Retreat and/or Advance

I've just recently returned from PantheaCon 2012 in San Jose, California. It was—despite the coverage in the wider Pagan blogosphere (to which I've contributed myself)—a very positive, enjoyable, and uplifting experience, and I am already looking forward to the next one and all that may be taking place at it. I was happy to have met, although far too briefly, fellow Patheos Pagan Portal contributors Teo Bishop and Steven Abell. I kept my ears open and heard certain keywords from one of them, who happened to be speaking with the other near one of the elevators, and I went up and interjected briefly to introduce myself.

(Perhaps, in the future, there can be a Patheos Pagan Portal at PantheaCon panel of some sort? Who knows? It may be too alliterative a proposition for them!)

Nonetheless, what weighs heavily on my mind at present is that I'm still having some difficulty adjusting to everyday life after having been there, and it's been just over a week since I returned from my trip to California. I had a full day before and after the con' itself to spend time with friends, in which the usual and enjoyable socializing took place, but also some important spiritual work that was somewhat unexpected. In many respects, some of the things which went on before and around PantheaCon were, for me, just as important (and in some cases much more so) as what went on at the event itself.

Being in a relatively isolated living situation, with no community or co-religionists that are less than a few hours away by bus, means that when I have an opportunity to engage with large numbers of fellow Pagans, polytheists, and magical associates, I am quite willing to throw myself wholeheartedly into the situation. I work with much less sleep than I usually get. I only use the phone (and as I don't have a smart phone of any description, it's easy to not be tempted!) to text and make plans with people who are immediately there and available. And, I never check e-mail or look at the internet for the entire time. Every extra moment I can spend with my beloved community and colleagues is precious, and therefore wasting it on things that will still be there when I get back (like e-mail) seems foolish to me.

After such an intense period of attention to events, to socializing with others, and to presenting high-quality events—and maintaining both individual and group spiritual practices on a daily basis that I don't often get to do otherwise—coming back into "the real world" can be a difficult transition. I'm still not quite back into the swing of things here, or more precisely, into the daily and weekly rhythms of life and work that were temporarily disrupted by my attendance at PantheaCon.

In all of this, I'm reminded of something that happened to me about fourteen years ago. During the first semester of my M.A. in religious studies, I went on a retreat at my university that was popular with the mostly undergraduate population. It was a Catholic university, and even though they knew when I applied to go on the retreat that I was not Christian, I was accepted into the retreat—though the results for me weren't perhaps as good or effective as they were for the more run-of-the-mill majority Catholic attendees. While I could spend several columns writing about what was good and bad about that particular retreat, something that occurred on the bus on the way back to the university stuck with me. One of the students on the retreat sort of announced randomly, as we were about halfway back to the university, "I don't want to go back, I just want this to go on forever." And, immediately, a whole bunch of other students were loudly agreeing with him.

Part of my disagreement (which I did not verbalize on the occasion) was not simply because my own experience was not optimal on that retreat, but because I think the whole line of reasoning behind it didn't make much sense in terms of what a period of "retreat" is supposed to be for and what it should do for a person who undergoes it. While I went on three more retreats during my time in the M.A. program—some of which were vastly better than others—it was not long after that first retreat that I heard someone say, "There's too much 'retreat'-ing in religion; how about some 'advancing' instead?"

And, when I look at the general tenor of religious activities and spiritual practices, I see this is true in not only the Christian majority, but also within modern forms of Paganism. Intensive festivals, gatherings, conventions, and other such events form an important part of the yearly spiritual practices of many individuals and groups (including the Ekklesía Antínoou). The question always arises, though: how does one integrate the work that is done on those occasions, and the insights which are gained through the activities that take place within them, into one's wider life? So much of spiritual activity, in so many different traditions, involves "pausing" from the regular cycle of life, of "stepping back" from things as they usually occur. While spiritual practice is ultimately meant to be integrative, I wonder if this so-common-it's-ignored notion that spiritual practice does take place separately from the "everyday," the "mundane," and so forth ends up hampering spiritual progress and "advancement" more than it aids it.