There is no substitute for a spiritual retreat: spending a few days with your tribe, immersed in your tradition.
As a Druid, it’s important for me to practice my Druidry on a daily, weekly, and seasonal basis. It’s important to bring my Druidry into my paying job, my personal relationships, and my interactions with the wider world. If there’s been a theme to my life over the past couple of years, it’s been the integration of my religion and spirituality with the rest of my life.
But the impact of the mainstream culture is impossible to ignore. It’s large and ever-present, and its values and priorities are very different from my own. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, they’re likely different from your values and priorities as well. It’s very easy for the necessities of the mainstream world to gradually overtake our spiritual practices and cause us to lose clear sight of who and what we are, who and what we want to be, and how we want to live.
A spiritual retreat is a time to retreat from the mainstream world and focus intensely on what’s of greatest importance to us.
Over the past few years I’ve increased my attendance at various conferences, festivals, and retreats. Some I’ve been invited as a speaker and some I’ve attended because I wanted the experience of being there and they’ve all been good in their own ways. But my primary spiritual retreat remains the OBOD East Coast Gathering.
This past weekend was the fifth year for the ECG and my fourth year in attendance. While much has remained constant, each year has had its own unique combination of people, programs, and experiences.
The tone for my retreat experience was set at the very beginning. I arrived early and I spent an extended amount of time in the woods. I started out on a casual walk, intending to do some exploration and shoot some nature photography. I followed the forest path up, up, up the hill, well past the wooded circle where we’ve held meetings, rituals, and initiations.
I write a lot about the need to get outside: I spend at least a few minutes outside every day and I pay particular attention to the trees, the animals, the sun and the moon. But as helpful as that is (and for someone living in an urban or suburban environment, it’s critical), it’s not the same as being deep in the woods, out of sight and sound of all other humans and human activity.
Cameras can be a distraction if you worry so much about getting a picture that you forget to see a place with your own eyes. But they have the advantage of discouraging over-analysis: they encourage the photographer to document the experience rather than interpret the experience. Strong mystical experiences demand an interpretation (even though those interpretations are notoriously difficult and uncertain), but too many of us attempt to interpret ordinary experiences in extraordinary ways. These forced interpretations are often driven by ego or by immediate concerns – we read personal messages into the ordinary workings of Nature that simply aren’t about us.
I shot over a hundred pictures on that first morning walk. The land was quite hilly and I’m used to walking on mostly flat ground – before too long I found myself in need of rest. I found a large rock, sat down, and looked around. And listened.
At the campfire later that night, I told the story of the Reformed Druids of North America. The RDNA doesn’t take themselves too seriously, but their core theme is filled with wisdom: “Nature is good. And likewise, Nature is good.” There’s something good, something right, something clarifying about spending time in wild, undeveloped places. There’s nothing like it to help me remember what’s important and what’s trivial; what needs my attention and what will take care of itself.
And with that, the 2014 East Coast Gathering began.
There was the usual assortment of opening, closing, and seasonal rituals. There were initiations into the three Groves of Bard, Ovate, and Druid – and unlike last year, there were no marathon initiation ceremonies. Evenings brought campfires, music, drumming, and mead.
There were the conversations some of us can’t have anywhere else: reports of mystical experiences most folks simply don’t understand, theological discussions that would be dismissed by orthodox monotheists and atheists alike, dreams and plans at great odds with the mainstream culture.
And then there were the ordinary conversations of family and food, health and home, jobs and travels. We got the news on the Scottish independence vote – our opinions were as varied as the Scots, though none of us had a personal stake in the issue.
Touchstone (OBOD’s monthly newsletter / magazine) editor Penny Billington led a workshop and meditation on Goddesses and the inspirited world. Arthur and Ursula Billington played and sang around the campfire and in the Alban Elfed ritual. Dean Easton, Alec Mayer, Art Scarbrough, Dana Wiyninger, and Christian Brunner led workshops.
Kristoffer Hughes gave a fascinating talk that wove together horse goddesses and the Mari Lwyd, death, the process of dying and how our Western society avoids them to our detriment. Some of this previewed his new book The Journey Into Spirit, which I’ve almost finished reading and will be reviewing in the next week or so.
The camp theme was “Connecting With the Goddess.” For me, the title was a reminder that OBOD teaches a set of spiritual techniques that can be used with many religious viewpoints. I was far from the only polytheist in attendance, but other religious concepts were represented too – including those who haven’t given the question a lot of thought. Friday night’s Goddess Ritual was about as inclusive as possible: it neither insisted on only one view of divinity nor tried to reduce everything to a least common denominator. My calling is to honor individual goddesses and gods and I was able to do that.
The East Coast Gathering is limited by the size of the camp. While many people enjoy the “we’re all family” atmosphere, there is always the danger of becoming insular or even exclusionary. But while many of us make the ECG an every-year thing, this year a quarter of the participants were first timers. This brought a new perspective to the group and allowed more people to take the experience of an OBOD camp back to their groves, seed groups, and solitary practices.
Next March, the OBOD Gulf Coast Gathering will hold its inaugural meeting in Louisiana. As happened in the UK, OBOD camps in the US are beginning to expand to new regions and new times of the year, giving more people the opportunity for the experience of a spiritual retreat.
There simply is no substitute for spending a few days with your tribe, immersed in your tradition.