Why I am grateful for Paganism: The comfort and the affliction

Why I am grateful for Paganism: The comfort and the affliction November 20, 2013

[This post is part of the Patheos Pagan November gratitude series.  You can check out other contributors to the series here:  Jason Mankey, Aine LlewellynChristine KraemerNimue Brown, and Julian Betkowski.]

A friend told me that true religion should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.  This is what Paganism has been for me.  And this is why I am grateful for it.

The Comfort

In the beginning, it was all about comfort.  I was leaving Christianity and seeking a balm for my bruised soul.  To be fair, my soul was bruised, not because of anything any Christian had done, but because of how I had used Christianity against myself.  I was seeking refuge from my perfection complex, from unhealthy notions of sexual purity, and from my own patriarchal consciousness.  And the Goddess and her horned Consort accepted me with open arms.

There’s a passage from Jacqueline Carey’s Sundering series (which is kind of like Tolkien from the perspective of the “bad” guys) where the protagonist and leader of the “dark” armies, Tanaros, is talking to the one of the “light” characters, Lady Cerelinde, defending his allegiance to his dark god and master:

“I tell you this, Cerelinde. His Lordship is here. Wounded and bleeding, but here. And he has given shelter to all of us, all whom the world has bent and broken, all who yearn for a Shaper’s love, all whom the world has despised. He demands our loyalty, yes, but he allows us the freedom to question the order of the world, to be who and what we are. Can you say the same of Haomane Lord-of-Thought?”

That was what I was looking for: a god who is here, who is present, a god who suffers with me, and a god who gives me the freedom to question and to be who I am.  Of course I realize that this is who Jesus is for many Christians, but I never knew that Jesus.  Maybe that Jesus came to me in the form of the Horned God.  In any case, in Paganism I found the god to whom I could pray:

Though thou hast anointed my head,
And hast led me down into the valley of the shadow of death,
Thou art my refuge and my repose.
Thy rod and thy scourge have comforted me.
And thou shalt bring me up again,
To green fields and to the waters of life,
And my chalice shall o’erflow.
For thine are the mysteries of life and death.

I am grateful for the comfort and healing Paganism brought me.

The “Affliction”

But with time, my Paganism has become less about comfort, and more about dis-comfort, or rather about moving me out of my comfort zone.  And this is why I am most grateful for Paganism today.

To begin with, I have been challenged by those who I have met through blogging here.  When I started blogging, I had a pretty narrow conception of what Paganism was, to say the least.  Interacting with you in the comments and with other bloggers has broken down a lot of the assumptions I had about Paganism itself.  For example, UU Druid John Beckett has challenged my penchant for drawing artificial boundaries by his merging of deity-centeredearth-centered, and Self-centric (my term) practice.  Jason Mankey has challenged the stereotype I had of initiatory Wicca as staid and boring.  Joseph Block has challenged the stereotypes I had about heathens as insular and regressive.  Peregrin Wildoak has done the same for my stereotypes about occultists as disconnected from the material world.  And my interactions with several deity-centered Pagans has helped me appreciate how I can be insensitive to others’ spirituality, even when not intending to.  I know you did not set out to broaden my mental horizons, but it happened anyway.

In addition, Alison Leigh Lilly has persistently challenged the unconscious patriarchal/masculinist assumptions in my writing.  Lupa at No Unsacred Place, Glen Gordon formerly of Postpagan*, and Elinor Predota and Traci Laird at A Sense of Place have helped me to bring my soaring intellectualizing down to earth … literally.  Devotional polytheists like Dver and P. Sufenas Virius Lupus have caused me to consider what role the experience of radical otherness might have in my own Self-centric Paganism.  And Jason Mankey constantly reminds me that reverence and revelry can co-exist in the same ritual moment.  These are things that do not come naturally to me.  These are things I am still working on.  But, if it had not been for these people, I might not even be working on them today.  I am grateful to all of them and so many more of you for the myriad ways that you have pushed me to grow.

But it’s not just blogging about Paganism that is challenging.  The practice of Paganism** itself is challenging.  If it weren’t for Paganism, or the part of me that I identify as Pagan, I would likely spend my life in air-conditioned indoors, much of it in a library with my nose in a book or behind a computer screen.  I would have little human contact and I would feel dissociated from my own body.  That would be miserable, but it would be easy.  I’m not one of those people for whom Paganism comes naturally.  I have to work at it.  And I do work at it, because I need it.

Because of Paganism, I close my book, turn off my computer, and go outside.  That may seem trivial, but it has had a profound effect on me.  As John Beckett recently wrote:

There is value in going outside and digging in the dirt.  There is value in going outside and looking up at the sun and moon and stars.  There is value in going outside and watching the squirrels and listening to the birds.  There is value in going outside – are you starting to see a pattern here? – and smelling the flowers, lying in the grass, and hugging the trees.  This can be challenging in the miserable Texas summers… just as it can be challenging in the miserable Minnesota winters.  But when we have a spiritual relationship with Nature, these challenges become something to work with and work around.  When we have a spiritual relationship with Nature, maintaining that relationship becomes more important than constant comfort:  we learn to go walking before dawn, to greet the rising sun before we begin our work day, to speak to the trees as soon as we get home, and to salute the moon before we go to bed.

And because I get up and go outside, I have found God/dess there.

Being Christian was easy for me in the sense that the Christian God was set apart from the world.  I could imagine him to be whatever I wanted (or thought I wanted), and I could project my complexes onto him.  But being Pagan is harder, because it forces me to find God/dess not in my imagination, but in the very physicality of the life that I am immersed in: in the wild wind before the spring storms, in the dirt under my fingers, in the warmth of the sun on my face in the morning, in the water flowing over my body from my showerhead, in the flow of air in and out of my chest, in the burn in my muscles as I hike in the woods, in the taste of a ripe pear melting on my tongue, in the beating of my heart, in the flesh of my lover, in the hand of a kindred Pagan grasped in circle, and in the transience this very moment.

And Paganism forces me to see what is there, rather than what I want to see.  The God/dess that I find in these experiences is not always the deity that I want.  S/he is not the answer to all my questions — at least not an answer that I can put into a ordinary language.  S/he does not make life easier and S/he is rarely comforting.  But S/he is here.  Messy and imperfect, but here.  And S/he calls me.  S/he calls me to see, to touch, to love, and to be made whole.  And for this, I am grateful.


*Glen Gordon is a new columnist at HumanisticPaganism and his first essay, “Death Song”, will be posted next Wednesday.  It is really something, so I encourage you to check it out.

**By “Paganism” here, I am talking about what Ian Corrigan at Into the Mound has defined as: “the naturally-occurring religious impulse of a local area”.  Ian explains: “By ‘naturally-occurring’ I mean that it hasn’t been brought in by preachers or prophets, and reflects the tradition-whose-beginnings-aren’t-remembered. By ‘religious impulse’ I mean the human inclination to make relationship with a perceived ‘spiritual’ reality – with the persons and beings seen to reside in the world. by ‘local area’ I refer to the worship of beings local to the religion – the god of *that* mountain, *those* stars.”

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  • Lucas Pereira

    I’ve been reading your posts for about six months and your words are always very inspiring. I have no specific religious practice at the moment, I’m in a time of reflection about my spiritual life since I left the Catholic Church and studied Judaism, Buddhism and many other religions and philosophies for the following 10 years. I like what you said about the role paganism plays in moving you out of your comfort zone. Naturalistic Paganism is helping me to face the ways
    in which some aspects of my spirituality had, very often, reinforced the escapist in me, I mean, It’s been very important to me to realize why the other-worldliness of some doctrines was so attractive for the very shy teenager I was by the time I started my spiritual search. It’s a work in progress…

    (I apologize for any language mistakes, I haven’t written in English for some
    years, I’m from Brazil.)

    • Lucas,

      I know just what you mean about escapism. I spent the first half of my life giving in to and struggling against that tendency. My Paganism is very much a response to that.

      By the way, your English is very good. I spent 2 years in Brasil as a Mormon missionary, but I couldn’t string two sentences together in Portuguese today.

      • Lucas Pereira

        Thank you.

        Fortunately, today I can recognize these tendecies without being too hard on myself. The joy and the feeling of wonder I had during my first readings, prayers, meditations and rituals are among my most cherished memories and are the inspiration for me to develop a spiritual practice in accordance with my naturalistic worldview and one that helps me to live life more fully.

        If you come to Brazil again, some day, as a pagan you may like to know more about “Candomblé”. It’s an african-brazilian religion with a great emphasis on nature and a very positive approach to the body and the life in this world.

        • Lucas,
          I am managing editor at HumanisticPaganism.com which is an online community for Naturalistjc Pagans. Would you be interested in writing an article about your own practice or about the naturalistic aspects of Candomble?

          • Lucas Pereira


            I really appreciate the opportunity to write a post for HumanisticPaganism.com (which, along with this blog, was my introduction to Naturalistic Paganism), but, for the moment, I’m afraid that won’t be possible. My spiritual life is a little caotic… as I mentioned before, I came to know Naturalistic Paganism a few months ago and I’m still not sure where I belong, things are a little “blurred”… I still don’t know what form my practice will take, but, if a time should come when I feel that I have some relevant experience to share with the Naturalistic Pagan community, I’ll be very happy to do so.

            Concernig Candomblé, I’m not that familiar with it (it’s a very experiential spirituality), but it’s something I want to learn more about and I like the idea of writing a little article about it, maybe next year (At the moment, I’m writing my master’s dissertation, about Judaism, another tradition I’m very connected to).

            My sincere thanks.

            • Keep us in mind for any writing you would like to share.

              Thanks, John

  • I like this idea a lot – it’s not a way that I’ve thought about religion before. For me, part of the challenge of Paganism is that it’s so loose. I definitely need the freedom to pave my own spiritual practice, but it can be difficult and even discouraging at times. I tend to be drawn outside naturally, and deep reverence for nature is what interrupted my comfortable atheism – an earth-based spirituality is the only thing that’s ever really made sense for me. But articulating that feeling into a spiritual practice that’s built nearly from the ground up has been challenging, exhausting, devastating, but wonderful.

    • Aine,

      I know what you mean. I started to go into that when writing this post, but I decided to focus instead on the positive ways Paganism is challenging to me. But I very much wanted to write about how hard being a DIY Pagan is.

      Cormac McCarthy described how I sometimes feel about this endeavor in his book *The Road*: “When one has nothing left make ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”

      Patrick Murfin is somewhat more positive in his poem “We Build Temples in the Heart”:
      We mix the mortar of the scattered dust
      of the Holy of Holies
      with the sacred water
      of the Ganges;
      lay Moorish alabaster
      on the blocks of Angkor Wat
      and rough-hewn Stonehenge slabs;
      plumb Doric columns for strength of reason,
      square them with stern Protestant planks,
      and illuminate all with Chartres’ jeweled windows
      and the brilliant lamps of science.


      In any case, it’s hard, like feeling your way in the dark. But whenever I start to wonder if it is worth it, I consider the alternatives. And for me, there aren’t any.

      • I love those lines 🙂 And yes, no matter how difficult it may be, there are no alternatives for me, either. I don’t think I was ever going to be a person who would happily adopt a religion or spiritual structure that someone else laid out for me. Part of the joy of it is the personal, intimate nature of it – a path and a story that is truly my own. It’s a way to really know myself, I suppose. I think some people are just wired that way – that they have to create these kinds of things for themselves.

        • Me too. Sometimes I think the process of creating/discovering my spiritual practice *is* my spiritual practice.

  • Lovely.

  • lilithdorsey

    You certainly have lots to be grateful for, and you did a wonderful job of pointing out those less expected surprises that come as we each walk our own path towards the divine. I’ve never come across that quote about “…afflict the comfortable,” it is truly an inspiration.

  • Thanks for the shout-outs, John.

    A humanistic Pagan speaks of the gods who are here – I love it. I think I may have a post of my own along those lines, though not any time soon. Thanks for the inspiration…

  • Margaret Pauken

    Oh, my; wow.
    As a former Catholic, current UU and growing Pagan you have perfectly captured what I am feeling as I add “Pagan” to my personal descriptors: that sense of the divine among us, in the ordinary and extraordinary elements of daily life. It took some time for me to call it what it is and now I feel such relief at knowing others share this view.
    Thank you; thank you.

  • JasonMankey

    Beautiful post. Without trying you captured so much of what makes Paganism spiritual. On a personal note, great having lunch with you and your wife last week.

    • Ditto! I hope we can do it again soon. I’m working on convincing my wife Pantheacon is worth missing work for.