Considering Michael York’s “Catastrophe”

Considering Michael York’s “Catastrophe” May 6, 2012

I awoke this morning intending to begin a series of meditations upon the Delphic Maxims. Not an easy task, but not nearly as difficult as what I’m about to write. As I began my morning routine of e-mail, rss feeds and social media I read Micheal York’s guest post on The Wild Hunt. It’s already received quite a reaction, and I’m going to do my best to respond thoughtfully to it because it touches on threads I have been silently weaving with for a long time.

There is an End happening. Maybe it’s the end of the Piscean age, the planet beginning it’s death throes, the onset of Raganarok, a significant cultural shift or a message from the Gods. Maybe it’s the End of All Things, an End that is the harbinger of a Beginning, or maybe it’s simply the quiet snuffing out of something vital and unnoticed. I may not agree with every phrase and nuance of York’s post, but the feeling that we are experiencing an End, and that something is amiss in our community rings vitally true for me. What I do know is York isn’t saying Dybing is the cat’s pajamas, but that his leaving is simply an example of an underlying problem in our community.

In January of 2011 I had an intensely prophetic dream. Doesn’t happen often for me, and it shook me to my core. At the time I felt strongly that it was a message for a single person, but I think maybe it had wider implications. Here is my record of the dream taken verbatim from the message I wrote immediately upon waking:

So I’m on a blackish-purple boat in a deep harbor with other people. The seas are still, the harbor is to my left, and the open sea to my right. Then suddenly the water beneath the boat disappears, like a chunk of Jello cut from a pan. The boat clunks to the harbor floor unhurt but the waters to the right (the east?) rush toward the boat like a tidal wave. We all grab onto the rails and brace ourselves between them as centered as possible to try to prevent being capsized. The wave falls on us like a hammer and the sea surges beneath us. We lurch up and are caught on the fast-moving ebb wave pushing us out to sea at a 45 degree angle. We’re still braced and trying to keep low and centered to prevent the ship from rolling. Then the wave gives out, the ship rocks upright and settles down, all safe on board, far from the harbor on a, well, not calm but stable and less turbulent sea.

Today contemplating this dream I see so many implications. It’s true that many of the branches of Paganism have left the harbor of the Pagan community. Heathens are a good example of a vibrant “Pagan” community thriving outside of Paganism. You could also see it as modern Pagans cutting ties with the past, or Pagans cutting ties with the over-culture. I can see my own journey mirrored in this dream, as I have in many ways left the port to sail on uncharted seas.

One thing that both this dream and York’s post brings to mind is the deep loneliness of being a public Pagan. I have had private conversations with Pagans who have been in leadership positions or have been very public, and while the stories are different, there is an overwhelming sense of loneliness. My being public about my crisis of faith has been a bit unusual, as many Pagans in the public eye keep such things quiet. They have no one to speak to, and few they can trust. When you are seen as a spiritual leader, and in Paganism all leaders are seen that way even when they make no attempt to claim that vocation, there is no room for stumbling, for spiritual evolution, for doubt, for confession or for guidance.

I am slowly coming to realize that as I grapple with my own crisis of faith, that faith in the Gods isn’t really the problem. My faith in them is as unwavering as is possible in a human being. What I lack faith in is my community.

There are few Pagans that I trust. Fewer still that I speak to regarding my own spiritual well-being. I have grown increasingly silent and bitter. I am more cynical about what our community can accomplish. I no longer have a desire to engage in projects with other Pagans. I view the overtures of the most well-meaning Pagans with suspicion. I have been burned too many times. I have come to view my community as vicious and destructive. And I hate myself for feeling that way.

So I find myself at a standstill. How do I correct this deplorable flaw in myself when my experience has taught me that this is necessary? How do I heal myself and take care of my own spiritual needs when I have no safe space in this community to do that? And worse, what do I do with the messages from other Pagans who have told me they find themselves in the same isolated position? Solitary not by choice or by lack of other Pagans in the area, but of spiritual safety and necessity?

I don’t know what to do with all of this. All I know is I understand where York is coming from, and why Dybing is stepping away. There’s something wrong in our communities and I have no idea how to pinpoint it or fix it. I find myself thinking that this is the reason ancient Paganism fell to Christianity’s sword so long ago, too weighted down by it’s own bitterness, cynicism and distrust to put up an organized and coherent defense against the rise of a destructive monotheism. What we see in Pagan comboxes and e-mail lists today likely played out in the old agoras and temples. When a temple fell, was it because the Christians overwhelmed the polytheists by force? Or was it because it stood empty with no one willing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their neighbors to defend it?

Perhaps the saddest thought that comes to mind is the idea that you judge a religion by the type of people it creates. I think it was Drew Jacob who suggested you seek out a teacher by looking at the people who have studied with them a long time. Do you want to be like those people? If the answer is no, then you need to find another teacher. Maybe the End we are perceiving is a moment in time when Pagans are looking at the drama online, in their local communities, at national festivals and are finding nothing worth emulating or to admire.

And maybe that will lead to more people casting off from shore to find those who share their values. Who are of a similar mind regarding the Gods, the purpose of humankind and how a community should thrive. Who are digging deep into their religious identity rather than making it shallow enough for everyone. Maybe York is right and we are seeing the End of the Pagan community. Or maybe we’re just seeing the end of pan-Paganism and the cries of “no true Pagan” as our growth and diversity plunge us into a cataclysm like the Tower of Babel.

Maybe our ships are leaving shore because we have run out of room in the Paganism we are in, and we no longer speak the same language. If that’s the case, it may seem like the End, but maybe it’s just the Beginning.

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