Egyptian Summer Solstice – opening the temple

If you hold open circles and advertise them publicly, sooner or later a researcher will show up at your door. Some e-mail ahead of time and ask permission while others just show up. They’re not hard to spot: most dress more conservatively than your average circle-goer, and while they try to be inconspicuous, they inevitably have a look of “I hope I didn’t make a mistake coming here” on their faces. Carrying a notebook and pen is a dead giveaway.

Some are taking classes in anthropology, some in sociology and some in comparative religion. Occasionally we’ll see someone from a conservative or mainline seminary. They all have pretty much the same assignment: visit a religious service or ceremony in a tradition you’re not familiar with and write about what you learn.

Some Pagans don’t like the idea of observers in a circle. They feel like everyone should either be fully participating or not there at all. I think that’s a fair expectation for a closed circle, but an open circle will have different kinds of people at different levels of understanding and different levels of interest – and different levels of presence.

Others worry about what will be done with the research and how they’ll be portrayed in the reports. The ultimate bad example is Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft, the 1989 doctoral dissertation of anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann. Dr. Luhrmann embedded herself with an English coven, studied for initiation, took oaths and made her covenmates think she was becoming one of them… and then dismissed it all in her book.

Luhrmann is an extreme case. Most of the researchers who’ve visited Denton CUUPS have come for a one-time visit. The one or two who were doing more extensive research were very upfront about what they were doing. All were respectful. These researchers present an opportunity for some good public relations – they give us a chance to show someone whose only knowledge of Paganism is either pop culture or conservative diatribes exactly what it is we do and don’t do.

The last people into the building before Saturday’s Egyptian Summer Solstice circle were a young couple who had “researcher” stamped on their foreheads. I greeted them at the door and showed them into the religious education wing where we were gathering. It was time to start, so I shifted from greeter-mode to priest-mode and didn’t pay any attention to them (or anyone else). After the circle was over, I asked them what they thought, as I try to do with all our first-time guests.

At this point, the man (sir, if you’re reading this, I apologize. You told me your name, I didn’t write it down, and, well…) said he was a doctoral student at Texas Woman’s University and he was here to visit a different religious service.

You can’t get much more different from his Methodism than an Egyptian temple ritual presented by a group of UU Pagans!

The conversation that followed was wonderful. These were people who wanted to learn and who stepped well outside their comfort zone to do it. We talked about Unitarian Universalism, its origins in 19th century Christianity, and how what we do in our Sunday services would look a lot more familiar to them than the Pagan ritual on Saturday night. They asked about our ministries and I told them about our work with OUTreach Denton, our work with various social justice ministries in Denton, and CUUPS’ commitment to cleaning our little corner of the Earth.

Amun Ra, Isis and Thoth

They didn’t know much about Paganism. I gave them my usual three-fold definition: a view of the Divine as both female and male, a connection to Nature and its rhythms and cycles, and a resonance with our ancestors and their beliefs and practices. It took a couple of tries before they understood that at least for me and the two lead priestesses of this ritual, this wasn’t a historical reenactment and it wasn’t a metaphorical or psychological exercise – we really were worshipping Amun Ra, Isis and Thoth. My polytheism has gotten harder over the years – I need to remember that the concept of goddesses and gods as real, distinct beings is not intuitive for people who’ve spent their whole lives in a monotheistic religion and culture. I gave them my card and invited them to call or e-mail if any questions arise at a later time.

This wasn’t the best circle for first-timers to visit. Our Egyptian circles have a different flavor than our other circles: they’re more formal, more verbal, and unfortunately, not very participative. I’d rather someone’s introduction to Paganism be the frolicking of Beltane, the feasting of Lughnasadh, or even the deep introspection of Samhain. But they’ve become very meaningful for us (this was our ninth straight year for an Egyptian Summer Solstice) and no one can accuse them of being fluffy!

I hope that in addition to helping someone complete a class assignment we also gave them an appreciation for UUs and Pagans and our commitment to building a better world. I hope the next time someone like Pat Robertson makes a bigoted remark about Paganism, they’ll remember us and understand just how wrong he is. And I hope that at some level, they have a better understanding of the gods and goddesses of Egypt and how those deities can be meaningful and helpful to 21st century Americans.

The researchers were fine guests – I hope they enjoyed themselves and I hope they’ll visit again some day.

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