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The circle.

The circle is fundamental.

This simple shape, along with the square and the triangle, introduces our early minds to geometry, to symmetry, to physical and social design.

This past weekend I felt ashamed at Pagan Pride on account of a circle.

Photo by Katie Walker, Flickr

My body helped form the edge of a circle. My body stood next to other bodies — thirty perhaps — in the middle of one of the most public of spaces in all of Denver, Civic Center Park. This circle of bodies in the middle of my city, in the middle of a crowd of onlookers, did something I did not expect this circle to do.

It created an us and a them.

Casting circle before a crowd of people, some of whom were unsuspecting passers-by, and others virtually residents of the park, established a kind of religious exclusivity. It was as though we said, by joining hands and turning our backs to the crowd:

This is our circle. You are on the outside of this circle. We are doing our religious work on the inside.

The circle seemed to other the onlookers.

None of this was done explicitly. The leaders of the ritual, all good-hearted Pagans, did not inform the crowd that they were to remain outside, or that they were unwelcome in the ritual. They didn’t need to.

They’d invited us to come down for ritual, but the non-Pagans were not addressed. There was no clear explanation of what the ritual would be like, what might be expected of the participants, or — for those who weren’t familiar with Pagan (or more specifically, Wiccan/New Age-ish) rituals — what it would all mean.

The insiders were told that the ritual was going to raise power to bring us protection. The irony would be that this circle inspired the same antagonism and meanness from outside the circle from which the ritual was seeking to protect us.

There was heckling. It sounded like drunk heckling. Drunk, Christian heckling. And there were disruptions from a few men who, while we stood there in our circle, paced slowly around the perimeter. One asked for a cigarette. One stood outside the circle by about 5 feet and folded his arms across his chest.

The ritual leaders did not acknowledge any of this.

In response to the jeers and taunts, one ritual leader stood in solidarity inside the circle and began to talk to us about how protection was so important because there were people out there who didn’t understand us or respect us. It was as close to a “preaching” moment as you might find inside this kind of circle.

I heard her reassure us, and I thought,

But we just created an out there by casting this circle. We closed them off from us, shut them out, but only symbolically because they could see and hear all of what we were doing. Play it like we’re the victims, but we just created — through ritual — the same kind of alienation that we feel in relation to the greater society.

We just became The Church.

Photo by Mugley, Flickr

The rest of the ritual involved the distribution of smooth stones to each of us, stones which had been blessed and inscribed with a pentacle and the word, “protection.” These were our charms, we were told, to give us strength and to provide us protection as we leave the circle and go back into the world.

I found myself feeling so embarrassed. I kept looking down. I didn’t want protection from the people on the outside of the circle; I wanted to connect with them. To explain. To try to find some sort of understanding.

But it wasn’t my ritual.

To close, we imagined a ball of white light — the quintessential ball of white light — enveloping the circle, and then extending outward to include all of this place and all of the world. This imaginary light would attempt to do what we had not done with our physical bodies, which was to include all. In that moment our meditation, our magickal working, was an obvious self-deception; a willful ignorance of what was actually occurring in the space around us.

At least, that’s how it felt from where I was standing in the circle.

I don’t know about circles anymore. I don’t know if they’re appropriate to cast in these kinds of public settings. I doubt them in a way that I didn’t before Denver’s 2012 Pagan Pride.

I trust that many of you either cast circles, or have been in a ritual where one was cast. I wonder if you could shed some light on how you see them as useful, or how you find them to be problematic. Could you imagine other forms of ritual, ones that do not create a boundary between those on the outside and those within, that would feel appropriate at a Pagan gathering? Or, is this kind of “protective barrier” a necessity?

I felt ashamed at Pagan Pride because I was a part of something that felt, on account of the circle, incredibly exclusive. Could there be a more inclusive, perhaps even radically inclusive way of doing Pagan ritual in public?

The burly, bearded, leather wearing Heathens didn’t quite know what to make of Sister Who, but that didn’t stop them from helping build her Interfaith Chapel.

Sister Who squinted as she gave the instructions for how to put which pole into which joint, and when she did her fake eyelashes fluttered like plastic butterflies. Every piece of her chain-link chapel was numbered, Sister Who explained, and alignment was key. If they didn’t go in just right they would bind.

Her voice was low and cello-like.

I looked at the brute of Heathens and I presumed that they were no stranger to construction. They’d built a thing or two in their time. A house, maybe. Or a battle fort, more like. These men grew shoulders two hands wide, and more than one of them carried a Leatherman on their belt. They were men who looked very much like men, unlike Sister Who, who did not.

But the brute took the instructions quietly, and didn’t make a fuss when everything collapsed a little halfway through the erection of the bell tower. They let Sister Who explain her number system without interruption, as she impressed upon them the need to return the alan wrench to it’s proper place after the screws were tightened, and they were patient and careful in the placement of each purple, spray-painted bar.

The Heathens were nothing but respectful to the Sister Who.

Nuns in Drag

What is totally and completely “other” to mainstream society can be no big for Pagans. Witches, Druids, and long bearded Heathens move in and about the Pagan Pride Fest environment with comfort and ease in cloaks and kilts, adorned with pewter hammers and pentacles, staffs in hand, bodies tattooed and glittered, and there is a level of acceptance that one doesn’t find in “normal” society. Pagans have created a new set of norms, which, if they were to become too rigid or backed by dogma, could easily lead to a king of Pagan mainstreaming. But for now, it seems, at least in Denver, the “live and let live” mentality is still alive and kicking.

Sister Who, a gay man and former body builder, who dresses in a black nun outfit and builds an interfaith chapel open to freaks of all make and model, could be considered the liminal among the fringe. She is the person at the Pagan festival who inspires curiosity and wonder in the Witch.

What is that all about, I was asked.

That’s Sister Who, I said, as if we all should already be aware of her.

There is great value in being a representative of the liminal. We forget that sometimes in our quest to attain greater acceptance in society, or protection under the law.

We’re just like you, we exclaim.

But it would be hard for some of us to look at Sister Who and make that statement.

The person who is willing to be the clown, willing to be slightly absurd in the face of oppressive hegemony, teaches us lessons about our own desire to restrict or bind the self-expression of others. We flinch at the sight of their strangeness, and in that moment we have an opportunity to better understand the reaction of the people who flinch at the sight of us.

A Druid Said WHAT?

I overheard a discussion at this Saturday’s Front Range Pagan Pride in which an ADF Druid exclaimed that Wicca was just wrong. I didn’t catch all of the details, but I know Gerald Gardener came up – something about historical inaccuracies (an issue that many of my ADF brethren take up with revivalists traditions).

I thought to myself, even Pagans are susceptible to self-righteousness. People subjected to societal bigotry can become bigots; Women can wield power like misogynists and alienate men as they attempt to empower women; Gays can stereotype Straights or be hateful towards Transgendered people; any of us who have been “othered” possess a distinct knowledge of how to “other.” We’ve watched people build a wall to keep us out, and now, on the outskirts, we build a wall to keep ourselves protected.

But Sister Who sat in a chapel where the walls were see-through. Everyone was welcome there. No one was wrong. All were blessed.

Thank The Heathens

The Heathens led the closing ritual of the Front Range Pagan Pride event. The blot stirred up the winds of Odin, and we each were blessed with the sanctified water. Sister Who stood a few people down from me, and I wondered if the leader of the rite would flinch before shaking his bit of branch her way.

He didn’t.

She was one of them – one of us – paying respect to the Gods, paying respect to one another. She, and all of us standing in circle together were an example how Pagan Pride events can be great. We come together with the opportunity to celebrate our differences, our “other-ness.” We give one another a chance to build someone else’s temple, to worship someone else’s deity, and to do so with the grace of a Sacred Clown.

"In service to the personal and spiritual growth of others" - Sister Who

Have you ever been to an interfaith gathering where you experienced either a real sense of coming together, or an undercurrent of alienation? If so, tell me about your experiences in the comment section. And if you’d like to extend the conversation even further, share this post with your friends on Facebook or Twitter.