Note: This series is a follow-up to my essay, “I Don’t Believe in Purification”. In this 3-part series, I offer some additional context for my approach to deity, spirituality, and ritual.
When I lead a ritual, I’m far less concerned with teaching and enforcing any given theology than I am with getting ritual participants to a place where they can commune with the divine. And, if they aren’t theistic at all, perhaps that’s more just getting people to a place where they can connect to their deep inner wisdom. I identify as a pantheist, so I’m usually going to refer to that “something” that I’m helping people connect to as the divine, as deity, as archetype, as mystery.
I see it as divine communion, but not with something external or “above.” I see it as connecting to the divine within us that always was, we just can’t stay in a constant state of perceiving that divine. If the ritual is working for my participants, that’s all that matters to me.
I’m not concerned with their specific theological beliefs.
My Own Beliefs
I approach deity in a somewhat agnostic way, in the sense that I have my own beliefs about the divine, but I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I could be completely wrong about how deity works.
I’m a Gnostic in the sense that I have had direct experience of the divine in a way that transformed me. Many people use the word “mystic” and “mysticism” without understanding its core definition; it’s often a word that is used to mean “magical” or “woo-woo.” A mystic is one who has had direct connection and apprehension of the divine.
I stumbled into a class years ago called “Mysticism in the Third Millennium.” I was a Pagan looking for a community at the time, but I took this class as I figured it would be an easy college credit while I was working full time. Instead, the class completely transformed me and my understanding of theology and spirituality. It was offered by Wayne Teasdale, an interreligious monk and Sannyasa (renunciate).
In his book, The Mystic Heart, he addresses “mysticism, or primary religious experience, whether it be revelation or a personal mystical state of consciousness…direct contact with the divine, or ultimate mystery…” He offers several qualities of mystic communion with the divine including “practical, experiential, ineffable or nonconceptual, unitive or nondual, noetic, integrative, sapiential, giving certitude, and in possession of transcendant knowledge from direct experience.”
The class he offered, and his book, helped me to frame my own mystical experiences and understand that they fell in line with the mystic experiences that others have had (and tried to write about) over the millennia. But I also began to call into question my own theology and spirituality and how I view the divine.
How Theistic Am I?
I’m a pantheist, but I hold onto the “theism” part with the bare edges of my fingernails. I don’t really believe in a divine being that looks over us and makes plans for us. Just over a year ago when I was in a car accident, I posted about it on my Facebook and people were commenting, “The Goddess was looking out for you,” and “The gods were protecting you,” and—though I appreciate the sentiment—that’s not what I believe.
If I believed that, then I would need to believe that all the other people who died in car accidents that night around the world were somehow less deserving of life, less deserving of the blessings of the gods.
I don’t believe the gods/deities/the divine take any kind of direct hand in my life, or in anyone else’s. Not like that, anyways.
When I first started working with the idea of the Goddess, I was eleven or twelve. My mom was into some woo-woo new agey stuff, and I was introduced to the idea of the Goddess and also to angels. I was severely bullied in middle school by my peers, and I can honestly say that talking to the Moon/Water Goddess/Angel at night was a big part of what kept me alive through that.
I thought that she was looking out for me, that I was important, that I was meant for something.
Later, I came to understand that children who are bullied and abused often survive through such psychological coping strategies. In fact, the children who sustain the belief that they are special and meant for something more are the ones who tend to have a stronger, healthier ego later in life when they are no longer being abused. The kids who go the other way and believe they somehow deserved the abuse suffer different (and usually more severe) wounds to the ego.
As an adult wrestling with my own theology, I had to ask myself the question: What was the Goddess I talked to in my teen years? Was she just a mirror, a reflection, a psychological phantom I’d conjured up to survive?
That didn’t seem right to me. I’d felt this luminescence, that transcendent, moving, permeating connectedness. It had felt holy, complete, right. I’d had visions, real ones. I’d had dreams that were nothing short of connecting to the face of the divine and feeling that energy pour through me.
Abandoned By the Divine
However, there was a stretch of years where that divine connection seemed gone. In fact, the irony was that this began around the time I started Pagan leadership training at Diana’s Grove. Though I was learning the skills to do this work that had called to me, it was like the juice that had called me onto that path was suddenly gone.
Years later, I recovered that juice in fits and starts, and then in a series of raptures. Weeping, whole-body, connected-to-the-universe raptures. Feeling myself held and cradled by the mother that was the universe whispering to me, “You’re not alone. You were never alone.” Feeling that water of life pouring into my chest, hollowing me out and filling me with starlight and universes and love.
Things I can’t capture in words but, having felt them, I now understand Rumi poetry far better and what he was trying to put into paltry language.
So, in essence, I do believe in the larger divine, in that something else, in that energy beneath the surface. I just don’t believe that it takes much of a direct hand in our lives. It’s just love…energy…something that doesn’t fit well into words.
To be continued …
The Author: Shauna Aura Knight
An artist, author, ritualist, presenter, and spiritual seeker, Shauna travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, community leadership, and personal growth. She is the author of The Leader Within, Ritual Facilitation, and Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path. She’s a columnist on ritual techniques for CIRCLE Magazine, and her writing also appears in the anthologies Stepping in to Ourselves, A Mantle of Stars, Calling to our Ancestors, and Bringing Race to the Table.She’s also the author of urban fantasy and paranormal romance novels including Werewolves in the Kitchen, Werewolves with Chocolate, A Winter Knight’s Vigil, A Fading Amaranth, and The Truth Upon Her Lips. Shauna’s mythic artwork and designs are used for magazine covers, book covers, and illustrations, as well as decorating many walls, shrines, and other spaces. Shauna is passionate about creating rituals, experiences, spaces, stories, and artwork to awaken mythic imagination. http://www.shaunaauraknight.com
Reblogged this on The TOSSer By Temple Of The Standing Stones.
“When I lead a ritual, I’m far less concerned with teaching and enforcing any given theology than I am with getting ritual participants to a place where they can commune with the divine. And, if they aren’t theistic at all, perhaps that’s more just getting people to a place where they can connect to their deep inner wisdom.”
YES! Thank you, Shauna, for this whole post, and especially for this bit. I hope that someday all facilitators of public ritual will have this approach, recognizing that we can honor and hold fast to our own beliefs without alienating those who hold different beliefs.
Thanks! For me, it’s pretty easy to leave this up to people’s individual interpretation, but I admit, a lot of that has to do with how I learned to facilitate ritual, since Diana’s Grove was fairly agnostic in approach. I’m aware that I sometimes leave the devotional polytheists behind in my ritual approach, but I do my best to make space for each person’s views of theology.
And it’s a large part of why I teach ritual facilitation the way I do. Everything I do is just technique. Singing? Changes our breathing, our brainwaves. It’s just science. Drumming? Brainwaves again. Movement? Brainwaves, endorphins. Trancework? Brainwaves. You don’t need to believe in a particular deity to get people singing and dancing in a trance state 🙂
This Atheopagan says, “Amen!”
I’m feeling this, every word of it. While I don’t recall that “connected” experience you describe as a child, that passage brought a tear to my eye. I’m afraid being bullied in middle school elicited nothing but revenge fantasies from me, alas. Mystical raptures came later, and faded, and the “juice” was indeed “gone” for a while. I found my way back in some sense, but still sometimes that feeling of disconnection, of a less-than-rapturous mundanity, can persist. Perhaps it’s the Achilles’ heel of the ecstatic?
I hear you. I had my own revenge fantasies too. There’s this brilliant part of being a fiction writer where I get to write all of those out in my fantasy novels exactly as I do them, without having to wear an orange jumpsuit afterwords. 🙂
I still struggle with that ecstatic union; I have to work for it now in a way I didn’t when I was a tortured, desperate tween/teen. It’s actually a lot of how I came to do a deep dive into trying to understand ecstatic ritual in the first place, which is how I wound my way around to teaching ritual facilitation at all.
*As I would do them, not as I do them. LOL.
“I approach deity in a somewhat agnostic way, in the sense that I have my own beliefs about the divine, but I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I could be completely wrong about how deity works.” <– Those words alone…that tells me that having a conversation with you would be an experience that I would not only enjoy, but come away with a better understanding of who you are. But that’s not necessarily possible…so the blog posts you make are the next best thing. You write in a very personal, conversational manner. I don’t completely agree with your perspective, but I do completely grok where you are coming from and the “whys” of it. You’ve created a loyal reader here….
Reblogged this on Atheopaganism and commented:
This is a wonderful description of an approach to ritual that is very close to mine. I consider that “experience of the divine” to be a particular numinous brain state that is a neurochemical phenomenon, but the point is arriving at that state. That’s what ritual is for, whatever you believe about what it is doing.
Reblogged to Atheopaganism blog, also. Thank you for this thoughtful post–I don’t believe in the “divine” as other than a felt sense due to neurochemical conditions, but I share your belief that the point of ritual is to create that felt sense, whatever it “is” in fact.