No-Nonsense Paganism: Finding the fire again

At this time of the year, it’s common for Pagans to honor the element of fire. So, I thought it would be fitting now to tell a story about fire.

There’s a famous Hasidic story, which I first heard related by the author Elie Wiesel:

When Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, saw that the Jewish people were threatened by tragedy, he would go to a particular place in the forest where he lit a fire, recited a particular prayer, and asked for a miracle to save the Jews from the threat. Because of the Holy Fire and faithfulness of the prayer, the miracle was accomplished, averting the tragedy.

Later, when the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, the Maggid of Mezrich, had to intervene with heaven for the same reason, he went to the same place in the forest where he told the Master of the Universe that while he did not know how to light the fire, he could still recite the prayer, and again, the miracle was accomplished.

Later still, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, in turn a disciple of the Maggid of Mezrich, went into the forest to save his people. “I do not know how to light the fire,” he pleaded with God, “and I do not know the prayer, but I can find the place and this must be sufficient.” Once again, the miracle was accomplished.

When it was the turn of Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn, the great grandson of the Maggid of Mezrichwho, to avert the threat, he sat in his armchair, holding his head in his hands, and said to God: “I am unable to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story. That must be

And it was sufficient. God made man because he loves stories.

I know this story is meant to be uplifting in some way. But to my Gentile ears, it is just tragic. Probably because I am reading it through the lens of liberal Protestant religion (specifically, Unitarian Universalism) and Religious Naturalism (specifically, Naturalistic Paganism).

When I look at the history of liberal religion, I see a progression of religious thinkers who arrogantly and myopically decided they didn’t need the sacred fire anymore. Then they decided they could do away with the words of the prayer. And then they forgot where the holy place was. And all they were left with was the story.

And that is what liberal religion has devolved into: a story about people who once knew where the holy place was, who once knew what the words of the prayer were, and who once knew how to light the sacred fire. It’s a story about people who understood the importance of ritual, or sacred time and space, of sacred words and actions. But it’s just a story. It’s not a lived reality.

My goal in this series is to try to recover a little of what was lost. I don’t know how the sacred fire used to be lit. But we can make our own sacred fires today. I don’t know what the words of the prayer were. But we can find new words to pray. And I don’t know where the holy place was. But we find our own holy places.

Will you join me?


John Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism.  John has written for numerous online platforms, including PatheosHuffington PostPrayWithYourFeet.orgGods & Radicals, now A Beautiful Resistance. He is Editor-at-Large of John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.or

2 Comments on “No-Nonsense Paganism: Finding the fire again

  1. This is why the 6th Atheopagan Principle is Praxis. We must DO our sacred rituals, light our sacred fires, observe our Sabbaths with more than just talk and ideas.

  2. This is why the 6th Atheopagan Principle is Praxis. We must light our holy fires, conduct our sacred rites, dance our sacred dances. Talk and ideas are not enough.


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