Seeking the Mysteries: Chapter 3 Activities – Part One (thoughts on the chapter)

The broad back of a carved flat stone. You can just make out the outlines of fluffy rain clouds carved into the top. There is a slice of spice cake topped with red currants near the top-center of the frame, and the lower right corner of the image includes a pool of red berry kombucha poured into a hollow of the rock. There are dried spice-bush berries scattered over the stone. I took this picture at Beltane 2021, the first time I made offerings to the Locals at one of the seasonal altars near my home.
Offerings to the Local People, Beltane 2021
(photo by me, cake and kombucha also by me)

Woops. I thought I’d posted this a month+ ago, and it turns out it was still in my drafts. So here we go:

So Chapter Three is called “Knowledge and Devotion” but, while it definitely covers things like initiatory & mystery traditions vs not-so-much[1], Personal Gnosis (verified or otherwise), and various kinds of devotional activities, the author also spends some time talking about community and the internet.

Look. I have to admit, I had some Feelings about the part of the chapter that touched on “learning from a book” and “The Internet” vs multi-generational religious communities.

The book was published 10 years ago. Long form blogging was still a big deal and social media As We Know It Now was just ramping up (I am so wondering what she makes of Witchtok…). She wasn’t wrong about people preferring their online communications to come in forms they could tightly control due to the hostility of the environment. Like, the block button is definitely My Friend. And I see the generational siloing that happens in, e.g., queer communities, and I can understand why this is a concern for her.

At the same time… part of me is just like: Okay, but almost all of my teachers have been people I found thanks to online communities, including the local people who I’m still in touch with, who I first met in the mid-1990s, during the internet’s infancy. The ritual group I’ve practiced with for the longest, I’m able to practice with at all thanks to them broadcasting their rituals over the internet.

There are plenty of days where I crave that community, where I want to be able to “go to church” in person / locally (and not be the only one who gave 2 minutes thought to what would go on the altar or what the ritual was about – why am I reading theology books again?), and to have immersive, communal religious experiences that don’t require me to sleep in a tent for a week surrounded by relentless drumming and mosquitos.

I know that paganism – in the sense of a giant faith-umbrella with a LOT of religions under it that have enough overlapping reads on the world(s) that they can hang out together – is still largely made up of converts, even though there are definitely multi-generational pagan families out there. I can’t help thinking of Christianity, which has been around for thousands of years, and wondering about their first few centuries, before one Roman emperor converted and made it politically fashionable/expedient to be Christian (let alone another emperor, a hundred or so years later, making it illegal to be anything else). I mean, it was an apocalyptic cult that was expecting the end of the world Any Day Now and kind of discouraging its membership from having kids on that basis.

So I find it a little… almost alarmist, maybe? When someone – and Christine Hoff Kraemer isn’t “Some Boomer” who came up in the 1970s’ counter culture, lamenting about Ye Goode Olde Days before the internet existed, she looks about my age, if not slightly younger and manages the Pagan section of Patheos.com  – is Having Concerns about the neopagan movement’s sustainability, given that it hasn’t been around for very long.

If we decide to trace the lineage of Anglophone Neopaganism back to Gerald Gardner’s British Traditional Wicca[2], then “neopaganism” as a movement is only about a hundred years old. And the first sixty of those – kind of arbitrary, again, but I’m thinking of the 1979-82 explosion of goddess spirituality literature that made stuff like this available through something other than word-of-mouth – were done entirely on the quiet. (How did anyone find a Coven to join, when nobody used their real names to practice their faith, and you had to be very sure someone was both trustworthy and into it before you invited them to a ceremony? Like, Outer Courts are a thing, but don’t actually know how this was accomplished. I could probably look it up – maybe in Drawing Down the Moon – but I don’t know off the top of my head). I don’t think it’s particularly odd that Neopaganism, having been available outside of some pretty closed circles for only ~40 years, is still in its infancy as a developing, multi-generational community.

I don’t think she’s wrong to say that having some reliable Processes Of Discernment would be good for us, as a cluster of very experiential religious groups. And she’s not wrong, either, when she says that generational siloing can lead to a lot of reinventing the wheel, so to speak, that doesn’t have to happen, or that relying on the internet can make for a fragmented, very far-flung community that – because we don’t all live in the same area – can’t necessarily show up to help each other move, muster a meal train, facilitate rites of passage, or otherwise be a community the way, say, my mom’s church is a community.

I do wonder what it might have been like to grow up in a large pagan religious community that included my parents and grandparents and a couple of centuries of habit, folk symbolism, and social games. To have had the opportunity to do the Pagan equivalent of a Bat Mitzvah or Confirmation ceremony where I got to talk shop and baby-steps theology with peers and older advisor/teacher types on subject matter that felt meaningful to me, rather than awkward and ill-fitting, and then got some level of community celebration a few months later when I did the ceremony proper. To not have to rely on luck and The Algorithm to make sure I found out that local and wider-than-local religious-community-meetings were happening, because someone at the temple would make an announcement about it for a couple of weeks leading up to whatever-it-is.

But, at the same time, I don’t think it’s hurt me to have learned things out of books, or by reading blogs or going to (often, though not always online) mostly non-religious workshops run by other queer, kinky, polytheists – to have found religious community at all thanks to my far-flung but accessible-via-the-internet peer group.

In Chapter Three, the author mentions David Abram and how, upon returning to his… call it a “typical white guy life”(?) he started to lose the “profound sense of intimacy with the natural world” that he’d experienced while immersed in communities where that sense of intimacy was a normal part of “typical life”. She draws on Sherry Turkles’s Alone Together, commenting that it’s harder to form intimate human relationships – all the Brene Brown vulnerability stuff – when so many of our interactions (Oh, hai, pandemic) are done in a milieu like twitter where there’s not a lot of room for nuance (or vulnerability), and asking how one can form intimate relationships with non-human people if one doesn’t have a lot of experience forming them with other humans.

And that… is not how that works.

Sorry not sorry.

Lots of people who never had the opportunity to form healthy intimate relationships with other humans (and that is a LOT of pagans, friends) due to a plethora of Bad Childhood Situations – including abuse, neglect, and the subtle-and-unsubtle societal messages that being queer and/or trans are things to be secretive and ashamed about – learned how to experience intimacy first by emotionally connecting with pets or houseplants. Humans are so, SO wired for intimacy and connection. And gods are not without agency and know how to get noticed when they need to.

So while, yes, it’s much EASIER to cultivate and maintain those senses of connection – to understand that the sewing machine has a name (which she told me) because she’s old enough and complicated enough to have developed one; to understand that the chard in the garden is a person who I’m cutting, and hurting, every time I harvest their leaves for dinner, so I’d better appreciate their resilience and continued presence in my yard and should also make sure to feed them and give them enough water so that they heal well and stay strong – when I’m surrounded by, and interacting with, people who share those same understandings (this is one of the big reasons why I date other pagans)… But it’s not a requirement. You may have to get the hang of shrugging it off when people look at you like you have two heads, and you may (still) have to fit your religious observances in around the edges of the rest of your life, but you can still cultivate that understanding.

Anyway. This is rapidly approaching 1500 words, so I will talk about the Chapter Three Activities in Part Two.

TTFN,

Ms Syren

[1] This is why I talk about being influenced by Feri, but not being a Feri practitioner – I’m not an initiate into their mysteries, and the elements of their practices and cosmology that have found their way into my own are things that are free to share with outsiders/laity.

[2] Which… sure, it’s kind of arbitrary. But I’m a 90s kid and I remember when Chapters started carrying whole shelves full of books on Wicca – and it was Wicca, or at least elements there-of, that was most readily available, especially if you didn’t have a local occult bookstore or know how to find out if such a thing existed. So We’re going through Wicca (sort of) for the purposes of this post.

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