Back to Basics

Goddess of SpringWhat is it that I believe? This question has troubled me on and off ever since I left my childhood Catholicism and began wandering in the wildness and wilderness that is modern Paganism.

When I was a Catholic, the question of belief didn’t trouble me all that much. Not because I had been told what to think and believe unquestioningly, but because I had two thousand years of theologians, mystics, philosophers and saints who’d explored these questions before me and come up with myriad ways of answering them, more than imaginable. Choosing what to believe was like a hunt for buried treasure among a rich tradition nourished and nurtured by elders and wise men for generations. And it was a hunt I was encouraged to go on, an invitation to adventure and not a threat of “getting it right” or facing some awful punishment (at least this was true in the liberal, intellectually curious Catholicism that I was raised in, a kind of Catholicism that seems to be rapidly disappearing these days). After a long hunt, I discovered that the treasure I’d uncovered — that “pearl of great price” — did not belong exclusively to Christianity, and in fact had a great deal more in common with the ancient, pagan traditions that knelt close to the earth, sinking loving fingers into the soil and dancing down the rain. It was a treasure born of the natural world, the poetry of my Celtic ancestors, the music of the World Song singing in the roots of the trees and the stones of the burial mounds and the caressing waves of the ocean lapping against the shore.

So I left Catholicism behind and began wandering in the wilderness. Druidry was the path I took, one that resonated with me deeply for many reasons. But as with most young traditions, I quickly discovered that modern Druidry, and much of modern Paganism in general, had only shallow roots that ran up far too quickly against the bedrock of lost heritage, oppression, disruption, colonialism and the uncertainty of intervening millennia. What were the traditions of the ancients that I hoped to rediscover, and even if I did manage to find them or piece them together from the few clues left, how could I be sure that they would be relevant and meaningful to me as a woman in the (post-)postmodern world?

The search for answers to my theological questions took on a new anxiety. Where once I could sift through the opinions of philosophers and mystics for the truths that resonated with me on a personal level, now I found myself striving to become an Expert In All Things Pagan, trying to build a whole new tradition for myself on the uncertain foundation of the ashes and dust and old bones of the beloved dead and the competing interests and egos of contemporary Pagan leaders, some of whom were (let’s be honest) not always very kind to newbies and neophytes (or even people they’d only just met who, for lack of a reputation, they merely assumed were newbies). As the Joni Mitchell song goes, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…”

Without a larger, well-established religious community to offer support and acceptance, without the tether of discernment and long-cultivated wisdom that allowed me to safely wander far into the depths of the unknown along my own spiritual path — I found myself incredibly anxious about straying too far from the herd. I tried for years to be a “good polytheist” with an anxiety and uneasy eagerness to prove myself that I’d never felt as a monotheist. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to profess a belief in my gods; I also had to prove that my knowledge of them was founded in solid, up-to-date research by only the best scholars. I had to pronounce names in unfamiliar languages with perfect accuracy during rituals, I had to demonstrate my knowledge of exactly how the Irish Manannan mac Lir differed from the Welsh Manawydan fab Llyr, I had to strive to believe in a “hard” polytheism that took for granted deity identity much less fluid than even the identities of my fellow human beings, I had to guard against eclecticism and syncretism as naughty words, or even the whiff of these that might waft off of sources and authors who weren’t considered approved reading. Personal experiences that fell beyond the carefully constructed box of modern polytheistic practice was tactfully labeled “UPG” and left to shiver out in the cold of solitary practice where it was easy to wonder if maybe I was just crazy after all.

Much of this was my own personality. I’ve always wanted to do well at whatever work I take on, in love with the challenge that learning, exploration and skillful mastery can provide. I hate doing things half-assed, and as a Gemini, you might say that I have two whole asses to worry about putting on the line. I fling myself into all kinds of work with a passion, and that includes spiritual work, the Great Work. But sometimes, in my enthusiasm, I don’t spend enough time paying attention to whose standards I’m striving to measure myself against. I do value scholarship and academic rigor, and I appreciate nuance and intellectual subtlety as much as poetry, art and damn good ritual — and so it took me a long time to realize that the anxiety I was feeling about my spiritual life as a Pagan was not the healthy passion to explore, but the sinking feeling of dread at being laughed off as crazy, wrong or — gods forbid — just perpetually silly and “noob”-ish.

I’m beginning to think that this is a pretty common experience for Pagans. Some of my favorite fellow Pagans have a deep ambivalence about the community and the label itself, sometimes feeling boxed in or trapped by it, unable to relate to others who use that term or the communities they represent. I have been lucky in finding some strong, supportive Druid communities who help to keep me firmly tether to a process of discernment and honest exploration — but among the greater Pagan community, the anxiety persists. In recent months, I’ve realized that the anxiety has grown so great that there are times when I’m not even sure what it is that I do believe anymore, so long have I been paying more attention to the delicate dance of group opinions than to my own personal convictions.

So what exactly do I believe? To answer that question, I have to go back to basics. And in going back to basics, I have to face my fear of being forever shrugged off as a newbie fluff bunny who can’t be taken seriously. It’s easy to say, “So what? What do you care if people take you seriously?” But as a member of a scattered, small community, a minority religion in a predominantly Christian culture, it can feel pretty devastating to be shrugged off or shuffled aside even by those you thought would welcome you with open arms. But that’s the risk you have to face if you want to cultivate an open and free relationship with spirit and the sacred world. The world is far stranger and wilder than the books and experts would have you believe.

So what, at the most basic and deepest level, do I believe?

  • I believe in the Song of the World, a harmony of interweaving melodies woven from the chorus of atoms and earthquakes, of wind and fire, of sun and starlight, of misty woods at dusk, of the butterfly’s dance and the call of the heron, of rainstorms and rivers, of ocean tides and cresting floods, of blood and gore spilled red upon the white purity of snow and the black of the raven’s wing, of rosebuds and the smell of summer grass, of the gods in their myriad forms, of the beloved dead, of the spirits of the land. I believe this World Song is what the Taoists call “The Way of Things” — both the deep, resonating essential nature of all that is, and the guide of natural harmony that shapes the world and the land around us and within us.
  • I believe in fire and water, the sacred duality that dances at the creative heart of existence, born of that numinous unity which moves through the melody of the Song of the World. Fire and water move. They are the complimentary opposites that give rise each to the other, fire licking upwards, water trickling down, one bright and one dark, one hot and one cool, one active and one receptive, yet both liminal still, embodied best in movement not in form, consuming and all-permeating, the first spinning of unity into expression but still not yet manifest. I find that my guides to understanding this sacred duality are my primary gods: Brighid, goddess of fire, sun and stars; and Manannan, god of mist, storm and sea.
  • I believe in the Three Realms of land, sea and sky, and the three Druidic elements of nwyfre, gwyar and calas (wind, water, stone; breath, blood, bone; force, flow and form). These triplicities are the dynamic manifestations of the marriage of fire and water, day and night, above and below, and all such sacred dualities. But they are not static, nor forced into a stable, permanent form — they move and turn, each arising from the others. Above, below and center. Transcendent, immanent and manifest. The in-breath, the exhalation, and the moment of stillness between. Like a three-legged stool, the stablest of all, these triplicities embody a dynamic, ever-changing stability of the natural world. And as three points define a plane, the Three Realms define the sacred space in which we live and move and have our being, while the three Druidic elements describe the processes of that life, that movement, that being-becoming dance of existence.
  • I believe that the gods (however we conceive of them), the ancestors (however we remember them) and the spirits of the land (however we experience them) all play active, meaningful roles in shaping our lives and our selves. I believe that we in turn can cultivate meaningful, mutual relationships of love and respect with them through ritual, prayer, meditation and contemplative attention, and that these relationships offer us connection and opportunities to seek to live in harmony with the World Song through intention and free will even in the face of forces that are so much bigger than we can even imagine.
  • I believe that all things are manifestations of Spirit, the Song of the World, and that all things also have spirit, unique selves which embody the myriad ways in which the world experiences and is conscious of itself. Rocks and whirlwinds possess a consciousness just as humans and house cats do, not to mention oak trees and gods and computer circuitry. This belief is generally called animism, or sometimes pantheism (though usually pantheism is a kind of non-theism that does not include a belief in individual deities). Either way, it celebrates the raven-ness of ravens and the mollusk-ness of mollusks, the utter tree-ness of a tree and the stone-ness of a stone as sacred expressions of the numinous, each with its own gift of awareness and experience to give back to the World Song.
  • I believe that living rightly and mindfully in the world requires us to cultivate an integrity of balance and harmony with all these other beings that share the world with us, and that this naturally leads us to desire lives of sustainability and ecological awareness, as well as a reverence for nature. This reverence for nature is not only a love of the wildness and wilderness of landscapes and sacred places untamed and untrammeled by the controlling machinations of humans, but also a sacred acceptance and gratitude for the essential nature of reality itself, the Way of Things, the Song of the World. This reverence for nature leads us to see that nature is, indeed, everywhere, and cannot be otherwise but everywhere, for it is the essential, inalienable quality of the world itself. And realizing this, we no longer seek to exert control over nature, but to understand it and live according to nature in all its manifestations, including our own deepest, truest natures as human animals, members of this planet Earth.
  • I believe that ritual, like poetry and art, can open us to more authentic relationship with the nature of things, the Song of the World, and all of the beings who share the world with us by engaging us in the sacred play of creativity, imagination and creation. Through ritual, we experience space and time in new ways, and discover the diversity of experience embodied in the myriad beings of the world. Through ritual, prayer, worshipful devotion and meditation, we cultivate our ability to attend to new perspectives and to connect to the beauty inherent in all things, including the beauty and meaning within ourselves.

I believe in a great many more things, but these beliefs are at the very foundation of my Druidic practice and my spiritual life.






This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project 2012.
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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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