Chasing the Wild Goose

While many Pagans are off celebrating and rubbing elbows at the Pagan Spirit Gathering this week, Jeff and I will soon be heading down to North Carolina to attend the Wild Goose Festival, a Celtic-flavored festival of “justice, spirituality, music and the arts.” We’ll have a chance to attend all sorts of talks and performances focused on themes of social justice and peacemaking rooted in contemplation and the mystical-spiritual life — not to mention, seeing familiar faces and renewing friendships that first grew out of my visit to Northern Ireland last summer. Needless to say, we are psyched!

But we’ll also be testing the boundaries of this festival, and having our own boundaries tested as well. Though the Wild Goose Festival is open to everyone regardless of religious tradition or denomination, it is unabashedly “rooted in the Christian tradition” and has been getting press lately as the Next Big Thing in the progressive Christian movement in the United States. So although I’m very excited and looking forward to our time down in North Carolina, I’m also a little nervous about what my place will be and how Jeff and I will fit in as Druids. It seems more than a bit ironic that my first major festival event as a Pagan will be a Christian one.

Where Christians and Pagans Meet

I find myself thinking a lot about interfaith conversation and the relationship between Paganism and Christianity these days, in the wake of online debates about who counts as Pagan and especially the contemplations of Quaker Pagan and friend, Peter Bishop, after his return from visiting Quaker mission hospitals in Kenya this spring. Peter echoed a sentiment that I felt after my trip to Northern Ireland last summer when he said in a recent blog post, “If I’d known someone like that when I was 22, it’s possible I’d still be Christian.” Writing about discovering a passage renouncing fundamentalism in the Freedom Friends Church’s text, Faith and Practice, Peter confessed:

It comes a bit late for me. I’ve found other paths to God, first as a Wiccan and Pagan, and more recently as a liberal, non-Christian Quaker. But it’s surprising how powerful I still find that renunciation. And how angry it makes me, even today, that no one anywhere in the Christian Church had the balls to say that in 1981.

What’s interesting for me was that there were folks saying this kind of thing when I was that age. At 22, I was just on the other side of a long transition from my childhood Catholicism to my adulthood spirituality as a Druid, which included more than a year exploring the murky, liminal waters of Norvicensian Witchcraft based on the teachings of Catholic saints like Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen. My Catholicism had always been what folks today are calling “progressive Christianity,” steeped in the poetry and aesthetics of mysticism and ecstasy and wild(er)ness while also deeply concerned with social justice, peacemaking and solidarity with the marginalized and disenfranchised. The Christianity I left behind when I formally committed myself to the Druid path was not fundamentalist or oppressive, at least certainly not the way many Christians and ex-Christians have described their traditions. As I’ve written before, my desire to leave Catholicism was less about my need to escape, and more about my need to explore. Yet even while I was deepening my exploration and contemplation, the Catholic Church was growing increasingly conservative, dogmatic and anti-feminist. It would be impossible for me to go back now. That bridge has been burned, and not by me. Catholicism today is not the same as the Catholicism I left behind.

The way certain Christian communities and traditions have made such a pronounced veer towards the conservative right in the last decade is in part responsible for the deliberate resistance among other Christians that has coalesced into the “progressive Christian movement.” Even Patheos.com has acknowledged this shift by introducing a separate “Progressive Christian Portal” — for those involved recently in discussions about the diversity of the Pagan/polytheist umbrella, as though it were inherently more diverse or more pluralistic than the Christian umbrella, this should give us pause. We would be remiss to overlook the tensions that exist within Christianity today, or to ignore potential allies and teachers among those who think of themselves as progressive Christians.

On Progress and Devotion

One of those allies and teachers, my friend Carl McColman, returned to Christianity after seven years as a practicing Pagan. During our time together in Northern Ireland last August studying Celtic spirituality and peace process, we would joke with each other: Echoing the sentiment captured in Peter’s words recently, I’d observe that if I’d known more Christians like him and the others on retreat with us, I might never have become a Pagan, and he would rejoin teasingly that if more Pagans were like me, he might not have turned to Catholicism.

The truth is, I often feel as though I have much more in common with “progressive Christians” than I do with some of my fellow Pagans. This is a sentiment that I think lies behind a lot of recent discussion about the usefulness and accuracy of the name “Pagan” for our tradition, especially for those of us who place value on interfaith outreach. Many Not-Pagan pagans feel they have more in common with Hindus, Buddhists and those of indigenous spiritual traditions. For me, grounded firmly in modern American society (with all its contradictions and struggles unique to this culture), the devotion, compassion, enthusiasm and ideals that inspire progressive Christians to explore issues of peace and justice with such passion and commitment, the sense of humility and gratitude and service that make the foundation for both their mundane work and their spiritual lives — these are things I can relate to much more deeply than the quest for the next best meditative technique or nitpicking over the historical accuracy of this or that folk tradition.

Yet I also agree with Carl when he writes about his ambivalence towards labels like “progressive Christian”:

A few days back [Chris Glaser] suggested that progressive Christians are the mystics of our time. Even though if I had to take a test I’d probably end up with “Progressive” tattooed across my forehead, this kind of language makes me nervous. As soon as we start talking about “progressive Christians,” we are setting up some sort of dualism between progressives and, well, regressives. If you don’t think the right way about human sexuality, or economic justice, or peacemaking, or environmental concerns, well, then, you don’t get to join the “progressive” club. So as soon as we start talking about progressives, we have insiders and outsiders. But that flies in the face of mysticism, which is all about transformative levels of consciousness where categories like “inside” and “outside” fall away.

I have my own ambivalence about the word “progressive” — and it stems, at least in part, from my bone-deep commitment to conservation, memory and ancestor-wisdom as important aspects of my spirituality. In a culture quite enamored with its own “progress,” we can sometimes be too quick to rush on ahead to the next promising solution shining on the horizon, too quick to forget the lessons of history and, more importantly, the lessons of nature and the earth so much more ancient than we can possibly imagine. Though, like Carl, I would probably be first in line for a “Progressive” tattoo, it’s difficult to think of my Paganism as “progressive” when so often it feels instead like digging in my heels, sinking my fingers into the dark, solid earth and holding on for dear life. My commitment to peace, social and environmental justice, the intrinsic value and honor of every being, the sacredness of freedom, responsibility, love, service and beauty — so often these feel less like “progressive” goals and more like anchors, sturdy stone outcroppings to which I’m clinging against the relentless pull of a raging river, my only sense of gravity in a reckless mainstream plunging headlong off the coming cliff into a free fall. To me, these are not values that make me “progressive” — they’re simply what it means to be a Druid.

So I know what Carl means when he says something very similar about what it means to him to be a Christian. And I suspect that plenty of folks who earn the “progressive” label might say the same. The daily work of the “religious progressive” is not really about progress at all — it’s about love and trust, it’s about honor and devotion, and it’s about hope. Which is why, regardless of what religion we belong to, it’s important that we get together to support each other and affirm the work we are doing. It’s important that we create sanctuaries where, for a little while anyway, we can find relief from the pressures that push and pull at us and threaten to drag us off-center, and instead celebrate our sense of shared purpose, relaxing into centeredness with joy and gratitude.

Yet within these sanctuaries, I think we will also discover something of even greater importance: that we are not all the same. Carl muses over the strange paradox that he is “trying to establish a Christianity identity that is at variance with those Christians whose identity as Christians is all about identity” — and this, too, is familiar to me as a Pagan whose sense of Pagan identity is not “all about identity” but much more about service and rootedness and devotion to the earth. But despite this familiar oddness, I also know that our journeys will be very different. Carl’s process for discovering, along with his community, what this new understanding of Christian identity means for him and others will take him in directions that are very different from where my own process of deepening and community outreach might lead me. Though we share many of the same anchors — justice, peace, art, beauty, service — our centers of gravity are not the same.

And this is a wonderful thing! When we can help one another resist the overwhelming, on-rushing pressures of mainstream culture, when we work together to create a better freedom in which to live, we give each other and ourselves permission to sing our own unique melodies as part of the wild beauty of the World Song, and to dance, spiraling each around our own centers, in harmony with that music. While Carl ponders the ironic dualism of trying to distinguish between duality and non-duality, and how such language falls away (or is transcended) through a mysticism of union… I’m turning and dancing around a different center, subsuming dualism into a mysticism of diversity, celebrating the sublimity and awe of pluralism and difference. Though it might seem strange, and against the common usage of the word, to talk about different “kinds” of mysticism, what’s important is to understand that at the heart of any mysticism is Mystery. It is in the pursuit of and devotion to such Mystery — in our common work for justice, beauty and peace — that we find ourselves meeting and parting, meeting and parting again. That is the nature of the Dance.

The Wild Goose

Even knowing this, though, parting can be difficult. I said that I can relate to what Peter wrote about being angry that he didn’t know any “progressive Christians” when he was 22, even though I knew plenty of such Christians when I was that age. The truth is, I am a Druid today precisely because I did know Christians like that, people who were loving and supportive and open, who encouraged me to discover my own center and follow my own passion and love to their source. Last summer while on retreat in Northern Ireland, I realized once again that the supportive presence of such Christians actually helps me to be a better Pagan. We do not need to be centered in the same conception of Spirit or God to be able to support and inspire one another.

And yet, none of that changes the fact that I am not a Christian, and they are not Pagan. At the end of the day, the dance turns again, the melody changes, and we go our separate ways… And I do feel frustrated sometimes — frustrated by the separation that comes with knowing I do not share their gods or their practices and they do not share mine, frustrated that this is true even of many Pagans I know, and that it often seems so difficult to find similar sustenance and support from other Pagans when my attention turns to deepening my work in my own spiritual community. Frustrated that I should be “weird” even to the weird ones, that I should find that the truer I am to my own center and the more devoted to embracing my own place in the land and the community of Spirit, the more it seems I am forever having to relearn the hard lessons of loneliness, forgiveness and release.

But this is the nature of the Dance, and the nature of the World Song is to rise and fall, turn and spiral between sound and silence. I remember reading Natalie Goldberg’s advice, passed on from her Buddhist teacher, that we will always be lonely whenever we do anything deeply, and that the sting of loneliness cannot be lessened — but it is only loneliness, after all.

So I expect there will be times at the Wild Goose Festival when I will feel lonely or strange, when I will feel my boundaries pushed or my assumptions tested — but then, this is part of transformative work and what makes interfaith work so important to begin with.

I think there is power in the metaphor of the “Wild Goose” — An Geadh-Glas — the name in Celtic Christianity for the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is, after all, that Person of the Trinity which is the indwelling Spirit in all things, the immanence of the divine in the world itself. She is the balance and compliment to the transcendent God-the-Father. She is the fire of inspiration, the creative power of eros, the source and sustainer of community, the untamable wildness of hope. When we go on a “wild goose chase,” we can feel that we’re going in circles, spiraling silly around that which is elusive and mysterious.

Still, I remember one cold winter afternoon just before dusk, going out alone into the woods to pray to my gods. I stood listening for a long time, the quiet of snowfall and the rasping of my breath the only noises in the silence… Until a cry of aching beauty echoed through the gray mist of snow, and looking up I saw parting the low clouds the dark-wedged bodies of wild geese passing like lonely shadows above the bare limbs of the trees.

I can’t help but think that my Celtic ancestors knew this about the Wild Goose, too — that those who follow her follow her into loneliness and sorrow, listening to her keening echoing over the solitude of the wilds. This is always the case when we chase the spirit and divinity within ourselves, when we seek to reach more deeply and to connect more lovingly with the world.

But it’s only loneliness, after all.

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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