Cat Chapin-Bishop: Sacred Fire, or What Do I Hope to Build?

We are very pleased to offer this guest post on our March theme from Cat Chapin-Bishop. Cat has been a Pagan since 1986, and has also been Quaker since 2001. She is the former chair of Cherry Hill Seminary’s Pastoral Counseling Department, and her essays have appeared in Celebrating the Pagan Soul, Writing Cheerfully on the Web, The Pomegranate, and at The Wild Hunt blog.  In addition to her Pagan work, Cat is active in her local Quaker meeting, and she writes about the connections between Pagan and Quaker practice at the blog she co-writes with her husband Peter, Quaker Pagan Reflections. –CHK


I live in a place that reminds me daily that the world is vibrant with spirit.

The land around me reminds me: we live amid wonders.  My hope for the Pagan movement, fifty years from now, is that we remember to celebrate that fact, and to live in a way consistent with that vision.

Cat Chapin-BishopI live and work in rural Massachusetts, in a landscape full of stone walls and looming pine trees. My daily commute takes me past oaks and orchards, icy waterfalls and granite cliffs, and I see deer, bears, and red-tailed hawks on a regular basis. Driving to work this week, I saw the cold fire of a full moon on one horizon, while to the east, the the sun rose over the hills in a blaze of copper.  In moments, the faded pastels of the landscape dissolved, and the birch trees, rocks and windowed houses all caught fire.

As a Pagan, this is how I see the world.  Call it spirit, call it numen, call it life or the last resounding echoes of the Big Bang.  Something burns with lines of silver and copper fire within every being, every object in the world.  Hard to name it may be, but this is not just a metaphor, a product of my human mind; the world was sacred before I ever saw it, and it will be so long ages after the human race is gone. Even the rocks vibrate with it… even ordinary morning commuters like me.

We Pagans do not all understand the sacred in the same way. Some of us hold that the Earth Herself is sacred, and some of us do not.  Some of our traditions teach of gods, some of land spirits, nymphs, ancestors and disir, Fair Folk and ghosts.  Some of our traditions recognize holy trees and holy wells,  mountains sacred to the gods, or powers of nature the gods can wield like toys. Some of us feel a sacred fire without reference to the supernatural at all, while to others, each rock and stream is home to a spiritual being, formed with holy fire at its core.

I do not understand all the ways my people honor what is holy in the world.  I only understand that we do.

We do not need to define our experiences of the holy in the same way.  We do not need to blend together our theologies, vocabulary, or myths.  But I think we are weakened forever if we allow our differences to distract us from what we know we hold in common: that we live our lives open to the possibility that on this day, we will  encounter personally some source of that sacred fire.  We walk through the world ready to be blessed.

As Walt Whitman put it, in Leaves of Grass:

Stop this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all poems;
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun—(there are millions of suns left;)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books;
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me:
You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself.

My hope for us in the future is that we will have become wise enough not to quarrel with one another over our intellectual understandings of experiences too deep for words.  How we understand the sacred is diverse; that we can know what it is like to be on fire with the sacred is unitive—if we let it be.

Every Pagan is not a mystic.  Every Pagan tradition does not need to center on mysticism.  But I would like for us to recognize, and even to celebrate, that whatever the teachings we have inherited or created, the fire of Spirit still runs through the bones of the world. It’s still there, and we can find it.

What if we put more energy into encountering the spiritual fire behind our traditions, and into letting them inspire us into action than we put into defining what distinguishes one of our traditions from another? I don’t say eliminate our differences… but perhaps we can lose the illusion that difference is the point of religious life. Perhaps we can make use of the unique strengths and insights of each Pagan tradition to better find and follow the sacred encounters at its heart.

What if, instead of quarreling over what notions, what definitions of the sacred are right or wrong, mine or yours, we instead tried to listen to what that holy fire is telling us about how to live?  What if, instead of trying to define which Pagan traditions are “nature-centered” or “earth-centered,” monist or polytheist, we opened ourselves, through our own traditions, to understanding what our own sacred sources have to say to us, today, about relating to the world—or to conflicts, or poverty, or any of the other complications of sharing a biosphere with seven billion other human beings?

What would we hear, if we remembered to listen?

Fifty years from now, I would like us not to be composed of religious traditions that make war on our mystics, as modern Fundamentalist Christians and Muslims do.  I’d like us to remember that the miraculous is always on the verge of breaking into everyday life, and has as much to teach us now as it taught our ancestors—whether fifty years ago, or five centuries.

Fifty years from now, I hope to find a Pagan community that shares the world of Spirit in beauty, diversity, and interconnectedness.

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