On Living My Paganism

This month marks nineteen years since I became pagan. In the intervening years I’ve been a generic Cunningham-flavored neopagan, spent several years as a Chaos magician particularly enamored of Carroll’s work, tried to form my years of experience and practice into a more formalized neoshamanic path, and found that what I really needed was just the opposite. These days, I still work with totems as I have since the beginning; I still have my work with skin spirits and hides and bones that I started in 1998. There are certain prayers, practices and personal acknowledgements that are largely unchanged from the early days.

But there are things I’ve left behind me as I’ve carried along my path. Rituals, for example. I no longer do much in the way of formal ritual, unless it’s a very special occasion like the opening ritual at Paganicon last month, where I was asked to help out. It’s not that I don’t acknowledge the value of a transformative experience. But I’ve historically called on these rites when I’ve felt the need to really shake things out of stagnation, and I haven’t felt stagnant in years. If you think of my life as a river, you can think of past creative blocks and frustrations as dams that needed to be overflowed and broken. More recently, I tend to wear away at the impediments–or I simply find a different course to take. My life is moving along just fine, even if it’s not always as quickly as I’d like. But I’ve learned the patience of the river in that.

My smaller, more personal rituals are integrated into everyday actions in much the same way. When I do my purification rituals on the hide and bone art I create, they’re worked into the actual creation process itself. A large part of these rites involves conversations with the skin spirits who once wore those remains, conversations that have long since become part and parcel of the creative process itself. I may appear to only be stitching and arranging and decorating, but each action is a phrase, each moment of concentration a chance to listen. There is far more going on than what is apparent from the surface.

And it’s like that in every part of my path. The older I get, the more I recognize the sacred in everything. Nature is what is most sacred to me, and everything is of nature. We humans have taken things like tool-using and nest-building to unprecedented degrees, and we’ve had a really detrimental effect on the rest of the planet at the same time. But we are still of nature; even our creations are of nature, no matter how we’ve altered them from their original forms. So I must acknowledge the sacred in nuclear waste as much as I acknowledge the sacred in a field of beargrass on the flanks of Mt. Hood.

That doesn’t mean I can blithely ignore the effects of nuclear waste, or fracking, or climate change. Just the opposite. We feel compelled to preserve, protect and be engaged in what we consider sacred. This calls me to a path where I am more consciously aware of every moment, every action, not just as an exercise in self-centeredness, but as a sharp reminder of every single thread that “hitches me to everything else in the Universe” (to borrow a phrase from John Muir). This awareness shapes my choices; it compels me to walk my talk.

When I did formal rituals before, a lot of my purpose was to find connection to the sacred. Now I recognize that I am immersed in the sacred at all times, and my goal is not to find the sacred but to remind myself of it, both in thought and action. This state of constant connection is what I was trying to find for so many years. It was what I sought when I stood with athame in hand working early rituals right out of Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. It was there when I tried to expand my consciousness through Chaotic rites. It was there when I wanted to feel the same devotional joy that others around me did with their daily practices and many altars. And I finally found the first thread of it when I let all of that fall away and simply immersed myself in the wildness I had been seeking all along.

It’s not that the practices I’d done before were useless. All the years of meditation and ritual prepared me for this in-the-moment awareness, due in no small part to how they taught me to focus more keenly. Now I can find my connection to sacred even amid distractions, in the most urban of areas, and I set aside distractions with the same skills I learned when casting my first circles. It’s just that now I don’t need the circle casting to find that focus.

Nor do I feel a need to mark particular times of year as more special than the rest. The eight Sabbats are a nice system for reminding a person of the cycles of nature; they’re just close enough to each other to be regular celebrations, but far enough apart that there are significant changes that occur between them. I could mark times that are notable to me–the first rain after the late summer hot spell, or the time when the birds migrate away in spring, or when the strawberries bloom a second time in the year. But there’s always something notable going on in nature. I’d rather my path be in a constant state of celebration rather than picking and choosing which natural events to honor over others.

One might think it’s a lonely, boring path with no parties for special occasions or magical workings. It’s a quieter path, to be sure, but not lonely, and never boring. And I find the rites and such to be distractions at this point, keeping me away from the quiet, constant communion with the sacred that I’m trying to find in every moment, whether curled up in a coffee shop with my laptop, racing around attending to details at an event I’m vending, or looking up at the stars over my campsite as I backpack alone in the wilderness.

Maybe someday that’ll change again. Perhaps I’ll feel called to perform formal rites again, either for myself or for others. That’s the glorious thing about this path I’ve walked for almost two decades–it’s constantly shifting and evolving, flowing like the river through a twisting, turning course.

7 thoughts on “On Living My Paganism”

  1. As I’m standing here telling these mallow flowers how beautiful they are, I’m reading this lovely piece of writing, that I learned so much from. Appreciating it so much. Best yet. Thank you.

  2. I know what you mean about formal ritual. The forms have been useful at times, when life has hit too hard for me to properly cope, but mostly, for me, ritual is a way to coordinate with others. When I’m working alone, knowing and doing flow naturally and joyously together, with no need for words, bells, books, or candles.

    Though sometimes I use them anyway, for the joy of it.

    1. Ritual is helpful, I agree, for getting people into the same rhythm. There are particular cues that are shared; it’s part of why I can still appreciate the Catholicism of my youth. But like you, my personal practices tend to be mine alone.

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