By Lara Owen, Patheos Spirituality Contributor at A Spiritual Life
I lost my religion when I was fourteen years old, very suddenly. It was a Sunday morning and as usual I was in church for Holy Communion. The curate, a likeable man well known to me as a neighbor and friend of my parents, and who had given me my confirmation instruction just the year before, was giving a sermon on the evils of fornication. It was an unusually fire-and-brimstone sermon for an English suburban church in 1969, and I found out many years later from my mother that it was a response to some infidelity in the congregation. But I knew none of that then: I just saw an angry man shouting about the wickedness of sexuality outside of marriage, and in my heart and soul, I knew he was wrong. He was making the body into a sin, and claiming that only God could sanction sexuality, via a marriage in a church.
My fourteen-year-old mind had sorted out enough by this point to know that life was more complex than the curate’s black and white scenario. I instinctively understood that the body had wisdom, that sexuality could be sacred, and that this sacredness was more important than a church service to cement a union. I think he must have quoted something pretty anti-woman from the Bible, because I can remember that a large part of my reaction was the clear sense that I could not be part of any institution that denigrated women.
I just walked out of the church at the end of that service and never went back. In my memory I walked out straight after the sermon, but I daresay this is a dramatization — I was far too much the well brought up English girl to do anything that could be considered rude. But the memory is correct symbolically: in my mind that was the moment at which I left.
I had no personal sexual experience, but I had read widely and had no doubt been absorbing the zeitgeist of the late ‘60’s. I knew my life could not go forward in the way I most deeply wished if I was involved with this restrictive set of beliefs. It wasn’t that I wanted to be having sex madly out of wedlock; I just understood that this religious attitude had wider implications. I knew it would hold me back and stop me living the life I was destined to have, and that it held everyone back by saying that the church had the right to sanction their most intimate life.
As a child, I loved going to church, which of course in those days would be packed out every Sunday. Not at all like these days in the Church of England when there are six old people in the pews, back then the church was full: the women showing off new hats; the men looking forward to a pint in the pub later; the younger children in a side room in Sunday school and the older ones obediently singing hymns and standing and sitting at the right moments.
I was a good Bible student, initially loving the stories and later interested in the big questions, and I had a clear and confident speaking voice. From the age of eight I was often asked to read the lesson, especially for a service that had something to do with children. I was a part of things. The rector and curate were personal friends of my parents; my brothers sang in the choir; our social lives revolved around the church hall and church members. And it was not only social: I was psychologically deeply involved with the rituals of Christmas and Easter, with Ascension and Pentecost, Michaelmas and Advent. These festivals and commemorations held the sacred, numinous aspect of the year. They were the markers of time of my childhood. I went to a Church of England school between the ages of five and ten: the school was next door to the church where we were taken several times a week, and on hot summer days we would have lessons under a huge chestnut tree in the Rectory garden. We had extra holidays because we went to a church school, and holidays named for religious events: a day off for the Ascension, a week off at Whitsun (I especially loved the tales of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit and wondered what it would be like to speak in tongues).
Christianity was something I experienced every day, and it was often the most interesting part of life. Its rituals were deeply ingrained into my sense of how life should be. One Christmas morning when I was about ten years old, I was walking back from church, for some reason on my own, and saw a man washing his car. I ran back home, in a state of shock, and burst into the kitchen, ”Mummy, there’s a man washing his car! On Christmas Day!” My mother smiled and said, “Perhaps he’s Jewish. Not everyone celebrates Christmas Day, you know.” To my childish self it seemed such a transgression, more than simply a breach of convention. Christmas Day was sacred. It was a special day to celebrate the birth of Jesus by eating good food, exchanging gifts, and being with your family, not washing a car.
So when I lost my religion, I didn’t just lose the pattern of going to church, the sense of social and spiritual place, of belonging to a congregation, I lost the warp and weft of the year. I lost the pleasure and security of marking the passage of time with rituals that were not merely about food and presents, but were wrapped up in a meaningful annual narrative punctuated with dramatic stories that illustrated aspects of life.
Maybe this lack attracted me to astrology a few years later. Certainly astrology supplied a sense of rhythm, an order, a meaning to the annual round, and to a life. In my twenties I became very interested in the lunar cycle as I studied and wrote about menstruation and women’s wisdom, helped by teachers from indigenous traditions who had not lost their connection with the sacred aspects of the natural world. This gave me a monthly rhythm that I found sustaining and very helpful to my spiritual life. But the seasons of the year still tended to pass in a bit of a blur, and the conventional celebrations felt increasingly meaningless. Some years I even dipped out of Christmas altogether, preferring to use the downtime for a solo retreat. The Wiccan and Pagan celebrations I came across that could have taken the place of the Christian festivals struck me as well intentioned, but not really my thing.
Years later, while living in a village in southwest France where many of the annual festivals included rituals that clearly predated Christianity, I started doing research into the traditional European festivals of the solar year. I already understood that like any good conquering army the Christian church had in the Middle Ages appropriated existing religious sites and practices, but it was not until I really focused on the traditional festival year that that I realized the extent of the appropriation. I found that the Christian festivals had been overlaid onto ancient celebrations rooted in the annual cycle and the natural world, and that most of the Christian stories and practices associated with these festivals had been taken from more earth-centered traditions.
My knowledge of astrology and the lunar cycle came together with this deeper understanding of the ancient solar tradition. I was able to reclaim my relationship with the rituals of my childhood, but in a way that feels more authentic, a way that blends earth and sky, feminine and masculine. I’ve created rituals for myself and for others that honor the passage of time and the requirements, both practical and psychological, of each season. The deep sense of rhythm and meaning this has brought back into my life has grounded my independent spirituality, given it a context that is ancient, pragmatic, and yet still magical. It has helped me to experience the numinous within the predictable, the sacred within the unchanging round of sun, earth and moon.
I don’t need to have any beliefs for this practice, and I don’t need to judge anyone else. There is no code other than observation and respect for the natural world. The only skill required is the ability to experience awe. The catechism in the church of the cycles of the natural world is a silent one filled with wonder, and it imbues us with love for all creatures, and for the deep rhythms within all life.