Jason Mankey has a great post on “When Someone Leaves Paganism” and how to respond to this situation – both in supporting the person leaving, and processing the feelings about it that inevitably come up.
But what about when someone has a crisis of faith, which may involve leaving the Pagan path temporarily, but where the person may eventually return to the Pagan path?
I had a crisis of faith in 2007, and I have always meant to write about it, but the time never seemed right, for various reasons. At first it was too recent to get any perspective on it; then it was too embarrassing, plus it is all very personal stuff; and then I got distracted by other things – like writing a book.
But I think it is worth sharing what happened, just in case anyone else finds themselves in the same situation. I actually think I went temporarily insane, or at least very off-balance – hence the title of this post, and the image of the cyclist.
However, I am not sure that my “wobble” makes sense outside the context of my spiritual journey… so here is a potted history of my path.
My spiritual journey
My earliest spiritual experience was probably wanting to be a witch. At the age of eight, I went to a party at school, which I thought was fancy dress but turned out not to be, and asked my mum to make me a witch costume. I think I had got this from reading Gobbolino, the Witch’s Cat. Later, I read Cynthia Harnett’s novels and absorbed the idea of the witch as a herbalist and healer from her book The Writing on the Hearth.
As a child, I always loved nature and animals, and wanted to be able to converse with trees. I also loved Greek and Norse mythology, Narnia and Middle-Earth. I liked all the Pagan bits in Narnia – the tree spirits, the talking animals, the river god, the fauns, and the centaurs. (I did not notice the Christian bits, because I was immersed in Christianity already.)
I was brought up in the exclusive Plymouth Brethren till the age of nine, but fortunately my parents sheltered me from the worst effects of this. I used to sit in the meetings and read the gory bits and the stories in the Old Testament. One significant thing was that the Plymouth Brethren did not allow people to have Christmas trees, but my parents had one anyway, and told us not to mention it at the meetings. So I asked why we were not supposed to have a Christmas tree, and my parents said “because it’s Pagan”, so I asked what a Pagan was. They said that in the old days, people used to think that the sun might not come back after the winter solstice, so they would go up onto hill-tops and light fires to make the sun come back. I thought this sounded lovely, and wanted to be a Pagan.
However, I believed in the Christian stuff I had been taught, except I don’t think I ever really believed in the devil. And I don’t recall praying to Jesus, only to God (no idea why). Also, I never believed in ‘young earth’ creationism. When I learnt about the Big Bang and evolution at school, I asked my dad how it could be reconciled with the Bible creation account, and he said that God could have used evolution as his process for making things, and that a day in the creation story was like a million years – because elsewhere in the Bible, it says that a thousand years is like a day to God.
After we left the Plymouth Brethren, my parents attended some other churches, including a charismatic evangelical one, where I learnt to “speak in tongues” (also known as glossolalia).
After my parents stopped going to church, I left it for a couple of years and then I went to a United Reformed Church which had a charismatic fellowship group in it.
Around that time, two very significant things happened. I saw the film Gandhi, which made me aware that there were very wise and spiritual people in other religions (who, according to the Christians I knew, would not get to heaven). I had always thought it was unfair that people from other religions were supposed to go to hell just because they believed something different.
The other thing was that my best friend, whom I had known since the age of five, and who was a very spiritual and altruistic person, came out to me as gay. I asked my Christian friends about this, and they said that he would go to hell if he persisted in having sex with men. I was pretty sure that he had been born gay, so I thought it was massively unfair that God would create someone gay and then condemn them for it. I was also discovering my own sexuality around this time, and wondering why a “try before you buy” approach to marriage was condemned. And I had learnt about the Holocaust and concluded that good and evil reside mainly in the human breast, not as some cosmic force or being, and that if God was all powerful, why would he allow such dreadful suffering (free will notwithstanding)?
So at this point I became an atheist.
Coming home to Paganism
I then concluded that there must be some way – political or spiritual – to make the world a better place. I thought about this and decided that consciousness needs raising so that people are more empathetic and compassionate. I thought that one way to help with this was to raise my own consciousness, so began to look for a spiritual tradition that could help me with that. I rejected any tradition that was against life, sexuality, and the beauty of being embodied in this physical plane, and that seemed more interested in some other reality.
I had read Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling, and concluded that Paganism was a good label for my beliefs – that life, sexuality, and nature are sacred, and that there is no all-powerful cosmic creator. I was attracted to Pagan mythology but did not believe in deities literally.
At this point, I thought that I was the only Pagan – I did not know that there were other Pagans. Then, when I went to university, I got involved with battle re-enactment and met other Pagans there, and also at university. In my last year at university, someone started a Pagan society, so I joined it. From that group, someone put me in touch with some Wiccans, and so in 1991, after I left university, I was initiated into Wicca. It felt like coming home. The wildness, the connection to nature, the rituals at night in the woods with fire, the honouring of women equally with men – it felt very much like the celebration of life that I was looking for.
I was happy with the coven I was initiated into, and stayed in it for 3 years, until I moved to Scotland. There, it was much harder to find a coven to join, though I tried a couple of different ones. It was very painful as I missed the closeness of my original coven and the style of the rituals. I got my second degree initiation in 1995, which meant I was then able to initiate others.
Then I moved to Southampton, where there were no existing Wiccan covens. I started an eclectic non-initiatory Pagan group, with a view to initiating them eventually. The various members moved away, and I moved to London to do a PGCE.
In 2000, I moved to Bristol and started a coven with my partner in 2003.
After a while, I began to worry about the effects created in the psyche by Wiccan oaths of secrecy (I felt that they created a block). I also wanted a more community-based religion, and tried Druidry for a while (alongside my existing Wiccan practice). I also started worrying about the very gendered nature of Wiccan deities.
By this time, I had started to believe in deities as something more than archetypes, and was a member of an online group of polytheists, most of whom were convinced that deities were discrete individual entities, and many of whom were convinced that they had a special relationship with a particular deity. I started to wonder why I had not been chosen by a particular deity.
In 2007, while I was doing an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities, I discovered that Christianity was not as homophobic as I had thought, and that in fact it had a less gendered view of the Divine than I had thought. Traditionally, God was viewed as being without gender. And it was less against the physical plane than I had thought.
I also began to wonder if the problems of the world could ever be solved by human means, since everything is so entangled – capitalism leads to war and oppression and environmental degradation, and if you fix one problem, you’re likely to cause another one.
Another problem that I experienced with Paganism around this time was the reburial issue. A number of Pagans were campaigning to have human remains reburied, and I thought this was irrational on several grounds: that archaeology had provided much of the data that enabled the Pagan revival to happen; that there were much more important issues to worry about, such as climate change, social justice issues, and the destruction of the rainforests; and that the best way to treat human remains was to recover their stories so that they can be remembered and honoured, and put them safely in museums, which are after all temples to the Muses. If you are interested in this issue, I have outlined the case for retaining human remains in museums elsewhere.
And the other thing was that in 1992, I had performed an exorcism for someone and seen the entity (grey, gangly and with orange eyes) that was doing the haunting with my inner eye, and in 2007, someone showed me a photo taken in a cave in the Middle East of something that looked very much like the entity (grey, gangly, and with orange eyes), and you could see the rock through its transparent legs. This freaked me out. I had always assumed that nature spirits were either benign or neutral, and any hostility to humans that they might have would be on environmental grounds. This thing just looked downright nasty.
Also in 2007, I was meditating at the Chalice Well in Glastonbury and had a vision of Jesus. I had no idea what to do with this, as I was a witch. I had been looking for my personal deity, having a crisis about the nature of the cosmos and what to do about the problem of evil, and admiring Christianity for its stance on social justice issues such as poverty. One of my main arguments against Christianity had been removed, and I also discovered that some Christians believed everyone would be saved (so that demolished the other argument).
I had also found that love was a really important transformative factor in healing, as our cat, Harry, was very traumatised when he came to us, and our love drew him out and made him better. I became almost convinced that the idea that ‘God is love’ was actually true.
I could not bear the idea of rejoining an evangelical church, where my involvement with Paganism would almost certainly be seen as demonic, and where my in-depth knowledge of mythology would be in massive conflict with their simplistic world-view. So I thought I would try the Orthodox Church (lots of bells and smells, great ritual, icons, and had done very little persecution of non-Christians), which I did for two months. In many ways, I found their theology helpful and illuminating, as it was very different to western Christianity on issues like original sin and the meaning of Jesus’ death. I did not like their elevation of celibacy to a saintly virtue, nor the fact that they do not have women priests, nor their conservative attitude to homosexuality.
I lasted for two months and then found out they were much more homophobic than I had thought. So I realised I could not bear that, and thought, ‘Well, I have tried Orthodoxy for two months now, I will try the Unitarians next.’ So I went to a Unitarian church and there was a woman at the front talking about Zen Buddhism and cats, and there were hymns saying that all religions contained great teachers and offer the possibility of enlightenment. It was wonderful and felt like home.
During this period, I actually think I went temporarily insane, because I re-enacted the development of religious thought in Europe over the last 2000 years in the space of six months. I went from polytheism to Christianity, to universalism, back to atheism, and then eventually back to polytheism. It was a theological roller-coaster ride and I don’t recommend taking it so fast.
I am so grateful to the members of the Pagan community who held me steady during this time. One of those people was Cat Chapin-Bishop. The members of my coven at that time were also tremendously supportive, despite it being really difficult for them that their new high priestess was having a flirtation with Jesus. The other thing that was really important was Pagans saying that if I was on the right spiritual path for me, that was fine with them. That remains one of the great strengths of Paganism – that we don’t believe it is cosmically necessary to be a Pagan, and that the same spiritual path may not be right for everyone.
I eventually ended my relationship with Jesus – much to my relief and probably his and everyone else’s too.
The nice thing about Unitarianism is that it is inclusive enough to allow its members to be atheists, Buddhists, Wiccans, Pagans, Christians, Hindus, Jews, or just plain Unitarians, because it is about values and social justice and sharing your spiritual insights with others, not about adhering to a specific set of beliefs. You can also change your spiritual focus, or mix and match different traditions. It also has really great hymns, and is compatible with reason and science. I made some great friends among the Unitarians, and am glad that I went exploring.
In fact, I liked Unitarianism so much that I thought I wanted to be a minister. I enjoyed leading services, and I was good at it. I should think I ought to be after 20 years of writing and performing Pagan ritual. However, several Unitarian asked how it was possible to be a Unitarian and a Wiccan; whereas no Wiccans ever asked me how it was possible to be both Wiccan and Unitarian. They were interested in how it worked, but not critical of my choice.
At the end of 2009, I split up with my former partner and moved to Bath. It was an amicable split and we continued to work together as high priestess and high priest of our coven.
I still liked Unitarianism but in order to be a minister, I would have had to give up being a Wiccan priestess (not because of any theological conflict, but because one doesn’t have time to be a leader in two different religious traditions when one of those commitments is a full-time paid professional commitment). I also found that trying to present the archetype of minister was in conflict with my inner archetype of being a witch. Wicca celebrates the sacredness of the erotic, and (for the most part) Unitarianism doesn’t. So, after one week of being a ministry student – and many, many hints from the Powers that being a Unitarian minister would have been a really really bad idea for me personally – I quit the training. I am just not interested in mainstream Christian theology, or whether the Hebrew Bible is an accurate account of Israel’s history, or whether it is constructed from different texts (Priestly, Elohist, Yahwist and Deuteronomic), or how to do Christology, or any of the other topics covered in the required theology courses. At the time, I was suffering from spiritual burn-out. This was partly as a result of events before I joined Unitarianism, but the problem was exacerbated by trying to work as a congregational development worker – which seems to be a role like that of a minister but without the status and respect accorded to a minister.
As I approached the start of my training, I felt depressed, anxious, overworked, overburdened, and conflicted. I thought that this was because I wanted to leave my job, which I did, but once I had left my job, I realised that the feelings were still there. I think that this depression and anxiety was pointing to the deeper issues which I had with being in a religious tradition that wasn’t right for me, and which wasn’t spiritually nourishing for me (although it did heal me in many ways). There seems to be a general lack of clarity on what Unitarianism is. Each Unitarian knows their own mind, and their own theology, and I can see a consistency of values across the spectrum, but there does not seem to be a consensus on whether Unitarianism is Christian or not.
Shortly after this, I moved to Oxford and made a fresh start, which was really helpful for me.
Coming home to Wicca
I felt such a huge physical sense of relief when I quit the training. I went to a circle with my coven, and felt bits of me that had been clenched and withdrawn re-opening like desert flowers gratefully receiving rain. I went to a workshop event with a group of Wiccans, and mentioned the experience of sublimated eros in Wiccan ritual, and everyone nodded and smiled (whereas you would have to spend a lot of time explaining this to most people). I knew I was home again, with my beloved community. And strangely, everything in my life started getting better too. I had been unsure how I was going to support myself financially through the training course, where I was going to live, and this was a massive period of upheaval in my life.
Eventually, in August 2012, I realised that I couldn’t be a Unitarian and a Wiccan. I am a Wiccan and a polytheist, I honour and work with the Pagan deities, I look to the land and Nature for my spiritual nourishment.
I attended a symble run by a very dear friend, and vowed at that point to focus all my energies on Paganism. It was a powerful moment. It was then that I realised that Wicca is my dharma, my sangha, my tribe, blood of my blood, heart of my heart. It was also around this time that I started blogging at Patheos Pagan.
Also, in 2012, I met my new partner, who has been Wiccan since before he met me. We are very much in love. This helps greatly with feeling positive about life.
I spent most of 2014 writing my book about inclusive Wicca, and clarifying my thoughts about my Craft. During 2015, I have been working on the Pagan Consent Culture anthology with Christine Hoff Kraemer.
Wobbling makes you stronger
Sometimes, in order to truly experience a feeling, you have to go away from it and approach it from a different angle. You have to try to do without your connection to beloved community to know that they are really your tribe, your people. Having tested my faith in Paganism, the deities, and the power of Nature, I found that it bent but did not break, it tore but did not disintegrate. It was antifragile (thanks to Melissa Hill for introducing me to that useful new word).
There are numerous spiritual stories where the hero goes past the thing s/he seeks, mistaking it for something else, and then has to double back to find it again by accident. This is especially true of the story of Moses and Al-Khidr. That is often the nature of ‘spiritual’ treasure. It is not immediately obvious that it is treasure.
Many people find that they arrive at a universalist perspective on spirituality, only to find that it is really difficult to sustain the idea that “all is one” (perhaps because your mountain is not the same as my mountain, perhaps because spirituality works better when it has a specific context), and then move once again into their own spiritual perspective and homeland, with a new appreciation of its worth.
So, whilst having a wobble on your spiritual journey can be really painful and difficult: if you are having one, follow your bliss, whatever that turns out to be. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. Where do you feel most comfortable, most nourished? Who are the people who really support your journey, and who are the people who just want to control you? Who are you? What do you want? Whom do you trust, and whom do you serve?