by Andras Corban Arthen
This week, the European Congress of Ethnic Religions organized a ceremony for all participants around an old Celtic tripod of stones on the grounds of Vyšehrad, the original settlement that eventually became Prague. There were more than two-hundred of us there, the largest gathering of pagans in this city in modern times, according to a couple of the locals.
As the ceremony began, I looked around and noticed a thin young woman standing a couple of people away, who seemed to be staring at me very intently, an odd expression on her face. I refocused my attention on the ritual, but a little while later I noticed the same young woman, still staring at me. This happened several more times over the course of the ceremony.
After standing in place for a couple of hours, my back began to give out and go into spasm. The pain spread down my legs and started becoming unbearable. There was no place to sit other than the ground, and I learned long ago that, under those circumstances, the ground is not my friend. I began to think about leaving the ritual to look for a bench or a large rock – just someplace, anyplace, to sit. I started feeling sorry for myself.
Mercifully, one of the ceremonial leaders announced that the ritual was coming to a close, and that we should take the hands of those standing next to us. Knowing that I only needed to hold on for a few more minutes, I reached out for the hands that reached back on either side.
Suddenly, the young woman I had noticed earlier squeezed between me and the person to my left, grabbed my hand, and held it tightly; we remained that way for the duration of the ceremony. Only when it was over, and people started to move away, did she let go of my hand. She turned to face me, then, with downcast eyes, and apologized if she had made me feel uncomfortable. I assured her that she hadn’t, but told her that I had wondered why she’d been looking at me so oddly.
She told me that I very strongly reminded her – both physically as well as in the way I had spoken at the ceremony – of her teacher, someone she loved very deeply and to whom she was profoundly grateful because of all he’d given to her. He was a prominent and respected biologist, she said, and had been her mentor and best friend for many years. Just last week, however, he had died in his sleep and she was heartbroken. She started to shake a little.
I took her hands in mine, and told her how sorry I was to learn that she had just experienced such a great loss. I told her that her teacher must have been a remarkable person, to have earned such love and devotion from her. I suggested to her that her feelings and her memories were very real, and that, in them, her teacher continued to live and there she could find him.
She asked me if I would give her a blessing, which of course I did. Then she asked if she could hug me. I held her close, and felt how fragile she was, as if she would shatter into pieces at any moment. I felt her pain: so sad, so deep. Tears ran down my face. We stayed like that for a while, breathing together, being still in the moment. And then something shifted, and she let go; the being pressing against me no longer felt brittle – not strong, to be sure, but stronger, firmer.
We separated, and I saw her face fully for the first time. Her eyes were clear in the dimming light, her sadness replaced by a slightly quizzical expression. On impulse, I gave her one of my cards, told her I’d be happy to hear from her, and invited her to visit me if she ever came to the States. She thanked me, told me she’d write, then turned around and walked away. I took several steps in the opposite direction, and realized that my pain was completely gone.