Paganism Isn’t Safe: When Rituals Scare You

Paganism Isn’t Safe: When Rituals Scare You November 3, 2019

Here’s another question from the recent Conversations Under the Oaks:

I’m agnostic, but I’ve been leaning a little more towards Paganism of late. I did one of the rituals outlined in your blog (the “weekly ritual of focus and protection”) and had a very powerful experience with a force I’m cautiously referring to as Morrigan. I’m a doubtful person by nature, so I backed off rituals for a while to give me some time to process what I experienced.

My question is, have you ever had an experience (maybe early on) that made you take a step back from Paganism, whether it was because you weren’t sure it was real or because it was so intense it made you nervous? Do you think the Gods would take offense to that, or that you would damage your relationship with Them?

The Gods are patient with beginners… mostly

Taking time to process new experiences is good and necessary, particularly when they challenge a long-held worldview.

In my experience, the Gods (or rather, the Gods with whom I’m acquainted – I can’t speak about all of Them) are very forgiving with beginners. They’re aware that we live in a culture where Their norms and protocols haven’t been widely known for centuries. And They’re playing a long game – if They “smite” or abandon beginners for minor slights and mistakes, They’re not going to build much of a following. Plus They’re Gods who are full of virtue, not insecure egomaniacs.

But you don’t stay a beginner forever (or at least, I hope you don’t), and the deeper you go the tighter the requirements get. And no matter how inexperienced you are They’re not going to overlook behavior that would be unacceptable in any religion. Don’t be a dick and expect to get away with it because you’re new.

The Fair Folk aren’t

The Fair Folk are different. A bargain is a bargain and your ignorance is your problem, not theirs. Now, fairy royalty usually aren’t petty – they’re playing a long game too. But both the stories of our ancestors and contemporary experience remind us that the Good Neighbors are offended by most any discourtesy or disrespect and they tend to respond in what we would consider a disproportionate manner.

Magic has its own rules, and I don’t think any human completely understands them all. But I think it’s safe to say that when you work magic – any magic – you step away from the herd and you start glowing. I’m speaking metaphorically here – the point is that you make yourself visible to all kinds of persons, and some of them are not particularly benevolent toward humans. And that’s on top of whatever forces your magic sets in motion.

I’m giving a long answer to remind everyone that what is true of Gods is not necessarily true of other persons you may encounter. But I think it is very unlikely any Gods took offense to backing away for a while because you experienced something that disturbed you.

A search for truth

Now, as for me “taking a step back” from Paganism either because I wasn’t sure something was real or because it was too intense, that answer is no. And the reason is the same in both cases. From the time I began to realize that what the Baptists were teaching me ain’t necessarily so, my religious practice has been a quest for truth. Not “The Truth” – that’s a question for philosophy, not for religion.

Rather, I’ve spent a lifetime trying to figure out which stories are historical and which are mythical. And for those that are mythical, which ones teach truths that are meaningful and helpful and which ones teach lies designed to manipulate and control others. I’m building a model of the universe that will never be finished but that with more evidence and more experience, can do a better job of explaining who I am and what I’m doing in this life.

If something seems unreal, that’s a signal to investigate more deeply. Am I assuming a supernatural source for something with a this-world cause? Sometimes that strange light in the middle of the night is a neighbor playing with a flashlight.

And sometimes it’s not.

If something “should be” impossible but it’s there nonetheless, we’re told we just haven’t figured out the proper “rational” (i.e. – materialist) explanation. And sometimes that’s right. But sometimes the answer is to change your view of what you assume is possible.

Do that often enough and you start to understand that what we call “consensus reality” is merely the results of a centuries-long popularity contest. Yes, consensus reality is quite useful in many places. But it’s less helpful in others and flat-out wrong in some.

The books on the left represent the more reliable examples of consensus reality. The books on the right, not so much. Bonus points if you recognize that both books on the right are telling different sides of the same story (at least the way they’re generally presented in the public square).

I’ve adjusted my model of the universe numerous times. My polytheism went from very soft to diamond hard after several first-hand experiences of deities that were different from each other. Understanding the Gods as many and not as one is a more useful model and thus probably a closer approximation of the truth.

Like a moth to a flame

As for things getting too intense, the more real it seems, the more I want it, to the point I have to remind myself that this is sacred work and not something for my own enjoyment… even though sometimes the outcome is anything but enjoyable.

I trust in the virtues of the Gods. And while I know that my comfort and well-being aren’t at the top of their priority lists, I trust that if I suffer in Their service it’s for a greater cause – even if I can’t see it at the time. To be clear: suffering is not a virtue and it is never “redemptive.” But sometimes it’s necessary to accomplish a goal.

When it comes to dealing with non-divine persons, I’ll admit to a bit of arrogance. They may be strong, but so am I. If I reach the extent of my magic, I have powerful allies who have helped me in the past and likely will do so again in the future. And while I may be arrogant, I’m not ignorant. I’m not careless, and I know enough to treat all unknown persons with dignity and respect… and with an abundance of caution.

I’m also aware that I like to dance awfully close to the line between ecstasy and insanity. I am required to stay on this side of that line, but there are days when the other side looks very inviting.

I know people who got a peek behind the curtain and ran screaming back to their Great Mother Goddess who loves them and wants everyone to be happy and safe. Or running all the way back to the Christian church they left for very good reasons.

While intellectually I understand their fear and their response to that fear, my soul screams “how could you walk away from this?” There’s a whole world of Gods and spirits and magic out there – how could anybody not want to be a part of it? Or at least know what all is there? Even if it’s scary, even if it’s hard, even if it’s dangerous.

But some don’t, and if that’s you, then you have to do what’s best for you.

Life isn’t safe – pay attention and learn

I find it interesting that the questioner asked about stepping back both if they weren’t sure something was real, or if they thought it was too real. I see that frequently with Pagans of all varieties. They want their Paganism to be real – just not too real. They talk about “the Universe” like it’s an omniscient individual who cares about each and every one of us… conveniently ignoring the fact that this universe also contains tornadoes and cancer and parasitoid wasps. They’re happy to talk about the Morrigan helping them reclaim their sovereignty, but then act confused when She hands them a spear and points them toward the front lines of battle. Magic is empowering, but they think all real witches observe the Wiccan Rede.

They want a Paganism that’s safe.

The Gods aren’t safe. Magic isn’t safe. Life isn’t safe – sooner or later it kills every one of us. And given that none of this is safe, it seems to me that the best approach is to learn as much as we can so we can engage it skillfully. And carefully and respectfully, but mainly skillfully, and that can only be done if we push through our fears and keep exploring and experimenting and thus learning.

I get that for some people, Fairy Queens and Battle Goddesses can be just as scary as DMT-enabled insects are to me. At the end of the day, we all have to choose the risks we’re willing to take and the risks we won’t. There is a place in Paganism and in the particular version of Pagan polytheism I practice for everyone who wants it, regardless of the lines they’re willing to cross.

But I encourage everyone to continue your search for truth and meaning, even when it gets scary.

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