Coming Out & Going Down

Today is the first ever International Pagan Coming Out Day.

Part of me was tempted to let the day pass unmarked. After all, I have no brave story of “coming out of the broom closet” to share. I’ve always been out.

For as long as I can remember, my passions have been rooted in poetry, ecology and feminism, with a dash of pacifism on the side — and these have always shaped my spiritual life in profound ways. I have never had to hide those passions from anyone, and much of the time I’ve been encouraged and supported in my explorations. (Plenty of other times, my devotion to peace, my belief in equality, my fierce love of the earth have brought on derision or dismissal from others, but so it goes.)

The practices that make up my spiritual life have changed and evolved over the years, it’s true — gradually incorporating more creative, embodied personal ritual, shaped by a growing engagement with Celtic mythologies and post-Christian worldviews. My prayers and devotions these days are different from what they were when I was a young Catholic girl — but not so different, really. Even just last summer, spending time with a group of Christians in Northern Ireland to explore the place of peacemaking and radical activism in Celtic spirituality, I felt right at home with the simple, earthy rituals and meditative work we engaged in together. The environmentalists and deep ecologists I admire so greatly rarely identify with the Pagan community, though their words and their work are often more deeply “Pagan” than much of what I see from those who claim the name. Even within the Pagan community, we continue to have real, serious debate about what the word “Pagan” even means to those of us who identify with it, let alone what it means to the people we might be “coming out” to today.

In my own life, the name “Pagan” has ebbed and flowed around my spiritual practice like a tide drawn by some gravity that I don’t quite understand and can’t quite pin down. I began my study of Druidry as a Christian and remained so long after others had begun to call me “Pagan” based on my writings. My formal break with the Catholic Church came sometime afterwards, with the revelation that a friend of our family had been sexually abused by a priest growing up. I could no longer associate myself in good conscience with a socio-political institution that covered up or made excuses for such things. But even before then, I’d always been a bad Catholic, deeply feminist and anti-hierarchy… as many of my Catholic relatives still are. The choice to leave the Church was a bit hard for my family to understand, but not because they feared Paganism or had visions of me someday burning in hell. If anything, it was milder than the reactions I get from fellow liberals when I admit that I don’t vote Democrat — the whole “you live with the lesser of evils because nobody’s perfect” reasoning that, well, just has never quite been enough for me.

But then, I still make nice at family gatherings, I join in their holiday celebrations on Christmas and I call my folks on St. Valentine’s Day (to say thanks for the care package full of chocolates and Pez). I honor my Christian ancestors alongside my non-Christian ones on days like St. Patrick’s Day, remembering the poverty and starvation that first drove my people to these shores and into the lands where I was born and raised. And because of this, just this past March I was told by another Pagan that I wasn’t really “100% Pagan” anyway. The tides turn again. When it comes to who deserves to claim the name: Pagans giveth, and Pagans taketh away.

What has changed in my spiritual life has little to do with the labels I give it. Today I am a Pagan Druid, but that may change in the future as the words evolve in meaning and the community that embraces them shifts and turns about itself in an on-going conversation of creative group-identity formation. What has changed for me, most importantly, is not the name for my spiritual practice, but its depth.

I’ve never really had to “come out” as Pagan to anyone, because my spiritual life is not really about fitting into boxes, or broom closets — it’s about deepening. I deepen into my self and my work, through prayer and meditation, through poetry and story, through my time in the woods and my attention to the landscape. The noise of conversation goes on above me, and sometimes I get in on the action for the intellectual fodder, because I’m a Gemini and I love a good debate. But what my spirituality is mostly about, when I’m most authentically and sincerely engaged in the work, when I’m really deep down in it, is not the churn and foam of words and labels and carefully defined boundaries… it’s the stillness of breath, the sacred tension of attention, the misty, mystic veil of the threshold.

Paganism offers me tools for deepening that Christianity in its current form never did. The practices of ritual and meditation, spellcraft and trancework, speak deeply and powerfully to a need in my spiritual life to live my love and walk my talk. In Paganism there is room, too, for the dirt-worshipping and tree-hugging that I’ve indulged in since I was a kid — there’s room for that work, those relationships with the earth and her denizens, to take center stage in my life, with all the sacredness and power they demand, and deserve.

But who knows? Christianity is evolving, too, as are so many other religious traditions coming face-to-face with the realities of ecological destruction and social injustice. And Paganism isn’t exactly at a stand-still either. For that matter, neither am I. Who knows what lurks in the depths, what needs I might face as I grow older, what tools I may need tomorrow, next year, next decade? Only the gods know. All I can do for now is show up to the work that’s in front of me, with the tools I have, and dig a little deeper with every breath, with every prayer, with every song.

So the metaphor of “coming out” has never been a meaningful one for me. I’m not sure what it would mean for me to “come out” in any way other than to continue sharing with others, through my writing and engagement, the various experiences and questions that I’ve discovered in my own life. But this is less a coming out for me, as it is an invitation for others to come in.

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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