Sunday, November 30, 2008

enter, stage left, the Podkin

Long after everyone else was bored with the concept...I discovered podcasting.
Mostly I was fascinated at the prospect of saving up all those NPR shows and listening to them whenever I wished.

Then I discovered Pagan Podcasters. I had to pinch myself, I was dreaming.
Real life people, talking about a spiritual path and how it impacted their everyday lives.
No costume parties, no snarling teenage Goths, no super intense self proclaimed High Priestess invading my personal space to tell me about her intense relationship with the dark goddess.
Real people, normal people, with interesting topics to talk about.
Dubbed 'The Podkin' by Mojo at The Wigglian Way, many pagan podcasters have cheerfully acknowledged the title and give enthusiastic reviews of each others shows, ensuring that any listener has multiple shows to listen to.

I began to see that there really were many many people just like me, normal working folks who were just following a different spiritual path from the 'norm.' A path that involved learning and practicing and mostly importantly, a sense of joy.

I downloaded and listened to every pagan podcast I could find. I still do. I check out each new addition to the podkin world as quickly as word spreads. With only a few exceptions, I continue to listen to nearly all of them on a regular basis. Different points of view on a much agreed upon topic are enlightening and entertaining.

For the first time I felt part of the Neo-Pagan movement in this country, in the world.
Part of the 21st century rejection of the fear and grovelling of so many religions and part of the path of knowledge and learning.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

status quo

So this became normal. I knew what I believed, I prayed to the Goddess, my rituals were primarily just appreciating the beauty of an outdoor walk. I made it a point to go outside where there were few or no people to just appreciate the moment. Spellwork was sporadic, I was still unsure of it.

Then I started finding sites on the internet that became the next step in my education.
Joelle's Sacred Grove is a lovely site with a lot of Celtic information and some good Wicca 101 info. As an aside I was pleased to visit it recently and find that it had been updated. It sat untouched for several years and I was afraid it had been abandoned.

That led to Magicka School. Magicka School is a (mostly) free school of magick that is well organized and well run. There are lots of beginner level classes to chose from that are all free including all the study material. There is a smaller set of advanced classes that require a small fee.
I signed up with Magicka and read everything that my level allowed. I really liked the HUGE chat rooms that included private chats for students with their mentor/instructor.
Unfortunately, life intervened to stop me from completing any classes. A family member diagnosed with cancer meant that I had to quit my full time job, find a part time job and sandwich all the appointments, schedules etc into the remaining time.
I just did not have the focus or time to study the material or take the tests.
I feel badly about that, my instructor was very helpful and patient but I just could not come up with the energy.
So everything except an occasional ritual and prayer went on hold for almost two years.
That may not have been a bad thing. It gave me a lot of time to sort out my feelings about this path, resolve old conflicts with my Catholic upbringing and decide on a course of action for the future.
I knew at this point that being a passive follower of the Goddess, as many people are passive in their religion, was not what I wanted. I wanted to study, to practice magick, to learn more about all the little bits of information that kept floating past me without meaning as I read articles and books.
I was growing a list of subjects to look into;
  • divination, especially the Tarot
  • differences in magickal practices, i.e., earth magick, green magick, wiccan magick, kitchen magick, high magick, magick with and without a spiritual aspect
  • The Golden Dawn, the Kabbalah and High Magic
  • symbols in magickal writings
  • history of the Old Religions with an eye to making connections to neoPagan beliefs

I was beginning to study more and practice less....a conundrum that has plagued me since the start of this journey and continues to.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

reaching out for the first time

So I had become a student extraordinaire, reading everything I could find. Of course, I wasn't actually doing any rituals, casting spells or even meditating. I was just reading.
I was fascinated but still a little put off by this stuff, that good Catholic upbringing still peering over my shoulder.

I was living near Boulder, Colorado, a city that is an odd collection of non-conformists hogging the roads on their bicycles and dedicated yuppies in BMWs. But they are all quite proud of their diametrically opposed neighbors and nearly anything goes.

I found some notices in bookstores of pagan social gatherings, usually at someone's house. This was before and before Homeland Security told us that all strangers are terrorists and back when people actually invited groups into their homes.

Unfortunately, these groups were not going to do me any good. They were big into costumes and parroting lines from movies, but little else. I supposed I should have expected nothing less from a notice in a bookstore, but I was a seeker at a crossroads, trying to determine which way to go.

For the next year or so I alternated finding groups like this and burying my books under piles of other books. It finally occurred to me that no one was going to take my hand, set me down in a pew and tell me how all this works. Looking back, if I had somehow found a coven that was willing to take me on, it probably would have been the worst thing that could have happened.

So I dragged those semi-discarded books out again, starting with Cunningham and re read them. This time instead of reading like a student, I started looking for what seemed right to me, what I questioned and why and how to start thinking for myself about this new path.

I also started doing rituals, which at that time closely resembled Christian prayer, and even casting a few tentative spells. There was immediate feedback for my fumbling, bumbling but earnestly performed spells, but the rituals left a bad taste in my mouth.
Still, I was encouraged enough to continue.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

the spiral dance

Now I was haunting the bookstores.
The Barnes & Noble in one part of town has a half dozen books on magick that don't have titles that sounds like witchcraft and they are scattered through the New Age section. Another Barnes & Noble about 15 miles away has an entire section on Witchcraft, Wicca and Paganism. Borders carries almost nothing about witchcraft in the books area, but they carry the Llewellyn Witches Datebook and Witches Almanac in the stationary/junk section. Very strange. The only thing I ever bought at a chain bookstore was a delightful little book on Fairies titled "Fairies 101."

I did find two bookstores that call themselves metaphysical stores, one is just a few block from me, the other is across town but worth the drive.

I bought and read "The Spiral Dance" remembering that Starhawk was featured in those Canadian films that fascinated me. Then I bought Cunningham's "Crystal, Gem and Metal Magic" and then I found "Cottage Witchery." I did a review on Cottage Witchery on A Pagan Tapestry, you can see that here if you like.

I was enjoying this quite a lot, but also beginning to want a little more depth to the information that I was getting.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

surfing around the web....

Surfing around the web yielded what looked like a lot of information, but shortly turned into the same information repeated over and over. I didn't really know what I was looking for and the google results for Wicca or witchcraft gives limited returns as far as original material.

I put together a list of metaphysical bookstores in the area and set out to find one. Most, I am sorry to say, had closed. I had no idea how old my list was, but there were buildings on the (former) sites of some stores that had been there for years.

I thought I had found one, it turned out the old bookstore sign was still up.
I went inside and found a magician's paradise....if you were a 10 year old boy adept at sleight of hand.
But I asked the owner about the bookstore sign and he said that they had moved and gave me the new address.
The owner there was very helpful and gave me a copy of....ta da! Cunningham's Wicca for the Solitary Practitioner.

Looking back I feel very fortunate. Cunningham is just the right blend of spirituality, magick and 'there is more to learn' for many novices such as myself, unsure of exactly what we are looking for.

If I had picked up some of the whack-job books out there....or even one of the more advanced books on magick, I probably would have run for the hills.

Instead, like so many others in my shoes, I read with fascination that the things that I felt and believed and was afraid to say to anyone else for fear of being ridiculed, was a real religion. And further more, it was based on the idea that people have always worshipped the Goddess, the God, the Divine, the Source, whatever you want to call it, from a basic belief in the value of nature and its natural cycles.

A whole new world had opened up for me.
At the time I was working in a job with a high level security clearance and most of my friends leaned more toward the atheist and agnostic variety than the church variety, so I did not run out and buy a big gaudy pentacle to wear, stick a "Goddess Bless" bumper sticker on my car or leave books on witchcraft laying around on my desk at work.

But what is more important is that I felt pure, unrelenting joy in the idea of what was to come.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

subtle wasn't working so...

The Goddess eventually must have decided that I must not be very bright and certainly in need of help. She had send subtle and not so subtle messages through a variety of people and circumstances, all of which I had single mindedly ignored.

So one day I logged onto the old EZ Board to my favorite chat group, a very small group who had been chatting together on various forums for almost 10 years. I logged on regularly, had it bookmarked, in my favorites and in my menu. I did not type anything in myself, my computer had faithfully found the right page for many years.

This time I found myself on a witch forum. Very low key, fun and friendly. They were not into any heavy discussions, but the admin was a green witch, so were others and the discussions were fun. What on earth was I doing there and why didn't I just try for the right page again? I don't know, but I read the posts over and over, eventually I logged in and asked for help. I was directed to a long list of websites, fortunately one about Celtic traditions caught my eye. It was a good choice and for the first time I found myself reading about Witchcraft with an open mind.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

a system of personal beliefs

Over the years I slowly put into words and context the things that I believed, that I felt to be true, that I had really never questioned my whole life. These were the things that just were. With or without my belief.

I sorted them out, expressed them out loud and acknowledged them. By doing so I built a 'belief system' for lack of a better description that stopped being random thoughts and became a foundation.

Some of these were/are:

Mother Earth is not a cute expression, Mother Earth (now I call her Goddess) is as real as the earth, older than the earth and would like to communicate with us.

There is something that binds all of the universe together, something sentient. Energy, an energy source, the source, the force, now I call it Akasha.

There is a spirit of life in all things, living or not, that is part of that network of energy.

Magick is real. Black, white or grey, mystical or practical, I have always felt that it was as real as the earth itself. There are also lots of tricks and cons and crap floating around labeled magic so it is hard to know when you stumble across the real thing if you are not aware.

There are spirits, entities, ghosts, wraiths, life forces....whatever the label...all around us. Some are aware of us, some interact with us and some are oblivious, possibly even malevolent (the jury is still out on that one), ie, the four 'saints' that I used to appeal to a lot as a child, still do on occasion, who always answered me.

If you can conceive of it, it can be. Telepathy, telekinesis, psychic abilities, shape name it, someone has done it, others have tried, some will succeed in the future. Again, like magic....lots of stories, myths, cons, tricks and games appear to be the same thing. But this doesn't mean that the phenomenon are not real, just rare.

I also totally believe in science, in the scientific method, in research and questioning and proving and disproving and that a huge dose of skepticism is a good thing.

I do not believe in creationism, in most miracles, in taking any 'sacred text' literally. I recognize a good myth when I read one. Storytelling has always been a much prized art form for our species and continues to be so. The kernels of truths hidden in the myths, the directions pointed to by the myths, those are the real truths hidden for only those who truly want to find them.

All of these things tied together in a way that made sense to me. My firm belief is that most if not all of what I believe will someday move from the realm of faith and myth into the realm of proven science. The recent discovery of what physicists call dark matter and I call Akasha is reassuring to me along that line of thought.

So I came up with my own set of beliefs, my private dogma. I assumed that others who had grown up in a similar fashion had probably also found their own foundations, individually, privately, like myself.

Friday, November 7, 2008

the beginning of a search

So I had rejected the Church, and along with it all organized, dogma driven Christian religions. I had rejected neo-paganism because the Church was still looking over my shoulder. But now I was becoming aware that I wanted a name for the spiritual path that I was on.

I had never rejected the idea of the Divine, only the dogma of controlling humans. So now I began to explore non traditional spiritual paths (non traditional from my perspective, of course). Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, North American spiritualism, others I can't remember. Shinto struck a cord with me on an intellectual level but, even though I tried, I could not make an emotional connection. North American spiritualism was the same, with the exception of the shamanic shape shifters, which struck a cord with me.

My interest waxed and waned but now it was always lurking in the back of my mind.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The White Goddess

A friend of mine gave me a copy of The White Goddess by Robert Graves.
Graves gives us his version of the goddess mythology based on a romantic view of matriarchal societies and agrarian goddess worshiping societies of the pre-Christian era. He openly admits that he is a poet and not a historian, but nonetheless, spins a compelling story.

Wouldn't you think that this would start to click for me, at least a little?

Looking back on this time I have to view my travels sort of like this:
My agnostic life was traveling down a broad, well paved path. I keep coming across these paths of bread crumbs that cross my path. Mostly I step over them, sometimes I peer along them and see that they curve out of sight in both directions, but I continue on. Without warning, the path I am on begins to narrow, become rutted and even disappear in spots, while the breadcrumb path has grown into a well defined footpath crossing mine. But I persevere. I am a model of tunnel vision.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Goddess Remembered

In 1990 Canadian Public Broadcasting aired a trilogy of films. Goddess Remembered, The Burning Times and Full Circle.

These films traced the birth of the neo-pagan movement, which at the time was very closely tied to both the environmental movement and the women's movement.
I know now that it was historically inaccurate, but it opened my eyes to the idea that the old religions were not buried in the past, they are alive today.

Starhawk gives several interviews in these films and while I know that she has been criticized for her strongly stated ties between neo-paganism and environmental activism, she is a passionate voice for the women's movement as well as environmental concerns, which echoed with me.

I recorded the videos and watched the films over and over again. I did not know or care about whether the history was accurate, I wanted every detail of the neo-pagan movement and how much of old agricultural beliefs and rituals had come forward into this time.

I felt an overpowering emotional tug to explore this further, but in the end my Catholic upbringing won out.

Even though I had roundly rejected the Church and had no second thoughts about that I could not make the leap. Goddess worship, rituals, magick, secrecy, satanism, dark rites, manipulation....the Church had bound them all together for me into one neat package.

While I recognized this on an intellectual level and I felt a strong pull on a deeper level toward Paganism....I found myself watching the tapes one more time, making the judgement that those people were well intentioned kooks messing around with stuff better left alone...and I turned my back.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

the Goddess is calling, pick up the phone

In my thirties the Goddess and a good friend of mine tried desperately to get my attention and show me what I really wanted, but I was deaf and blind.

This was in the 80s and most people living any sort of alternative lifestyle did not go around waving a flag about it. I had a friend who was in her fifties and got divorced. She told me that now she was free to be a pagan. A few months later I asked her about a group that she met with every few weeks (or was it once a month!?!!). I was a little hurt that I was never invited. She told me it was a pagan group.

Here is how dense I was. I thought she was just saying that she liked to party (pagan=party), and she liked to party with women her own age. I was really shut down to hearing anything that might open up a need to explore a spiritual life.

She never mentioned it again and it never occurred to me to question it.

A few years later I was visiting the town where she lived and my most beloved dog got out of my car and got lost. I was distraught. Many, many people tried to help me find the dog, including my friend. After a few days of hysteria on my part she told me to come to her house. She did what she called a ritual and had me just visualize the dog while she played with some candles and the dog's leash. I was very upset and I think that because I thought she was praying, I just played along trying to humor her and waiting for her to get done so we could go back out and keep looking for the dog.

I was oblivious, but I know now that she was casting a spell. The next day someone called and said he had found the dog. In fact he had her all along and had been planning to keep her because he thought it was a shame that she was running loose, but changed his mind.

It was a really really good spell.

How many ways are there to say "duh"

Monday, November 3, 2008

beginning life as an agnostic

In my 20s the realities of being Catholic set it. The Church forbade divorce, birth control, abortion, stated that sex was solely for the purpose of procreation, denied women equal rights within the Church and implied that for a woman to do anything other than stay at home and raise kids, lots of kids, was contrary to the spirit, if not the laws, of the Church.

One thing that I did agree with was that you can't pick and choose. You are either Catholic, do what you are told to do, believe what you are told to believe, or you are not. It is not a menu from your favorite Chinese restaurant and it isn't Burger King.

I chose not.

I began to call myself agnostic and steered away from anything to do with religion, any religion. I was totally and completely uninterested, uncurious and less than friendly to the assorted missionaries that came to my door.

Although, in direct contradiction to this, I did continue to have conversations with and sometimes ask for help from 4 saints. They had helped me since early childhood, always responded to my prayers and did not seem to care that I had rejected the religion that they had died for. They were Anthony, Jude, Christopher and Francis.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Malleus Maleficarum

Malleus Maleficarum. The Latin title translates as 'Hammer of Witches' and it is known somewhat sarcastically as 'How to Burn a Witch.'
It is also known as the Inquisitor's Handbook. Written by two influential Dominican monks taking part in the Inquisition, it is a detailed instruction guide for locating, identifying and executing witches. The above link will take you to an online translation.

The fear, paranoia and single minded zeal of the authors is a study in psychosis and mob psychology. Right from the start the Church alternated endorsing it and turning a blind eye. While the lunatics involved hands-on in the torture and death of an unknown number* of people were no doubt passionate believers in their just cause, the higher ups in the Church were taking a larger world view and attempting to bring a wandering population to heel.

By the 20th century the Church had long ago swept this unsavory history under the rug and Malleus Maleficarum was banned reading for all good Catholics with the exception of religious scholars. When two of my high school Franciscan priest teachers brought this book into the curriculum, there was quite a stir over it. Enough to appeal to the bishop to tell them to stop. The bishop, being unfrightened of discussing the Church's past, declined.

I was truly horrified at this new look at the Inquisition, which I had previously been taught was a war waged by the heroic religious leaders against the 'Evil Empire' du jour.

Even with a decidedly Catholic slant and justification of these times, there is no denying the fact that it was mass murder for political maneuvering and that it went on and on and on. What better way to whip any dissenting voices into compliance than the very real threat of a grisly death? What better way to distract and control the masses than by whipping up hysteria and fear and then pointing them at a victim offered up to appease the mob?

Mob psychology has been used by the strong to control the weak (minded) since before recorded history and continues today.
The degree of control and the extended period of time that the Inquisition went on is testimony to the abilities and tenacity of the controllers.

I found that this information was something that I just couldn't get past. While I had been willing to believe that the victims of this time were indeed in league with the devil and so deserved their fate; a more realistic portrayal of human fear and guilt and greed and manipulation painted a picture of a Dark Ages indeed and one of a system of combined religion/government run amok.

I might have been more able to reconcile this history with what I believed the Church to be had I been aware of a more realistic portrayal of the past right from the start. But I had learned and believed what I had been taught. Devoutly believed it.
The betrayal of my own loyalty, faith and trust was as shattering as learning a bit of history.

My god had feet of clay.
* Estimates of the number of people killed in the combined Inquisitions, which lasted over 500 years, vary wildly from tens of thousands to millions. Scholars generally agree that millions would have decimated the population, which obviously did not happen. The numbers I see most often are between 30,000 and 300,000. Part of the difficulty is in the record keeping. Relatively small numbers (thousands to approx 30,000) were executed by Church officials. While vast numbers may have been executed by civil courts. Turning victims over to the local authorities was a common way of distancing the Church officials from the murders when they really wanted people removed but needed the complicity of the locals to avoid recrimination.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

history lessons from the Franciscans

In high school, it was back to parochial school. This time to a very small school of a few hundred students taught by Franciscan nuns and priests. The Franciscans have traditionally been an order that lived in the communities where they worked and did not sequester themselves behind walls.

There was an interesting dichotomy among the staff. The nuns were all of an age to be past retirement and except for classes rarely left the cloister. The priests were mostly young, several had played football at Notre Dame. They were active, athletic, academic.
They attended the sports events and dances and loved teaching. After two years at this school I was way ahead of the state requirements to graduate from high school.

I also, for the first time, started learning some things about the Church that were directly opposed to what I had previously been taught. I learned for the first time that the Church, historically, had not been a single minded, dedicated force for good marching the high road through the barbaric times. I learned about the politics and intrigue and feuds that carried on sometimes for centuries and shaped modern Europe. I heard a more balanced view about the Crusades and the fallout that followed.

I was fascinated by this history. These priests were dedicated, passionate and intellectual in their approach to their faith and wanted their students to recognize the human frailties in the Church and still love it, as they did.

I began to separate my faith from a pursuit for historical accuracy and reconcile the two. Until we got to the Inquisition and a little book called Malleus Maleficarum.