoke with Israel about that incident and solicited his help, which he was most willing and eager to give; as a result, I was able to send Israel’s contact information to Gloria’s and Rosa’s friends in Puyo, and am now in the process of following up to see if anything was able to come of it. This has always been, for me, one of the most fulfilling aspects of the interfaith movement: to make those connections and utilize our collective resources to try to help where help is needed; and the real beauty of it is that our particular scenario – a Cuban Methodist minister and an American pagan priest working together in México on behalf of two Indian women in Ecuador – is not at all unusual, it’s the kind of thing that happens all the time.

My final panel, a repeat installment on the Role of Religion and Spirituality in Society was again moderated by Nancy Martin and included Swami Dayananda Saraswati, one of the world’s leading exponents of Advaita Vedanta, and Sheikh Suhail Assad, an Argentinian imam born of Lebanese parents, who now lives and teaches in Iran, but is also the spiritual guide for Muslim communities in nine Latin American countries, including México.

As Swami Dayananda explained it, Advaita Vedanta is, essentially, a way of spirituality through scholarship, in that it is centered in the profound study of the Vedas and, unlike other strands of Hinduism, does not at all emphasize the mystical experience. For Sheikh Assad, the essence of Islam is not merely a religion premised on beliefs, but a completely integrated way of life in which, ideally, there is no distinction between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular.’ He took the interesting position of advocating full freedom for the practice of all religions (and, in the process, discussed some of his ongoing efforts to insure religious rights for all in Iran) while supporting the validity – and in some cases, he stressed, the necessity – of theocratic governments. In his view, religion cannot have any real impact in society unless it is translated into law.

My own comments focused on the need for religious and spiritual traditions to not succumb to mere materialism and secularism, but, among their various functions, to serve in society as the keepers of an awareness of the Great Mystery, of the mystical experience which takes us beyond ordinary human existence and brings us to direct communion with the Sacred.

Clearly, our emphases were all quite distinct, and even seemingly divergent; but, unlike the conservative Catholic panelist the day before, everyone strove to articulate his position with a good deal of sensitivity and respect. I would have welcomed the opportunity, not so much to debate, but to explore more deeply these various points of view, but, again, the format didn’t really allow space for it. Nevertheless, the panel illustrated quite clearly the great diversity of religious and spiritual approaches found throughout the world, and the Parliament’s mission to bring them together in open and respectful dialogue.

Paola, the young Monterrey pagan, came to all of my presentations this morning, so after my last panel I took her out to lunch. She’s really a very interesting person, quite low-key and unassuming, but with a very observant and keen mind, and deeply open to new experiences. We talked for a couple of hours, and clearly the Encuentro is having a profound effect on her; it was delightful to listen to her talk about all the new and fascinating things she’s been discovering this weekend – almost like watching a flower open. I really like her, and hope we’ll stay in touch.

Right after lunch, the Three Amigas came by and took me out for a long drive throughout Monterrey, something they’d been promising me for a couple of days. We went all over the downtown, taking in such typical tourist sights as the cathedral, built in the early 1600s, and the famous Tower of Commerce, a huge red obelisk that has become the symbol of this city, and which has, at the top, a laser beam that during the night casts a spotlight on the various important landmarks. As part of the tour, they also took me to the suburbs, where the "real regiomontanos live," including a visit to a candy factory (really, a couple of large rooms in the back of a regular house) where a local family makes these caramel-based candies called glorias (‘glories’) which are traditional to this region and quite famous throughout México. I made sure to buy a basketful of them to take back home.

We returned to the hotel just in time for dinner. As I walked in, Emily Chou, one of the Parliament’s staffers, grabbed me and asked me if I would offer one of three blessings at the start of tonight’s closing plenary, which I gladly agreed to do. Then Nancy Martin invited me to join a small group at her table, composed of her husband, Joseph Runzo, who, like her, is a professor at Chapman University and co-director of the Global Ethics and Religion Forum; Katherine Marshall, until recently an executive officer of the World Bank, specializing in social policy and world poverty; and Tu Wei-ming, director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute and a leading proponent of Confucian humanism, who was in the middle of talking about the current state of Sino-Tibetan relations, and changing attitudes toward Tibet’s self-determination, the role of the Dalai Lama, etc. It was a fascinating discussion, an insider’s anecdotal view of the many facets of a very complex and delicate situation.

A little later I arrived at the Arena Monterrey, where things were almost ready for the closing plenary. They seated the three of us who were offering blessings in the front row, just a few chairs away from my old buddy, the governor of Nuevo León and his entourage. While we were waiting, I was introduced to Luis de la Cruz, a Wixarrika (Huichol) mara’akame (shaman) who would be offering a blessing at the end. This appeared to be the largest audience yet at the Arena, probably as a result of media and word-of-mouth reports having had enough of a chance to spread over the weekend.

The first blessing was offered by Sister Jayanti Kirplani, the European director of the Brahma Kumaris and their representative to the United Nations in Geneva. I had met her at the Chicago Parliament in 1993, and had the pleasure of getting to know her a little bit during the Assembly of Religious and Spiritual Leaders in Montserrat, prior to the 2004 Parliament. She led a short, but beautiful and soothing meditation, and was followed to the podium by Tu Wei-ming, whose offering, which quoted a passage from the Analects of Confucius, was more philosophical in tone.

When my turn came, I thanked them all in Spanish for their very warm hospitality, and told them that, on behalf of my community, I was going to offer them a Gaelic song of blessing and parting from the Highlands of Scotland that wishes them slàinte (health), sonas (happiness), and dòchas (hope), and reminds us, as we take our leave from each other, that even though we should find ourselves an ocean apart, we will remain united by the times we have spent together and by the bonds of kinship. And then I sang them Oidhche Mhath Leibh, Beannachd Leibh (‘Good-Night, and Blessings to You’).

When I finished, nothing at all happened – dead silence. Sometimes I go into a light trance when I sing that song, because of what it means to me, so I thought perhaps I had just tuned out the sounds. But as I moved away from the podium, the Arena remained completely silent. I was halfway across the stage when the place seemed to erupt all at once, as if somebody had just flipped a switch and turned up the volume full blast. I was a little confused by what was going on, but as I got off the stage all of these people were standing, clapping whistling, shouting. As I approached my seat, the governor rushed up to meet me and gave me a big, pumping handshake. “That was magic, my friend!,” he enthused. “You’re a druid! You’re a true druid!” I believe I may have blushed…

As I sat there, uninterested in the two or three political speeches that followed, I reflected on the kind of reaction that tonight’s crowd had to one brief, simple song that they could not even understand, but which somehow conveyed to them some sense of who we are, some sense of the beauty and spirituality of our traditions. Over the years I have encountered, a number of times, that kind of very strong, positive, even enthusiastic reaction from non-pagans to a taste of the Old Ways (though perhaps not quite as strongly as here in Monterrey), and, in thinking about it, I realized that, in most of those instances, what people responded to was something basic, something fundamentally simple and traditional which really communicates the essence of pagan spirituality. It seems to me that a lot of pagans today tend to focus far too much on external trappings or on modern, artificial notions of ‘how we are supposed to be’ which sometimes border on the dogmatic, and in the process wind up overlooking some of the most fundamental and compelling elements of the pagan traditions. Perhaps, occasionally, it takes others who may not even share our practices or beliefs, to mirror back to us some of what may be most meaningful in our own paths.

The plenary program continued with a montage of video images and interviews taken at the Encuentro, highlighting the diversity of spiritual paths that had been included. This was followed by a local mother-child duo performing traditional dances from India – the mother alone at first, then joined by her fourteen-year-old daughter. The dances themselves were quite beautiful to watch, but even more so was the layered, deeply loving relationship between the two women expressing itself through their movements. They were followed in turn by the evening’s keynote speaker, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, who spoke about the importance of interfaith encounters such as this one in promoting peace and understanding throughout the world. To close out the program, Don Luis de la Cruz, the mara’akame, offered us a traditional Wixarrika blessing to all the directions, using a ceremonial arrow which he dipped in water and then sprinkled all around. And then, finally, the World Interreligious Encounter came to a close.

I went back to the hotel with some of the Monterrey pagans to get a snack and some coffee. We were sitting in the lobby when I noticed Dirk Ficca, the Parliament’s executive director, walking by with a group of people. When Dirk saw me, he came straight over and gave me a big hug, saying, “That was really amazing tonight, my friend; you were really amazing!” I thanked him, but he went on: “Did you hear that silence after you finished? Ten thousand people, and not a sound – I heard that silence, that was really something!” Over the next couple of days, several of the other presenters and staff made similar comments; it was very gratifying to feel that I’d been able to convey a sense of pagan spirituality to such a large and diverse group of people.

As I bid good-night and good-bye to my new pagan friends from Monterrey, Paola said she had a small present for me and my community, and gave me a folded piece of paper. It conveyed a sweet message, which I include here in translation:

A gift. A true gift is a gesture, a voluntary expression of warmth, of love. Today I want to offer a small gift from my heart to Andras and to his community in gratitude for the gifts they have brought to my people and to me. For sharing their time, their experience, their solidarity and their kinship. For renewing the hope for the survival of the ancestral cultures and for helping us to open to new spiritual horizons that offer us more and better resources with which we may reconstruct our past, understand our present, and build the foundations for a more optimistic future. With much love and happiness I send you all a smile, hugs, and my very best wishes. In closing, I would like to share with you a remembrance and a poetic fragment that I wrote on December 31, 2006.

The remembrance: “One spring afternoon I saw, on the mountains, the clouds nestling together like sugar-covered candies, forming such a beautiful landscape that one could not tell where the sky ended and the earth began. The colorful ribbons of a huge rainbow combed from left to right the surface of the trees, and a soft rain caressed the glow of those of us who gazed upon it.”

The lyric fragment:

“The mountains
crumble where
the moon
laughs
and among clouds
I drop my petals
lightly.”

– Paola Rodríguez Cruz

2 comments:

Eric Leventhal Arthen said...

As with your earlier posts, the positive reactions you had are excellent reminders of how important it was for me to find and get involved with paganism. And I've seen that reaction in the excitement of many when they come to their first pagan gathering.

Here at this interfaith event with people like the nuns who are committed to their own path, we still have things to offer which they find very moving and valuable.

-Eric

Cosette said...

As frustrating as people like the lay Catholic-Mexican-superstar panelist from the Religion and Values discussion are, the nun's comments are so satisfying. It's in those interactions where one can see the value of the work that you do. I also really enjoy reading about the positive reactions of people who didn't know folks like you existed and are so grateful for your presence there. I hope you keep this blog up, Andras.