Embodied Spirituality: Compassion

When I posted my recent post about making a meditation hut, a friend posted a link to an article in The New Yorker, entitled “Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s moral myopia.” It shows that Thoreau was the worst kind of misanthrope, and had not an iota of compassion for his fellow human beings. He remained unmoved by the sight of drowned bodies from a shipwreck. He only advocated the end of slavery because it violated his belief in self-governance. He clearly advocated disappearing into the woods, not so one could emerge refreshed and renewed for the struggle against oppression, but because he really didn’t like or care about other people at all.

I wasn’t advocating building a meditation hut as a sturdy structure for keeping the world at bay – more a place where you could meditate when it’s raining, perhaps spend a few hours or days living the simple life, not a permanent retreat from the world. If you go into the woods, the aim is to be more connected with the whole of Nature, including humans, not to become detached from all other beings. The point is for those of us who are a bit introverted to recharge our batteries by spending some time alone, so we can be companionable and compassionate when we emerge.

Only connect

Spirituality – embodied or otherwise – is merely narcissism and self-indulgence when it doesn’t involve compassion – literally, feeling with others. I regard embodied spirituality as a sense of mystical connection with the universe and all beings within it. In feeling this sense of connection, we experience compassion for the sufferings of other beings, and empathy with their joys. We can enhance this sense of connection by finding a community with whom we can practice compassion and mindfulness; if we don’t engage in spirituality in a group setting, it can become self-centred and shallow, disconnected from everyday reality. We need the experience of actually living and sharing with others to enable us to grow and become our authentic selves. This can be done by the creation of a community of shared values, which models in microcosm the desired qualities of human community. Of course there will be conflicts and tensions, but it is in how these are resolved that the real values of the community will be tested and refined. It is only by this kind of radical openness and humility that the community can become strong and genuinely inclusive.

I believe that the religious life is a shared spiritual journey towards greater communion with the cosmos, where Spirit descends into matter rather than escaping from it – but this communion does not involve the effacement of individuality; rather it is the celebration of diversity and the quest for authenticity, because the “divine” (the vision of ultimate worth) is the potentiality of all life to share in mystical communion. But we must expand our compassion to all beings, not just to those whose values we share, and we do this by engaging in social action – caring for the poor and the oppressed, protecting the environment, standing up for human rights, and promoting freedom, peace and justice.

We cannot really expect others to be convinced that we are “mystical” or “spiritual” unless we put compassion into practice by helping others. The two aspects of religion go hand-in-hand: without a sense of connection there is no basis for compassion, and without the expression of compassion in the form of caring, the life of a mystic can be barren and unproductive.

Pagan views of compassion

In a Pagan context, we might view the theological underpinnings of compassion as our view that divinity is immanent in the world, and everything carries a spark of divinity within it. Alternatively, we could take a naturalistic approach and recognise that everything on Earth shares at least 60% of our DNA – we really are all related. And we could combine these two ideas.

In 2013, reflecting on the Charter for Compassion, John Beckett wrote:

My theological basis for compassion is a religious basis, but it is also a naturalistic basis. Intuitively, we feel an obligation to help those who help us, first of all the families who give us life and who support us when we are young and vulnerable. We feel an obligation to help our close relatives, our neighbors, and our families of choice. We are social animals and we know we cannot survive alone – we need the help of others, and they need our help.

But beyond the practical aspects of compassion lies the recognition of kinship, of looking into the face of another and seeing ourselves. That person is like me, therefore she feels pain and joy just as I do, therefore I should help her feel joy and prevent her from feeling pain.

I would argue that compassion for beings beyond our immediate kinship group is what makes us human and humane. If you cannot feel kinship for the suffering of other beings, that isn’t very “spiritual”. I find it horrific that Thoreau could walk along a beach full of drowned corpses and not see fellow human beings, only a “spectacle”. I find it horrific that people can look on the sufferings of Syrian refugees and see only ‘flotsam and jetsam’, or the threat of the Other.

The ancient virtues of hospitality and reciprocity are core values for many Pagans, and these are, in many ways, related to compassion.

For me, one of the great things about being manifest in the physical world is the giving and receiving of love in physical form: hugs and caresses, and making love. And whilst it is true that love means that you will suffer when the loved one dies, I feel it’s true that “it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”. Love and reciprocity are the basis of all of existence, because it’s all about creating connections between beings. In the Feri creation myth, the universe came into being because the Great Goddess looked into the mirror of the void and fell in love, and the love created the Other. So love is the origin of the universe, and love is part of the fabric of existence.

How is compassion embodied?

We experience feelings (grief, love, dread, joy, fear) in our bodies. We talk about “a gut feeling”. Compassion is embodied like other feelings. It turns out that this has a neurological basis in mirror neurons – we quite literally empathise with other people’s pain because our mirror neurons respond to them.

Physical existence entails a certain amount of suffering (bodily pains, the loss of loved ones) and also a certain amount of joy. The Pagan response to this is to celebrate the joy and accept the suffering as part of embodied existence, whilst trying to relieve suffering.

It’s not much use being compassionate unless you put it into practice, of course. Unless we actually help people, merely empathising with them is not enough.

How far does compassion extend?

Compassion is not only fellow-feeling for other humans, but also for animals and birds: all our relations.

The Charter for Compassion would benefit from a “green clause” to emphasise caring for the Earth and our fellow creatures. Although there is a section on their website about treating the Earth with compassion, it hits a discordant note for me, as we need to recognise that we are part of the Earth, not regard it as a separate system from ourselves.

Another charter, the Earth Charter, drafted back in 1968, placed caring for the planet at the heart of its ideas.

And A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment also placed the Earth at the heart of its concerns.

In my view, social and environmental justice are inextricably bound up with each other: you can’t have one without the other.

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When We Are Birthing, It Helps to Breathe Through the Pain

Photo credit: Reed Busse

This is an invitation. This is an opening in the day.

Pause. Deepen, listening into to your senses. Ground to the earth under the sidewalks, under the foundations of houses and workplaces. Breathe slowly and fully.

Here is a lived truth I invite you to share: when we are birthing, it helps to breathe through the pain.

 

Breathe and Ground.

Ground and Breathe.

 

Seven Reasons I Am Silent

 

  1. I do not think I am a blogger.
  2. I have been thinking about this for a long time.
  3. A blog is a form. A relatively new one.  It is a form that requires
    • Information easily broken down into bullet points and top ten lists
    • Visual content
    • An easy and accessible voice
    • Humor

 

  1. You don’t have to hit every one of those, but most of the time I hit one at the most. Sometimes zee-ro.
  2. And I’m okay with that. My work is elsewhere.
  3. The blog form also asks that the writer…know. Have answers. A blog is a container for answers.
  4. I don’t have answers. I have mostly questions.

 

 

I Am Too Slow a Writer to Blog Well

 

Breathe and Ground.

Ground and Breathe.

 

Choose your adventure, choose your battle. Because I am a slow writer, because I take a lot of time to process, I was writing three blogs posts at once last week. Social media moves faster than I do, even on my good days. Then I realized all my essays said the same thing: it is not a question of two sides. This (whichever this you are looking at currently) is not a binary dilemma.

 

 

This Is the Only Offering I Have

 

Breathe and Ground.

Ground and Breathe.

 

I do not have answers. All I can do is hold space, here.

 

Those who shout loudest feel most threatened.

Those who speak the most hate feel the most fear.

 

What do we fear?

Who do we fear?

What scars do we bear?

What wounds never healed?

 

Everyone is hurting. Breathe.

That person you have named your enemy is hurting. Breathe.

That person you fear is hurting. Breathe.

That person you do not know is hurting. Breathe.

That person who hurt you is hurting. Breathe.

That person who thinks she has the answer but is afraid to share it is hurting. Breathe.

That person who tells you he has the answer is hurting. Breathe.

It is not us and them. It is not me and you. It is we. Breathe.

It is never the end of the world. Breathe.

 

Peace, peace, peace, to all of us. Breathe.

 

When we are birthing, it helps to breathe through the pain.

 

Breathe.

 

Wisconsin landscape

photo credit: Reed Busse

 

 

Wobbling, But Not Falling Off

Jason Mankey has a great post on “When Someone Leaves Paganism” and how to respond to this situation – both in supporting the person leaving, and processing the feelings about it that inevitably come up.

But what about when someone has a crisis of faith, which may involve leaving the Pagan path temporarily, but where the person may eventually return to the Pagan path?

I had a crisis of faith in 2007, and I have always meant to write about it, but the time never seemed right, for various reasons. At first it was too recent to get any perspective on it; then it was too embarrassing, plus it is all very personal stuff; and then I got distracted by other things – like writing a book.

But I think it is worth sharing what happened, just in case anyone else finds themselves in the same situation. I actually think I went temporarily insane, or at least very off-balance – hence the title of this post, and the image of the cyclist.

However, I am not sure that my “wobble” makes sense outside the context of my spiritual journey… so here is a potted history of my path.

My spiritual journey

John William Waterhouse - Tate Gallery, online database: entry N01572 Public Domain

The Magic Circle, John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

My earliest spiritual experience was probably wanting to be a witch. At the age of eight, I went to a party at school, which I thought was fancy dress but turned out not to be, and asked my mum to make me a witch costume. I think I had got this from reading Gobbolino, the Witch’s Cat. Later, I read Cynthia Harnett’s novels and absorbed the idea of the witch as a herbalist and healer from her book The Writing on the Hearth.

As a child, I always loved nature and animals, and wanted to be able to converse with trees. I also loved Greek and Norse mythology, Narnia and Middle-Earth. I liked all the Pagan bits in Narnia – the tree spirits, the talking animals, the river god, the fauns, and the centaurs. (I did not notice the Christian bits, because I was immersed in Christianity already.)

I was brought up in the exclusive Plymouth Brethren till the age of nine, but fortunately my parents sheltered me from the worst effects of this. I used to sit in the meetings and read the gory bits and the stories in the Old Testament. One significant thing was that the Plymouth Brethren did not allow people to have Christmas trees, but my parents had one anyway, and told us not to mention it at the meetings. So I asked why we were not supposed to have a Christmas tree, and my parents said “because it’s Pagan”, so I asked what a Pagan was. They said that in the old days, people used to think that the sun might not come back after the winter solstice, so they would go up onto hill-tops and light fires to make the sun come back. I thought this sounded lovely, and wanted to be a Pagan.

However, I believed in the Christian stuff I had been taught, except I don’t think I ever really believed in the devil. And I don’t recall praying to Jesus, only to God (no idea why). Also, I never believed in ‘young earth’ creationism. When I learnt about the Big Bang and evolution at school, I asked my dad how it could be reconciled with the Bible creation account, and he said that God could have used evolution as his process for making things, and that a day in the creation story was like a million years – because elsewhere in the Bible, it says that a thousand years is like a day to God.

After we left the Plymouth Brethren, my parents attended some other churches, including a charismatic evangelical one, where I learnt to “speak in tongues” (also known as glossolalia).

After my parents stopped going to church, I left it for a couple of years and then I went to a United Reformed Church which had a charismatic fellowship group in it.

Around that time, two very significant things happened. I saw the film Gandhi, which made me aware that there were very wise and spiritual people in other religions (who, according to the Christians I knew, would not get to heaven). I had always thought it was unfair that people from other religions were supposed to go to hell just because they believed something different.

The other thing was that my best friend, whom I had known since the age of five, and who was a very spiritual and altruistic person, came out to me as gay. I asked my Christian friends about this, and they said that he would go to hell if he persisted in having sex with men. I was pretty sure that he had been born gay, so I thought it was massively unfair that God would create someone gay and then condemn them for it. I was also discovering my own sexuality around this time, and wondering why a “try before you buy” approach to marriage was condemned. And I had learnt about the Holocaust and concluded that good and evil reside mainly in the human breast, not as some cosmic force or being, and that if God was all powerful, why would he allow such dreadful suffering (free will notwithstanding)?

So at this point I became an atheist.

Coming home to Paganism

I then concluded that there must be some way – political or spiritual – to make the world a better place. I thought about this and decided that consciousness needs raising so that people are more empathetic and compassionate. I thought that one way to help with this was to raise my own consciousness, so began to look for a spiritual tradition that could help me with that. I rejected any tradition that was against life, sexuality, and the beauty of being embodied in this physical plane, and that seemed more interested in some other reality.

I had read Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling, and concluded that Paganism was a good label for my beliefs – that life, sexuality, and nature are sacred, and that there is no all-powerful cosmic creator. I was attracted to Pagan mythology but did not believe in deities literally.

At this point, I thought that I was the only Pagan – I did not know that there were other Pagans. Then, when I went to university, I got involved with battle re-enactment and met other Pagans there, and also at university. In my last year at university, someone started a Pagan society, so I joined it. From that group, someone put me in touch with some Wiccans, and so in 1991, after I left university, I was initiated into Wicca. It felt like coming home. The wildness, the connection to nature, the rituals at night in the woods with fire, the honouring of women equally with men – it felt very much like the celebration of life that I was looking for.

I was happy with the coven I was initiated into, and stayed in it for 3 years, until I moved to Scotland. There, it was much harder to find a coven to join, though I tried a couple of different ones. It was very painful as I missed the closeness of my original coven and the style of the rituals. I got my second degree initiation in 1996, which meant I was then able to initiate others.

Then I moved to Southampton, where there were no existing Wiccan covens. I started an eclectic non-initiatory Pagan group, with a view to initiating them eventually. The various members moved away, and I moved to London to do a PGCE.

In 2000, I moved to Bristol and started a coven with my partner in 2003.

The wobble

After a while, I began to worry about the effects created in the psyche by Wiccan oaths of secrecy (I felt that they created a block). I also wanted a more community-based religion, and tried Druidry for a while (alongside my existing Wiccan practice). I also started worrying about the very gendered nature of Wiccan deities.

By this time, I had started to believe in deities as something more than archetypes, and was a member of an online group of polytheists, most of whom were convinced that deities were discrete individual entities, and many of whom were convinced that they had a special relationship with a particular deity. I started to wonder why I had not been chosen by a particular deity.

In 2007, while I was doing an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities, I discovered that Christianity was not as homophobic as I had thought, and that in fact it had a less gendered view of the Divine than I had thought. Traditionally, God was viewed as being without gender. And it was less against the physical plane than I had thought.

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field (1889)

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field (1889)

I also began to wonder if the problems of the world could ever be solved by human means, since everything is so entangled – capitalism leads to war and oppression and environmental degradation, and if you fix one problem, you’re likely to cause another one.

Another problem that I experienced with Paganism around this time was the reburial issue. A number of Pagans were campaigning to have human remains reburied, and I thought this was irrational on several grounds: that archaeology had provided much of the data that enabled the Pagan revival to happen; that there were much more important issues to worry about, such as climate change, social justice issues, and the destruction of the rainforests; and that the best way to treat human remains was to recover their stories so that they can be remembered and honoured, and put them safely in museums, which are after all temples to the Muses. If you are interested in this issue, I have outlined the case for retaining human remains in museums elsewhere.

And the other thing was that in 1992, I had performed an exorcism for someone and seen the entity (grey, gangly and with orange eyes) that was doing the haunting with my inner eye, and in 2007, someone showed me a photo taken in a cave in the Middle East of something that looked very much like the entity (grey, gangly, and with orange eyes), and you could see the rock through its transparent legs. This freaked me out. I had always assumed that nature spirits were either benign or neutral, and any hostility to humans that they might have would be on environmental grounds. This thing just looked downright nasty.

Also in 2007, I was meditating at the Chalice Well in Glastonbury and had a vision of Jesus. I had no idea what to do with this, as I was a witch. I had been looking for my personal deity, having a crisis about the nature of the cosmos and what to do about the problem of evil, and admiring Christianity for its stance on social justice issues such as poverty. One of my main arguments against Christianity had been removed, and I also discovered that some Christians believed everyone would be saved (so that demolished the other argument).

I had also found that love was a really important transformative factor in healing, as our cat, Harry, was very traumatised when he came to us, and our love drew him out and made him better. I became almost convinced that the idea that ‘God is love’ was actually true.

Prior to this, I had had a huge reservoir of anger in my psyche that was directed against Christianity, and which would well up and spill over about almost anything. Now that the anger was removed, there was a locked box underneath it marked “do not open” which contained my fear that the Christian explanation for how the universe works was actually true. Even though I knew in my rational mind that it was not, the idea that it might be true still lurked in some pre-rational area of my mind. The fear caused me actual physical pain in my chest.

"Puu Oo cropped" by G.E. Ulrich, USGS. Cropping by Hike395 (talk · contribs) - USGS. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Puu_Oo_cropped.jpg#/media/File:Puu_Oo_cropped.jpg

Puu Oo erupting” by G.E. Ulrich, USGS. Cropping by Hike395 (talk · contribs) – USGS. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

I could not bear the idea of rejoining an evangelical church, where my involvement with Paganism would almost certainly be seen as demonic, and where my in-depth knowledge of mythology would be in massive conflict with their simplistic world-view. So I thought I would try the Orthodox Church (lots of bells and smells, great ritual, icons, and had done very little persecution of non-Christians), which I did for two months. In many ways, I found their theology helpful and illuminating, as it was very different to western Christianity on issues like original sin and the meaning of Jesus’ death. I did not like their elevation of celibacy to a saintly virtue, nor the fact that they do not have women priests, nor their conservative attitude to homosexuality.

I lasted for two months and then found out they were much more homophobic than I had thought. So I realised I could not bear that, and thought, ‘Well, I have tried Orthodoxy for two months now, I will try the Unitarians next.’ So I went to a Unitarian church and there was a woman at the front talking about Zen Buddhism and cats, and there were hymns saying that all religions contained great teachers and offer the possibility of enlightenment. It was wonderful and felt like home.

During this period, I actually think I went temporarily insane, because I re-enacted the development of religious thought in Europe over the last 2000 years in the space of six months. I went from polytheism to Christianity, to universalism, back to atheism, and then eventually back to polytheism. It was a theological roller-coaster ride and I don’t recommend taking it so fast.

I am so grateful to the members of the Pagan community who held me steady during this time. One of those people was Cat Chapin-Bishop. The members of my coven at that time were also tremendously supportive, despite it being really difficult for them that their new high priestess was having a flirtation with Jesus. The other thing that was really important was Pagans saying that if I was on the right spiritual path for me, that was fine with them. That remains one of the great strengths of Paganism – that we don’t believe it is cosmically necessary to be a Pagan, and that the same spiritual path may not be right for everyone.

I eventually ended my relationship with Jesus – much to my relief and probably his and everyone else’s too.

The nice thing about Unitarianism is that it is inclusive enough to allow its members to be atheists, Buddhists, Wiccans, Pagans, Christians, Hindus, Jews, or just plain Unitarians, because it is about values and social justice and sharing your spiritual insights with others, not about adhering to a specific set of beliefs. You can also change your spiritual focus, or mix and match different traditions. It also has really great hymns, and is compatible with reason and science. I made some great friends among the Unitarians, and am glad that I went exploring.

In fact, I liked Unitarianism so much that I thought I wanted to be a minister. I enjoyed leading services, and I was good at it. I should think I ought to be after 20 years of writing and performing Pagan ritual. However, several Unitarian asked how it was possible to be a Unitarian and a Wiccan; whereas no Wiccans ever asked me how it was possible to be both Wiccan and Unitarian. They were interested in how it worked, but not critical of my choice.

At the end of 2009, I split up with my former partner and moved to Bath. It was an amicable split and we continued to work together as high priestess and high priest of our coven.

I still liked Unitarianism but in order to be a minister, I would have had to give up being a Wiccan priestess (not because of any theological conflict, but because one doesn’t have time to be a leader in two different religious traditions when one of those commitments is a full-time paid professional commitment). I also found that trying to present the archetype of minister was in conflict with my inner archetype of being a witch. Wicca celebrates the sacredness of the erotic, and (for the most part) Unitarianism doesn’t. So, after one week of being a ministry student – and many, many hints from the Powers that being a Unitarian minister would have been a really really bad idea for me personally – I quit the training. I am just not interested in mainstream Christian theology, or whether the Hebrew Bible is an accurate account of Israel’s history, or whether it is constructed from different texts (Priestly, Elohist, Yahwist and Deuteronomic), or how to do Christology, or any of the other topics covered in the required theology courses. At the time, I was suffering from spiritual burn-out. This was partly as a result of events before I joined Unitarianism, but the problem was exacerbated by trying to work as a congregational development worker – which seems to be a role like that of a minister but without the status and respect accorded to a minister.

As I approached the start of my training, I felt depressed, anxious, overworked, overburdened, and conflicted. I thought that this was because I wanted to leave my job, which I did, but once I had left my job, I realised that the feelings were still there. I think that this depression and anxiety was pointing to the deeper issues which I had with being in a religious tradition that wasn’t right for me, and which wasn’t spiritually nourishing for me (although it did heal me in many ways).  There seems to be a general lack of clarity on what Unitarianism is. Each Unitarian knows their own mind, and their own theology, and I can see a consistency of values across the spectrum, but there does not seem to be a consensus on whether Unitarianism is Christian or not.

Shortly after this, I moved to Oxford and made a fresh start, which was really helpful for me.

Coming home to Wicca

I felt such a huge physical sense of relief when I quit the training. I went to a circle with my coven, and felt bits of me that had been clenched and withdrawn re-opening like desert flowers gratefully receiving rain. I went to a workshop event with a group of Wiccans, and mentioned the experience of sublimated eros in Wiccan ritual, and everyone nodded and smiled (whereas you would have to spend a lot of time explaining this to most people). I knew I was home again, with my beloved community. And strangely, everything in my life started getting better too. I had been unsure how I was going to support myself financially through the training course, where I was going to live, and this was a massive period of upheaval in my life.

Eventually, in August 2012, I realised that I couldn’t be a Unitarian and a Wiccan. I am a Wiccan and a polytheist, I honour and work with the Pagan deities, I look to the land and Nature for my spiritual nourishment.

I attended a symble run by a very dear friend, and vowed at that point to focus all my energies on Paganism. It was a powerful moment. It was then that I realised that Wicca is my dharma, my sangha, my tribe, blood of my blood, heart of my heart. It was also around this time that I started blogging at Patheos Pagan.

Also, in 2012, I met my new partner, who has been Wiccan since before he met me. We are very much in love. This helps greatly with feeling positive about life.

I spent most of 2014 writing my book about inclusive Wicca, and clarifying my thoughts about my Craft. During 2015, I have been working on the Pagan Consent Culture anthology with Christine Hoff Kraemer.

PILGRIM ON A FOREST ROAD -- Into the Mist of Old Japan, by Enami

PILGRIM ON A FOREST ROAD — Into the Mist of Old Japan, by Enami (uploaded to Flickr by Okinawa Soba) [CC by NC SA 2.0]

Wobbling makes you stronger

Sometimes, in order to truly experience a feeling, you have to go away from it and approach it from a different angle. You have to try to do without your connection to beloved community to know that they are really your tribe, your people. Having tested my faith in Paganism, the deities, and the power of Nature, I found that it bent but did not break, it tore but did not disintegrate. It was antifragile (thanks to Melissa Hill for introducing me to that useful new word).

There are numerous spiritual stories where the hero goes past the thing s/he seeks, mistaking it for something else, and then has to double back to find it again by accident. This is especially true of the story of Moses and Al-Khidr. That is often the nature of ‘spiritual’ treasure. It is not immediately obvious that it is treasure.

Many people find that they arrive at a universalist perspective on spirituality, only to find that it is really difficult to sustain the idea that “all is one” (perhaps because your mountain is not the same as my mountain, perhaps because spirituality works better when it has a specific context), and then move once again into their own spiritual perspective and homeland, with a new appreciation of its worth.

So, whilst having a wobble on your spiritual journey can be really painful and difficult: if you are having one, follow your bliss, whatever that turns out to be. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. Where do you feel most comfortable, most nourished? Who are the people who really support your journey, and who are the people who just want to control you? Who are you? What do you want? Whom do you trust, and whom do you serve?

 

 

 

Spiritual Healing: Run Toward Your Fear (A Book Review: #PTCS by Reba Riley)

This book response is part of the Patheos Book Club on Spiritual Healing and Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome. You can read the first four chapters of PTCS on Bookgrabbr.com.


Post-Traumatic Church SyndromeThirty before Thirty: Reba Riley—chronically ill , spiritually destitute, and in search of healing—made it her project to visit thirty religions before her thirtieth birthday.

It might sound like a shallow project to some, as it did to one of the rabbis she visited in the course of her year. But Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome is not an attempt to catalogue the world’s religions. Rather, it’s a memoir of Reba’s attempt to get outside of her narrow sense of self, to push her boundaries by exploring the wounds she carried from leaving her childhood religion, pentecostal Christianity.

I’m not like Reba in that particular way; I left Christianity gently with no hard feelings. But I relate to this: she finds her fear and runs straight for it. And I relate to this: for Reba, spiritual growth isn’t a luxury, but a matter of life and death.

I was twenty-nine too (Saturn return!) when I left my marriage and my career and moved across the country, hoping that a change in external circumstances would shift my internal pain. And when that didn’t work, I plunged into the most intense period of spiritual practice in my life, spending at least an hour a day at my altar. As with Reba, a combination of self-observational and stillness meditation were the linchpins to finding my way out of the spiritual prison I’d made for myself. When Reba seeks the heart of Being and finds Love, I just had to cheer. I remember that journey.

What I did not have was Reba’s excellent sense of humor. PTCS is an easy read, self-deprecating and funny—so funny, in fact, that it may be hard to grasp the depth of suffering, both physical and spiritual, that she endured.  There’s deep experience here, wrapped up in a bright, silly-looking package. On the cover, Reba’s spirit animal, a peacock, attempts to eat part of the title: Is this a book we’re meant to take seriously?

Unadulterated seriousness will not serve you in reading this book; nor, I think, does it speed the process of spiritual healing. Wiccans and other witches will recall that in “The Charge of the Goddess,” we are asked to carry both mirth and reverence within us (a combination that well describes Reba’s visit to a public Beltane circle, incidentally—tangled maypole and all). Spirituality has a place for laughter, for spontaneity and experimentation—but those characteristics are not incompatible with discipline. Since Reba encourages the reader to join her in making fun of herself, it’s easy to miss how challenging months-long dedication to daily meditation practice is—and this is a discipline that ultimately bears much fruit. Reba may tell her story lightly, but there is determination here, and drive. There is humor here because the task is so heavy.

Is this a book for Pagans? If you are a Pagan of the scarred, ex-conservative Christian kind, this book is definitely for you. And if you are an earnest spiritual seeker, Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome may give hope that trauma, spiritual brokenness, and debilitating illness can sometimes be healed. It is an uplifting book, not because it turns away from suffering and pain, but because it refuses to remain there.

There is one other way that PTCS provides a breath of fresh air. It is not a meaningful profile of thirty religions—the story is really about Reba’s journey. But what Reba does very well is convey how profoundly different these religions and their practitioners are seem to her. Though she doesn’t leave her home state, there is enormous variety of thought and practice in her backyard. This aspect of the book is an antidote to the claustrophobia that can come from spending too much time in one’s own religious community—using its jargon, asking its questions, pursuing its goals. (I think this is something Reba understands well, from her use of the term Christianese: the coded language in which Christians enforce their community’s norms.) It is a great relief sometimes to remember that other people have never heard of the great spiritual debates that so vex my religious community—they have their own weighty matters, their own vocabulary, and they work from completely different first principles. This reminder of the vastness of human experience can be freeing. Our differences, though so often a source of struggle, are also a source of great joy.

For Pagans with Christian families, this book may act as a bridge to open up sincere, thoughtful conversations about faith. More generally, I recommend it for anyone looking for a light and funny read that I, at least, am still reflecting on weeks later.


Hello all! I’m easing back into blogging with a series of book reviews. Next up: a biography of award-winning comics artist and occultist Alan Moore.

Religion, spirituality, and the big ball of mud

There is a tendency among the spiritual-but-not-religious  to regard religions as crusty old traditions that are hidebound, not evolving, and to contrast them with the spiritual people, who are free spirits who can pick and mix from the smorgasbord of religious offerings to create their own unique menu of tasty spiritual tidbits. Whereas what they are most likely to create, without some sort of roadmap, is a big ball of mud.

I saw this particularly irritating quote from Deepak Chopra the other day:

Religion is belief in someone else’s experience. Spirituality is having your own experience.

There is plenty of scope for individual spiritual experience in most religions, even in the ones we think of as quite conservative. You can have your own experience in religion – and the difference is that there will be a framework and a context and a mythology to help make sense of it and give it meaning, and a community of others who have had similar experiences to discuss it with, and to reassure you that you are not alone with your experience of the numinous.

It is all too easy to assume that all religions are merely cultural encrustations upon the “pure” mystic insight. There is a discourse that claims that there is a “pure” form of religion that could be identified if only once could scrape off the encrustations and accretions of culture, and get to the flawless diamond underneath. But this is a flawed analogy, because religions are not diamonds.

Religions are organic, they grow with and in culture – and if people rip the ideas out of context, they lose meaning and coherence. Religions are like languages – deeply embedded in culture and history; sometimes they have their own culture. Even religions that claim to be universally applicable arose at a particular time and place because of specific theological, philosophical, and spiritual concerns. Perhaps their parent religion was getting too bogged down in a particular concern, and a visionary group or individual started a new wave of ideas – sometimes this this resulted in a new religion, sometimes it resulted in a reformation of an existing one. Perhaps one day, people will look back at the early 21st century and say, that’s when Polytheism broke away from Paganism. Or perhaps they will refer to it as the Polytheist Reformation… who knows?

Religions are not all saying the same thing – they come from different philosophical and theological and cultural perspectives that cannot be reconciled without doing violence to the ideas and practices and rituals. An excellent analogy is regional cuisines – they have a set of tried and trusted recipes and techniques, using the spices and other ingredients that grow in their local area. Sometimes an exciting new ingredient arrives and transforms the cuisine (as happened when the potato arrived in England, or the chilli arrived in India). Sometimes a new cultural group arrives and brings with it a new recipe, that then gets prepared in the style of the local cuisine – did you know that the idea of fish and chips was brought to England by Sephardic Jews from Portugal? Or, some say, Huguenot refugees from France.  Or that pasta was possibly brought back to Italy by Marco Polo after eating noodles in China?  But the new dish gets brought within the repertoire of the existing cuisine, and altered to suit the tastes of the locals. The same thing happens with spiritual ideas and techniques – they inevitably take on the flavour of the religion into which they have been imported.

Different people have different preferences for ritual styles – that is why there are so many different styles on offer within religious traditions. There are those who prefer ecstatic ritual with dancing, those who prefer formal liturgical ritual, those who prefer spontaneity, and those who prefer their emotions to be engaged. The excellent Bill Darlison, Unitarian minister and astrologer, says that these worship styles correspond to the four elements, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. When I heard him give this talk, he suggested that Pagans are “earthy” but I pointed out that there are as many different preferences for ritual style among Pagans as there are among Unitarians, probably more. Different traditions offer different ritual styles – Druidry has a distinctive style, Wicca has another style, Heathenry another, Religio Romana another, African Traditional Religion is different again, and so on. There are variations between groups in the various traditions too. Some people find Wicca too intense; others find it a bit tame. I think it is just right – for me.

Different people have different tastes in music – some like heavy metal, some like Gregorian chant, some like reggae, funk, and soul, others like ambient New Agey electronica. (Fortunately, no-one has yet suggested that all musical styles should be munged together into one.) Different musical styles suit different moods too; and the same applies to ritual. Sometimes I am in the mood for the ritual equivalent of Gregorian chant; other times I want something ecstatic and dancey. If we munge everything together, we lose that diversity.

And if everyone goes off on an entirely individual path, with a mixture of influences from many different traditions, how will we ever create a shared web of meaning for communicating about our experiences? As John Beckett says in an excellent blogpost, 5 Reasons You Can’t Find the Right Spiritual Path, we need a certain depth of engagement and immersion to really understand and fully experience a tradition. As I wrote in a previous post:

[A] group name expresses a distinctive identity, philosophy, tradition, set of values, mythology, and community identity. These traditions are ways of being in the world. They are collective projects which explore the question of “How shall we live a good life?” (and what do we mean by ‘a good life’) in very different ways. They each have their own rich collection of source texts and rituals which try to answer that basic question, along with many of the other great existential questions, such as “Why are we here?”

When I was a little kid, I once mixed a lot of different colours of Plasticine (similar to Play-Doh) together. At first, they made a pleasing rainbow of colour – but the more they were mixed together, the more they merged into a rather disappointing olive-brown colour, until eventually there were no distinct colours, only the drab uniform olive-brown. People often think that if you mix religious traditions together, you will get the pure white light of the original ur-religion (if that ever existed). But quite often, you get brown putty instead. Of course, if you carefully mix two colours, you might get a lovely new colour. But the more colours you mix, the more likely you are to get drab olive-brown…

There is also a dangerous assumption mixed in with the idea that religions are reducible to each other: the assumption that there really is one universal religion that would suit everyone perfectly if only they let go of their adherence to their specific tradition. It is a dangerous idea because its adherents want to erase the boundaries of culture, tradition, and to eliminate diversity. They claim that it’s a very liberal idea, but actually it isn’t because it involves the imposition of ideas, a loss of context, massive cultural appropriation, and a loss of a sense of something to grapple with.

Those who advocate for pick and mix spirituality as opposed to religion fail to appreciate that tradition is organic and evolving. There is plenty of room for experimentation and innovation in most religious traditions. Sometimes the more conservative adherents resist these changes, especially if they involve LGBT people, but nevertheless religions do evolve and change.

Each religious tradition, and its various sub-traditions, has an unique and diverse perspective on the world. They have unique rituals and practices, which add to their interest and significance. These rituals often do not make sense outside of the context of the particular tradition in which they arose. Of course, there are some generic spiritual practices which can be exported from one religion to another, but I would argue they take on different meanings in their new context.

Religions are communities of people with a shared perspective, shared stories, and shared rituals. Sometimes religions can be oppressive and fanatical, but that is not the whole picture. The millions of peaceful, decent religious adherents – who are decent not in spite of their religion, but because that is how they practice their religion – deserve better than to be dismissed as hidebound traditionalists and bigots.

Spirituality – let the buyer beware

At its best, “spirituality” (whatever that term actually means) is a spur to greater compassion, engagement with social justice, and trying to make the world a better place. This used to be called mysticism, which actually meant something and sought to wrestle and engage with the wider tradition in which it was situated. Many times, organised religion sought to crush the mystics, with their call to genuine compassion, and their speaking truth to power, and their direct engagement with the divine other (or others).

At its worst, “spirituality” is a mess of cultural appropriation, exploitation of the vulnerable, silencing of dissent, sweeping justified anger under the carpet, and offering a pabulum of spurious advice, airy-fairy sayings, and consumer offerings of easily-digested “wisdom” and manufactured artefacts to make you feel “spiritual” and get in touch with your inner wossnames. Many ‘spiritual directors’, ‘life coaches’, and other self-styled spiritual leaders – most of whom are not even qualified therapists – prey on the vulnerable to make them feel that they cannot have self-worth without succumbing to a rigorous programme of self-help, self-examination, and generally beating themselves up for not being spiritual enough. They keep their ‘followers’ as perpetual neophytes, never empowering them to lead the group themselves.

If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him

Every time I have an encounter with someone who has an interest in spirituality, and also possesses power over others, I find that they want to silence my anger at injustice because it is “not spiritual” to be angry. I find myself bruised and diminished by their criticism of my way of being in the world. Any engagement with the intellectual or theological or historical context of an issue is also silenced by these people, because that is “not spiritual” either. These people are so convincing with their “peaceful” mien and unfurrowed brows, untroubled by actual social injustice or the suffering of others. These are the type of people who silence those who complain of racism, sexism, and homophobia, claiming that they are “obsessed” with race, gender, and sexuality.

Some of them do engage with the suffering of others, but in my view, they only exacerbate it by placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the sufferer, convincing them that they must “work on themselves” and buy whatever the latest self-help book, video, course, life-coaching, etc happens to be. Some of them even say that the first step to being more spiritual or loving or whatever is to accept oneself. The natural response of many people to this is to feel guilty for not loving themselves. However, the lack of self-love and self-esteem that many people suffer from is caused by alienation from other people, from nature, and from life. It will not be solved by increased introspection, but by going out and doing what you love. If you are an introvert, that might be different from what extroverts love to do, and that is just fine. The first step to accepting yourself is to stop worrying about yourself so much.

The blame for social ills is constantly shifted from the collective to the individual in many contexts. Instead of preventing bullying in the workplace, employers hire stress and time-management consultants to ‘fix’ individuals who haven’t ‘adapted’ to the workplace.  The same applies to dieting, where the fact that it is difficult to avoid eating fattening food, and difficult to get enough exercise to burn it off, is laid squarely at the door of the overweight individual, and hardly anyone bothers to look for social or societal factors that  might contribute to obesity.

Whenever you see a self-help book, or a person who sets themselves up as an authority on spiritual matters, ask yourself what qualifies them to be such an authority. I am not saying their life has to be totally organised (whose life is not subject to misfortune and the vagaries of circumstance?) – but rather, how do they respond to disaster? Do they curl up in a welter of self-pity, or do they actually get out and do something, perhaps getting involved with trying to right the social injustice that caused their misfortune (if applicable)? As the wonderful saying has it, “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”. Anyone claiming to be a Buddha is not a Buddha. The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao. Indeed, it was Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha himself, who said that if the things he said did not make sense to his hearers, they should ignore him:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

Subjecting advice to scrutiny and reflection about whether it applies to your own life is of course a principle that you should apply to anything that I write as well. Nothing is exempt from this principle. My perspective is also limited to my own experience, as is that of every other writer.

Do without doing, and everything gets done

If all the money and energy that was expended on trying to become more spiritual was expended on trying to make the world a better place for everyone, think how much better the world would be. I am not saying that people should not indulge themselves in a bit of pampering like a massage and a bath with some nice candles and a bit of tinkly music, but do it unashamedly because it makes you feel good, not because you think you ought to, or because you think it will make you a more spiritual person.

As the great Viktor Frankl once said:

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”

― Viktor E. FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

Personally, I derive more benefit from going for a nice walk in the woods, or going on a demonstration about a social justice issue, or having a nice evening with friends, than I ever have from any attempt to “be more spiritual”. I am not a naturally introspective person in any case. You can derive a great amount of self-worth and connecting with others by going to take part in conservation work, or feeding the homeless, or helping animals, or doing something creative – you don’t need to sit about worrying about whether you are spiritual enough. I also derived a great deal of benefit from being a trades union caseworker, because I learnt to speak truth to power, but I became a caseworker because it was the thing in front of me that needed doing, and I knew it was the right thing to do, not because I particularly hoped to gain anything from it.

The other day, I saw a brilliant and hilarious video by J P Sears, How to be ultra-spiritual, which sends up the “spiritualler-than-thou” types (as I call them): the people who speak ultra-softly and go about dispensing unsolicited “wisdom”. It is a merciless send-up of the “ultra-spiritual”, and a critique that needed to be out there.

And then I saw a post by a “life-coach” giving women contradictory advice about how to be irresistible to men, where one of the pieces of advice was a blatant piece of slut-shaming. Fortunately, a bunch of people had posted hilarious comments on the piece, sending it up mercilessly.

I vividly remember my first encounter with a “life-coach” and I remember thinking it was a load of pretentious tosh and quite possibly a sugar-coated version of “how to be a capitalist bastard and succeed in the rat-race”.

I feel much the same about most so-called “self-help” books, which again locate the source of suffering in the individual, and fail to offer any remedy that we might all undertake as a society. There are a few excellent exceptions, such as Families and how to survive them by Robin Skinner and John Cleese, Taking care by David Smail, and Women who run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (brilliantly satirised by Women who run with the Poodles, however).

This is why I have been trying to eliminate any talk of “spirituality” from my speech and writing, and instead talk about embodiment, and connecting with the body. This too might become problematic if we assume that there is only one right way to be embodied, but at least it is more earthy, and takes actual physical and emotional needs into account and makes a connection between them. Writers on embodiment that I have seen do actually seem to engage with the world around them.

Spirituality as a commodity

Nevertheless, it strikes me that the elephant in the room, and what really ails us, is the commodification and marketisation of everything – also known as capitalism. Value is no longer seen as intrinsic to an experience or a thing, but only as a marketable commodity. “Spirituality” has become yet another marketable commodity – a thing that should be our birth-right, that should be as natural as breathing, has been packaged and marketed back to us as something that can only be mediated by experts.

They say “the best things in life are free” and actually, it’s true. Having a consensual hug or a massage with someone you love, or a stimulating conversation with a friend, or a lovely walk in the woods, or some other experience of shared beauty, is much more effective than hours of “spirituality”-related activities.

One of the things that has made me a more empathetic person, and possibly a nicer person to be around, is reading novels, because novels teach you about the nuances of feeling and allow you to empathise with someone else’s pain in a safe space (the privacy of your own mind) before going out and practising compassion in the real world. The trick is to make the connection between the character in the novel and real people, of course.

Look outwards, not inwards

Many people have emphasised the idea that you need to love something greater than yourself, and/or other than yourself, in order to find happiness. Of course, many people who aspire to be spiritual do love God, or Nature, or something beyond themselves; but then they spend a lot of time worrying about how to be more spiritual, and fall back into introspection and self-doubt.

Viktor Frankl explains that the only way to find meaning and peace is to look beyond the self:

“By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
― Viktor E. FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

So, all this relentless self-examination is actually counter-productive. The Muslims say that “Allah is closer to me than my jugular vein”; Buddhists say that enlightenment is only a heartbeat away. The great mystery of life is always available, always present, always pouring itself into reality at every moment, waiting to be experienced and enjoyed.

For me, the central mystery of my religion is love. The word religion comes from the Latin word, religio, to reconnect. Love is about connection, connecting fully and deeply with another human being. There are many types of love involving different types and depths of connection (eros, filia, storge, and agape are some that have been named).

“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
― Viktor E. FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

Our culture has also sought to commodify love, and reduce it only to romantic love, but it is much broader and deeper than that. In Hebrew, one of the words for love is Ahava, meaning ‘I will give’. The Tanakh (Jewish Bible) contains an extended meditation on the meaning of Ahava in the story told in the Book of Ruth. Another is Chesed, meaning steadfast love, loving-kindness. This term is often translated into Greek as eleos. Eleos is the personification of compassion in Greek mythology. Her Roman counterpart was Clementia. Ancient paganism had thought about love, compassion, and forgiveness, and these were among the virtues they cultivated.

Photo of Robert Indiana's 1977 Love sculpture spelling ahava. "Ahava" by עברית: רוברט אידניאנה, נולד ב-1928 - Talmoryair. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo of Robert Indiana’s 1977 Love sculpture spelling ahava. “Ahava” by עברית: רוברט אידניאנה, נולד ב-1928Talmoryair. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

All the best writing seeks to broaden our humanity by encouraging us to connect, to have compassion, to love (both ourselves and others). If we cannot be compassionate to ourselves, how can we have compassion for others?

Love is a fierce and joyful thing

Love does not mean complete negation of the self. I am a human being with needs and desires, and I deserve love and compassion as much as the next person. Transcending the ego is not the same thing as erasing or negating the ego. All that happens is that one becomes aware of a reality beyond the ego, and seeks to connect with that greater reality.

Love is not a mealy-mouthed, weak thing that allows others to walk all over one. Love is a fierce and joyful thing that seeks the greatest well-being for all – bearing in mind that another person’s well-being may look quite different from yours. As many sages have said, “love thy neighbour as thyself” – in other words, love your neighbour as much as you love yourself.

Buddhism talks about ‘foolish compassion’ – the type of compassion that fails to involve the mind as well as the heart, to try and assess what would really help the suffering other. Love is not afraid to speak truth to power, or to tell the schlemiel that he is a fool.

Love is out on the front line telling the world that Black lives matter, standing up for the rights of LGBT people, indigenous peoples, immigrants, asylum seekers, and the marginalised. Love may be gentle and kind, but it is also fierce and joyous, and angry and sad, and embracing diversity.

A Dance of Impermanence: Introducing Myself in Two Chapters (Otherwise Titled, Why Am I Here and Who Am I, Anyway?)

“Theology, at the core, is an expression of our holiest experiences and our deepest knowing, integrated with the clarity and eloquence of the rational mind.”

Christine Hoff Kraemer, “Opening a Pagan Theological Dialogue,”
Sermons from the Mound blog, Dec. 7, ‘12

 

Chapter One

I have described myself as “pagan” for years without really knowing what I meant. Or what the word meant. It occurred to me recently I should maybe learn a little more. So, this past semester I went back to school and took an introductory class on Pagan Theologies at Cherry Hill Seminary, taught by Christine Hoff Kraemer. I went into the class defining myself as a loose-ish, pagan-ish follower-ish of an undefined goddess figure, and I more or less believed that all the gods and goddesses are really archetypes—representing facets of the human experience, common to us all whether or not we are aware of them.

I changed my mind pretty quick when I was approached by Wayland the Smith, a more-than-mortal figure about whom I knew nothing.

*****

The dark river unloosed.
The bright-eyed bird sought rest
in pine trees full of a broken clock
music of grackles, ditches full
of the chonk-a-ree of redwings.
It’s a birdy world, a pratfall
of lost, pit of resist, as rinky-tink
meets honky-tonk, minister
meets medicine show meets last
night in the eyes and tempest
tossed. Comical and sad,
that glottal halt, salt water
taffy and the smell of lilac.
Listen. You can’t go back.
Fallen and falling like a waterfall,
the music that cracks
the sturdy little egg of the world.

(“Autobiographies”)

Raven Kaldera, shaman, priest and author, says, “You get the god you call.” Maybe, but I think I placed the call in my sleep. So now I’m learning as much as I can about polytheism and the Norse, or Northern, as I prefer, traditions that Wayland is part of, reading books and searching websites and trying to memorize the runes. Occasionally Wayland himself chimes in, telling me what he wants or giving me advice. He can be quite specific. Recently, he asked me to keep my eye out for a ceramic grail or goblet, bone-colored.

**

No, you know that’s not it. I want a goblet made of bone.

But where on earth will I find something like that? We’re at Sears. I see a white coffee mug and pick it up.

It’s $3.49, on sale, mass produced. This is Sears. Put it down.

I look sideways at him. You’re not going to be a cheap date, are you.

You have no idea.

*****

I could be more worried about undertaking a theological life journey with a largely forgotten deity who wants to wake up again, but I’m a poet. I figure it comes with the territory.

Who am I? Why am I here? Big questions—but inserting myself into an established blog space seems to demand some account of myself. My life, like this essay, is a patchwork of prose, poetry, daily life, spiritual musings, occasional interruptions and eruptions. Intro to Pagan Theologies brought me full circle to my life twenty years ago, an undergraduate majoring in Religion. I loved every minute of the Cherry Hill class. When it ended, I grieved a little and wrote in my journal, “I need community. I need adventure. I need a way to sink my teeth into life and not let go.”

And then Christine emailed, asking if I wanted to write for Patheos.

 

Chapter Two

 Okay, that’s a wrap. I think you’re in, kid.

But—

 No buts. You can do this. I could point to poems where you already have.
Write the shadows. Write the taboos. Write me.

 But—I’ll sound like I’m crazy.

Oh come on. Where’s your courage? Where’s your sense of adventure?

 Right. “Fear nothing.”

Fear nothing. Including ridicule. Remember, they laughed at me.

 Yes. Yes, I –I know that story.

I know you do.

 Your story. Wayland, lord, I—

Enough.

 

*****

 There’s one very, very old, relatively well-known story about Wayland from the source materials that have survived. As a writer, I can’t wait to wrestle it down onto the page in my own language. But before I tell someone else’s story, I need to be honest about my own. Who am I, then?

Self in the world is a kind of performance, an interpretive dance of at times painfully mundane movements. When I walk out my front door and wave to the neighbors, there I am: wife, mother of two, school and church and community volunteer. I have a book of poems, Somewhere Piano, published by Mayapple Press, a couple of smaller chapbooks. You can look me up any day of the week.

But that would be too simple, wouldn’t it. Shortly after Somewhere Piano was published, it became clear to me that my domestic and domesticated self had said all she had to say. She no longer held the pencil. I needed to find wilder fingers.

So, like Albus Dumbledore drawing his silver memories down into a pensieve, I turned myself inside out and drew out a new self:

Shadow, Sad Eye, Said I, Sadie
Daisy
Dicey, Doosie, Do See, Do Say, Ducet

I turned myself into a pun, a smile. A way to breathe underwater, created of shadow and possibility. I set myself dancing on the page.

***** 

Career suicide, conventional wisdom argued, aghast. Changing your name midstream.

I’m exploring unconventional wisdom. It’s my hope to touch in here every once in a while, to explore the connections between poetry, myth, Wayland’s story and my own wanderings and wonderings, and how it all relates to current events, life in this twenty-first century. Just like my favorite bread-and-butter pickle recipe, the Journey is “good alone or with somebody,” but I think it’s best when shared with others.

Unconventional wisdom keeps me in motion, dancing in the spaces between Sarah and Sadie, able to change, to disappear and then reappear, eyes a slightly different color than they were. Unconventional wisdom encourages me to imagine a person can be verb instead of noun. Truth lies somewhere between fictions. I would not posit this essay as truth.

*****

A book is a basket of deaths. Small ones.
A web with no spider (hide
her), this is the secret dilation,
the interior shore, a little
lagniappe, something more,
a dance for the sake of dancing.
Verse. Reverse. Press in, be pressed
upon and disappear. Address,
redress and put your clothes on, honey.
Embrace arrest. Treat and retreat. Flight
does not equal resist. This is
the walled garden, the invitation,
an intimate penetration.
Let’s not lie or cover over.
It’s sexy as hell, what’s going on.

(“Riff on the Definition of Poem”)

*****

This is the path I’m on, maybe not quite so rational in my approach as the epigraph by Christine would suggest—more of a perceived glimmer, a scent I follow down the road, trusting peripheral vision, sideways, sidewise.

The eyes in the greenery, wild, watching, just out of reach. Meet me there.

 

*All poems in these entries written by Sadie Ducet unless noted otherwise. “Riff on the Definition of Poem” is included, with a whole bunch of other lovely poems by many, many poets, in the 2015 Wisconsin Poets’ calendar, which is available for sale at the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets website. 

Pagan prayer

There are several different types of prayer:

  • contemplative prayer (communing with a deity, usually in silence);
  • intercessory prayer (praying for help for someone else);
  • petitionary prayer (praying for help for yourself);
  • thanksgiving;
  • adoration, devotion;
  • prayer of approach (preparing to enter a deity’s presence);
  • invocation (asking a deity to be present);
  • bidding prayer (a suggestion to participants to pray for a particular thing);
  • confession and penitence (though I would be surprised if any Pagans do this, as we do not tend to regard wrong acts as injuring a deity, only as injuring the physical person(s) who were harmed by them);
  • words of reassurance (for the benefit of the participants of the ritual);
  • healing prayer;
  • expressing aspiration (e.g. “may we be blessed”);
  • reflection (reflecting on events).

Prayer is not just asking a deity to do things for you. It can be used as a means of creating a sacred context for your activities, by opening proceedings with a prayer. An invocation of a deity is a form of prayer. An evocation of an elemental spirit is a form of prayer.  Many Pagans dismiss prayer as “passive magic” (as opposed to doing spells, which they class as “active magic”). This reduces prayer only to petitionary and intercessory prayer – but there are many other kinds of prayer, as you can see from the list above (which may not be a complete list).

There are also different modes and techniques of prayer: for example, centering prayer, contemplative prayer, and body prayer (using dance or other special movements in prayer).

Centering prayer was developed by an interfaith dialogue group of Christians and Buddhists. These Christians admired the technique of Buddhist meditation but didn’t want to cultivate the awareness of the Void recommended by Buddhist tradition; so instead they decided to choose a single concept and focus on it during the meditation, which they called “centering prayer”. So for instance you might choose one of the Nine Noble Virtues of Heathenry, or the Eight Wiccan Virtues, or one of the Roman virtues, to focus on during the prayer. The technique is similar to that of meditation, in that you relax your breathing and focus on the body, but you hold the concept you wish to focus on in your heart for the duration of the prayer, perhaps repeating the chosen word.

Contemplative prayer is an age-old tradition of mystics. It is quite similar to centering prayer, but doesn’t involve a specific concept; it’s more of a wordless communion with a deity. It is usually preceded by more verbal forms of prayer, which lead into contemplation or meditation.

Body prayer is where you involve your whole body in the act of prayer. This might be gardening and praying, or dancing and praying, or walking and praying. Walking a labyrinth can be a prayerful act, as you deliberately focus on the spiritual journey. Another example of body prayer is the Dances of Universal Peace, a dance tradition in their own right, designed to engender peace and love in the participants; another example is the Salute to the Sun found in Yoga (which is a sacred Hindu practice designed to stimulate spiritual growth).

What is the purpose of prayer? I don’t think it is only for the benefit of the deity being prayed to. I think it is for the benefit of the one doing the praying. The practice of mindfulness, of cultivating awareness of the greater life of the universe, and of examining our own conscience, and being aware of the suffering and joy of others – these are beneficial for the soul.

In the Wiccan text The Charge of the Goddess, Doreen Valiente wrote,

“Arise and come unto me. For I am the soul of Nature, who gives life to the Universe. From me, all things proceed and unto me all things must return; and before my face, beloved of Gods and men, let thine innermost divine self be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite.”

To “be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite” expresses very well for me what contemplative prayer feels like. (Your mileage may vary.)

Ceisiwr Serith produced A Book of Pagan Prayer, which is an excellent starting point if you are new to this practice. The books suggests a lot of different types of prayer, and to many different deities.

Prayer can be personal and private, or collective. When sharing a prayer with others, it can be difficult to express your theological viewpoint without excluding others.  One proposed solution is to say “this is a prayer from my tradition” and perhaps invite people to “translate in their heads” if it does not quite work for them.

There are prayers in many different Pagan traditions, including devotional polytheism, Feri, Reclaiming, Wicca, Druidry, and many others. The theological stance of these prayers may vary from monism to ‘hard’ polytheism. A prayer does not have to be to a deity; you can also pray to spirits of place, or commune with Nature. I do not think there is anything wrong with adapting prayers to fit your own theology (as long as you state your sources, to avoid plagiarism, if you are praying the prayer in public).

You don’t have to close your eyes or kneel down to pray. Many people (e.g. Eastern Orthodox Christians) pray with their eyes open and their hands extended to indicate that they recognise the divine in the world.  You could experiment with different positions. Some traditions use prayer beads; there are some lovely Pagan prayer beads available.

A prayer can be nothing more than time taken to set an intention for the day, or to contemplate the day’s events before going to sleep. It can be time spent communing with a deity, or holding others that you care about in your awareness and wishing them well. It can take place at your personal altar, or just in your head. It can be spoken or unspoken, formal or informal, and involve stillness or movement. It can involve descending into your own depths to find a connection with all-that-is; or it can be reaching out to a deity or spirit of place; or some other process. Different people experience it differently.

Pagan sacraments

Handfasting by Gordon

Handfasting by Gordon (Wikipedia)

A rite of passage is a ritual designed to make sacred a particular life event or transition from one stage of life to another. We might also call these rituals ‘sacraments’.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a sacrament as “a thing of mysterious and sacred significance; a religious symbol”. The word is used in Catholicism to refer to the seven sacraments of baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, ordination, and matrimony – which are mostly rites of passage; and in Protestant traditions, to baptism and the Eucharist. The etymology of the word is from Latin sacramentum ‘solemn oath’ (from sacrare ‘to hallow’, from sacer ‘sacred’).

An important element of rites of passage and sacraments is that they have a physical component, often linked to one or more of the classical four elements (earth, air, fire, water). Immersion in water is used in both Judaism and Christianity to signify entering into a new phase, being consecrated (baptism) or re-consecrated (mikveh). Fire is used as a purifying medium in the Hindu ritual of aarti, which is both an offering and a purificatory ritual. Water is used for the Sikh baptism ceremony called Amrit Sanskar. The ancient druids are reported to have used sensory deprivation by requiring candidates for initiation to lie in darkness for several days and then thrusting them into the light, according to OBOD. All these rituals signify some sort of symbolic death and rebirth experience.

The sacraments in Pagan traditions

There is no standard list of sacraments for any contemporary Pagan tradition, but we can identify sacraments for most of them.

In Wicca, the sacraments could be said to be preparing the circle, cakes and wine, naming (sometimes called “Wiccaning”), initiation, handfasting, and croning.

In Druidry, the sacraments could be said to be preparing the circle, naming, initiation, and handfasting.

In Heathenry and Ásatrú, the sacraments could be said to be the blot, the sumble (or symbel), and the handfasting.

In Religio Romana, there are many rituals designed to connect the practitioner with the deities and sacralize life. These include libations, a prayer for ablutions (a ritual formula to purify oneself prior to the performance of other rituals), and various daily rituals at the lararium or home shrine.

Life-rites

Most Pagans presume that everything is already sacred, because deities are immanent in the world. Therefore, rituals of consecration are about creating extra sacredness, or reconnecting us with the deities, the community, or the natural world.

Birth and naming. Pagans do not perceive a need to purify either the mother or the child after birth, considering that people are born innocent. The child will typically be welcomed into the community and given a name, but will not be committed to any particular religious tradition, as most Pagans believe that children should be able to choose their religion when they are old enough. Although the naming ceremony in Wicca is sometimes called a Wiccaning, it does not mean that the child is considered to be a Wiccan as a result of the ceremony.

Coming of age. There is a distinct lack of coming of age rituals in Western culture generally, and this is echoed in Pagan traditions, although some groups do celebrate the onset of menstruation, as long as the young woman in question actually wants this.

Initiation. Wicca and Druidry both have initiation rituals, often based on the initiation rituals of occult orders such as Freemasonry. Isaac Bonewits identified three types of initiation ritual:

  1. Initiation as a recognition of a status already gained
  2. Initiation as an ordeal of transformation
  3. Initiation as a method for transferring spiritual knowledge and power

I have identified six aspects of initiation, which may be present in a single ritual, or may be a gradual process. There is the inner process of transformation; the initiation by the gods and goddesses (making contact with the numinous); experiencing the Mysteries (that which cannot be spoken, or Arrheton); being given the secrets of the initiating group (that which must not be spoken, or Aporrheton); joining the group mind of the initiating group; and the joining of the lineage or tradition of which the coven is part.

In Heathenry, initiation is replaced by profession, a ceremony where someone professes a desire to become part of the Asatruar (people who are true to the Aesir, the Heathen deities), and then takes an oath.

Handfasting. This is the term for a wedding, mainly in Wicca and eclectic Paganism. The term has been in use since the 1960s, according to Wikipedia. The ceremony generally involves the symbolic crossing of a threshold, such as leaping over a broomstick or a small fire. The use of ribbons to fasten the couple’s hands together has been practised since the 2000s, again according to Wikipedia. Rings and vows are usually exchanged.

In Heathenry, wedding ceremonies are usually hallowed by holding them beneath the hammer of Thor (Mjöllnir), and arm-rings are exchanged. The couple may also hold an oath-ring while exchanging vows.

Croning. A ceremony for a woman who has reached menopause, usually celebrated in Wicca. A croning ceremony usually takes place around the age of fifty, and celebrates the achievement of elder status in the community, and feminine wisdom.

Dying. There is no set ritual for preparing for death, but there are many excellent resources in The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, by M Macha Nightmare (formerly of the Reclaiming tradition) and Starhawk.

Other rituals

Preparing sacred space (the circle). Most Pagan traditions have a preparation for ritual, as rituals are often held in spaces which also have other uses, such as a living room, a garden, or a park. Therefore sacred spaces are temporary and have to be reconsecrated. It is also necessary for the participants in a ritual to be prepared for ritual, in order to help us enter into the right mind-set. Preparation typically includes some form of consecration of both the space and the participants with the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water). Incense, water, salt, and other symbols of the four elements may be used to create sacred space.

Blot (Heathenry). This ritual has three parts, the hallowing or consecrating of the offering, the sharing of the offering, and the libation. The offering, shared with the deities, is typically mead, beer, or juice.

Sumble / symbel / sumbel (Heathenry).

“The sumbel is actually quite simple. The guests are seated, (traditionally, in some formal fashion), and the host begins the sumbel with a short statement of greeting and intent, and by offering the first toast. The horn is then passed around the table and each person makes their toasts in turn. At the sumbel toasts are drunk to the Gods, as well as to a persons ancestors or personal heroes. Rather than a toast, a person might also offer a brag or some story, song, or poem that has significance. The importance is that at the end of the toast, story, or whatever, the person offering it drinks from the horn, and in doing so ‘drinks in’ what he spoke.” ~ The rituals of Asatru

Cakes and wine (Wicca). In Wicca, cakes and wine are consecrated and shared. This happens at every circle.

Libations. These are offerings of mead or wine poured for the deities and spirits of place. The libation is important in Religio Romana, Heathenry, and Wicca.

What do all these rituals have in common?

They all involve one or more of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water).  Earth may be represented by stone, salt, crystals, or soil. Air may be represented by blades, wands, feathers, or incense. Fire may be represented by a candle flame, a bonfire, incense, or wands. Water is represented by water, chalices, and cauldrons. Each element has a sacred direction, which can vary between different traditions.

Initiation ceremonies all include a section where the candidate is asked whether they wish to be there. In naming ceremonies, where the baby cannot be asked if it wishes to take part, a simple welcome to the wider community of humanity is all that takes place.

There is an assumption that things are already sacred, because deities are immanent in the world, but sometimes we forget our connection with the divine, and need reconnecting.

They generally involve marking the transition from one phase to another – sometimes by actually crossing a threshold: stepping into the sacred space, or leaping across a fire or a broomstick.

They generally involve deities or spirits being asked for their blessing and/or protection.

Occupy Spirituality: Reflections from a Once and Future Activist

Occupy SpiritualityOccupy Spirituality: A Radical Vision for a New Generation
Adam Bucko and Matthew Fox
North Atlantic Books, 2013

 

Matthew Fox and Adam Bucko make me feel old.

That’s kind of funny, considering both are older than me (Fox by decades). Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that this book put me in mind of a younger version of myself, one who burned white-hot to make the world a better place and was willing to bend the course of her entire life to that end.

It’s not that I no longer have an activist heart. I do. But it surprised me to be technically part of the youth generation addressed by this book—a generation of young people viscerally angry at the failures of consumer capitalism and organized religion, whom Bucko and Fox see as standing ready to take up their true vocations, form communities of alternative values, and enact (on a small scale, at least at first) a new vision of spiritual democracy. I’m 34 and a mother-to-be; this book speaks to me as I was ten years ago, when I worried less about paying my bills and life seemed to hold infinite possibilities.

This isn’t my first encounter with Matthew Fox, an earth-centered Christian theologian who, on account of his radical activist theology, was once silenced for fourteen months by the Pope and ultimately ejected from the Dominican order. In my early twenties, I attended a Creation Spirituality-centered, GLBT-welcoming Methodist church that did its best to act on Fox’s vision of a prophetic activism founded in mysticism and creativity. I still have amazing memories of attending one of Fox’s Cosmic Masses, where we prayed at gorgeous three-dimensional elemental altars, passed the peace to hundreds of others while moving in a spiral, listened to Fox give a truly trippy homily about light, and finally danced like angels and demons to trance music under laser lights.

I later found my way into the Reclaiming tradition of witchcraft, which similarly believes that sustainable, healthy activism requires a steady diet of joy to maintain. (Fox, in fact, has worked extensively with Reclaiming co-founder Starhawk, and he mentions her admiringly more than once in this book.) During that period of my life, I did extensive activism opposing the racism of the drug war, protested the war in Iraq, marched in Gay Pride and MLK Day parades emphasizing civil liberties, wrote endless letters to my elected representatives, and chose a career (the academic study of religion) that I thought would give me maximum opportunity to promote tolerance, pluralism, equality, and peace.

Fast-forward as the restrictions of adult life set in. As it turns out, there are few academic jobs available these days, and what jobs remain are a shadow of the professorships of the past: low pay, intense competition, insanely heavy workloads, and schools that increasingly care more about the financial bottom line than education made me abandon my intention of working in academia proper. I also moved across the country for graduate school and lost the religious community that had been part of the support for my activist spirit. As it turns out, it is much harder to form one’s own group than to join a thriving one. For several years, my friends and I did our best to form a local Reclaiming community that would both feed our spiritual needs and provide a vehicle for political activism. And people did come to our rituals and workshops; they even donated money when we asked, but we never were able to grow the core group that was actually doing all the work. Between that and the intense stresses of grad school, I learned the true meaning of burnout.

After graduate school, I did a lot of re-evaluating and reshaped my life so that *I* would be fed first. I’d realized I couldn’t be of service to anyone else unless I was healthy, so I made a number of changes. I went to massage school, both to seek my own healing, and so that I would have a second career path to support myself (and indeed, massage therapy was my major source of income for several years). I sought deeper training and initiation in a non-Wiccan witchcraft tradition focused on self-development and acknowledged that, for the moment, I needed to pull back somewhat from the leadership roles I had tended to take on in religious community. Although I continued to volunteer my time with Cherry Hill Seminary, an online seminary dedicated to providing graduate-level and community education for Pagan leaders, I mostly stopped teaching spiritual workshops or leading public rituals. And, finally, I cut my expenses so I could choose only jobs that I both believed in and that compensated me appropriately. Over the past few years, I’ve worked for a series of humanitarian, religious, and educational organizations without much having to compromise my values.

At this point in my life, I’m not out hitting the street in protest. I give money to worthy organizations; I write the odd letter to my representative; I encourage the writers I work with at Patheos to highlight important issues and try to bring those issues to the attention of our audience. But fundamentally, my concerns now are about family, health, and home, about the container into which my husband and I are bringing a child. I think a great deal about poverty, racism, homelessness, and the web of power and privilege in which I find myself; I think a lot about how to have good relationships with my neighbors when I live somewhere that, most of the time, mine is the only white face to be seen. But these days, I am much more concerned with logistics than vision.

Someday, though, I’m going to be ready to dream and vision again, and Occupy Spirituality is a book that can stoke that inner fire. Based around Fox’s “deep ecumenism,” its approach is inherently interfaith, with Fox and Bucko frequently acknowledging the contributions of Buddhist, Hindu, Indigenous, Christian, and Jewish thinkers to their thought. Their vision of a just economy, notably, includes not just human well-being, but also what Fox calls the “more than human” – animals, plants, the ocean, the land. Fox and Bucko recommend a new spirituality for activist communities, inspired by contemplative monasticism but with contemporary values:

  1. Instead of a vow of poverty, a vow to create a just economy;
  2. Instead of a vow of obedience, a vow of democracy and collaboration;
  3. Instead of a vow of celibacy, a vow of sexual responsibility and ethical parenting.

As the subtitle acknowledges (“A Radical Vision for a New Generation”), this book is more about vision than about logistics. Appropriately for this post, however, long-time Pagan activist Starhawk can provide a nuts-and-bolts counterpoint to Fox and Bucko’s radical vision. Although Fox and Bucko have very much been in the trenches of social injustice (Bucko currently works with homeless youth in New York City, for example), their dialogue in this book tends to focus on broad issues. Not so Starhawk, who freely acknowledges that the radical inclusivity of the Occupy movement raised some difficult and specific challenges: in her speech at the American Academy of Religion in 2011, she quipped, “The Occupy movement sometimes seems to be entirely composed of raving drunks and former student body presidents” (listen around 28:00 in the linked audio; her discussion of group dynamics begins around 17:00).

While protesting for economic and social change, the Occupy movement encountered the challenges of mental illness, addiction, trauma, and the long-term effects of homelessness among its members and in society at large. Just prior to the birth of the Occupy movement, Starhawk put out a book called The Empowerment Manual that addresses some of the difficulties of collaborative group dynamics – and how-to manuals like it are equally as important as Bucko and Fox’s prophetic community vision when it comes to building a positive future.

I opened by saying that Occupy Spirituality made me feel old. But I know that there will be a future when my children are no longer small, and with my own needs and desires firmly in mind, I will expand my efforts to create communities of alternative values beyond my household and the circle of influence created by my job. For now, it’s been good to remember how brightly that inner fire can burn—and when I’m ready, Fox and Bucko’s vision will still be waiting.

 

Recommended Follow-Up Reading

“The Occupy Movement: Drumbeats of Change”
The encampments are now gone. But the things that were born in them survive.
By Rebecca Solnit, 9/15/13, LA Times

“Spirituality: Where Seriousness and Playfulness Meet”
How do how do the patterns and practices of the Occupy Generation differ from those of New Age spirituality?
By Matthew Fox, Christ Path Seminar