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A week before Easter, eight people gathered in Susan Sumara’s Pomfret home. They’d come together, in a room adorned with a makeshift altar, plastic forsythia blooms and a plate of pastel cupcakes, to observe a major holiday of their religion.

By necessity, the ritual melded the mystical with the practical. The spring equinox had fallen on March 20, a Wednesday. Because that was inconvenient for working people, the group waited until Sunday to celebrate the pagan holiday of Ostara, which some authorities assert, and others deny, originally gave Easter its name.

Once everyone was settled, Sumara, 44, opened the ceremony with a minute of silent meditation. The group then faced each of the cardinal directions in turn, invoking an associated element — Earth, Air, Fire or Water — with a specific prayer, followed by “Hail and welcome!”

Sumara lit the two pillar candles on the altar, representing God and Goddess, and lit a small candle from them. The worshippers, each with a candle of her own, conducted the fire from person to person until the seven women and one man all held a flame.

“The circle is cast,” Sumara announced, the sacred space created. “Blessed be.”

“Blessed be,” the others replied.

The gathering reflected Sumara’s preference for informality: She’d eschewed the title high priestess, and the worshippers wore street clothes. Two cats and two dogs wandered in and out of the circle in search of affection.

Sumara passed sunflower seeds around the circle. Shelled ones were to be eaten with the hope of acquiring some spiritual blessing, like tranquility, while those still in their hulls should be taken home and planted. Desires in the physical realm, as for money or fertility, could be fulfilled as the plants grew, she explained. A few dropped seeds were eaten by the dogs.

Those who chose to had a chance to share what they’d wished for. Sumara asked for joy. Katy Evans of Waldorf, a cybersecurity expert, described suddenly appreciating the beauty of new daffodils in her garden, and wondered what would happen, ritually, if the seeds she had pocketed “go through the laundry. I know that’s what will happen to mine.”

People laughed.

“I need help remembering I can’t control everything. There’s no use stressing over something I can’t control,” said Erica Klonkowski, 34, of King George, Va., referring to furloughs looming for government workers.

Religion as a solitary pursuit

Gatherings like that one are the exception, not the rule, for many practitioners of Wicca, a 20th-century revival of polytheism, and other modern forms of paganism. By choice or necessity, neopaganism is often a private affair. Many websites devoted to witchcraft discuss “solitary Wicca,” where worshippers pray and perform rituals alone. Even if pagans are so inclined, there may not be like-minded people nearby to pray with.

Evans, a Wiccan for eight years, valued the “fellowship” at Ostara, she said, “because I can do my religion anywhere. There’s a lot of solitaries out there. What keeps me in the group is the fellowship and friendship, the religious energy and the sense of rightness.”

A Colonial Beach, Va., Wiccan man described driving for hours to a meeting, only to find himself incompatible with the people there. Worse, when he began worshipping Celtic gods in 2005, his father disowned him. They haven’t spoken since. But he has no regrets, said Ash, who gave only his spiritual name because he feared for his wife’s job if the couple acknowledges their religion.

Even if relatives are tolerant, a pagan is often the only one in her family. Also among Sumara’s guests was a La Plata farmer, 38, who was born into one old Southern Maryland family and married into another, she said. Her husband and stepchildren are Catholic, and she had promised her mother she wouldn’t embarrass her kin by publicly acknowledging her belief in the Norse pantheon, the deities worshipped in Scandinavia before Christianity triumphed there about 1,000 years ago.

She sometimes wears a pendant of Thor’s famous hammer, a replica of an adornment found at a Swedish archaeological site. But if an older person asks about her unusual necklace, she describes it as an “anchor,” she said. Her particular form of paganism is called Asatru, Old Norse for “faith in the gods,” and seeks to reconstruct Norse beliefs and social mores. The faith enjoins respect for elders, which encourages her to conceal her beliefs to avoid upsetting elderly Christians, she said.

Acknowledging her religion hasn’t always gone well. At an office job, she said, Christian coworkers ostracized her as evil, even accusing her of supernaturally causing their computers to crash, she recalled.

Sumara, an accountant, hadn’t suffered like that, but she doesn’t flaunt her religion either. She keeps a discreet altar at work, which “just looks like a bookshelf with a bunch of knickknacks and a little fountain,” she said. She’d heard stories about open pagans being fired or losing custody of children, and didn’t want to draw too much attention to herself.

“We call it ‘living in the broom closet,’” she said, an allusion to the literal meaning of the word Wicca, the Old English term for a sorcerer or witch. “We all live in the broom closet for a certain amount of time, and then, little by little, you open up as you feel comfortable. But I don’t go around wearing a pentagram or crystals. I don’t make a big deal about it. While some people do. They say, ‘Take me as I am.’ And that’s awesome. I wish I could be like that, but it’s not my path,” she said.

At the same time, Wicca’s tolerance for self-direction also makes it a “very big tent,” allowing a person to worship Greek gods, a Great Goddess or nothing in particular, and still be embraced, Sumara said.

One generally solitary pagan is Debbie Frye, 52, of White Plains, an “eclectic” practitioner of shamanism and Celtic beliefs. Her chief Irish deities are Morrigu, goddess of battle; Cernunnos, a horned god; and Brighid, goddess of fire.

“But Guanyin,” a female embodiment of mercy in Buddhism, “speaks to me, too,” Frye said, as do Freyr and Freya, brother-and-sister Norse deities. She also seeks the sacred in the prosaic.

“I’m actually pretty much of a lazy witch. I don’t perform a lot of rituals. To me, a really easy ritual is taking a shower. You have everything there and it’s a very cleansing thing: You can wash off all negativity when you’re doing it. You can light a candle [for fire]. You’ve got your Earth surrounding you, you’ve got water, you’ve got air if you turn the fan on. You’ve got all those things surrounding you. Ritual doesn’t have to be something really formal to me, because you’re communing with spirit,” she said.

Finding fellowship

Paganism can be as formal or informal as practitioners choose to make it. In Leonardtown, members of The Circle of Amber Rose have opted to practice Wicca together, formalizing rituals to mark the eight yearly “sabbats,” or major holidays. The circle contains six separate “covens” totaling between 65 and 70 members in Southern Maryland and Baltimore, said Chuck Nameth of Leonardtown, high priest of member coven Fire’s Spirit.

The circle has roots in Dianic Wicca, a feminist form invented in the 1960s and ’70s, and in Gardnerian Wicca, the religion as outlined in the 1950s and ’60s by Englishman Gerald Gardner, who is generally considered to have founded the religion, said Nameth, 52.

Part of Wicca’s value is its ability to accommodate the beliefs of people who “don’t fit in somewhere else,” without forcing anyone to conform, said Nameth, who also uses the spiritual name Lord TimberHart.

Those who believe in a literal Thor or Brighid can also explore Taoist precepts and worship comfortably with people like himself, who believes “there’s something I don’t understand out there,” without assigning it a name or sex.

“It doesn’t matter. You’re just as right as I am. I think that atmosphere allows people to be more open, more truthful. You don’t have to fear what your impressions are,” Nameth said.

In the reckoning of The Circle of Amber Rose, anyone who successfully completes a 366-day novitiate is able to perform his own rituals and be his own priest, Nameth said. But as high priest responsible for a coven of 13, Nameth finds himself with the same responsibilities as a cleric of any other religion. He has officiated at eight weddings, 11 funerals and five “quickenings” — a rough equivalent of baptism.

“Now it’s about giving back. You’re going to have people call you at 2 in the morning because their dog died, their husband yelled at them or they’re sick,” Nameth said.

As the religion matures and becomes more accepted, The Circle of Amber Rose also is finding ways to adapt to its more mainstream composition.

“When I first joined the coven 15 years ago, there were 38 females and five guys, and two of [the men] were heterosexual,” Nameth recalled. Now the sex ratio is about three women per two men, and “about 50 percent of our members are families with kids.”

Lady Sionnach, 30, converted her parents to Wicca without even trying. The high priestess of Harvest Dance coven, who is Rachel Emerson of Lusby in secular life, converted to Wicca as a teenager after befriending “the Goth girl in school.”

Her parents didn’t interfere, except to make sure she was safe.

“My mom was a bit concerned. She supported me in finding my own path, but Wicca, witchcraft, tends to have a bad rap. She’d sit with me, discuss what’s going on, make sure I wasn’t being asked to do blood sacrifices or get nude in front of a bunch of strangers. I explained, ‘No, it’s about love and honoring the cycles of nature,’” Emerson recalled.

Eventually, her fears assuaged, her mother started going with her. Her father was “apathetic,” she said.

“After I joined the Navy, my mom sent me an email: ‘You won’t believe it! Your father attended a moon ritual,’” Emerson said. “It’s really strange. We started off as Pentecostal and ended up Wiccan.”

The sacred feminine

Without a central infrastructure, the size and demographics of the neopagan movements are difficult to assess. But Southern Maryland adherents agreed that paganism is more popular among women than men, something possibly to be attributed to male domination of Western monotheism, starting with a male God.

Of the 32 “elders” listed on the Amber Rose website, eight are “lord” and the rest are “lady.”

Emerson theorized that “patriarchal religion … really suppresses the female a lot, so they might feel the need to leave,” accounting for the disparity. “Men aren’t really suppressed in Christianity or the Muslim religions. I don’t know if it might be that women are more in tune spiritually or not — I don’t want to make that judgment, but I do have much more experience with females in the path.”

The perception of Wicca as a peculiarly female religion can influence the hostility of outsiders, as well. Emerson denounced Tucker Carlson of Fox News, who in February said a Wiccan is “either a compulsive, deep Dungeons and Dragons player, or is a middle-aged, twice-divorced older woman living in a rural area who works as a midwife,” according to media accounts. He later apologized in the face of a pagan outcry.

“I don’t have any cats. I do love the smell of incense, I have to admit. I don’t play Dungeons and Dragons,” Emerson said. “I’m a proud former member of the military, practicing [Wicca] with my family. I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I’ve never been divorced.”

Return to the native

Many local neopagans focus on ancient European pantheons and practices abandoned after the rise of Christianity. But alternative spirituality can also incorporate New Age and reputedly American Indian beliefs, including alternative healing practices and a general reverence for nature.

At the Joy Lane Healing Center in Hollywood, which promotes nature-based spirituality and alternative medicine, director Carol Marcy performs a tobacco peace pipe ceremony at every full moon. Anyone may attend.

The ceremony, which Marcy, a psychologist, said originated with the Lakota Sioux American Indian tribe, is “basically a ceremony of prayers, a ceremony of gratitude, recognizing what we’ve been given, giving thanks for what we have,” illustrating an old story about the dangers of selfishness and re-enacting the tribe’s deliverance from starvation.

The tobacco is mixed with seven sacred herbs, including sweetgrass, sage and cedar. A pinch is offered to each of the four cardinal directions before participants share the pipe, Marcy said. She also performs new moon ceremonies, dedicated to meditation, which are not American Indian in origin, and has recently focused on a Celtic calendar of trees.

Marcy’s full moon ceremony inspired Xina Raley, 49, of Mechanicsville, who hosts a similar ceremony for women on a convenient evening near the new moon. The “New Moon Hoop” attracts women of all religions, said Raley, an ordained minister from the Ministry of Light Interfaith Church.

Raley draws from many religious traditions, including paganism, Raley said. Wiccan women attend the hoop.

“I think the inclusivity of it is what attracts” them to the ceremony, she said. “The fact that they can be so completely welcomed in a safe environment in which to express what they are. Unfortunately, even though we’re in 2013, it’s still very much not known. People are very much afraid of what being Wicca is. People think it’s a witch. … Being Wiccan is not like that. I remember when I discovered I was pagan: All that pagan means is that you put your faith, your belief, your spirituality, in nature. Nature does include a supreme being, a god. Wiccans have more beliefs, more gods that they believe in and work with. But their core value is that anything that they say or do, any of their actions, is going to come back to them tenfold. They’re not going to say or do anything mean because it’s going to come back 10 times more, or worse. To me, there’s a great beauty in it,” Raley said.

Raley also practices shamanism, which is “in a Native American style or tradition,” although most modern people, not raised within a tribe, will have to learn the practice for themselves, she said. That experience was familiar to Ingrid Swann, 66, of Leonardtown, who “sort of fumbled and bumbled with some of the things that I’ve known and that I’ve learned,” inspired in part by her study of mystical literature.

The core of shamanism is an inner psychic journey garnering spiritual truths, both women said, one where “you’re very much in tune with nature, in tune with spiritual healing, in tune with trees and plants, and with how everything is connected. It just popped onto me from one day to the next many years ago: I realized that everything is sentient, not just animals and people, but furniture, but plants, weather. Everything — everything — is influenced by our observation of it as well as our emotions,” Swann said.

But there are those among American Indians who want outsiders to leave alone everything associated with Native religion, unless they’re specifically invited in.

An American Indian ceremony has no meaning outside a tribal context, said Al Carroll, a member of New Age Frauds and Plastic Shamans, a group organized online that opposes non-Native use of American Indian rituals.

“The whole idea of the ceremony is to bring the community together. It’s not about making the individual feel good, which you see a lot of [among] New Age people and in the pagan community as well,” said Carroll, who teaches history at Northern Virginia Community College and said he is a Mescalero Apache.

NAFPS supports pagans honoring their own ancestral religions, and Carroll sympathized with “feminist desires to have a more feminist religion. That’s understandable; Christianity has a terrible record of its treatment of women. But a lot of times, they end up falling for something that’s made up. The best way you know it’s made up is if someone is out there peddling it,” he said.

Use of Native ceremonies demonstrates a cavalier attitude that wouldn’t be tolerated if shown to more popular religions, Carroll said, likening it to a gentile declaring himself a rabbi.

“What harm is there going around, claiming to be Jewish, performing your own circumcisions? Besides the obvious physical danger, how bizarre is it that you would want to engage in this racial role playing? And there can be a racist aspect to it. You want to role play as another ethnic group,” he said.

While American Indian religion neither seeks nor accepts converts, there are times when an outsider’s participation is appropriate, Carroll said. After the Vietnam War, some American Indian veterans invited war buddies to participate in ceremonies intended to relieve trauma, he said. Likewise, a Shoshone elder used to offer prayers at anti-nuclear demonstrations in Nevada. But non-Indians shouldn’t intrude in these practices unless asked, he said.

Marcy had heard these criticisms but said any serious student of Native traditions deserves respect, especially as Native Americans are losing their own heritage.

“I feel like it’s a very touchy subject,” she said. “One thing I would say is, there are a lot of Native Americans that are so out of touch with their roots. That’s a problem, too. I studied for a long time, did [sweat lodges] every weekend for years. I learned from the Good Medicine Society, a Cherokee organization. I spent a lot — a lot — of years learning as best I could. I’m very much someone who honors the Earth, believes in a lot of what they believe in, yet I don’t blame them. A lot of people just play around with it, play Indian and don’t take the time to learn. I can completely understand where they’re coming from. We’ve stolen everything else from them. I try to be very respectful.”

If nothing else, comparing Wicca to American Indian spirituality can help people who have never encountered a religion based on nature to comprehend it, Evans said.

“I’m out of the broom closet. They tease me [at work]. I just joke about it. I tell them I’m going to ride my broom home. It’s easiest to explain to people when you use American Indians as a reference. … I take a little bit from everything. I guess [my religion] can’t be found in any book,” she said.

emitrano@somdnews.com