This article first appeared in the Times of Trenton and on its affiliated website, NJ.com on March 22, 2013
By Christina Sturgis/For The Times of Trenton
BORDENTOWN — Easter is a time of rebirth not only for Christians, but for pagans too.
A group of Unitarian Universalists met this week to celebrate the vernal equinox and look ahead to the joys of spring — not just natural things like planting herbs and flowers, but anticipation of that all-American rite of spring – the new baseball season.
Joan Spengler, a coordinator of the nature-based spiritual group, the Dorothea Dix Unitarian Universalist community of Bordentown, lit a bunch of herbs and tossed them into a cauldron, before calling on the four points of the compass.
“Spirit of the east, spirit of air, of morning and springtime, be with us as the sun rises,” she intoned before passing round a “talking stick” — a decorated tree branch. As each member clutched it, he or she spoke of their hopes for the new year. Some wanted to plant flowers, others looked forward to baseball starting up again.
But these pagans are not evil, so there were no curses put on the Yankees.
As if to show their similarities with Christianity, the score or so members even had an Easter Egg hunt. Spengler noted that although eggs were associated with Easter, they were also a pagan symbol of fertility. Legend had it, she said, that painted eggs were laid by chickens that had been captured by a goddess.
Pagan practices are now acknowledged by a number of mainstream institutions. The state of New Jersey includes Wicca or witchcraft holidays on its list of religious celebrations for which children may be excused from school. Pagan practices have been incorporated as Christian cultural customs, including decorating an evergreen tree at Christmas and hiding decorated eggs.
Spengler’s Bordentown group took its inspiration from a meeting before the full moon last month in a religious education classroom at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton.
The fluorescent lights were turned off, a candle was lit, and a man tapped out a rhythm on a hand drum as the group formed a circle around the altar — a table holding a tree branch about two feet long, a crystal ball, a candle and photographs of nature scenes.
“Anybody planning to ground?” asked Ann Hirschman Schremp. “I’ll do that.”
Schremp led the group through a guided imagery in a low steady voice, inviting them to feel energy flowing down through their bodies and rooting them to the core of the earth.
So began the February spirit circle of the Evergreen Chapter of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, a national UU affiliate that honors “goddess-based, earth-centered, tribal and pagan spiritual paths.”
The group has its modern roots in liturgical reform the Unitarian Universalists began in the late 1970s, “in response to a growing feminist awareness that much of the imagery of Woman in this liberal denomination was actually rather illiberal,” its website says. Its practices now focus on “earth-centered religious experiences” tied to pre-Christian pagan beliefs.
At the circle last month, that meant the group discussed the way the movement of the stars signals the changing of the seasons and astronomical discoveries that have changed the Zodiac. They passed around a “talking stick,” taking turns sharing the month’s triumphs and troubles in the manner of a support group.
Schremp, a nurse practitioner and Princeton resident, said she grew up in a Jewish family that did not keep kosher. When she married a Presbyterian, they found the Unitarian Universalist faith as a place where they could send their children to Sunday School without continually explaining practices they weren’t going to do, she said.
She described paganism as a religion without a sacred book like the Bible, Torah or Koran. At the gathering last month, there were no restrictions on the spirits summoned to the circle. One member called on Sunna, the Norse goddess of the sun, and another invited Ganesh, the elephant-like Hindu god believed to remove obstacles and ensure success
Another member of the circle, Alice Deanin, a mathematics professor who lives in Princeton, said she grew up in a Jewish family with a Marxist-atheist bent. She married her Protestant husband in the UU church, hoping to avoid family disapproval with a compromise.
“Instead, we made everyone angry,” she said.
She became acquainted with paganism through a religious education course at the Princeton UU congregation called “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven,” on the concept of female divinity. She said she wants pagan practice to be egalitarian, even though there are more women than men in the Princeton group.
“We don’t want to make the men feel as bad as we did for so many years,” she said.
Spengler, who is a member of both the Princeton and Bordentown groups, said paganism gives a name to feelings she always had. A working mother with three children in college, the Hamilton resident said she had a crisis of faith as she cared for her mother, who died from Alzheimer’s disease after five years of decline.
Spengler said she could not reconcile her mother’s suffering with the concept of an all-powerful, loving God. She found solace instead in the ever-changing seasons and constant renewal of nature, she said. Daily walks in the woods and meadows, often recording the splendor with her camera, helped her feel whole again.
She prefers to think of herself as a druid because of the emphasis on nature, rather than goddesses, she said. Druids were ancient Celtic priests who were said to have studied the natural sciences.
“This life,” she said. “This is what happens. Deal with it. Mother Nature is not always the nice lady you see in the margarine ads.”
To wind up their meeting on Wednesday, the Bordentown pagans served refreshments — including deviled eggs.
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