The Travails of a Pagan in a Dual Faith Household

Valparaiso University Chapel of the Resurrection

A Pagan’s First Communion

This past Easter, I attended an Easter service at the Valparaiso University Chapel of the Resurrection with some Unitarian friends.  It was a gorgeous service in a stunning venue.  They had a full orchestra, and the house was packed.  And I actually took communion.  It was a Lutheran style service with an open communion, and since technically I was baptized Christian once upon a time, I felt like I could do so without being disrespectful.  In fact, it was the first time ever that I have taken communion in this way.  Mormons have a communion-like service every Sunday, but it is vastly different from a high church-style (Lutheran) communion — different enough that it felt like a “first communion” for me.

I had been looking forward to this opportunity for some time.  I’ve been longing for some well-executed high ritual for a while, so I had been looking for a church with a high-church liturgy and an open communion.  Pagan ritual is great, but in some ways it can’t compare with the Christian institution, supported as it is by massive infrastructure, professional priesthood, a large laity, and 2000 years of repetition.  So, when my friends invited me to attend the Valparaiso Easter Sunday service, it felt like providence.  I took my two kids and my atheist father, too.  (My wife elected to attend the LDS Church service, due to her commitment as a Sunday School teacher there.)  I sang the hymns and recited the liturgy and took communion.  The only part I omitted was the recitation of the Creed.

So, what did it mean for me, a Pagan, to take Christian communion?  I had struggled for a while to put words to my longing, but the morning before we went to the service, I fortuitously came across a poem on my RSS feed by Elizabeth Cunningham (author of The Passion of Mary Magdalen) called “Jesus the Ground”.  This poem crystallized what participating in the Easter communion meant for me:

Jesus the ground

In the Creed it says he descended into Hell,
Some call it the harrowing of Hell.

I remember the summer I worked on a farm
driving the tractor, harrowing the rough-ploughed fields
dragging a big comb through the earth,
breaking up the clumps, softening it for the seeds.

Some say Jesus went down and raised the righteous dead,
led them forth from the shadowy regions of Sheol.

What if when he harrowed hell he became the earth,
rich and open and fertile, the ground for the grain,
for the vine, what if we literally take his body
and turn it into bread and wine.

What if Jesus so loved the earth
he gave his only begotten body to the ground.

I’m not Christian.  I’m not even a Christo-Pagan.  (And don’t worry, I’m not going to be following in Teo Bishop‘s steps anytime soon.)  But somehow, I felt perfectly genuine — if a little awkward, it being my first time and all — taking communion side by side with Christians.  I’m not sure what it meant for my atheist son and atheist father, who also took communion, but for me, it felt like I was taking part of the holy earth into me, affirming my dependence on the soil in which the wheat stalk and the grape vine grow, and on the cycles of growth and decay in nature, and also celebrating the awakening of the earth in spring.  (Easter this year fell almost as late as it is possible for Easter to fall, so instead of rain and cold, we actually had warm sunshine for once.)  I found it a little ironic that I, a Pagan, was attending an Easter service with humanists and atheists, and my Christian wife wasn’t even with me.  But ironic or not, as I knelt to take communion, it just felt right.  I think I’m going to make it an annual event.

I know some Pagans will find this upsetting.   In my recent post about Easter, “How James Frazer (inadvertently) saved Easter for Neo-Pagans“, I got some slack in the comments. One person wrote, “Those who truly feel no cognitive dissonance between Paganism and Christianity have not troubled to deeply engage either system of spirituality.”  I don’t think I need to respond to that.  Suffice it to say that some Pagans are just set off by any hint of Christo-Paganism.  I am sympathetic, though, since I have a similar reaction to anything Mormon.

Making Peace with Mormonism?

I really don’t have the same problem with high-church Christianity.  While Mormons are Christian, in the broad sense of the term, they are very different from a lot of other Christians.  I mean, the fact that this past Easter felt like my first communion really says something.  Last year, I went to the Mormon church with my family on Easter, and then ran over to the Unitarian church to catch the service there.  Ironically, there was more Easter at the (predominately non-Christian) Unitarian church than at the Mormon church.  There was only one reference to Easter in the Mormon service, and it was the bishop making the point that every Sunday is Easter for Mormons.  So attending a Lutheran Easter service this year was an unfamiliar experience for me.  It was just not the kind of Christianity that is part of my pre-Pagan past, so it didn’t bring up all the baggage that it must for other Pagans who were raised with that kind of Christianity.  For me, it was different enough that it could almost have been a Hindu or Buddhist ceremony.

But I have still have to fight down an almost instinctual aversion to all things Mormon.  It’s been 13+ years since I left the Mormon church, and I am still trying to work out my relationship to it.  If I had been single at the time, I would have left and that would have been that.  But my wife was still Mormon, and until recently my son identified as Mormon.  So I inevitably find my way back into a Mormon chapel from time to time.

When I first left the Mormon church, I was highly reactive.  I remember one Sunday in particular, a couple of years after I had left, when I attended the main service to hear my 4 year-old son sing with the Sunday School children.  The simple children’s songs set me on edge.  I actually had difficulty staying in the room.  If I had to put words to my feelings, I would say that the simplicity of their faith in some way felt like a denial of the complexity of problems that caused me to leave.  This was no doubt amplified by fact that adult Mormons are frequently admonished by their leaders to be like little children in their faith and discouraged from exercising the critical faculties of adults.  Still, I felt like an idiot.  I mean, the urge to run away from Sunday School children is surely a sign of immaturity.

Since then, I’ve relaxed considerably.  I can attend LDS worship services, and for the most part, I don’t feel the need to bolt.  For the most part, I just find it boring (not unlike many Mormons).  Still, I find myself getting irritated on occasion, though.  Ironically, it is the most outwardly benign parts of the religion that irk me.  I get a certain wicked satisfaction when I hear Mormons make blatantly sexist, intolerant, closed-minded, or otherwise ignorant statements, but it’s their niceness that really sets my teeth on edge.  Because it is precisely the niceness (“Mormons make good neighbors”) that conceals the sexism, racism, homophobia, and the other issues that I have with Mormonism.

This weekend, my wife and I are presenting at the Kirtland, Ohio Sunstone Conference to a small gathering of liberal Mormons and members of the Community of Christ (formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).   We went last year and had a great experience.  Our presentation this year is entitled, “Still the One: Differentiation and Intimacy after a Spouse’s Change of Faith”.  It’s about the stages we have gone through as a couple since I left the Mormon church.  To be honest, we’re having trouble with the preparation.  A big part of it, I think is that, we are still struggling to integrate our faiths.  While my wife happily attends Pagan rituals and Unitarian services, I still can’t bring myself to attend the LDS Church on even a semi-regular basis.  I was going on a monthly basis for a little while, but I found it harder and harder to keep it up.  That’s probably because not all of my reasons for going were great.  My primary reason was because I wanted to support my son, but he has since come out as atheist.  And while I also wanted to support my wife, I think she found my presence as much a distraction as a support.  (I admit this was somewhat intentional on my part.)

I’ve tried to integrate our faiths in various ways, including having a Pagan baptism to coincide with my daughter’s Mormon baptism, working Jesus explicitly into our Mid-Spring ritual, pointing out the obvious connections with Christianity in our autumn equinox and winter solstice rituals, having a Mormon-style first-day-of-school blessing ritual for the kids, and even addressing prayers to “Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother” at meals (I’d prefer “Sky Father and Earth Mother”).  But my wife tells me that she still feels like she is joining my world, but I am not joining hers, and she’s right in a way.  I keep telling myself that my going to the LDS Church is different than my wife going to the Unitarian church: I have a history at the LDS Church and she comes to Paganism and Unitarianism with no history with those faiths.  And while I routinely hear things at the Mormon church that (I think justifiably) trigger my anger, my wife is unlikely to hear anything she finds offensive at the Unitarian church or in a Pagan ritual.  What’s more, my religious practice is flexible, while hers is not.  So I can write a ritual about Jesus and the Goddess that integrates Christian and Pagan themes.  And one of the first things they ask me to do at the Unitarian church was to give a presentation on Mormonism.  But there is no such inclusivity or curiosity at the Mormon church.

Still, in spite of all of these justifications, lately I’ve been wondering whether I need to work on this more.  Is it a sign of spiritual immaturity that I can’t sit though even the most benign Mormon worship service without squirming inwardly?  Should I try again to make peace with Mormonism?  If so, how do I go about it?  I don’t need to become Mormon again.  But can’t I just go once a month?  Obviously, it would be beneficial to my relationship with my wife if I were less ambivalent about participating in Mormonism.  But I wonder, might it not be beneficial for me personally also?  Should I make a concerted effort?  Or should I wait for it to feel right?  At first I was using the time-and-distance method of healing, but I think I reached the maximum therapeutic benefit of that approach.  Then I tried periodic inoculations, by going once a month.  But I felt resentment building up, and that defeated the purpose.  Honestly, I’m having trouble even envisioning what healthy participation by a Pagan in Mormon worship would look like.  I realize how ironic this is, given how right I felt taking communion this past Easter at a Lutheran service.  But my history with Mormonism just seems to turn this molehill into a mountain for me.

I welcome your thoughts and your advice.

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  • http://www.12stepwitch.com/ 12StepWitch

    This may be a lack of understanding on my part of Mormonism, but I notice that in trying to have a relationship to your wife’s faith you seem to get sidetracked into your old relationship with Mormonism. Is it possible (and it might not be, I do not understand the Mormon church and how it works) for your relationship to be with the unique living bond your wife is experiencing instead of with the thing she is experiencing the bond with? As a priest and energy worker, how can you bring your Presence to all places and moments and make that more real and possible for her?

    I am married to someone who doesn’t play around in the spiritual realm like our kind does, and while I am at peace with that and feel perfectly partnered I think it would be cool to be with someone who I could talk about belief and faith with, even if their definition was vastly different from mine own (maybe especially). You are very lucky to be married to a woman of faith, especially one who is so accepting and opening. I know that you know that.

    great post….

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/ John H Halstead

      My wife is awesome! She came to Pantheacon with me last Feb and everyone’s question was, What did this Mormon think of all this Paganism? And people were just amazed at how open and non-judgmental she was.

      You wrote: “… in trying to have a relationship to your wife’s faith you seem to get sidetracked into your old relationship with Mormonism.”

      I think this is really insightful. So, if I understand what you’re saying, I shift my focus from my experience of the Mormon service to my experience of being with my wife in the Mormon service? Is that right? (I think that is what my wife does with my Paganism, at least part of the time.)

      • http://www.12stepwitch.com/ 12StepWitch

        Yes, exactly! What is it like to be with a human being you love deeply as they engage in a faith process that is sacred to them? How does their energy ebb and flow throughout the service? What parts of the ritual cause them to become most emotional or touched? What can you do to help facilitate that? This is a tremendous opportunity to practice observation and facilitation, key ritual skills. It’s an opportunity to learn how to deeply witness your own emotional response and yet stay centered and present for someone else. We’ve spoken about IFS before. I think that being in Mormon service is probably a place where a lot of your “parts” want to come out and start brandishing swords or crying foul (understandably, I sympathize) and I say, what a beautiful opportunity to orient deeply from Self and root in curious, calm, centered compassion.

        As a priestess I am ALWAYS responsible for how energy is flowing, no matter where I am–even in a temple of another faith, even in a temple of a faith that has harmed my soul. Maybe especially there.

      • http://www.12stepwitch.com/ 12StepWitch

        And I knew Ruth was awesome as soon as I read the post where she offered the clam to you and said “This is your Goddess. This is life.” Shivers.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    I must give you profound credit for what you’re doing (whether you feel successful at it or not), given your circumstances and prior history with the LDS church. The longest relationship I have yet had was with a former Mormon guy I dated a few years ago–he was a postmodernist, so I used to call him a PoMo homo fomo Momo. (Ha.) Because his circumstances for leaving were rather different than yours, he had a simultaneous allergy to all things religious, and yet an insistence about getting things “right” when it came to even talking about Mormon matters in passing. (I’ve seen this with other gay ex-Mormons as well, strangely enough…several of whom are also Pagan.) My boyfriend was interested in Paganism on an intellectual level, but he had a total allergy for any and all forms of religion–he was even uncomfortable at a Shinto ceremony, which is so unlike most Western forms of religion in most respects that it kind of astonished me he had the reaction to it that he did.
    The fact that you are married to Ruth (who is awesome, and please tell her so from me by the way!), I suspect, complicates things considerably. There is likely never going to be a way to reconcile yourself and your own religious practices with the greater LDS church community and practice, even though you’ve done a very good job of integrating and reconciling those influences in your own personal spirituality. That’s where things always get difficult, I’ve found: getting others within an institution to accept me and what I’m doing as valid is nigh on impossible in many cases, and thus I’ve stopped even trying. There’s only so much that can be gained by pushing against a rock that will never move; and yet, sometimes, if it feels that one has to do that just to make fair shakes and be able to say one had properly done due diligence, then I think it can be a good thing.
    Not very helpful, I’m sure, but in any case…

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/ John H Halstead

      Thanks! I really appreciate your making Ruth feel welcome at P-Con.

      “Allergy” is a good way to describe my reaction to Mormonism. One way to treat allergies is with inoculations to build up a tolerance (allergy shots). Another is to treat the symptoms (antihistamines). I should probably try both at the same time: small doses of participation combined with deep breathing exercises.

      The people at the LDS church are always very welcoming and friendly. But the institution itself is a rock, as you say, and there will never be space there for me. I could see finding that space in some very progressive Christian churches, but in the LDS church I feel like I just have to keep my mouth shut and my arms folded (the LDS sign of reverence).

    • http://www.12stepwitch.com/ 12StepWitch

      +1 for PoMo homo fomo Momo.

  • Vega

    I love the way you described communion. It feels like as a private experience, that it doesn’t “belong” to any one religious organization, and it seems wrong for me for anyone to make exclusive rules about who is and isn’t entitled to partake.

    I think it’s definitely good to get over the negative emotions from the past. I spent years having old leftover feelings. It was a gradual process getting over that for me, but my big breakthrough moment was visiting Thanksgiving Square in Dallas. Even though there’s a lot of fairly Christian type quotations, I still had this feeling like I’m part of something, and this place is for me too. The last big piece of anger I had towards Christianity dropped while I was there.

  • http://b.rox.com/ Editor B

    I feel for you. It’s coming up on 30 years since I left the church spiritually and some 25 years since I left the church formally. Although I have grown and matured somewhat, time has only taken the edge off the bitterness and anger that I have felt, not eliminated it completely. Given that my church adheres to a doctrine that says I am now destined to burn in hell eternally, I’m kind of at peace with the lack of peace, if that makes any sense. I was raised in a Lutheran denomination that most assuredly does not celebrate “open communion.” Sadly I don’t have any advice, but like I said, I feel for you. Thanks for sharing your experiences, and good luck!

  • kenofken

    “What did it mean for me, a Pagan, to take Christian communion?”

    If you’re doing so outside of the context of a sincere underlying Christian belief about Communion, you’re arguably committing desecration. At a minimum, it seems like a pretty disrespectful form of cultural appropriation. How is converting a Christian ritual – it’s core mystery, no less, into a DIY pagan ceremony any better than pagans who present New Age claptrappery as Native American ritual? What’s worse is you’re doing this in their own sanctuary!

    Look, if you want to revert to Christianity, there’s no shame in that, and if you want to be a Christo-Pagan, fine, but do so in a way where everyone is above board with what is going on. As to your issue with the LDS, I don’t think it’s reasonable or healthy for wives and husbands to regularly attend each other’s rites. Once a month is too often. I don’t encourage non-pagans to come to each Full Moon because that’s our time for deep work. Save the big Sabbats like Beltane and Samhain, and especially Yule, for the family get togethers. Going the other direction, maybe go to the LDS church on Christmas and Easter, or maybe some other big family oriented day in that tradition. Partners should not expect each other to be a regular part of a faith life they don’t share. You can respect and encourage each other’s beliefs by giving each other space.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/ John H Halstead

      I have to disagree with you. First of all, it was explained that the communion was open to anyone who had been baptized as Christian. No other test of faith was given. It was not even said that one must identify as Christian. Secondly, I acted at all times with reverence for the sacrality of the rite. I did nothing that would distract or diminish from the experience of the Christians around me. Of course there will always be some people who want to try to look into the hearts of the people around them and exclude whoever does live up to their standard, but those people would undoubtedly exclude many of the Christians present.

      To address your analogy, I am not conducting my own Christian communion (or Native American ritual). I am joining Christians in their worship, but having my own experience. That is not cultural appropriation. It’s like when we attended a public Hindu Holi celebration. We weren’t appropriating anything. And we weren’t trying to pass ourselves off as Hindu. We were joining the Hindus in their sacred time and space. I of course had my own interpretation of the experience, which was undoubtedly different from that of many of the Hindus present. But I don’t think that is sacrilegious in any way.

      It seems to me that both of your comments — about my participation in the Eucharist and my participation in the LDS service — share a common sentiment. From these and other comments you have made on this blog, it seems clear that you like bright lines and sharp divisions. I used to feel that way myself, but I have slowly grown more comfortable with the fuzzy logic of life.

      I have a quote hanging on my office wall by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. to remind me of this in my job:

      “The logical method and form flatter that longing for certainty andfor repose which is in every human mind. But certainty generally is illusion, and repose is not the destiny of man.”

      • Carol the long winded

        If Easter isn’t the Highest Holiday in Christianity, what is?
        Our Lutheran friends encourage us to take communion when we go to worship, and they do not consider it “cultural appropriation.” I get a blessing because that is where my head is at. Christianity is an actively evangelical faith – they WANT you there, and participating, regardless of where you are on your faith path. I dont think most Native American religions (which as we know are not a monolith) feel that way.

  • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

    Wish I had some good advice for you. I do observe, in general, that relationships with exes of any kind (even religions) become easier when the feelings you had in the midst of the relationship are well and truly resolved: you’ve forgiven and let go. Detachment can allow a less charged (and inevitably more distant) new relationship.

    The other thing I know is that, after a relationship ends, the other party can never create the closure we need; we have to do it ourselves, and the way to make that happen is often unclear. I wish you luck in that process!

    P.S. It occurs to me that my ex-husband and I, who remain good friends, engaged in several small ritualizations of our separation, some spontaneous, some in front of witnesses. I think they really helped our transition. I wonder, have you ritualized your break with Mormonism, or the new relationship you’d like to have with it?

  • David

    The recent obsession in Neo-Pagan quarters with telling other Pagans whether or not they are “really Pagan,” and the cruel treatment of Christo-Pagans (or anyone else who strays from the Pagan norm) is a big part of why I’ve stopped identifying as Pagan and am less and less interested in Pagan gatherings. I didn’t leave the intolerance of my fundamentalist childhood to join what some days feels like an increasingly intolerant movement.

    But it does warm my heart to see the glowing exceptions; thank you for sharing. If you are feeling some need to make peace with your Mormon past, then follow that inclination, while (of course) keeping yourself safe. Those wounds are real.
    I’m currently attending seminary at a mainly Christian institution, and while “God” for me will perhaps always be The Goddess, it has been profoundly healing to form a new personal relationship with Jesus. Communion has been a big part of that. More than a few of my Pagan friends have ditched me over this, but so be it. Follow your bliss.

    Sidenote: Did you know Joseph Smith was raised Universalist? The Universalist belief that God could reveal new truth to anyone no doubt played a role in whatever it was that was going on when he began the LDS church. As a UU, I’m adding the Book of Mormon to my summer reading list for that very reason.

    • kenofken

      For many of us, the issue isn’t about telling others whether they are “really pagan” but asserting our own right to define what paganism is for US and that it means something, not everything and anything, to us. Isn’t it intolerant at some level to demand that all pagans adhere to Universalist doctrine?

    • Friday

      I think the real trend that’s annoying is people buying into the notion that we don’t and can’t have our own meaningful ceremonies without buying into big church productions and the like. Without delving into Internet debates about Christo-Pagans or ‘universalists’ or ‘hard polytheists’ it honestly *doesn’t* sound like ‘christo-Pagans’ are being ‘reverse oppressed’ when called on some things, *especially* after Teo Bishop’s behavior about it, which always did seem to be setting up for, ‘ ‘convert’ to Paganism a couple years, parlay media connections into becoming a public bloggy figure, all the while comparing us negatively to Christians in the guise of ‘thoughtfulness,’ …then picking the month he made the cover of a Pagan magazine to publicly convert and all. (while pre-emptively trying to claim reverse oppression if he decided he would try and claim position as official missionary to the Pagans.)

      Quite frankly, if people want to be syncretist, whatever. I’m tired of it being used as yet another intrusion of the aggressively-dominant religion into one of the few places a lot of us rather *expect* things to not have to be about the Christians all the time.

      Yaknow?

  • Agni Ashwin

    “since technically I was baptized Christian once upon a time”.

    Well, that’s complicated. If (as I presume) you have been baptized in the LDS Church, then many other Churches would not consider you having been baptized as a Christian, because LDS baptisms don’t involve traditional understandings of the Trinity. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches don’t accept LDS baptisms; I’m not sure what the United Methodist position on this is.

  • TJ Ford

    Tricky.
    As a Lutheran of the same denomination that allows open communion, I’d say that since we don’t hold to transubstantiation, the bread and wine were still bread and wine, so no sense of cannibalism in the physical sense took place. We do believe in the Real Presence, so what you experienced was the presence of the divine in the meal. A meal of bread and wine was considered a gesture of hospitality, so those offering it did so in the spirit of welcome and hospitality. Just a few thoughts about the nature of the event.

    On the other hand, many Christian groups do consider partaking Communion as an act of agreement with the teachings of the church it’s offered in, which is why I’m technically barred from communion in other Lutheran bodies (they consider my assent to female clergy and welcome to persons of other sexual orientations to be a deal breaker for my coming to the table).

    I tend to not take communion in other churches not from fear that I may do myself spiritual harm, but out of respect for their customs and understanding. My denomination (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) is in full communion with several other denominations, such as the Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ, and a few other liberal mainline Protestants, and I’ve never been told/taught that I can’t take communion in a church that invites me to.

    What I found intriguing was ” felt like I was taking part of the holy earth into me, affirming my
    dependence on the soil in which the wheat stalk and the grape vine grow,
    and on the cycles of growth and decay in nature, and also celebrating
    the awakening of the earth in spring.” It reminds me of one of our favorite hymns for communion “As the Grains of Wheat”. I think the next time I hear that being sung, I’ll stop and remember your words. Thank you for that!

    So, I’d say if the church invited you to partake, with no other requirements, and you felt the divine, connected you to the earth, and did not do this to mock or intentionally disrespect what they teach and believe, I can’t say I would have a problem with that. I’m glad a part of my own faith tradition did something meaningful for you.

    Peace to you!


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