About ten years (and two weeks) ago, I went to the first Seeker class with the group I would later join. It met in the back room of a coffee shop that isn’t there anymore, and several of the teachers left the group a few months later for various reasons.
It was not my first introduction to Paganism, or Wiccan-based practice, or magic. After all, I’d been reading fantasy books with characters who were Pagan for quite a while. I’d had some powerful experiences in college that lead me to explore some basic magical concepts like centering and grounding.
And I’d always believed that the Gods were many and varied, notes and strands of melody singing out in the cosmos in infinite combination, as only someone who was raised on daily stories of Greek mythology can.
I’d also taken my time.
I’d been an active Catholic throughout high school and college (after becoming Catholic when my parents returned to Catholicism when I was 13). There was a lot I’d loved about my college Catholic community, in particular, but I also had frustrations. (The role of women in the church. A desire to create ritual, not just facilitate it. A growing certainty that my GLBT and polyamorous friends were not doing something wrong or sinful, but something that was often complicated, given society’s biases, but something that could be and often was joyous, loving, and wonderful.) There are still things I think many Catholics get right, and do wonderful things with – but it’s a place I visit, and chat with, not a place I could live.
I was approaching 25, engaged, working at my second job after college, going to grad school part time. I’d moved halfway across the country the year before, and I’d taken the time to figure out what I wanted out of my religious life.
After a lot of reflection, I knew I was a happier person when structured complex ritual was a part of my life (at least sometimes). I wanted a path that included music in some way. That worked with the polytheistic view of my world. Something that had a cohesive way to explain some of the magical and energetic experiences I’d had. And something that could help me … be better. Do better. Learn more.
I looked at other religions, too. But I kept circling back to some strand of Paganism.
And so, I found myself in the same place as hundreds, thousands of people before me. I’d read some books. I’d browsed Witchvox. I’d wandered and lurked through alt.religion.wicca and alt.religion.wicca.moderated on Usenet, and various mailing lists. I’d gone to a few public rituals in the community, and gotten a better sense of what I really wanted. I’d sent out some emails (embarassing ones, in hindsight, but hey.)
Three separate people ended up pointing me at a particular group, also on my short list from that Witchvox research. And so I said “Eh. Let’s try them first.” And then had to wait until they offered introductory classes at a time that fit with my grad school schedule.
And so, that May, I found myself in that room, with a dozen other people, and four or five people from the group, depending on the week. Over the five classes in the series, the number of students got smaller. (That’s pretty common in things of this kind.) I heard a lot of things I already knew. (Book knowledge has never been the problem for me.) But I was listening, more, to “Is this a place I could see myself? Are they doing things that will stretch me in the right ways?”
I thought they were. And now, ten years later, I’m even more sure of that.
(I should note here: I don’t think my path is everyone’s path. In fact, I think it’s the right fit for very few people. I’m a lot more interested in helping people figure out what their thing is, the thing that makes their spirit sing and dance and delight the way mine has.)
Those ten years have brought amazing changes to me. I got married – and divorced. I dedicated with the group in September, initiated in early 2003, and went on to gather in my second and third degrees. I hived off to form a new group – ok, that one is still in process, because the rest of my life needs to settle. But I look forward to that.
And in between, my life’s shifted and changed. I’ve gained a relationship with two deities very near and dear my heart, in ways that I would never give up, even though I still have a hard time talking about it. And a number of other deity relationships that, while less immensely personal, I treasure and delight in.
I’ve had ritual experiences that fundamentally changed how I viewed the world, in the best possible ways, that gave me more understanding of myself, of what I could offer, of what I could become given a nudge into the void in the right direction.
I’ve had the privilege of being part of other people’s spiritual learning. I taught Seeker classes myself for the better part of four years, was the primary teacher for Dedicant classes for a year, wrote a number of rituals, and have had endless conversations online (as well as writing a lot of supplementary and discursive commentary.) Some of which people say is very useful.
And I’ve been part of other people’s initiations, an experience I always treasure and am humbled by. I’ve also seen other friends move away from Paganism, into paths that call their hearts, and considered it a part of my job as their friend to help them think about that in all the ways that lead to a clear decision, not the one I might prefer.
And somewhere in there, I’ve learned to actually have visuals in my meditations, and explain how I sense and experience energy to people who don’t hear it. I’ve figured out (mostly) how to pace teaching for people who are not like me in how they learn. And I know where a lot more of my own personal sore points and foibles are, and what to do about them so they stay my problem, not someone else’s.
And if the mark of a healthy spiritual life is in the connections it brings me, my life is infinitely richer now than it was those ten years ago. The deity relationships, of course, are a delight, even when they’re also a challenge. My friendships aren’t always local, but they run deep and true and strong. And there are these people, my tradmates, who I don’t always agree with – but who I love, and cherish, and know will always be a part of something dear to me. And while stuff was not always smooth and peaceful around the time I hived, I’m particularly proud of the fact that I’ve kept good relationships with the group I trained with. (And I deeply enjoy visiting them when I get the chance.)
I also look back, from this perspective, and wonder.
I’ve spent five years on the board of a local Pagan project (Twin Cities Pagan Pride), where I was part of the board that took the event to a two day event, got 501(c)3 status in our own right, and most recently have shifted to an outdoor fall festival (the public education part), and a brand new event in the spring focused on creating a space for the Pagan community to come together and share and challenge and learn (that does not involve camping…) That’s pretty neat stuff, all by itself. Helping to create a brand new moment, an event that brought people joy and wonder and learning – that’s what I live for.
I’ve written rituals, and been part of debugging others. I’ve helped friends through major medical and personal difficulty with far more patience and flat out usefulness than I would have ever imagined I had. I’ve held people when they cried, and given them help that let them face challenges in new ways. I’ve written an absurd amount, but every time I write, I get better. I’ve pummelled my brain to figure out a new way to explain something to a student or groupmate who was struggling, and I’ve done my best to figure out how to resolve conflicts in a way that was effective but compassionate.
And I’ve gotten my share of nasty emails, insults, dismissals, and much more. And of course, some places I’ve failed. Some of it well deserved, mind you. (As I noted above, I am not perfect.) And I certainly have my frustrations: with myself, with community issues, with patterns and cycles that I don’t need to repeat. I’ve had friendships change and drift away that I miss and wist for – while knowing that part of that has to do with ways I failed, somehow.
There are two things I most treasure about my religous and spiritual life these days, and a couple of others that continue to delight me.
First, that I have (as you might guess given that the word ‘phoenix’ shows up in both group names in the tradition) a number of tools for self-transformation and growth that I can use to change things in my life. That doesn’t mean those changes are instant (the past year is painful evidence of that). And it doesn’t mean I’m in control of the process.
But I feel like my training, my group work, my tradition, has given me experience enough to walk to the edge of the cliff, and jump off, and trust I’ll find my wings before I hit the ground. Not that I do that carelessly, of course. But I did it for each of my three initiations (just as it was part of the process of finding a group in the first place). And it’s lead to my facing a complicated and challenging job search, and some miserable health circumstances with a lot more grace and dignity than I would have thought even five years ago.
Doesn’t mean everything goes my way. But it does mean I tend to be less miserable in the process.
Second, I delight in having a wide range of tools at my disposal. Sabbat ritual? Simple. Meditation to help with a particular issue? Probably have one I can edit up fast. Daily or regular personal practices? Got a good sense of what might and might not help for a given situation. Ability to create my own solid, meaningful, effective ritual space and do what I need to? Yep. And a fair bit more.
It’s not that I know everything – but I feel pretty competent in a general sort of way. (What an elder deep in my affection refers to as being a professional trained stunt priestess.) It’s a lot like my other vocation, my profession. I don’t know everything there is to know about being a librarian, either. But I have a pretty good idea of what kinds of stuff I don’t know, and where it might come back to bite me, and what to do about that if it starts becoming relevant.
And that’s a pretty amazing place to be living. Lots of people don’t get here.
Then there’s the delight. Those perfect shivers of time where everything clicks in a ritual, and the chant and the incense and the colors and shapes, and the people beside you all slide into place and echo down the years. Those moments of perfect clarity in the service of M’Lady and her Lord. The inspirations of creating a chant, a ritual moment. A burst of flame from flash powder one Mabon, of the sun rising over the east bank of the Mississippi with the Morris Dancers dancing the sun up (a part of my personal practice).
Not all the moments are glorious. There’s the eternal downpour of one Beltane, where I thought I’d never get dry and my shoes squelched for days. The ritual where I worked so hard anchoring that I slept for nearly a day solid afterwards. The difficulties of any group of people doing complicated things that expose sore spots and weaknesses and frustrations. And, very occasionally, people doing things that had no excuse, that left their scars on those I care for. But all those things taught me something I would not wish to lose, too.
There were, also, of course, many hours of homework, of practice, of doing things that didn’t quite work, didn’t quite click, trying to figure out what I was missing. Of cleaning the temple when I’d rather be doing any number of other things. And there were those moments of frustration when I didn’t live up to my own standards, or let someone down. Of not knowing what to do about something, or not doing what I knew I should.
But we pick up, and we go on. When religion works, it helps us change and grow and become better, more glorious, brighter in the world.
There are things I know now I didn’t know five years ago, or even three. That’s as it should be. And it makes me wonder what I’ll know in early 2013, ten years from my initiation. Or in five years, or ten.
What I hope is that the richness, the delight, the wonder, the awe that are part of my life now are more so then. That there’s a greater stability and deep roots to anchor the work and writing and teaching and sharing I want to do, both as a librarian and as a priestess. That I’ve had a chance to learn more things, and be surprised, and do more things I’d never dreamed of.
And I really wonder what the larger Pagan communities will look like then, and what I’ll be particularly passionate about doing in them. I’m looking forward to finding out.