Suntree Retreat 2022: A Revelation
Suntree Retreat 2022 has come and gone, and now I have to try to communicate this amazing, moving, inspiring event and how it has affected me, as well as its implications for the Atheopagan community going forward.
My voyage to get there took 2-1/2 days, carpooling with fellow Atheopagan Society Council member James from the earliest hours of Wednesday so we could be in Colorado by 3 pm on Friday. We drove through green vineyards, over into the broad flat of the Sacramento Valley, climbed into the snowy peaks and forests of the Sierra Nevada past Lake Tahoe and then down to the broad sagebrush desert valleys of the Great Basin. Up and down, under the wide sky, bordered by stark snow-tinged mountains.
It began to snow–just flurries at first, but by the time we reached Ely, Nevada it was coming down hard. The next morning the car was under a blanket of snow.
The rest of the trip was uneventful, long miles across the desert and up through the Rockies. We stopped for a good look at the San Rafael Swell, a geological marvel, stayed over in Rifle, Colorado and then drove to the La Foret Retreat Center north of Colorado Springs.
High in the Ponderosa Black Forest surrounding Pike’s Peak, La Foret is simultaneously rustic and comfortable, anchored by the Ponderosa Lodge, a designated US Historical Landmark. The surrounding woods are beautiful and the land features a perfect view of the mountain.
We picked up name tags and lovely little wooden Suntree medallions at Registration, where began the process of delightedly meeting in person people whom we had never seen except online. Lots of consensual hugging and happy exclamations! I was especially excited to meet my podcast co-host, Yucca, and many of the regular participants in the Atheopagan Saturday morning Zoom mixer.
After registration and unpacking in our yurts and cabins, we gathered in the dining hall for chicken enchiladas (or dietary alternatives) and salads. In tables of 8, our group of nearly 50 Atheopagans began to talk with one another, get to know one another.
I gave a brief welcoming talk and we then processed to the fire circle area, singing a chant (“Behold, there is magic all around us”) and carrying the hand-painted Atheopagan Society banner. Unfortunately, La Foret is at 7,300 feet elevation and walking and singing left nearly all of us huffing and puffing for breath!
Still, we got there, gathered in a circle, and there we conducted our opening ritual. We began with introductions, expressions of our hopes for the Retreat, invocations of emotions and qualities we hoped would be with us throughout the weekend. We breathed out a safe container extending to the boundaries of the 400-acre land, acknowledged the original Ute people who have inhabited the region for millennia, and reminded attendees of our affirmative consent policy. I was pleased to note everyone took to this respectful policy immediately, asking before hugging or touching.
One of the organizers, Joy, had brought an apple sapling in a 5-gallon bucket, which stood in the center of our circle. This served as our literal Suntree: we decorated it with ornaments we had brought with us until it was festive and colorful. We sang the chant again to “bless” the tree.
Unfortunately, fire danger meant that there was a burn ban for that weekend–something all too common in the drought-plagued American West. But Joy and her family had brought a propane fire that looked great and was permitted, so we lit that and enjoyed the dancing flames as twilight settled. We offered songs, poems, readings, music and personal truths. When it became chilly, we retreated to the Ponderosa lodge for socializing and fun. We talked deep into the night; when I slipped into my yurt to sleep, it was after 3 am.
Saturday dawned cold, and a welcome breakfast was a hearty and tasty hash brown casserole. Atheopagan Society Council member Robin led us in a food appreciation and went over the upcoming planned activities–she did this at every meal, and it helped the event to run smoothly.
Time for workshops! Jon Cleland-Host, also of the Atheopagan Society Council, led a terrific one on his family’s ways of celebrating the Wheel of the Year, and how they have evolved over time. With lots of handouts (laminated, even!), this talk was especially inspiring for folks just starting their Atheopagan practices.
Then community member Micheál presented on meals and cooking as ritual practices. As a part of this we passed around a jar of cream to shake, making butter! Later in the day the group reconvened to cook fresh traditional Irish oatcakes and serve them with the butter.
I didn’t have lunch that day because during lunch, Yucca and I recorded a live episode of our podcast. Several community members joined us by Zoom, and Retreat attendees stopped by to be interviewed about how they were enjoying the event thus far. We had a great time producing this one.
Afternoon’s fun and engaging workshops included writing and art creation sessions by Hanna and Micheál, a guided meditation workshop by Rachel, and a session on creating a cosmala, a ritual tool and artistic project also by Jon.
At dinner (pot roast), community members planning personal rites of passage on Sunday met with their chosen clerics to plan their rituals. I was approached by four folks whose names I will elide in the name of privacy: the first needed a rite to formally break them from their blood family, who are abusive; the second was retiring after many years, and so entering a new phase of life; the last couple wanted to conduct a handfasting ceremony to solemnize their relationship before the community. We planned each such rite carefully, and Robin helped the process by organizing the order in which they would take place.
That evening, we raised toasts to various and sundry: to absent friends, to the community, to the organizers of the event, to those who had hoped to come but couldn’t. Joy had brought 4 gallons of hand-pressed apple cider which we heated over the propane fire and raised in the toasts.
Next came a Bardic Circle (aka talent show), where the remarkable abilities of the community became clear. We have poets, storytellers, singers, musicians and artists! It was lovely to see the various artistic expressions of so many of our attendees.
And then we had a dance party in the Ponderosa Lodge! I brought ultraviolet lightbulbs which helped to contribute a fun atmosphere, and community member Rana played DJ. I was up late again, having a great time.
Breakfast was again bright and early, after which Cornflower gave a fascinating presentation on the evolution of the ancient British healing god Nodens into the figure of Ned Ludd, the revolutionary worker.
This was followed by two workshops in parallel: a body painting workshop by Hanna in which people could “art themselves up” for the Carnival of Change event that evening, and an introductory workshop by me on creating Atheopagan rituals. My workshop closed with a simple ritual called “The Absolution”, which was deeply moving for many participants and reminded me once again of how powerful and transformative even the simplest rituals can be.
After lunch, we gathered in Ponderosa for a community conversation. Where are we now? Where are we going? How can we improve? It was a great conversation with lots of ideas and I took copious notes. This feedback will go to the Atheopagan Society Council for prioritization and action.
Then, we had a couple of choices. Some stayed at La Foret to work on their rites of passage, socialize and relax, etc. Others caravaned to the nearby Garden of the Gods, a stunning set of red-rock formations. I went on this trip, but we found the Garden to be swarming with people and it was hard to find a place to park so we could explore.
Back at La Foret, it was time for the rites of passage. This was probably the most moving part of the entire weekend for me. Around the dancing fire, I officiated a “funeral” ceremony for the toxic relationships that needed to end, and many of the attendees added their own necessary endings to the basket of things we would bury. When each of them crumbled dirt into the basket, there were many tears; I felt so honored to be a part of this process for members of our community.
Next, a community member went through a process to confirm her status as a writer before the assembled group; another celebrated his impending retirement; still others made ritual steps to advance their healing and growth.
Another celebrated a “graduation” ceremony, having recently graduated from college and being about to move away from their home town for the first time.
As a final rite of passage, I officiated community members Emily and Michael celebrating their marriage with a handfasting ritual. They came prepared, having dyed and braided a handfasting cord. When their vows were done, they “jumped the shovel” because we couldn’t find a broom! When I untied their hands after the ceremony, I left one of the knots in it as a symbol of the connection they had solemnized.
We had been through tears, sorrow, anger, laughter, celebration, joy and love, all in a matter of 90 minutes or so. I felt open and vulnerable and deeply connected to each of the people in the circle. I joined the group who had surrendered their toxic relationships, who walked a distance away and picked a spot for digging a grave and buried the (biodegradable) objects in the basket.
“I feel lighter,” said one to me as we walked back to the dining hall for dinner.
A good dinner of parmesan chicken helped us to ground back into our bodies after this emotional work. The feeling in the dining hall was warm and joyous.
After dinner, it was time for the Carnival of Change: a chance to dress up in finery, be an alter-ego, bring out a part of ourselves we usually don’t express. This was a really fun party and I enjoyed hearing people’s descriptions of their personas.
And then…the rising Moon began to disappear! There was a full lunar eclipse, and a big group of us ran out to a meadow where we could watch its progress. SO magical!
I was up very late AGAIN having deep and meaningful conversations with fellow Atheopagans, but what the hell–I could sleep on the way home!
Monday came, and we regathered for breakfast crepes (savory or sweet) and a LOT of coffee. It was time for packing and preparing to leave.
In our closing circle, each of us expressed gratitude for what we had experienced, and then we drew back in the sacred container we had expanded to encompass La Foret’s 400 acres, down to the tiny point of the Suntree. We stepped forward to remove the ornaments from the tree.
Suntree Retreat 2022 was over. Some of us were already gone, but we took a group photo of those remaining, which is the featured picture of this post.
Still, there was cleanup and saying goodbyes, and this took some more hours. We had arranged that those still onsite could have lunch, so those who hadn’t already left enjoyed chicken quesadillas and then we said our farewells, in many cases exchanged contact information, and hit the road.
This event was the Pagan festival I have always wanted to attend: moving and deep, celebratory, fun and silly, meaningful and connecting with others of like mind. Didn’t have to bite my tongue while someone explained pseudoscience and “woo” beliefs to me once. I fell deeply in love with everyone who was there and with our community generally, with what we are building in the world.
I was so sad to see each person go.
But we will do it again! On the first weekend in September, 2024, at the same location, so mark your calendar–there is plenty of time to plan!
In the meantime, I’m hoping the regional affinity groups will hold local events in 2023 so the community can connect up and continue to grow. And there are always our Zoom events: the Saturday Mixers every Saturday, and the monthly Adult/Sex Salon on the first Saturday of every month. Visit https://theapsocietyorg.wordpress.com/news-and-events/ for details!
I am so deeply grateful to every one of the 48 attendees of the 2022 Suntree Retreat! Thank you for your good hearts and willingness to be vulnerable, for your creativity and humor and effort. This community is amazing to me and I am truly humbled to be a part of it.
Thank you, you beautiful people!
Photo credits: Summer LaJoie, Rana A, La Foret
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There were few hiccups the whole time we were there. I am thankful to you Mark, the Atheopagan Society, and all the organizers that put this together. There were no invocations of gods, faeries, spirits, or what not, just people being their human animal selves willing to be vulnerable. To me that is the real magic of being a pagan.