AREN interview and tepid Paganism

March 22, 2014

I recently had the honor of being interviewed for the lead story in the Alternative Religions Education Network’s ACTION newsletter. In it I blather on about the highlights of my most active period in the Pagan movement, from the mid-90s to the mid-00s. Christopher Blackwell, the kind and attentive editor, is hoping that others can learn from my experiences in organizing in the national sphere.

But today I finished reading Ancient Wisdom: Earth Traditions in the 21st Century by Vivianne and Christopher Crowley and I am reminded of what has always bothered me about contemporary Paganism: its tepid nature.

Constructing the ritual for the Summit was a wonderful intrafaith adventure, combining Ásatrú, Druid, and Craft elements. But the heart of the ritual just said, “Cairril waxes poetic” in the script. I knew I could summon up something dramatic (it is, after all, my nature), but I told the Goddess, “Only if it’s real. Only if I’m truly Called.”

Well, I got Called. Big time. I channeled the Goddess and went around the circle of 40 or so people and gave an individual blessing to each one. I used water from the communal cauldron (everyone had brought water from their homes to contribute, I can’t remember which tradition this drew on but it was lovely) and signed everyone there. I think I sang most of the time, but for certain people there was a specific message from the Goddess for me to give. The messages didn’t make sense to me but I trusted the recipients would understand. The song was one of the chants that came to me in private ritual space: “I stepped into cauldron waters / I stepped into cauldron waters / I heard Her calling out my name / And I felt my self reborn / And I found my self reborn.” (This is one of my favorite chants, since it switches meter from 7 to 4—thank you, Universe!) You could feel the intense power in the room. We were all blessed by it. Euphoric afterwards. Several people were blown away. But later, I thought, “Why? Why was that so unusual?”

I am a solitary, mostly by choice, so I don’t know how the majority of Pagan rituals go in the wider movement, especially outside the Craft. But when I read Drawing Down the Moon, Margot stated in no uncertain terms that Witches draw down the Moon! It’s what we do. Ecstatic trance. C’mon, people. Get on board here.

I generally eschew group ritual for two reasons: 1) I don’t like sublimating my desires/urges to groupthink and 2) almost every group Pagan ritual I’ve been to has been lame. Bless the Unitarians, but give me snake-handling Pentecostals any day when it comes to conjuring up some power. A local CUUPS rit I attended a couple years ago was rocked when I belted out my chant to Call the Earth. It’s an Earth chant. It’s loud. It calls the Earth. Come ON. Nobody knew what to do with it.

So yeah, I finished up Ancient Wisdom today, and it’s a survey of indigenous traditions from around the world, and the difference between the whole book and the two-page “Here’s your takeaway” conclusion was head-whipping. There I am, burbling along through circumcision, ritual scarification, tattooing, weather witching, curse-lifting, fired longships and the like, and then the last two pages talk about canceling Third World debt and considering our impact on the Earth. What are we, Presbyterians??

I used to be pretty rigid about ritual when I first started out but a kitchen Witch showed me some easy ways to weave my spirituality into my everyday life. So now when I cast a Circle, I may confine it to my temple space or I may include the kitchen and bathroom in case I want a break. No biggie. It’s all of a piece. When I finished boiling my eggs for my Equinox ritual, I poured the remaining water around the foundation of my house to ward off lightning. I like the books of Valerie Worth that are filled with charms like “How to Become Invisible”—I mean, this is the shit, right?

I am struggling through The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual by Alexei Kondratiev. He starts with this breathtaking overview of Celtic history but then he turns into this haranguing harpy with serious issues with imperialist powers. He insists that you’re not practicing a proper Celtic path if you’re not speaking a Celtic tongue. Well, that lets out most of us. How many people have the resources to track down teachers and find a community to speak with? Anyway, today I read his outline of a Samhain ritual and I was all, “Where’s the yelling?” We’re talking about the Celts, right? The definition of a passionate people. So where is the juice?

Maybe I’m just not hooked up to the right resources (highly likely). But I’ve been trying over the last year to ease my way back into the national movement and I just can’t find my place. Recently The Wild Hunt did an article on the theme of sacrifice and I just could not get in. The biggest problem is that these people actually believe in Gods and Goddesses. I don’t. I’m an atheist Pagan, a minority within a minority. I am comfortable saying, “There’s more going on than five senses can account for,” but I’m not going to talk about entering into transactions with mythical beings.

I checked into several of the big name Pagan magazines but the one that sticks out in my mind did its most recent issue on herbs. Still?? Isn’t this where I left off ten years ago? Not that herbcraft isn’t Witchcraft, it is definitely within the tradition, but I just pictured all these “Use mugwort to polish your crystal ball” articles.

My problem is I have a backlog of books I was sent when I was head of PEN and we used to do book reviews. No, actually, my problem is I don’t have any good recommendations for resources that will speak to me. I looked through Llewellyn’s catalogue last week but it still looked like it was catering to the beginner Pagan (it’s been nearly 10 years since I’ve looked at their stuff). Maybe that’s where the money is. Maybe once you get into more advanced practices you move beyond what books can tell you. But that can’t be right—other religions have advanced texts, why can’t we?

To my dismay, I have had to look to secular sources for ideas that feed into my evolving Craft. Like books on comparative religions. Interesting, occasionally inspiring, but often intellectual and safe.

I want Pagan sources that give me ideas for how to mainline pure joy, power, grief, tranquility, and song. Push me deeper. Stretch me. Help me become ever more a Witch, with a rich skill set to draw upon to serve my community.

Anyone want to teach me how to ride lightning?