Thursday, 15 November 2012


There's a silver birch tree just outside my window that I've been watching all year.*

For most of the year, it's looked much the same to me. Everything changed so gradually in the spring, and I forgot that it was once bare and white. It was green and unremarkable all summer long.

Suddenly, a couple of weeks ago, it burst into a blaze of triumphant, glorious yellow.

I'm currently having to spend a lot of time in bed because of not-so-great health, but I keep having to drag myself into the office to look out of the window at this tree, because it's just so perfect. It will burn out in a moment, but right now it's spectacular.

Everything changes.

I love autumn. Change is dramatic. Winter is nothing like this - it's slow and hard and feels like it lasts an eternity. But autumn is fire and wind and change.

Just for a moment.

*Not a picture of the silver birch. This is a tree (whose species I am unsure of**) in a nearby park. I could not get a good picture through the window.

**I'm still learning the trees. Give me time. :D

Sunday, 11 November 2012

My Sooper Seekrit Other Blog

Because my blogging here is appallingly sporadic, I've started making some of my posts public over at my 'other' blog. The point of starting a blog at Dreamwidth was to be able to friends-lock posts that were about more personal or less 'finished' spiritual stuff, so that I could write about it for a smaller audience (not that this blog has a big audience, but, you know). I have a problem: I want all my posts here to be absolutely perfect. Which is why I should really learn not to promise any kind of series of posts. I've been working on the second part of my Ireland blog for about two months now. One day I might feel like it's good enough to post. Or not.

Anyway, today over at Room Full of Doors, I've been thinking about my beginning attempts to use tarot for academic writing (marvel at how I do not talk about this on my academic twitter account!), inspired by Ali Leigh Lilly's post on using tarot for writing fiction. But mostly, you should read her post. It has made me start to think about writing - even dull, structured academic writing - in a more symbolic way. And when you find writing as hard as I do, that can't hurt.

I won't be posting here every time I do a public post at Dreamwidth, as it would all get a bit cluttered, but the link is up in the corner here in case you're interested in what I'm writing there. If you have a DW account, 'friend' me there!

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Ireland - Part 1: Kildare

It's been three weeks since Ireland. I had been planning it for so many months, and so much happened while I was there, that I wanted to give it some time before writing about it. And then I found I couldn't put a lot of it in words. But I thought some people might like to see my pictures, with a few comments. 

So let's start with getting there, and Kildare. 

The gorgeous little Welsh village where my friend lives, where we stopped overnight on the way to the ferry -  little slate cottages nestled in the mountains.
We left on the Thursday, and it took us half a day to drive to the Welsh village where a friend lives. She had kindly offered to give us a bed for the night, since she lives near the Anglesey port that we were headed to. She lives in the most gorgeous cottage. My witchy friends would have been seriously jealous - and I entirely failed to take any pictures inside the cottage. This (above, far left) is the cottage from the outside. The town hall (I think) is the Tudor-style building to the right.

On Friday morning we got up at some ridiculously unreasonable hour, drove to the port, and got the early ferry to Ireland. I should say at this point that I was determined to see the whole trip, from ferry journey to hanging out in the Cork hills, as a pilgrimage. I'm sure that's incredibly counter-intuitive for most people - this is somewhere I go back to every three to five years, and given my mobility impairments, the whole thing had to be a driving trip. (I have crossed Ireland by bus and train before, and it's a different experience, but any way that I can see the country is fine by me.) That said, Ireland has been a very special place to me for a long time - and I had some specific spiritual intentions in mind. 

Three realms (OK, only two that you can *see* - but this is the view back towards Britain from the ferry),
Given my pilgrimage aim, I had a few things I wanted to stay aware of throughout the trip. The most important was not to get stressed out. Another was to seek the gods in the least likely places. We had an incredibly rocky crossing, three hours during which I was mainly focused on not falling over, but I managed to say hi to Manannan mac Lir out on the very tiny deck. Next to the small children vomiting over the side of the boat.

We arrived in Kildare in the afternoon, for our first overnight stop. It's famous as a site of pilgrimage to St Brigid. She has various sites here, including the cathedral and the holy well. I didn't get to see the church just outside the town where a woman has created a statue that reflects both the Catholic and Pagan aspects of Brighid - that would have been fantastic.

Statue of St Brigid in the town square
I went to see the cathedral on Friday afternoon. For the most part, it struck me as a cathedral like any other, but with Brighid's crosses all over the place (it was hard to get good pictures inside, but there's one example below) and touches of Celtic imagery and history woven throughout.

14th Century vault in the grounds of the cathedral - known locally as 'Brigid's Kitchen'
Inside St Brigid's Cathedral

Celtic artifacts on display in the cathedral - some authentic, some copies of the real thing housed in the National Museum of Ireland  
There was a lovely display that told the story of St Brigid - she's believed to have been ordained a bishop in the Celtic church. Given that there was far more equality for women in the Irish Celtic church than in the later Roman Catholic, it's believable that this happened to someone.

And then I found the fire temple.

The foundations of the fire temple
The remains of the fire temple are just outside the cathedral, in the grounds. All that's left now is the foundations. Apparently, fires are lit here every Imbolc/St Brigid's Day, and her sacred flame was rekindled here in the 1990s. Before that, it is said that the flame once burned for at least a thousand years. It was extinguished during Cromwell's invasion of Ireland.

Offerings inside the remains of the fire temple
If I was vaguely aware of Brighid in the huge cathedral, with all its altars and dedications to her, then she was so much more present in the tiny, bare foundations of the fire temple. Stone crosses and remains of pillars had been dragged in to form makeshift altars. Catholic prayer cards sat next to crystals, reed crosses and personal trinkets. There were beautifully arranged offerings, and there were lengths of cloth that had been ripped off shirts and improvised into votive ribbons. And there were a lot of candles.

I was meditating so long there that I got locked inside the cathedral grounds. If you go, do remember to leave by 5pm, or you'll end up attempting to climb through the fence, realising you can't get over the wall, and being rescued by accident when they come to find someone else (who they had locked inside a tower in the grounds. Possibly the Brigidine Sisters are recruiting).

St Brigid's well, Kildare
Saturday was my visit to the holy well, set in a park. A silent, deeply peaceful place, it seems to be largely overlooked by visitors. The stones leading up to the well are stations where prayers are said; the tree by the well is hung with ribbons. Not many, but enough to glimpse a community of seekers.

In good 'caught unprepared' tradition, I realised that I had already given all my offerings at the fire temple. There was a fabric belt around my dress, and I tied it around the tree with the other ribbons. Then I spent some time under the trees and at the stream.

It's one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to - and that's where I run out of words.

The stations, leading away from the well towards the stream

Statue and stream

If I ever get to go back, I'd like to see the perpetual flame at Solas Bhride, and to try and find the second holy well in the area - a local person told me about it, but I couldn't find it anywhere. A lot of these sites are so unassuming you can walk right past them.

I'll pick this up again soon, on the subject of the rest of the trip - which turned out to be quite different - including some much less well-known sacred and ancient sites.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

On Policing The Boundaries

When behaviour irritates me, it's often because I recognise it as a failing in myself.

That's a difficult thing to admit. Like many people, I like to think of myself as flawless. This is a defence mechanism - I obviously know that I am very far from perfection. But the alternative - being aware of your failings as well as your strengths in a mature way - is really, really hard.

Which is why, when I read a blog post today that made me deeply, profoundly angry, my first response was to draw boundaries. I am not like them. They attack and exclude others. I include others. I am a better, more spiritually mature person than them. Bullshit, of course - but that's how I reacted.

Photo of a boy drawing a line in the sand, by Wookiee (creative commons licence)

Who shut up the sea behind doors... when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’? - Job 38

The blog post in question, which I won't dignify with a link, was a response to a recent article on the subject of natural polytheism by a writer who I happen to admire very much. I read that article yesterday, and I loved it - and it seems I wasn't alone, based on the positive responses when I linked to it on twitter. So when today's post emerged in response, the author dismissing this inspired, creative theology as not only immature and stupid, but also as deeply threatening to their own theological position, you can start to imagine why I got pissed off.

When I joined the Pagan community, it was partly because I was looking for something different from what I had found in the Christian religion. In particular, I was tired of all the boundary-policing. Some Christians (not all Christians) like to draw lines in the sand, and then stop people from passing those lines. These people are not like us. They are sinners. They are heretics. And, at the extremes: they are not Christians. Lots of Christians, of every flavour, decide that their theology is superior to someone else's, and then they draw the line in the sand and refuse to let the outsiders into their community. When I was a Christian, there were people who were offended by my very existence, mainly because I was a bisexual woman in a same-sex relationship who had the audacity to call myself a Christian. But I got the impression that my theology, not my relationship, was the real threat. I was blessed with the belief that God's grace and love were truly infinite. That was a threat to people who wanted to draw the boundaries - who wanted to say this far and no further. I think they believed it was a threat to their way of life. If Christianity was on a slippery slope to liberalism and inclusivity, their exclusive beliefs started to look more unacceptable, and that meant losing power. They didn't want to lose their status as the most legitimate, intellectually 'acceptable' form of Christianity.

This phenomenon is common - so common that sociologists have complex theories about it (they've studied the way that communities create 'in-groups' and 'out-groups' and then police the boundaries between them). So while I talk about Christianity here because that's the religious community I'm most familiar with, I also know that every other religious community from Islam to Hinduism has members that like to police the borders of that religion. It's a very human thing to do. Maybe it goes back to our tribal roots - maybe we want to know who is 'us' and who is 'them' because the world feels safer then. Of course, all that really happens is that the world gets smaller.

At the very beginning of my research into Paganism, I thought that the Neo-Pagan religions were naturally predisposed to do less of this. I thought that the diversity of faiths under the Pagan 'umbrella', all co-existing relatively peacefully, was a major shift in the nature of modern religious movements - and that it was a great example for inter-faith relations. I still do, on some level. But I've also been disenchanted.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love theology. I love to it a disturbingly geeky level. Meditating (and researching) on questions of the nature of deity is central to my spiritual experience. Talking about it gets me obscenely excited. (Really. If you want to see this mild-mannered little trainee academic get so animated that she ends up breaking things, ask her about her current thinking on the nature of the gods.) Theology should be something beautiful, something that gets us closer to the gods, or to the essence of spirituality. It should be intellectually, emotionally and spiritually blissful. It should not be used to police the boundaries between us and them - especially when we're all Pagans. If theology is important to you, can you not imagine how important it might be to someone else? And do you really need to feel so threatened by someone else's alternative theology that you start making accusations of oppression, of not being allowed to believe what you believe? To me, this sounds an awful lot like the conservative Christians who feel threatened by the liberal Christians. But what if we don't get to define what [insert religion here] is anymore?

I was at a disability studies conference this week. It was a great experience - I got to see how the academic community is really trying to be useful to people who are among the poorest and most oppressed in our society. Almost everyone was making a positive contribution - except for one person. This man, who is a bit of a disability studies 'celebrity', went out of his way to be dismissive of other people, to say how pointless the conference was, and generally to show how much his head was up his own arse. But he was happy because he knew he was RIGHT. What a shame for him that he didn't see what a wasted opportunity his commitment to 'right'-ness was.

A wise friend of mine made the observation that there are far more commonalities than differences in modern Paganism, and that clinging to some kind of moral high ground involves a failure to recognise that. I agree. I don't think there's much else to say. Except...

...that I keep coming back to this idea, that what irritates me most is usually a failing that I recognise in myself, on some level. I like to draw lines in the sand and say this far and no further, too. I especially like to police intellectual boundaries. Have you thought about something 'enough'? If I don't think you have, I'm probably going to dismiss you. How many wonderful opportunities, relationships and connections I miss as a result. How easily I could slide into isolation and bitterness if I continue to let myself do that.

I'm also still very afraid of having lines drawn against myself. In my Druid group, I've been afraid to say too much there about what I really believe, because I know that some of the ways I define myself and the gods could be controversial. What opportunities I'm denying to other people who might want to connect more deeply with me, as a result.
At our Midsummer ritual, I told the gods (the universe, the Divine, whatever) that I was done with fear. They're taking me extremely seriously. I refuse to be limited by the fear of being the outcast. I refuse to be limited by the threat of others' beliefs. I choose to look for the commonality, not the differences.

Picture of St Brigid's well, County Kildare, Ireland. Photo by me. 

Macha, goddess of right relationships - with the land, with the gods, with each other, within ourselves;
Brighid, who transforms everything I offer to her, including myself;
May I honour you authentically, and in so doing, honour myself.
And may I recognise how much bigger than my tight, tiny boxes you really are.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Summer Landscapes: Spirits of the City, Spirits of the Hills

1. London

Plaque in commeration of Iolo Morgannwg's first Gorsedd of the Bards of Britain on Primrose Hill

I've been a Londoner since I was four years old. I lived in this city for fourteen years, then heading off first to America and then to Cardiff, before returning to London for another ten years. That's twenty-four years I spent in this city. And when I go home - and it is home - I can feel it. I can feel a relationship I developed with land spirits that I wasn't even consciously aware of for most of that time, starting to become dimly aware of them only as I was leaving. But it doesn't matter that I was oblivious. We know each other.

My spirituality of the land is a spirituality of the whole of it - cities included. We give our own symbolic meaning to our landscapes*, and mine includes trying not to separate out the 'countryside' from the rest of the world we live in. I love being out in the wild, but cities have a spirit that I find incredibly exciting. I couldn't live at London-pace forever, but I love the sheer life that's there.

So it's probably a bit ironic that the first thing I did, when I got a moment to connect properly with the spirit of the city, was to go and find a tree to meditate under. (I was there to research at the British Library, and spent most of my week there sitting at a desk in a big building.) But I did. And it was awesome.

Tree. Primrose Hill. (I think it might have been a sycamore. Don't quote me on that.)

Primrose Hill is a place with history and myth attached to it. It was once known as 'Barrow Hill', perhaps suggesting there was an ancient burial ground here. It has been claimed that Boudica made her battle plans here and was maybe even buried here (or a few roads over, on Parliament Hill - folklore is fickle). More historically, the London Parks authority has recently installed a plaque at the top of the hill that commemorates Iolo Morgannwg and his first Gorsedd of the Bards of Britain in 1792. The group was primarily about Welsh language and culture, and still holds an annual Eisteddfod today. I think there are some Pagan-type Druids who still hang out on Primrose Hill, too. Unsurprisingly, putting up this plaque this was a controversial decision locally - not least because of the Morgannwg's opium addiction! I've noticed that modern Druids can be very rude about him, and I can sort of see why - clearly, he made stuff up. On the other hand, I find some of what he wrote quite inspiring (I really like his thoughts on death), and there's influence there from ancient texts - although the modern interpretations and ideas are just as interesting. Morgannwg even invented the 'three rays' Awen symbol and the Druid prayer that are used in OBOD and a number of other Druid orders, I have learned recently. I'm not sure why we Pagan types are always so keen to find truly ancient wisdom behind our beliefs (and I entirely include myself in that). Is the eighteenth century too late for people to have spiritual insight that we can learn from? He should have been more upfront about where the work came from (i.e. mainly his head), of course, but claiming you've discovered an ancient manuscript is a bit of an old British tradition - at least, Geoffrey of Monmouth did it about his version of the King Arthur stories. That probably wasn't Morgannwg's reasoning, but you never know. Anyway, I was pleased to be able to stand in the spot where the first Gorsedd of the Bards of Britain was held. That tradition would eventually influence modern Druidry, and I rather like modern Druidry. (It was a little ironic that they've also paved over the top of the hill, but that's the London Parks people for you.)

The view from Primrose Hill, looking out from the top of the hill itself, across London

And you can't deny the power of Primrose Hill. William Blake had his vision of the "spiritual sun" here, and looking out over London from the summit of this little peak, I can see what he meant.

Next up in my record of my summer travels: Somerset and Uffington. (On different days. They're not close.)

*There's some fascinating work in sociology and geography about the way that we socially construct the meanings of the landscapes around us, i.e. give meanings to 'nature.'. Aspects of this are debated, but it's really interesting as a concept. Try Greider and Garkovitch's 'Landscapes: The social construction of nature and the environment' as a good starting-point for reading about this.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Tensions in Spirituality, Rationality and Humility

How do I resolve the many tensions and contradictions in my beliefs and approach to life?

There are times (which I often write about here) when I feel totally disconnected from the Pagan community, especially here in Britain. (Sometimes I feel like I connect better with American Pagans - although stick me in the US face-to-face with a group of real people and we'll see if that harmony lasts. I doubt it - I'm a contrary little bugger!) There's a lot that I don't accept that other Pagans do. I suspect this is about several things, but especially my commitment to rationality. I've come really late to Paganism, compared with most people I know. I was, and remain, a skeptic about many things. A rational approach to religion was always my thing, or at least it has been for the past few years. I'm addicted to theology and sociology of religion (I want to know what gods, spirituality and religious communities are actually like, and why). I love myth, but I always seem to want to know how much of it is 'true' (as if that was even the point). Tell me that quantum physics has proven magic and the very least I'll do is roll my eyes at you - talk about The Secret and I will bite your head off. I don't have a lot of time for homeopathy or astrology (although I'm happy to respect the beliefs of those who do). The list could go on and on.

I also believe in many things that would make me an extremely rubbish atheist. I believe in magic, and I increasingly practice something that might be called that (although Wiccans might not recognise it as such - I don't know). I believe in gods and spirits of the land. I'm starting to work with my ancestors, slowly, but with sudden moments of clarity in which they are absolutely there. I believe that when my father talks about angels, he's referring to a reality that I might name or conceive of differently, but which exists nonetheless (and I believe that he's a shaman, and I'm not going to begin to try and explain why). I believe in divination (not in a 'telling the future' sense, but in the 'uncovering my own insight' way) and in journeying to other places to meet other -- well, others. I believe in what I experience when I read the Gaelic myths, or lie on the ground in the forest, or light the candles at my deity shrine, or cast a circle OBOD-style, or greet the four directions in the morning, or call out to land, sea and sky. I believe there is a spiritual world beyond my words and understanding, and that it is right here, always. Even when I'm too distracted because I've lost my keys to be aware of it.

And I believe in other things too, even though I'm not talking about them much at the moment. I looked at my Celtic cross this morning and thought about putting it on. My beliefs from that side of things lie dormant at the moment, but I believe that there will be a season for that again.  

I believe.

The tension lies between seeing everything as socially constructed, which I do, and also believing that there's a spiritual reality that we shape our social constructions around, even though I'd often prefer not to believe that. (It would certainly make my research into the sociology of religion a lot more straightforward if I didn't.)

At the moment, this tension is still driving me batty. I'll be reading a book on healthcare in the ancient world. I'll come across a passage on Asclepius written from a Christian viewpoint, or there will be a chapter dismissing magic as a pre-religious phenomenon that only stupid primitive people would be involved with. Then I'll get intensely annoyed with the academic world and/or wonder if I'm the biggest idiot in the universe and should just get back on the comfy road to atheism that I was headed along a couple of years ago. Or I'll be talking to atheists and want to defend spirituality and magic and even things I don't believe in at all, despite them thinking I'm crazy. Or I'll be talking to Pagans and want to defend secularist, rationalist or even atheistic perspectives. I suspect that resolving these tensions will take me a long time. Or maybe they'll be around forever, and I'll have much to learn from the contradictions.

My commitment to rationality is something I'm very proud of, but it also has the potential to be a bad thing - not in itself, but because I'm so unswerving in that commitment. Humility is a really important virtue, and it's one that I seriously lack - I often think my views are better and more reasonable than other people's. This is a problem. More than that, my experiment about 18 months ago, when I decided to act as if everything were true (for a limited time!) and see what happened, opened up a whole new perspective on the spiritual world to me that I'm very happy to have discovered. Being open to things has led me to some very positive experiences - I'm never going to be entirely uncritical about alternative healing practices, but, for example, I've had some reiki recently that had an actual, measurable effect (from my own perspective) on my energy and pain levels, and I don't want to be so closed off to possibilities that I'm a walking plank of wood. On the other hand, I really need rationality, and I do not want my brains to start dribbling out of my ears in the hope that I might have a few more spiritual experiences that way. But I can't forget how I felt when I read Signe Pike's 'Faery Tale' and went 'Shit. I think something is actually speaking to me here', despite the very loud protests of my rational brain. (The social theorist Weber would call it 're-enchantment'. See? That was my rational brain, not my spiritual one. I need both.)

In particular, I don't want to impose my beliefs - about anything - on anyone else. My tendency to want to do that is a legacy of my evangelical Christian past. Last night, some Druid friends and I were talking about the way that we all see one Pagan concept very differently. Somehow the conversation briefly got onto the gods, and to what extent we can know that any of the gods/heroes in the British and Gaelic myths are anything more than a story. I said a few things about scholarship (some scholars think that there are clear traces of ancient gods in the myths), but I think we were mainly in agreement that there's ultimately very, very little we can know about what ancient Britons and Gaels believed. That, I think, is where faith comes in - balanced with rationality about where my (current) beliefs come from. The social construction of my belief in the gods has a number of sources, and I'm not too proud to admit it. In part, I believe in these gods because other people do - without past Neo-Pagans deciding they were going to worship Brighid or the Morrigan, or even Athena or Freya, I would never have approached any of the gods - they'd have remained nothing but old stories, like they are to most people. In part, I believe in them because (some) scholarship agrees that there were ancient gods worshiped by my ancestors who might have been called something similar to some of the names above. And in part, I believe in them because when I called them, they answered. (Technically I believe some of them called me first, but that's going back to muddy waters!) But in the end, faith is the key. I believe in these gods because I believe in these gods.* The point - which someone made last night - is that we can't impose that faith on other people. They have their own concepts of god(s), based on their own faith. And for me, that's one of the wonders of the Pagan community. It could even be one of the wonders of the religious community, if we could all get our heads around our many differences. Not even in a 'we're all going to the same place' way - just in a 'how amazing is our diversity?' way.

I'm not used to being humble about any of what I believe - whether that's rationality, social constructionism, or that the trees in my local woods are as aware of me as I am of them. The legacy of my evangelical Christian background is the need to make sure that my beliefs, and everyone's else, are right. But there's no 'right' in faith (and I've a feeling we're not in church anymore, Toto).

We were also talking last night about how we have no idea if the ancient Druids even existed (thanks, Ronald Hutton!), that 'Celtic' is a misnomer and an anachronism that doesn't really describe anything at all, and lots of other lovely factual things of the kind that keep my rational brain thinking, and therefore happy - although sometimes longing for simpler answers. The pursuit of real history in Druidry (and Paganism in general) is an awesome thing, even though it leads people to very different conclusions. But even with that quest, it's too easy to impose our conclusions on other people. History is a social construction too, especially in periods from which we're seriously lacking records. But modern Paganism does have a history - it started 60 (or so) years ago and our communities are living it and making it now. When I read Emma Restall Orr's writing or listen to the Faith, Fern and Compass podcast, I see modern Pagan history and mythology unfolding right now, founded on recent inspiration that draws on new perspectives about ancient ideas. (Socially constructed ideas? Of course - everything is socially constructed.) I find that really exciting. That kind of current creativity, shaping communities and faiths and spiritual paths, was totally lacking in my Christian practice, where everything has already been done, dusted and written down. New ideas inspired by ancient possibilities - you could call that the early history of a lot of religions. And that's the answer I'm giving to myself when my rational brain starts going "A religion based on ideas invented 60 years ago? Come on."** It's not as romantic as the answer I want. But then, sometimes the answers you want are much less interesting than the ones you get.

I like the idea that we can be humble about our beliefs and, by extension, accepting of each other. I think Paganism has something really special with its diversity of faiths and perspectives, and that I can learn a lot from them. And if I can also learn not to feel either superior or inferior to people whose beliefs I don't share or whose experiences I haven't had, I'll be getting somewhere. When I next slip back into 'if it's not in a book by someone with a PhD I'm not listening!' mode, I shall be trying to remember that.

And now I have to get back to this book on healthcare in the ancient Near East before they find my dusty skeleton in the library still clinging on to what's left of it. (Oh look, a chapter on Asclepius.)

*I believe in other spiritual realities and metaphors too, like Sophia as an archetype of enlightenment and Mary as her avatar. But this is a Pagan post. Mostly :D
**That's a big tension for Paganism - what's old and what's new? And I think it's a great, really creative tension, full of possibilities.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Paganism and Gender: Bold Action, Gracious Passivity, Infinite Diversity

This is a bit of a disjointed post, but I wanted to get my thoughts down while they were floating around!

I've been quite surprised that I'm surrounded by as many heterosexual people in the Pagan community as I was in church. That's great, of course! - but I thought maybe Paganism, with its openness and variety, would attract more of a range of approaches to sexuality (and gender) than Christianity. And of course, to some extent it does. Women are far more evident in leadership in the Pagan community than in the Christian world, where they are still grappling with ideas like the different 'roles' of men and women (which is often code for extreme sexism) and how they relate that to a pluralistic, post-feminist world. There seems to be a fairly good balance of men and women in the Pagan movement (although again, probably more women - but sociological research suggests that true of every spirituality). There's definitely no overt inequality between the genders - not that I've seen, anyway.

I'm a feminist. I'm a gay/bisexual woman in a relationship with another woman. I'm close to someone who is genderqueer. I resist many gender expectations personally - they mainly don't work for me. I teach a course on Gender and Society at a university, so I know what the research really says about gender - sociological, psychological, biological and even linguistic research. I question everything that society accepts about gender. And I really do mean everything.

So when I hear/read about how air is 'masculine' and water is 'feminine', or about how the Ceridwen story is about (heterosexual) sex and fertility, or about how the moon is a goddess and the sun is a god (and so has it ever been and so shall it ever be, which just isn't true), or about how the Divine is expressed through duality of gender in the God and the Goddess, I'm get very uncomfortable. If these beliefs work for people, fine - but they're so far from what I can relate to, that they make me wonder if Paganism can ever really work for me. I usually realise fairly quickly that my path is my own, that I can relate to the Divine in whatever way I want, that I can worship a sun goddess if I feel like it, and that fertility does not have to be a concept that I use in any of my rituals. (And thank gods for that, because I am the least motherly person I know, and I do not plan on expressing fertility in any way in my life, except maybe symbolically in my garden. And my sex life is just fine, thank you, without any need for any reference to fertility - I'm not in the Catholic church, with its expectations of churning out babies!) But I still feel the major pressure of 'having' to think this way, especially when these concepts are subtly or obviously reinforced in the things I'm learning from - courses, for example (mentioning no names of any courses, but you get the idea).

There is nothing necessarily 'natural' about associating caring or motherly tendencies with women. There is nothing necessarily 'natural' about associating heroic or warrior tendencies with men. All these gendered associations, and so many more, are socially constructed. They've been socially constructed for a long time, so we see them as natural (which is called an 'essentialist' approach to gender) - but they are not.* We 'perform' gender every day, and in so doing, we reinforce the expectations associated with it. That's great if you feel comfortable with and empowered by those associations. If you don't, you can feel straitjacketed or even oppressed by those expectations and beliefs - as many transgendered people will tell you. I'm a scholar, and the elements with which I associate most closely are air and fire - the apparently more 'masculine' elements. I have aspects of myself that many would consider feminine, and aspects that many would consider masculine - but I don't really see any of them that way. They're just part of how I express myself and my creativity, intellect, and other qualities. I also strongly dislike being told what women are like and what men are like, because that rarely fits with the way I experience life. I want to be empowered by my own approach to gender, too, just as other people are empowered by theirs. I want to explore the heroic path, despite the irony of that for a disabled scaredy-cat with a strong attachment to home comforts. I also want to explore a warrior's path, despite the irony of my simultaneous commitment to peace, and the fact that I will never have the kind of physical fitness that would normally be associated with that approach. Life is about contradictions, and I'm as diverse as the rest of the universe!

I have someone in my life who is genderqueer, who I'm very close to, and who has taught me a lot about how much variety there is in the way that people see, live and experience gender. This post was inspired by my finally getting to listen to Hyperion's 'Unnamed Path' podcast episode about the protest at PantheaCon against Z Budapest's women-born-women-only ritual (which Fire Lyte and I talked about on his podcast a few months ago). That's a very separate issue, but at the same time, there are related issues there. Some of the statements that came out of that, about trans women actually being men, seemed to me to be rooted in an essentialist view of gender that is oppressive not only for trans people, but also for anyone who does not associate with more traditional views of gender, whether they are genderqueer like my family member, or just highly questioning of gender, like me.

This, by the way, may be a big part of why I don't personally get along with the 'all the goddesses are one goddess' type approach. Polytheism, for me, expresses the vast diversity of life far better than duality. I love that Aine can be seen as a sun goddess, and that the Morrighan is associated with warriors, while Manannán mac Lir is fast becoming my god of contemplation, mystery, mysticism, and other apparently 'passive' qualities that lead to the Divine. I completely adore how much variety of roles and expressions can be associated with Pagan gods. That's just not the case in some spiritualities. Even in mystical/Gnostic Christianity, Sophia seems to be lower than the Divine - in some myths she has to be rescued by Christ, for example.

I didn't realise how much I had spiritually internalised this idea of 'passive' and 'active' roles for women and men, as a result of some of these Christian and cultural myths, until a few years ago. It's something I'm trying to work on, and it's very hard for me - for all my feminist principles, I don't usually actually want to take action. The gods are challenging me on this, and it's really hard. It's going to continue to be really hard. But it's about authenticity, I think. If I hold a belief, e.g. that gender is variety and women are equal with men, how am I actually expressing and living that in my life? How am I living in an active way? And for me, related to that will be accepting the times when I have to be passive and accept help, and learn not to feel disempowered by that. Being disabled means other people are always going to be helping me. If I can graciously learn to accept help from the community, while giving back to it the things that I am able to give, I will be living in more balance and less struggle. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Try having to have your wheelchair pushed by another person, and experience how much you feel out-of-control and utterly reliant on someone else, and then reconsider that!

And through all of this, Brighid is a constant - who is as motherly and hearth-and-home-focused as you can get. I think she sees me as a challenge. There are things she can teach me about gender and living it in my own way, too. It's just a lot more like hard work than my connection with some of the more 'active' goddesses. Fortunately, she's very patient too. And I'm just not going to comment on why that has long been considered a feminine quality, or we'll be here all day!

*There is, of course, some debate around this in sociology. Most sociologists think that the research leans strongly towards the socially constructed approach to gender. I recommend the book Brain Storm for an excellent debunking of much of the biological research that attempts to 'prove' that gender is natural or essential.

Sunday, 17 June 2012


I'm writing this from bed, after a week during which I got some kind of cold or flu thing, completely lost my voice for a couple of days, and am now feeling just about well enough to hang out drinking tea and taking ginseng (there's more evidence that it might help colds than there is for echinacea, which is a very expensive placebo!)

At the same time, Cat has been writing about sacrifice, and has sparked a lot of debate on the subject. I had been thinking a lot about sacrifice before that, although I hadn't put it into those terms. I don't agree with everything Cat says, but I haven't been able to stop thinking about the subject since, and the debate around it has been fascinating.

In Cat's most recent post on the subject, she asked her readers to reflect on what we give up voluntarily, not through obligation. But in my experience, a lot of sacrifice comes out of the social situation we inhabit. We value that which we don't have much of, and that's about the situation we're in. To give up some of your food to the gods, in a rural, subsistence economy, when you don't know for how long food will be plentiful, and in famine too, is far more of a sacrifice than giving up part of a meal is for us. That's what I imagine our ancestors did as sacrifice. Of course, that's a romanticised notion - they were probably also involved in all sorts of sacrifices that we would find distasteful (archaeological and other evidence suggests they were, although we can't be completely sure). I think that's part of what Nimue is critiquing about the concept of sacrifice. But I don't think there's anything wrong with being inspired by a concept that our ancestors (may have) shared and modifying it to fit with the wisdom we have now - even if that's easily dismissed as romanticism. And it's this idea of contextual sacrifice, of giving voluntarily from within a situation that you didn't choose, that I find the most useful and profound.

I don't believe that this has to mean medieval Christian-style martyrdom. There's a difference between feeling sorry for yourself or feeling that you have to suffer, and willingly working within the constraints that your life imposes. I could pretend that my disability doesn't make my life difficult, as the disability rights movement sometimes goes overboard trying to prove, but it does. There is crap in my life that I rarely talk about. My social context, as a disabled person, means that even blogging and podcasting are sacrifices. There is really very little useful time in my life - when I'm not sick, in pain, needing to rest, or having to do things much more slowly and painfully than I used to - and there's much that I want to accomplish in those little slivers of useful time. So I have to think very carefully before, for example, committing to putting out a podcast episode that takes between 10 and 20 hours of planning, recording and editing time. It means I go without many other things that I'd like to do, and it's a sacrifice. Of course, blogging and podcasting and all those other interesting things I do are a privilege and a joy, too, not just a sacrifice. But it would be dishonest of me to pretend that these things are all about fluffy clouds and dancing in meadows. And more importantly, the struggle is something I'm proud of, not ashamed of. Not always - sometimes I'd much rather hide my differences and pretend everything is great in my life, because of some misguided idea that I'll 'fit in' better that way. But I think something is more valuable if you've worked hard for it. For me, sacrifice is about giving up something that really means something. My time and energy are worth a great deal to me. Other things are much easier for me to give up, but they might be exactly the things that someone else has in short supply - for them, something else is a sacrifice.

I'm thinking of my mum, who managed to get a higher degree despite having two young children and absolutely no time, and who taught me far more about the value of studying for degrees than my Oxford-educated dad who got his degree at 21 when he was living in a posh college and had no distractions. Or my wife, who, when I got very ill six months into our relationship, dealt with it in ways that I never expected from anyone. She's spent many years looking after me, when I don't doubt that other people would have left as soon as things got difficult. At our wedding, she said that "If you can really say 'for poorer - for worse - in sickness', you're with the right person," and made everyone cry. If I went next-door to her study now and asked her if it was a sacrifice, she'd probably laugh at me. Not everyone thinks of these things in the same way. I know how difficult it's been for her, though. These are situations that are partly about the imposition of circumstances, and partly about free choice. For me, the balance between the two is what makes them sacrifices.

I'm uncomfortable with the negativity I often hear from Pagans towards the Christian concept of sacrifice. Unfortunately, I think it's widely misunderstood by non-Christians. The idea that Jesus was some kind of blood sacrifice to appease a tyrannical god is only one, minority way of seeing the Cross. There are other interpretations, some that have more in common with Odin's self-sacrifice on the world tree. In the Gnostic Christian mythos, Jesus willingly sacrifices himself to redeem the fallen Sophia,* redeeming wisdom for humanity. It's a sacrifice myth, like many of the other myths that reflect the incredible sacrifices that are involved in seeking wisdom, as Cat talks about in her post in relation to Jesus and the Buddha. That's the way I see sacrifice, in both a Christian and a Pagan context - life-altering, comfort zone-destroying, Gnosis-seeking. Looking at it that way, most of the time I feel like it's entirely beyond me. I'm far too weak to sacrifice anything serious for Gnosis, or to the gods. I feel guilty all the time that I'm not doing 'enough'. But at the same time, if sacrifice is related to what I have to offer (as I always believed in a Christian context), then my use of my resources is what matters.

I don't say very much here, or anywhere really, about my developing relationship with my gods. I don't get along with the 'archetypes' concept of the gods, and I worry that people will think me silly or naive if I share my own views on deity, so I mostly don't. But the gods are central to my spirituality (and I'm really bored of trying to pretend otherwise). This summer, my gods have been pushing me outside of my comfort zone. Not much, but enough that I feel it. I'm working on facing my fears and doing things I wouldn't of my own accord. This probably wouldn't look like much from the outside - lots of other people would do these things without thinking, and I'm sure they could also think of better things I could be doing. But I have to work with my own resources. That's the only raw material the gods have to work with, if I want them to help me to do things with my life. That's what I sacrifice to them, but it's also a sacrifice to myself. Along the way, they seem to want me to answer my own prayers. I think that's all right with me.

This post took all day to write. I'm left thinking about whether I envy people who can bash out a blog post in an hour and forget about it. Probably, but then I wouldn't have thought about this as deeply as I have. Sacrifice is meaningful even when it arises from circumstances you wouldn't choose - and maybe more so.

*Gnosticism reverses many familiar Christian interpretations - many Gnostics see the snake in the Garden of Eden as an avatar of Sophia, and Eve as a saint who chose wisdom rather than ignorance.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Myths That Bring Down Empires

The Freedom from Religion Foundation recently called on liberal Roman Catholics to leave the church. You're deluded if you think you can change the church from within, they claimed. More than that: when you're a member of an oppressive institution, you need to think about whose side you are on. I have some sympathy with that view.

So EJ Dionne responded with the reasons why he isn't quitting the church. He essentially seems to believe that Jesus taught a message of liberation that the church needs to hear from within. I agree.

Then, over at Meadowsweet and Myrrh, the wonderful Alison Leigh Lilly wrote about her journey away from the Catholic church, before she became a Druid, and how she could no longer live with the structures of a church in which she is considered structurally, cosmically unequal to the men in power (along with many other interesting reasons for leaving - the post is worth reading). There are things I agree with there too.

In short, I'm confused.

I like to think of myself as an aspiring social reformer (although I'm rubbish at it), and I like to think of Jesus as one, too. I also think Jesus would recognise very little that goes on in our churches if he were here to see them now.* I believe, with Dionne, that the Gospel is a call to liberation. While there are many examples of the churches' poor record on social justice, there have also been great examples of those who heard Jesus' liberatory call and put it into action. The Quakers have spoken out against slavery and war for centuries, and it was Catholics who developed the liberation theology which pushed the church in Latin America to put human rights back on their agenda. Those are two examples of individuals and groups who have tried to turn the tanker of Christianity and, to some extent, succeeded. There are many more examples of failure, of course.

When I thought I would be a faithful, church-going Christian forever, and even briefly considered becoming a deacon (a sort of unpaid assistant priest - I've always been ambitious), I was well aware that I would be trying to turn a tanker. I spent ten years in the LGBT Christian movement, believing that my active presence in the church as a gay/bisexual woman (in a stable, committed relationship) was all that was needed for my acceptance. And I've seen that happen. Friends of mine - let's call them Steven and Paul - attended a church for many years where the minister initially believed that same-sex relationships were sinful. That minister recently conducted their wedding. He talked at the ceremony about they had changed his view on same-sex relationships. That kind of change of attitude through personal connection is only possible on a small scale: one person at a time. And yet... that's how I try to change the world. One person at a time.

There is a movement in the churches called emergent Christianity. (I am a little bit in love with Peter Rollins, one of the leaders of the movement.) This movement involves ordinary people re-defining Christian faith and the church. To some extent this movement is happening outside the churches, but it is happening in community. There are also amazing individuals out there who challenge the church in ways that catch society's attention, like Symon Hill (who I met at Greenbelt, an emergent festival). Symon's a lifelong anti-war activist and Quaker who recently walked 160 miles in repentance for his former homophobia. These people are a minority, but I believe they still make a difference. I think they have more effect working as part of, not against, the churches. Christians mostly don't listen to outsiders who critique their positions. They often do listen to other Christians.

So what does this all mean for me? I'm having a definite shift in my thinking at the moment. My spirituality is increasingly becoming more embodied, 'nature'-focused and mystical - it always was to some extent, but that's becoming my main focus now. In the past, I've always been drawn to formal, ritualisitic churches where Communion and the other sacraments are at the centre - this itself is embodied worship. The 'high' Anglican churches have worked well for me, for that reason - their congregations are generally liberal and their worship is formal. But they are slowly dying (it's a long story), and the conservative evangelical wing of the Anglican church is in the ascendancy. The institution of the Church of England is becoming something that I no longer believe I can help to change. That probably wouldn't be the case if I still believed in Christianity in the way I used to, but changes in belief have highlighted the issues I already have with it. I'm now an outsider, and I've already lost my right to speak truth to power in that church as a result.

I don't think I have the right to comment on whether or not liberal Catholics should leave their church. I don't think those who stay are 'enablers', as the Freedom from Religion Foundation put it (although I recognise that there's a debate to be had about that), but I do think it's important that people leave or stay in religions for the right reasons. If they can be committed enough to work towards change, being realistic about the fact that they are a minority without a great deal of influence, then maybe people like the American nuns, the committed liberals, can create this generation's version of liberation theology. Alternatively, maybe in the process of leaving, some of them will become this generation's George Fox, the reformer who left his church to form the Quakers.

In the end, I think it might be all about the mythology. (Isn't everything?) All religious/spiritual outcomes are founded on the myths that underpin your faith. Do you believe Jesus was a conservative or a liberal? (Research suggests you probably believe he was exactly what you are.) I think he was a radical revolutionary, but that's just my interpretation. But whatever it looked like at first, the Jesus myth was strong enough to bring down an empire and build another one. I don't know if the liberal Catholics have myths strong enough to bring down the empire of the pope, but no one would have predicted that a carpenter's son from an insignificant outpost of the Roman Empire would have been able to inspire everything that Christianity has achieved - good and bad.

And these might not always be sacred myths. As I said to Alison Leigh Lilly in response to her post, my spirituality draws on the oddest of mythical sources. I mentioned the final scene of 'Angel', the spin-off series from 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer', that to me symbolises speaking truth to power more than any biblical or European ancient myth. (Although a lot of those speak to me of that too!) For a long time I've been trying to find/create a form of spirituality that truly embodies justice, wisdom, support for the oppressed, and a limitless love of life in all its forms, built on a narrative that tells my story. I think I'm getting there, slowly.

Whatever choices I make about my church, I remain committed to the importance of faith and community. I hope that, whether the liberal Catholics leave or stay, they find communities that help them to express their faith and spirituality. One of my core beliefs is that spirituality is formed and developed in community, and that it reflects and impacts on society. I have myths that speak of that, too.

What myths underpin your spiritual path?

*Wow. A non-Christian statement if ever I made one...!

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Beltane, Apparently. One Year On...

Well, Cat encouraged me to reflect, so here I am (while avoiding work, too - a double achievement!)

As I said on Twitter this morning, I fail to connect with Beltane. It seems to me that everyone loves this one, while I seem to connect with the less obvious ones (like Imbolc). Admittedly, I'm saying this after only about a year of proper Pagan practice, so I've only 'done' Beltane twice now, and I'm sure I'll come to connect with it later. But right now I'm looking out of the window at a wet, cold landscape, and it doesn't really feel like the beginning of summer. That hardly matters, though. Things are happening out there, and I love my view from the window and across the allotments - I can see birds (LOTS of birds), the neighbourhood cats, and the changes in the land reflected in the little rows of gardens, including mine. In the past couple of weeks I've been delighted to see two herons and a duck hanging around outside my window. I never would have noticed them a year ago.

I started thinking of myself as properly Pagan around Beltane last year, so I suppose I've done a year - although, as I keep saying, I also think of my spiritual journey as an unbroken line, with this as a new but not unexpected stage on the journey. But anyway, it wouldn't be a bad idea to start reflecting on where I am after a year. I keep asking myself what I've achieved. I think it's the wrong question. This is about spiritual process, not reaching levels - no one's going to give me a certificate for any of this. (Except maybe OBOD. Heh.) In my spiritual process this year, I've done everything from learning how to connect with land spirits to working with gods to learning how to do some magic to starting to notice the cycles of the land around me more (with delight). I've started a podcast - part of my life's work of helping other people to tell their stories (see also my PhD!) - and we have seven great episodes so far. I'm connecting with myth and learning to work with altered states of consciousness. I'm really enjoying the OBOD bardic grade, even though I always have an "Aaagh, too New Agey!" moment when I first read about what I'm meant to be doing this month on the course (I always 'come round' to most of it). I'm developing a daily spiritual practice that probably looks nothing like anyone else's, and I wouldn't be happy if it did look like theirs. Big things and little things, although I'm not sure which is which. Things have happened. I've changed. But have I changed 'enough'? I don't honestly feel like I've achieved very much. I don't know if that matters, though.

I'm really struggling with the healing emphasis that I see very strongly around me in the Pagan community. Not because it's a bad thing - it's wonderful. But I have reservations about the way it's approached and talked about by many Pagans. Too many of them don't seem to see the normative ideologies inherent in their philosophies of healing - by which I mean the socially constructed ideas about what is 'normal'. Which, believe it or not, we mainly inherit from Christianity. I've written about this in other places, so I won't go on about it, but why am I mentioning this now? Because I can't go to rituals or spend much time outside or do much 'practice' at the moment - and, as much as I'm working on learning how to be myself more authentically, I still feel almost guilty about that. And yet, when I feel like that, I think I'm still thinking from Christian frameworks. There will not be a heaven and I will not have a perfect body there. I have a different body that reflects the wonderful diversity of life, right now. OK, so right now the rain is causing me screaming-level pain, but that's not always the case. I have to be really creative about how to connect with the world, when other people wouldn't think twice about going for a walk, and I value that. I wouldn't have noticed the duck and herons in my neighbourhood if I was able to wander out into the countryside. But the land is right here, too. I'm not limited. I just have a different perspective from you.

I'm not someone who is going to do a lot of 'achieving' or 'doing' in my life. I'm far better at *being*. This is something I've been trying to accept about myself for a long, long time. Every since I heard the Christian myth of Martha and Mary, which still inspires me. In the tale, Martha is rushing around trying to serve her guests, who include Jesus. Mary, her sister, is sitting with Jesus and listening to him. Martha eventually gets really angry and says to Jesus, "Tell my sister to help me serve the guests." He (essentially) says, "Martha, why are you rushing around trying to *do* all the time? Mary has made a better choice." I think of my little, insignificant activities as Mary-stuff: meditation, or sitting in the garden, or doing little bits of gardening that I can manage, or my daily spiritual practice which has to be fairly short and simple and so has to be meaningful. I could try to force myself to do Martha-stuff, but would I really gain anything? My perspective, as it is, is just as worthwhile as anyone else's.

There's a lot that I still need to reflect on. I haven't figured out how possible it is to mix Christianity with my Pagan path (although the Christianity is refusing to go away). I can't always work out what to do with the OBOD course, when the emphasis of it starts to feel like a different kind of Druidry from what I want to work with (but it's always extremely useful anyway). I don't know what direction to move in next, with my learning and experience (but stuff always starts turning up - like the Druid Animal Oracle I randomly started to work with, and am loving). So, in the coming year, I'm going to start listening to my intuition, my guides and my gods - and screw what everyone else thinks. I am myself, and my journey is mine, and my perspective is always going to be a bit foreign to everyone else. But I can't be authentically myself by worrying about what everyone else thinks all the time.

Happy Beltane! And now I really should go and do some work. I have a PhD to pretend to be doing...! And later on, I will go outside, and share in the mysteries of the land in the little stretch of it behind my house. Even if only briefly. And with painkillers. And wine. :D

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Risen? Belief, Myth and Mystery

I think Easter has actually driven me crazy this year. I did not make it to church. I'm abroad, English-speaking churches are hard to find, life is chaotic this week, and other excuses. Instead, early this morning I went to the beach and pondered both Manannan mac Lir and the resurrection myth of Jesus (no connection). And I've just been standing in several inches of water, because I decided that was a necessary spiritual exercise for that moment. (Ah, how happy my younger evangelical self would be about the things I find edifying nowadays.) I have also, if briefly, pondered the Holy Week story during the past few days, helped by Rachel Held Evans' wonderful series of posts on the women in the resurrection story*, featuring no less than three of my saints (the three Marys, who I see as different facets of one Gnostic saint**). But I've also done a bit of meditating on the resurrection story itself. That myth has kept intruding all day, no matter how much I tried to think about other spiritual themes. I even indulged in a fairly awful YouTube version of the gloriously evangelical Easter hymn 'See, What a Morning' a couple of hours ago. Well, we all have our guilty pleasures.

I'm well aware that I talk more here about my struggles to re-invent and re-integrate Christianity into my ever-increasing spirals of spirituality than I do about my Pagan practice (which I actually do a lot more of than Christian stuff). That's probably got a lot to do with Paganism being a comfortable and relatively emotionally uncomplicated thing for me at the moment, whereas Christianity has complications up the wazoo for me. (That's not to say that Paganism always will feel this easy to deal with, especially when I've decided exactly how to conceptualize my new approach(es) to spirituality, who to tell, and how, etc. I'm currently staying with my in-laws, for example, who I would prefer never to find out that one of my spiritual frameworks is Pagan - it's complicated. A large number of my friends don't know yet, because I'm not comfortable telling the world until I'm more settled in what I believe. Amusingly, my parents know, and think it's the best thing ever. That would be my father the Taoist shamanic practitioner and my mother the 'I'm spiritual but not religious and I meditate and do yoga and I like being nice' adorable person. My sister the evangelical Christian, not so much, yet. Why yes, we are a crazy family.) Um, long tangent, sorry. My point is that, being a Gnostic (a reconstructionist spirituality that draws inspiration from the ancient mystical Christians) and increasingly a Pagan, and therefore having less and less in common with the vast majority of Christians, it might be easier if I could just say: You know what? I'm done. I keep trying to, especially in terms of church, but I seem incapable of pulling away altogether. Why? Is it because I'm unhappy giving up an identity that has defined me for so long? Is it about not wanting to give up the privilege and 'passing' that comes with the membership of a majority religion? Is it my ongoing terror of the New Age Movement? (No, really, I have serious Issues with this!) It may be. I'm working through whether any/all of these are true (with a bit of help from sociology). But there's another reason, and it's far, far more powerful.

You see, this myth has far more of a hold on me that I want to admit. There are Gnostic interpretations of the resurrection of Christ, as a metaphor for the soul reaching towards union with the Divine. (The Sophia myth is another one of these - she probably wasn't an actual goddess, for most of the ancient Gnostics, but more of an allegory of the human soul.) I think that's beautiful, and there's certainly power in seeing the Jesus myth like this, as the 'Christ Consciousness' spirituality people do. And yet, on a few days each year, these alternative understandings of the myth are not enough for me. Ultimately, to enter into this myth fully, I have to experience it as the first Christians did - as a reality. It was a crazy, earth-shattering, mind-blowing idea. They clearly doubted it. They also clearly believed it as a reality. Sociologists of the Bible and of Christianity mainly agree that, whatever happened on that Sunday morning, it was something that the early church understood as a real experience. In biblical sociology, we try to suspend disbelief and stop asking 'What happened?', since that's a much less interesting question than 'What did they think happened?' I see Pagans writing this year about how Christians should question whether the Jesus myth is historical. I agree that they should. I also believe that they should simultaneously be allowed to believe it, completely and without reservation. (Getting the balance - that's a tricky one.) It's a myth that was formed out of belief in its absolute truth (although we, as modern scientific folk, are often far removed from a world in which we could believe that way - but the first Christians weren't). Later, the Gnostics took the myth and made it a kind of guide to enlightenment, and that's fantastic too, and much closer to the way I want to understand it most of the time. But for a few days a year, I want to enter into this myth completely, and have it be as true for me as when my goddesses speak to me during a shamanic journey, or when I feel the presence of land spirits in the forest. All these things, by the way, are equally mythical and equally real.

And from a beginning in that moment of complete reality, I move into the greater reality of the myth as an exploration of my slow crawl towards Gnosis (or union with Divine Wisdom). A more mature Christianity? I wouldn't like to dismiss all other Christianities as immature - but for me, maybe. But maturity depends on the lessons learnt in childhood. Wisdom is not about pretending we were never foolish, but partaking in the unbroken journey onwards - a journey that had to have a beginning, or we'd be nowhere now. T. Thorne Coyle just posted the Gandhi quotation, "Life is an indivisible whole."

I've heard that both the Celts and the Gnostics used to say 'yes' in answer to riddles and mysteries. Yes, I say to the mystery today. Let it be myth again tomorrow.

I've seen some beautiful Christian, Pagan and Gnostic-focused reflections this year about Resurrection Sunday and the Christ myth - e.g. here and here and here. (I've also seen the requisite number of 'Zombie Jesus' references and rants from a few Pagans about how Christians either stole their festival or don't understand what a myth is - although, happily, less of this than I expected based on past experience. I thought about writing about these things, and then I realised that none of that was the point. This took me quite some time to realise. I'm really a VERY long way from Gnosis. Maybe one day, eh? ;D I do intend to write at some point about the power that comes with our right to freedom of speech, and whether any of us can use it wisely in the interfaith conversation, but that's for another time.) Anyway, I've been inspired by the articles I've linked to above. All these writers have beautiful and very varied things to say about the power of a highly syncretic myth that drew from Jewish, Pagan and other sources to create a reality-in-myth, a paradox of belief and the mythic and the impossible and the daily reality of existence. The cycles of life and death and life. The victory of Divine Wisdom over disconnectedness and destruction. The triumph of life over death (and yes, even this can be a Pagan-themed idea).

I end with the words I've felt too guilty to proclaim all day, for fear of offending someone. Sod that - it's my fucking blog. Christ is Risen. Hallelujah.

See Mary weeping, "Where is He laid?"
As in sorrow she turns from the empty tomb;
Hears a voice speaking, calling her name...

And we are raised with him,
For he lives, Christ has risen from the dead...

*Warning: she's a Christian, and writes from within that framework. She's also a feminist theologian who looks for the feminine in Christianity. I get a lot of inspiration from her writing.
**Some Gnostic writers, and a few scholars, see the Marys in the gospel stories as different sides of the same figure - avatars of Sophia, harking back to earlier versions of the gospels which retained the Sophia myth as a metaphor of the journey of the soul reaching towards enlightenment. That's not my area of scholarship, so I can't comment on that in detail. That approach makes spiritual sense to me, though. Mary is one of my saints - sometimes one of my goddesses. To me, she is all of these Marys, and Sophia, and more. I personally see echoes of this in the Nag Hammadi, the Gnostic 'alternative' (second century) gospels, where Mary Magdalene is often clearly shown as the leader of the Christian apostles. See here for the references - I don't have the book with me, or I'd cite them properly!

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Keeping Going

If anything makes me want to give up spirituality and just have a quiet life consisting of TV and board games, it's complications in life. When I have a routine, it's not so difficult. I can even make myself get up at 6am most mornings to meditate etc, as long as it's a regular thing I can fit into my regular life. Not when things are complicated. Especially not when they're very difficult.

We've just had a very complicated, difficult four weeks (or so) in this family. The Girl's father died on Christmas Day, after a two-and-a-half-year battle with cancer. I joined her in Israel for the shiva - a Jewish tradition where people come to the house of the bereaved for seven days. It is utterly exhausting. I have an autistic spectrum condition - I don't say this as an excuse, but as an explanation - and spending any amount of time with people can be hard work. Constant exposure to people I don't know, in a not-very-accessible house, for twelve hours a day, for seven days, was utterly exhausting. Which is a very 'me me me' response to the situation, but that was how I felt. I'm not going to pretend I'm better than I am, or that I was a fantastic supportive wife and was completely there for my Girl. I am not and I was not. I found it very difficult. The Girl ended up supporting me more than the other way around. She says it was still helpful to have me around. I hope that's true.

If I have to go without praying and meditating for any length of time, my brain tends to explode, under the best of circumstances. Under the worst, it's difficult. I did manage to do some meditating every day, but I missed my rituals so much. (This was actually a good thing to experience. My druidry and other Pagan practices are becoming integrated into my spiritual life, which is great. I want it all to be seamless, though. I'd also like to be less affected by other people's emotions in these kinds of circumstances. I think anyone would be, but I was literally disabled by it for most of the week. I often am. Much to learn.) But I meditated, and my gods were there.

All of that said, I can see the value of something like a shiva. Everyone in the family said they appreciated it while simultaneously hating it. We don't have much in the way of rituals in the post-Christian UK. If you follow a religion (which only applies to a minority of people here), you do what that religion does in relation to death. Western Christianity just sort of stops after the funeral, though. We don't have many traditions associated with bereavement. I feel like ritual around death must be even more lacking for Humanists and atheists, although that's probably a misperception from my lack of understanding of those belief/non-belief contexts. But it seems like there's less and less for the growing 'no religion' group to do around key moments in life. How do Pagan communities meet to celebrate life and remember the dead? I don't mean the long-dead ancestors, I mean people who died last week. Are there funeral structures? I honestly don't know. My wedding was Christian. I wonder what my funeral will be like.