A video in which I read an excerpt from my book, The Night Journey: Witchcraft as Transformation. I was particularly pleased with this chapter, as I think it’s very poetic and has some powerful imagery in it.
A video in which I read an excerpt from my book Dark Mirror: the Inner Work of Witchcraft, all about the inner work and why I think it’s important.
A totalising system is one that seeks to subsume all other paradigms within its paradigm, rather than accepting that other paradigms exist alongside it. It regards itself as a complete and universal system which can explain all experience and needs no supplemental systems.
A non-totalising or pluralist system recognises its particularity to its local culture and sees that different philosophies emerge out of different cultural contexts and local histories. A totalising system ignores local contexts or seeks to explain them through its paradigm.
It is often assumed that the purpose of religion is to shape its adherents into nicer people. However, a quick look at the number and variety of unpleasant people in every religious tradition gives the lie to this idea. If religion doesn’t make people nicer, what is it actually for?
Spiritual and religious experiences can vary, as William James described more than a century ago. He described how different types of people get spiritual nourishment from different styles of religious practice, and in the process probably contributed to an increase in tolerance of religious diversity.
When examining our own spiritual experiences, or seeking out spiritual experiences, I find it helpful to identify experiences that are nourishing in the long-term, rather than just providing a temporary high.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- I do not think I am a blogger.
- I have been thinking about this for a long time.
- 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
- You don’t have to hit every one of those, but most of the time I hit one at the most. Sometimes zee-ro.
- And I’m okay with that. My work is elsewhere.
- The blog form also asks that the writer…know. Have answers. A blog is a container for answers.
- 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.
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 journeyMy 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.