The Only Faith I'll Ever Know

When I first began to follow the druidic gods I was 14 years old.

I had begun to study and practice in the late summer, but I was not part of any community. My first major holiday, Samhain, came and went without much ado. As Midwinter approached, I was determined to do something special.

Maybe it was the extra pressure from seeing how everybody else treated Christmas. Maybe I was just feeling ready. But I decided I was going to make a proper offering and mark the holiday in style.

I had made offerings before. The first things I did when I converted was requisition an old dining room table from my parents, put it in my room, and cover it with a black satin altar cloth. I used all the money I had to get that cloth and the few candleholders and trinkets I had on it. In that little sanctuary, where so many of my dreams began, I made offerings of incense daily.

No one had taught me how to do it. I just fumbled my way through. The first time I was very skeptical, but as I knelt before my altar, I felt a sensation. It was like someone else was in the room with me. And when my mind fixed upon it, it only got stronger, and I felt warm emotions.

That day, although I was awed, I was skeptical. I wasn't sure whether what I felt was the presence of an invisible spirit or if it was simply in my head. I still cannot answer that question with anything more than a guess. But also on that day I realized, perhaps for the first time, that the answer to that question doesn't really matter. Whatever that presence is, it was a positive force for me, and I came to call such experiences gods.

It was these gods that I chose to honor at Midwinter.

My plan was simply this: I would awake before dawn. Even though teenagers don't like to get up early on winter break, I knew I could do it. Then I would bundle up and walk several miles into a nearby pine forest. I would take offerings with me and, surrounded by trees, I would wait for the sunrise and make my sacrifice. The weather was freezing but it would be worth it.

The offerings I prepared included a poem, which I wrote neatly in ink on a heavy sheet of paper, and incense. If there were any other offerings, I don't remember what they were. It's those two things that stand out in my mind.

The morning of Midwinter arrived, and my alarm went off. My bedroom was cold and the outside looked downright menacing. It was a clear night, which is the coldest kind. I was nervous and afraid, but I gathered the items I had left out the night before and I quietly left the house.

There's a certain magic that comes with being outside alone in the winter. The world is eight kinds of silent, so the crunch of footsteps and the whisk of the wind seem rudely loud. In less than one block I felt the painful cold in my ears and my fingers and maybe my toes. I shivered under my coat, and thought about how much farther I had to go.

Getting through the forest was hard. There was a path, but of course I didn't want to be on the path. I had to navigate formidable briars and low branches. I felt like Nature was pushing me back, which frustrated me because I was there for Her.

Fourteen-year-olds can be like that. It's glorious.

With no exact destination in mind, I eventually reached a place that felt far enough. Maybe it was a particularly sacred place, or maybe I was just sick of walking. But I saw a patch of brightening sky above my head, and had enough room to kneel down in the snow if I dared.

It was about that time that I learned I had no idea what I was doing. I knew when sunrise would occur by the clock, but I couldn't see the sun through the thick forest. And just like pagans and polytheists the world over, I discovered that lighting incense outside in the wind is a feat unto itself. I removed my gloves to use the lighter, and when the minutes dragged on I lost all feeling in my hands.

With the worry and pain the moment itself didn't feel spiritual. But for years afterward, the memory is ingrained in my being as a time of great personal meaning.

With persistence I got the incense lit. I placed it somewhere not-snowy, and with shaking hands I unrolled my handmade scroll. Starting in a whisper just didn't seem like enough, so I started over in a booming voice.

Who would hear me, out there?

I recited my poem. I like rhythm and meter in my poems. Old-fashioned I guess, but it rolled off the page. And as I said the words I knew in my heart that the way to complete this offering was to burn it when it was done. So with the final note of the poem ringing in the air, and the first bird sounds stirring in the trees around me, I managed to light the rolled-up scroll on fire, and hold it up toward the sun.

The fire burned my fingers, and I dropped the remains, watching them go to ash safely on the snow.

I knelt.

I gave a moment to the gods, and then with no further ceremony I moved as quickly as I could back toward the warmth of my parents' home.