In the midst of this Christian extravaganza, standing beneath the red and green blinking lights, and surrounded by the sound of Jesus followers singing hymns and secular Christmas classics, I’m rediscovering the act of forgiveness.
I didn’t expect forgiveness to be a theme of this brief caroling experience. I thought my time singing Christmas songs might offer me more chances to make theological comparisons; a kind of anthropological experiment, if you will. I, the Pagan and Druid-in-training, would stand before the Christians and make a beautiful noise, using their myths and traditions as source material, and in doing so I might walk away with a keener understanding into how we are different.
Instead, I’m discovering that forgiveness, a word that many of us associate with the Christian doctrine of “the forgiveness of sin” (a concept most all of my readers reject), is being offered to me as an early Christmas gift.
Forgiveness, it turns out, is mine to experience because it is mine to offer to others.
See, I’m a person who gets burned rather easily. When someone hurts me, I retreat (sometimes geographically) and I rarely look back. When we’re done, we’re done. That’s been my approach to relationships for most of my adult life.
This has been true in personal and professional relationships, with family, and even with religion. I left the Church, and that was it. No more Jesus talk. No more redemption, salvation, forgiveness — any of that. I lumped all of those words and ideas into one big, Christian box and stored it away in the dusty-attic recesses of my mind. I had no intention of exploring how these themes were still present in my life. They were Christian, so I didn’t want to think about them.
We’ve touched on salvation as a concept that can exist outside of the Christian paradigm, and I believe there’s still more to be explored in that conversation. But for now, it appears that forgiveness is the theme of the moment. Set aside the belief that humanity must seek forgiveness from God, and there can still be a way for us to approach this utterly human, utterly necessary act.
We don’t forgive, or seek forgiveness because to not do so would result in our eternal damnation. Forgiveness isn’t a Divine mandate.
We seek to forgive others and be forgiven because it allows for us to continue to write the story of our life. Forgiveness restores a sense of continuity between the past and the present; a continuity which is broken by our own resentfulness and heartache.
Forgiveness belongs to all of us, and is not wrapped up in any one, religious tradition. The Christians talk a lot about forgiveness because it plays a large role in their understanding of Jesus, of God, and of their beliefs regarding humanity’s role in a “Divine plan.” I’m not taking issue with that here. There’s no need to. If a Christian processes forgiveness through that lens, it does me no direct harm. They’ll learn the lessons they need to learn.
But for me, I’m seeing forgiveness more like an essential component of our human life which transcends the myths we hold up as sacred, and even the identities we work so diligently to construct and defend.
By embracing Christmas as I described in my last post, I am discovering that I’ve become resentful and defensive about other people finding joy in the Christmas holiday. I’ve felt spurned by the sleigh bells, put off by the tinsel and the incessant jolliness. There was something false in it, I was certain. Christmas was, after all, just a Pagan holiday in disguise. How dare people enjoy something that wasn’t, in fact, what they were claiming it to be.
But what did I gain from that experience?
Not much, really. The feeling of being spurned, perhaps?
I never passed the “true Christian” test that some Christians subject other Christians to, because I was never willing to accept wholeheartedly the belief that there was only one way to the Divine. Some might suggest that I don’t pass the “true Pagan” test because I still believe that Christianity, and the other monotheistic faiths, can be very effective at providing people with a rich spiritual life and deep connection to the Great Mystery.
Tests are silly. I didn’t care for them in grade school, and I still don’t know. You can test a kid from 7AM to 3PM every day of the week, and still not get a real sense of what she knows. Marking the right boxes is very different than having a deep knowledge of the world you live in.
I’m more of an in-the-world learner.
So, in the same way, I don’t need to pass anyone’s religious test to determine what I am. I am complicated, and textured. In my voice you’ll hear remnants of my old Christianity; out of practice, but not completely forgotten. You’ll also hear me rediscovering the enchanted world, which is a direct result of my opening up to Druidry, and to the Pagan community. It’s all here; all a part of the whole.
I embrace forgiveness and, in the process of doing so, calling back to myself each of my disparate parts, each of my forgotten persons. Those things which seemed disharmonious are each forgiven, each accepted as holy mixtures of the beautiful and the ugly.
I forgive both, and in the moment of my forgiveness I encounter the most unexpected sensation of love, and of being loved.
Great article. I think a lot of concepts that have been introduced into our collective unconscious over the past 2,000-odd years — salvation, forgiveness, grace — can (and should) be explored and claimed by Pagans. I think they are universal spiritual constructs and to reject them because they are “Christian” (ignoring any role they play in modern non-Christian religions) hamstrings us. I don’t think we are limited only to the myths and stories and ethical constructs of pre-Christian days. Why not work with our own Deities to sense themes of forgiveness, grace, etc?
You’ve got me thinking, Teo, and though I don’t have time at this moment to respond, I’m definitely interested in digging deeper into this concept. And I agree, the only important tests are the ones you give yourself.
Beautifully written, Teo.
I was just reading something in the latest issue of Spirituality and Health about forgiveness, written by Rabbi Rami Shapiro. It’s a wonderfully complex article which I shan’t brutalise by synopsising, but here’s a quote I hope you might like:”Most of the hurts we experience are not meant for us. They are by-products of the suffering others are feeling. The truth is that most of the pain and suffering we feel isn’t directed at us at all. I don’t think you can escape suffering, nor should you want to. Life is what it is: a blend of joy and sorrow, happiness and horror. Forgiveness won’t change that. But if can free you from dragging the sorrow into your moments of joy, and allowing the horror to corrode your moments of happiness, and that is no small thing at all.”
On the nose.
To forgive is human. It is, as you so beautifully express, the act of letting go of the painful weight of the past.
It is, in a word, relief.
You don’t really want to forget — the guy that cheated you last week may very well cheat you again this week, and to forget that would be imprudent. But you can forgive him. Let it go. That isn’t for his benefit, it’s for yours.
I’ve found there is a time-scale to forgiveness, much as there is a time-scale to grief. It can’t be rushed. You can’t very well forgive the fellow who cheated you five minutes after you’ve found out about it. You’re still too busy pulling your own hair and trying to figure out how to get even.
It took me several years to forgive one woman after a bad break-up. It was painful to carry that anger around. I didn’t want be angry. But it isn’t something that can be rushed. You can’t forgive until you are ready to let go. And each person’s time-scale is different.
I think it’s interesting that our paths are criss-crossing on this point. Your habit has been to walk away and cut the connections at the drop of a hat. My habit, until fairly recently, has been to hold onto the connection until there was no last shred of doubt, hope, or suspicion that something could be salvaged. A weak friendship. An exchange of Christmas cards. Something. Anything.
There are other ways to relieve the burden of the past, and cutting the relationship is one of those ways, as is forgiveness. I think either can be appropriate.
Beautiful, beautiful post. I’ve seen so many Pagans who turn their back on not only the Christianity of their youth, but on every Christian out there, just for being of the faith and every word they associate with Christianity. A discussion on the word “worship” can stir up a hornet’s nest.
Holding on to grudges or hatred does nothing for us as people. Forgiveness, however, can set our souls on a lighter, freer path.
This is a very wonderful post. I really enjoy reading about Christianity. I love the story of forgiveness because if you care around hatred it is only going to hurt you in the end.
Thanks for the comment, Robert. I appreciate you being a part of the dialogue.
I think what I’ve come to after writing this post and reading some of the comments, as well as in reflecting on the rest of my experience in Tennessee, is that forgiveness is larger than any one tradition can contain. It is relevant to Christians, as you point out. But it is also relevant for the rest of us, too.
Thank you Teo – very well said. I was once an “angry Pagan”, disliking everything that had to do with Christianity for all the reasons we all know so well. I have found that as I have gotten older, my edges have softened a bit and I tend to be more forgiving of the ignorance of most Christians regarding their faith and embrace the similarities in the current versions of the seasonal celebrations to what were once exclusively our holidays. In fact, there is a preist in Philly (Bill Melnyk – see ninthwavechurch.com if you are so inclined) whose services I would likely attend if he weren’t across the country. Now, don’t get me wrong – my feathers can still be ruffled – today I recieved an e-mail from a man I work with talking about how Christians should unite and not “them” take Christmas away blah blah blah that I found quite offensive – and he now knows that in no uncertain terms. But, for the most part, I’m not so angry anymore. And I like it that way.
Thank you for the comment, Natalie, and thank you for that link. I’ll certainly explore the info on that parish. Much appreciated.
It’s hard sometimes not to become angry, especially when the words of others hurt us. But you’re right – it feels better to release that anger. Getting to that point of letting go can be a challenge, but we’re well served to try.
Again, thanks for being a part of this conversation. Blessings to you.
I don’t get upset at Christians celebrating their holiday, even an appropriated one, unless they start giving me flack about a secular “war on Christmas” or some other nonsense like that. Then I remind them that it really wasn’t their holiday to start with and there is no reasonable speculation that would put the events of the nativity in late December. At any rate, the holiday in the wider society really is much more about mutual self indulgence and the affirmation of self worth via retail.
So I do my Yule, and the cursed retail bit and I’ll even trundle my mother in law off to a Catholic Mass when she visits us. I have the comfort of distance when dealing with my former Christianity. I’ve been out of that in a real sense for at least 25 years now and actively pagan for about seven. I completed a formal defection document a couple years ago which severed me completely from that church, or at least its Earthly manifestation (it’s a complex area of Canon Law). In a real sense I have no more visceral reaction left to Christianity itself than I would Hinduism or Shinto. I do mix it up with some of them who involve their religion in culture war arguments, but I no longer identify myself as Christian or “ex-Christian”.
Thanks for the comment, Kenneth. I wasn’t aware that there was such a formal process one could undergo to sever ties with the Church. Perhaps this is specific to the Catholic church? I don’t know. It’s fascinating to me, though.
I think it’s kind of you to indulge your mother. I have similar familial offerings that I make come holiday time. I think they appreciate the feeling of family, even there isn’t a shared faith.
incidentally, you aren’t the first to bring up the “war on Christmas” theme. It must be something going on across the country, perhaps in a more widespread manner on account of our social connectivity. It seems so reactionary, and — as you’ve pointed out — not grounded in any real history.
Yeah, that process I mentioned is particular to the RCC. It is (or rather was) called “Actus Formalis Defectionis ab Ecclesia Catholica” – an Act of Formal Defection. It had been around in concept since Vatican II, but was only turned into a defined process circa 2006. Basically, you had to write a letter to the bishop in the diocese where you were baptized, explain in no uncertain terms you wanted out and understood the consequences – ie no more sacraments and such. They wouldn’t “de-baptize” you as such, but they were supposed to put a notation on your baptism record of your defection. I did that a couple years ago and last year they revoked the process. I think they got a bit embarassed by the volume of people doing it, especially in Ireland and Europe.
To me Atleast forgivness is a very human Act , very personal. I don’t need my gods to forgive me . Forgivness is something i may wish to give to another if apropriete to do so . It must be given freely and earned.To someone who deserves to get it . Someone or an institution that continues to harm me or my loved ones does not deserve it . The only other condition for me to forgive someone would be me or my loved ones holding on the resentment that is harming me/them.Many times letting go of useless resentment/ hostility can be cleansing , good for the soul . One of the tenants of my conduct/behavior code is not to waste time/ energy on useless things /emotions .Those things / emotions that are conterproductive/ unhealthy. Kilm
Thanks for the comment, Kilm. Those are interesting ideas, and I’m glad you’ve brought them to the conversation.
It sound like forgiveness is quite conditional for you. You give it when it is deserved. I can see the logic behind that, but I wonder if there’s a different way to think of forgiveness — perhaps more as a kind of complete acceptance of a person–warts and all.
I’m not sure about the Acceptance / forgiveness angle . I do acccept people warts and all , but to me forgiveness needs to be earned , someone who wrongfully harmed me/mine needs to correct/right the wrongs done , then foregiveness is appropriete. But sometimes a arsehole is just an arse hole and you move on, accepting that condition. Kilm
The so called ” War on Christmas ” has been propigated by the Fox News folks and our friends in the radical religious right AFA, etc. Good gods what a bunch of crap. The religious majority spouting such nonsence , our appopriated holiday is under attack , we the majority are victims . Did any of you guys here the latest from fox?, ” the muppets are communists ” and trying to sway our kids . the muppetts are promoting a left wing anti bussiness worldview. And are also responcible for OWS and anti big bussiness sentiments . Is just me or are these people just plain nucking futs ?
I beg to differ with you on “war on christmas.” Please forgive me :).
Yes certain media outlets and non-profit orgs (few even use as a means of drumming donations) amplify the problem to the point of distortion, nevertheless it is real.
I live in the thick of things in Manhattan – as I witness it, the threat is real and quite intentional by a certain group. The problem is not just here but in the communities in surrounding suburbs (and the rest of the nation) that are quietly under “attack.”
Why should I care as a pagan? Well, the Christmas celebration conflict is one thing, but there are many attempts (most successful) over the past few decades to selfishly control or manipulate our lifestyles (irrespective of pagan, christian, muslim, hindu, etc) on their terms. If you dig, just under the surface you’ll begin to understand what’s going on. It is quite despicable and ugly.
Can you point me to any sources on what specific “attacks” are being done? The only one I’ve seen cited by the “War on Christmas” stories I’ve seen is the use of “happy holidays” or “seasons greetings” instead of “merry Christmas” in retail settings, or arguing that public holiday displays must include multiple religions or none. Being inclusive of various traditions (religious and non) certainly doesn’t qualify as an attack on anything.
Not a direct attack rather it is subtle. It is a shoehorning of another group’s tradition to compete with the Christmas holidays. When you live in a country with a dominant culture, you adapt (when in Rome…..). I am not offended by Christmas as a heathen, nor try to push my traditions to the fore to compete. Others view this as some sort of competition and try to control/mitigate the festivities of the majority. Not very wise.
Is it just me………….,sorry
Wonderful post Teo. Because of the lack of pagan/heathen venues where I live, I “celebrate” Christmas with my wife and kids like Christians (former Catholic). Rather than be agitated during the season, I explain to my children the origins of certain “christmas’ practices. I even take them to nearby Episcopal church for services. Although the “stories” are a bit intolerable given what we know as facts today, I try to take in the spirit, sounds, music, settings as large portion was extracted from pre-Christian ceremony and is a part my ancient cultural heritage. I suppose I am using this experience as a mechanism/transporter/carrier to my spiritual guides. Overall, tt is a win-win situation and that’s good.
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