Rooted in Experience

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  May 26, 2008 — 20 Comments

Let me make a pitch for one of my favorite Pagan causes: being rooted in experience.

We like to say that Paganism is not about following a creed or obedience to commandments written in an ancient book. It’s about lived experiences: direct encounters with our gods and our communities, with nature and with spirit.

So why is nearly everything we write in the form of a recipe book? Why so little in the way of lived experience? For a religion of direct, personal gnosis, we have remarkably little writing about what happens when we set out to practice rather than preach.

I propose we change that. Here is my challenge to you:

Don’t tell me how your tradition draws down the moon or performs a proper blot. Instead, tell me about the first time you led a public ritual: about how your knees were wobbly, and you began to sweat; about how you were afraid that nothing would happen. And then it did. And something in the sound of the drums took hold of you, and you felt different, and the world changed.

Don’t tell me that Paganism celebrates the body and honors sexuality. Tell me about the scent of pine needles in your hair when you kissed your lover under the stars, and about how the smell of pine sap and wood smoke can still make you dizzy.

Don’t tell me that community is important in Paganism. Tell me about finding your first Pagan community, and about that heady rush like first love you felt for it. And about the crushing pain that followed the first betrayal (the leader that was manipulative; the grove member who stole; the coven-mate whose oaths didn’t keep her from outing one of you) and how you came to terms with it. How you learned to embrace the Pagan world despite its flaws–or dedicated yourself to eradicating them.

Don’t tell me that Pagans find our gods in nature. Tell me about the time you climbed a mountain to celebrate with them, but it turned cold and foggy, and you thought you were lost forever until you spotted that raven that looked at you out of just one eye. Tell me about the taste of the meat from the deer you hunted yourself–or about the look of kinship in the eyes of the possum you accidentally killed, which made you give up meat-eating forever.

Tell me about how hot your sweat lodge was and how thirsty you emerged from it, when you explore whether or not Pagan sweat lodges are cultural appropriation. Tell me about the first time you saw an aura–or the time you were the only one who couldn’t see one, in your whole magical lodge–before you tell me about psychic phenomena.

Don’t give me your ideas on Pagan life, my sisters and brothers. I have ideas enough of my own. And don’t give me answers, because ours is a religious movement with hundreds of answers, thousands of answers.

Give me your experience. Give me the marrow and the meat of your spiritual life. Because, unless you write it down, no one else ever will. Only from you can I receive this gift: your own lived Pagan journey.

–Guest post by Cat Chapin-Bishop of Quaker Pagan Reflections.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • ambermoggie

    the first time I called the quarters using things I had around and using words that poured forth from my heartThe first time I made incense dedicated to pan and his presence was all around me the muskiness the heat. I had to go and sit on the front step:) What did I expect when honouring such as he?The time I created my first elemental figure when the muse came calling and the wonder I experienced when the person I gifted it to(not pagan) remarked on the mystery and the love within itamber in england

  • Kestrel

    When I was a teen and first exploring paganism, I did ritual in my bedroom. I felt awkward, and silly, especially since I never could “feel” what I was doing.One night as I was drawing the circle with my athame, I heard a tiny hiss. I looked up, and my six-week-old kitten was staring into space. She reached her paw up and started swatting at the thin air where I had drawn the circle. She came inside the circle with me to examine/swat it some more, then outside, then back inside to crawl into my lap and fall asleep.I didn’t feel quite so silly after that, even if I never could properly see/feel what I was doing.

  • Aedus

    In the beginning, many of us modern pagans spend a long time spiritually isolated. We quietly nose around, trying to find out what we can, and trying to not expose our interests to those around us. Secrecy comes with extra emotions, fear, shame, doubt.The first time I raised my hand and publicly identified myself as a pagan, was by literally raising my hand. It was perhaps three years into my personal seeking, and there I sat amongst my peers. It was an atmosphere for change, having been shipped off in a plane, and then a bus, my head shaved and all my personal effects replaced with standard issue military wear. Emotions surged through my body, fear and excitement together. And something new crept in, community, understanding, love.It has been nearly a decade since then, and anyone that has been an open pagan in the military will know that it is not the easiest road taken. But the memory of that experience, pure and raw, still fills me when its recalled.

  • Jilder

    When I was seven I remember reading a book of classical mythology, and wondering where all the temples had gone. I wanted to find one and stay there forever. That’s the first thing. I read mythology and ancient history hungrily after that, like I was conducting my own personal excavation of the past. I guess I was.I’m an isolated pagan. I don’t really have anyone around here to talk to about my faith, so the words sit uncomfortably in my mouth. The moments that define my faith are the quiet moments, late at night, when I’m outside alone in the moonlight, and feel nothing but love. It can be overwhelming, and sometimes I just have to stand there and let it come as it wants to. I can’t control it, or stop it, and all I can do is accept it. I’ve learned to listen to Her, in the darkness, and most of the time I can make out what is said. Sometimes I don’t.Ritual has never felt clumsy to me. When my mother was regularly taking me to church as a child, that felt clumsy and akward. Communion felt forced. Ritual is like dancing to music only I can hear. But then, as an isolated practicioner, I never have an audience. I don’t know if that community element would make a difference. I guess coming out of the church helps, in some regards. I can blame any uncertainty on that. There was a period in my life when I became aware of the greater world where I was conviced I was damning myself. The things I could see, hear and feel had always been described to me as demonic. It took a long time to get away from that, and accept that there was more out there than just the bread and the wine. It became very much like rebirth.

  • Sara

    How many of us can speak of our experiences, without robbing them of their vital essence, or without speaking of things that truly there are no words for or that are too private and personal for such a moment? Do I speak of the day when I felt the Goddess that had come to us depart? do I talk of the words that have left my lips that were not mine? While I agree with the post overall, I think that the ultimate moments that sing within my spirit cannot be shared.

  • borea

    Experience (re-posted from borea’s LiveJournal)I remember that night, the first night I knew there was someone/something else beside me in the woods, on my stomach, in the matted sweet grass and leaf detritus, something bidding me to continue breathing despite the weight on my back that crushed my lungs. This was not the God I knew, but it was a god/dess just the same. And as I stumbled home, through the tall grass and prairie sage, past cacti and indian paintbrush and yucca, I thanked them and whomever it was that let me survive. I have been thanking ever since.I hunted. I sought each of the hero’s thousand faces. I learned so many names and chanted them all in the dark of my bower, or beneath the star-bright vastness of the western sky. I spun my hatred into forgiveness, wove my sorrow into peace, and offered these to the ancestors of earth and sky there at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.I once danced naked with my brothers beneath the full moon on a summer night, and delighted in how all our awkward boundaries were stripped away, left in a pile with our clothing on the lawn. We cared not for the neighbors’ eyes, or the brightness of our flesh in the pale light, or the sounds of slapping new adolescent flesh echoing in the night.I remember making love with abandon beneath the open window as a thunderstorm raged outside. Chilly mist against our backs and thighs blown in on the wind through the screen and I could swear it turned to steam. And this man, speaking in some language I yet retain, speaking so often without the use of speech, I knew I’d known him in another time, another place, and that then we were wed. And when it was time to part in this life, how bittersweet, I burned all I had of him in a need-fire, binding him from me and to himself. I have not heard of him since.Another dusk, the sun sinking behind the mountain range, its last rays swallowed by thunderheads that broke against the rocky slopes in a fury of wind and rain. We presumed to control Thor’s bolts, predicting when and where they would strike. We made it a contest, which I won. And what prize? A kiss fueled by Southern Comfort that was more teeth than lips, but all about Freyr–solid, pressed against me in animal passion.My first breath of pine-scented air in the crisp of December, deep in the Piedmont of North Carolina. I knew I’d be at home here, that the weights were friendly, in this, the land of my ancestors. The familiar red clay–much like the clay in Colorado–and so many trees, the sky was made small through little windows. And water–in the air and seemingly surrounding on all sides. I recalled a part of my soul gone missing, lost in the Pacific, guiled by Proteus, snatched up by Ran, and held for its shimmering in Aegir’s deep hall.And the land. All my gods, the land! Sweet and giving, rich with loam and verdant in spring. The headiness of honeysuckle and cloying wisteria, climbing roses and ivy. Anything set in the arms of Jordh grows! I worship with gardening, a doula to the seeds, a midwife to their tender fruit.Then finally, after long solitary searching and dismay, a community brimming with those who would study as much as practice, who make space in every day to honor the earth, the gods, and those who have come before. They opened their homes and hearths to share the wealth-hoard of spirit in full frith. And I fit. With each “Hail!” my wyrd is entwined, and I am comforted, encouraged, and strive to right action. This is no ill-fitting habit, rather the well-spun wool of the seidhkona’s cloak. I find myself looking for the old ways now, for signs and spirits spoken in the runes of a tree.My practice has brought me both pain and joy, humility and pride, strength but also the wisdom of when to apply it. I have the lessons of the natural world, my church–the patience of growing things, the far sight of a red-tailed hawk, the persistence of kudzu, songs of joy from cicadas and frogs sung from boughs on a languid summer’s eve, and the quiet introspection of barred owls take sustenance in the dark places. There is no place for stagnation, no too still place. All is quick and evermoving, wending towards our doom.

  • abbadie

    Agree. Agree. Agree! That’s why I’ve said a million times that a book on paganism that really brings things through to the reader must be a narrative, or poetry, even… not, never, a “practical guide”. I’ve been trying to work it out, through stories, anecdotes, a mix of tales and poetry… my next book on the subject will be that way, I’ve learned my mistake in following formulas.Sometimes, things that are said plainly… just don’t end up said at all. And if the really important things cannot be put to words -well, half the fun is in trying! And pointing the way to experiencing things is perhaps as great a gift as any of us can ever hope to give a reader.

  • Donald Engstrom-Reese

    Cat, When I read your wonderful and challenging post, this poem came to mind.I DanceDonald L. Engstrom,June, ©2005 I dance on the moon. I dance in the streets. I dance in the kitchen As I prepare the feast That lure the folk into touching Each other’s hearts. I dare to dwell in beauty, balance and delight. I dare to see with clear eyes and an open heart. I tend the graves. I weed the beds. I bake the bread to nourish the living. I dare to dwell in beauty, balance and delight. I dare to see with clear eyes and an open heart. I cultivate my love. I harvest my dreams. I embrace life with both arms. I dare to dwell in beauty, balance and delight. I dare to see with clear eyes and an open heart. I am a host to Mystery. I fill my hearth with the tender caresses That transform all of the realms. I feed dreams of desire and pleasure To all who come into my Witch’s world. I invite my feres to sit around my kitchen table To share a cup of tea with Giddens of earth and sky. The Mysterious Ones are not strangers to my home. I dare to dwell in beauty, balance and delight. I dare to see with clear eyes and an open heart. I choose to see. I choose to listen, I choose to feel, I choose to smell, I choose to taste my way into ecstasy, And a hedge riders sensible life. I dare to dwell in beauty, balance and delight. I dare to see with clear eyes and an open heart. Bless the Bees.

  • sta?a

    Wow. Go, Cat! And, thank you.

  • keori

    As a child, I would strip naked, paint my body with watercolor paints, and run through the woods day or night in the warm New England summer. Fey Myth and Magick blended with reality as I frolicked with forest critters and some Others I’ve never tried to name. The woods were my refuge from a christian home where I was beaten for being a girl who prayed to Heavenly Mother.As a teenager I studied the Warrior path, always pushing myself through pain, fear, anxiety, feelings of worthlessness. Meditation and kata became my rituals, a place where I found the Morrigan. Working with animals, particularly horses, brought me to Epona, whom I still revere.As an adult, coming to terms with being a lesbian, I found I didn’t need a male lover to find the Divine Male. He was there as Father, Brother, Mentor/Trainer/Sensei. My beloved Loki, the Trickster, showed me as any older brother would how to successfully smile and duck, and trip up those who would hurt me for being what the Gods, in Their wisdom, chose to create.I found comfort in the Elder Gods, and in Their archetypes, that I never found in christianity. There was always someplace I could belong, grow, thrive, and move from. It’s never been a phase, an outlet of rebellion, or an attempt to define myself outside of socially accepted norms. It’s just always been home, from my earliest memories.

  • Aquila ka Hecate

    The experience of having a communication opened between myself and the plant kingdom is impossible to learn from books, and nearly impossible to write about. :)The experience of having formed a relationship, spirit to spirit, with the land on which I live, is also a treasure beyond words or price.When the land says I Love You, you will reciprocate.Love,Terri in Joburg

  • Riverwolf

    Great post, Cat. And I intend to take up your challenge. I have a couple of things to write about–now just to find the time to write!

  • Broomstick Chronicles

    Brava, my friend! Brava! Brava!With the caveat that the mysteries can only be experienced, not told in a literal, expository sense. We have poetry and dance, music and art, to share as well as we can our experiences of the numinous.And, I might add, that no one can tell another that her experience wasn’t ‘real,’ or wasn’t of this or that particular deity.Thank you, Cat.

  • Diana Luciano Grayfox

    One of my most intense connections with the Sea God, Neptune, is also one of my most spiritual experiences. It happened when I first viewed the Pacific Ocean at in Oregon during my honeymoon. I’d never seen an ocean with huge rocks jutting up from the dark depths below. A mist was slowly rolling up the side of the mountain, where it joined with the sea. Just being there at that moment, breathing in the salty, sea air, I felt Neptune’s calling stronger than I had ever felt it before. Elemental Water permeates my being, and I felt at that moment completely at one with my environment. Neptune is my Patron and Ceres my Matron, and where the mountain met the sea was an almost electrical pulse. With a mist rolling up the side of the hill, it was as though my Father was caressing my Mother with love and desire. Neptune was all around me, pulling me, guiding me. I felt I might lose myself completely if I did not hold on to my consciousness, otherwise I might find myself lost out at sea. As I approached the edge of the water, it was almost as though it began to part, creating a an upside down V around me, and there in the sand, revealed to me by the receding water, was a gift that I still treasure, a large sand dollar, unscathed. I found no others that day that hadn’t been broken by hungry birds. I’ll never forget the experience.

  • r@d@r

    so i’m working my shift as [so i was told jestingly] one of two “token males” on staff at the ecofeminist bookstore, and standing next to me sorting through the jewelry case is this big, powerful woman full of quiet glee. we get to talking and looking at some of the runestones, i mention my viking heritage, and she says, “you know, i’m an initiated priest of Thor.” i look at her, and for some reason, instead of thinking “okay – this woman is nuts”, something inside me clicks and goes “of course!” “that’s really cool,” i answer. she proceeds to invite me to a mead ritual with some friends of hers in the park that night. okay, so this is the really nutty part – after reading about and praying to Thor for years wondering if he’s just an empty fairy tale, i meet him there in the woods. it’s one of the most incredible, energizing experiences of my life.the main thing he said to me i want to pass on to all of you is: “don’t take yourself so seriously. you don’t need to call on me for help. you already have everything you need inside of you. so stop pretending to be weaker and smaller than you are, and live your life!” it sounds like a cliche, but when a god tells you, it kind of carries more weight.

  • Jenett

    Thank you for such a challenge! I’ve written more over at my own blog, but wanted to share my first ritual memory here, too. My first Pagan ritual, ever was MIT’s Samhain ritual in 1997. I was still Catholic at the time, and it was a particularly bad year for remembering my father (who died Nov. 3rd, 1990). A friend invited me to join her at MIT’s ritual. I went from playing piano for the Catholic mass that evening to getting on a bus to meet her.I don’t truly remember the ritual. The memories are lost in the twist of the spiral dance, the endless harmonies of a hundred singing voices, in the careful step in the dim light down into their basement chapel, thick with incense smoke. Part of my brain, even then, was comparing it to what I’d read about, and to the rituals I knew – but part of it was far, far away, dancing, and singing, and tasting the sweet tang of the pomegranate.My experience now tells me it was a beautifully done large public ritual. But the important part is that it worked. It helped, it eased, it did things deep inside me that I didn’t know needed doing.

  • Cat Chapin-Bishop

    I’m incredibly grateful to all who accepted my challenge to look to (and write from) the roots of your Pagan experiences. I’ve found links to a lot of great new (to me) Pagan bloggers in the comments on this post!What’s more, it makes me hopeful that we can remember what makes us, if not unique among the world’s religions, rare: our willingness to listen to what our gods have to say to us directly, in our lived experience of ritual, dream, and trance… and to take that more seriously than any doctrine or teaching not also supported by experience.Blessed be–and many thanks to all who have shared.

  • Thalia

    Well it’s a bit long to leave as a comment here, so here’s the post inspired by your challenge over at my blog.Oh, ow.

  • Pitch313

    Just about everything I write about Craft and Paganism has something to do with my experiences of them and aims at extending my capacities to experience them more fully.

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