Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Seasons of Darkness and Light

Over at Broom With A View, AmethJera has written a beautiful post about what the Christian season of Advent has in common with the way many Pagans celebrate this time of year. I feel much the same way, this year.

I've now had almost a year very consciously trying to work out who I am, what I believe, which gods I worship, what I value and where I'm going. I'm a long way from working all that out, but I am learning that my spiritual journey is one unbroken line. This doesn't always mean syncretism - the term 'Christo-Pagan' doesn't fit me very well at the moment - but at times, elements of syncretism can make sense. And this is a time of year when the 'waiting for light' concept is common across many religions. That's no accident, but I don't believe it means any faith has 'stolen' from any other. If anything, we've all influenced each other's beliefs and practices as our faith communities have walked their spiritual paths through the centuries. One well, many rivers.

At this time, the Christian church is waiting for light. They look to the coming of a divine child. They wait for the Son.

At this time, Pagans are waiting for light. Many look to the coming of a Divine Child. They wait for the sun.

Together, and with others of spiritual and religious faiths, we wait.

This year I'm waiting for light in particularly deep darkness. But it will come. 

In my approach to this, we wait for and work towards and co-create a better world, where the balance of dark and light is restored, and where power is less tipped in the direction of destruction (of the earth, her creatures and our fellow human beings) and oppression (of anyone less fortunate than the most fortunate, but especially of the weakest, the easiest targets).

At this dark time, what do you wait for and work for?

Longing for light, we wait in darkness.
Longing for truth, we turn to you...
Christ, be our light,
Shine in our hearts, shine through the darkness...
- Advent hymn

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Deity and Periphery

This is what I wrote in response to Teo Bishop's very thought-provoking post on deity in Paganism vs the god of Christianity. He talked about his conversion process to Paganism, and asked about how the gods speak to Pagans and how that might vary from the ways that the 'Christian god' is considered by that religion to speak and work in the world today. Go and read, especially the amazing comment stream underneath. Some incredibly thoughtful people have contributed ideas on the gods, the problems with defining them, and how the Christian paradigm is very difficult to 'square' with Pagan approaches (plural) to deity/the Divine. Anyway. I wanted to copy my comment here, because the post and the comments have got me thinking. I said:

I don't know that 'conversion' is the right term for what's going on with me, at least not in the straightforward religious sense. (As a sociological process I can relate to the idea a bit better). As a liberal-radical Christian with a very strong Gnostic influence, Paganism isn't really all that much of a change of paradigm for me. Gnostics have the Sophia myth, as a kind of mother goddess concept; their beliefs are focused in the esoteric wisdom traditions; they have much in common with many Buddhists and other Eastern traditions. Christian Gnosticism is almost more of a spiritual philosophy than a religion. Which means that I've got all these Pagans around me going "Ooh, it's going to be SO hard for you to adjust to these new concepts..." and so far, it just hasn't been. It's a step along on the journey, but not a huge leap off a cliff. So I do think that the type or flavor of Christianity is relevant to the kind of journey they might go on in a process of moving towards Paganism.

But anyway. Concepts of deity. This is the one thing that *has* been a bit harder for me to get my head around (though not impossible, again because of Gnostic influence).  What I think we need to remember is that the god of the Bible, Yahweh, emerged from a very specific culture that valued the written world extremely highly. (The Bronze Age Hebrew people were among the first to use writing, and their gradual elevation of the Torah itself to near-sacred levels is today reflected in the way that Christians relate to the Bible.) To some extent, our society continues to experience the fallout of that - we might not have had such highly codified legal systems or valuing of academic study, for example, without it.

So, for those of us moving into Paganism with *any* kind of Christian influence behind us, we have to remember that we are going to be dragging in our own baggage about the written word. I suffer from this, too - as a sociologist of religion, I can get critical of 'unproven' stuff (like whether the Celts worshipped a certain deity or not) and become focused in the wrong direction, on trying to 'prove' it. That's baggage from both my Christian and my academic backgrounds. And it's usually not the point. Do my deities speak to me today? Yes, but I can't expect them to speak in the same way as a Bronze Age Middle Eastern tribal god. I believe that the gods of the Irish and British ancients spoke to their people in the trees, the wind, the birds... The written word was valued in an *entirely* different way. I need to start by understanding some of these things if I'm going to get *anywhere* with hearing (/seeing/experiencing) these deities. Even the concept of gods 'speaking' is very word-centric. Just like the Bible is: "In the beginning was the Word..." What if we could stop worrying about the written/spoken word, in the modern, narrow, Judeo-Christian sense, and instead ask how the gods sing, do magic, heal, manifest today? Once you throw off the veil of monotheism, and see everything much more metaphorically and esoterically, the word moves away from centre stage. And I think that's a good thing.

Just some thoughts on how different the paradigm is between Christian ideas and many other approaches to the Divine.

In other news, I spent a very awkward time with church friends yesterday. It served as a bit of a clarification of how I feel about church at the moment. The central aspects of it, the Mass and the Gospel and worship, remain important to me - but at the moment, I so very much can't be bothered with the self-congratulatory, ridiculously middle-class, very Anglican-style peripheral stuff, with its 'Where-have-you-been?' type pressure to attend every week whether it benefits me or not. I may go to a church where no one knows me today, so I can slip in and out and not deal with the peripherals. Or I might go and find a bit of the natural world and listen to the trees, the birds, the sky, the river and the gods who manifest in them.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

The Problem with Twitter

Twitter involves such an unbelievably high level of stimulation. I used to find it easier than Facebook - but now I have so many people I'm 'following' on twitter that it's becoming just as difficult. As someone on the autistic spectrum, I experience twitter like an INCREDIBLY loud room, full of hundreds of people, all talking about different things, all coming in and out of different conversations and drawing others into and out of them. It's worse than the world's biggest party. The stimulation and churning up of emotion involved with all of that is really quite difficult for me.

I've been working hard on managing my emotions for the last few weeks. I won't go into the details of why, but I find emotions one of the biggest blocks to my experience of spirituality. They can be far more disabling for me than my chronic pain or my easily-dislocating joints. I've been trying to learn how to work with my emotions for the past ten years or more, slowly adding to my management techniques, from meditation to grounding, and using antidepressant/anti-anxiety medication when necessary. It's still REALLY hard. The past few weeks have been difficult, and twitter hasn't been helping. When something goes 'wrong' on twitter, it's a bit like, in the midst of the very loud party, someone has stopped in the middle of all the flow of conversations, and started shouting something like BUT WHY DO YOU HAVE THAT OPINION? while the room around falls silent. And while sometimes I can laugh and shake it off and/or reply, sometimes I'm just faced with the fact that there are some verrrry ignorant/difficult/unfriendly people in the world. And some who are great but just don't like me. And I wish I was someone who could deal with that better, and to some extent I can in the 'real world' - but not in the middle of the world's biggest party!

Celtic Paganism talks about the three realms of earth, sea and sky, the wisdom of the concept of three, and of walking a middle path. Now, in most ways, I know I wasn't called to a middle path. The path of the activist - the warrior - is not exactly one of compromise! But being able to find what T. Thorn Coyle calls the "still centre" within myself is something I want to strive for. That means being aware of the things that draw me away from that. So when I feel under pressure, when I'm having a day when I'm feeling particularly out of balance, maybe not going to the world's biggest party is a sensible idea.

And now I'm off to meditate.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Winter Blessings from Celtic Christianity

The sun is setting, and I'm off to do a really quiet celebration of Samhain. I've been REALLY conflicted about this sabbat, feeling that I shouldn't celebrate it until I completely understand it (among other worries) - and since I really can't get my head around it yet, at all, I was all for trying to forget it was happening.

I confessed this to The Girl, my wonderful Jewish wife, who told me a story. Once upon a time, it was the eve of Passover. Three rabbis had been debating for hours, as rabbis do. They were debating how many plagues there had been in Egypt. There couldn't possibly have been only ten plagues. Were there a hundred? A thousand? More? On and on they debated, as the sun set. Then there was a knock on their door. They opened it to see a small group of concerned-looking students. "Rabbis," they said. "You're late for the service."

So I've been offline today, trying to work through some of this conflicted-ness, and much other stuff too. But I wanted to leave a Samhain blessing. This is a little gift for my dear Pagan friends (not having met most of you does not make you any less friends), who have been so supportive while I try to find my feet on my very personal path. Blessed Samhain. For tonight, I'm going to stop arguing about the number of plagues and go to the service.

Celtic Christian blessings and reflections on winter, death and time

Remember, O friend, your end.
Now you are strong and fit, filled with ambition, boasting of your achievements; but all your success is a mere passing shadow.
Remember you are made of clay, and to clay you will return.
Now you are healthy and handsome, filled with energy, proud of your work; but all your joys are mere passing shadows.
Remember your life is the breath of God, which at death will depart.
Now your life on earth is solid and stable; but soon it will dissolve, your body crumbling to dust.
Remember, O friend, your end.

- Celtic Christian poem

~     ~     ~     ~     ~

The face of nature is solemn in winter, her breath chill, and her eyes pale.
Ducks shiver as they float on icy ponds; the sea heaves, its waves beating against the cliffs.
The birds' song is muffled and sad, as they search for scraps of food; only the ravens are glad, feeding on crimson blood.
The tiny animals are asleep in their holes, with food for the winter; the cattle and sheep huddle for warmth.
The trees are bare, the wind whistling through their branches; the earth is barren and dark, covered with black wet leaves.
The men cut wood for the fire, while the women cook hot, thin soup; people contemplate death, when they shall meet their creator.

- Translated by Robert Van de Weyner from ancient British and Irish poems on the seasons

~     ~     ~     ~     ~

The month of November, the swine are plump.
The trees are now half bare, the leaves half fallen.
The brown floor turns black and sodden.
The days grow shorter, the nights longer.
The rain grows colder, the sunshine paler.
The full barn soon starts to empty.
'The wealth of heaven lasts forever.'

- From the Verses of the Months; Welsh, from about the 15th century

~     ~     ~      ~      ~

In the fading of the summer sun,
the shortening of days, cooling breeze,
swallows' flight and moonlight rays
We see the Creator's hand.
In the browning of leaves once green,
morning mists, autumn chill,
fruit that falls frost's first kiss
We see the Creator's hand.

We bless you, God of Seed and Harvest
And we bless each other
That the beauty of this world
And the love that created it
Might be expressed though our lives
And be a blessing to other.

- Modern Celtic Christian-style Samhain liturgy by John Birch ( http://www.faithandworship.com/Samhain_praying_though_the_Celtic_year.htm )

~     ~     ~     ~     ~

Mary nurtures a Son in her womb:
His birth a blessing to those who discover him.
He goes forth like the sun,
Great is the number of his company.

- Old Welsh poem
(The church season of Advent is about to start - Christians in the winter awaiting the returning Sun...)

Sunday, 9 October 2011

There is a time for everything...

...and a season for everything under heaven.
- Ecclesiastes 3:1 (found in both the Jewish and Christian bibles).

I've been an enormous hermit all summer. Since May, when I got married, then flew to Israel for another wedding, then collapsed on the way home, I've been keeping myself away from the world of other people (gah) as much as possible. This often happens to me during the summer - which is no bad thing for a teacher and aspiring academic, as my calendar leans in the direction of winter anyway. This summer I went inside myself, and deeply explored my own spiritual path and choices. This led to past journeys being examined, specific choices being made, and roots being extended. Branches? Not so much. I don't like going out into the world. I am now semi-regularly attending a local Pagan moot, while studying for my bardic grade with OBOD. That's all because I need structure. But since I have a whole long history of deep involvement with church behind me (not always a positive experience), and since I'm still attending church when I can, I don't desperately want an active group to share in regular ritual with - at least, not yet. I'm sure that's something I'll benefit from later. And I am attending open rituals occasionally. But mostly, my religious practice has been very, very personal recently. (And with an episode on the difference between religion and spirituality coming up for 'Divine Community', I'm interested to see myself defining it as religious practice!)

But now things are moving on, and I'm supposed to go back out into the world. I'm supposed to be beginning to reap the harvest of a summer of work, and finding new ways to plant, as a result. I'm back at uni, making a vague effort to focus on my studies, and of course the new podcast is one of the ways I'm responding to a call I feel to be engaging with the world. It's absolutely my calling, as a teacher and student of a lot of things - and I've always felt this calling to teach, to share experience, and to learn. But I would really rather not. I get scared.  I'm scared because my university is putting a lot of pressure on me, and I'm concerned I'm going to fold under it and not be able to finish my thesis (I've barely begun, so this is a bit of a silly one, but there you go). I'm scared that my podcast will be widely hated by the Pagan community because I won't be perceived as a 'real' Pagan, or because I don't know enough about Paganism/religion in general. What's the only thing you can do with fear? Well, you can run away, but eventually life catches up with you. But the other thing you can do is face it. Get back on the horse, and all that. (Note: the horse is metaphorical. I've only had one riding lesson in my entire life, and I was terrified and never did get back on the actual horse. Ahem.)

I'm being blessed enough to be able to worship deities of battle and strength, as well as to honour Scathach (pronounced Skya), a warrior figure who is somewhere between an ancestor and a goddess for some who follow a Celtic spirituality. This was a great shock to me. I thought that the deities who would call to me most would be the peace-making ones. And some of those are becoming important to me too. But the impression I get is that the Celtic deities think I've had quite enough of submission and acquiescence. Not that the deities of peace are about that either, but too much work with them early on and I might get the wrong idea and start to give in to my doormat tendencies, which already run rampant in my life. The gods who are becoming my gods are keen for me to face life a lot more directly. To get in touch with my own power, authority, and sovereignty over my own life.

Which means going back into the fray and dealing with problems, and with society. Did I mention that I really, really hate doing that? Which, y'know, is ironic for a sociologist. ("And given my lifelong search for irony you can imagine how happy I am." - Phoebe, 'Friends') Ah well. I'm working on it. And with that, I return to work on the never-ending literature review. This week: which aspects of Christianity can be seen as a 'new religious movement'? See you all later. (And do please download the podcast! Go on - make me less nervous. Thank you!)

It's Autumn in Britain, and absolutely beautiful.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Podcast! And religion!

My absence over the last few weeks has been due to a) much tiredness and b) putting all my leftover energy into The Podcast! That's right - Divine Community has started. If you're at all interested in religion and society, from a somewhat (but not solely) Pagan perspective, I think you'll enjoy this. You can subscribe in iTunes. We don't have an e-mail address for the show (because Amadore is incredibly busy, and I am both busy and on the autistic spectrum!) but we have a blog where you comment with feedback, and we hope to get a Facebook page and/or messageboard set up soon where people can discuss the issues raised in the show. I'm working on a new episode, in the meantime - with a sooper speshal (to me) guest co-host...!

In meMeME news, spirituality is chugging along, and continuing to make me so grateful that I finally found this path. I'm considering taking the OBOD course (or the new British Druid Order bardic course, which is a similar alternative). I've started an ancestor shrine over the past few weeks, which has opened the door for a surprising introduction from an ancient heroine. I've been doing a lot of reading, from both Pagan and academic sources, on Celtic culture and history. I already knew a lot - I've known some of the myths for years, thanks to having Irish family, and I've explored some of the pre-Christian history of Ireland before - but I've been trying to go deeper. I don't think I could ever be a Celtic reconstructionist*, because we just don't know how (or who) the ancient Celts worshiped. Taking all our cues on this from archaeology and Roman reports is just as dodgy, IMHO, as taking it all from the myths written down in the early Christian era. Ultimately, while I'd love it if we had as much knowledge of our history, culture and gods as some other reconstructionists do, we just don't. So if I meet a goddess who I identify with the myth of An Morrigan, that's what I'm going to call her. She won't mind - any more than she minds if I slightly mispronounce her name. She probably pre-dates the names we've given her anyway. And I mean, really - the Jews don't even know how the name of their god was originally pronounced. There are plenty of cultures where the deities seem to put up with a range of names and pronunciations!

Um, sorry for that diversion. My point was that, as great as it is to find out as much as we can about Celtic culture and worship, through archeology, history and myth (and I recommend Peter Harbison's and Barry Cunliffe's books for that), I personally don't think we can ever find enough evidence to reconstruct even a basic pantheon. I know there's a wide range of views on this, but I have mine. (For now!) So I'm not listening to those who want worshipers of Celtic gods to live like Iron Age Celts (how would I choose between Hallstatt and La Tene, for a start?!), or who insist that only deities whose names have been found on shrines or statues (mainly in Gaul) should be worshiped. I have no response to Gaulish or most Brythonic deities. It's the Irish and Welsh ones who call to me. Is this socially constructed, because I have Irish and Welsh family? Yes, to some extent, it probably is - I'm familiar with aspects of the cultures reflected in the Welsh and Irish myths, and I can imagine what kind of characters the Irish and Welsh would attribute to deities. On the other hand... it's easy to get lost in sociology and forget that spiritual experience matters too. These deities are real to me. I'm a polytheist (have been for a while actually!), and I may be moving towards becoming a 'hard' (or at least 'medium') polytheist. Yes, cultures create deities. But I think that deities also create cultures.

But I am drawing on the rich wisdom accumulated and shared by those who practice various types of Celtic Paganism, including reconstructionism. Most useful here, for me, are the hearth-based religious practices. As I think I hinted at in the podcast, I'm more about religion than spirituality. I'm incredibly happy for those who can follow a spiritual path without structure - but I really, really can't. I need little daily practices, rituals for creating sacred space where I can worship, etc. This doesn't need to involve institutional religion, but for me, it needs to involve personal religious practice. Offering nightly prayers to Bridget (as hearth/home goddess) and to the triple aspect of the Morrigan (as protector) are examples of this kind of thing. I need to do more reading around this kind of practice.

Anyway. Enough rambling. Please subscribe to the podcast! And tell me what you think! I hope you enjoy. :)

*All such statements are subject to change at any time, at my whim. So there.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Labels, identities and causing offence

More than one twitter user appeared offended/confused about me when I 'follow friday'ed some Christians as well as some Pagans. Apparently real Pagans wouldn't follow Christians. This kind of anti-Christian nonsense really pisses me off, regardless of my faith or labels. Other people, from what I've observed, rush to prove their Pagan status under these kinds of doubts. I just stated that I'm not far enough along the path to be sure of labels. But even if I was, and even if I left the Church, I'd still follow the awesome, open-minded Christians whose feeds and blogs I enjoy so much. Like Soul Liberty Faith. You have to read the blog of this incredible woman whose unconditional friendship with local Pagans has lost her the support of her fellow Christians. This is someone who is embodying the open interfaith spirit that I long to see more of in our divided world. Why are Pagans so desperate to decry all Christians that they miss or ignore wonderful exceptions like this? Yes, there are some nasty, bigoted, cruel and exclusive Christians out there. Newsflash: there are a lot of Pagans out there who are very similar in their attitudes. I'm not accusing the tweeters who were confused about my religious identity of that. But I have already observed a lot of it, in my few short months in the Pagan community. And if I have to prove my religious purity to be part of a religion, whether it's Christianity or a Pagan path, then I don't want to be part of that religion. I've already had quite enough of the 'prove you're one of us' attitude from the more conservative Christians. I don't want to join a new faith and find I have to prove my 'Pagan-ness' there, too. I really don't care who's offended that I worship Jesus as well as Arianrhod. I haven't worked out my beliefs yet, and I don't honestly know how to square Christianity with my polytheistic beliefs. And they are polytheistic - I don't even have a Wiccan-style 'all gods are one god' belief to fall back on. The gods are many and that's why they're the gods, to me. I think the reason I (quite suddenly) believe this is that I met some deities who are in no way, shape or form anything like Jesus (or Yahweh, but I don't think I've ever met him). Deity is far too complex to be one, for me. There is probably one source of power or life that humans and gods alike emerge from. But increasingly, there's going to be absolutely no way that I can say the 'I believe in one god' line in the Christian creed.

Which brings me to the other problem of labels I've had this week. Someone very close to me, an atheist of all things, accused me of not knowing what I believe and lying to people by calling myself a Christian. She is so upset about it that, although I know these are her insecurities and not mine, it's made me go back to worrying about deceiving people in church about my beliefs. It is a core aspect of my values that honesty is one of the most important things in a community. It's one of the things I value most about myself - I am honest to the point of stupidity. For now, my conclusion is that I need to take some more time off church (at least in my official choirgirl role - I can visit sometimes) and use the time wisely to keep working on my beliefs. I'm studying and experiencing things all the time (more later on the land spirits/local deities here in Scotland). That's definitely helping me to sort out my own beliefs. Equally, though, my lifetime of experiences as an aspiring mystic and interfaith theologist is helping immensely. Paganism is the path I'm moving towards, but the Divine is far, far bigger than one path. I've always believed that God is bigger than Christianity. That belief continues to sustain me now. Whatever else changes in my life, the Divine is constant. My lifelong aim is to experience more of the Divine. That has not changed. Those of you who think Neo-Paganism has all the answers, remember how many hundreds of other spiritual paths also have a part of the truth, and some have done for thousands of years, from Zoroastrianism to Zen Buddhism. We will never understand everything about the Divine. Let's learn from those who mistakenly think that they do, and be humble.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Expressions of Community

On Sunday I went to my first Pagan Pride event. The only event of its kind in the UK, it happens to be held in the town where I currently live, which is convenient! I wasn't sure whether I should go to this, but everyone was talking about it so positively that I thought I'd give it a go. It was brilliant! The sense I came away with was community within which I can be solitary. I'm not talking about solitary practice, exactly (in fact I met members of the British Druid Order and am thinking of getting involved in a local grove's open rituals). I mean the kind of solitary where I walk my own path (and let's face it - my path is particularly individual!) while also being part of something bigger. I don't feel this in the Christian community. There's too much 'we should all believe exactly the same' rubbish. The heterodoxy of Paganism, the multiplicity and plurality of 'many wells, one river', is very appealing indeed (and very in tune with my Gnostic theology). And I met some great people, and bought a few lovely things (my new wooden owl has pride of place on my working altar), and heard some interesting talks and some fab storytelling and a couple of great bands, and generally had a lovely, very peaceful day. And the park where it was held gave me two Y-shaped sticks and a pine cone.

Meanwhile, riots have been raging across London for the past three nights, and last night they moved to other cities including my current town, as well as into parts of London that are minutes from where I used to live. I've lived in several areas of London over the years, and I grew up there, so it really is my home town and I love it. It's terrible to see shops and homes that I used to walk past every day going up in flames or being smashed to pieces. I'm stuck in bed today (as happens about once a week), but I've lit an orange candle for Brigid on my bedside table, and I'm going to try to keep it lit today. She feels like the goddess to call upon here - goddess of fire, goddess of peace. If you pray, please pray for the UK today. If you live here, do something to get involved - follow @riotcleanup on twitter for how you can help with the cleanup of the post-riot mess, or see the ukcleanup blog for inspiring images of communities working together on this. And watch twitter generally for emerging possibilities of how we as communities can help stop this madness. We are the problem. We are also the answer.

Podcast News
I am working on putting together the podcast I've been meaning to do for at least a year, since I discovered sociology podcasts and religion podcasts, and thought "Hey, someone should do a sociology of religion podcast... Oh." The BBC does a podcast along these lines, called Beyond Belief, but it's very theoretical and cerebral. I want to do something more accessible, more rooted in people's practice and beliefs in action. I'm writing about it here because I'm working on my 'words have power' approach - I need to do more of what I say I will do. (I'm notorious for making promises I don't keep, and that's not good enough).

So. This will be a 'society and religion' podcast from a reasonably Pagan perspective, but also not limited to one religion. I don't want it to be just me talking, though, because I don't really know very much. If you happen to know anyone of any religion who might be interested in talking to me, either just about their religious practice, or in relation to a topic (like debates around the role of religion in society today), then please let them know about this. And since I'm new to the Pagan path, I'd particularly like Pagan co-hosts, especially for more Paganism-themed shows. (No, I don't exactly know why I'm doing it from a slightly Pagan perspective, rather than a general one or a Christian one - although it's related to the idea of Paganism valuing plurality of belief, as I mentioned above. We'll see if more of an answer emerges!) If you want to contact me, it's @sophiacandle on twitter or sophia8catherine at gmail dot com by e-mail, or comment here. Get involved - I want YOU! [Pointing meaningfully.]

Right. I'm going back to not coping with my life, which I do so well! At least I have cats around me. Cats solve all problems. Them, and gardening. And chocolate.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Closets and Churches and Belief Frameworks, Oh My

I had an interesting and very useful conversation with the curate from my church at the end of last week. We talked about Paganism and Christianity. She says there's no problem with continuing go to our church and continuing to take communion (which was hugely reassuring, not least because I find communion the most meaningful part of the service). She is completely comfortable with my mix of beliefs, and thinks that if it makes sense to me, it's no bad thing. We did talk about how, while I'm not planning to tell the whole church that I'm exploring Christo-Paganism, there may also be occasional times when I don't want to deceive, like when I'm in an intimate group belief discussion, such as the monthly Bible study I go to. She suggests framing my beliefs in a way that won't confuse or upset those who need Christianity to be Christianity, which is very sensible indeed.

How to frame, though - that's the question. Mentioning polytheism is probably out - most people I go to Bible study with would not be able to cope with that. On some level, though, I'm a pantheist or panentheist, and always have been, and that's not so confusing for most people. I'm still deciding whether, in church, I'm worshipping the ultimate force behind the divinity that is the universe, or merely a tribal god called YHWH who, some thousands of years ago, told his worshippers to prioritise worship of him and put other gods second ('You shall have no other gods before me'). At some point I have to work that out, although instinctively I feel that I worship a god-man who died and was reborn, rather than the Jewish tribal god which was the way which he particularly related to divinity while he was on earth. I'm not too bothered at the moment, really. In the end, in all my worship and mystical practice, I'm worshipping deity, an expression of the Divine.

It's handy that I'm moving on to Water Week in the Witch's Primer exercises. The focus is all on beliefs. I shall make some deity grids. Or possibly Venn diagrams.

As an aside, I told the curate I couldn't say the Creed at the moment (which was basically code for "I can't in good conscience say 'I believe in one God'"). She said, "So write your own..." ! We talked about how there have been so many Christian creeds over the years, that coming up with personal creeds to say quietly during the main one is probably nothing new. I'll write something this week. "I believe in the one great Divine, the source of all deities..." Ah, the aspiring mystic within me will be kept happy this week.

Meanwhile, I'm having a lovely summer off church, and thoroughly enjoying it. When I'm back from my holiday, in August, I'm planning to visit a few local churches for the purpose of my research (I need to identify churches that might be willing to participate in ethnography, which involves me observing what they do in a lot of detail). That should be very interesting. Especially if I bring The Wife, who wants to experience a mega-church of the mega-happy-clappy type. For an atheist, she's far too excited by religion. It's a bit disturbing.

Lammas? Lughnasadh? Yeah. That.

My local Pagan network and I went up a big hill to a stone circle for a ritual yesterday. A very big hill indeed. Despite what I said on Inciting a Riot the other week (!), I was really keen to join the group for this trip - mainly because the group leader was absolutely lovely, and consulted me about whether I'd be able to come before she advertised the trip. This is actually one of the more easily-accessible sites in the Peak District, the exceptionally hilly, very beautiful stretch of countryside near where I live. The rest of the group went on to an even more demanding site later!

The ritual itself was short but lovely. I called a corner, which was terrifying for my first group ritual (but I'm practising doing things I find scary. So there). It turned out to be a bit of a Lammas ritual. Some delicious cider was shared! I really enjoyed it, but it got me thinking. I understand that a lot of English Pagans are keen on using Anglo-Saxon names for the sabbats. For me, though, the trouble is not just that we don't have any evidence that these names were used pre-Christianity, but also that I simply can't relate to the English myths around the sabbats, at least not at the moment. Oak kings and holly kings, and John Barleycorn cut down so he can be reborn, is all lovely imagery, but for some reason is nothing that I can personally connect with. The ambiguity of the paradoxical Welsh and Irish myths that hearken to lost pre-history and ancient beliefs and customs, though - that works for me. I love how Lugh Lamfada can be seen as a sun or a grain god but is also not nearly that simple or easily reduced. Maybe that works for me because, in a belief system based on ancient Pagan customs that developed thousands of miles away from Ireland, another sun god is just as paradoxical in his is-he-isn't-he symbolism. (Like Lleu Llaw Gyffes, he too will die and be reborn as the wheel turns, albeit in a less intuitive order - Yeshua is born at Midwinter, then dies and rises in the Spring.) But maybe it also works for me for ancestral reasons, or maybe it's just because I'm a big one for stories and paradoxes as doorways to the mystical. Over at Pantheon, a devotee of Lugh tells us more about his myth and family. The richness of that myth is incredible, with generations and shifting ways of life encapsulated in a deceptively simple tale of sacrifice and plenty, death and rebirth.

So when I hear English Pagans talking about how we've inherited all the lore/terminology we need from the Anglo-Saxons, probably in reaction against an American fondness for all things Celtic, I also wonder whether reclaiming our own ancient roots and ancient terminology isn't also part of what makes Paganism the wonderful mix of traditions it is. My mother's family only left Ireland a generation ago, but that's not really the point. There's increasing archeological and even genetic evidence that Irish and British people are essentially one race, with far more intermixing between Celts and Anglo-Saxons than we once thought. And it's all about spiritual ancestry anyway - and mine is a mixed bag! So I'll go with Lughnasadh (or Gwyl Awst when I'm celebrating my Welsh side), in preference to Lammas. But I wish you a happy first summer harvest festival, whichever expression of the season you celebrate. Personally, I'm also celebrating the Christian season of Trinity at the moment. Now there's a confusing mix of personal traditions. :)

Oh, and as a result of my trip up the hill, I am now extremely sunburnt. Summer has finally realised it was due. My very Anglo-Irish skin tones were not expecting this.

Thursday, 28 July 2011


I'm doing the week-long 'fire' exercise from the Witch's Primer podcast. I'm not really taking things in order, since I was already casting spells a while before I found the podcast, but I figured getting some background work done was a good idea. It's going quite well, except it requires physical exercise - which isn't exactly easy for me! I've never thought of physical activity as spiritual before (being originally from the 'deny the evil body!!' school of Christian thought), but I absolutely see how it can be. I just need to adjust my expectations to my own physical condition. I'm never going to be spending an hour in the gym regularly - not if I want to get out of bed at any point the following day. I *can* work in my garden, go for a wander in my wheelchair, and do other little active things that some people would not think of as activity, but which are active enough for me. (I just said 'active' too many times.)

Combining my twin aims of being more active (sorry) and getting out in the local countryside more, The Girl and I went out into the Peak District last weekend. We are surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside in the UK, but it's so difficult to access if you're disabled - it's hilly, craggy, and most of moors have inaccessible mountainous paths to get up before you can walk on slightly less hilly ground. However, there are some lovely cycle routes, and it was one of these that we attempted last weekend. We hired a hand-cycle for me (see below!) and The Girl walked beside me. We managed four miles, and had a picnic mid-way. I was *so* excited to be out seeing the countryside first-hand, rather than from a car, which is usually the most that I can manage. Now I want a hand-cycle, of course, and I would have nowhere to keep it. So much fun!

Meanwhile, The Girl bought me a deck of tarot cards. At this point, I should direct you to Fire Lyte's timely post on the subject of tarot, here. I disagree with most of what he says (!) but it's an interesting read. I don't think I like the practice of people reading for others (for some of the reasons he outlines) - but reading for myself, as divination, is fascinating. Learning to interpret the cards is going to be a long process, but for me it seems very like interpreting dream imagery. My concept of the process is that somewhere between myself, intuition, interpretation and the Divine, something a little out-of-the-ordinary happens. Is that so difficult to believe, for those of us who cast spells? I don't in any way believe that the cards have energy - not like I believe that crystals do (and they absolutely do) - but I do believe that something interesting is going on. Just like it does when I'm casting spells, praying for inspiration or guidance, invoking an ancient Irish goddess in a circle that may only exist in my mind, or - for that matter - taking Holy Communion. Can I describe *exactly* what's going on in each of these situations? No. Is something a bit out-of-the-ordinary happening in each of these situations, for me? Yes.

And the first tarot spread I did for myself is below. Heh.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

On Staying Or Going

I'm having a big struggle at the moment over what to do about church. Part of me feels that, particularly while no one knows about my current spiritual path, it may not be right to 'act the Christian' and, essentially, lie to my fellow church-goers about what I believe. Up until now, my path has been more-or-less compatible with Christianity. Believing Gnostic ideas is unusual, and basically heretical, but it also puts me fairly firmly in the Christian camp - albeit at the very non-literal end of the campsite. Things changed when the Celtic goddesses called me, though. In the past few months I've been flung out of the Christian framework. I can still move in and out of that framework very comfortably (despite my growing concerns with some aspects of Gnostic theology). However, I don't know if those I'm worshipping with would be particularly comfortable with my ability to step in and out of their framework, nor with the other frameworks I'm working within.

The weird thing, though, is how ongoingly comfortable I feel with church. If it weren't for my worry over deceiving other Christians, I would absolutely not feel like leaving. Whenever I've been called to move on from a church before, it has started to feel *wrong*, like I don't belong there. I very much belong at the church I'm attending at the moment. I'm reading over my Gnostic books at the moment, trying to work out if this is the 'world' deceiving me with sparkly treasures like friendship and structures, which aren't necessarily good for my spiritual development. My treasure should be in the Kingdom of God, which is the spiritual core of my being - the place where I meet the Divine. "And where your treasure is, there is your heart."

In short, I keep trying to leave church, and getting pulled back in. I don't have a clue what that's about.

I feel like my Celtic gods are faintly amused by me at the moment. (They each seem to be adopting me for a lunar month at a time, passing me on to another or others at the next full moon - which is as weird as anything for me, but also rather lovely. Given the 'keep silent' adage, I'm not sure I should say who they are just yet, but I'll decide later, with their help.) This is funny, because I always felt like Jesus found me faintly amusing. I used to picture Him with His head in His hands a lot, in response to the mad things I did. The Celtic goddesses (and it is mainly the ladies*) are less closely interested in what I do, but when I ask their opinion on things, I get it. Based on this, I should be asking them what is right to do about church - but I just feel that faint, detached amusement when I do. It's like they're telling me there are much bigger things for me to deal with and that it's barely worth worrying about. That's nice for them. I still have to make decisions for myself. Gah!

I've asked the curate, who is also a friend, if I can have a chat with her about church. I may be coming out of the broom closet soon, as least to a few people. Wish me luck...

*I hate that word when it's used for ordinary women - but there really is no other respectful term of address for a goddess than Lady. It turns out there's a reason for the word's existence after all!

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

After Midnight

Well, since it's just past 12 here, I'm officially 33. Which is sort of intense.

When I was about ten, my mother and I were talking one day about how different ages suit different people, and how with some people there's just an age that they're 'meant' to be. She said she felt like she was in her 20s (not a surprise - she still acts like she is!) She asked me how old I thought I was meant to be. Without needing to think about it, I said 33. It sort of became a goal throughout my life - an age that I just knew things would start to come together for me. After a very messy time in my late teens and early twenties, and a very busy time in my late twenties, and a serious illness for a few years after that, I'm now full of optimism for this stage of my life. It's going to be epic. :D

A major part of my optimism and excitement is this new phase of my spiritual journey (which I'm going to have to stop calling 'new' soon, and just admit that I'm becoming a Pagan and it's a good thing). I spent a long time this evening with the Celtic goddesses who are the reason I'm on this new path (they called me. Sort of out of nowhere. It was a shock). I was doing a spell for wisdom and academic insight, since I'm trying to write a paper that I'm presenting on Wednesday. Well, I don't know if 'spell' is the right word - I don't even vaguely consider myself a witch, nor do I think I'm ever going to want to be one - at the moment my spells, such as they are, are mainly about meeting my gods in a sacred space, and doing ritual around that, mostly that I write myself (because I really hate badly-written poetry). But I'm doing a lot of research around magic, and learning some simple candle magic, playing with what I suppose might be called sympathetic magic, practicing casting circles, connecting with land spirits and the elements, and other useful things. I may try more later. We shall see. Anyway. Spell, ritual, whatever. And I was overwhelmed, all at once, by how empowering this path is, and how grateful I am for having heard the call of my ancestors' gods. I need to stay grateful, rather than taking anything for granted. I keep hearing "Nothing is wasted." I've been bemoaning how late I've come to this path, and envying people who knew these connections at a young age. But I'm starting to realise that at every moment on our spiritual paths, we are where we need to be. And that my experiences of spending hours in the woods growing up, of living much of my life in altered states of consciousness (thanks to being on the autistic spectrum), of learning spirituality through a whole mix of different things, the influence of my father's spirituality, the importance of learning that God has many names, and so on - it was all leading somewhere. That's pretty cool.

This post has been brought to you by late-night musings that should really be kept in my head, where they make a lot more sense. I blame my cat (he wanted to play until about midnight. And by play, I mean the IKILLYOUWITHCLAWSANDTEETHBECAUSEILOVEYOU game. Ow.)

The crow that let me stalk it for about half an hour in the park yesterday. It was brilliant. Morrighan bird!

Monday, 4 July 2011

A REALLY long post on sacred sites, for which I apologise!

As a birthday surprise, my Angel (who is truly deserving of that term) whisked me off to North Wales for a couple of nights, so that we could visit Neolithic and Celtic sites. Anglesey is an island (well, acutally two islands) just off the north-west coast of Wales. It's an absolute treasure trove of ancient Celtic and pre-Celtic burial and sacred sites, so much so that the smaller island is called 'holy island'. As with all Celtic stuff, it's very hard to know exactly who worshipped at these places. With some, though, local folklore suggests folk memories of relatively recent worship at the sites.

IMAG0063.jpgThe Angel having lifted my wheelchair down about six stone steps (!), our first site was Bryn Celli Ddu (above), a burial mound that dates back to 2000 BC. It's incredibly beautiful - a mound surrounded by a circle of small standing stones. At the base of the hill is a forecourt of stones leading to an entrance passage. Inside the inner chamber is a large stone column, believed to represent a female goddess or guardian of the dead. Local folklore talks about a 'figure in white' local ghost that may be based on this figure, or on the white standing stone at the entrance to the tomb (a copy of the original, which has been moved to the Museum of Wales). The inside chamber is fascinating - the carvings on the stones are similar to those found on tombs in Brittany, northern France. In fact, Brittany is full of standing stones like the ones you can see all over Anglesey - suggesting connections between Celtic/pre-Celtic societies across fairly vast distances

There was evidence of a recent Pagan ritual here - flowers had been left on the goddess figure and there were the remains of a candle in a corner, and the signs of the goddess and the god had been drawn in chalk on one of the wooden supporting beams. I saw flowers left at all the sites I visited (from recent Litha rites, maybe?) - it was awesome to feel like I was joining a hidden community of worshippers in my pilgrimage. Of all the sites we went to, Bryn Celli Ddu felt the most sacred. I'm just learning to feel energy, but I could really feel it here. There had been a lot of worship at that site, over many centuries. It was amazing. I stayed until the Angel reminded me we had an entire day's worth of sites to see!

The next site we tried to visit was inaccessible to me. This was the case with about half of the sites. The problem was mostly not the natural landscape, but the 'kissing gates' that Welsh Heritage have put in around these sites, to keep out animals. There are wheelchair-friendly versions of these gates available, and I might write to WH and ask them to consider putting these in! On the way to the next site, though, we passed a random field full of standing stones, and went to investigate. They'd all been laid out in a line, across land that has now been divided into two fields. We wondered about what they'd been put there to represent, in the beginning. The straight line suggested they were some kind of marker of direction, but they could also have had a more spiritual purpose. The sheep didn't seem to mind us being there too much.

Next was the Presaddfed burial chambers, a set of two Neolithic tombs, although one has collapsed. They would have involved some fairly serious engineering. Impressive stuff. We then went on to Din Lligwy. This was my favourite of them all. There are three sites here - a fort dating back at least to Roman times, another excavated burial mound, and a twelfth-century church. I completely *loved* the church. My photo of the outside of it has been garbled by my phone, so here's one I've borrowed from a website:

I don't know exactly what it was about this church, but it felt older than twelfth century. I'd like to know if the circle of stones around it is older than that (the online guides don't say). Regardless, you can certainly tell that years of worship has taken place there. It's beautiful. As is the view of the bay from just behind it:


Just a few metres' walk from the church is the Celtic settlement dating back to 4BC, with parts of it possibly much older. According to the information provided there, the inhabitants would have been well protected from the Romans within the settlement. It was fascinating. Tiny round huts and a bigger workshop. It's thought that the community farmed the surrounding area.

The burial cromlech at the same site, a few minutes' drive away from the settlement, was wonderful. It looked much the same as many of the others we saw - low and squat, with a main stone supported by several smaller ones. It felt different, though. It was close to the road, so I left the Angel in the car and went in alone. But because it was surrounded by a fence, which you enter through a gate, it felt very secluded. I was the only person there for about twenty minutes, which meant I could do a little ritual - which made me feel incredibly lucky, and part of something.

Some flowers had been left on the main stone - again the link to community. It's a weird and mysterious thing, this 'hidden community' thing, after the 'ridiculously over-visible community' thing of my Christian tradition. I like how Pagans are, in one way or another, continuing traditions that have been going on at these places for up to 4000 years. But quietly.

Those were the main sites we were planning to attempt, apart from random standing stones around the island, and a church on its own little island (helpfully called Church Island!) On our way home, though, we noticed another one marked on the map. This one was another burial cromlech, set in the grounds of a country place. It was an odd place, again with evidence of rituals having been done there, but not in a way that I particularly approved of! (Along with ritual items being left there, paint in various colours had been applied to the underside of the main stone. That can't be respectful.) It was fascinating, though. I can totally see why the ancients and Celts saw these cromlechs as gateways to the world of the dead or the Otherworld. They're just amazing places.

UntitledChurch Island, AngleseyI've had some fairly interesting experiences (during and) since this little trip. I'm still pondering them. Recently I've been feeling bad about how fast I seem to be moving into what is basically a new framework for old beliefs (I suppose I don't want to be labelled a 'fluffy bunny' - heh - but I also know how very, very, VERY much there is to learn, and it's overwhelming and scary and challenging all at the same time). I'm a long way from settling on certain practices, making final choices over the gods I'm going to worship, or even choosing specific labels for myself - but I'm also learning what people mean when they say that they've been something all their life. Clearly, I have not been a Pagan all my life - I've been a Christian, specifically a strongly Gnosticism-influenced one for the past ten years or so. On the other hand, I am not new to the Divine or to esoteric beliefs and practices - my practices for the past ten years have been remarkably similar to much of what I'm exploring at the moment. And yet, this is also all very new. I'm stuck between being terrified to do anything because I feel so new and lost, and also devouring everything I can because it's all so oddly familiar and makes complete sense. It's paradoxical.

But then, the Celts do like those paradoxes. When it comes to Celtic-influenced beliefs, I know these gods. I've known many of their legends for a long time, and I know the land they shaped. My mother's family come from the place where the legends of Cailleach Beara (sometimes thought of as the dark face of Brigit) emerged - the incredibly beautiful Beara Peninsula in County Cork, Ireland. My father's family come, for as many generations as they can remember, from the country where I was enjoying these neolithic sites this past weekend. My deepest spiritual experiences have been particularly associated with the land of my maternal ancestors, although I didn't always know what that meant. But I'm beginning to. Anyway. Much thinking and writing to be done. Always with the work to do! I should perhaps not forget I've got two conference presentations to write over the next two weeks. Heh.