Archives For belief

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that.  G.K. Chesterton–Orthodoxy

I.

Over the past few years, there’s a place I’ve frequently gone to think. Or rather, not to think. Or not to think in that way; the way required of us to go to work every day, to pay bills, to negotiate living in a city full of others so close that their thoughts become your own for a little while.

undine four

[Credit: R. Wildermuth]

It’s a rectangular pool, shallow, framed by a low stone wall. It’s just beyond a chapel on a Catholic university campus, and ever since I first came upon it, some 15 years ago, it’s always “felt” sacred.

The surface of the water reflects the sky near perfectly; the sort of mirror that we’ve always had before we learned to polish glass. And the reflection, in perpetually sodden Seattle, is grey-blue; greys made of every blue, the ocean of the sky.

I’ve come to this place hundreds of times, at all hours. I work a quarter-mile from the campus where it sits, and I sometimes suspect my job would be much more difficult without the lunch breaks where I sit at its side and forget the stress of being a social worker.

II.

I was gone from Seattle for a year, first on pilgrimage, and then a few months to visit family, and then a few more months in the strange, spirit-drenched town of Eugene, Oregon. I returned early this summer. The pool was one of the first places I made certain to visit, a call upon an old, dearly-missed friend. Like all such returns after distance and time, I feared the place might have changed somehow, or I had changed and would not find it quite as comfortable, quite as sacred and calming now that I’d seen 1500 year-old wells and 4000 year-old standing stones.

Perhaps I would find it to be not quite as numinous, less magical, maybe a mere plastic Disney version of the old world.

But then I saw the undine rising from its waters, the spirit who’d dwelt there long before I ever knew it was there.

undine five

[Credit: R. Wildermuth]

This is maybe the part where you stop reading and decide I’m crazy, even though you’re a Pagan and sorta believe in things like undines. Or it’s the part where you begin to sort of rationalize my words, translating them into something which fits slightly better into your beliefs.

Or maybe, you’ve met one as well; or nymphs or dryads, perhaps one of the Fae, or even if you dared (and also, in my experience, even if you didn’t dare) a god.

To describe precisely what I saw is not exactly easy. “Saw” implies vision, the faculty by which light (and only light) is translated into signals in the human brain. To “see” something, then, is to visually identify the way light reflects and refracts off surfaces, and by this we verify that something is in front of us, or is a certain color, or is a tree or a building.

If that were the only faculty by which we could verify the existence of something, however, no blind person could know anything except as relayed to them by others. I could tell a blind friend there was a step in front of them, and they would have to have faith in my words in order to know this.

But there are other ways of finding out if the surface before you is uneven. Touch works quite well for this as does falling, though the latter is much less preferable. This would be the same if a car was coming at my blind friend. Fortunately, hearing could confirm this fact as well, before the touch of impact was required to verify this truth.

If I am not dishonest, the vision-impaired companion can rely on my statements. And I am no jerk. I would not intentionally trick a blind person at the top of a stairwell.

undine two

[Credit: R.Wildermuth]

Lacking a particular sense is no barrier to comprehending the world, though it can sometimes be a barrier to conversing about the world. Certain perspectives considered universal cannot be fully understood, but only accepted. If I’ve never seen “blue-grey,” I would have to rely on the descriptions by (or, better, the emotions evoked in) others when they speak of that color.

But even among eyes, colors are hardly universal, nor our aesthetic preferences regarding them. Few people I know call a grey sky blue, but I do. Grey clouds seem to me composed of so many blues together that one cannot possibly call them not-blue.

But to speak to someone about all these brilliant and otherworldly blues together can turn, sometimes, into an argument.  Someone might only see grey, might ‘know ‘what grey is, might be certain that grey cannot be anything else, or definitely not blue unless it is specifically grey-blue, or blue-grey. If they tell me I am wrong about those blues, I might respond with anger or defensiveness.

“No,” I might say. “I see hundreds of blues which make grey.” 

Or more truthfully “I see both hundreds of blues making many greys.”

And if I could not convince that person, it’d be wisest of me to shrug. Perhaps some people just don’t see as many blues as I do, or see grey as some monolithic color and cannot see the myriad of blues behind them.

III.

What did I see at the pool?

With my eyes I saw likely what everyone else sees, though maybe they don’t see so many blues in the grey clouds reflecting upon its surface. I saw the same thing that I “saw” for years, sitting by that pool on lunch breaks, when I needed to think or not to think.

Sometimes I’d take friends there, a lover or another, staring at the sky-on-water while talking, or not talking at all. I’m sure we all saw mostly the same thing, though one or two of my companions hinted about some presence in the pool. It seemed likely; they seemed trustworthy, the sort of people who I’d believe if I were blind and crossing a street or climbing a hill with them.

I didn’t see anything, though. Not till a few months ago.

I didn’t start out trying to see gods and spirits and the dead. The gods just sort of appeared, a sudden presence re-arranging everything in your mind so severely, a flood of different impulses which made me think I was going crazy.

Brighid was like a strange light and constant laughter, the source of which I could never find; a kind and inexplicable warmth from the “universe” around me despite how chill and otherwise despairing my circumstances seemed.

Brân felt like a force or a physical push; a “feeling” of black and red; an occasional unheard voice telling me that the car about to hit me wouldn’t, and the relentless inability not to notice every crow I came upon on the streets.

Dionysos sort of exploded around me in revelry. Everything seems to go “right” when He shows up, but it’s toward something, some meeting, some relentless repeating encounter. Faces change around you. You see a face and also another face. You sit in a crowded room and make sense of the patterned laughter or are alone and feel the trees breathing on you. More than any of the gods I’ve met, he makes words seem no longer to fit, like they’ll collapse under so much contained meaning.

But to say all these things makes me sound “crazy” or it may seem I’m trying to hide my meaning behind too many words. You’ll have to believe me that I’m doing the best I can here.

After so many gods, the Dead might have seemed easy, but they weren’t. When the dead surround you and flow through you, into others to get their attention, you (I mean me) think you are going to die, or think you want to die. There are sudden thoughts of suicide, which were so foreign I knew that they were “outside” me. So many strangers mistake me for someone they knew that even very cynical companions found it bizarre. Then one stranger asks me to take a drive with him so he can tell me about his friend’s suicide, and then others tell me about how I remind them of a dead friend for some reason, and….

There were no dead in my vision. That is, with my ocular senses, I could not “see” the dead. But they were undoubtedly there.

IV.

So…this undine.

Undine one

[Credit: R. Wildermuth]

I turned the corner, and it rose from the pool to greet me.

I heard it, though not with my ears, the water spilling off its form back into the pool. I felt the gravity of its presence; the sense of another being nearby, just out of your sight. It’s like the feeling you get when someone stands behind you; the feeling of being watched just before you turn to see them.

And what I “saw?” I saw both the pool without the undine and also the pool with the undine.

I closed my eyes, and it was still there. I opened them, and it was there again.

That “image,” or “sight” or “vision” both utterly surprised me, but also didn’t. I’d been coming to that pool for more than a decade, taking in the presence of the place, finding my mind wandering always to thoughts of otherworldly things, receiving insights and sometimes visions as I watched students interact with it, or the play of clouds upon its surface. Why wouldn’t such a thing dwell in the pool?

I feel little need to convince others of what I’ve seen, because I myself hadn’t seen it for so long. And I don’t always see it, and I don’t think I need to. I know when it’s there and we talk. It tells me things, and I do things for it. But mostly I just sit and listen, and continue to watch the play of light upon the surface of the water.

To see something that isn’t “there” to the eyes is a strange thing. Relying only on our traditional senses, one could certainly suggest I’m making such a thing up, or because no-one else standing with me has “seen” it (regardless of how many have “suspected” it’s there), one could insist that empirical evidence would be needed to verify its existence.  Confirmation from independent researchers might work, or perhaps an evaluation of my mental health, the testing the chemical make-up of the water or using other instruments to try to see what cannot be seen with the eyes.

This is where “belief” comes in, but it isn’t what we mostly mean when we speak of belief.

Before I saw the undine, I did not believe there were undines. Enough people I trust had attested to their existence that I suspected it was quite likely. The world that I live in allows for such things, just as it allows for the possibility that there are no such things.

But when I met one, it no longer mattered to me whether or not I “thought” they existed or “believed” they existed. Nor did I need to do much work to fit its existence into what I already understood the world to be.

That is, I don’t “believe” there’s an undine in the pool, but I’m a lot more likely to believe other people when they tell me they’ve met undines in other pools. It’s been the same thing for gods and the dead–I no longer start from a place of doubt or need to translate their accounts into something more palatable to my own understanding of the world.

I choose to accept their existence, having seen one myself.

undine three

[Credit: R. Wildermuth]

V.

Others might believe it’s there too, even if they do not get such a clear vision of its presence. Perhaps reading this, you accept my story as-is, finding it comparable to experiences of your own. Or you’ve already formulated your commentary; your way of transcribing my experience to fit into your idea of what the world is, to seal off my aberrant experience into wishful thinking, mental instability, or just grand poetic metaphor.

Or maybe, hopefully, you’re inspired to go sit for years by the reflective surface of a sacred pool to meet one, too.

My experience is likely not your experience, and that’s fine. Also, the consequences of the existence of this particular undine matters little to the everyday lives of most people. My life’s rather enriched by meeting it — the conversations we’ve had and the gifts we’ve given each other have certainly made my world much larger.

But it makes me wonder. When others tell me things I haven’t experienced, how often do I seal off or quarantine their accounts so they do not change my beliefs on how the world works?

How much do we do this even with experiences of humans to with other humans, let alone the Otherworld?

When a black friend tells me they get harassed by cops daily, do I accept their account as true, or do I dismiss it because I don’t want to accept the implications of such a world? When I hear people telling me that America is a very racist place, do I discount their stories because I’m white and don’t experience it first hand?

I’ve seen black friends and First Nations friends get harassed by police. Once, a bi-racial friend of mine was thrown to the ground in an intersection as police with assault rifles aimed at him (mistaken identity, they told us later). We stood, unable to help him. My gay friend started filming, and I stood helpless as a police officer bashed his head against a wall, shouting, “I said stop filming, faggot.”

So, I guess it’s a little easier for me to accept the accounts of others, even if I’ve never personally been victim to that violence. My world is big enough to comprehend such a thing occurs, and I do not need to dismiss others’ stories, even if I haven’t witnessed their experiences.

Violence against blacks is much more common than seeing undines, unfortunately, but should be easier to believe.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Ronald Hutton

  • The Somerset Guardian reports on a Clutton History Society meeting, featuring a talk from historian Ronald Hutton, author of “The Triumph of the Moon:A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft.” Quote: “After the summer break Clutton History Society resumed its monthly programme of talks in September with a visit from Professor Ronald Hutton, of Bristol University’s History Department, who gave a talk entitled Village Witchcraft. Appropriately the audience were spell bound with the professor’s informative and very interesting talk. Professor Hutton is a notable authority on early modern history, folklore and pre-Christian history.” For more on Hutton, here’s the scholar explaining how Puritans ruined our fun. We’re still awaiting the broadcast of “Britain’s Wicca Man,” a documentary about Gerald Gardner hosted by Hutton.
  • At Forbes, conservative Christian commentator Bill Flax admits that the United States isn’t a Christian nation (albeit with a number of caveats). Quote: “America wasn’t founded as a Christian nation and many of our beloved Forefathers sadly were not, yet America was largely comprised of Believers. Liberty allows us to worship freely or not at all per conscience. America was never meant to be theocratic or homogenous religiously, but Christianity has always been indelible to our social fabric.”
  • AlterNet interviews  Nancy L. Cohen, author of “Delirium: The Politics of Sex in America,” about why “sexual fundamentalists” still hold such much political power, despite shrinking as a demographic (in essence they’ve slowly entrenched themselves into the Republican base and presidential nominating process). Quote: “The secret to understanding American politics right now is to understand how these extremists are less popular yet more powerful than we imagine. The GOP platform is a good object lesson about how sexual fundamentalists operate within the Republican Party. The delegates that ended up at the convention are the most extreme of the Republican base. The people who were elected to be on the platform committee are the most extreme of the extremists. That’s how you end up with a platform that says not only no abortion with no exceptions, even for rape, but also includes a lot of junk science that says it’s proven women become depressed from abortion or that there is fetal pain.”
  • For those of you who’ve enjoyed the recent back-and-forth in our community concerning belief and religion, historian Kelly J. Baker, author of “Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930,” centers on the perennial question of ‘They don’t really believe that, do they?’ Quote: “If I, the person who studies “weird” or “exotic” religion, will assure them that these people don’t believe, then maybe they can rest easy. I cannot assure them. And, if I am being truly honest, I really don’t want to. Instead, I emphasize that this “belief” is materialized in every prophetic utterance, billboard proclaiming the date of the end, online discussion of reptoid encounters, and each weapon purchased for the possibility of race war.” 
  • Boycotts are awesome when we do them, and terrible when other people do them.
  • Ke$ha’s new album is about magic! The first single is called “Supernatural”! She had sex with a ghost! Quote: “It’s about experiences with the supernatural, but in a sexy way. I had a couple of experiences with the supernatural. I don’t know his name! He was a ghost! I’m very open to it.” So, yeah, that happened.
  • A Republican polling firm has found that 69% of hunters and anglers support reducing carbon emissions to combat global warming. Perhaps proof that climate change isn’t a partisan issue, and that denialists are increasingly out of step with the people they say they represent?
  • Naomi Wolf defends her new book “Vagina” at Slate.com. Quote: To Wolf, criticism of her choice to couch that information in hippie-dippy terms like “The Goddess Array” has also been used to suppress discussion of female sexuality. The concept of “transcendence,” she says, is based in a long literary tradition, and though it “can be seen as a mystical term, it’s also a clinical term.” She is not actually “making a claim for some dimension of reality that exists outside of the brain.” Instead, she’s calling on the gods in a literary attempt to push back against 5,000 years of human history, in which the vagina has been “demeaned, debated, debased, and stigmatized,” she says. “I chose the phrase ‘The Goddess Array’ flippantly, I suppose, because it’s like, ‘fuck you.’ Seriously!” The coinage was an attempt to “carve out a space for women where they feel a radical sense of self-respect,” she says. “Is that coinage working for everybody? Obviously not. But if you have a better word for radical female self-respect, please tell me, because it does not exist.”
  • BBC on the Druids.
  • Killing your religious disciple is not OK.
  • US Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe rejects calls for anti-blasphemy laws, saying that freedom of religion and freedom of expression are inseparable. Quote: “The inseparable freedoms of expression and religion are important not for abstract reasons […] when these freedoms are restricted, we see violence, poverty, stagnation and feelings of frustration and even humiliation.”
Star Foster

Star Foster

  • In a final note, farewell to Star Foster, our Pagan Portal Manager, who’s leaving Patheos to concentrate on her new life in Paganistan. Quote:  “So this is my last post for this blog. My fond farewell. I need to focus on something other than Paganism for awhile, or at least Paganism at large. My personal practice has suffered, and needs some tender loving care. I won’t completely disappear. I might do a story or two for the PNC. One day, I might even blog again. But I’m going to be silent for a long while. I need that desperately.” Thank you for all your work Star, and I’m sure this won’t be the last we see of you!

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

“I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck.”Neil Gaiman, “American Gods”

From time to time, due to the popularity of my blog, folks have been given to speculating on what my stance or agenda is given a certain political, social, or theological topic. For various reasons, I have tried, or more accurately, learned, to keep the personal stuff as close to the vest as possible. Partially because I write about people I disagree with all the time (though I personally like many of those I disagree with), and partially because I want the focus to be on “us,” rather than on me. I don’t always succeed in this, because I’m human and fallible, and sometimes because my hesitancy to get involved will do more to convince someone of my partisan nature than any action.

Lately there’s been a debate over, well, I guess you could call it a debate between those who believe praxis (practice) is primary in Paganism, above even belief in the deities invoked, and those who believe that practice is meaningless without that belief. I inadvertently became enmeshed in this debate when I featured a guest post by Brendan Myers on Humanistic Paganism. Many took this post to be an insult towards the intelligence of Pagans who believe in the reality of gods and powers, and a wide-ranging debate took place across the Pagan blogosphere on the topic of the “atheist question.” For a number of reasons, mostly due to me wrestling with burnout and being busy with my other job, I didn’t document or follow this discussion at The Wild Hunt. This led some, perhaps understandably, to think I was a partisan in this matter. That I favored an agnostic/atheistic view of Paganism over a more devotional model.

So let me set the record as straight I can, without engaging in troublesome over-sharing.

This debate has been bringing to my mind  Neil Gaiman’s novel “American Gods,” because the entire work is a treatise on belief disguised as an action-adventure story featuring various gods and powers. At different points several key characters give their view on what is important regarding belief, from the “let’s give everything a shot” monologue of the character Sam, quoted above, to the following quote from Wednesday, which no doubt warms the cockles of reconstructionist and devotional-minded Pagans everywhere.

“And tell me, as a pagan, who do you worship?’ ‘Worship?’ ‘That’s right. I imagine you must have a pretty wide open field. So to whom do you set up your household altar? To whom do you bow down? To whom do you pray to at dawn and at dusk?’ ‘The female principle. It’s an empowerment thing. You know.’ ‘Indeed. And this female principle of yours. Does she have a name?’ ‘She’s the goddess within us all. She doesn’t need a name.’ ‘Ah,’ said Wednesday, with a wide monkey grin, ‘so do you hold mighty bacchanals in her honour? Do you drink blood wine under the full moon, while scarlet candles burn in silver candle holders? Do you step naked into the seafoam, chanting ecstatically to your nameless goddess while the waves lick at your legs, lapping your thighs like the tongues of a thousand leopards?'”

Wednesday is making the point that her “belief,” being nameless and formless, is meaningless to the old gods who cling to existence in the novel. That she isn’t worshiping anything at all, aside from herself. It’s a quote I’ve seen trotted out many times over the years, usually to critique eclectic practitioners, fence-sitting agnostics, and “fluffy-bunnies” of various stripes. It says, practice is meaningless without a devotional focus, without a god or goddess to benefit from your sacrifice. Of course, Gaiman gives plenty of time to the humanistic side, if you want to call it that. Often pointing out just how dangerous belief can be when not corralled and given limits. In fact, you could argue that the underlying message of “American Gods” is that America is “a poor place for gods.”

In any case, what I believe.

I guess I inhabit the mushy middle of this debate. There are days where I believe in the existence of discrete spiritual entities that many of us call “gods” or “powers” or “mysterious ones,” and there are days where I think Jung had the right idea about archetypes and the collective unconscious. I believe that artists, musicians, poets, and storytellers are far more vital than priests and clergy, and that religion is a by-product of art, not the other way around.

“It is the artist’s responsibility to be the oracle, to abstract where you are – that is our responsibility – we’re not there to look glamorous, you know? We’re there to tune into the frequency of the Earth and the connective tissues of those things that we are responding to – language, colour, costume, literature, poetry, cuisine, perfume – these are the things that make up the desire to throw paint on a canvas, these are the things that create the excitement for building a new language!” – Lisa Gerrard, Dead Can Dance

I believe the construct we call “modern Paganism,” that colossal egregore with which we hope to change the course of the world, is far more reliant on art than on either devotion or practice. I also think I’m incredibly biased on that score since my identity was wrapped up in being an artist for the bulk of my adult life (but I still think I’m correct, despite being aware of this bias). I believe people like Morpheus Ravenna or Thorn Coyle, who express far more intimate dealings with the divine that I could ever  claim, are awesome, powerful, and needful no matter what the ultimate reality of the powers they interact with. I believe that our community, if you want to call it that, is at a turning point in where we go next and that’s why these debates seem so intense right now. I believe that when I chant to two very different powers at the same time, I get travel luck, and I believe that I am thanking them for that service when I leave offerings at the crossroads.

“We are more than we think, and that is not the puffed up shell of an out of balance ego. We are more than we think because we are limited by what our very imaginations will allow. Can we stretch the realm of possibility today? Can we risk becoming more?”T. Thorn Coyle

I believe that my highest service to these powers is being done by writing The Wild Hunt every day. I also believe that this is true even if all the gods are a lie, and we are simply co-creating a new paradigm of reality with nothing but our mortal selves. That the enterprise, and what we Pagans collectively do, is important no matter how we choose to be a part of it. That’s what I believe at this moment. This is who I am right now.