This weekend was an interesting working weekend for me. My colleague U. came down and we both presented at a local interfaith seminary. I taught on polytheism, ancestor work, and indigeny in the morning, and he gave an afternoon full of deep meditation and trance work focusing on honoring the earth and connecting with animal and elemental spirits. We come from two different traditions: mine Norse and his Dagara and seeing us working together and reinforcing each other's teaching was, I think, very enlightening for the students.  It really highlighted certain commonalities found across the board in indigenous traditions (like honoring the ancestors). The students themselves were amazing: they were engaged, enthusiastic and very brave given how ready they were to join in the work we were doing never having met either one of us before. I was honored and humbled to be amongst them. Obviously though, since I’m writing this article, something went awry during the course of the day and as my title suggests, that something had to do with ritual protocol. Actually, I think it had to do with common respect or lack thereof, but I'll get to that in a bit.

 

Allow me to provide a bit of context first. We were given a small seminar room from ten am until five pm.  No one needed to use it afterwards, though there was a holiday party for the director of the seminary scheduled to start at five in the main area. The seminar room had a door and the work being done within was quiet. My colleague had led the students down into a very deep trance experience and they were involved in connecting to various animal medicines. They'd been taken across the threshold of ritual consciousness via a drum and they were very far into the work. I was holding the space. It is unsafe to jar someone out of such a deep state of consciousness suddenly. It can make one sick, cause severe disorientation, dysphoria, headaches, and nausea (to name but a few of the possible consequences). Any ritual worker should know this. Anyone trained in meditation techniques should know this as well. It's a fundamental of ritual studies, regardless of one’s tradition.

 

About twenty minutes before five, U. started bringing the class out of the deep trance and back into regular headspace. This transition takes time. Just like leading someone down into a deep meditative state, bringing someone out of such a head-space cannot (or should not) be done quickly. One of the staff --let's call her "Deborah" (it's not her real name of course, but it'll do) opened the door. I motioned with my hand 'no' and closed the door. Deborah was clearly able to see that we were in ritual, in meditative headspace, and not finished yet. (The room was dark save for a candle burning and with the way people were arrayed, it was clear that work was being done). Five minutes later, as we were standing in a small circle (a little more grounded but not much, not enough that the students could safely be jarred back to mundane headspace), she opened the door again. Again I motioned 'no'. A few minutes later, she knocked. I withdrew from the circle (experience has some benefits: I'm trained well enough that I can forcibly and quickly ground myself out of ritual headspace, even deep trance, though it leaves me headachy to do so) and stepped outside carefully closing the door behind me.

 

I was in very protective headspace. My obligation was to keep those students safe and to ensure that the ritual space was not violated. I rounded on Deborah with a very fierce 'What?! We are in ritual space. We cannot bring those students quickly out of deep trance without doing them harm. What could you possibly need?" She stepped back as I used words (and a fair amount of fire medicine) to ward her off. She was apparently concerned that we wouldn't finish at five and apparently the birthday party was more important than any experience of the sacred, respect, or simple common sense. I left her shaking (she did apologize later) and went back into the ritual space and remained until everyone was grounded, ritual had finished, the space had been opened, and the students were milling about talking about their experiences-which took all of perhaps ten more minutes. Might I point out that Deborah prides herself on teaching and leading meditation? Yet, she thought nothing of interrupting (or trying to) a ritual meditation led by an indigenous practitioner.

 

As my colleague pointed out later, that's what it really came down to: an inability, unwillingness, or general cluelessness in acknowledging the sacred in a polytheistic ritual. Deborah is not alone in this cluelessness. I've noticed it in many of the faculty. At best, those of us who are Pagan/Heathen, polytheistic, or who practice our indigenous traditions are curiosities, amusing curiosities to be occasionally indulged but never taken seriously. At worst, our rituals are dismissed and violated. It's monotheistic arrogance and entitlement at its best; and that's really the point of my retelling this tale. This occurred in an interfaith community where one should have reason to hope for better yet even here there is little respect for polytheisms and indigenous traditions. Had we been Christian pastors, priests, or Jewish rabbis, I suspect Deborah would never have considered interrupting us. Had it been a mass in progress rather than an animist's ritual, I suspect this issue would never have occurred and really, that speaks volumes.

 

This is a deep seated corrosion. Deborah is not a bad person.  She had not consciously meant to offend or violate ritual protocol.   It never occurred to her that she was doing anything wrong. As my colleague pointed out later: she acted automatically from the position of dominator, from the position of one mentally rooted in a tradition that has no respect for any other, of a monotheism that thinks nothing of treading on indigenous practices. That there was no hesitation in interrupting something sacred speaks volumes. That is yet another problem that I have seen quite often in the interfaith community: lack of respect for the practice of the sacred. Oh, great lip service is paid to it of course, but when it comes right down to it, what most of them call sacred seems very shallow. The proof, as the saying goes, is in the pudding. One can determine the nature of a person's engagement with the sacred by what they recognize as sacred in the expressions and experiences of others and what they don’t. This begs the question: How can one not recognize something so obviously sacred as a ritual journey especially when it was clearly announced beforehand that this was what was going to occur? Even if a particular rite is not in my 'dialect' of the sacred, I can still sense, see, smell that it is something sacred. I respect the engagement even if I don’t comprehend it fully. When someone is totally oblivious, I start wondering what is lacking in their own religious practice.

 

I suspect it comes down to this; when you claim to worship everything indiscriminately, in reality you venerate nothing. When spiritual particularities are reduced to an unrecognizable jumble the sacred seems to get lost somewhere in the middle. Ritual becomes an empty game, a feel-good indulgence. This is compounded when one’s idea of the holy rests in the pages of a book and not in the experience itself. More and more I am coming to believe that such a practice renders one insensate to the actual experience, direct, rooted, and bone deep, of the sacred.

 

Perhaps it comes down to the purpose with which we invest our ritual practice. For us, it's honoring and reverencing the Holy Powers. It is a means, a protocol by which we can engage with Them. It is the beginning of an ongoing conversation with specific Holy Powers. It is a dance, a celebration, an ongoing expression of reverence. As such, it is crucial that one enter into ritual with a respectful and mindful attitude. The process is inviolate. The entire process should be bordered by respect and I would hold that true whether or not the ritual was one of my own tradition.

 

I’ve noticed more and more that for all the misguided talk about ‘unity’ in interfaith circles, the expected and accepted paradigm is still monotheistic. That’s really what unity is after all: it comes from the Latin word ‘unus’: one. It is an erasure of indigeny. It is an obliteration of the wondrous diversity of experience and divinity that characterizes polytheism. It is an extension of monotheistic domination. It’s just been prettied up. It’s been made politically correct. Words like ‘tolerance’ and ‘oneness’ have been slapped on it to present a facade palatable to the WASP and/or new age majority, a façade that precludes active engagement. But let’s not for one minute fool ourselves as to where indigenous traditions rate in the interfaith world. Those that preach oneness still view our traditions with the arrogance and contempt of conquerors, no matter how well they hide it, no matter how unconscious such attitudes might be. They’re there and that is unfortunate for them and for us. Because in the end, those who are working to restore their indigenous traditions need to ask themselves how much time, energy, and commitment they’re willing to take away from their ancestral ways to educate the impious, to educate those who don’t even think to question the status quo. I know for myself, I just reached my line in the sand.