Celebrating 5 years of the Labyrinth of the Ways
~ By Rev Zackery Lynx
A little over 5 years ago the Nemeton of the Ways joined with Green Faerie Grove & The Between the Worlds Community on a 6 month labor of manifesting the Labyrinth of the Ways, 6 months of work to end an 18+month discussion, planning and plotting period with Wisterians and engaging with direct working relationship to the land itself. On Sept 14th, 2016 The Labyrinth of the Ways was done, blessed, dedicated & gifted to Wisteria, the Wisterians and every person and community who wandered their Way to this space.
We were "done", but the work was far from finished. Over the past 5 years the Labyrinth has continued to grow, require maintenance, new stones, new mulch, new additions. In 2017 we installed the Queer Spirit Shrine in the back outer ring to honor all aspects of Queerness. Past, Present & Future. Known & Unknown. Named & Unnamed.
And then there was Covid. All work stopped. We went from having about 8 to 10 work weekends and events through the year to making 1 single trip through the year. and SHE WAS WILD! Fully overgrown. Grass chest high. All rocks overgrown. It was both awe inspiring and also a punch to the gut. We tried to do some work that day, but after a few minutes it was clear that we just needed to let her grow wild, let nature take it back until it was safe to come back and prep her when the folk could return. And then we returned in June of 2021...and wow, She was Wild...but we were ready. New tools, new perspective, and gratitude for the tasks ahead.
Spread across 2 nights and 3 days we worked her walkways, restacked stones communed, listened and when cloud coverage came and a breeze blew through the field we took a moment to breathe and gives thanks.
The work was good, once it was done there was such a good feeling. Always a blessing. The work is our devotion. Our sweat is offered to the clay & land. Taking part in the great cycles of life & death. Harvesting and Growing. Pruning and Discernment.
Although the job was done, the work continues. And we have some big plans ahead. It being the 5th anniversary we have a big update year planned for next spring with some fresh mulch, new plantings and an uplift to the Queer Spirit Shrine.
But for now, The Labyrinth is Awake and her Ways open for the folk & communities who wander looking to find a way or leave one behind. It's been a blessing these past 5 years and we look ahead to the experiences and devotions.
A reflection on the relationship between animist & Nature BY REV LYNX
Can you feel it? The shifting of seasons is upon us. In some places the nature is already bursting forth through the fallen leaves and decay of Autumn & the melted snow of winter turning into the water needed to give all the seeds, bulbs and new saplings that extra little push. As an animist this is where I look for inspiration and guidance. We're blessed at home that our backyard backs up a 7 acre forest that is home to much variety of flora & fauna. Deer, squirrels, skunks, a hawk family, blue birds, cardinal, ble birds, hummingbirds and much more live in those woods. Its to all these natural movements I try to be aware of. A core practice for me is active listening and active perception/awareness of the natural cycles around me. Just sitting on the porch and gazing into the woods letting my awareness shift from all the rabble in my head the hustle and bustle of nature. Nature offers so many lessons and perspectives: strength, wisdom, teamwork, perseverance, tenacity, humbleness & humility. Sometimes it's hard to see or hear with our own thoughts being so distracting at times. But that's where the work comes in, one of my most valued tools I learned as an animist is the perspective shift. Of letting your own self awareness drift from what you mind hears and see to let your SELF shift perspective to nature. Aware of the birds building nests, aware of the squirrels skittering about in the search for food, aware of the neighbors bush which has become a main food source for the local & traveling deer. When my minds a mess sometimes i just let myself shift to the woods and look for the infinite lessons that wait to be aware of and discovered. It's hard to put those moments into tangible sentences as the moment is very much a meditative state and then nature kinda flows and I just flow along until something catches my awareness and a ramble of thoughts, feels and experiences juxtaposed into a moment that exists outside of spatial reason. It's all very ecstatic and impulsive, letting go of the physical mind and giving my SELF to the woods to see what lessons await. Everything is bustling and awake though, the cycles continue and the lessons and experiences are there, waiting. What will you perceive when you let yourself go to the Wild of nature?
On Samhain 2019 I took vows to serve the land, folk, and gods as a dedicant pagan priest. Over the last year I’ve had constant questions whispering in my ear: what land? what people? what god(s)?
The gods of what land? The gods of what people? The land of what people? The land of what gods? The people of what land? The people of which gods?
Which ones do I choose to serve, aid, and help? And whom/what will be excluded due to the nature of this choice? Which ones will choose me? What relationships will emerge? Thankfully, I found Lora O’Brien at the Irish Pagan School while I was searching for a deeper kind of education not entrenched in American individualism. As of March it will be a year of studying with a Túath, a community of people all over the globe, and will have completed about 30 courses (about 3 a month) …with a few still in the process of finishing.
The overarching theme at the school is an emphasis on relationship, what is called right-relationship: the importance of organic symbiotic relationship, i.e. respect and solidarity. So what does right-relationship mean in the context of being white and pagan in the Americas? What does it mean to honestly honour and respect the Land from a earth-based religious perspective? How does a pagan priest-to-be even begin this process? How does well anyone, from the fledgling acolyte to the well-seasoned Archdruid? We could talk about the mechanisms and methodologies. The practical skills I have learned and have applied. The technical to-do list that can appeal to our American transactional norms.
But today what i really want to write about is the many layers of fuckery we American-pagans have to come to terms with.
Honestly. Radically. Truthfully. Things many neopagans do not like to do.
Because let’s face it, for all our talk of shadow work, many white pagans specifically have not invested at all in the last four+ years on the fundamental shadow work of antiracism. We are all too easy to give into spiritual bypassing, so traumatised perhaps by monotheistic upbringings (Christonormativity at its finest) that any discussion, any call for critical thinking about our practices and by extension where those practices come from is shot down without prejudice.
Pagans do not like to be told what to do or how to do it. Though we are perfectly fine with just that: roaming countless bookstore shelves filled with bastardised works of white cishet men and women telling us just where to begin. Always for solitary practitioners who live without a safety net, without a spiritual community to ask questions and advice. Gullible people with plenty of money to spend at the chance to gain a bit of power and magic, but very little for reparations. Every New Age book is rife with appropriated half-truths pulled out of context, and outright lies designed to glamour legitimacy and social power within the multi-billion-dollar industry, and too many lap it up like greedy kittens to a saucer of milk.
Being solitary does have the added exciting benefit to hide from accountability. So people are happy to be by themselves. Whether it is due to internalised shame or fear of being written out of a conservative aunt Ruth’s will, white pagans fear true visibility and responsibility, but are all too quick to use the ancient white proverb: “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Yes, i will say it again, white pagans fear visibility because with visibility comes responsibility.
And the hardest of hard responsibilities is to grapple with the fact that as earth-worshipping practitioners, devotees, and clergy; our gods are not indigenous to these lands. Our white gods and saints are colonisers. Cultural hegemony in America is brutally innovative and persistent and occultism is not untouched by the kyriarchy. Whether we like to admit it or not, white paganisms are more accepted than the feared Black paganisms and whitewashed Indigenous worldviews because white paganisms are connected to white dominant ethnicities and are celebrated with nationalist pride nostalgia. They may not be as powerfully accepted as monotheistic gods, but white paganisms (with our folklore and stories ingrained into dominant culture) still function as symbolic extensions of white supremacy. By and through us on stolen Indigenous Lands, our Gods and spirits are of unequal relationship to Indigenous ones. These Lands are diametrically opposed because this is Native Land and always will be.
Go to native-land.ca to to find out more about local Indigenous territories and languages.
Because it is Land with history. Land with history being made as we speak. Land that is currently still colonised and exploited. Land whose peoples were forcefully moved and still rendered invisible via cultural imperialism, marginalisation, and state-sponsored violence. Land that continues to suffer genocide. Land that deserves going beyond Land Acknowledgements. Land that deserves right-relationship. Land worthy of the offering of our time and thought and love. A radical queer love based in solidarity.
The more I think about it the Irish Gods are land specific. In Irish paganism, the Gods are intrinsically connected to Irish rivers, mountains, streams, springs, ponds, lakes, and lands. Many are even thought to be anthropomorphic representations of the sovereign land and water spirits themselves. Others are very humanesque though they transmigrate and change form to various animals, not only the human kind. They might not always be limited by that land either; but I do think that they recognise other God’s and spirit’s homes of equal sovereignty as they share spaces and times in their own realms within the Otherworld. But what of those they see as lesser? There does seem to be a hierarchy of their own, though I find it hard to comprehend and bring words to describe, and I shant think their hierarchies are anything like those of our human making.
So what do they do here on stolen land? What purpose do they hold here as part of the diaspora traditions and New Age fakelore? Besides our own selfish and self-centered needs and wants (if they answer) what might be their agendas on stolen Indigenous lands?
I like to believe they’d do what an honest Irish person would do: help them gain their sovereignty back. With white paganisms being once again weaponised for cultural imperialism and fascist nationalist “pure” folk traditions that have been proven to be racist and sexist cults of the white cisheteropatriarchy, I like to believe they’d want us to fight alongside the oppressed. The Irish know colonisation all too well, it’s been 852 years to be exact, and is in fact very much still in effect. This is but one of many reasons I believe that our Irish ancestors and siblings across the Atlantic have helped and continue to help the American Indian Movement as well as other global liberation movements, and also why so many of us continue to stand up for what is right.
This is why I believe our Irish gods and ancestors have shunned those Irish-American and Irish-Canadian immigrant families who have assimilated and become union busters, become police, who have betrayed and turned their backs on our Black and Indigenous siblings. Who have dishonoured the spirit of Éire by becoming the coloniser instead of comrades for sovereignty and liberation.
So, I ask you, what are your white Gods’ relationships to stolen Indigenous Land? Have you asked? Who are the people you will choose to serve and help? Have you bothered to reconcile that these stolen Indigenous Lands were forced to support a white empire on the backs of enslaved Black labour? And still is? Might you see now that alcohol was a weapon of Indigenous genocide? Perhaps now you might know why offering whiskey to these Lands in the name of our white gods who are whole continents away would be problematic at least and disrespectful at worst.
I ask as a reminder to myself as someone who did not have any of the above considerations in junior high school when I was introduced to Silver Ravenwolf in the early 2000s. *Deep inhale* But now I know better because I have listened with empathy and have a firmer understanding of Irish gods and Lands. And I’m still learning.
This means realising that Indigenous Lands are not for us to keep colonising, and Indigenous Cultures are not commodities to be shaped into businesses. They are not for us to create elite social clubs or abuse as white pagan opportune hobbyists. This means unpacking our entitled colonial thinking that just because we suffer/ed and have been/are being exploited does not give us the right to exploit the Land and others and appropriate and take practices out of context to serve our own purposes. Trauma does not excuse the trauma we commit to others.
Being pagan on stolen Indigenous Land means breaking generational curses that have been 500+ years in the making. All it takes is the courage to stand arms linked together until we are all free. By putting an end to the fuckery wherever we encounter it, layer by layer; and by finally accepting that there are paths forward together.
Afterall, water is wet and water is life. So let’s help put #LandBack into Indigenous hands, and empower Indigenous people across Turtle Island with the tools and strategies to do LANDBACK work in their own communities.
The LANDBACK Campaign officially launched on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, October 12, 2020; but has a much older history.
A Nemeton Community Member is participating in this class and asked me to pass on information to the community if anyone else is interested.
In this 13-month training we will examine our lives through the lens of the Four Powers: To Know: telling our stories we face ourselves with courage & compassion To Will: we find our Fire fueling determination to bring dream to reality To Dare: meeting unseen allies, we step forward To Choose Silence (or Not!): using our voices, we answer the question, ’How do I serve this moment?’ These Powers have been called at various times The Powers of The Magus, The Powers of The Witch and the Powers of The Sphinx. We will work within them to meet ourselves in ever deepening ways with the intention of recognizing, walking and Forging Our Own Paths. Class begins on Thursday October 22nd.
"My teaching rests on the belief that we each have a unique gift to offer to the world and the world yearns to receive that gift. Similarly, we each have a path that is ours and ours alone. The work of our lives is to uncover our path and walk it. We might walk it with courage; we might walk it with trepidation; we might walk it with growing compassion; we might walk it blindly or with our eyes wide open. Within this training you will walk it supported in a circle we create and hold together. Did I say that it is easy, unfolding one’s own path? Never! It is both the hardest and most rewarding work of our lifetimes. To this end I serve as a guide, offering you a variety of skills rather than answers as you seek to recognize and forge your own path. During this on-line training we will spend 3 months working with each of the four powers. We will gather twice each month for a 3-hour block of time via a Zoom link that is encrypted to ensure privacy. In addition I offer an optional one-hour individual session to support you personally as you Forge Your Own Path. Our 13th gathering will be a Ritual of Dedication."
Fees are payable monthly at the rate of $125.00 CA$/month. Both scholarship and a sliding scale are available to make the work accessible. A non-refundable deposit of $250.00 holds your place. The total fee for this training is $1625.00 CA$ for the 13 months, $1500.00 if it is paid before the course begins. For more information or to register please contact Sophia Bonnie Wodin at firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: Fees given are in canadian currency and will be adjusted for USD
* Forging Your Own Path is loosely based on Priestessing Your Life, the in person 13 month training I designed and offered between 2010 and 2020.
A Reflection on experiences & lessons By Rev Lynx
Take a deep breath, find your center, listen. That right there is the most important aspect of manifesting a Labyrinth. Listening to the land, the trees and flow of Nature in the area. The first step to manifestation is to just sit with the space and listen to what IT wants manifested upon it, this part takes months and months. Discussions with the land owners, researching materials and options, the 1st half year or more of a build is active communication and active listening, very little manual labor.
There are so many aspects to a build that come up it’s important to think about each step. To think ahead without locking yourself into absolutes, nature and the land will present a lot of hurdles and challenges along the way so it's important to have alternative plans and options.
Find the space
Sometimes this is the easiest part depending on the who and where.
Is it accessible?
What would you need to change about the space to accommodate the build
Fit the build to the land, not the other way around. The land will let you know what works.
Take lots of pics from different angles.
Discernment aka the Listening phase
Set time aside to connect with the site. Listen. Look. Feel. Just be Aware.
Be aware of all the life that is home to the area, how do you plan to balance that loss?
Visualise the area with different components. Stone, plant, tree, bush, paths.
Why? What's the purpose, the intent of the site.
Deciding on where the Center will be is a good place to discern before any other details
What's your budget?
How and where will the funds come from?
Tools are vital to creation and maintenance
Time Budget? Is there a deadline? How long are you going to obligate yourselves?
Who is your team? Who can do what? Job delegation during the build will be vital so knowing who is capable of what ahead of time helps you understand how big of an endeavor you’ll have ahead.
Traditional circuit labyrinth? Custom design? Get some measurements of the area. (diameter, area, boundaries, etc)
Get some graph paper and draft a few concepts and ideas, you’ll know when it’s “right”
What will be the main means of creating the space. It can be as simple as mowing a path in some tall grass, a full hedge labyrinth?
Maintenance: The who, how and general maintenance needs after the build
Break Ground & Do the thing
There's no step by step for this part, each build is unique and its up to the team to decide what methods work moving forward.
Make the ground breaking a ritual.
There will be setbacks, certain plans won't work out as planned. In those moments take a step back, re-evaluate and try something different. Listen to the land and to each other.
In order to create a sacred site there is always a loss to nature, there has to be some act of destruction and those aspects are integral to starting a new build. Thinking about how your plan affects the wildlife, big and small in that area. With the Labyrinth of the Ways and Stacked stones we made regular offerings, blessings and set aside time to honor the land months before we broke ground, especially with Wisteria which was home to so much destruction and loss (strip mined in the 50s and 60s). We have to approach each build with respect and right relationship with the host of spirits and life of the space. It’s a give and take.
Every time we went to work on a site the work became a ritual. We declared sanctuary and established our center. We called to Land spirits and announced our intent and asked for their blessings. We declared our intent and plan for the day to the host of Gods and Spirits and asked them to guide our work. We made offerings, gave thanks and acknowledged the process of destruction for the purpose of growth. A Labyrinth should be an extension of the land and gods, a tool for personal gnosis, spiritual exploration,divine communion and as one Labyrinth walker put it: “A Labyrinth is a personal sermon with your own higher self”. So every step of the process is sacred. Every aspect of a labyrinth is in balance with everything around it and those who work it and walk it.
Planning to make the maintenance easy was a blessing. Wide walkways for easy movement and navigation of lawn mowers. If there's going to be living aspects to it, do so with intent. To help make maintenance easier, when in the design phase constantly ask “How?” How will this maintain shape? How will this erode? How will we keep this maintained. How does this impact the land? All those How questions will help guide your design choices. Don’t cut corners & do what's within your means. It’s not the size of the Labyrinth that matters, it's your intent and the land's blessing.
In closing, a Labyrinth build is a very unique and personal experience for those involved. On a solitary level and for the group as whole. You will learn about yourselves and each other and all I can say is be open. Be open to the lessons. Be open to the land. Be open to each other. Be open to yourself and your guides. There is no other experience like it and it is truly a labor of love and a truly humbling endeavor.
Be well, do good and be a blessing unto each other.
It is the nature of clergy that we often discuss theology. As the folk of The Ways, that means we will disagree often. That’s ok, especially when it creates respectful dialogue between people of different paths, or when we can take the time to learn about our different traditions and ask hard questions to help each other grow. As the body responsible for the sacramental and spiritual life of The Nemeton of The Ways and her community however, we have to ask what theology unites us. I propose two core theological tenets, gnosis and covenantal religion, are hidden theological underpinning of our shared path.
It is a common notion in pagan circles, especially the druids of A Druid Fellowship (ADF), that paganism is orthopraxic. Orthopraxy is “right practice/ action” and is contracted with Orthodoxy, or “right belief.” In paganism what you personally believe is not what matters, it’s what you do. As long as you give offerings piously and act in a neighborly manner, you're doing religion right. Our beliefs about the divine are like personal hypotheses or perceptions of reality. We are all likely partially wrong and partially right about the nature of the divine and while the subject is important for discussion, it isn’t necessary for us to agree on even a vague answer.
How can it be that belief isn’t the cornerstone of a religion. We are a religion of many ways, we accept all those who would enter into the bonds of friendship and community with us. Each of us relies on direct experience of the divine realm, Gnosis, to tell us what and why we believe. We do not rely solely on the teaching of a prophet or a guru. we may find wisdom in the words of such persons, but they are tempered with our own judgement and gnosis. You can not be a pagan with theory or even faith alone, practice is required. You must do the work and experience the divine before you truly know what paganism is and why we do it.
Religious groups gather because we seek communities that will accept us and help us grow. Faith communities fill needs within the human soul so deep we always seem to create such groups. We share our fire and our tables in the most human of sacred rights, the shared meal. We invite divine persons to join us and form relationships with them as protectors, guides, patrons, and members of your community. We are a community bound by covenant. By oath, bond, and promise. We hold each other accountable because we rely on each other.
Unitarian Universalist, a faith I have recently begun to identify with, refer to their faith as covenantal, not creedal. Even though the word covenant has been drenched with the weight of thousands of years of christianity, it simply means an agreement. We are a community bound not by some ancient creed made by old white guys in pointy hats 600 years ago, but by the agreements we forge in the loving embrace of community. What are our agreements? What principles do we use to hold each other accountable? These are difficult questions, and I hope we can have a dialogue about the answers.
Sources: - Buehrens, John A, and Forrest Church. A CHOSEN FAITH; An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism. 2nd ed., Beacon Press, 1998. - Corrigan , Ian. “What Do Neopagan Druids Believe?” ADF, 2013, www.adf.org/about/basics/beliefs.html.
Experiences and Lessons from manifesting and stewarding Sacred Sites
By Rev Lynx
It's that time of year again when the Cervidae start prepping for waking up the Sacred Sites and seeing what our goals and plans are for the year, and what a year ahead we have! Weather pending, our plan is to wake up the sites ( Labyrinth of the Ways & The Wandering Ways) on Saturday March 21st. With this taking place in the coming weeks I wanted to take a few moments and share some of the lessons, experiences and trials that went into their manifestation.
It all started with a feeling during Between the Worlds2014 when towards the end of the week Jeremiah and I were wondering through the land reminiscing on the weeks experiences. We both enjoyed walking the candlelight Labyrinth post komos, but also felt that Wisteria called out for a permanent one for all to wander through the years. This spark started the longest phase of her manifestation: Communicating with Wisteria and finding any possible way to make this manifest. It involved having to move to Columbus, joining Green Faerie Grove and creating a relationship with the Wisterians. Finally during May of 2016 we “broke ground”....kind of, moreso the ground broke us (and our rental tiller) and thus our 1st lesson of the Labyrinth was given: Be Patient, have a lot of back up plans.
Fun Fact: Wisteria is a reclaimed strip mine and just below an inch or 2 of topsoil is about 3 feet of solid, gorgeous & hard as Hel red clay and there was now way our little tiller and shovels were going to clear about 3,848 Sq ft that we needed.
Another Fun Fact: The “bush” we used as our center point, and thus our future sacred fire pit, was not a bush. It was a pear tree that was planted many moons ago that dwarfed itself to survive in the clay. And the field had at least 4 other pear or apple trees that were planted for the Ancestors. So we had a few predicaments on our hands.
We had to stop. Step back and rethink our whole process. We couldn’t intentionally pull these tree’s up. They may be wild when we found them, they may not bear fruit, but they had intent and purpose. We had to wait. We talked with a few tree specialists, talked with the Wisterians about options and hired some Amish folks with their steeds and disk tillers to do the job our machines could not. We carefully marked the Ancestors Trees and came back a month later and wow, what a difference. The Circle was laid and we had our new plans. The following 6 months was more about managing our energy and pushing ourselves til we just about broke. We slept under the stars and listened to the frogs call til the sun came up and sometimes sat in silence communing and connecting with the land figuring out what the next few steps were.
Then tragedy struck on June 12, 2016, Rev Cooke and I woke up at the site to the tragic news about the Orlando shootings at Pulse Nightclub. We grabbed what supplies we had on hand and held vigil and read their names out loud at the site of the Queer Spirit Mound. We sat in silence, isolated in the woods and thought of the kindred we just lost and the fires we would burn in their honor. We worked in silence that day, just reflecting on the work. The losses. The blood and tears. There were screams. There were tears. There was honor and humbleness. And we worked, but we worked for them.
We continued forward. Tons of stone. Tons of sand. Tons of sweat. Sometimes we laughed and sang. Sometimes we sat and just surrounded ourselves in the land and the work. The flow of effort and work spanning just 6 months was magical to say the least. To show up after a festival left to see a mountain of rocks with words of love and thanks written upon them. Old friends from NY leaving us love and blessings in the form of rocks from the Adirondack Mountains. Rocks we got blessed with from around the country and the world. All them coming to this pile of rocks that would soon be a Sermon of the Self written in stone and bones. A path for folks to wander in hopes of losing a piece of them Self or sometimes looking for a new Way. A place where all Ways can come and a place where all Ways can go. And thus Her name was given to us, we didn’t choose it. It was a gif to us from Her and to all the Selfs we’d never meet. For 6 months we became an extension of Wisteria, working so closely with Her that her red clay is still embedded in some clothes and my Bone pendant. Finding and embracing that connection as we worked was some of the deepest work I have done. She pushed us. She challenged our sight and our perspective. She tested our fortitude and dedication to manifest the Ways for this was something that goes beyond the self. It was something beyond a mundane scope and all we knew is that we Felt it.
I am looking forward to waking the Ways this Spring and to all the new lessons that will come along the Way. Its amazing what you can learn if you just listen to the beat, just trust in the Ways and let it be.
Over the past few months the Nemeton of the the Ways, like a reflection of nature, has gone through a number of changes and growth spurts. As a budding collective of different faiths, practices and Self we often need to take a step back and reevaluate how the Nemeton is functioning and filling the needs of each of Her communities across the country. The biggest reflection of this is the newly merged website. Combining information, events and resources into a single site for all 3, and future, Nemeta.
We've streamlined content and the Nemeton blog to better reflect the Ways that make up our Clergy, Community and Educators.
Speaking of education, here soon we will be back on schedule for regular blog posts to share with everyone. We have a few new educators that joined up and we're hard at work creating curricula and classes to appease everyone's taste and level. Besides classes to educate about the Nemeta and our core tenets, beliefs & Ways we have a number of folk working on classes from Runes to Ancestor veneration and much much more and we look forward to sharing these lessons and experiences with the community soon.
Some will be done here on the blog, some will be in person classes and we're currently working out the details about holding some Webinar classes for remote participation. A lot of things in the works and we are all eager for the growth.
Changes come, and we just keep rolling with them and making the most. Be sure to check your local Nemeta's calendar for all their events, rituals and more.
Be well, walk well, be blessed and be a blessing to each other.
What does it mean to be a pagan, in 2019? If someone asks you about your religion, what do you say? And if you attend a gathering of fellow pagans, what does it mean if you find their beliefs and practices are radically different than your own? What shapes this thing we call paganism?
These questions have at least one answer found while considering the strange duality and tension that sits at the foundation of modern paganism: the duality of religion and spirituality.
In the general usage, religion is used to describe a system of beliefs and practices that all work together. A religion is the tenets of faith, the structure of ritual, the theological grounding, the core values, and the basic practices of a set of beliefs in some form of divinity. In the best case scenario, this framework helps to support and encourage the experience of the faithful.
Spirituality, then, is that experience. It’s that unique understanding that you the believer have with your divinity. Spirituality is the meditative bliss, the message from your astral journey, the feeling of being with the undeniable presence of the divine.
In a broader, or perhaps more philosophical sense, this duality is between social structures on the one hand, and personal, unverifiable gnosis on the other. Paganism is a place where your own direct experiences with the divine are given serious weight and immense theological authority. The gnosis, or knowledge of spiritual mysteries, that you experience is direct from the source, so to speak. But it’s also personal and unverifiable. No one else will have the same experience as someone else, and oftentimes if they do it’s a worrying sign that a cult of personality is forming.
So what does this mean? On one side, we experience this direct and unique experience with the divine; on the other side, we have this structure of practices and beliefs that we use to build a community with other humans. Humans who also have their own direct and unique experience of the divine. This is the tension; how do we compare one person’s personal, unverifiable gnosis with any other person’s? We cannot, and to attempt to do so usually leads to hatred and bigotry.
And yet, we must in some ways make a judgement if we are to have any kind of shared experience. By coming together as co-religionists, we share our gnosis and try to hammer out some framework that allows us all to continue having these mystical experiences. The tension builds, and often leads to splinter groups and schisms.
As pagan religion continues to grow, it faces the challenge of synthesis or sanctuary. Does a group strive to bring together all of the gnosis if its members into one, new, glorious vision? This is the aim of synthesis, but too often this results in a washed out form of spirituality stripped of all identifying marks. To make the unified whole fit everything, many of the unique facets get scraped off.
What about sanctuary then? Does a group strive to let every gnosis stand, to give room for as many unique experiences as possible? Then comes the challenge of syncretism and tolerant intolerance. How does a group manage the competing interests of a shrine that demands total darkness that can only be placed next to one that must always have a candle burning?
What does this mean for you? For your own paganism? It means that when you go to a festival or gathering, you’re going to find groups that have a different understanding of the god or goddess you hold dear. And that’s ok.
It means that as you build your spiritual life, it’s not going to look like the spiritual life of anyone else. And that’s ok.
It means that if you want to stand up and tell someone that they’re doing something wrong or advocating an incorrect belief, you had better be prepared for a debate. Sometimes this will work; groups that focus on reconstruction are much more open to this sort of discussion. But less historically minded groups have less concern.
This also means that when you encounter groups who hold beliefs that you find questionable, you should engage with them and strive to explore their understanding. They are like you, bearers of personal gnosis, and they are striving to create a community of shared experience.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this also means that you should discover where your own boundaries lie. Where does the tension become too much for you? When must you be intolerant to be tolerant? What level of synthesis works for you? Discover these things, and then also discover that these are your boundaries, not anyone else’s. There are some points that most pagans agree on: things like human sacrifice, slavery, and other major illegal actions. But besides these areas, most other boundaries you will discover are just yours. You can find a group that aligns closely with your edges, but even then there will be points of contention.
How do we solve this tension? This duality? We don’t. This is the core of modern paganism. Tectonic plates are thrust apart by upwellings of lava, forcing the plates away from each other and creating massive stress. But this pressure creates new land. In the same way the duality of modern paganism is where we find the new land of the divine.
Since moving to Columbus in 2015, James Vacca has been increasingly active in the local pagan community. He is a member of the Green Faerie Grove, a gay male pagan brotherhood, and the Firekeeper for Between the Worlds, a spiritual retreat for men who love men.
James is also a dedicant priest of the Nemeton of the Cervidae, a seed of the Nemeton of the Ways. Dedicated to serving the Gods, Folk and Land through nurturing a reverence for the Earth and all of her children, the Nemeton of the Cervidae strives to provide sacred spaces that welcome all walks of faith.