The first thing I think of when asked about a defining moment in my life is the moment I knew that I wanted to study biology. This was one of a series of events that eventually led to my becoming a Pagan Priestess. That seems like a sideways way to get to Paganism, but since I believe that the gods meet you where you are, a scientific epiphany was the best start for me.
In high school, I considered myself to be an agnostic. I’d had no religious experience that had particularly spoken to me and I’d had no experience of any kind of divine presence. In the absence of experience or evidence, there was nothing to indicate either absence or presence of the divine, so religion was a great big “I don’t know” for me. I’d pick that question up again later, but that’s where I started. I’ve always had a kind of “show me” mentality that works well in the sciences and that is where I really shone in school in spite of coming from a family of artists. To show you what a nerd I am, I actually lettered in science my senior year. I probably could have succeeded in a career in art, having my fair share of talent, but this first defining moment led me elsewhere.
We were studying respiration in biology class and the innermost workings of the mitochondria. To a lot of people, this is pretty tedious stuff. Why is it necessary to learn the minutia involved in breathing? You just breathe and that’s that. But it’s part of the curriculum and I was an advanced student, so it was interesting to me on a purely academic level. Then I had that moment when it all came together for me. I’d made all the connections and I could see part of the pattern of the tapestry of life. If I’d have believed in angels at the time, the clouds would have parted and they would have sung beautiful hymns. The proverbial lightbulb had come on.
What I saw in my mind’s eye filled me with awe generally reserved for when a god appears before you. Maybe that’s what happened and I didn’t recognize it as such at the time, but there I was in class, amazed by this thing that I’d learned. Suddenly my breath was connected with the literal chemical energy of my body that allows me to be and that was connected to the food I ate. That was connected to the metabolic processes of those organisms and those energy pathways led right to the sun. Every living thing on this planet was powered by the sun. Some things directly, some indirectly, but it was all connected, all interdependent. I suddenly saw and understood part of how life worked. My teenage mind was blown.
And as amazing as this was, there was still so much scientists didn’t know about life. I wanted to know some of that. I wanted more. At that moment, the path toward my profession was clear. I was going to be a biologist. Later, some of my atheist biologist colleagues described to me moments in nature where they felt a sense of wonder and awe that was akin to a religious experience, only without a god. Had the second moment not come to me, that would have been how I’d have described my mitochondria experience.
I always have a little trouble talking about this one because it’s one of those times where talking about religion makes you sound like a complete “lock her away in a padded room” lunatic. That it sounds crazy is my dumb story I’ve made up in my brain and it really doesn’t matter how the story sounds. It’s my story and here it is.
Early in my undergraduate studies, I’d come to Paganism because the idea that natural cycles are a thing to be celebrated appealed to my biologist self. This was the religious manifestation of the earlier scientific understanding. The balance of a male and female deity came together like the two halves of a strand of DNA for me and though my conception of both gender and the divine are more nuanced now, this all made sense to my n00b scientist and n00b Pagan self. Understanding more about both the gods (as much as any mortal might) and nature only strengthened this religio-scientific worldview. Even now, I can see the world through both lenses simultaneously and without conflict.
Apollo came to me. Up to that point, Greek mythology hadn’t been something I was particularly interested in. I’m a biologist, not a classical studies major, and almost everyone around me was focused on the Celtic/Sumerian deities associated with traditional Wicca. He was not on my radar. I, however, was apparently on his. He appeared about like you’d expect; young, blonde, tan, beardless, and wearing a chiton. He also had a golden sword. I’d vaguely remembered he was an archer but had never heard of him bearing a sword of any sort, let alone a golden one. He had marked his name on my hand and told me something to the effect that I had been his since the beginning. It was a statement of fact. Throughout my lives, I’d served him in some form or fashion and there was a kind of knowing that was irrefutable. It’s not that I became his in that moment, but rather that I realized I’d always been. The joy I’d felt learning about mitochondria wasn’t there, but nor was there an absence of joy. There was a curiosity, a sense of wonder, and a bit of doubt. It was like clocking in at a job you only just found out you had. Later, I learned that Apollo of the Golden Sword was one of his epithets and again, my mind was blown. There was my “proof.” He was who he said he was and what I’d experienced was a real thing. My inner skeptic just shrugged and gave up.
My religion still incorporates those early values, honoring the cycles of nature and the balance of life, but the appearance of my god in an almost tangible way opened up a path I had not expected at all. This was a defining moment for me and led me to the Theoi and to seek enlightenment. The journey since then has been simply amazing. I have learned more about the divine within and without than I can properly relate here and while I pursue my profession as a biologist, being a priestess of Apollo continues to be my occupation.