Column: Festival Fragility and Sacred Fire Circle in Paradise

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[Festival season is beginning in the United States as Spring returns and warmer weather creeps slowly back into our lives. Today we welcome guest columnist Star Foster to talk about her festival experience. Foster is a polytheist living in the Midwest. She is a former Pagan Channel editor at Patheos, and she is allergic to cats.]

“This the best shit Pagans are doing right now.” – Murphy Pizza, Ph.D, author of Paganistan

“It’s a spiritual banquet. You get to choose what you put on your plate. And the energy that surrounds your personal experience is greater than anything you could generate on your own.” – Judy Olson-Linde

Any grouping of Pagan folk has a certain fragility. The interpersonal dynamics of a coven or kindred is a tricky balance. The larger the group, the more precarious that balance seems to be. Without a common value that each person can be invested in, groups can fall apart. When there is too much pressure to accomplish a goal or achieve an ideal, it will unravel.

Perhaps there is no more fragile entity than the large group experience. Trying to meet the spiritual and physical needs of more than ten people is daunting, and even the oldest, best organized, and well-attended festivals fail at this on occasion.

Sacred Fire Circle in Paradise 2016 [Courtesy Photo]

Sacred Fire Circle in Paradise 2016 [Courtesy Photo]

I started writing this article last summer, and it began very differently. It began as a standard “Check Out This Awesome Pagan Event” review, but as often happens to writers, it changed in the process of writing. I got scared. Really frightened.

I was afraid that in writing about the event it would change. And then the focus was no longer merely the retreat, but the fear of losing the experience.

The Pagan event at the center of my article was the Sacred Fire Circle in Paradise hosted by Nels and Judy Linde in beautiful Western Wisconsin.To say that I attended this event with reluctance is an understatement. It took years of coaxing before I finally decided to go.

For me, dancing is an important way to touch all that which is Divine, and I knew I could dance there – unreserved, untamed, wild dancing until you are so overcome by the ecstatic experience that you fall over into cool grass overwhelmed with gratitude, connection, and insight. I genuinely believed I was not going to enjoy most of the event, but I was desperate to dance in a way you can only dance with fire and drums and other dancers. My soul was starving, and I was willing to endure anything to feed my spirit.

What I experienced is difficult to put into words. Sacred Fire Circle is a spiritual tabula rasa, a well-stocked soul laboratory. It contains everything you might require to get what you need without any pressure to have a prescribed experience. There is fire, food, tea, drums, beautiful art, altars, stars, soft grass to walk on, soft peat to dance on, and the single most important element to having a meaningful, satisfying sacred experience: time.

Of all the possible elements going into creating a sacred experience, time is the most crucial. However, we are so often lacking it. In much of our spiritual activity we are fitting the sacred into a timeline, into the mundane concerns of our world. That isn’t a bad thing. A morning devotion should be short, meditation should feed our life not vice-versa.

It is far better to wrap up libations, offerings, prayers, and feast by 9 p.m. than to feel that you have to make a choice between family and spirituality, between your livelihood and religion. But while there is nothing wrong with regular compressed glimpses of the sacred, sometimes you need more, and that more can be hard to come by.

Time is the great gift of Sacred Fire Circle. From midnight to 6 a.m. you are engaged in sacred experience. This sounds daunting, but it really isn’t. The time frees you. There is no hurry, no rush. Nothing is forced. There is time to find what you need, to try out different things, and to find what brings you closer to the experience you seek.

And with all this time, you can be kind to yourself. Give yourself space to grow. Let your experience unfold organically. Trust your body and soul to know what they need. Be kind to yourself. Let it unfold how it will, love yourself, trust yourself, and just be open to really listening to what your spirit truly wants.

Sacred Fire Circle in Paradise 2011

Sacred Fire Circle in Paradise 2011 [ Courtesy Photo]

For a group experience, Sacred Fire Circle is deeply, intensely personal. So the paradox is that to have this personal experience, you need other people – to drum with you, to dance with you, to sing with you, to hold space with you, to be silent with you, to hydrate and nourish with you, to walk with you, to make tea with you, and to simply be with you.

Herein lies the fragility. How do you remain focused on your experience that you don’t interfere with anyone else, while still being aware enough to support and join with others as is appropriate? Instead of rejecting a song that doesn’t resonate with you, you have the grace, for example, to drum for the singers. You find the ability to let other people locate their own space for making the confessions, singing the songs or dancing the dances that are simply not your thing.  And, in that you revel in your own inner transformation.

Often the shared sacred experience grows, shifts, and lifts everyone in surprising ways. I genuinely never understood energy or holding space until I participated in Sacred Fire Circle. The spontaneous, organic blossom of shared sacred ecstasy is truly magical and overwhelming.

Last year a chant transformed into a powerful, raucously meditative focus point in an unexpected way that moved me so much I still whisper it to myself months later. At one point someone sang a secular song that was so profound and deep in the moment, and I drummed for the singer trying to hold open that magic space with rhythm. I still think of that electric moment in awe.

What happens in Sacred Fire Circle, stays in Sacred Fire Circle. People have really personal, painful, joyful, exuberant moments that you may witness, but don’t discuss outside the event. And that requires so much trust. There is this social contract that everyone will support everyone else and keep the experience holy and private.

How fragile is that?

So I write this, and I know it is true. I know this is my honest experience. I know I can say without exaggeration that I believe this is the closest thing to Eleusis you will find, and I know that sounds like utter horseshit.

Sacred Fire Circle in Paradise 2016 [Courtesy Photo]

Sacred Fire Circle in Paradise 2016 [Courtesy Photo]

Before I attended I read a lot about Sacred Fire Circle being an alchemical experience, about the magic, its transformative power and about deep community.  It made me dread the event. I read about how you feel a connection to others and nature, about having deeply personal magical experiences, and I shuddered.

I expected to have other people push their views and religion on me. I expected to be pressured to have a specific spiritual experience. I expected to feel uncomfortable, judged, oppressed, offended, invaded, and all the things I have come to anticipate from group ritual over the years, and have learned to avoid.

And now reading about my own experience, I know these words would not have reassured or convinced me otherwise without that having actually attended Sacred Fire Circle.

So many events claim to offer what Sacred Fire Circle actually achieves. And, to be clear, not even all Sacred Fire Circle events achieve it, as it is my understanding that some do pressure folks to have a specific experience.

Here in the curve of a river in Western Wisconsin, beneath the stars, Judy and Nels have managed to create the environment to provide a truly organic, meaningful, and inclusive sacred experience. Logic tells me it shouldn’t work. It should fall apart for all the same reasons that these events become filled with drama and strife.

It is too fragile – this unspoken contract that we support and respect each other  and that we all do our part to co-create an event that genuinely works for everyone. We gather ourselves up and pour ourselves out into a largely unstructured, unplanned, leaderless spiritual experience for 18 hours over 3 days.

But it works, because it works, and the participants become protective of the rare opportunity it affords. Sacred Fire Circle provides safe, sacred space for everyone. It is a sanctuary in a rough and tumble world. There are Heathen concepts of innangard and utangard, of inside and outside. We tend to mix these up a lot. We go into small sacred spaces to confront, push, break trust, and impose on each other. While at the same time, we expect the wide world in all its grand diversity to be safe and comfortable. Wanting a sanctuary made up of people who make you feel safe, loved, and protected in a culture that values the transgressive virtues of the outsider is not currently in vogue.

Unfashionable as it may currently be, Sacred Fire Circle in Paradise is sanctuary. Not everyone present was someone I wanted to spend time with outside the event. But in that space I felt safe even with those people to whom I didn’t feel connected, and with others who I would normally not engage in sacred work. That’s magic. Beautiful, fragile magic.

And it makes me terrified that it will change. That writing about the experience will change it. That someone will read this and want to prove me wrong. That staying silent will keep away the people who will guard this safe and enchanted space.

I want to protect it. I want to praise it. I want to find a way to express the experience that doesn’t sound like ridiculous nonsense. I want to share the truth that it works no matter how ridiculous, touchy-feely, New-Agey, or hippie it sounds. I don’t want it to ever change, even though I know it will.


Sacred Fire Circle in Paradise 2014 [Courtesy Photo]

We fall in love with these Pagan events, so fragile in their unspoken and spoken social contracts. We are ecstatic, and we proclaim our devotion loudly and find it has changed when we return. Suddenly it is less safe. Suddenly it is less sacred. It becomes political or desperate or full of Bertha-better-than-you’s.

The deeply, passionately ritual full of lush, verdant meaning becomes a long advertisement where every yahoo has to have their say. Someone decides they have a right to your ritual, workshop, or even your private campsite because they have a need to change your experience to better suit them. The event tries to be all things to all people until it is a mile wide and an inch deep. The event becomes so focused on self-preservation and faux-tribalism it stops actually providing anything of value.

Perhaps the size is why Sacred Fire Circle works. You need at least 20 people for it to work, but really no more than 50, with 30 being the sweet spot. You don’t need it to work for all the folks in the region. Just for the 34 who know each other’s faces and names, and who only need to be committed to supporting each other for 3 days. People you look in the eye and make the unspoken promise: I will give you the space and support you need, and you will reciprocate, because we both need this.

I will be going to both Sacred Fire Circle in Paradise events this year, because I need and crave that experience. I worry it will change. I worry I will change it. I worry that these fragile innangards, these sacred sanctuaries, we build on mutual trust will vanish like soap bubbles beneath us. I don’t know how to sustain the magic. I don’t know how to keep fragile things whole in a changing world. But I believe deeply in reciprocity.

I will drum for you if you will drum for me. Deal?

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.