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