My Path To Paganism, or Where I’ve Been and How I Got There

It’s been a few more years since my last little spurt of activity on this blog, which itself came after a two-year hiatus, and in order to explain what I’ve been up to, I think it’s important to explain where my journey into belief began.

My earliest memory about having an opinion or awareness about cosmology, divinity, and belief is a drawing I made at five or six of what I “remembered” before this life. I had always had an awareness that after death, we returned to the invisible, spiritual world, and Something Out There, aware of the most intricate details of creation, determined, based on our karma, which unborn body we should enter, which parents we should be given to before their child was born. It wasn’t a punishment — every opportunity to live was a blessing — but I knew that the Something Out There was aware of all our good deeds and wrongdoings, and gave us new opportunities for new lessons with each new life. Having been raised vaguely Christian — church every Sunday, Easter, and Christmas Eve, but no real religious education, no real understanding of what it meant to be Christian, no belief in Jesus besides knowing he was a good guy with some good things to say, and no spiritual experiences when I closed my eyes to pray — I set out with a pencil and crayons to illustrate this knowledge I’d had all my life within an equally vaguely Christian context.

Spirits without bodies became cherubs. The Something Out There was drawn as a hermaphroditic Ultimate Deity who encompassed everything that was masculine and feminine and human and wonderful. This between-lives state became a Heaven, the entrance to which I knew could be found in the most beautiful, incredible sight I was familiar with: the pink and golden rays of sunlight emerging through enormous rolling clouds after a thunderstorm in the California desert, where I spent much of my childhood. I imagined the Book of Life was a large leather tome with an engraving of a tree on the cover, with which the Ultimate Deity foretold deaths on the left page and births on the right. On the left page, Deity might write “Joe Smith,” causing Joe Smith to come about his death one way or another; after Joe had returned to “Heaven” in his true angelic form and an appropriate new birth opportunity had presented itself, Deity would write Joe’s new name on the righthand page.

I gave these to my mother and tried to explain what I “remembered.” She did not like them, or the explanation. With her typical stern expression, she interrupted me before I’d finished to tell me that reincarnation doesn’t happen. I certainly kept my thoughts to myself for a while after that!

This “memory” or awareness has informed my beliefs forever. I’ve always known that

  • Deity isn’t (or isn’t just) male;
  • We live again and again, rejoining Deity again and again, and returning to this world over and over to complete all our lessons here and come closer and closer to Deity and Oneness (for reasons I don’t understand);
  • We possess free will, but there’s also a greater Divine Will or Intention, and it behooves us to try to align our choices with it; and
  • New bodies aren’t inhabited by a “spirit” or “soul” until well into the pregnancy, some time during the second or even third trimester.

I had an awareness of other world religions, and loved reading about Buddhism in my third grade history/social studies textbook, but I didn’t yet know that one could elect to become a member of a religion other than the one to which one was born. I figured you just had to push through and do your best to find something meaningful in the belief system in which you’d been raised in. (Silly, I know, considering that there would be no religions if there had never been converts, but I can forgive myself for my childhood ignorance!) So I found beauty and significance in the stained glass of my little seaside church, which depicted Biblical scenes; the way the dust motes twinkled in the sunlight that poured through the window at the highest point in the church; the “Sunday best” — including the most outlandish hats I’ve ever seen! — of the African-American women at the African Methodist Episcopalian Church where my adoptive grandfather had ministered while he had been alive.

The first time that I learned that you could change your religion was at twelve, and it was a shock that changed my entire world. My mother had sent me rockclimbing and camping out in the desert with a girl’s outdoors group, and I had two tent-mates: one a little wild thing who was the farthest from shy of anyone I have ever met, before or since; the other also carefree, but a bit more private and reserved. (I was, and still am, polite and sweet, but usually distant and lost in thought — I’m sure they would have been happier with someone else a bit more like themselves!) Little wild thing was determined to learn everything about us, seemingly to turn our abilities and thoughts towards the most sordid purposes, and one of the things she was curious about was our respective religions. Though I didn’t identify much at all with the word, I told them I was a Christian, because in my mind it was about the equivalent of your last name — not very relevant in day-to-day life, and determined by your heritage and not at all by you. Our other tentmate, however, was not as open, and it took quite a bit of encouraging from the little wild thing — and quite a few solemn promises to keep her secret — before she would tell us: she was Wiccan, raised by her grandmother, who was a Wiccan witch. I can only imagine what sort of prejudice she had experienced before to be so protective of that information at only twelve! A hush fell on our tent as the other two of us racked our brains, trying to associate something with the word, but neither of us could, so we asked what it meant, and she didn’t fully understand it herself but explained some of the magical things she practiced with her grandmother: smudging the house with sage, utilizing candles and plants for certain purposes, celebrating the seasons. She was so afraid that we would think she was crazy but to me it only sounded wonderful!

Of course I kept her secret (though it wasn’t like we’d ever see each other again, but the vows of pre-teens are very important!), but I spent my every spare moment over the next several months fervently researching Wicca (thank you, Angelfire). While I struggled with certain concepts, like the Rede, Wicca was the closest thing I’d yet discovered to what I knew to be true about the universe — and best of all, one could easily become a Wiccan and practice it independently. When I told my mother about it, she was convinced it was devil-worship despite my best efforts to convince her otherwise, and said it wouldn’t be practiced “in her house.” Practicing it in secret, without any money or hiding places for all the tools and spell ingredients Wicca seemed to require, was exceedingly difficult, but it was a blessing in disguise: it forced me to almost exclusively focus on developing relationships with deities and spirits, leading me to have an exclusively devotional practice rather than one focused on gaining material benefits through magic. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong or immoral with using magic in that way, but it has never been the path for me.

After a couple years of practicing a solitary and eclectic form of Wicca — a mash of kitchen and green witchery and devotional polytheism — I stumbled across Celtic Reconstructionism, Traditional Witchcraft, and the broader sphere of Paganism, and felt so much more at home. Traditional Witchcraft resonated with me deeply, and later when I found Druidry, the two seemed to complement one another so well, and suited and satisfied my spiritual needs in so many ways. I was still unable to practice it much, though, given my mother’s hostility towards the subject of Paganism, and anyway, more than anything I needed something to quiet the roaring of my soul. I was very self-destructive through my teenage years, coming a hair’s breadth from suicide several times and surviving with a body weaker and aged by eating disorders, a strong aversion to intoxication, and self-harm scars which my two-year-old counts with innocent little fingers and to which my step-daughter wrinkles her face in bewilderment — as well as, perhaps, greater compassion for the suffering of others, a high tolerance for unpleasant situations and a high capacity for perseverance through them, and an understanding of what love is and what it isn’t.

I am not sure that I would have survived, in body, mind, or spirit, without having turned towards Mahayana Buddhism. I found books on Zen, Taoism, and Mahayana to be the best therapists at this time, and would spend two hours in meditation each day, in addition to the two spent meditatively in exercise. It certainly wasn’t as fulfilling for me as connecting with the Gods, Spirits, and Nature, but it was what I needed at the time, and this has been a recurring theme in my spirituality ever since.

When I left home, I joined ADF, as I’d wanted to do for several years, and began practicing my long-pondered combination of Druidry and Trad Witchery, and it was powerful, but I was still too shattered psychologically to handle it or be productive with it. Despite that I love nothing more than learning and studying, I was in such an unstable state that I was unable even to attend my college classes.

How could I claim to love the Gods when I couldn’t love myself? How could I participate in the Universe’s Divine Will when I was mistreating its creation?

To avoid answering these questions, my Paganism and my spirituality became more and more experimental, experiential, and materialistic. Now I could have the perfect altar — when I lived in New Orleans, I even had stones, dirt, crumbled chunks of old tomb stones, and rusty nails from the oldest cemetery in the city (conveniently just down my street — I lived between the French Quarter and Treme), taken after climbing the walls and sneaking in by the light of the Full Moon (and communication with and gifts for the Dead, of course) — it was all I could have asked for in witchy stuff and more. But is stuff really Pagan? Did I really need to take a witch’s flight and experience the Gods “in the flesh” (and, sometimes, in my flesh) to have relationships with them? Visions so strong that my skin still crawls remembering them; experiences so wild that magic really is the only explanation; natural intoxicants and rituals so intense that my then-partner and I could hardly find the words to describe them, and we didn’t need to, because our experiences, our visions and perceptions, were, incredibly, identical. My spiritual life was a whirlwind but everything else was a mess. It was a powerful time, but it taught me that power can’t make you happy.

One day I wandered into the Church of Scientology out of a sort of morbid curiosity. My intentions were not good: I was hoping to find something creepy and strange to mock later. (Of course, at that moment, I would have found it in the mirror!) But instead what I found was the nicest, most considerate and well-mannered group of people I had ever met, people who were genuinely interested in my happiness, and in helping to heal those parts of myself and my spirituality that I had tried to bury under materialistic solutions. But over the next four years, I learned that you can’t solve spiritual problems that way — you can only solve spiritual problems with exclusively spiritual solutions.

I thought that if I tried hard enough, through hard work and lots of study, I could solve all of my problems and satisfy all of my spiritual needs through Scientology. But now the pendulum had swung the other direction, and where before I had fully satisfied my external spiritual needs — relationships with the Kindreds, causing effects (through magic and ritual), knowing that I was contributing to the function of the world — and completely ignored my internal ones, now I had gone down the opposite road and resolved all my internal spiritual needs and wasn’t at all handling my external ones. My vows to the Gods were forgotten, and the first time I tried to perform a few devotional rituals (mainly Full Moon rituals) after a long time away from interacting with the Kindreds, Aengus very directly informed me — after a polite but uncomfortable silence from the gathered Powers — that I had broken my oaths and that I would need to start fresh in many ways, that there was no point in requesting the presence of any Being if I wasn’t going to walk the walk.

This wasn’t the reaction I got from everyone. Hekate, for instance, had plenty of psychopomp work for me, an offer which unfortunately I felt it necessary to politely and humbly decline, concerned as I was about the idea of working closely with the Dead and journeying Beyond the Gates as the primary caretaker of a baby. Nonetheless, she was quite willing to overlook my transgressions and enter again into a reciprocal relationship with me. But the message from others was enough to teach me my lesson, to remind me that I had broken my vows and must endure the hard road of earning back the trust of those with whom I had previously worked closely. Fortunately the timing coincided with the urge for group practice, and I attended my first group ritual with Columbia Grove, my local ADF group, an Imbolc rite which was so magical, so healing, and such a wonderful memory.

I’ve continued to practice my Paganism, but have struggled with some aspects of maintaining the spiritual practice I used to have. Between being a far more ethical and mentally and spiritually healthy person than I was for the majority of the time I’ve been a Pagan, being the wife of someone who walks a different spiritual path (we’ll call him “the Scotsman”), and having a young child (our son, who is now two), I have had to look down new roads for answers.

One of those roads was Islam. During this past Ramadan, I began studying the Qur’an and reading several other books on Islam, and even attended an Ahmadiyya mosque and performed the daily prayers. It was a period of self-doubt, but I emerged from it with greater certainty in my Paganism, a deeper connection with the Ultimate Oneness of the Universe, an appreciation for the truth and wisdom that can be found in all religions, the realization that I need to study other paths to better develop my own, an understanding of just how possible it is to practice spirituality without all the material stuff I’ve accumulated as a Pagan (minimalist religion!), and the awareness of just how rewarding it is to approach each day and preferably each action you perform throughout that day with the Kindreds and the Divine Will at the forefront of your thoughts. My daily life, my altar, and the adjustments I’ve since made in my spiritual practices and way I approach the Gods, Spirits, and Ancestors has really reflected these lessons.

The theological discussions (and, sometimes, unfortunately, debates) my husband I have had have also given me important food-for-thought, and him, too: he has begun a devotional practice, and credits me with helping him to develop a relationship with the Divine, something which he has never had before.

Having a young child means I can no longer afford to be foolish. I have had some scary experiences with the noncorporeal (some of which I recorded in this blog), and have had many wild, crazy, and risky spiritual experiences that I would no longer get anywhere near now, with a toddler sleeping just a few feet from my altar and the obvious need for him to have a sane and ethical caretaker — I would never endanger him in such a way. But other changes have had to be made: I can’t devote three hours to ritual, I can’t risk flying the hedge and crossing to the Otherworld when he might need me at any moment, and all-night vigils are inconceivable given how exhausted I am after playing with and taking care of him and the rest of my family (which also includes my ten-year-old step-daughter) all day. He’s only just become comfortable with me making quick prayers and offerings — it used to appear to frighten him.

I’ve learned so many lessons throughout my spiritual journey and I am so thrilled to see where it takes me next, so excited to continue my studies of other paths, see how they can inform and improve my understanding and practices, and deepen my relationships with the Kindreds every day.

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