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Pagan Values: Community.

It's one of my favorite memories.

On the last day of the small Pagan gathering, perhaps a dozen of us had hiked down the hill, piled into our cars, and made our way to the neighborhood pancake house.  Sweaty and grimy, smelling of woodsmoke and insect repellent, clad in hiking boots and sneakers, shorts and blue jeans, we had taken one long table in the middle of the restaurant.

The restaurant itself is a celebration of all things down-to-earth and Vermont.  I've seen farmers enjoying a plate of eggs still wearing their barn boots--and been grateful to the ones considerate enough to hose them off first--as well as hunters stoking up either before or after a morning of deer hunting, families with babies in high chairs, and, of course, in leaf season, the occasional tourist.

There's nothing occult or New Age about the Sugar House.  It's just there, as it has  been for decades, with it's fluorescent lights, tiled floor, and picnic style benches and tables: a local fixture, and the home of the best pancakes and maple syrup in Central Vermont.

Over pancakes and eggs and coffee and orange juice, then, our group of old friends had laughed and joked, told stories of our kids, our families, and our daily lives.  We'd caught up on the lives of community members who were not there this year--who had gone back to school, who was getting married or moving across country, divorcing or building a new house--in one last, loving effusion of our sense of ourselves as Tribe, before we would return to atomized lives among our non-Pagan friends and neighbors.

It was, as every year, a wonderful meal.

But my memory comes from a moment at the end of the meal, when a stranger from another table approached us, and hesitantly asked, "Excuse me.  I don't mean to be rude--I couldn't help overhearing a little.  Are you all... Pagans?"

We said we were, and she smiled, and nodded, and went back to her own table.

Understand, none of us were wearing anything remotely like flowing robes.  I don't even think there were any tie-dyed shirts in evidence; any pentacles or other occult jewelry were either small or tucked into the flannel shirts and tees we were wearing.

Nor had our conversation been overtly esoteric.  To the best of my recollection, we weren't speaking of gods or goddesses, ritual drumming techniques or magickal tools.  Instead, our conversation had focused on daily life: our kids, our plans, our small triumphs and disappointments.

But somehow, seeing how we interacted, this woman whom none of us even knew had figured out that there was something different about us from the usual crowd at the Sugar House.  Somehow, she had figured out that we were Pagans.

It is my belief that her clue was how we loved each other, how we belonged to one another.

We related to each other with the freedom and trust and happiness that comes of being in your deepest self with a group of others, not once only, but over and over again, over the course of decades.  We belonged to each other in a way that is rare today, in our society of nuclear families and individualistic consumers.  Perhaps only communities of monks or nuns have a similar experience--but an experience largely cloistered from the world, and, in any case, rooted in a religion far less world-embracing than Paganism.

The key to understanding us was our connectedness.  Wiccans and Druids, shamans and Hellenes and Kabbalists, we had stood together in the firelight and joined together in love of the Old Gods; students and retirees, athletic and disabled, rural and urban, we had shared the cycles of our lives over many years.

The years that have passed have changed that community.  Some of the faces that were at that table have been taken from us by death.  Bitter quarrels have divided us, and time has only partially reconciled us.  Formerly healthy adults have become disabled, children have become adults, and some of us have moved far, far away, never to return.

But the sense of connection remains.  My own daughter I remember rocketing through the woods with a mini-tribe of younger Pagans, when she was only eight years old. "Mom!" she called out to me, one day as she dashed past.  "Mom!  Mom!  We're playing we're like it was in the old days--like we're a Pagan village!"

"Playing" indeed--but it was no game.  It was real.  I was there.

My daughter no longer considers herself to be a Pagan.  Does that invalidate the time she spent in the "Pagan village" as a child?  I think not.  She is still close to many of the adults from that spiritual community, still discusses her spiritual life (which is alive and flourishing, albeit in a different form from my own) with not only me, but with many of those adults who knew her as that joyful wild child.

How common is it for our children, once grown, to remain close friends with their parents' closest friends?

I hope it is common indeed, at least within the Pagan world.  For, with my own daughter grown, my heart has room in it for my friends' children.  One of the joys of middle age, for me, is the sense of continuity and connection I have with my friends' children as I watch them grow.  This is true whether they remain Pagan--as some have--or not--as some have not.

This is, I think, because the connections we have with one another, whether within generations or spanning them, are much less about what we believe--a creed or common ideology--as about who we are.

We Pagans are a people in relationship with one another: a relationship deepened by our lived experiences of the Old Gods, but both wider and deeper than any single set of religious doctrines.  We are rooted, in the final analysis, in Life--in shared Life: in community.

There has been a lot of talk, in recent weeks, about how Paganism is not really a community, how even the concept of "Paganism" as a single anything, as an identity, is meaningless.

As someone who has drunk deep from the well of a diverse and tradition-spanning Pagan community, I beg to differ. At our best, we grow and deepen in our love for one another, love that unites rather than divides by ideology; love that is shared with the earth; love that lasts even through pain and aging.

I've tasted this water.  To my community, to my family, I say: do not settle for less.

If you build it, we will come.

Photo credit: Valerie Everett, under a  Creative Commons Attribution license.  This post is part of the 2010 Pagan Values blogging event.


Pitch313 said…
In this ongoing discussion of the "Pagan" community and all, it appears that some folks balk at acknowledging relationships with other folks--and, I assume--with deities, guardians, powers, and places other than the particular ones they claim in their Trads.

I embrace Neo-Paganism because, for me, the possibilities and opportunities are greater than my needs or expectations. It's filled my days and awareness with a sense of rooted participation, sure. But it's also filled my days and awareness with surprises, occasionally with profound spiritual surprises.

The way I live my own Neo-Pagan practice, "Pagans" are all the folks that I love to circle with. That includes a lot more people than just the ones who happen to say they're "Pagans." Or the ones who don't.
Heather Madrone said…
Cat, this post sounds awfully Quakerish to me.
Matt Gerlach said…
One of the greatest strengths (and the greatest annoyances for academics and non-Pagans) of the Pagan community is that the boundary between who is Pagan and who isn't isn't determined by beliefs or specific practices or anything else really besides the willingness to join in; make a relationship... with a coven, a grove, with a God or with the land. Learn to listen and learn to give.

Sure, it makes classifying "what makes a Pagan" fuzzy and nebulous, but if boundaries become too firm they so easily become battle lines. I like it better how it is.
I get the sense that you understand why I so strongly resist attempts to reject the term "Pagan" as a mere umbrella word; there is actually something particularly rich and satisfying about the unity amid diversity that I've found among Pagans.

And Quakers. You are right, Heather--there are some real similarities between Pagan community and Quaker community. (Probably between all live spiritual communities, though I don't have personal knowledge of them all. *smile*)

There are differences, too. Chief among them: Pagan communities, on the whole, are warmer, easier to get to know, and more embracing. They are also hotter: more prone to destructive conflict and schism. I think those are related truths, actually... I'd love to see my Quaker community borrow some pages from my Pagan community, and allow ourselves to bubble up with irreverence, humor, and loving gossip. (Yes, there is such a thing! How else do we learn which of us are single and seeking a mate, or unhappy in our jobs and looking for something new? The grapevine, when used in love, can be a joyful thing.)

But I'm equally anxious to see my Pagan community learn a few important ideas from my Quaker community. Things like how to practice spiritual discernment as a community; how to uphold one another's spiritual witness, without implying that all are called to identical practices at all times. And most of all, the art of gathering together to listen under Spirit, especially when we are in conflict, so that we can work through our differences lovingly, without the destructive schism that's so common among us now.

*laughing, sighing* I know that some who read those words will hear in them an intention on my part to impose a particular form of worship on other Pagans. Maybe it is impossible for Pagans to borrow some of the practices of healthy spiritual community from Quakers, without becoming Quakers. But I hope not.

Pagans are my people, my tribe, and I love us. I want to see us do better; I want to see us doing our best.

(I'd like to see that among Quakers, too, but that's not the way the wind is filling my sail today, this particular rainy Saturday afternoon...)
I vividly recall the discussions in one of my Pagan communities, when, after many years of meeting on retreat together as a kind of annual spiritual community, a number of us began taking spouses and lovers who were not Pagan, but atheists or monotheists.

There was some consternation over this at first. Our brains said we were a spiritual and educational community. Shouldn't we be all about Pagans, and Pagans only?

But, of course, one of the things that Pagans are about is community, tribe, family. We have ragged edges by definition; these people were family, and so they belonged to us, whatever their nominal religious affiliations might be.

This is something that is impossible to explain to those who have not experienced it, but essential, at least to my way of thinking, in order to understand what makes Paganism what it is.
Hystery said…
I am confused. Community is essential to Paganism?

Another question: Why can people of different religions and/or spiritualities not be members of the same community? How does acknowledging that Pagans are diverse enough to include multiple religions prevent community building?
Hi, Hystery,
Am I saying that community is "essential to Paganism"? I think I am. Certainly, it is, in my opinion at least (and wait for the disagreeing voices--there'll likely be a choir of them) an essential value.

But, yeah. While Gerald Gardner was clearly quite wrong when he wrote that one "could not be a Witch alone"--wrong, and flying in the face of the archetype upon which he founded the modern Wiccan movement--I think that there was a core of truth in what he was saying.

As humans are social animals, our religious practices need a social dimension, too. Which is not to invalidate solitary practice, which can also be essential, depending on the form of one's Paganism.

But, at a minimum, I think our gods are calling us into a shared life, with them, with the earth, and with one another. We live our spiritual journeys in company with one another, because, among other things, it is in company that we are tested, challenged, and grow. Community isn't all about a utopian idyll; a lot of it hurts. But we're supposed to interact with our fellows. They are part of our journey.

Further, I think there's some necessary component that is omitted in a purely online community. Online is real, but what I've seen of those whose communal experiences are entirely online suggests that, without the experience of being bumped and bruised a bit in face to face communities, Pagans can become solipsistic, narcissistic, or arrogant.
Mind you, that describes a lot of us (and a lot of humans) in face to face communities, too. And, unlike a Quaker community, Pagan communities do not have to take all comers. Covens, groves, hofs... all the forms of Pagan community that I'm aware of have a right to be exclusive.

As a Quaker, I'm not sure how I feel about this. As a Pagan, I don't see a choice, as the Pagan movement is currently configured.

But I digress.

While community isn't something that everyone has a right to within the Pagan movement, I think all of us have a need for it. And where we find ourselves on barren soil, where there is no local community, or where what passes for it is a fan society for a few autocratic Witch Queens, we need to both seek it and, if need be, seek to create it.

One friendship at a time.

Pagans connect. With the gods, with the land, with our ancestors... with each other. It's what we do. I don't know why.

I do know it can take years to forge those deep connections, and that sometimes life gets too busy to add more for a while. It can take an extraordinary amount of patience. And--did I mention?--it can hurt quite a lot. I don't think there's a way around that.

But it's part of what I believe we are.

Mind you, another part of what I believe we are is non-creedal, so my belief is not binding on others, unless it convinces them.

As to whether shared religious identity is essential to be Pagan, well, again, yes and no. For Pagans outside of community, perhaps. For membership in specific Pagan communities, like a Gardnerian coven or an Asatruir hof, yeah, almost certainly.

But for membership in this other thing? It's more like being Jewish. Who is Jewish? Depends who you ask. To the Orthodox Rabbis in Israel, there are a lot of rules to answer this question. But to a lot of non-practicing Jewish atheists and their families... the question gets less clear cut. I see Paganism as like Judaism in that way: both a religious community and a people, a tribe. And they let a lot of oddballs into the tribe: atheists, Pagan-leaning family and friends... even Quakers, on occasion.

And, in my experience, because there is that warm, tribal core, the different theologies or absence of theology don't actually matter a heckuva lot. It works. Il se mueve and all that. Not so much at the big gatherings, where strangers go to (spiritually speaking) cruise one another. But at the level of small local or closed communities of those who have gotten to know each other over time.
Hystery said…
Interesting. Within your discussion of what is essentially Pagan, I am not essentially Pagan. I had always felt essentially and deeply Pagan but I never felt a need for society with other Pagans apart from my own close family members- and I did not feel a great need for them to be Pagan either. My Paganism has always been primarily about cultivating a methodological and philosophical approach to understanding my responsibility to and relationship in the world. It is an embodied perspective, an intellectual approach, and a deeply personal spirituality. It has not been about community with other Pagans although it certainly affects my relationships with other beings (whether human or not). As a Pagan, and as one with a strong connection to this land and its history and people, my spiritual community has been primarily Christian. This is where I live and so I have felt called to love and serve these people.
Yewtree said…
Personally I would say that being religious is about being in community (or maybe, being a mammal is about being in community).

I feel a sense of community with people who share my values. These days, that is usually Unitarians. I do still feel a sense of community with Pagans, but there are certain moments of disconnection when I say something and everyone just looks at me like I just landed from another planet. Occasionally this can happen with Unitarians too, though.

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