Redemption November 12, 2012

Star Foster has a post on her new blog titled “Redemption: Even Pagans Need Deliverance.” Star has been very public with the difficulties in her life and here tells a very personal and very emotional story of loss. She asks:

Sometimes even the most virtuous among us does grievous wrong, and how then do we atone for it? Do we find ourselves condemned to years of hardship, like Psyche or Herakles?

And when we sell our souls, our integrity, our dignity, our self-worth, how then shall they be redeemed? Can you buy back your humanity?

I come from a similar evangelical Protestant background as Star and I understand what she means by “redemption.” Pagans and UUs rightly complain that conservative Christians use the concept of sin as a big hammer to guilt people into conformity. But their abuse doesn’t change the fact that all of us – Christians, Pagans, atheists and everyone else – screw up from time to time. Not just in the sense of “mistakes were made” but in the gut-wrenching, soul-splitting realization that you’ve done something really realy bad, something that’s going to hurt you or a loved one a lot, for a long time.

In the film version of The Mists of Avalon, there is this exchange between Igraine and Morgaine:

Igraine: “When Arthur is crowned, I’m going to go to Glastonbury.”

Morgaine: “Why don’t you come to Avalon with me?”

Igraine: “I need forgiveness for what l did to your father, and I’ll only find that in Glastonbury.”

In my time in Christian churches I saw scores of people who went to Glastonbury (metaphorically speaking) seeking redemption. Many of them found it: their guilt was gone, their slate wiped clean, they were born again. They walked out of church feeling refreshed and renewed.

Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to help much with the conditions and habits that got them into trouble in the first place, and most of them (not all, but most) found themselves right back in the same situations within a few months.

Cu Chulainn and the Hound of Culann

For our pagan ancestors, redemption meant restitution – you screwed it up, you fix it. When the boy Setanta killed the hound of Culann, he offered to take the hound’s place and guard Culann’s house until a new hound could be trained. With that act, he earned his legendary name Cu Chulainn – “Culann’s Hound.”

Star referenced the Labors of Hercules, twelve monumental tasks which the hero undertook to atone for killing his children in a bout of madness sent by Hera.

The point of these stories and many like them is to encourage us to live honorably and heroically, do to the right thing even when it is impossibly hard.

That, of course, assumes you know what the “right thing” is. Real life is never as straightforward as myth and many times we don’t realize we’re on the wrong track until we get clobbered by a series of “bad choices” we didn’t even recognize were choices when we made them. Life is not fair: some people have the money and connections to dodge the consequences of criminal acts, while others end up in jail or dead as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some people have the talent and motivation and luck to rise above the most adverse circumstances, while others struggle to deal with ordinary life.

I struggle with what to say in situations like this. I struggle with my own sins and the harm I’ve caused. How do we encourage responsibility without blaming victims? How do we encourage others to live heroically without absolving ourselves from the sacred obligation to establish justice? How do we walk the fine line Thorn Coyle often reminds us Feri teacher Victor Anderson drew: “to neither coddle nor punish weakness”? How do we find the message in the pain… and then act on it?

How then shall we be redeemed? I don’t have an answer for Star. I don’t have an answer for myself. But I do know this – no savior is coming to make everything OK.

We can keep doing what we’ve been doing. Or we can check into the cloister at Glastonbury.

Or we can take the first steps down the path on the journey of the hero.

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