Note: I use the word "Pagan" here to be all-inclusive.
The Pagan population is growing by leaps and bounds. Each year sees more and more newcomers discovering the manifold Paths of Paganism, and those numbers grow yearly.
But these newcomers didnt just magically appear in the various covens, circles, groves and temples. They all have a religious past- and the vast majority of them have Christian roots. What made them leave the relative comfortable and socially safe confines of their old community for a religion and practice that is still in many ways finding its feet and voice in the larger world? What sort of baggage do they carry, and how can they safely dispose of it without damage to their new lives? I hope to explore these ideas in this essay.
In my long journey down the Spiral Path, I have gone through many stages in the development of my present Path. And in talking to others on similar Paths, I have found that my own stages have been very much paralleled by these peers. I shall use these stages as an example and framework for guidance. Your own mileage may vary.
In my experience, and in reading about other Seekers experience in the discovery and integration of their new spiritual Path, I have noted that the journey through the Crucible goes through four general stages:
Breakaway, where the individual is called away from the original faith, and begins to explore and discover alternate Paths.
Discovery, where, in studying outside texts and opinions, the newcomer learns about the more negative aspects of the former faith.
Anger, where the newcomer works through the negative aspects of the old faith, invites arguments with the more zealous members of the old faith, and permanently severs the ties to it.
Reconciliation, where the old faith ceases to have any negative emotional impact on the person, and it becomes just another religious Path.
This is the earliest stage of the journey to the new faith. The individual is often restless, searching, and open to ideas outside the faith of childhood. It may be that some of the more restrictive doctrines of the old faith are less than satisfying to the seeker, or that the dogma of the religion is being forcibly tendered to that individual. They may feel trapped, dissatisfied, and unable to connect. They become outsiders inside themselves, and seek to find a more comfortable setting for their own private spiritual calling.
As a former Catholic, I ran into the institutional barriers to continuing in the Church early on. As a female, I was not permitted to become an acolyte, one of the assistants at the altar. I really wanted to do that, to see up close what the priest was doing. Sometimes I would sneak my dads binoculars to church and watch the acolytes through the, and noted that they would often not be watching the priest, but instead, theyd be messing around as the priest was working. My request to be an acolyte was met with, "Girls cannot be acolytes." Nothing beyond that. This was in the sixties, before they realized that girls were just as good at this as boys were, and the rules were relaxed. The closest I got to the altar in an operational manner was to bring the hosts up for consecration.
Even as a child, I had a feeling that a lot of the stuff preached in church was nonsense, or false. False, meaning that the content of the Gospels was edited and modified, because the four major Gospels never chimed together. In my later studies of the Bible and its compilation, I realized why: most of the New Testament was written 30 to 70 years after Christs death, and none of these guys, Paul in particular, never even KNEW Christ in person. That would be like trying to write a comprehensive story of Hitlers life by present day writers. In the sixty years since his death and the end of the Second World War, much myth has grown up around him. It would be the same in the Biblical times, if not more so.
It was easy for me to turn away from the Church: they had been very frank in rejecting me for simply being female. I was just a dogs body, a walking womb, a member of the prayer patrol, and perhaps a future nun. Because I was female, I was not fit in their eyes to serve in any other capacity. My budding feminist sensibilities bristled at this extreme misogynistic bias, and the desire to continue to participate in a faith that hated me for being female dissipated.
Besides, the calling I received from my soon-to-be Guidance on my new Path came from outside the bounds of the Church. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs beckoned to me to discover their secrets, and the old Gods tugged at now ancient bonds I had created with them eons ago. I did not know this at the time; I simply knew that my Path was not one that would be heavily traveled.
Upon formally breaking the ties with the former faith and learning about the new one, the newcomer will usually always learn about the negative aspects of their old faith. For those who were very sheltered, as the more fundamentalist sects tend to be, with their own social networks, net filtering, bookshops and community, the discovery of the flaws of their old faith may be especially intense. Many Internet sites exist to help decompress and deprogram former adherents of the stricter sects, and permit them to vent, share horror stories, and rediscover their independence of faith.
For the Pagan, many of the older texts speak of the now-disputed "Burning Times", where the various Christian sects persecuted and executed people who were accused of being witches, gay, or interfering with the growth and power of the Church in any way. (Many people did die at the hands of the Church, but the six million number is now disputed. Most were not Pagans, but ordinary Christian people who fell out of favor or stood up for themselves.) Women who were extremely beautiful or ugly were targeted, as were those who rejected the sexual advances of powerful men, or who had riches or land that the Churches wanted to acquire. Sometimes just a jealous neighbors accusation would send a hapless woman to the stake. "Witchcraft" of the Malleus Malefectorum source had no basis in reality, but sprang from the dark imaginations of a pair of repressed monks. This manual became the operational manual for persecution. King James believed in witches and hated women, and edited the Bible to reflect that. The people who followed him leaped upon his bandwagon because to resist was to be accused.
Reading about the rampant misogyny and intolerance of the Christian faith to any religious competition can be a daunting and painful method of discovery. Reading the writings of Paul, St. Augustine, Tellurian and other anti-female saints can be heartbreaking and enraging if you are an alienated woman, or a sympathetic man. Watching the gradual decimation of the native religions in Europe, and then, world wide as the missionaries did their destructive and genocidal work can quickly send one over the edge and into the next stage of the crucible: Anger.
This is both the most virulent and dangerous stage of the Crucible. Consumed by righteous indignation of the treatment of ancestors and other cultures by the various Christian faiths, the Pagan can become poisoned by this anger and turn into a hard-nosed fundamentalist zealot themselves. Pagans in this stage often act out their rages, trolling boards of Christian discussion groups, or starting unpleasant quarrels in public forums. They delight in Church-bashing and belittling their old faith, and carefully comb through concordances and fling biblical flaws and contradictions at the adherents of the old faith. There is nothing wrong in defending oneself, but the virulently angry Pagan becomes aggressive in their righteous indignation, and becomes a reverse missionary for both the Christian faith they detest, and sadly, their own. If left to their own devices, many Pagans become stuck in this intolerant, poisonous place, and wonder why they cannot advance spiritually. And they become an embarrassment to their peers, who do not wish to associate with someone as virulently negative as the one who is stuck on Anger.
Something needs to be done to push the Pagan through this stage and back on to the Path of growth and understanding. The hot buttons must be turned off, and the anger cooled into an ember of defensive faith in ones own Path. They need to reach the final stage of the Crucible: Reconciliation.
This is both the easiest and most difficult stage of the Crucible in the Pagans progress from one Path to the new one. Easy, in that all that is required is a letting go of the dogmatic ties that bind them to the anger and also to the old faith. Difficult in that if one has bound themselves to a faith or concept with the chains of hatred, it may take some time to unbind their hearts and minds. But this must be done in order for the Pagan to continue to progress down the Path.
The first step is to desensitize yourself from the items that trigger the hot button reactions to the old faith. Things like tracts handed to you or left on your car, religious missionaries who call on you at your home or confront you at work, or the American mélange of public religious expression. You must accept that the missionary and evangelical calling is part of the Christian culture, and they are bound by its dogma to do this. They arent doing this to piss you off, they are doing this because their Bible tells them to do it, and their peer group and dogmatic worldview requires them to do it. Unless youre obnoxious about your Pagan faith and make it a point to challenge them and taunt them, they will usually take your no at face value and continue to the next house.
More difficult is reconciling with the friend, family member or colleague who insists on shoving their dogma into your face, despite your rejection of it. Face it, this is ill mannered, rude, and not easily forgiven. Swallow your pride, and forgive them. Remember the farmer who got kicked by his mule, and consider the source. They are bound by their religion to do this. You, on the other hand, are free to decline. If you can, sever any social ties with the offending people. This may entail alienation from your family, or even changing jobs if the offending person is persistent or evangelicism is part of the culture of your workplace. If it is a professional relationship, consider using proper channels to reduce the harassment.
It is always difficult to turn the other cheek when someone is piously nagging at you, but you must. Assuming the moral high ground and attaining a Zen-like detachment from the emotional hooks of the harassment is the key to finding your own inner peace and reconciliation with the old faith. These emotional and dogmatic naggings will always be part of the landscape of your life. If you accept this, and treat it like any other MINOR annoyance, like litter (pick it up and replace it with beauty), noise (turn it off, or seek a quieter place) or an unpleasant task (tackle it first, to get it out of the way) your whole life will turn around.
Then there is the matter of scholarship. In my experience as a Pagan, I have often found that the religious education of my fellow Pagans in other religions is superior to that of its own adherents. I know more about the history and quirks of Christianity than many preachers and deacons do, to their shame (if they admit it). To study the history and inner workings of not only Christianity, but also ALL religions gives you an edge that will shut down most young zealots. Educate yourself. It is your best weapon, and your best balm against the blisters of your spiritual anger.
Remember, too, that the most zealous and evangelical of the Christian people are often the newest converts who are still feeling the fire of the conversion experience, and want to spread their religious meme everywhere. They are often NOT educated, and just run on the heat of the initial born-again experience. Be gentle to them, as you would any newborn. They are spiritual babies, but with big, sharp teeth and teensy sparks of genuine faith that are flaming hot. This heat will eventually dissipate, the teeth will become dulled, and the flame of evangelisms will be banked, and theyll be just another Sunday-go-to-meeting soul who is clogging up the streets near your house.
If you cultivate, instead of debate the more zealous ones, they may begin to see you as a human being, instead of the Devil Incarnate that they must spiritually slay with their dogma. It is even possible to become friends with members of your old faith. Many Pagans fear being sucked in again by the old faith, but I ask you this: what does that say about your OWN adherence and confidence in your OWN Path, young soul? If you fear someone taking away your own confidence (and the evangelicals are very adept at this), perhaps you should more closely examine your own faith. Perhaps you left your old faith in a fit of youthful rebellion. Or perhaps your faith needs a little exercise. Nothing can undermine a diamond-hard core of confidence if you are truly connected with God within. The sandpaper of religious challenge will give your own faith a good polish. Welcome these opportunities, and use them well.
True reconciliation and healing is marked by the invitation of other faiths to engage in fruitful dialogue, with the agreement to disagree on points of dogma and faith if they are not in harmony. The advanced soul on ANY religious Path realizes that ALL Paths lead to the Ultimate, but perhaps some take more side roads than others. There are really no bad religions, just bad adherents. And that is their fault, not yours. You are ultimately responsible for your own souls advancement down your chosen Path. You cannot shepherd another, nor can they shepherd you, no matter what their dogma tells them. The ultimate responsibility for your fate lies with you, and what you choose to do with your life. If you can adhere to the two pillars of the Gateway to the Path: Know Thyself, and Love One Another, than no one can sway you from your Path, whatever external trappings you give it.
ã 2002 Sunfell