Guest Post: The Heart and Harmony of Pagan Spirit Gathering

[The following is a guest post by Florence Edwards-Miller. She is the Communications Coordinator for Circle Sanctuary, which runs Pagan Spirit Gathering, and she has attended PSG for six years. At PSG Florence presents workshops on nonprofit management and development for the Pagan Leadership Institute. She is also editor of CIRCLE Magazine, a quarterly publication for the Pagan and Nature Spirituality community.]

As each car passes through the Stonehouse Farm gates on the opening day of Pagan Spirit Gathering, those who have already arrived wave and shout, “Welcome home!” Pagan Spirit Gathering (PSG) is a festival known for a strong sense of community that embraces newcomers and brings others back for years or decades in a row. The intervening year between PSGs is jokingly referred to as the “51-week supply run.” Every year, those attending Pagan Spirit Gathering for the first time are amazed to find such a welcoming and accepting community of like-minded people. They feel like they have come home.

PSG 2014 Logo White Small for WebLike Brigadoon appearing from the mists, Pagan Spirit Gathering is essentially a bustling Pagan town that manifests the week of the Summer Solstice every year. This year, PSG broke its own records with well over 1,000 people attending and more than 400 events, including workshops, concerts and rituals. This was, by every measure, the largest PSG ever. Yet despite its size, PSG has been able to maintain that sense of ‘home’ and of community.

That sense of community is deliberately nurtured through all aspects of the festival. Each year’s Pagan Spirit Gathering has a theme, and in 2014 that theme was “Heart and Harmony.” These concepts have always been core to what PSG is about. The very first PSG, 34 years ago, was intended to be a place where Pagans of many different traditions could come together harmoniously. This year, focusing on “Heart and Harmony” helped the PSG community accept a record number of first-time attendees with open arms.

A strong sense of community supports each participant through the festival. It is so much easier to try something new, from dancing freely around the bonfire or singing in front of an audience for the first time, when you know that everyone present is cheering for you.  At times of difficulty, when looking into the depths of your soul during an intense spiritual experience, while mourning the loss of a loved one or just coping with a leaky tent during the rain, it helps to know that there are hundreds of new friends ready to offer a hug, a tissue or a dry tarp.

The process of building community starts months before the gates ever open. The creation of a safe, welcoming and cohesive community drives every decision made by Circle Sanctuary staff – the festival’s organizers. PSG has a thriving Facebook group where participants support one another through life transitions during the year; exchange ideas and tips for next year’s PSG; and support newcomers. A week before the festival begins, members of the local Circle Sanctuary community come together to assemble hundreds of ‘spirit bags,’ which contain herbs harvested from Circle Sanctuary’s nature preserve and are charged with energy for a great festival. At the festival site, an amazing team of volunteers works in sweltering temperatures to erect communal tents, post signs and prepare for the instant village that would bloom almost instantaneously on the Sunday before the Solstice.

[Photo Credit: S. Fox]

Burning Heart [Photo Credit: S. Fox]

PSG, like every other town, has its municipal services: daily garbage and recycling collection, parents shepherding children to lessons or childcare. EMTs race off to respond to occasional medical situations and even watchful guardians patrol their beats.  But, in this town all of the ‘police’ are volunteers, as are the medics who will patch up your blisters or sunburn; the heralds that call out the day’s news all over camp; the smiling gatekeepers who greet each car with clipboard in hand; and the workers at ‘city hall’ (otherwise known as the heavy canvas Info Tent.) PSG is more than just a destination; it is a community that functions because everyone contributes their love, their effort and their energy.

Volunteerism is at the core of what makes PSG work. Every adult member of the ‘tribe’ is asked to contribute four hours of labor during the week toward making the festival run smoothly. Some teens volunteer as well, and some adults even take on more than the required number of two hour ‘work shifts.’ Directing their efforts are a team of volunteer coordinators who oversee services such as the Teen, Tween and childcare centers; sacred sites such as the Ritual Bonfire Circle; the Moon Lodge or the Temple of the Sun God; or events such as the Zodiac Potluck or Magical Gift Exchange. The coordinators’ service to the community starts months before PSG and often continues throughout the year.

Pagan Spirit Gathering strives to feed the heart on so many levels. One ‘heart’ of PSG is the community Sacred Fire. Lit during the opening night’s ritual and, then, fed and carefully maintained by the bonfire coordinators and volunteers through rain and wind, the fire is energized by nightly drumming and dancing, and is the focus of the Solstice morning ritual. The bonfire circle is also the site of the daily morning meetings, when the community comes together to hear both practical announcements about the days’ activities and to get ‘teaser’ performances from musicians who will play later on during the day.

Music is a key part of every PSG. Three or more concerts a day are the norm. This year’s musical guests included Arthur Hinds (of the band Emerald Rose), Celia, Helen Bond and Fode Camara with Diamana Diya, Spiral Rhythm, Tuatha Dea and Picti (David Doersch and Catherine Hauke, formerly of Coyote Run). In addition to performing, these musicians add to the harmony of the gathering by presenting workshops and participating in rituals.

Baby Blessing [Photo Credit and Permissions: F. Edwards-Miller]

Baby Blessing [Photo Credit and Permissions: F. Edwards-Miller]

A variety of handfastings and weddings happen at PSG. At a time when friends from all over the country come together, many couples choose to recognize their unions surrounded by their spiritual community. While ministers at PSG have been blessing same-sex unions for decades, this year saw the first same-sex marriage that was equal under the law. Other rites of passage throughout the week recognize times of transition, including Coming of Age rites for young men and young women; the Blessingway for mothers; the men’s Personal Rite of Passage; planning for a new women’s rite called Daughters of the Dark Moon; and rites for those recognizing the transition into Crone and Sage years.

PSG also tends to the hearts of those who are in mourning. At the beginning of the 2014 festival, Selena Fox, Moonfeather and Nora Cedarwind Young officiated at a Ceremony of Remembrance that honored members of the PSG community who had passed away in the preceding year, and gave support to community members who had lost loved ones. The Ancestors’ Altar was erected near the bonfire with tokens and pictures of the beloved dead of the community.

In addition to tending to the hearts of individual community members, PSG seeks to help educate and train those who go back and become the ‘hearts’ of their home communities. The Pagan Leadership Institute (PLI) is a special track of programming with workshops that are designed to help those serving as Ministers, Priestesses and Priests. PLI workshops are taught by experts, Circle Sanctuary Ministers and PSG’s featured presenters. Some of this year’s guest presenters were T. Thorn Coyle, Kathryn and Arthur Hinds and Byron Ballard. Over thirty-five workshops were part of the 2014 PLI program, including a five-day minister’s intensive by Selena Fox on Supporting Life Passages.

PSG continues to grow, thrive and change to fit the needs of the community. In 2014, PSG added a new center called EnCHANTment, which hosted nightly singing and chant shares. EnCHANTment started one year as a single night of singing around a bonfire and grew to a nightly informal gathering. This year it not only became an official part of the festival, but the EnCHANTment team also coordinated the beautiful main ritual on the evening of the Summer Solstice.

[Photo Credit: S. Fox]

[Photo Credit: S. Fox]

Together everyone processed onto the ritual grounds, carrying a heart made of vine, ribbon, and canvas inscribed with messages from the community. To the throb of drums, we chanted. “I am the Heart.” “We are Harmony.” “I am Home.”  This year we promised not to just let it be a 51-week supply run; we pledged to bring that same energy of the heart and spirit of harmony to every aspect of our lives and to widen the circle of community to include all who we touch. I invite you to join us next summer, June 14-22, as we once again welcome our Pagan community home.

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7 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Heart and Harmony of Pagan Spirit Gathering

  1. Florence recaps this year’s PSG well. The energy there is always off the charts as so many magickal people come together. As she notes, Pagans of every stripe are certainly there which always broadens my perspective. My main interests are the workshops (T. Thorne Coyle was such a blessing) and the music concerts (I love listening to Celia), but I also enjoy the bonfire rituals; hearing the drumming as I go to sleep each night; making new friends and connecting with old ones; and just living in a Pagan village for a whole week. This festival is well planned and well organized and I am very grateful to all its leaders and the many volunteers who make it happen. Thank you for another amazing PSG!

  2. When you consider how fast things can start up, grow, and then die in the Pagan community, the idea of something enduring for decades is magical in and of itself.

    Circle Network News was my first regualar contact with the Pagan world back in 1984.Selena Fox introduced me to the idea of Pagan Activism back in the middle 80s rightin the midst of the insane Satanic Child Abuse Panic when many Pagans were going underground.

    I have interviewed Selena Fox and I have run her stories several times on my own E-zine. Nice to have something in the community that we can depend on and have for, not only decades, but now generations. Remember she started Circle Sanctuary bac in the 70s.

    Give credit also to all the volunteers and people that have worked with her, both old, and new, volunteers for it is the team work that makes it happen.

  3. I would really love to get the opportunity to have some in depth discussions on how PSG is organised and promoted. Here in Australia the pagan community have retreated into themselves preferring to get their community fix online and amongst friends. Getting anyone to turn up to anything here is very difficult. I am quite jealous of the thriving nature of the US Pagan community. What are you doing differently?

    • If these folks have social anxiety about showing up to any event where
      there are people they don’t already know, you need to think hard about
      what would relieve that anxiety. For that, you might want advice from post-Internet people much younger than me.

      I have no connection with PSG, but I’ve been going to, and sometimes helping to organize, very small to medium scale (a few hundred people) pagan gatherings in California for several decades. My advice is to start small, simple and cheap.

      Organize a daylong gathering for 30-50 people that includes several different kinds of activities. E. g. potluck/picnic/barbecue, nature walk, singing with guitars, kid-level pagan crafts project, group ritual to bless something, tug of war with silly prizes. Start your planning by getting buy-in from a core group of pagans who already are friends and like to get together, but are not cliquish, people who are gregarious enough to welcome and interact with people they just met.

      Include in your program at least one activity that you know will interest the core group and two that are accessible to anybody who might show up. Get firm commitments from the most influential people in the core group to help organize the thing, show up to it, and bring at least one friend. Charge no admission or materials fees but request donations and have a couple of angels to cover any cost overruns. Don’t plan anything expensive or complicated. The object isn’t to show off or entertain a passive audience. Pick your site carefully for privacy and adequate creature comforts. Do most of the promotion via word of mouth and existing social networks, and give people plenty of advance notice if possible.

      If you start with a short, modest, and relatively informal gathering, you have nothing to lose. You already know that your core group will show up and that at least some of them will have a good time. You know your expenses will be covered. If it isn’t enough fun that people want to do it again, at least you held an event. If it is enough fun, some of the people who attend will be full of enthusiasm and will volunteer to help with the next one. Solve your problems one at a time as they come up. Accept help but don’t delegate authority until you have sized up the person and know they are competent, sane, honest and have good judgment. Expand gradually as you learn the ropes and gain a following. I hope this is helpful.

      • Very good advice Deborah thank you for replying. However various people and groups myself included have been doing exactly that for the past 15 years or more and attendance has been steadily dropping over that time. Even when the events are free. It is difficult to pinpoint the problem because it doesn’t seem to matter how easy or inclusive you make the events here there is always complaints and excuses. My theory is that Pagans in general in Australia just don’t like or trust each other and that they are getting all their interaction online. There is also a culture here of proud and almost evangelical solitary-ness that discourages group activity as well. You speak of social anxiety and I think that is also a factor. It seems that when you don’t trust the community, you get all your interaction safely online and you generally have trouble working in groups it becomes a community-killing perfect storm. I wish I knew how to address these issues before our community peters out altogether.

        • Even though some people live online, I think that there will always be people who need community and will seek it out. Some things are not in your control, such as rising gas prices keeping people home. Sometimes people also take for granted the Pagan activities that are available until they aren’t available anymore, and then things start back up again. And sometimes a group or festival has to die off so something new can take its place. I hope that is not the case for you, but have faith that there are people out there who will seek out community. May the Lady and Lord lead them to you and you to them.

        • I got to thinking about social anxiety because I had just read a comment on another blog complaining that the younger generation (not young pagans, young people in general) did not want to meet face to face with anybody who isn’t already part of their circle of face-to-face friends.

          I wondered why that might be. Previously I had assumed that this tendency was mostly a matter of convenience, but if the behavior is both widespread and extreme, I suspect that social anxiety comes into it at least for some.

          If you are physically or mentally different from people around you, you are less likely to be accepted by the social group, and if it’s a mental difference you may try to conceal it and pass as normal. People born in the 1940s and 1950s, if they didn’t live in a big city, often never knew anyone like themselves because everybody was trying to pass as normal. There’s no telling how many of us grew up thinking “I’m the only one in the world” because of some interest or disposition or way of thinking that wasn’t mainstream where we grew up.

          Trying to pass causes social anxiety, and it’s a positive feedback loop, because the more anxious you are, the harder it is to act normal.

          Sometime after we became adults and mixed in a wider world, we weirdos discovered that there were, in fact, at least a few other people who had an oddity in common with us. It was a great relief to discover that we were after all members of the human race. After a long or short psychological struggle about whether to identify with the weirdos or the normal people, we went looking for some birds of a feather so we could finally have someone to talk to. The joy of not being alone any more was enough motivation to seek them out.

          The Sixties and Seventies didn’t relieve the pressure to conform all that much, but did increase the number of different groups a kid could identify with, so there was a chance of belonging to a crowd that you had something in common with.

          What the Internet has done is to let the kids who don’t fit in know quite early that they are not the only one, and give them a means to communicate with like-minded oddballs without exposing themselves to full, face-to-face social interaction. Actually going somewhere where you can’t entirely control the impression you make on people you don’t know very well is scary for anyone who has social anxiety, and the payoff for taking that risk isn’t obvious.

          That’s what I posit is going on, and I don’t see any immediate solution for it.