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How do I know I’m a Pagan?

I mean, really

I had this thought after my unexpected visit to church. I also had this thought after I returned home from Beltania, the Colorado Beltane gathering I attended and presented at over my birthday weekend. It may seem strange that I would question my Pagan identity after a Pagan gathering, but that’s what happened.

Don’t get me wrong — I had fun. I mean, I erected a giant phallus after all. The festival provided a sense of community for the Pagans who attended, and it was clear that most everybody was having a great time. Joy Burton and the Living Earth Center crew worked their butts off putting this thing together, and they deserve a huge congratulations. But on a personal level, I walked away feeling like most of what I experienced — the culture of it all — was simply not my cup of tea.

Perhaps it was the Wiccan-centric nature of the gathering that made me feel a little out of place. Or maybe I just had Lonely Druid Complex. It certainly wasn’t anyone else’s fault, though. The festival did exactly what it was supposed to do. It’s become a very important part of the Colorado (and surrounding states) Pagan community, and I’m glad I went.

But when I got home I couldn’t quite remember what it felt like to be a part of ADF, or even to be a practicing Pagan. It was like I didn’t know what path I was on any more.

Photo by Trey Ratcliff

Photo by Trey Ratcliff

Then, this morning, I did ritual.

I did a full fledged, bells and whistles ritual. My shrine was fresh and new after an impulse yesterday afternoon to rearrange it, so I lit a candle and some charcoal and began.

I did my Paganism.

And that’s how I know. That’s how I know I’m a Pagan.

I know by doing.

I am through the doing.

My beliefs, opinions, ideas and thoughts move fluidly from one shape to another, never solidifying into something hard or rigid. (Who wants ideas with hard edges? I don’t.) But my practice, a practice that I’ve been developing for years, is the foundation of my Paganism.

It is informed by my mystical experiences, by my meditative inquiries, and by my upbringing. This ritual of mine is about as close to an Episcopal service as you might find from any Pagan (well… short of the drumming mid-way through). My home practice informs my perspectives about festivals, and church services, and dialogues about deity, and all the other things that cross my path.

Mine is a religious practice of relationship. Ghosti is the word used in ADF to define this ancient understanding of reciprocal relationship, and the need for relationship is real. I maintain relationship with my practice in order to maintain relationship with the Kindred — the Gods of my heart and of this place, the Spirits of the world around me, and my Ancestors. These relationships inform my other relationships, which circle back to inform my ritual…

It’s a series of cascading circles of reverence and sacredness.

Photo by Claudio Alejandro Mufarrege

Photo by Claudio Alejandro Mufarrege

I’m happy to discover after a brief dry spell that I am still very much a Pagan; still very much an ADF Druid. It turns out it wasn’t really an identity crisis, but just a moment of pause.

Should I begin to question again, I will light my fire, burn my charcoal, and see how the doing of my Paganism affects my perspective.

What about you?

Have you experienced this sense of disconnect from your path? Was there an event that made you wonder if you were still a Pagan? Where did you go from there? How did you reconcile yourself to that experience, and do you still identify as a Pagan now?

The circle.

The circle is fundamental.

This simple shape, along with the square and the triangle, introduces our early minds to geometry, to symmetry, to physical and social design.

This past weekend I felt ashamed at Pagan Pride on account of a circle.

Photo by Katie Walker, Flickr

My body helped form the edge of a circle. My body stood next to other bodies — thirty perhaps — in the middle of one of the most public of spaces in all of Denver, Civic Center Park. This circle of bodies in the middle of my city, in the middle of a crowd of onlookers, did something I did not expect this circle to do.

It created an us and a them.

Casting circle before a crowd of people, some of whom were unsuspecting passers-by, and others virtually residents of the park, established a kind of religious exclusivity. It was as though we said, by joining hands and turning our backs to the crowd:

This is our circle. You are on the outside of this circle. We are doing our religious work on the inside.

The circle seemed to other the onlookers.

None of this was done explicitly. The leaders of the ritual, all good-hearted Pagans, did not inform the crowd that they were to remain outside, or that they were unwelcome in the ritual. They didn’t need to.

They’d invited us to come down for ritual, but the non-Pagans were not addressed. There was no clear explanation of what the ritual would be like, what might be expected of the participants, or — for those who weren’t familiar with Pagan (or more specifically, Wiccan/New Age-ish) rituals — what it would all mean.

The insiders were told that the ritual was going to raise power to bring us protection. The irony would be that this circle inspired the same antagonism and meanness from outside the circle from which the ritual was seeking to protect us.

There was heckling. It sounded like drunk heckling. Drunk, Christian heckling. And there were disruptions from a few men who, while we stood there in our circle, paced slowly around the perimeter. One asked for a cigarette. One stood outside the circle by about 5 feet and folded his arms across his chest.

The ritual leaders did not acknowledge any of this.

In response to the jeers and taunts, one ritual leader stood in solidarity inside the circle and began to talk to us about how protection was so important because there were people out there who didn’t understand us or respect us. It was as close to a “preaching” moment as you might find inside this kind of circle.

I heard her reassure us, and I thought,

But we just created an out there by casting this circle. We closed them off from us, shut them out, but only symbolically because they could see and hear all of what we were doing. Play it like we’re the victims, but we just created — through ritual — the same kind of alienation that we feel in relation to the greater society.

We just became The Church.

Photo by Mugley, Flickr

The rest of the ritual involved the distribution of smooth stones to each of us, stones which had been blessed and inscribed with a pentacle and the word, “protection.” These were our charms, we were told, to give us strength and to provide us protection as we leave the circle and go back into the world.

I found myself feeling so embarrassed. I kept looking down. I didn’t want protection from the people on the outside of the circle; I wanted to connect with them. To explain. To try to find some sort of understanding.

But it wasn’t my ritual.

To close, we imagined a ball of white light — the quintessential ball of white light — enveloping the circle, and then extending outward to include all of this place and all of the world. This imaginary light would attempt to do what we had not done with our physical bodies, which was to include all. In that moment our meditation, our magickal working, was an obvious self-deception; a willful ignorance of what was actually occurring in the space around us.

At least, that’s how it felt from where I was standing in the circle.

I don’t know about circles anymore. I don’t know if they’re appropriate to cast in these kinds of public settings. I doubt them in a way that I didn’t before Denver’s 2012 Pagan Pride.

I trust that many of you either cast circles, or have been in a ritual where one was cast. I wonder if you could shed some light on how you see them as useful, or how you find them to be problematic. Could you imagine other forms of ritual, ones that do not create a boundary between those on the outside and those within, that would feel appropriate at a Pagan gathering? Or, is this kind of “protective barrier” a necessity?

I felt ashamed at Pagan Pride because I was a part of something that felt, on account of the circle, incredibly exclusive. Could there be a more inclusive, perhaps even radically inclusive way of doing Pagan ritual in public?

Trans knotwork on Zazzle

Inspired by a comment posted on Trans Is A Teacher For All Of Us, I posted the following status update to Facebook:

“I wonder how my Wiccan friends might respond to the idea that the Lord and Lady gave us our form, or that a trans person transitioning is the greatest insult to them.”

The feedback I received to this one status update was proof to me that we need more discussion about gender essentialism in Pagan communities.

[Full disclosure: I’m not a Wiccan, nor am I a believer in deities who, in any literal sense, gave us form. I’m also the parent of an amazing trans kid who just underwent top surgery, so I’m biased.]

Below are some of the responses to my status updates. I’ve left people’s names off of this post to keep the emphasis on the ideas.

“I am not Wiccan, but I find it incredible hubris to think that we could decide what is the “greatest insult” to any deities. How does that person know what the wyrd of a trans person is?”

“The presence of a hard and fast gender binary in Wicca was kind of a turn off for me. In the Radical Faeries in DC we expanded this concept into recognizing God-Forms as Male, Female, Both, and Neither. When theology fails you, change your theology.” (emphasis mine)

“As a Wiccan, I find that idea very belittling.

We have a way of working in Wicca that makes a heterofocal use of sex differences. And personally, I love it – connecting with the way male-female pairings are how the natural processes that give us people (including trans people, gay people, straight people with no interest in ever reproducing, and so on) and food (again, eaten by the lot of us) is a very powerful thing to me.

But to take that way of working, and turn it into a single minded view on sex, gender, sexual orientation, and/or sexual expression I don’t just find bullshit in itself for its quite obvious disconnect with reality, but also an insult to that fertility focus that I love in its implication that others of us who find spiritual expression in focusing on it share their inability to see beyond it. The wonder of fertility is in the fact that we *can* see beyond it – that it leads to things beyond itself. Otherwise it would just be an interesting machine.”

“Personally, I think a trans person making the physical transition is taking the path they were meant for. Each soul has its own journey of discovery and growth, and trans people have a harder road than some other people. They should be nurtured, welcomed, and accepted for who they are. I may not understand the trans person journey, but that isn’t required for me to be supportive and caring, one human being to another.”

“Trans is the manifestation of analog gender. It’s produced by nature. I wonder how animals manifest it, for it must occur in them. And as below, so above.”

“This is what I love & honor so much about trans & two-spirit nature. They destabilize so many fixed notions. They make everything more complex & interesting. Fundamentalists of all stripes are forced to gracefully bend or clumsily break.”
“When my spouse of ten years came out to my as transgendered, I stayed. The small community where we live views us a different, some of the people most offended by the transition now are great supporters. If nothing else Andrea has shown people that we are all the same deep down just in different wrappers. I’m pagan, she is working on her own spirituality.”
“Any theology that doesn’t take the realities of both biology and human social structure/culture into account is just superstitious nonsense. Saying that any deities “made” us a certain way and have some sort of “plan” for what we’re supposed to do with our lives is just nuts and might as well be fundamentailist *xian* thinking re-packaged into a dualistic concept of deity. Harumph and phooey.”
“My theology is that of co-creation with the Gods, not submission to their will. If I were to embark on that kind of change, I would consider it a dance of co-creation with the Gods, not a defiance of them.”

“Many of us pagans converted from religions in which the godform(s) were authoritative rule-givers and have a hard time giving up that paradigm. Personally, I don’t have much truck with deities who demand obedience or subservience to their will; if that’s what I wanted, I’d have stayed with the religion of my birth.”

There is a lot to sort through here, and admittedly I don’t have the space or perspective to work through it right now. But, that doesn’t mean the conversation can’t continue!

Please share your thoughts about gender essentialism, its connection to Pagan traditions, and how you think it needs to be embraced, adjusted, or rejected altogether.

Then, after you’ve updated your feed, show your love of this newly independent blog by sharing this post on the social network of your choice!

(P.S. Thank you to everyone who sent love and prayers to me and my family. We really appreciate it.)

So I’m talking with one my best girlfriends this morning, pacing around her kitchen as she cooks up some kale, and I’m telling her the story of me being told by a women that,

“Women, by nature, understand the Goddess better than men,”

or that,

There’s just something about women that makes it easier for us to understand human emotions,”

or some other such gender-stereotypical malarky.

I told her how there was going to be this paradigm shift from God-centered spirituality to Goddess-centered spirituality, and that I didn’t know what that meant for men (who, in this new paradigm stood the chance of becoming othered from the Goddess, just as for centuries woman have been othered by a “male” God).

Then, my friend, in true lioness form, puts the spatula down and says,

You need both. You need the Goddess and the God. You need the balance. You can’t just have one, or say that we’re moving from one to the other.

You. need. both.

Picture it: clouds part in the kitchen, the eggs sizzling in the background, and Clarity in the form of my friend arrives with the Goddess on one arm and the God on the other. Together they surround the fiercest woman I know and say to me — “See… we’re both here.”

Holy crap… I think I may be a Wiccan, I thought to myself.

Gender’s big on my brain at the moment. The Goddess, or the Divine Feminine (not sure if the capitalization is necessary), made her way through my last blog post, and she isn’t going anywhere soon, it seems.

A common theme in the responses, which at this point number well over 50, is that the idea of the Goddess taking center stage and replacing the God is false. Or, rather, it’s incomplete because it’s imbalanced. The problem in the logic, in this attempt to conceive of or work within some Goddess-exclusive paradigm, is in thinking that either God or Goddess should – or could – take the place of the other.

Standing in the kitchen, this God/Goddess balance finally made sense to me. It seemed correct, logical. It may still be lacking (isn’t everything lacking just a little bit?), but it felt right.

But What Will The Druids Say?

I’m an ADF Druid for a little over a year now, and there’s much about the group’s theology that I’m still wrestling with. They are not Wiccan, they’ll have you know. Nowhere close. They edge nearer to Reconstructionism, the practice of approximating and seeking to recreate the religious and cultural practices of an ancient culture within a modern context, than does the other group to which I belong – OBOD.

The OBOD model has a great deal of flexibility built within it, as it isn’t really a religious system as much as it a philosophical one. There are OBOD members for whom the idea of God and Goddess working together makes perfect sense, and they hold that theological tenant while still perceiving their path to be druidic, in nature. Some OBOD’ers even practice what is called, DruidCraft, a blending of Revivalist Druidry and Wicca.

Maybe that’s where I’m headed?

Personally, I think that we live in a world of many Gods (intentionally capitalized, because I think they’re distinct, divine beings), and I also think that this idea of God and Goddess may speak to something very true.

What I’m not sure of is how to reconcile those differing theological viewpoints.

Forgive me for my machinations, but I feel this need to find and develop a firm religious identity; one that is exactly what it is, and that functions in a clear, delineated way. I want something that simply is one thing.

But then, I’m standing in the kitchen with my friend, who’s not a Wiccan, thinking that Wiccan theology makes a lot of sense, just as parts of ADF Druidism make a lot of sense, and OBOD philosophy makes a lot of sense, and I come face to face with the awareness that it all makes sense, a little.

My need for something firm and fixed is countered by an awareness that Divine Reality, if there is such a thing, is actually formless and fluid.

Despite my best efforts, I end up walking between these conflicting ideas, trying to hold the tension between the two. This seems like my spiritual and religious path, to be honest: some sort of Sacred In Between-ness.

Ok, Bishop In The Grove readers — here’s where you come in. Let’s keep the conversation going.

How do these insights resonate with you? Have you had a similar experience of being in between traditions, and if so, does that feel comfortable to you? How have you been able to reconcile conflicting ideas about the God, the Goddess, or The Gods?

Post your thoughts, musings or questions in the comment section, and then click “Share” to post to Facebook, Tweet it, or pass it along to a friend who you think might have something interesting to contribute.

 

No one knew why the woman sitting beside the Orpheus Pagan Chamber Choir was wearing a black, feathered, Carnival mask, and I doubt anybody asked. Pagans are known to be eccentric with their attire, after all, and who’s to say she wasn’t paying homage to a deity or something? Tres faux pax to question a Pagan’s choice of bling. You’re treading on holy ground there.

Her display may have seemed a bit dark for 9:15am on a Sunday, but who was I to judge? Me, with my purple bow-tie and thistle blossom lapel flower, proudly donning purple to show my Pagan pride. I stood out just as much as she did from my mostly white haired, much more plainly dressed neighbors, and none of them were giving me any grief.

There was occasion for pagan pageantry on this morning, whether that be pentagrams and feathers or labradorite and velour robes. The Witches had showed up in force at the Unitarian Universalist church, and they were ready to cast a circle.

Who Are The Witches In Your Neighborhood?

The Sunday service at Jefferson Unitarian Universalists Church, appropriately titled, “The Pagan Next Door,” was led by a prominent Wiccan Priestess and Priest from the local Pagan community with the help of several UU Pagans. Unlike other UU services, where individuals representing a single faith tradition might sprinkle in bits and pieces of their religious language and practice into a standard UU framework, this was set to be a full-fledged, Wiccan rite.

Now, I’m not a Witch (and I can’t type that without hearing in my head a certain auto-tuned political parody), and this service was all about the Witches. The Four Quarters were called, Deity was presented as Lord and Lady, and a circle was cast — something that we don’t do in ADF Druidry. But that was all okay with me. I didn’t need for the service to reflect my own practice in order for it to be relevant. This event mattered for one simple reason:

It was a moment to practice proclaiming our legitimacy.

The occasion was worthy of a bow-tie.

Preaching The Legitimacy Gospel

The Priestess spoke for great length about the normalcy of Witches, and I found this to be particularly interesting. Covens, in seems, are as apple-pie as your HOA. Little Witch-kids are playground stomping next to little Christian soldiers, and big Witch-adults are ringing up your groceries, policing your streets and suing your insurance companies. Witches are just like you. Well…mostly.

I appreciate the sentiment, and I see the value in this kind of preaching (though I doubt the Witches in question would use the word “preach” to describe their sermon – another iffy word). But as I see it, that’s what they were doing. Making the case for normalcy and commonalities is important for people living on the fringes. Take if from a Gay.

Just a few days ago, LGBTQIA activists (i.e. “Queer Folk”) and supporters claimed a victory in New York after gaining the right to legally recognized civil marriage. That would have never happened without thousands of Gay-vangelists preaching the Legitimacy Gospel, not unlike what these two Witches were doing at the podium.

WE’RE HERE!! WE’RE WITCHES!! And we’ll meet you in the common area after service for coffee and snacks. Please join us. 🙂

This evangelism may not appeal to everyone out there, but it is necessary work. You’ve got to get in there and mix with the muggles, let them know you’re not a monster, and say quite plainly and with respect that who you are and how you practice your religion is valid.

First, though, you have to believe it yourself.

How Do You BECOME Legitimate?

Simple answer: you behave as though you already are.

My husband calls is, “acting as if”. Its a technique we’ve used to get us through some hard times, and I think it would be useful to Pagans who are seeking greater recognition outside of the Pagan community.

In our case, we aren’t recognized as a “legitimate” married couple, but we act as if are. We treat each other as if the world already saw us as legitimate, both privately and publicly, and in so doing we begin to create a life for ourselves that functions similarly to any other legitimate relationship.

In the case of the Witches, most churches won’t have anything to do with them. They villainies them, misconceive them and distort that which they hold sacred. But on this Sunday, the Witches greeted people at the church door, congregated in the commons area, and shared the limited variety of crackers and coffee available. They handed them program leaflets, passed the collection plate, and most importantly shared sacred space with people who do not identify as Pagan. They acted as if they belonged.

And they did. We did. We were welcomed, and it was a good feeling.

Maybe I’ll Be A Churchy Pagan

I intend to return to the UU church on a less witchy Sunday to see what a normal service is like. I’ll be sure to wear a bit of purple and I’ll plan on engaging with parishioners about my spiritual journey, the evolution of which I feel needs to be examine and unpacked longer form.

See, I am on my own personal quest for legitimacy. As much as I know, I still must re-learn constantly how to act as if my path–my life– is legitimate. I must learn and re-learn the language that best communicates what I know in my heart and what I practice before my altar to people who may practice and believe differently than me.

I take inspiration from the Withes, though, and their churchiness. Perhaps I’ll follow their lead.

What about you? Do you find any challenge in acting as if your spiritual path is legitimate? Have you ever been in a position where you were able to preach the legitimacy gospel? If so, please tell me about in the comment section.

But first, be a kind blog-lover and share this post on Facebook or Twitter.

Post Updated on July 4th to include links to Orpheus Pagan Chamber Choir and Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church.