After the Magic (Four Years Later)

This evening, Google Alerts alerted me to the following critique of my conversion to Catholicism. It comes from a blog called Meanderings Along Ancestral Pagan Paths, by someone who goes by the handle of “Ancestral Celt,” and includes a quote from a members-only Pagan site called An Fianna:

…I cannot understand Mr McColman’s reasoning for Catholicism: the magic left, meditation didn’t work anymore. As someone else recently said:

‘The magic left?’ So what about the catholic priest who claims to magically transform a wafer and a few drops of vino into the body of his God, by way of some mumbled mystical mutterings? Meditation didn’t work anymore? So what about the spiritual exercises of the Jesuits, compliments of ‘Saint’ Ignacius De Loyola? Or the mind numbingly boring constant repetitious prayers of the rosary before a plaster catholic idol of your choice? (Source: An Fianna)

It like giving up a diet because you’ve hit a plateau, isn’t it? Or, am I completely missing the point?

Well, I don’t know if “Ancestral Celt” is completely missing the point or not, but my decision to forsake Paganism for Catholicism entailed a lot more than just my dissatisfaction with Pagan-themed meditation or magic (although that was certainly part of the adventure). To push Ancestral Celt’s diet analogy, when I hit my “plateau,” I didn’t give up dieting, but I did switch diets. After four years, I have no regrets, so — for me at least — it was the right choice.

Meanwhile, the quote from “An Fianna” displays precisely the kind of rote anti-Catholicism/Christian-bashing found in some corners of the Pagan world, that I chafed against for quite some time, even before I became interested in the Catholic Church. Not only is this author’s hostility toward Christianity revealed in his sarcastic language, but also in his failure to acknowledge the distinctions between sacramentalism and magic (and saying, “It’s the same thing!” doesn’t fly — that’s as fallacious as the thinking of non-Pagans who lump Wicca and Asatru together. This kind of stereotyping annoys Pagans to no end; well, it’s just as problematic when Pagans do it to Christians). As for the comments about meditation, Ignatius, and the Rosary — hoo boy. I wonder if this person has never heard of mala beads, or the chotki, or other forms of repetitive prayer, meant not to be “mind numbingly boring” but rather to occupy the discursive mind so that attentiveness to contemplative silence might take place on a more intuitive level. As for the Ignatian exercises, while they are “meditations” in the classical Christian sense of the word, they do not represent contemplation, which is what I was looking for (and not finding) within the Pagan world.

Sigh. I know a lot of Pagans (including some dear friends of mine) read this blog, and I don’t mean to bash Paganism in general — but I do find this particular kind of criticism to be exasperating. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again now: my decision to leave Paganism for Catholicism should not be construed as an attack on Paganism. It is simply the logical result of the fact that I no longer felt at home within Pagan spirituality.

I guess there will always be those who will want to make me “wrong” as a way of undermining my conversion experience, as if attacking the flaws in my thinking or experience somehow protects Paganism from the likes of me. After all, my conversion could easily be construed by extremists (both Pagan and Christian) as a denunciation of Paganism, and/or a vindication of Catholicism/Christianity as “good” religion in contrast to Paganism’s “evil.” But just because others think that my journey entails a de-legitimization of Paganism doesn’t mean I endorse such a stance. I emphatically reject any such divisive ways of thinking, not only about Paganism, but indeed about all faiths. I’m simply not wired to see the world as divided into camps of who’s “right” and who’s “wrong.” On the contrary, I remain as committed as ever to a spirituality that radically honors all that is good and true and beautiful in all faiths.

To “Ancestral Celt” and my critic from “An Fianna,” all I can say is that I wish you well, and if Paganism is a path that fills you with joy and a sense of purpose and also helps you to be a more loving and compassionate and just person, then good for you. But please, don’t worry about me. I’m fine right where I am. This March will mark the fourth anniversary of my entry into Catholicism. At some point, I would think that my conversion would be old news.

1/9/09 ADDENDUM: I’m happy to report that a wonderful dialogue has emerged on Ancestral Celt’s blog, following her questions not only about conversion, but also about the relationship between atheism and Paganism. I’m also touched by her words of kindness and welcome to me.

Five Approaches to InterSpirituality
Growing in Love and Wisdom
Our Words, Our Breath, Our Bodies, Our Spirit
101 Books for Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Diana

    Spirituality is a journey, not a destination, something that those of us on the pagan path are usually supposed to embrace – and with it, the understanding that part of that journey may involve a conversion, may involve more than one conversion and sometimes floats unanchored but for your own ability to interact with the divine.

    It’s a shame other Pagans feel abandoned by you, and also feel like any form of Christianity is our great adversary. It doesn’t have to be like that, and I’m sorry you are now cast in the adversarial position.

    I started off as a very devout and sincere Christian and I am an equally devout and sincere Wiccan, and I may not be Wiccan forever, but I will remain devout and sincere.

    You shouldn’t have to apologize for being true to your faith and to your heart, ever.

  • Carl McColman

    Thanks, Diana. I am blessed by many good Pagan friends who accept me pretty much unconditionally, Catholic warts and all. Likewise, I have many good Christian friends (both Catholic and non-Catholic) who appreciate my history as a former Pagan and who recognize that my “conversion” wasn’t about repudiating Paganism so much as simply moving on because it was time to do so. In our postmodern world, it’s wonderful how many kaleidoscopic permutations of religious and wisdom traditions one can find: I know Sufi Episcopalians, Vedanta Catholics, Christopagans, shamanic Protestants, Taoist Witches… the list goes on and on. Those are the folks I find are a lot of fun to hang out with!

  • Laura

    What always strikes me about these types of critiques is that people seem to confuse their problem with the religion as a problem with the individual. If someone doesn’t believe that Catholicism is the right religion for them or even has some fundamental issues with the way the religion works overall, I think that is fine. When someone thinks that the individual Catholic is the problem, I think that is not only “not right” but very much *against* the idea of most religions to love and understand one another. Even for many pagans, the idea is “Harm None”. Don’t they think that publishing these kinds of potentially hurtful words might be crossing that line? Pagans argue that many Christian groups don’t follow thier own teachings to love everyone like their neighbor, but shouldn’t everyone who feels that way try to set the better example than just giving into the hatefulness.

    I have said a million times…I cannot hate another person for their personal spiritual choices. The second I start doing that, I go against everything that I have ever wanted for myself. I just want people to accept me and my spiritual choices as legitimate (they don’t have to agree with me in any way). I feel I owe at least that to ever other living being on this planet.

  • Carl McColman

    Preach it, sister!

  • Bad Alice

    I so enjoy this blog – even the comments are articulate! That’s it. I’ve nothing to add. Just wanted to express my appreciation instead of just lurking.

  • Ancestral Celt

    Just to clear up a few things. Firstly, the quote from the private site was originally accompanied by emoticons (smilies) which are not available on the blogging site where I posted, which may have rendered its meaning harsher than originally intended (it was somewhat tongue in cheek). Secondly, I have no issue with your personally, or your faith; I merely used your article and blog as an illustration of the issue on which I am at a loss to understand.

    I was raised Catholic, but rejected it at a very young age and never considered myself a Christian. My family are Catholic and, in searching for my own place in religious traditions, I met and maintain friends of many faiths, from atheists to Zen Buddhists to Jehovah’s Witness, and I often have enlightening philosophical discussions with all. At no point would I criticise another’s faith, as I am a hard polytheist with an interest in the sciences.

    I agree with Laura:

    “Spirituality is a journey, not a destination, something that those of us on the pagan path are usually supposed to embrace. ”

    Along my personal spiritual journey (which is ongoing), I noted down my own thoughts and ideas and then spent many years seeking a religion, tradition or philosophy to match. At no point did I label myself as anything in particular whilst on that journey. Finally, I found small pockets of people who held similar beliefs and they fell under the umbrella term of pagan, but it would be several more years before I felt I could consider myself a pagan. You see, I had to be sure it was a perfect fit before I felt I was a convert, for want of a better term.

    My confusion lies in the statements made by those (including yourself, Mr McColman) converting away from paganism that they “outgrew” it, as though it was a fad or childish pursuit. I used your article because it had been referred to in several blogs and illustrated the kind of thoughts that further muddied the waters for me. At no point did I say your choice was “wrong”, just that I didn’t understand (let alone agree with) your reasoning. Though, your reworking of the diet analogy does make a little more sense to me.

    Oh, and “harm none” is a Wicca or neo-wicca tenet; nothing to do with pagans outside of those traditions.

    Kind regards,

  • Carl McColman

    Thanks for popping in for a visit, AC. Hope you’ll come back and visit from time to time.

    First of all, forgive me for any hint of defensiveness or snarkiness in what I’ve written, either here or at your blog. As the above post probably makes clear, I’ve been tending with criticism for years now — not always well-meaning or friendly criticism! — and it does get a wee bit old after a while.

    I can only answer your questions out of the fires of my own experience. The “growth” metaphor really comes from my sense that we never stop growing and evolving. It’s not so much that Paganism is childish, but that (hopefully) I’m more mature now than I was a decade ago. I think an effective religion or wisdom tradition will challenge and support people at any stage of intellectual, moral, spiritual, or psychological development. I certainly think my movement from Paganism to Catholicism corresponded with a “growth spurt” in my own consciousness, but that’s not meant to denigrate Paganism nor to suggest that Catholicism is somehow “better” or “more evolved” than Paganism. I think I am more evolved as a Catholic than I was as a Pagan. But I suppose the argument can be made that it was the growth and work I did as a Pagan that prepared me to be the Catholic I am today.

    You’re right about “Harm none,” but I personally have a hard time understanding non-Wiccan Pagans who make a big deal out of rejecting it — for the simple reason that, on its own terms, the so-called Wiccan Rede is such a powerful and sensible ethical precept; one that, I believe, transcends its Wiccan origin. It’s pretty universal: echoes of it can be found in Buddhism and secular humanism, and it ties right in with Augustine’s “Love and do what you will.” I’ve never figured out why non-Wiccan Pagans are so quick to distance themselves from the Rede; I’ve never encountered a persuasive argument about why it makes ethical sense to reject the Rede. Perhaps you can shed some light on that one for me? At any rate, the Rede was certainly my guiding ethical light as a Pagan, so that’s why I invoke it so much in my writing, rightly or wrongly.

    When I became a Catholic, one of my best friends in the Pagan community told me that he thought I was making the right choice, because I was (in his words) a “bad Pagan.” What he meant by that was that I was always struggling with ideas and values that many/perhaps most Pagans just simply seemed to accept. I think this ties in with the question you raised about Paganism as a “perfect fit.” Biern-ie suggests that some people who leave Paganism do so because their commitment to the path was shallow to begin with. I can see where some people could draw that conclusion about me, but I think (at least in my case) that would be an over-simplification of my experience as a Pagan. It’s not that I never was committed to being a Pagan, but rather that I was just plain not cut out for it, as much as I was drawn to it and tried to make it “work.” I think the analogy here is this: I was like a gay person trying like hell to be straight. No matter how much I was attracted to, and committed to, being Pagan, I just didn’t have the “spiritual DNA” for it. I think it’s a shame that straight people attack gay people for being gay; and particularly poignant if a gay person tries to be straight and then realizes that’s not who he is. Back to the growth issue: his process of self-acceptance would naturally be a growth process, and so he would “grow out of” trying to be straight and then re-embrace being gay. But that growth process is not a judgment call on either the gay or straight world.

    I know this raises ontological questions and one might conclude from what I’ve just said that I was never “really” a Pagan, ontologically speaking. But if I wasn’t one ontologically, I certainly was phenomenologically! :-) For years the magic “worked,” I performed or participated in powerful rituals, I had amazing experiences of the gods present in my life. But in the end, it wasn’t sustainable. I don’t think that’s anybody’s fault. And I’m not sure that, at this stage of the game, trying to figure out what went “wrong” is useful, for anybody. It’s not about flaws in my logic or defects in Paganism or the powerful magic in Christianity that keeps people in its thrall (yes, I’ve heard that one…). It just is what it is. I’m very much a postmodernist with a postmodern understanding of truth, and the social construction of reality, and the sheer suchness of things. My relationship with both Christianity and Paganism has to be understood in that light. Postmodern approaches to spirituality are on the march in the church, what in the Christian community is now being called “the emergent conversation,” — and, for me at least, it’s something far more exciting and adventurous than anything I ever found in the Pagan world. I think Paganism would benefit from its own postmodern revolution, but that might be trickier, since in many ways Paganism already is a postmodern religion, only it’s so caught up in trying to be a pre-modern one! Again, I don’t mean to judge or criticize, I’m just calling it like I see it.

  • Bob


    Thanks for sharing some of your story. You are not the typical convert to RC. I just read a couple of your books,that were written about ten years ago. Useful material for all types of people. How do you understand Catholicism’s call for evangelization? It would seem you would have a hard time with that.

    I converted from RC to Protestantism, now in the middle not really at home with either.

  • Carl McColman

    Fundamentalism is on the march within the Catholic world, and it is as worrisome here as anywhere. I think it’s human nature to want to tell our story, and to the extent that evangelization is all about people connecting and sharing their stories, I’m all for it. But I think in order for that to work, it must be borne out of a place of vulnerable and genuine dialogue — something that I fear that fundamentalists (of any stripe) have little interest in.

    Bob, have you read Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy or Jon Sweeney’s Almost Catholic? Those books might provide some interesting reflection as you try to discern what it means to be “in the middle not really at home with either.” You sound like an emergent Christian to me — the writings of Phyllis Tickle, Peter Rollins and Marcus Borg might interest you as well.

  • Tom

    I left Wicca last March, and was really helped along by Carl and his willingness to share his experience.

    In a couple of weeks, my daughter will be confirmed in our Anglican parish. I will stand with her to renew my baptismal vows (I was raised in church).

    I took my wife and child to church to help them follow their Christian path, with the intent of continuing in my 7-year Wiccan practice while supporting them. Life had different plans for me, and I am happy where I am.

  • Allen

    As someone who, despite having been heavily involved with Germanic Paganism (Heathenism, but not Asatru) for more than 15 years, found his way to the Catholic Church, I have to wonder whether the faith of the Church is being introduced to people – particularly to youth – in the right way.

    My own “point of entry” into the Church was the – personal – realization that Christ came, not merely to fulfill Jewish prophecy, but to fulfill the prophecies of the “Gentiles”, i.e. the “Nations” or the “Pagans/Heathens”, as well. This point, once recognized by the early Church (e.g. Acts 17:22-31), was easily forgotten once the Church gained dominance, and from the 4th century on, Church literature is filled with claims that the Old Faith was either “of the devil” or nothing more than the “vain imaginings” of “godless” people – whence the common understanding of the term “heathen” today. One could argue that this was a necessary stage in the establishment of the Church, for, had it taken a non-confrontational approach, it would very likely have either died out or been absorbed by Paganism, and the unique purpose of Christ’s appearance could have become lost. Nonetheless, it caused a lot of damage. Today, the Church is softening somewhat on its stance towards Non-Christian and Pagan Religions, even going so far as to say that “…whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life” (Lumen Gentium). That’s a huge difference from, say, Eusebius in the 4th century. And it’s a very welcome one. But I’m not sure that it’s enough.

    For centuries, the Church emphasized its separation from all other “ethnic” Pagan/Heathen faiths – other than, perhaps, the Jewish – with the effect that people had to cut themselves off from their ancestral faiths and their connections to the land around them in order to join themselves to the new “People of God”. (One beautiful exceptions here seems to be found in rural Ireland, among several others.) It seems that this kind of rhetoric was largely inherited from the Jews themselves, who had always made the starkest of contrasts between their religion and those of their neighbors. They had their reasons for that, and in its own way, it’s understandable. But was it necessary for the Church? Or, rather: Was it right? We can only speculate as to what kind of world we would have today had the Church instead chosen to focus on Christ’s having come “not to abolish, but to fulfill”.

    The thing that kept me from the Church to begin with was the sense that it was something “foreign” – both unnecessarily “otherworldly” as well as ethnically “strange”. I never felt any connection to the Old Testament. In fact, I was positively repelled by it. This, in turn, made Christ easy to reject as a specifically Jewish prophet or God-Man – of the Jews, by the Jews, for the Jews. That is: not for me. Learning about the history of the Jewish people was fine, but what about my people? Who were they? How had God talked to them? While I now understand the special role the Jews had to play in the bigger picture, it seemed that the Bible teaches God was “playing favorites” – which indirectly meant that He didn’t like me and mine.

    It would take years of study of Germanic history and tradition before I could come to see Christ as universal Savior – fulfilling not only Jewish, but Germanic tradition and prophecy as well. The traditions of blót and symbel, for example, were not merely replaced by the Eucharist; rather, they were restored through the Eucharist to their original purpose – which was nothing other than to bring man into communion with the Divine. After years of trying to reconstruct something from the fragments of the past, I realized that it was never lost, but transmuted, and staring me in the face.

    The reaction from other Heathens has been harsh. Like you, I try to explain that I don’t feel it to be a rejection of Heathenism per se, but rather – in my own case – a heightening, a deepening, a broadening of that Old Faith. A clarifying renewal, if you will. But that doesn’t stop the accusations of betrayal, of “Siðaskipti” – which is as close to “apostasy” as you can get in Old Norse.

    I realize that we are in what appears to be different places as regards our take on the Church, on faith, and the role it plays for us as individuals. And that’s perfectly fine. But I wanted to take a moment to share and to commend you on your courage and personal integrity. Bravo!