Sometimes it’s hard to tell if things that happened to you in your life only happened to you or if they happened to everyone. -Chuck Klosterman, Eating the Dinosaur
I am sitting in a boardroom on the second floor of the Doubletree Hotel. It’s the first day of Pantheacon; I have actually only been off the plane to San Jose for a little over two hours. At the head of the table are six people whom I only know from photographs: others who, like me, write for the Patheos Pagan Portal. We are there for a panel discussion on Pagan Intrafaith work: that is, to discuss the possibility of using the techniques other religious groups use for interfaith connections in relation to the various religions that fall under the umbrella of Paganism.
The panel lasts for about an hour and a half. In that time, I reach three conclusions:
- I should have prepared more for this discussion. (If you listen to the audio, I basically stopped talking halfway through, mainly because I wanted to marvel at how brilliant everyone else sounded.)
- I genuinely liked everyone else who was in the room. Not just that I enjoyed their blogs, or respected them as thinkers – though yes, that too – but I liked them, as people. I looked forward to running into them over and over again throughout the weekend.
- These folks were almost nothing like me. And that, oddly enough, made me all the more fond of them.
In my pre-Pantheacon column, I mentioned that being a second-generation Pagan comes with certain non-obvious consequences. The one I focused on there was my lack of interaction with the “greater Pagan community” until only a few years ago – until I began writing about my experiences, really.
Another one of those non-obvious consequences is this: I’ve never gone through a phase where I cast about for a methodology that called to me. I’ve never gone to public rituals, hoping to chance on a group that did things in a way that appealed to me, or combed through dozens of books in search of a tradition. I simply learned how to do things the way my family did them. And, as a result, I suppose I never worried much about the differences that might exist between our ways and everyone else’s.
I attended 11 rituals during the four days of Pantheacon – a number that feels a bit unreal, by the way. That’s close to the number of rituals I participated in during the entire preceding year. None of those rituals were much like what I do when I’m at home, either in content or in structure. I could see the relationship between my Wicca and the CAYA Coven’s Rite of 1,000 Crowns: in both, we cast a circle, we called the elements, we stated a purpose, and we went about achieving that purpose through song and motion. But still, they were very different. The organization of CAYA’s ritual was completely different from anything I’d seen before: multiple priests and priestesses, no communion (at least not of food and drink), no Great Rite. (I only saw one Great Rite all weekend, during a Body Acceptance Ritual on the last day of the convention. Even that was modified into a “full spectrum” Great Rite that included non-heteronormative pairings: scepter to scepter, cup to cup, and scepter to cup as well.)
Those were the only two Wiccan-ish rituals I went to – everything else was much farther afield from my “ritual comfort zone.” I spent one night in a ceremony led by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, which he called the Antinoan Dream Incubation Ritual. It involved calling upon a deity with whom I had never interacted and asking him to visit my dreams; the structure had no similarity to any ritual I’d done before, with long stretches of untranslated Greek and readings of the deified Antinou’s obelisk that included the lacunae caused by vandals or weather. It was a fascinating ritual, mind-expanding. It was nothing like what I would do at home, and nothing that I was likely to repeat as part of my own personal practice.
Indeed, that was what I found valuable about it.
I’m hardly an expert on inter/intrafaith work – again, I ran out of things to say during our panel on the subject! – but if I can take anything away from Pantheacon, it’s this: there is tremendous value in simply seeing what other people are doing, even if, especially if, their practice differs greatly from our own. It’s so easy to slip into these ironclad descriptions of ourselves: “I’m a traditional initiated witch,” “I’m a Celtic reconstructionist,” “I’m a Radical Faerie.” Or, for that matter, “I’m a second-generation Wiccan.” Those labels can all too quickly slip from being descriptions to being shackles, ways of isolating ourselves from experiences outside of the area we have claimed for ourselves.
I’ll be honest: wandering around that hotel, I often felt like a hayseed taking his first steps into the big city. Things out in San Jose were bigger and weirder than I had prepared for. But within only a few hours, I had adjusted myself to the possibilities. I talked to people who I would usually never talk to, worshiped in ways I would have never thought to worship. Will any of that change the way I do things now that I’m back at home? Hard to say; probably not in any way that would leave my practice visibly changed from what it is already.
But in seeing what Paganism means to others, the vast area that term covers, I have come to appreciate the umbrella of our faith all the more. At Pantheacon, I discovered that I had indeed lived a different sort of life than most people in the Pagan community; but then again, so had everyone else.