[Editor’s Note: Please welcome Annika Mongan to Patheos Pagan and to the Agora. Her column, Born Again Witch, will be published on the second and fourth Mondays of every month. You can subscribe using the links at the bottom of this article. Welcome, Annika!!]
The day I lost the last piece of my Christian faith was the day I almost died. Every time I talk about my past as a Christian minister, ordained in a Southern Baptist Church, I am asked the same question: What happened to make me leave Christianity and embrace Witchcraft?
I love studying religion and faith journeys, and the questions I am asked are also the questions I ask myself: Why do people leave the religion in which they were raised? What makes people stay? How do people grow within their faith traditions? When do religions support spiritual growth and when do they fail to do so? And most of all, how do transitions between religious paradigms take place?
When I am asked about my own conversion, I always give a slightly different answer. There were so many moments of transition, a theological shift here, a loss of trust there. Depending on who is asking, I might talk about the questions that came up for me when I studied the bible or I might tell stories of religious experiences. I will be exploring both here, theological ideas and stories from my own journey. But today I set out to find the decisive moment in which I ceased to identify as a Christian.
I didn’t want to leave Christianity. Even as I was growing apart from the beliefs of my childhood and youth, I kept hanging on by sheer will and desperation. I feared that I would end up in hell if I let go. But, on the day I almost died, hell as a place in the afterlife didn’t matter to me anymore, because hell had already become my here and now. And, so the last thread of faith tore and I fell. But, it wasn’t a falling from grace; it was a falling into insanity. And, when I rose again, I was no longer a Christian.
It is bright and sunny outside, but I have no idea what day it is. I am in bed, holding my shaved head in my hands. I am struggling against falling over as my muscles rebel against sitting up. I drift in and out of my body. Inside there is nothing but pain, outside there is nowhere to go. I haven’t eaten in days, I don’t remember how many. I realize that this is a first. Food has always been my comfort, when in doubt, stuff it down. I never understood how some people will stop eating when they are in distress. Now, I do. Just the thought of putting food in my mouth nauseates me. My muscles hurt, and I am loathe to move at all. I just want to lie down again, but I make myself sit. If I can do this, I tell myself, I will lie down again, never to move aching muscles again.
I am still exhausted from my crawl to the bathroom. When I decided to make that trek, I forgot just how weak I was, and I had tried walking. That was a mistake; I had been forced to my knees instantly. Crawling the whole way had taken a long time. It was the thought that I would never have to do it again that kept me clawing at the ground and dragging my body forward. I had almost given up by the time I reached the bathroom, and I rested with my body slumped over the toilet. After a while I was able to pull myself up, reach into the medicine cabinet, and retrieve the little jar of pills.
I think the prescription was from my husband’s surgery. Or maybe they were given to us by a friend for recurring back pain. Either way, there would be enough. I remember the time my husband threw his back out and, underestimating the strength of the pills, he took two. He couldn’t move, his heart was beating too slowly, his speech was slurred, and it took more than a full day before he could get out of bed again. I remember how terrified he was. He thought he wouldn’t be able to walk ever again.
And, here I now am, after my return from the bathroom, sitting on the bed, holding the jar in my hands. If two pills knock someone out for a more than a day, surely a handful will end my pain. It will be like sleeping, only better, because sleep is filled with nightmares, and waking is never a relief.
Relief. Just this morning I felt a little relief when I woke up to the sound of the front door. I had been clawing at my pillow in my sleep, scraping bloodied fingers across blankets, bedposts, skin, hoping he’d come home. And, when I woke up, it was true, his key was turning in the lock. After spending all night out, he had come home. I tried to prop myself up on the bed, hopeful, hungry for his attention. When he came in, he stared at me with cold eyes. Pity and hatred. He despised me. He said something, I don’t know what, but I soaked up the sound of his voice like the parched grass in our yard waiting for the next thunderstorm. He patted me on the shoulder, like a displeased but indulgent owner of a disobedient dog. For a moment it felt like a passionate, loving kiss. And then, he was gone again. And I hated, hated myself for needing him like this. That’s when I first started thinking about the pills.
The lid is screwed on tightly, but I get it open. Big white ovals in my emaciated hands. I would never need him again. Maybe he would grieve. Maybe it would make him hate me more. But, I would be done hating myself. I raise my hand. I try to stop myself. What is there to hang on to? What is there to stop me? I think of Jesus. He hates me, too. Or worse, He doesn’t care. Either that or it was all a lie and He doesn’t exist. Jesus used to be my hope. My joy. My love. My raison d’être, my reason for being. My life. When He left, all those things left with him. He didn’t just leave a “God shaped hole in my heart”. He tore it out and trampled it and left me to die inside a heartless body.
I remember having spent the better half of a decade trying to find Him again. “If God seems distant, guess who moved?” I remember praying, reading through the Bible, in German, English, and parts of it in Hebrew and Greek. I would meditate on His Word, singing His praises, begging for His mercy. I would repent, of sins known and unknown, searching for hidden sins, confessing them all. I once stole a pencil from my little brother. I thought sexual thoughts before I was married. I listened to secular music. I think of all the times I received prayers of deliverance, the laying on of hands, the casting out of demons. I had tried so hard. Then, I had repented from trying so hard. Finally, I waited for grace. Cultivating patience. Spending years in darkness, longing for Him.
My husband once said that, since I was married, it was only right that God should express His presence through him, my spouse, instead of directly through Christ. But, now he tells me he has “earned the right to be with other women”. That I “deserve to be beaten”. That our marriage vows mean nothing because “his love for me has died”. I know it is bad theology, but that’s exactly how it feels to no longer sense Jesus in my life.
The pills in my hand, I pray to Jesus anyway. I repented from putting too much trust in my husband months ago. I repent from it again now. If that was my sin, I beg for forgiveness. It’s what I was taught, but I take responsibility and repent. I crave forgiveness. I crave hope. I wait, “wait for the Lord;” it’s what I do these days. It’s what I have done for years. It’s what I’m supposed to do, but I’ve only ever had so much strength, and now it is gone.
I open a Bible and wipe away the tears so I can read. The words feel empty, meaningless. The pills lay warm in my living hand. I let myself slip off the bed, onto my knees and I cry out to Him. I cannot bear the pain any longer. I am out of strength. It is now or never. Anything will do, a whisper of hope. A hint of His presence. I beg with the last of my breath.
And then I can wait no longer. Despair consumes me and I know there will be no answer. Now there is no one left to stop me. I raise my hand to my mouth. And so it will end.
I would like to remember what happened next as a Hollywood-esque scene with heart wrenching music. As my hand rises in slow motion, Arwen, my black cat, comes sprinting across the room, leaping onto my lap, licking my tears and thus saving my life. I think I have told the story like this a few times. But I’m afraid this is not how it happened. There was no dramatic moment that saved me. I would love it if there had been; then I could leave it open for interpretation. Arwen could have been sent by Jesus, thus vindicating the faith of my Christian friends and family with Christ’s answer coming at the last second. Or, Arwen could have been sent by the Goddess, or some other deity. Or, she could have come on her own, thus revealing the pagan mystery that all the earth is alive and interconnected. It would make such a great story, easily adaptable by different religious views.In all honesty, I don’t remember how it all happened. I remember snapshots that I now, years later, weave into a story. I do remember the prayers. I do remember the crawl to the bathroom, the opening of the jar, the warmth of the pills in my hand. And, I vividly remember the endless waiting. I can still see my hand rising to my mouth, but I think it happened more than once. And, Arwen was there and she did lick my tears, but I am not sure that she did it in perfect heroic timing. I must have gone through cycles, deciding to do it, and then backing down again, and then coming so very close, and then deciding to wait just a little longer.
I know I was looking for reasons to live. I existed in that last scene of the movie, where all is lost, but you know the hero will come in some miraculous and unexpected way. He simply has to; the movie wouldn’t work if he didn’t. And, so I stretched that final moment into an eternity. A part of me really wanted it to be Jesus. Then we could have our happy ending and go on living happily ever after. Except that I knew we wouldn’t. I knew I was too human to simply go back to the way things had been. You don’t have someone disappear from your life, ignore you for a decade, and then resume your relationship as if nothing had happened.
I wish I could at least stay alive for my family, but I couldn’t. They were all bound to the same Jesus. I couldn’t live with Him anymore and my family wouldn’t be able to live with the knowledge that I was no longer a Christian. It was better for me to be dead and potentially in heaven than alive and an apostate.
In the end I found a reason to return the pills to the jar, if only for a little while. And, that reason was Arwen. I didn’t trust my husband to take care of her when I was gone, and I hadn’t thought to make other arrangements. I don’t remember how many cycles of “almost” I went through, but in the end I decided to find a place for Arwen before I would follow through. I didn’t find hope, but I found a reason to postpone.
I put the pills back in the jar and let it drop from my hands. I watch it fall and roll on the tiles. More pain hits me just when I think I cannot possibly experience more. I am still alive. It is not yet over. It may still end soon, but now I carry the additional burden of finding a home for Arwen. And, something else has changed. That smallest of smolder in the dying embers of my faith is gone. The fire is out. What once was hot flickering passion for my Jesus, my love, reduced to embers throughout my Dark Night of the Soul, is now a pile of cold black coals. I stir them, just to be sure, but there is no glow, all has gone out. This fire can never be rekindled. It is dead. He is dead.
“Jesus” I cry into the void as I grieve my loss. I had waited most of my adult life, and now it was over. I let myself fall out of bed unto the cold hard ground. I writhe and claw at the tiles and lose all sense of time and space as I dive into a hell of unrefined pain. I hear darkness. I see emptiness. I used to think hell was a place of eternal fire. Now, it is a place so dark that fire cannot exist.
I don’t know how long I exist in this state, but my body is still alive and it is cold. I have been lying on ceramic tiles. I need to move, but I can’t think. I feel lost in this body. I must have crawled into the living room some time ago and this thing I am grasping is the leg of a desk. There are dry erase markers on it. My hand reaches out and takes them. I see my fingers pulling off the cap and touching the marker to the ground. A dot of color appears on the tiles and then another. A line. If I still could, I would giggle. Isn’t it funny that I just changed something about my surroundings?
CIRCLES! The thought comes out of nowhere and my fingers obey. It looks like I have drawn a circle on the ground. I wish I wasn’t in too much agony to giggle. Another one appears, drawn by my hand. Circles. I am making circles. One here, one there. Circles. I am insane. Why am I drawing circles? The movement calms me and I take control over my hand. Now I make the circle go where I want it to go. I make a small one. I make a bigger one. Circles. Circles. Circles. The floor is filling with circles.
This is crazy. I can feel myself thinking it. I have gone insane. Somehow that thought makes me want to laugh. Maybe insane hurts less than being alive? I am on a mission. I now have different colors, and I am making circles everywhere. Where the circles are, the darkness is a little less dense. So I make more. I make a big one and I crawl into it and then I let out a frightening sound that was meant to be a laugh.
This is it, I just know it. If I can make a circle, I can find hope. If I can make a circle and get into it, I can be OK. Circles that are safe. Circles that are free. Circles where I can stand. Circles where I can be. I am forming thoughts again. The circles help me think. I imagine that each time I make a circle and crawl into it, I am a little better. It feels real. The idea of circles feels real to me, and I think of circles that are not on these tiles. Circles made with something other than dry erase markers. Circles that are strong and that can hold me.
I can see them in my mind’s eye. What if there are others? Other people? People who can teach me how to make circles? I don’t know what they would be made of. Something powerful. Circles yet to come. Circles that have always been. What if I could find those circles? What if I could learn to make them? Circles where I could be whole, even without him. Circles that exist, not in death, but in life. If I could learn to make those circles, I could live. It would be worth living for. I could grow in those circles.
I have no idea where these thoughts are coming from, but they feed me, and they feel real. I keep drawing my circles, symbols of circles yet to come. I am in the middle of another circle when the front door opens and he walks in. My husband. “What the HELL are you doing?”, he shouts as he drops his bags. I sit in my circles and smile. “Circles”, I say. “Don’t you see?” He just stands there and stares. I go back to drawing, muttering “they’re safe, if I can just get into the circle, don’t you understand? I need to learn how to make circles!”
A sharp pain in my arm makes me look up. He has grabbed me and is yanking me away from my circles. “YOU-” His spit is flying in my face. It reeks of alcohol again. “Don’t you dare! Don’t you DARE do this to me!” He pries my fingers open and takes the markers from me.
“Ha, at least you used dry erase markers,” he barks. His face is so close to mine. His lips are trembling, and his fist is raised. He lifts me off the ground and drags me into the bedroom. There will be no more circles for me tonight.
I see Arwen dashing out of the room. She always does when my husband comes home. He drags me into the bedroom and slams the door shut. And then he does things. Things that only happen behind our closed doors. Things we never speak of, because they make him “look bad.” But this time, for the first time, they don’t really matter. I stare at the jar of pills on the tiles. I know I won’t use them. I will throw them in the trash later. My faith died today, but I didn’t. I decide to live, for I know that someday, somehow I will learn to make circles that neither he nor anyone else can erase from these cold white tiles.
All images were taken by the author.