On Professional Angel-Wrestling
by Ruby Sara
Well. I wasn’t here, see. And you may be wondering (or not…but I’m-a tell you anyway…it’s a blog) what kind of shuffling around in my own polythea/ologies I was doing all that time. Well……..funny story. I’ve been working on this post. Yep, this one right here. So, you know, it might get long. Bear with me, doveys. Here’s the thing:
I’m partial to pretty colors. I’m a bit of a magpie, after all, no matter how I like to pretend otherwise, and color gets my attention – so does spark. I’m a fan of a big box of crayons and a bonfire (not necessarily together…well maaaybe…no no). And, true to form, I like a shiny thing…’specially when it’s in regards to religion (and there’s little that isn’t shiny about religion; sometimes, it’s so shiny it could very well lase your eyeballs out, so you know, use caution when staring down the devoted, s’all I’m saying).
See, I noticed that there’s been not a few patches of color flashing in the Pagan blogosphere this year…what could even be called malcontent. Folkses have criticisms. Some are not shy about them. Some are making ruhl bold statements and inciting some heated debate. Some are just saying “y’all have fun with that – I’ll be over here with the Great No-Thing” (and inciting some heated debate). I’m sure there have been others I’ve missed.
Being a person intimately fascinated with the movement of spiritual journey and the patterns in my own communities, and not to mention getting down in the dust with my own angels on the matter, these particular kerfuffles, laments and personal 95′s have all caught my little eye and have sure held fast even my wayward attention. These are some holy grievances, these are some spectacular discussions. And what-do-you-know, but that all this good good verbal wrastling and seething and festering has gotten me a-thinking. Cuz these past couple of years, the Great Mill has squished me flat, and I’ll be damned if it hasn’t been and continues to be a real effing challenge sometimes for me to stay Pagan.
Yes, oh Yes, Ma’am.
And now, the blithering details. You can skip this part if you’re already, like me, a little tired of this post. I won’t mind. But I soldier weirdly on anyways. I’m trying to sort it out. It’s hard, dusty work. I hope there’s water at the end.
First, I think it’s important to point out that individual spiritual journeys will meander past wide and shallow parts and deep and rushing parts of the river always. Your boat is made of a substance that you cannot begin to fathom. The current is swift and there are beings beneath who are thinking of you not at all, flashing out bits of sunlight like little living mirrors. This is the nature of Wyrd, of Fate, the stars disposing and compelling (no matter what the astrologers say). Of course, you have a paddle, and you can choose which place in the river you float, and you might be able to avoid a rock or two if you’re fast, but it’s all the same shore, beloveds, and you’ll be dumped up on it at the end, no matter where you think you choose to be. So it’s not for me to judge the discernment of an individual who believes that the time has come to change their outward religious identification, even if that person is me. That’s a personal decision, and truthfully – it doesn’t really affect us as individuals. Whether a Pagan leaves the banner of Paganism behind, or a UU leaves her church out of increased frustration, or a Christian becomes lit from within by Taoism…this is all just beauty – this is all just the Way Things Are, and it’s an intimate struggle – wrestling in a riverbank by night, alone and under the vault of heaven.
Also, I think it’s important to consider that the language of spiritual journeying is a difficult one. Toes are bound to be stepped on. Articulating why one chooses to leave behind a path, outside of the inoffensive but somewhat noncommittal “it just doesn’t work for me anymore” requires that you choose words that others might indeed find offensive. In the case of Jason’s post way back in January (I know I’m behind the times…the world spins faster on the internet…but why don’t we pretend that the mystics have it a-right, and that time is really just a big lake and not really a river, and that you are reading these words as I type them, and I have already finished, and also have only just begun…or something like that), the use of the word “fail,” and the phrase “outgrowing Paganism” raised some hackles. Mine as well. But, in the spirit of the tragically and terribly verbose, I also think that there is some merit in grokking what may be swimming below our words, and so I have been pondering on it. Maybe not as Mary pondered, quite, but some pretty heavy pondering, nonetheless.
For instance, let’s take these two examples, “outgrowing Paganism” and “failure.” The implications of “outgrowing” Paganism is of course that it is a religion for the immature, and that one, traversing the grand linear evolution of spirituality, will surpass it, and move on to [enter superior religion or lack thereof here]. This smacks of the kind of early anthropological studies of religion put forth by Tylor and others, postulating that the early “primitive” religions of indigenous cultures were eventually “outgrown” and supplanted by “evolved” monotheistic civilizational religions (and after that, I suppose, atheism, the “pinnacle of human reason”). Problematic? Yeah, just a tad. Spiritual growth simply does not work this way. There is so little that is actually linear about the spiritual experience that the mind boggles at the idea, not to mention the laughable fallacy of attaching value to these “stages” of human religious consciousness – folks, if there’s one thing that’s true, it’s that things are so much more complicated than anyone can possibly imagine. So no, I don’t buy “outgrowing” any religion, actually, on that basis. And, of course, additionally – there’s the insult. Inference: Paganism is a childish religion. Ah, but here’s where it gets muddy for me.
First, there is nothing wrong with child-like wonder, something that Pagans overtly cultivate in their theological dealings, and rightly so. To delight in a star or a blade of grass is not the hallmark of the weak or the stupid, and would that more of us felt free to engage in this precious fascination with the world. But really, this isn’t what is being implied here. The individual who points to Paganism and labels it “childish” or “immature” is pointing to a range of items. Some are cultural – spangly hats, velvety robes (in the summer, even), body modification, bizarre facial tattoos, a predilection for fantasy and science fiction, the strange trinity of Pagans/Trekkies/role-players, the lack of structural organization, the petty infighting and sometimes relentless bickering. Some are liturgical – the overly simplistic or overly complex nature of various rites, the lack of hymnody, the use of overly theatrical looking props, the stumbled dancing, the lack of memorization. And some are theological – unchecked eclecticism, cultural appropriation, a lack of a cohesive vision, an anarchic, radically individualistic diversity, and only the beginnings of rigorous ethical/theological/historical literature. And yes, while some of these items are accusations laid before us by an ignorant public (and some are items that I embody wholly and would defend unto my last breath), who among us can say that we have not complained ourselves about one or two (or three or a hundred and eight) of these, really? Certainly, on one hand those outside our faiths who sneer and mock us do not deserve our attention, and who cares what they think. But on the other – should we not be asking ourselves, at the very least, if there are legitimate criticisms to be made here, and how should we approach their ramifications? Truthfully, I could not care less about how we are perceived by the media or mainstream culture, which will never bother to truly understand the Other no matter what or who it is, and will always sally forth with their own banal, prejudiced interpretation of the World As It Is, and they can have it. But, I do care how we perceive ourselves, how we treat the Others in our lives, and I care how we treat each other, and about our movement as a people – about the theologies of beauty we engender, and about the Gifts we have to offer our planet, the reclamation of our ancestors, the healing of our brokenness. Thus, there is something deep and legitimate behind the words “outgrowing,” “childish,” and “you’re joking, right?” that we should be called to seriously examine.
It is the same with “failure.” When a ritual fails to bind us together, fails to tell a Story successfully, fails to kindle those present, that’s something to think about. When our community fails to support our clergy and our elders, fails to offer services to the poor, fails to be a part of the wider community as a collective, what does that say about our theologies? Paganism is not a failure – of course not. The idea is ridiculous – obviously, it succeeds somewhere, or there would not be so many who love it, myself included (and I do…I do). But it does fail in some ways – all religions do. And it is not a betrayal to question one’s own faith, as we all know, and we owe it to ourselves to ask ourselves whether these are legitimate criticisms, and if they are, how we will meet the challenges they so gloriously embody. How we will answer, in our praying and in our dancing, the questions that are important to us.
As I said above, I have spent months and months now wondering if the expectations and needs I have of the Pagani are ill fitted to the reality of the matter, and then (logically) if it appears to be solely my problem, then I should therefore seek community elsewhere – I’m not, after all, terribly keen on shoehorning a really round peg into a really square hole. So I have been struggling. And while there have been many conversations with my compatriots that have left me full of joy, there have been moments that have also left me, frankly, rather full of something akin to angsty despair. As just one example, I am disheartened by some among us who decry those individuals as weak who are seeking a theological and communal source of comfort, healing, support, and succor. Certainly, we stand in opposition to a theology that robs us of agency, spiritual freedom, and inquiry – but nowhere does this dictate that we necessarily give up a theology of love, a divine ethics of compassion, or the notion that we have a duty to each other as fellows on the river. This idea that our gods can be hard, capricious, and difficult is powerful only when tempered with the realization that they are also kind, compassionate, and loving. Is Paganism is the religion for rugged, radical individuals and spiritual libertarians only? How is this possible? Can ecoanarchists and libertarians coexist in the same religious house? Is that possible? I don’t know. I wonder.
I got lots of wonderings. I wonder at the efficacy of our theologies, whether a unified vision is workable or even desirable, and what that would look like if so. I wonder about a spiritual politics of simplicity, the practical application of a land-based ethics, whether the master’s tools can in fact dismantle the master’s house, the necessity of structure and charity, the greater mission of religion in general and our religions in particular, about the definition and utility of the word “Paganism” itself, and my own small identity as a member of this fire-fly shod, beauty-worshipping, dazzlingly wonderful and cosmically frustrating, loosely congregated aggregate of religions. I also wonder if churches don’t have something we don’t. I wonder what Aretha’s got that we’re missing (besides, yes, a pretty unbelievably outstanding hat). I wonder why we can’t have a little gospel action, a little old fashioned tent revival, get a little Spirit, have us a little rock and roll. I wonder if we really must always stand up in a circle for looooong rituals when we could sometimes (not always, mind you) more easily pay attention from the heretical comfort of chairs.* Truly, Pagani, I am saying that I don’t know.
I don’t know if I truly have legitimate criticisms of Paganism as a corporate body, or if maybe this is all just a bunch of personal shit, in which case I have had friends tell me I should “start my own religion.” But really, I’ve no real inclination to do such a ridiculous thing. And more to the point, I want community - and if I am off bouncing around the park by myself, content in my own hallucinations…there’s a place for that and all, but on the larger scale, who does it serve? I want a religion that gets down with the people, that helps and heals, that lifts up and offers opportunity for ecstatic communion, for grokking the Land, for laughing and crying together, for feeding each other, for feeding the Other, for singing and dancing, and becoming Whole.
Maybe religion in general is just… silly. I have fantasies sometimes of dumping my altars into a giant sack and hurling them into the dumpster. Unfortunately, however, it appears I’m stuck. The Beloved and the Mama…they’re kind of hard to shake. No matter how many hard turns you make down sudden alleys.
So, so…sew buttons. So…I blog, I guess. Here holy here between the highway and the swollen creek is where I and my angel try to knock the feet out from under each other in sometimes cheerful and sometimes grim competition (taking time out like chivalric knights for tea and cakes, and for oiling the leather between our iron joints). I may be here for an eternity, locked in this boiling, awful, ecstatic embrace. I love it and I hate it. It may split me in half someday.
But for the moment, I’m out of ponderings. If you are still reading this, well howdy…and welcome! Have a seat here next to me – I’m the one in the bunny ears and the magenta socks. And have some hot chocolate. I’m gonna.
For the nonce, I crackle and burn holy holy in this space, and can only ask of you to stay fiercely beautiful, as you are so wont to do.
*Are buildings, chairs, tabernacles…compatible with an ecocentric faith like the one I personally espouse? Don’t know. BUT, if they’re not, then I submit to you, dear friends, that we ought to perhaps seriously rethink the large, public ritual, especially the ones that take 2 or more hours and are largely performative instead of interactive. I just think…if you want church, DO church. If you don’t want church, do something else. Me, I’m down with both – when they’re done up right, both can rock your socks off.