Piece For An Upcoming Anthology On What It's Like To Live As A Pagan Today
|It's a September Sunday evening in 2014. I've finished my typical Sunday speed cleaning and even managed to get the dogs walked before dark. I love the fall. It's getting dark earlier and earlier each evening. Just two weeks ago, I would have been able to run to the store for that one item that got missed earlier in the week and it would have still been daylight at 8:00 p.m. As I drive back to the house, I notice the exceptionally bright, beautiful full moon illuminating the sky. It should be a nice night to walk the dogs, since I have poor night vision and will be able to see where I'm going. I smile, secure in the knowledge that the chaotic energy of the past few weeks will soon be changing. Making a mental note to check on the energy aspects of this particular Esbat, I acknowledge her by offering a chant, a ritual that requires no preparation, altar or props: "Hail to Thee, O Jewel of the Night. Hail to Thee, O Lady of the Heavens. Hail to Thee, O Jewel of the Night. Hail to Thee, O Queen of the Stars. Hail to thee, O Jewel of the Night. Hail to Thee, O Mother of the World." Stealing a few precious, magical moments in the privacy of my car is a blessing these days.
Politicians and the United States government seem to have completely forgotten about "separation of church and state" during the past decade, increasingly attempting to use religion as a basis for laws and policies. Religious interest groups have been warned in recent years by the IRS to stay out of politics or risk losing their tax-exempt status. The assumption that everyone in this country practices, or should practice "Christianity" as their religious belief seems to permeate all aspects of operation in our country. Yet, government entities that want to post the Ten Commandments on their property fail to conduct their business by most of them.
Church was established as a gathering place for worship and fellowship. Churches are actually a subculture that when used in the right way, can be a wonderful way for people to socialize and form support networks. Somehow, it seems to me that this concept has gone "to hell in a hand basket." The church, and religion, has grown into a form of social control when governments got the idea that if people don''t fear the law, they might fear God.
I was raised as a Catholic through and through, receiving the sacraments and attending Mass. I attended Catholic school until the eighth grade. My friends and I wanted to be nuns when we grew up, playing with curtains and towels and scarves on our heads and wearing rosaries around our necks. How wonderful to have had the Sisters as our first role models. As I progress through middle age, I am increasingly grateful because the nuns instilled in me a strong work ethic that has remained with me. Twenty years ago, I moved to the "Bible Belt." Here, I was told that my great grandmother, who attended 5:00 a.m. Mass every day of her life and broke her hip on the ice on the church steps, had gone to hell because she wasn't "saved." I was told that we didn't believe in Jesus Christ "the right way," and I fell for it. Over the years, I attended churches in just about every denomination they had. I participated in water baptism, ran around churches and sacrificed makeup, jewelry and jeans for about a decade until October 31, 1997. Appropriately at the "Witches' New Year," I was "re-birthed" under an oak tree with a gypsy woman. That day, the biggest Monarch butterflies I had ever met me in the driveway as I was leaving, circling the car as though in a flurry of bright orange and black anticipation. During that impromptu ritual, they seemed to magically re-appear to dance around us as though they had followed me. Monarchs are a symbol of transformation. Every time they have been around me, something wonderful has happened, including my finding out that I was pregnant with my first child.
I'm not sure how I was led to my spiritual path. I think that it came from attending a local metaphysical fair and those wonderful smells. This led to my frequenting a wonderful herb and magic shop near my office, owned by a very knowledgeable herbalist who considered herself to be a Medicine Woman. I would go there on my lunch breaks and feel completely renewed by the wonderful fragrance of herbs and essential oils that wafted through the shop. The owner also had a beautiful little herb garden in the back, where I could sit and breathe for five minutes and feel sane enough to get through the rest of my day as a child welfare worker.
At that time, there were several pagan groups in the area and the number was growing. I was invited to an "Open Circle" and was very nervous. I didn't know whether I should expect a bunch of naked women dancing around under the Full Moon. I attended, and what I did find was a group of women enjoying a pot-luck dinner and a meditation. At subsequent meetings, we sat on the floor and made necklaces, decorated mirrors and crafted tiaras. Another group sponsored a monthly Esbat celebration in the park. The energy was amazing and I always felt renewed and energized after being with these spiritual individuals, and I was meeting more and more of them with each event. For several years, I engaged in private solitary ritual at home. I collected and made many beautiful magical items to be used at my altar along with an elaborate, authentic looking "Book of Shadows." I still have a chest containing items that any little witchlet would envy.
Now here, I must tell you that I was a complete basket case when I found these people. I was very high-strung, hyper and emotional. I was raised in a very abusive home and went into a marriage that was far worse. Leaving him was what had brought me here, and I was raising my three sons on my own with no other support network as well as no money. It took many years, but after learning how to practice both the Wiccan and pagan paths as well as learning about Native American spiritual practices with a little Buddhism thrown in, my mind and emotions began to achieve a state of balance. For the first few years, I took the time to specifically practice ritual at home but that gradually changed into having "little altars everywhere" along with yoga and meditation. I had come to realize that "the magic is the witch" and that although the props and ritual are wonderful (and a lot of fun!) the bottom line was that my own thoughts, emotions and intention are what create the "magic." I can't put a label on the spirituality that developed and emerged through independent study and exposure to a smorgasbord of cultures and religions. Although I no longer practice Catholicism, I still find great comfort in rosary beads and still use them as a meditation tool. I continue to buy rosaries that appeal to me, resulting in a collection that I hadn't quite planned. The Irish strand with the Saint Patrick connector and Celtic cross that I found in a thrift shop has become one of my most prized possessions, hanging from my rearview mirror. It's surrounded by a Hamsa, an Isis pendant, a Runic Pentacle and a quartz crystal, along with a pentacle that says, "Never Again The Burnings." I think that all I'm lacking is a Star of David and I'm actively looking for one. I commune with the animals and plants as my Native American ancestors did. Crows are my least favorite sign, since crows the size of roosters scream at me when I need to beware at work. My meditation, eating habits and health practices center around the seasons and wheel of the year. I reflect upon the cycles of the moon and I may light a specifically colored candle when I feel that it's necessary. I particularly like the concept that Buddhism is a state of being, not a religion. I think it sums up most religious teachings in six words: "Right thought, right word, right action." I've taken what is meaningful to me and discarded the rest. Because I don't profess to be "saved" or "born again" and because I don't look for God in a book, I am pagan or heathen to those who feel that it is the only way.
I can't generalize the attitudes of the "Christian" people in this state to the entire state, because the bigger cities are quite progressive. I live and work in a small rural town where most people profess to be Christian and assume that everyone else is. I have observed that most are narrow-minded and I find it rather sad that they are not open to learning about new ideas, and some will never have the opportunity. What I find far more disturbing is that they will tolerate unacceptable behavior from those within their own group but will not tolerate it from others. The last church that I attended here preached forgiveness for the music director who stole the church van and got a DUI more than once, but voted out his replacement because he had been divorced twenty years earlier. But Number One on my list is that fact that while there seems to be a church on every corner, in fifteen years of social work practice I have yet to see a church group help any of our clients. Assistance comes from government and community organizations and private individuals. The word out here in the "holler" is that "If I were really down and out, I'd go to a bar before I'd go to a church. I'd get more help." But the main reason that I left that particular church was that for nearly the last year, every sermon was focused on obtaining a bigger building. Special collections were taken up for the "Building Fun" every week, yet few offerings were made for the poor or the sick. Instead of agreeing with the pastor that we needed to go out and bring more people to the church, during these sermons I reflected upon how Jesus conducted his ministry. Jesus didn't need a building. I can't recall that any pagan group in our area ever specifically looking for a building. People meet in individual homes and parks. There was one ritual that I attended that took place in a Unitarian Universalist church because it was a bad winter and the church was kind enough to let us use their building.
Most pagan and nature based paths are against mind-altering substances. Meditation and "magic" are far more powerful - and legal. I just haven't met a lot of alcoholic or drug-addicted pagans, although they may exist in other groups. Those who showed up at public rituals with the intention of being rebellious or curious typically didn't stick around if they even came back at all. Pagan rituals are not what most people expect to see. No animal sacrifices or invoking the "Devil." Just a bunch of tree huggers hanging out in the park, holding hands and singing nice little songs and passing around cookies and apple cider. Maybe some mead when we're lucky enough to have some. I haven't met pagans who abuse their children and say "I could not possibly have abused my child, I'm a Pagan." As a social worker, I have heard "I could not possibly have abused my child because I'm a Christian" more times than I can count. And I am personally acquainted with pagans and heathens who live more "Christian" lives than the majority of Christians that I know. I recently heard someone use the term "Sunday Christians," those who attend church religiously but act like everyone else for the rest of the week.
Most of the pagan groups in the city eventually disbanded. I often think that they started acting like a bunch of Baptists. It's no secret that a lot of arguing occurs among church members. No matter which group is guilty of it, it's pure human silliness. It's been about fifteen years since I released my old life into the earth under that oak tree, but I find my kindred souls every time I go to a gathering in the city. And sometimes I find them right here. While getting gas at a local convenience store, I noticed a beautiful Om tattoo on the owner's arm. He said that I was the only one who knew what it was, and a friendship was born. I spotted a pentacle on a bank manager several months ago. When I finally had a chance to speak to her, I found out that there is a group in one of the smaller cities, closer to here. When I complimented her on her beautiful pendant, she told me that anyone who has asked her about it say that they think that it's a Star of David. Ironically, that's almost on the same level as their knowing that it is a pentacle, because people here think that Judaism is a form of paganism but it does not carry the fear that is connected to the pentacle. The "seal of the great state of Oklahoma" happens to be a pentacle; star, circle and all. Take a look around and you'll find that the pentacle is incorporated into symbols of law enforcement badges, military emblems, company logos and more.
For a long time, I rarely wore any of my pagan jewelry in public, with the exception of the semi-gemstones that I wrap in wire. This recent encounter made me a bit braver. After many years of working with a group who behave very similarly to those referred to above, I not only began wearing it to work but I have also brought some items in for my work area. I found an absolutely adorable piece that depicts three little Buddhist babies in the "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" poses and took it to work in hopes of reminding us all to be more positive and to do no harm. One individual was actually completely unfamiliar with its message. When he asked what it was and I told him, his response was, "Interesting." I now think that I should have said that "it's three little Black babies in pajamas." I have a beautiful loving Ganesha on my desk and I simply told another one that the big ears and small mouth are a reminder to listen more and speak less. "Oh," was the response. I have a huge OM necklace that I have been wearing as well and I have a Hamsa tattoo on my right wrist. I find that some people are receptive when they ask what they are and I respond. I have worked with this group for about ten years, and I know that some of them suspect that I'm a "witch." Several have even asked for tarot readings, which I have given while firmly telling them that I am not a "fortune teller." Frankly, I'm surprised that I haven't been accused of spell casting when something happens. They would still be wrong, because I do not call myself a "witch," nor do I consider my spiritual practice "witchcraft." And I definitely live by the Rule of Three. I have no interest in inviting Bad Karma by sending out anything negative. I stopped calling it magic years ago. I believe in a "God," just not in the way that I was taught to or that they do. I see the Goddess, the Universe and the light of spirit in everything and everyone. My spirituality is a mix of the Catholic roots that I grew up with and the wings that came with enlightenment. One thing that recently struck me about the Catholic faith is that I was not taught to look in a book every time I wanted an answer about God. I am increasingly thankful for that. I was taught the classic Bible stories and given guidance as to how to conduct myself and my life and expected to make the right choices based on those teachings. Strong faith was instilled within me that has never wavered. Today, I am very thankful that this was my religion of origin. If someone genuinely and sincerely has legitimate questions about what I believe, I might share with them in a "teachable moment." For the rest of the time, it just seems simpler to stay in the closet and peek out every now and again.
I respect all spiritual paths. While I am willing to learn about any aspect of spirituality, I am not open to argument about why their - or my - way is the "right" way or the "only" way. I do not feel that it is my place to challenge anyone's beliefs. When I hear something that I strongly disagree with, I bite my tongue and keep my opinions to myself. But to those who insist on proselytizing, I have less of a problem throwing things out there to make them think. I define a spiritually insecure person as one who deals with their own inner turmoil by defending what they think they believe by telling others that their beliefs are "wrong." I have spoken up when I have been exposed to conversations about "the enemy" and "the devil." I have no problem pointing out that when you believe in something, you give it a great deal of power. Human beings are inherently evil and have been given the gift of discernment and free will. We have the ability to determine right from wrong and to make choices. Blaming our own bad behavior on some outside force is complete failure to take responsibility for ourselves. There is very little that happens in our world that some human being didn't have something to do with somewhere in the process. This conversation typically ends in the person never speaking to me again. I have learned that human beings, in general, are threatened and become defensive when something either is or could be the truth. The challenge is to work through the initial shock and to be open to considering whether we might be wrong, or whether there might be another way. It's even better when we take steps toward learning more. It is said that to reject something that we know nothing about is to have achieved the highest level of ignorance.
There are pagans who will attempt to "convert" others by challenging their beliefs, I will not deny that. I've frequently seen it happen in online forums and it can get pretty nasty. It has always been my understanding that the basic premise of the pagan path is that we are to respect all paths. Perhaps this stemmed from the taboo against being able to speak about our beliefs publicly, but I don't see it that way. I firmly believe that there are many paths which all lead to the same "God" and that our relationship with "God," "Goddess," or no "God" at all is an intensely personal issue. I believe that all of us are to walk the path that allows us to use our own gifts for the greatest good of all, whether that path is through learning, teaching, serving or simply existing.
I have been fortunate in that I am not only formally educated but in that I have also had opportunities to study and practice extensively on my own. When I needed an elective in college and chose Women's Studies, I learned the factual history behind the witch burnings. This part of history is not taught accurately in our schools, when it is taught at all. The truth is that the church had very little to do with it and in fact, withdrew and washed its hands of it. The law at that time was that if your neighbor was dead, you could take their property. It was driven by selfish, heartless human beings who used the name of God as an excuse for hate, much as many societies, cultures and governments have done since time began and continue to do today. Although not all who were persecuted were female, misogyny was also involved. We are seeing this again in 2014 with the political attempts to regulate women's bodies. Another factor is what I see as religious brainwashing, where people are taught to fear anything that their government doesn't approve or want them to know about and to believe that anything that goes outside that box is wrong.
On the radio last night, I heard a commercial for one of the many Christian schools in the area. Normally, I would have given it as much attention as I give other ads - none. However, a piece of it caught my attention. The school promised to "teach you how to strengthen your faith and give you the tools to defend it." I felt both sadness and a little anger at the same time. If someone simply feels that they have to defend their faith, perhaps they are questioning it themselves. No one, no matter what their faith, should ever be forced to defend it under pressure from government or society.
I recently read about a study that concluded that in the next few decades, organized religion will decline in our country (will look this up and cite it later). Ghandi said, "The enemy is fear. We think it is hate, but it is fear." I hope that if you are reading this ten or twenty years from now, the world will be more educated, tolerant and enlightened. I hope that everyone will be able to practice their spiritual path openly because it is no longer feared and because there is nothing to fear. Blessed Be.