The Problem of the Personal Experience

I agreed to edit a devotional anthology to Hephaistos a coon’s age ago. Submissions poured in. And I couldn’t do it. I feel pretty crappy about that. Today I turned all the material over to someone else to assemble into a devotional.

The reason I couldn’t do it is because I have very strong personal relationship with Hephaistos. And all of those submissions bore little relevance to my personal relationship to him. It was as if they were talking about someone else. None of them were “bad” or “wrong.” Some were astoundingly lovely. But I came to realize I have no communal framework in which to speak of him. Not only did I not know what to do with these lovely offerings, I didn’t know what to say in return.

That is a big damn problem. My faith has become so small and personal that I don’t even know how to begin to communicate with other devotees. I have no larger framework to place my faith in. It is not that my faith is wrong, but that it is stunted and anti-social. It has no manners, no chit-chat, no experience of reaching for common ground.

I know the answer is to find community.  To stretch my religious muscles. To find a common Hephaistos and a common religion.

It is easy to say, and not so easy to do. But I am not the only one. Paganism is full to the brim with solitaries, each with their own deep personal religion, their own mythos. Do you ever find your faith is so small, customized and unique that even among Pagans of like mind you feel completely alone?

About Star Foster

Polytheistic Wiccan initiated into the Ravenwood tradition, she has many opinions. Some of them are actually useful.

  • Anthony Hart-Jones

    Strangely, I have been more or less solitary in my own way for a long time, but I have to say that I had the opposite experience with the Morrigan to yours with Hephaistos.

    I came to know her over a number of years, knowing she was there long before I knew who she was.  She was just there, a constant presence that barely needed a name.  When she told me her name, it was a special moment and I had a great feeling of being accepted, but she seemed to have some odd quirks which differed from what I would have expected if I had not got to know her first.

    And then I met another person who followed her.  The stories were not identical and the mental image bore only a passing resemblance to my own, but the personality was spot on.  It was like talking to a new friend about a person you used to know and realising you both know them.

  • Vastarien

    Absolutely, I often do feel alone with my rites. However, I also take comfort in knowing that there are others who my Gods have spoken to; just not the same way as they spoke to me.
    Even though we may never meet, the strength and power of our deities will guide and shelter us no matter where we are.

  • PhaedraHPS

    Once upon a time in the olden days when dinosaurs walked in our circles (say, mid-1980s), I’d encounter people who had been trained in specific trads that they’d been working for years but that had some significant differences from common Gardnerian-influenced practices. Perhaps they’d been circling with Fire in the East and Air in the South for 20 years. Going to public rites was awkward and unsettling because they were so attuned to doing things a different way. Nothing wrong with that, but as the community shifted from living rooms to public rooms, they had a harder time working religiously with the bigger community.

    After Scott Cunningham (somewhat also after Spiral Dance but not so much) the do-it-yourself, anyway you feel like doing it Solitary became more and more common. There was no “wrong” way to do anything. Which is true on a kind of exalted, ethereal level. But, as I used to caution people at the time (I owned a store in the ’90s so I did a lot of teaching and counseling) if you create your own very different correspondences or connections or patterns and work them until they are very ingrained, you are almost guaranteed to remain Solitary. You’re going to have a hard time integrating into a group or even integrating with another individual’s practice. So, I used to suggest, try not to get too creative or change things up arbitrarily, just because you *can.*

    Since the 1990s, we’ve lost some of the ongoing community support that came from places
    like shops, where people would meet and interact on a regular basis. The
    connections people made through shops and classes made for local and
    regional similarities of practice that gave people some basis to come
    together around.

    Now, people are much more likely to be Solitary than anything else, and (as has been pointed out quite sternly in the blogosphere) the presumption that contemporary Paganism will necessarily look like Gardnerian-style Wicca has been soundly discredited. This is good. We should be a large, vibrant community.

    But at the same time, the variety has brought with it contentiousness. And though in some ways we are more open and connected (the Internet), face-to-face opportunities are much more fragmented. Going to Pagan Pride Day or a festival once a year is not the same thing as having a place to go to on a regular basis.

    I guess what I took a long time to say is that I am saddened by your experience, but not surprised. But as I write this and think over this, I am surprised to realize that what I think our community really needs right now is perhaps not public Pagan temples (although they are great) but more casual public community spaces, stores, centers, whatever, where face to face interaction and interchange of ideas can occur on a regular basis. Such spaces give people more of a chance of meeting up with people who have a similarity of practice and the exchange of ideas can help people create a similarity of practice. We don’t have to be alone. Religion is a communal activity.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Happydog-Potatohead/780639610 Happydog Potatohead

    Yes. That is partly why I took Minerval initiation into the OTO. I felt that my practice was insular, and I felt I had nothing in common with other pagans in my area. I also felt isolated from other people on my chosen path, for political reasons having to do with infighting in the tradition. I was feeling alienated, alone, and confused. When I went to OTO gatherings, I found fellowship, friendship, and order. This is a strong part of what draws me to the OTO. At this point I haven’t decided whether or not to take the 1st degree, but the idea of having pattern and consistency, and working with a group of people rather than by myself (or with a group of people who embody the phrase “cat herd”) is very appealing right now. 

  • Aine

    All the time. Which is why I try to interact with the local community and in ADF – sometimes I have to take a break from that, though, because I still find myself at odds with the community a lot of the time. (Either in belief or practice.)

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    This resounds extremely strongly within me.

    It is something I have been saying for a while, albeit in a somewhat different way.

    I blame (such an easy thing to do) the Pagan phobia of theology.

    People are so adverse to talking about their personal experiences with the gods that you end up with a situation where there is no consensus on just who the gods are.

    Now, perspective is an important thing. Not just about the gods, but about people, also.

    To some, I can be an arrogant twat. To others, a naive idiot. Then there are those who think I am intelligent and articulate and others find me funny.

    I may well be all of those things, or none of them. It all depends on my mood and my disposition towards those I am dealing with.

    Why would the gods be any different?

    By talking to others, you can build a fuller picture of a person, or a god. You can also see what are actually your own preconceptions, reflected back at you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1197543165 Eric Devries

    I do feel that way especially with the recent articles about humanist and atheist Paganism and Paganism without belief. Because I have a faith based approach and I’ve practiced exclusively within my nuclear family for so many years I simply don’t get where other Pagans are coming from. Faith is central to my practice, our traditions are a mish mash of Hellenic, Celtic and Hoodoo with a heavy dose of whatever else works.  Also, because I embrace some Christian traditions I feel that widens the divide with so much of the community having knee jerk reactions to anything they associate with Christianity. I want a community but to me it seems increasingly like a lie I tell myself to feel better and that in reality my practices are as likely to be similar to a non-Pagans as they are to a Pagans. I have a close relationship with Brighid and primarily worship her and also find as you described that when other Pagans talk about her they might as well be talking about another Goddess and like you, I don’t find myself thinking of it in terms of right/wrong or better/worse it just seems like an problem with no solution, i’ve been working on that relationship for so many years i’m not willing to sacrifice any of the intimacy or trust to move out into that gap. Even my wife who I practice with has a very agnostic/experiential approach to the thing which further leaves me feeling like i’m on an island with Brighid and getting more and more used to that.

  • http://twitter.com/Omorka Jennifer Ramon

    I tend to have the related but different problem that the gods and goddesses with whom I have personal relationships have few, if any, other worshippers in my local community.  I interact with my fellow devotees almost entirely online.  But the net effect of feeling alone, even in a crowd, is similar.

    • Lyradora

      @Jennifer: I empathize. While I honor some of the more well-known Greek Deities (like Hermes), I also honor Deities like The Charites — who are barely even acknowledged by most Hellenics.

      • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

        I LOVE the Charites.

  • Greenflame

    Have you looked at Neoplatonism as an overall frame that can accommodate and even praise a diversity of personal experiences? 

  • kenneth

    Sometimes I suppose a close personal relationship with one’s deities can feel lonely, but on balance, I don’t see it as a problem.  I’ve never envisioned pagan religion as a means to “save” others or help them to see my own personal light.  Building community around a shared and identical sense of theology or revelation is the short path to the sort of “Calvinism” you illustrated the other day. I find plenty of other more productive ways to build community upon broader themes of common purpose and similarity in what we do. If my personal indescribable relationship with my gods is leading me in good directions, that’s everything I can hope for. I have no desire to try to make my path the authoritative one nor even to presume that what works for me right now would work for anyone else in the same way. 

  • Chef Ette

    I love being a solitary. One of the reasons why I love being pagan is I don’t have to be surrounded by people who think just like me. One of the reasons I left Christianity is because you were always surrounded by cookie cutter people and you were very WRONG if you didn’t think just like they did. 

  • BreAnna

    Unfortunately, I feel that a lot.  On the one hand, I love the freedom and self exploration that being solitary allows, but on the other hand, I wish that I had a bit more guidance and community outside of books or the internet.  I’ve never had strong family ties and I feel that is reflected in how I practice Wicca.  Now though, that’s starting to not feel like enough.  We humans are social creatures and even with the gods that are there for us, I’m beginning to think that we need other humans to share experiences with to grasp the richness of Paganism and life in general.  Star, you’ve mentioned several times here that community is important to you.  I hope you find the one you need to expand not only your religion, but yourself as well.

  • Ywen DragonEye

    I feel this way often as well. I celebrate the wheel with a small group, but none of us practices in the same manner when we work in solitude. I lean toward a very paleo approach, embracing the very earliest roots possible. But I also tend to work within the Arthurian framework as well. And it is a work in progress, melding these. I would not even try to find someone else who does that!


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