Cat Chapin-Bishop: Sacred Fire, or What Do I Hope to Build?

We are very pleased to offer this guest post on our March theme from Cat Chapin-Bishop. Cat has been a Pagan since 1986, and has also been Quaker since 2001. She is the former chair of Cherry Hill Seminary’s Pastoral Counseling Department, and her essays have appeared in Celebrating the Pagan Soul, Writing Cheerfully on the Web, The Pomegranate, and at The Wild Hunt blog.  In addition to her Pagan work, Cat is active in her local Quaker meeting, and she writes about the connections between Pagan and Quaker practice at the blog she co-writes with her husband Peter, Quaker Pagan Reflections. –CHK

I live in a place that reminds me daily that the world is vibrant with spirit.

The land around me reminds me: we live amid wonders.  My hope for the Pagan movement, fifty years from now, is that we remember to celebrate that fact, and to live in a way consistent with that vision.

Cat Chapin-BishopI live and work in rural Massachusetts, in a landscape full of stone walls and looming pine trees. My daily commute takes me past oaks and orchards, icy waterfalls and granite cliffs, and I see deer, bears, and red-tailed hawks on a regular basis. Driving to work this week, I saw the cold fire of a full moon on one horizon, while to the east, the the sun rose over the hills in a blaze of copper.  In moments, the faded pastels of the landscape dissolved, and the birch trees, rocks and windowed houses all caught fire.

As a Pagan, this is how I see the world.  Call it spirit, call it numen, call it life or the last resounding echoes of the Big Bang.  Something burns with lines of silver and copper fire within every being, every object in the world.  Hard to name it may be, but this is not just a metaphor, a product of my human mind; the world was sacred before I ever saw it, and it will be so long ages after the human race is gone. Even the rocks vibrate with it… even ordinary morning commuters like me.

We Pagans do not all understand the sacred in the same way. Some of us hold that the Earth Herself is sacred, and some of us do not.  Some of our traditions teach of gods, some of land spirits, nymphs, ancestors and disir, Fair Folk and ghosts.  Some of our traditions recognize holy trees and holy wells,  mountains sacred to the gods, or powers of nature the gods can wield like toys. Some of us feel a sacred fire without reference to the supernatural at all, while to others, each rock and stream is home to a spiritual being, formed with holy fire at its core.

I do not understand all the ways my people honor what is holy in the world.  I only understand that we do.

We do not need to define our experiences of the holy in the same way.  We do not need to blend together our theologies, vocabulary, or myths.  But I think we are weakened forever if we allow our differences to distract us from what we know we hold in common: that we live our lives open to the possibility that on this day, we will  encounter personally some source of that sacred fire.  We walk through the world ready to be blessed.

As Walt Whitman put it, in Leaves of Grass:

Stop this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all poems;
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun—(there are millions of suns left;)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books;
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me:
You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself.

My hope for us in the future is that we will have become wise enough not to quarrel with one another over our intellectual understandings of experiences too deep for words.  How we understand the sacred is diverse; that we can know what it is like to be on fire with the sacred is unitive—if we let it be.

Every Pagan is not a mystic.  Every Pagan tradition does not need to center on mysticism.  But I would like for us to recognize, and even to celebrate, that whatever the teachings we have inherited or created, the fire of Spirit still runs through the bones of the world. It’s still there, and we can find it.

What if we put more energy into encountering the spiritual fire behind our traditions, and into letting them inspire us into action than we put into defining what distinguishes one of our traditions from another? I don’t say eliminate our differences… but perhaps we can lose the illusion that difference is the point of religious life. Perhaps we can make use of the unique strengths and insights of each Pagan tradition to better find and follow the sacred encounters at its heart.

What if, instead of quarreling over what notions, what definitions of the sacred are right or wrong, mine or yours, we instead tried to listen to what that holy fire is telling us about how to live?  What if, instead of trying to define which Pagan traditions are “nature-centered” or “earth-centered,” monist or polytheist, we opened ourselves, through our own traditions, to understanding what our own sacred sources have to say to us, today, about relating to the world—or to conflicts, or poverty, or any of the other complications of sharing a biosphere with seven billion other human beings?

What would we hear, if we remembered to listen?

Fifty years from now, I would like us not to be composed of religious traditions that make war on our mystics, as modern Fundamentalist Christians and Muslims do.  I’d like us to remember that the miraculous is always on the verge of breaking into everyday life, and has as much to teach us now as it taught our ancestors—whether fifty years ago, or five centuries.

Fifty years from now, I hope to find a Pagan community that shares the world of Spirit in beauty, diversity, and interconnectedness.

The Future of Contemporary Paganism: Holding Paradox (Part One)

[This is a partial response to our March series, “As Pagans, what do we hope to build?” It’s an edited version of an essay that appeared in the Patheos Press collection The Future of Religion in 2012, and it contains part of my answer to this question — but stay tuned for Part Two! –CHK]

Pagans are facing a series of issues that challenge American Paganism’s most immediate origins in the individualistic, grassroots counterculture of the 1960s. We often resist the institutionalization of our religions for the same reasons that many of us left mainstream churches and synagogues: we fear that the intensity of our spirituality and its sense of authenticity will be lost, that our practice will become stagnant and rote. Today’s Pagans are mostly solitary practitioners with loose or occasional affiliations with groups (79% identify as solitaries, according to sociologist Helen Berger). Many are hungry for more substantial experience and training than can be had from books and the internet. Additionally, Pagan families often long for stable religious communities in which to raise children, celebrate marriages, and mourn their dead. Yet the movement’s intense focus on personal spirituality looks superficially incompatible with sustainable institutions.

The challenge of contemporary Paganism’s future is to maintain an apparent paradox: to meet the needs of a growing movement without losing the passion and alternative vision that drew so many converts to Pagan traditions.

Individuality vs. Community

Pagans today most commonly gather in small groups with fluid membership and for large festivals that last for several days. Some Pagan nonprofits have successfully purchased land on which to hold gatherings, and urban groups have also attempted to start Pagan community centers, although many of these efforts have been hobbled by a weak economy and by a lack of clarity around their mission. Community centers usually attempt to provide ritual and classroom space for local Pagan groups, as well as space for social events, but the need for such spaces has often not been strong enough to make the centers financially sustainable.

Pagans of the future will need to develop institutions that do more than welcome diversity—they will need to harness diversity into collective work that meaningfully binds individuals into community. Since Pagans’ practices are so diverse, they often can only gather into large groups for worship by creating ritual that is relatively generic. Worship cannot be at the heart of a Pagan community center the way it is at a church. The shared work of Pagan institutions must concretely benefit Pagans from a variety of traditions, whether that means focusing on social justice projects such as hunger or homelessness; building Pagan-owned businesses on a cooperative model; providing networking or shared space for Pagan-specific goods and services; or creating Pagan homeschooling collectives. Pagans will financially support Pagan institutions only when those institutions allow individuals to express their religious values in more areas of their lives.

Professionalism vs. Egalitarianism

British Wicca came to America in the hands of individuals and small covens in which there was no laity—all were initiated as priests or priestesses. Mixed with American egalitarianism, this led to an eclectic American Wicca in which nonhierarchy was a common practice. In subsequent decades, many other Pagan traditions have continued to embrace this ideal. As the Pagan movement has grown, however, Paganism’s lack of professional clergy has become a stumbling block. Pagans often have difficulty finding Pagan clergy who have the professional skills to help them with difficult life transitions (for example, licensed counselors, hospital and prison chaplains, etc.). Pagan leaders are usually volunteers with families and day jobs. The hard work of facilitating a group, planning large events, and building and maintaining nonprofits often leads to volunteer burnout. Volunteers also often lack formal training in ministry, nonprofit administration, or counseling and are not always well-prepared for the stresses and challenges of leadership.

Pagans, however, are resistant to the idea of paid, professional clergy, as they fear that paid clergy will form an elite class that takes decision-making power and opportunities for creativity away from volunteers. Pagans must balance the need for professional Pagan services with the desire to continue to actively empower volunteers as leaders in the community. Nonhierarchical religious groups such as the Society of Friends (the Quakers) may help to provide models of how individuals with various levels of training might still function in a community as peers with differing roles.

Intimacy vs. Inclusivity

The contemporary Paganism of the 1960s and 1970s—strongly influenced by British Wicca—focused on emotionally intimate small groups. Some of these were oathbound covens who kept the details of their rituals a secret; others were empowerment groups (often for women, gay men, or lesbians) where personal sharing and confidentiality were paramount. Feeling that secrecy is no longer necessary for protection, Pagans now often enter the movement through large public workshops, book groups, and distance learning. While there are legitimate concerns about how secrecy can create an unhealthy power dynamic in small groups, young Pagans are often unaware that the practice of confidentiality is also a powerful group bonding tool. Pagans who see their religion as having a mission to change the world, especially in the realms of ecological issues and human rights, tend to be radically inclusive and sometimes demand that other Pagans be as well. Pagans who have experienced the support of a closely bonded small group, however, sometimes resist such inclusivity because for them, intimacy and trust are necessary precursors for deep spiritual experience.

Clashes between these two value systems have sometimes led to extended conflicts between groups and individuals who are otherwise fairly like-minded. Take, for example, an incident at the 2011 conference PantheaCon where transgendered women were turned away (perhaps inadvertently) from a Dianic women-only ritual. The incident has sparked an enormous amount of emotionally charged writing on the right of groups to hold exclusive rituals in public spaces, the social impact of exclusive rituals on Pagan community, and the legitimacy of gender-essentialist theologies. Some Dianics have charged that transwomen make a space “unsafe” for women who have been traumatized by men and have asserted their right to a particular kind of gender-exclusive intimacy, even at a large conference event. Queer and transgender activists have answered that such events splinter Pagan community and should at minimum be private events. Others, in turn, have questioned the moral rightness of having exclusive groups or confidentiality at all. Traditions that retain oathbound lore or have idiosyncratic rules for membership have sometimes felt assaulted by would-be students who feel entitled to entry. Pagans have a great deal of work to do in order to preserve the powerfully transformative effect of the intimate group, while also creating a wider Pagan movement that can protect their civil liberties as members of minority religions.


Pagans frequently fear institutionalization because we do not want our religions to compromise their values. The movement, however, has grown too large; institutions will inevitably form in response to needs. In order for those institutions to reflect non-mainstream values, however, they must be structured in non-mainstream ways. Pagans will not thrive in the structure of traditional churches; we must build something new. The struggle to creatively embed paradoxical values—individuality and community, professionalism and egalitarianism, intimacy and inclusivity—into institutions is the primary Pagan challenge for the new century.