I have been thinking, this month, about what it means to be bound.
My favorite mass, the one that I keep attending, is Easter Vigil. I always doubt my choice to go. Every year, in whatever new cathedral I wander into, it feels like sneaking in. There’s something voyeuristic, especially when the mass is in Latin, about attending such an important ritual that is so far from my own path. Surely, one of these days, a man in a robe will realize that I don’t know what I’m doing, turn from his pulpit, and tell me to get out.
It hasn’t happened yet (although I once had a memorable occasion involving a pack of dogs.) So I keep coming back. I like the pomp of it, the theater of the bonfire and the candles, the long, late night invocations, the solemnity before the sunrise. Moreover, I find something really soothing in a ritual that focuses on the long, slow period of entombment before resurrection. That is a myth I recognize, in one form or another, from many places. I steal the celebration of it for myself in the thin white candles I am given at the door, the moments of meditation as spirits whom I no longer recognize fill the room, and the voices of the choir.
These are the ways in which I offer myself context.
What I miss most about Christianity is being sure of myself.
When I was in high school, I once spent the night at a lock-in at the local Christian coffeehouse. For those of you who have not had the pleasure, a lock-in is an event in which a group of teenagers are kept for an extended period of time, with the doors locked, to play games and learn about Christ. I remember two things about that night. One is the X-Box that I won in a competition. The other is one of the church leaders across the table from me, eyes bright, proclaiming her faith. “We know,” she said, “that we will be received in the kingdom of heaven. We know that we will spend eternity with our lord and savior.”
“How?” I asked her, troubled by the idea. “You just finished telling us about sin, and how those who sin will go to Hell. How do you know if you’re good enough?”
She smiled at me. “We have faith,” she said.
It was not enough of an answer. Worse, it seemed prideful. There was something there that didn’t work for me, something that seemed less like knowing the mind of the Christian god and more like a story someone tells themselves to feel safe. But it was such a temptation. She had no doubt, not a bit, that what she was telling me was true. Even then, I was full of doubts, and I wanted her to offer me something substantial to crush them, something that I too could be sure of.
I’ve never found that sort of surety in Paganism. I have found joy, and connection, and deities that speak to me far more clearly than the Christian pantheon ever did. But there is no space in my religion for pure faith. I question; I second guess; I interpret, and reinterpret, and reach new conclusions. That is the joy of it, and the thing that keeps me returning to the work.
My guess is that part of this is inherent in the structure of the religions themselves. The Christianity I grew up in was a religion of dicta, clear rules and set punishments. Even the most intense of the myths was told for the sole purpose of explaining and illustrating those rules. Kings fell on all fours into grass, golden hands appeared to inscribe messages onto stone walls, rooms full of men were struck down by holy fire – and it was always very clear why. There was a single god whose word was to be obeyed, and there were the words that he had delivered. Better pay attention.
Myths don’t have that approach. They gesture and beckon toward meaning; they are told again and again with different interpretations each time. Someone promises to pay their worker more than they are willing to part with, and they force someone to stop the worker before he can complete his task. Someone hires a worker, never intending to pay him, and carefully sets events in motion to make sure that he breaks his contract first. Someone is tricked into hiring the wrong worker, the trickster is caught, and they must scramble to set things right. All of these are the same myth. All of them have different messages. There have been attempts to dogmatize specific interpretations of myths, but the texts struggle against it. For me, that’s what makes them holy.
I miss having a set number of knowable rules, though, a set list of virtues that I could measure myself against and know, at the end of the day, I was correct. This alternative, this guessing and trying and failing, is much more work and much less pleasant.
In Christianity, I was able to look at my life, find a corresponding rule, and know whether my actions succeeded or failed by that measurement. In Paganism, I’ve just got to take my best guess.
Here is the myth I know: a god is caught by his enemies. They torture him. An innocent dies. He spends a time entombed and then, later, steps into the world again. Sometimes he exacts revenge. Sometimes he brings messages of forgiveness. Sometimes he is the ever-arriving, made forever a stranger, changed by death into something other than who he was in the world he left. Always, always, he is the harbinger of a new world.
These are all different myths, from different cultures. I don’t, myself, believe they are the same, or that they point to some central, previous story. But they point towards something I wish I had a better understanding of, some truth about what it means to be removed from the world and the ways in which it can change us. I want there to be a lesson in them, somewhere, about what to do next.
Not long ago, when we could do such things, I sat down with my friend to talk about my plans for this series. “I want,” I said to him, “to write about how Pagans can do really difficult things, emotionally heavy things, and use their religion as a resource. It feels like something we want, especially those of us who grew up Christian. I know it’s something I miss.”
“Sure,” he said, “but isn’t that dangerous? People can do awful things when they think religion is on their side. Isn’t it better – morally better – to do things because they’re the right thing to do?”
I didn’t have an answer for him then, and I don’t now. Morally better? Maybe. But that doesn’t address the emotional and mental fatigue of trying, endlessly, to do the right thing when that thing continues to shift. We should protect our community – yes, alright. We should educate ourselves on the right way to do so. We should listen to authorities – which means we should find authorities we trust.
Currently, all of the authorities are agreed that we should not go outside unless we have to.
I am trying to take this as a lesson, or turn it into one. There is something too poetic about the timing, with Lent and Passover and Ostara and the first birds starting to sing outside my window. I am trying to meditate on it, to notice my emotions and to apply them to my understandings of the myths I know. What is it to be removed from the world, unable to help those who may be suffering? What strength can I take from the stories I know?
I hope we will be ready when it is time to step into the world again.