Holy Wild, Theology

Gods and Spirit

That word for god — the breath, the gleaming — the shining days like great columns bearing up the sky, buttresses, rafters. Beams that in their falling, hold.

I say the names of my deities, I feel the drop of each sound into silence. They gather on the long, bent grasses in the meadow and the field, *dewos-, the many that glisten in the coming dark. Amulets of sky, jewels of the daylight, coalescing in the movement of my breath, the lingering touch of the wind. They draw themselves, wavering, into the weight and gravity of form.

I open the door, and the gods enter the dark interior of my being. The gust, the call, tracing themselves in the dust of the rafters, the shift that shivers down in drifts of gentle gray and grit, mingling particulates stirring in every corner of the sunlight. What is so small and intimate and strange — numen, spirare — the dancing footsteps of spirit in the air, the vital stir of fear, the silent thrill, calling me to courage in the deep spaces of my birth and dying, the liminal between. I am on the threshold, pouring out my breath in quick libations. I am pouring out my soul-song to mingle on the doorsill with the soft noise of their presence.

And She is rising up again, and rising up, she is the exalted queen and lady of all that rises up — the purifying fire and the wellspring of healing waters, the bright, clean sun at daybreak, the serpent stirring in the mound, all thoughts of justice and beautiful compassion aching towards the perfect, the spark and steam of smithcraft in the forge. She rises up, drawing gravity along in ecstatic going-out to meet the inspired act of making, dragging the anchor of my mind into the light and breath of Spirit. The gulf of the sky widens from heaven to horizon, an archway of blue and exhalation, and I am beneath it and within it, I am spiraling and lifted, small and intimate and strange.

And He is circling and moving, a realm and waste that gives his name and takes it back again — the ebb and flow along the shoreline, the horizon and the deep, the mist, the movement of the winds and storm, the heron gliding on long, still wings through the midnight of the newborn sun. He turns his murmuring immensity to touch my listening, gentle and insistent. He wears away the boundaries of my skin, seeping in to claim me for the flux of Spirit, moving in me with the rhythm of my heartbeat, and I am surrounded and within it, I am spiraling and sailing on the mingling waters on the threshold of my being.

And She is resting in fecundity and promise, the mother of all our naming — she is wealth and self-giving, the firm body of our dancing, the bristling flowers of spring and the high harvest of the fall, the rolling curve of the lands always unfurling, the dark cavern of our tombs grown over with pale, delicate lashes of green. She names the earth and world, the sounds of her children coalescing on her lips like drops of dew, all eddies in the mud and rocks and bones and growing things. All verdant and gold, she stirs in me every corner of Spirit with the weight of praise and gravidity, she makes my heavy form and holds it close, and I am made and move within it, I am spiraling and born in the darkness of my body.

I open the door, and the gods enter. The gods enter with their whispering and multiplicity, each one an opening into Spirit, a shining, an embrace. I settle down into my work like someone opening a window, and the breeze comes winding, finding its way into the center of my grasping and obscurity. A breeze that smells of sunlight and summer days across the field, a breeze that languishes heavy with dew in the gloom of the new morning, a breeze that sings the world’s together-song into the waiting silence. I do the work, I pour libations, I pray and wait and let the Spirit come when it will.

The door is like an eye. It grows wide and hungry in the dark.


This post is part of the 30 Days of Druidry creative writing project.

Featured, Holy Wild, Theology

Religious Branding

Star Foster of Patheos Pagan Portal has asked some of us for articles responding to the latest flurry of debate surrounding the issue of who call themselves “Pagan” and why. I’ve weighed in on this question before, and my partner, a linguist by trade as well as by nature who has nearly two decades of experience in the field, has written on several occasions about how language and labels function and evolve, especially when it comes to religious community. But the topic keeps coming up, and I keep finding new reasons to find it silly. Here’s yet another one.

When I was growing up, things were simple. I was Catholic. With a little brother on the way, my parents moved our small family into a house on the cheapest, oldest edge of the best school district they could find and at two years old I went from being a city-dweller surrounded by people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds, to a suburban kid with a swing-set in the backyard and streets that were wide and safe enough to learn to bike in, surrounded by other (mostly white) suburbanites. My mother, who has a funny sense of loyalty in an age of social mobility and product placement, kept on sending my brother and me to the same day care center in the city (where my father still worked) until we were old enough for school, and my favorite teacher for those first few important years of my life was an elderly Hispanic women named Mrs. Iris, who taught me poetry in Spanish.

When I started attending school, everyone was Christian (except for Ramsi, who was Muslim, and the other Allison, who spelled her name with two Ls and was Jewish, and Jeremy and John, who were atheists and anarchists and played trombone in the high school marching band). As a Catholic, I was Christian. This didn’t matter much, because no one in our yuppie school had much of a mind to religion. Soccer was important, and dominated our lives three times a week for practice plus Saturdays. The church my dad took us to on Sunday mornings was full of young couples and new parents with screaming babies, interested in doing right and looking for a quiet, gentle reminder that suburban life wasn’t the end-all of existence — but who were mostly worried about how they were going to get the kids to soccer practice after school the next day. I took a certain amount of pride that I wasn’t just Christian, wasn’t just Catholic, but was Irish Catholic, which seemed to my young self to carry a flavor of nature mysticism and deep roots in the same way that the air by the ocean seems to carry the taste of salt into every crack and crevice. I loved that mysticism and that poetry, and I explored my spirituality through the lens of aesthetics and poetics, all the while devouring books on mysticism, metaphor and mythology from every exotic culture I could get my hands on. None of that made me any less Catholic. It just deepened my Catholicism into something more meaningful and uniquely personal.

It was only when I got to college that I met for the first time people who believed Catholics weren’t Christian, who were surprised, amused and maybe a little bit scandalized at the very suggestion. We had too many saints, for one thing, and we took the whole Trinity thing a bit too seriously and mysteriously. Plus, the Pope, I mean, come on. In fact, some of the folks I met in college insisted that Christianity wasn’t a religion. It was a “way of life,” a transformed existence. Religion was what happened to other people, it was what you got when you turned to silly things like prayer and candles and rosary beads and incense, before you got Saved. Once you were Born Again, you didn’t need religion; you had everything you needed in Jesus Christ.

Needless to say, as someone working on her degree in comparative religious studies, I found this perspective fascinating. And while I was busy meeting people who said I wasn’t Christian because I was Catholic, at the very same time I began to meet people who thought that, because I was Catholic, I was incapable of being intelligent, informed or broad-minded. There was mild pressure within the academic community to disown any personal religious affiliation and step out into the realm of “objective observer.” But more intense was the pressure from my friends studying physics and chemistry, the nerds I naturally gravitated towards, who thought religion in general was a bunch of silly nonsense. You didn’t need religion; you had everything you needed in Star Wars, punk rock and Dr. Pepper.

Star Wars, punk rock, Dr. Pepper, Jesus Christ, Manchester United. In the end, it’s all about branding. American culture still struggles with the consequences of ideals like freedom, pluralism and diversity. If we can accept that communities or cities or college campuses can be diverse places, we still expect that complexity and diversity to be named and delineated, categorized and branded. In some ways, this naming is essential — the ability to name one’s own identity can lend strength and foster solidarity in communities struggling against misunderstanding or oppression. The sacrality of naming can create a small haven of understanding and relationship in the mad rush and noise of the American mainstream.

Too easily, though, the holiness of naming is mistaken for the manipulative convenience of branding. Branding makes it easier to consume, easier to sift through the cultural loyalties of the people we meet, easier to choose who we’ll befriend and who we’ll pass by. Branding allows us to create our own image and advertise our community allegiances with prepackaged customizations. Is your iPod black or red? Is your cell an iPhone or an Android? What do you drink? Are you a good ol’ fashioned, All-American Pepsi kind of girl? Are you a fitness nut, chugging down Aquafina by the gallon, sipping your Ocean Spray grapefruit juice at breakfast, maybe indulging in a Lipton Diet Green Tea for lunch? Do you like the caffeine rush of Mountain Dew or AMP Energy or a carmel Frappuccino to wake you up in the morning? Winding down with a caffeine-free Mug Root Beer or Sierra Mist? Or maybe you’re a bit of a hippie, chilling out with a SoBe or a Tazo? And how much does it matter to you that all these drinks are made by the same company?

There’s a reason the Pepsi-Cola company downplays the relationship between all these different brand names. There’s a reason they don’t call it “Pepsi grapefruit juice” and “Pepsi water” — just reading those names has probably conjured up some pretty gross concoctions in your imagination (they definitely do in mine!). And that’s the point. Each name brand has its own associations and assumptions. Challenging those often superficial characteristics is much harder to do than simply creating a new name whenever you want to target a new demographic or capture a new market.

So it’s not surprising to me that there are people in our wildly diverse community of outsiders, fringe-dwellers and envelope-pushers who have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the “Pagan” brand. It tastes too much like Wicca(nate), they object, it’s too fizzy and fluffy, it’s bad for your teeth. There may be many reasons why an individual or small group who leaves the “Pagan” name behind suddenly find themselves more appealing to the American mainstream — for the same reason that, as a Catholic girl, I read about Sufism and Buddhism and Taoism and Hinduism and Mossflower of Redwall and the Dragonriders of Pern. There is something appealing and tantalizing about the exotic and the strange, something that seems to promise ancient wisdom or harken back to more intimate times…. especially when that something is a brand that can be tried on for style, taken up and discarded again, without demanding anything of you, without expecting you to change.

But that’s also the problem with branding. It’s shallow. It’s ephemeral. It’s easy. It obscures not only the deep connections that we actually share with one another, but also the very real and more intricate diversity that is a part of any community no matter how apparently homogenous on the surface. We struggle with acknowledging just how diverse a community can be while still retaining its coherence, I think in part because we are so used to an “Us versus Them” mentality that takes for granted that “They” are always a simple, easy to categorize Other. This remains true even when we find ourselves drawn to that Otherness. We imagine that maybe being Other is easy, or that it will meet some need in ourselves to be other, to be unique and different. But when Otherness is merely a brand that we slap onto our tee-shirts and stitch into our shoes, that we advertise with our jewelry and our bumper-stickers, we’re likely to find that it fails to satisfy, it ceases to tantalize and soon enough we’re searching again for a new style.

When it comes to “Pagans who aren’t Pagans,” I’ve noticed two patterns that seem to come up again and again. The first is the Pagan-Who-Isn’t who has wandered from religion to religion maybe for years, hardly staying with one tradition or community long enough to decide he isn’t satisfied before moving on again to the next. He may praise Paganism (or a Paganism-That-Isn’t) for its flexibility and plurality, for catering to and upholding individualism, while at the same time pointing out how much he regrets that so few (other) Pagans are as deeply rooted in real, authentic ancient tradition as he is. That there might be some sacred tension or paradox here between individuality and community, between freedom and rootedness, doesn’t seem to occur to him. Roots are not something you grow by deepening your practice, but something you acquire by seeking the right community with the right name. Community is not something you build, but something you win, something akin to popularity or fame.

The second is the Pagan-Who-Isn’t who settled down into a tradition and grew roots and built community, and who for one reason or another fell under the impression that she was the only one who did. For her, the name “Pagan” has come to signify the early stages of her growth, like an old skin that now feels a bit too scratchy and tight for comfort. She sees her old Pagan self in all those neophytes wandering the eclectic Wiccan(ate) mish-mash, just getting their feet wet, sampling from here and there and not yet settled down. She might even see other Pagans-Who-Aren’t as part of the problem, folks who wander from one tradition to the next looking for some satisfaction in the superficiality of the name they choose.

Some of my favorite people in the world are this second kind of Pagan-Who-Isn’t… people who continually struggle with the loneliness and complexity of that sacred tension between individuality and community, freedom and plurality. People on the edge of throwing up their hands and saying to Hel with it, but who have enough self-awareness and self-reflection to see just how mired in Pagan aesthetic and modern Pagan history they really are, whether they like it or not. People interested in asking themselves, and each other, what that relationship with the name “Pagan” really means.

Just the other day reading Erynn Rowan Laurie’s book on the ogam, I was struck by how much some of her meditative practices were clearly influenced by ceremonial magic… the same ceremonial magic she took pains to distance herself from earlier in the book. She describes Celtic Reconstructionism as a tradition rooted in ancient Celtic lore and culture but still relevant to today’s society, but then that’s exactly how my Neopagan/Revival Druidry order describes itself. And our practices, though different in some ways, are also very similar in many others, and the academic and cultural sources of our inspiration that inform and shape our practice are barely distinguishable. Writers, teachers and leaders in the CR community are admired and appreciated among the Druids I know — and their occasional insistence that they’re Not-Pagans is taken in stride as not being all that relevant, especially since they continue attend and teach at Pagan festivals and gatherings and participant in the Pagan online community through blogs and forums.

It seems a bit silly to me that we have a collective habit of bemoaning a lack of “beyond Pagan 101” material out there, as though we should expect “Pagan 202” to drop into our laps neatly packaged as a simple, single tradition. In college, I didn’t go from taking “Comparative World Religions 101” to “CWR 202.” I started taking courses called things like, “The Protestant Reformation in Europe” and “Holy Texts and History in Rabbinical Judaism” and “Religion and Violence” with numbers like 224 and 315. I took advanced philosophy and politics courses like “Middle Eastern Relations” and “Political Philosophy in the Socratic Dialogues” and “Word and Image” and “Philosophy of Consciousness” and “The History of Family”— not “Philosophy 202” and “Politics 202.” But the idea that because these advanced courses had a specific name and particular focus, they were no longer part of “politics” or “religion” but had become something else would have been foolish… as foolish as those Christians who told me I wasn’t Christian if I was Catholic, or that if you were truly Christian then you weren’t religious.

Part of deepening is discovering that diversity can exist even within coherent, larger communities, and that coherence and camaraderie can exist even where there seems to be endless plurality and difference. Part of the difference between a name and a brand is that a brand is shallow and simple — in fact, a brand relies on being shallow and simple and at least superficially different from all the other brands out there. But a name — a name is something that embraces a certain delicious ambivalence and fascinating complexity. A name is something, like a seed, that grows with nourishment and cultivation, that continues to evolve and change while still retaining some basic essence that weaves it together into a kind of tenuous wholeness. (“Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! Bury it, and it explodes into an oak! Bury a sheep, and you get nothing but decay.” – Shaw)

If we want the name “Pagan” to be something more than just a brand or a fashion statement, some of us are going to have to stick around and own up to it when the going gets tough. We’re going to have to be honest with ourselves about our roots not only in ancient cultures but in the so-soon-forgotten history of the recent past, the last couple hundred years when the theosophists and the Freemasons and the deep ecologists and the feminists were all conspiring to become our embarrassing old uncles who show up uninvited at the family reunion. The word “Pagan” doesn’t come prepackaged with its own meaning — if we want “Pagan” to mean something, we’re going to have to make that meaning, to build that community and grow those roots through our effort and our outreach. And yes, it will be more difficult and it will challenge and change us in the process. And no, it won’t always make us popular or trendy.

And yes, sometimes it will mean throwing in our lot with the over-enthusiastic neophytes and the High Priestess Lady Shimmering Fairy Wolf Moons out there. Every community has its converts and beginners. Personally, I don’t mind. I’m not all that invested in telling people they’re not good enough to share a name with me, that they’re not deep or real enough to be called what I call myself. And that’s what you’re in for, as soon as you start trying to shed the name “Pagan.” The name exists because there is a community here that requires it, that demands — quietly, insistently — to be named. As soon as we try to move away from the name “Pagan,” we’ll find a new name cropping up in its place (maybe it will be “polytheist” next, that seems to be catching on). And in a few decades time, we’ll look back to find ourselves still having this conversation, with different names but the same furrowed brows, the same wringing hands… and no closer to a solution.

Featured, Holy Wild, praxis

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.

Contemplation & Meditation, Featured, Holy Wild

Etymology of My Gods

That word for god — the breath, the gleaming — the shining days like great columns bearing up the sky, buttresses, rafters. Beams that in their falling, hold.

I say the names of my deities, I feel the drop of each sound into silence. They gather on the long, bent grasses in the meadow and the field, *dewos-, the many that glisten in the coming dark. Amulets of sky, jewels of the daylight, coalescing in the movement of my breath, the lingering touch of the wind. They draw themselves, wavering, into the weight and gravity of form.

I open the door, and the gods enter the dark interior of my being. The gust, the call, tracing themselves in the dust of the rafters, the shift that shivers down in drifts of gentle gray and grit, mingling particulates stirring in every corner of the sunlight. What is so small and intimate and strange — numen, spirare — the dancing footsteps of spirit in the air, the vital stir of fear, the silent thrill, calling me to courage in the deep spaces of my birth and dying, the liminal between. I am on the threshold, pouring out my breath in quick libations. I am pouring out my soul-song to mingle on the doorsill with the soft noise of their presence.

And She is rising up again, and rising up, she is the exalted queen and lady of all that rises up — the purifying fire and the wellspring of healing waters, the bright, clean sun at daybreak, the serpent stirring in the mound, all thoughts of justice and beautiful compassion aching towards the perfect, the spark and steam of smithcraft in the forge. She rises up, drawing gravity along in ecstatic going-out to meet the inspired act of making, dragging the anchor of my mind into the light and breath of Spirit. The gulf of the sky widens from heaven to horizon, an archway of blue and exhalation, and I am beneath it and within it, I am spiraling and lifted, small and intimate and strange.

And He is circling and moving, a realm and waste that gives his name and takes it back again — the ebb and flow along the shoreline, the horizon and the deep, the mist, the movement of the winds and storm, the heron gliding on long, still wings through the midnight of the newborn sun. He turns his murmuring immensity to touch my listening, gentle and insistent. He wears away the boundaries of my skin, seeping in to claim me for the flux of Spirit, moving in me with the rhythm of my heartbeat, and I am surrounded and within it, I am spiraling and sailing on the mingling waters on the threshold of my being.

And She is resting in fecundity and promise, the mother of all our naming — she is wealth and self-giving, the firm body of our dancing, the bristling flowers of spring and the high harvest of the fall, the rolling curve of the lands always unfurling, the dark cavern of our tombs grown over with pale, delicate lashes of green. She names the earth and world, the sounds of her children coalescing on her lips like drops of dew, all eddies in the mud and rocks and bones and growing things. All verdant and gold, she stirs in me every corner of Spirit with the weight of praise and gravidity, she makes my heavy form and holds it close, and I am made and move within it, I am spiraling and born in the darkness of my body.

I open the door, and the gods enter. The gods enter with their whispering and multiplicity, each one an opening into Spirit, a shining, an embrace. I settle down into my work like someone opening a window, and the breeze comes winding, finding its way into the center of my grasping and obscurity. A breeze that smells of sunlight and summer days across the field, a breeze that languishes heavy with dew in the gloom of the new morning, a breeze that sings the world’s together-song into the waiting silence. I do the work, I pour libations, I pray and wait and let the Spirit come when it will.

The door is like an eye. It grows wide and hungry in the dark.