What Do You Believe?
As a working solitary for many years, the question of belief simply never arose. I knew what I sensed in the greater world, and I knew that Paganism, or Wicca or what have you, was compatible with my science- based view of creation. My solitary status actually allowed me to go my merry way, taking what I wanted for personal practice and simply throwing out what didn’t fit or what clearly needed hands-on training. Seriously, being solitary has its joys. You are able to create a path that satisfies your desire to reach out to Divinity in a valid and highly personal way.
And then I joined a Tradition.
I am, by nature, a late bloomer. After fifteen years of exploring Paganism as a belief system, ten where I actually self identified as Pagan, I finally joined a coven. Please understand that I am in no way disparaging solitary practice. To the contrary, being Solitary allowed me to come to terms with my past experiences, and saved me from myself on more occasions than I care to recall. Solitary is a path that should be recognized by the Pagan community for the staunchly independent and varied road that it is, and is nurtured by my coven and the very hard work of my HPs and HP. I believe that devotion to any type of earth-centered religion is uniquely suited to solitary work, and that solitary practice is every bit as valid as that of a group. That said, the challenge of defining belief is a difference that has drawn the line pretty solidly (for me) between my solitary and group practice.
I was raised Episcopalian. Within that tradition, no one ever asked me if I believed in God. No one asked what I thought God looked like, or where I thought He lived; it was assumed that the answer would be what I had been clearly taught from the time I could sit up in church. In my experience, the thought process never really entered in to it; it is a system based on faith. You are told what to believe, and if you don’t buy into the basic dogma, you leave. Fair enough, I say. There are millions of people who take what they need from this system of worship, and that is fine. But if you seek balance, and find it in one of the various forms of Paganism, what then? Until someone looks you in the eye and actually asks you what you believe, do you really think about it?
There are many Solitaries who adopt a specific pantheon and drill deeply into their belief of what they are doing and why. I was not one of those. I looked at the Gods and Goddesses as mythological archetypes that served to link me to certain energies—and that was it. Now here I am, standing in circle with a group of people whose intelligences I greatly respect, and am asked to not only talk to Deity, but to see and feel Their presence in the room.
Now I believe that Pagans are skeptics by nature. This is one of the things that are endemic of this path. We do not take everything at face value; we test, scrutinize and question the authorities that seek to lead us, hence the “herding cats” analogy. Regardless of the fabulous teachers and friends that I have made along this path, sensing (specific pantheon) Goddess and Gods in circle is still not easy for me. It is, in fact, one of the hardest things for me to come to terms with. This is not to say that I have not experienced great ritual where mind-blowing energy is produced. On the contrary, I have been moved to tears on more than one occasion. But what of the actual presence of deity, of an actual God or Goddess standing right there, smack in front of you and all of your fellow seekers? This was one of the first big belief issues that I dealt with (and am still dealing with) when I joined a group.
I am what my big- city husband refers to as a ‘carrot cruncher.’ I was born and raised in the sticks, on a farm and deeply nestled within the bosom of small town America. My point of reference comes from that backdrop—I believe in nature spirits, I believe in the power of spell work and I most certainly believe that the true essence of God/ess is tied to nature, albeit a much larger natural world than my non-Pagan friends acknowledge. I freely believe in the presence of unseen personalities, and unseen intelligences imbedded in all fibers of life.
I also believe in the existence of many forms of life of which I am only afforded brief glimpses, or whose presences I most certainly take on faith. But do I believe in the conscious presence of mythical personalities called in circle, personalities that have been assigned characteristics in much the same way as many popular literary characters of our time? This is where skeptical me is on full alert, front and center. This is hard, this skeptical me that will not allow ideas to be validated until I have tested, tasted, smelled, touched and retested.
Clearly a cumbersome task.
As a child, belief rides hand-in-hand with trust; as an adult it rides with proof. So how does one find proof of something as intangible as God/ess? Answer: you seek out the proof that you need to either make it acceptable, or to throw it out. For me, that means introspection, meditation and real work to keep my mind open and available to accept different ideas. Journaling helps as well, because you need a standard to compare your impressions. And that is what I did, and continue to do. I am talking about the archetypical characters that many consider their patrons, not God/dess as a universal force, but as a personal being with very specific personality traits.
So where has this gotten me? I’ll tell you a little story.
I started studying Hecate, as the Dark Goddess appeals to me on many different levels. I bought the books, meditated on Her symbolism and read as many writings as I could get a hold of. Nothing appeared to me; no feeling of closeness with the Goddess and no signs in nature presented themselves to me, no proof appeared. And then one night I was seriously stressed out. You know what I’m talking about, a night when everything from work to money to whether my plants were healthy were weighing on my mind to the point where I was making myself physically ill. I tossed and turned until around 3am, when I sat up in bed and decided I would try to reach out to Her one more time. So I did, and darn it if I did not see, in my mind’s eye, a woman, face ever-changing (I had the sense that it changed, strangely, from faces that I had never seen before to friends, to movie stars, all different races, all different ages) — and before I could say anything, She reached out and grabbed my stress, which felt like a black, goopy ball of something right around my solar plexus, and pulled it out of my chest. As I watched open mouthed, She shoved that nasty, goopy glob of muck into Her mouth and swallowed.
I felt immediate relief mixed with a touch of shock and a dab of disgust. She then instructed me to allow whatever black goop was left in my body to leak out, down my spine and into the Earth, and to be careful not to let a drop remain, or it would grow back. I did what I was told while She licked Her fingers clean. She then invited me to call on Her any time that I have something as delicious to feed Her with, and She disappeared before I could even say thank you. But thank Her I did, as the next morning I woke up to renewed vigor, and although my problems had not disappeared, I felt fully capable, healthy and able to deal with whatever needed dealing with.
So, does this erase all of my skepticism? Does it allow me to fully accept the various God/dess forms called upon in ritual? The short answer is: not exactly. I feel that this allowed me to take another step toward better understanding. It has brought the question that was set before me, through interaction with my coven-mates, toward another thread of questioning. You may be rolling your eyes at this point, but I have found that every experience opens up a different road of inquiry-a different pathway full of questions, answers and wonder.
There are those who have been on this path for a very long time, and those who have just started. The one thing that they should have in common is curiosity for the unknown, a mind that is open enough to explore concepts that are foreign to them, and to accept the ways of all positive paths as valid, regardless of individual beliefs and practices. This does, of course, assume that those practices are healthy and add to individual growth. Keeping an open mind does not negate the responsibility of all to scrutinize and decide what is believable and positive, and what is not.
This is the only way, in my opinion, that we are able to remain a true, pure form of spirituality and not just another brand of political dogma. For my part, I will do the same, and hopefully will acquire a clearer understanding, regardless of my final conclusions. Belief is not something that comes easy for me, and skepticism is part of who I am, but this should not be anyone’s excuse for remaining in the dark.
For now I ask you to keep seeking, keep testing, and keep the wonder of the unknown alive. I will leave you with the words of a famous skeptic:
“The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what is true.” —Carl Sagan, 1995