Last weekend was my third time to be a part of the ADF Texas Imbolc Retreat. It’s held annually at U Bar U Ranch, a Unitarian Universalist retreat center in the Texas Hill Country. It’s a bit of a drive for me (337 miles one way) but it’s an easy drive from Austin or San Antonio, and it’s drivable from most of Texas, which is saying something. If you can’t afford to fly off to Pantheacon or Sacred Space or another big Pagan gathering, a smaller regional event may be a good alternative for you.
Not that anyone should consider the ADF Texas Imbolc Retreat a consolation prize! It’s a small retreat (40 people, perhaps? I didn’t get a count), but that allows for a more intimate atmosphere – you can talk with everyone who’s there, get to know them a bit, and see what you can learn from them. That intimacy can carry over into the rituals, and this year it did. More on that later.
ADF sent two senior priests to teach and help lead rituals. Actually, ADF sent one senior priest: Rev. Carrion Mann – that was all the traveling clergy budget would allow. Rev. Jon Drum paid his own way so he could be at the retreat for the fourth time. That should tell you something about the quality of the event.
There was slightly less formal programming this year than in the past two years. I liked that. The programs we had were all good, and there was more time for informal conversations.
The first presentation on Friday afternoon was Lauren Neuman of Nine Waves Protogrove on “Exploring Pagan Discernment.” Pagans and polytheists are big on having our own first-hand experiences of the Gods and spirits. But how do you know who you’re talking to? How can you be sure it’s not just your ego telling you what you want to hear? I’ve made a few random suggestions (compare it with lore and with other people’s experiences, check it against the values of the God or spirit in question and against your own values) but this was the most complete list I’ve come across. Lauren is going to turn her presentation into a blog post in the near future – when she does I’ll link to it.
After that, Carrion Mann spoke on “Working Within the Mist: Death, Dying, and the Dead.” This presentation was condensed from a longer one she’s done before. I wish I could have heard the whole thing – the 90 minutes or so we got was excellent. Like Kristoffer Hughes and his book The Journey Into Spirit, Carrion talked about how our common society has hidden death away – we try ignore it and pretend it won’t happen to us, even though we know there’s a 100% chance we will all die sooner or later.
She also talked about how we can honor the dead and work with the dead, which included Isaac Bonewits’ warning “just because they’re dead doesn’t mean they’re smart.” People don’t all of a sudden become enlightened after death – if they were a jerk in life, they’re likely to be a jerk in the afterlife. But our ancestors can be our strongest spiritual allies. They may be less powerful than the Gods, but they also have a lot fewer people clamoring for their attention – and they have a personal interest in seeing us survive and succeed.
I picked up a couple of key points for emphasis in my personal and group practice this year – that alone was worth the drive to U Bar U and back.
I had the first presentation on Saturday morning – I spoke on “The Dark Side of Druidry.” I did a blog post on this topic back in 2014 – late last year it occurred to me that there was a lot more that needed to be said on this topic, so I’ve expanded it into a presentation that runs about an hour. I’ll be doing this again at Pantheacon on Saturday morning at 9:00 AM in the Monterey Room. Here’s the blurb for the event, which summarizes what I talked about.
Where you find Celts in battle you will usually find Druids as well. Not as sword-swinging combatants, but as magical and inspirational supporters. There’s a dark side to Druidry, a side many modern Druids prefer to ignore in their practices and actively deny to the non-Pagan world. The dark side of Druidry is scary and it carries more responsibility than many of us prefer to accept. But it’s as much a part of our heritage as plant lore and poetry. And in this world full of oppression and injustice, it’s also necessary.
Last year I previewed “Preparing the Way of the Gods” at this retreat and I wasn’t happy with the way it came across – I ended up reworking it significantly before doing it again at Many Gods West. I’m glad I got the opportunity to improve the presentation, but I didn’t want to treat the folks at the Imbolc Retreat like guinea pigs. I did four dry runs over the past month or so and made numerous revisions. I was happy with the way “The Dark Side of Druidry” turned out, and I’ve only got a couple small changes to make before I do it again next Saturday.
There were three other presentations on the official program. Jon Drum talked about “Pagan Bardic Pursuits” and coached everyone through writing a devotion. Chopper Whitewolf talked about “Being a Modern Warrior” and emphasized the need to “do the next right thing now” and the need for Pagans of all persuasions to work together where we have common interests. And Carly McNamara spoke on the “Devotion of Scholarship.”
For me, the highlight of the weekend was the main ritual. In many ways it was like any other ADF ritual, following the Core Order of Ritual. It’s a liturgy I’ve used for 13 years, since long before I was a Druid, much less a member of ADF. There was an opening, a purification, an opening of the Gates, and an invocation of the Gods, ancestors, and spirits of Nature – the Kindred. Brighid was invoked and honored as the Deity of the Occasion, which was especially appropriate since it was Imbolc.
Her presence and her power were clear and strong.
Perhaps it was the cumulative work done by the participants in previous retreats at this place. Perhaps it was the energy raised by the participation of everyone there. Perhaps it was the sacrifice of the beautiful Brighid’s Cross made by Rev. Mann. I suspect it was a little of all that, and more. I was taking pictures, half in and half out of the energy flow, and then I heard a familiar Voice behind my head: “put the camera down and listen.”
I put the camera down and joined in the procession around the sacred fire. And I heard. What I heard was for me and a few other folks in Denton, but like everything else in this ritual it was clear and strong.
Good ritual helps us experience the Gods for ourselves. This was good ritual.
The late evenings around the fire were good too. There were stories and songs, marshmallows and mead, and conversations that ranged from deeply spiritual to hilariously ribald. This year’s stories seemed to be less bardic offerings and more personal accounts – stories that aren’t just true, they actually happened. And the night skies were clear and dark – U Bar U is a great place for star gazing.
My thanks to Chris Godwin, Amanda Godwin, and the good people of Hearthstone Grove for all their work in organizing the ADF Texas Imbolc Retreat, for the invitation to speak, and for their wonderful hospitality. I had a great time this year and I look forward to doing it all again in the future.