Magic is the art of changing consciousness at will – Dion Fortune
My relationship with religion has always been… fraught. To be more specific, my relationship with systems of belief has always been complicated. From the beginning, from my nice, Catholic baptism where I, to hear my mother tell it, spent the ceremony happily blowing raspberries at the priest.
Trying to believe
Which isn’t to say that I haven’t tried to believe. When I was in grade school we went to church. I went to Sunday school, got my First Communion and First Reconciliation. I learned my catechism. And I tried to believe.
I have a vivid memory of kneeling at a pew, during mass trying so hard to pray. Closing my eyes and picturing my heart with perforations that would break open and let Jesus in. But I never felt anything. I can remember, as well, the profound sadness at my failure. And I can remember looking at the other parishioners, dressed in their Sunday-best, kneeling at their pews, with their eyes closed, praying. And I wondered if they were just acting. I knew that I was.
And then, the summer before I started at the local Catholic middle school I found Scott Cunningham’s The Truth about Witchcraft Today. My mother bought it for me, after voicing her concern that it would be too scary for me to read (there is a long history of me reading books that my parents knew little about, probably for the best). And so I became the best approximation of Pagan a 10 year old can be with access to one introductory book, table salt and butter knives.
Paganism worked for me in a way that Catholicism could not. The direct relationship with the divine, the overt link to the rhythms of time and nature, the inclusiveness of the belief system, and who doesn’t love magical thinking? My library expanded, I read Starhawk and Laurie Cabot and Raven Silverwolf and Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon. I read the tarot and wrote in my Book of Shadows. I bought an athame in Spain, had chalices inscribed with “In perfect love and perfect trust” from my first girlfriend. I celebrated the Esbats and Sabats with friends, believers and not. I sustained a Pagan identity for 10 years.
Trying to believe, Part II
But, ultimately, my inability to believe dragged me away from even the loose system of belief required for an unorganized, personally constructed religion. The divine as immanent or not, rational belief stood in the way of magical thinking. I felt as ridiculous trying to pray to Jesus at mass as I did wielding a steak knife and wooden spoon in my parents’ living room, calling the elements and invoking the divine. The sense of a resounding silence was strong no matter which conception of the divine within which I was working. Religion, gods, celebrations fell out of my life, and I little noticed. So that when I was 23 and a dear friend was getting married, I boxed up my books, and athame, and cauldron, and chalices and turned them over to him, in perfect love and perfect trust that he would put them to better use than I.
If I can’t pray, what makes me think I can work magick?
I became involved in the skeptical movement, in the fight against the cynical use of a particular interpretation of Christianity designed to limit plurality and the understanding of science in the public sphere. Atheism fits me well. I do not have recourse to an afterlife in which to make things right, to a deity that will justify my acts, or condemn them. If I want immortality, I have to be remembered well by those with whom I live, here and now. If I want goodness, I must hold myself culpable to those who are affected by my actions.
And yet. What drew me into Pagan belief systems remained ever on the cusp of my awareness. I would stand in the light of the full moon. I maintained my childhood habit of spending summer nights on my back in the grass, staring at a particular star in the sky and trying to really feel the distance. The universe is vast and empty, and filled with beauty. I remembered the quarters and cross-quarters of the year.
A Secular Pagan
I’m almost two decades removed from that strange child who found a book that spoke to a mystery she could almost grasp. I am no longer so far away from her, however. I have recently repurchased Starhawk’s books. You see, belief or not, I am capable of reverence. There is a reverence found in the world, in beauty. I find it in the endless ebb and flow of seasons, in the waxing and waning of the moon. A reverence and a resonance. There is something important about ritual. About the conscious paying attention to the world that can be found in noticing the moon cycles, in witnessing the change in seasons. That is what a sort of secular paganism gets me. I don’t know what a substantive form of god would be, how physics would account for prayer, what could possibly make up an afterlife.
But I do know that participatory reverence in the world soothes me.
The rituals of full moon and dark moon ceremonies aren’t for any other consciousness than mine. Time progresses inexorably forward, what life I have is just the time right now, right here. I like taking time every two weeks or so to remember that I am alive. That I am not alone. That I am no more nor less than an accident of community. The myths that are created and told, again and again, to coincide with the seasons don’t describe what really happens, but reminds me that our stories are continually being told, and created.
The quote at the beginning makes more sense to me now. Magic, prayer, religion, god, what have you, isn’t the power to affect the world with your mind, no matter how hard child-me tried for telekinesis. Magic is done when you remember that you are connected to the world, as so you can do what you can to change the circumstances around you. Or to take them less seriously. We cannot help but live with others. We cannot remove ourselves from the world. Our time is finite and unimportant. No one of us is necessary or all that special, considered from afar. And all of this is the most beautiful thing that I know. There can be nothing but what we do, now, here, with our lives. So we’d best be paying attention. We’d do better to have a sense of participatory reverence, however it’s found.
And I can never, fully, shake the sense that moonlight is a special kind of light.
This article originally appeared at Hypatia’s Girl Is Angry.
Hypatia’s Girl: Political philosopher in training, obsessive follower of news, feminist, socialist, absurdist (or perhaps that’s the world we live in). Also, my kitties.
Hypatia’s Girl blogs at Hypatia’s Girl Is Angry.
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This is a beautiful description of a non-theistic reverence, thank you for sharing.
This is a very touching personal essay, and I feel I really know of the places you’re speaking from. I also like, and will have to borrow, the term “participatory reverence.” I think it speaks to my sense of reverence in ritual in a sensible way.
I think this is something a bit confusing for people who have an entrenched idea of what an atheist must be, and I have been told before that I am “very reverent, for an atheist.” I think what’s missed in this is that showing reverence does not immediately indicate what is being revered, and if I bow to a friend’s icon of Hermes, I may not be showing respect for Hermes but for the art, the artist, and the moment in time we are sharing.
“You see, belief or not, I am capable of reverence. There is a reverence found in the world, in beauty. I find it in the endless ebb and flow of seasons, in the waxing and waning of the moon. A reverence and a resonance. There is something important about ritual. About the conscious paying attention to the world that can be found in noticing the moon cycles, in witnessing the change in seasons. That is what a sort of secular paganism gets me. I don’t know what a substantive form of god would be, how physics would account for prayer, what could possibly make up an afterlife. But I do know that participatory reverence in the world soothes me.”
I love this! Thank you. And I especially like that you describe “magic” as affirming, rather than denying, our interconnectedness.
This is a simply beautiful account of naturalistic reverence. I love the idea of ritual as consciously paying attention to the world. Thanks for giving us all so much to think about!
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