A few months ago, I was asked by Rev. Carol Hovis to be a speaker at the Marin Interfaith Council’s 2011 Interfaith Prayer Breakfast on May 5th. Carol and I have served together on the Board of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio and we had spoken many times about doing some sort Wiccan programming at the MIC. I would be speaking with Rev. Carol Himaka of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism and Reform Jewish Rabbi Stacy Friedman. We would each have 18 minutes to address “Prayer & Meditation” in our traditions and then lead the attendees in a prayer or meditation from our tradition.
I thought this sounded perfect. I would have plenty of time to address “prayer” in a Wiccan context as communion with the Divine (much like prayer in a late Classical context), as opposed to prayer as an act of submission or supplication, and still explain and lead a fairly elaborate version of the “roots & branches – 4 Elements / Directions” visualization so common among Wiccan trads.
Then, two days before the event, Carol called to tell me that over 180 people had registered for the Prayer Breakfast and, by the way… Carol explained that unlike many interfaith councils in the San Francisco Bay Area, in which the most liberal religious groups tend to predominate, the council in Marin had been around a long time and was made up mostly of the more established (i.e. more “conventional”) churches and synagogues. As such, the council in Marin, as a whole, was less informed about modern Witchcraft than one might expect, especially since I would be the first Earth Religionist to speak at one of their Prayer Breakfasts. Because of this, she asked, could I give a basic introduction to Wicca as part of my talk? Suddenly 18 minutes didn’t sound that long.
I struggled with this for a while and I confess that “the muse” didn’t strike me until I was driving across the San Rafael Bridge to Marin to Congregation Kol Shofar on the morning of the prayer breakfast. I spent the breakfast part of the event scribbling two pages of notes.
After breakfast, Carol welcomed everyone and told them about the story of Kol Shofar and its new building. There had been some local opposition to the arrival of the synagogue and the Marin Interfaith Council had helped work things out. She introduced Rabbi Chai Levy of Congregation Kol Shofar who led an opening prayer. Carol then introduced the MIC Board and members of various committees. The MIC Board President Nafisa Haji of the International Association of Sufism called forward a woman named Alison Hendley to thank her for many years of valued work on behalf of the MIC. The whole vibe was much more like a single, tight-knit congregation than an interfaith council.
Carol gave a history of the Prayer Breakfasts in Marin and the good work that the MIC had done. She talked about their many social service projects. I recommend checking out their website for details (www.marinifc.org). She advised the audience that “When listening to the speakers, notice when your heart begins to close.” Apparently she anticipated some resistance to what we represent.
Rev. Joanne Mied introduced Rev. Carol Himaka. Rev. Himaka told the story of the life of the Buddha and the origins of Buddhist thought. She closed with a reading from Shinran, the founder of her sect. At Carol Hovis’ request, she added some information about relief efforts in Japan.
M. Macha NightMare, a CoG National Interfaith Representative and a member of the MIC, introduced me. I thanked Macha and the MIC and began my talk (having finished it in between taking notes on Rev. Himaka’s talk):
* * * * *
For hundreds of years, people who believed in and practiced many of the same things that Macha and I share lived lives in the shadows, in fear of being tortured and killed by the authorities and others.
In the 1950s, everything changed. The few surviving covens in England took a new look at the Old Laws, which enjoined secrecy at almost all costs… “for the Craft must ever survive”, as the Laws say.
In the 20th century, the survival of the Craft meant networking, organizing on a scale never seen before, coming out of the closet… or as we sometimes say, “coming out of the broom closet.” [expected chuckles] Witches published books, went on television, and created national organizations. In 1975, the largest of these – the Covenant of the Goddess – joined the Berkeley Area Interfaith Council, and we have been active in interfaith ever since at the local, regional, national, and global levels.
Even so, almost 60 years into a concerted effort at public education and with Neopaganism becoming the fourth largest religion in the United States, many people still know very little about us or even that we exist at all. Perhaps we wove our secrecy spells too well! [more chuckles] And so, Carol has asked me to cover some of the basics before addressing today’s topic of prayer & meditation.
The easiest way to understand modern Neopaganism is to think of something like Nataive American spirituality or Japanese Shinto, but coming out of pre-Christian European and Mediterranean cultural settings. There are Druids, reviving the religion of the ancient Celts. There are Heathens, taking their inspiration from the religions of the Norse and Germanic peoples. But by far the largest branch of Neopaganism is the Witches, coming out of the fusion of Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Graeco-Roman spiritualities that occurred in the British Isles. This led many modern Witches to use Anglo-Saxon word – “Wicca” - instead “Witchcraft”. Some found it easier to avoid one “w-word” by replacing it with another, especially when explaining things to their parents. [chuckles]
So what defines modern Witchcraft or Wicca? This can get complicated sometimes; and you’ll notice that I almost always say that “most Witches” or “many Witches” believe such-and-such a thing or that something is a “common belief” precisely because of this ambiguity.
In terms of theology… most Witches focus on the immanence of the Divine, manifest as the natural world, but also as each other and as inanimate objects like this podium, while some Witches also acknowledge and relate to a transcendent aspect to the Divine. Almost all Witches relate to the Divine as the Goddess, the Great Mother, but there are also many who focus on a duality of God & Goddess. There are Witches who believe in reincarnation (in various forms) and those who don’t. There are those who assert the reality of the Gods while others see them as convenient symbols or archetypes of the unconscious. One could hardly talk about Witch beliefs in terms of “orthodoxy”.
In terms of practice… almost all of us meet in circles, but a few meet in squares. Most Witches celebrate on the night of the Full Moon, but many are forced to wait for the nearest convenient weekend. We use different tools in our ceremonies, ‘though some use no tools at all. We use different words – some using liturgies that have been passed from teacher to student for generations, while others create spontaneous liturgical poetry as the Spirit moves them. We even address our rites to different Gods, with each coven having their own favored patron or tutelary deities. And we create our rituals around different myth-cycles – some favoring the Celtic cycle of the Kings of the Waxing & Waning Year, some the cycle of Persephone’s descent to and return from the Underworld, and other myths as well. So it would seem that “orthopraxy” doesn’t describe us either.
With such variety in beliefs and practice, what holds us together as a faith tradition? If you’ll allow me a neologism, I believe that modern Witches are “orthognostic”, in that we share a common gnosis: the direct experience of the Divine manifesting as and through the Natural World. Such direct experience can result in different beliefs & practices, but always leaves a sign that we can recognize in each other. This was incorporated into the membership requirements for the Covenant of the Goddess when we said that prospective members must identify themselves as Witches and be recognized as such by other Witches known to us. “Takes one to know one…”, as they say.
Not only are our experiences of the Divine similar enough to hold us together as a faith tradition, they are also similar enough in particulars to result in us grouping together into what we call “Traditions”, but a Christian might call “denominations”. Macha comes out of a tradition called “Reclaiming” which might be likened to a liberal Protestant denomination, while I work primarily in the Gardnerian Tradition which might be more similar to Eastern Orthodoxy.
Turning to today’s topic… Prayer does not figure largely in the spiritual lives of most Witches. To the extent that prayer is present, it is in the form of communion with the deities (much like prayer in late Classical paganism*), rather than of submission or supplication as is often found in the prayers of many other faiths. In contrast, most Witches make use of meditation – especially in the form of guided meditation or visualization – on a regular basis. It is through a guided meditation that I might be able to share some of the Wiccan gnosis with you here today. Please stand, if you can. If you can’t, it’s fine to remain sitting.
[I led a standard “roots & branches” meditation – grounding, centering, connecting with the loving energy upwelling from Mother Earth and with the light streaming from the Sun, Moon, and Stars above – throwing in, since they were standing around tables, the idea of seeing themselves as groves of trees. When I finished the meditation and told them to open their eyes, they burst into spontaneous applause! That’s the first time that’s happened for me.]
As you go forward through the day, try to notice if you feel this connection with the Earth fading or slipping away. If so, take a moment, remember what it felt like, and re-establish that connection.
It can be difficult to connect with a coven to attend a ceremony, but there will be a very public Pagan event next weekend in Berkeley – the annual Pagan Festival, from 10:30am to 5:30pm. – so if you would like to learn more about the local Pagan community, please come join us.
Thank you and Blessed Be. [more applause]
* * * * *
I got another round of applause. Suzan Berns then introduced Rabbi Stacy Friedman. She addressed “why, when, how, and what we pray” in the Jewish tradition and then led us in a sung prayer about the Creation.
Carol had intended to have a Q & A period after the speakers, but we were running late, so she just thanked everyone, especially Green Gulch Farm for supplying the many loaves of wonderful bread.
This was a really fun event and, judging from the feedback I received afterwards, was really appreciated for its educational content. I was told that even more conservative groups which had been somewhat skeptical of my invitation were pleased with the outcome. I look forward to further participation with the Marin Interfaith Council and I hope that it will open the door for more Wiccan programming at the MIC.
National Public Information Officer
* Ordinarily, I would capitalize “Pagan” and be annoyed when others do not, but in the case of Classical “paganism” we are talking about people who never used this term to describe either themselves or their religious practice. As a result, I am more inclined to side with the anthropologists and historians who warn about the interpretive dangers of projecting backwards our own religious sensibilities.