On Sundays I used to go to church. This was chiefly because my dad was the organist and choirmaster and so there was no choice. Only when I was about fourteen did I decide I wouldn’t go any more and my relationship with church has never got over this schism. I say I am a Pagan but that too is sticking a little label on spirituality and anyone who trawls the internet knows that there are as many factions in the Pagan community as there are in all the other religions. So rip the little label off.
Instead of a service and the Nicene Creed being incanted I prefer a Sunday to include a walk on the wild side. I’m being kind there, nothing was ever as impassioned and filled with meaning as an incantation. Drone was the usual tone, the sound of people repeating words without thinking about those words. In my kind of spirituality the words come, they aren’t given to you to learn by rote, they arrive in your head under a heavy grey sky, or by a rushing river. They are the words the birds are singing with all their violence and fear and flight. The words are the crunch of the dirt path under your foot as you cut up the valley, the rolling of small stones, the whispered breath of the wind in the trees or the grasses. The words are three hares at a field’s edge at Barbury Castle, myself and my husband picnicking in the trees, holding our breath at the secret spectacle.
One thing in favour of church; I always liked singing. The word Hymn is one of my favourite in the English language because it is so odd in its construction. I like the idea of a song becoming more than a song, something to carry bigger feelings and therefore we invented the word Hymn to cover it.
Give it to the blackbird to sing.
In case it is not immediately obvious, I’m not a great fan of Organised Religion. I prefer my spiritual belief system to be disorganised. A bit of a ramble and a couple of pine cones make my temple.
To illustrate this point I accidentally harassed a Chaplain the other day. I was on duty in the library and the perfectly personable gentleman introduced himself. He is a Council Measure to assist staff with their ‘stress issues’ caused by the tumbrils arriving to collect those newly volunteered into redundancy. The Chaplain is here to help and, with that in mind, we began a spiritual discussion.
Some half an hour later and I was part way through my Pagan diatribe, having only just arrived at a mention of running naked round the Ring of Brodgar, when the Chaplain seemed in a sudden hurry to leave. “I have to go… over there” he pointed quite, well, pointedly, into the middle distance and ran off. I have this effect on Jehovah’s Witnesses too, many of whom are seen fleeing from my doorstep with Morrigan at their heels.
One of my problems with organised religion is the sidelining of women and the mad idea that women don’t have a part to play except to do the flowers or polish the silverware. Even nowadays, when women vicars are largely keeping the Church of England on its knobbly old knees, there are those who disapprove of ‘women’ in ministry. So. Not for me. No thanks. There’s enough sexism in life without encouraging it in your faith.
The Vikings had other ideas of course. The sensible Scandinavian peoples believed that women had intuition and insight and that some women, called the Völva or staff bearers were the shamans, the people who could help connect with the spiritual. Yes. I like that. Let’s share the spiritual chores folks. It’s a religion not a Gentleman’s Club.
I can hear you, you know, whispering about the blood and darkness, the ‘human sacrifice’ of pre-Christian belief. I can see the smug sneer and the assurance that I’m cherry picking my pagan information and research here. I’m avoiding the bad bits. No. I’m not. I’ve seen Lindow Man on display and I understand his fate. I think we can close the subject of pre-christian religious brutality down quite quickly once we think of the idea of The Atonement. Plus we can all dismount from our high modern religious horses, bow our heads and recall Joan of Arc perhaps, or the 20th century horrors of the Magdalen Laundries. And no one of course expects the Spanish Inquisition.
Anyway, I am not here to proseltyse. I’m here to lend a flavour of what I believe. “Do you believe in fairies?” someone sniggers at the back. Why not? What’s the difference between a fairy and a saint? No. Seriously. What is the difference? A stained glass window?
I am not the kind of person who feels compelled to make others follow the same spiritual path. I feel connected to a Pagan idea of belief and spirituality but to my mind, this is something fundamental, it goes beyond a label. You cannot pin a Pagan in my book. Anyone who jumps up and says “No you’re not Pagan, you don’t do this and observe that and why aren’t you in your Druid robes?” is missing the point. The point is, there shouldn’t be rules, just connections. Instinct. Intuition. Thought.
Many people, over the post-Christian centuries, have belittled and diminished the word and idea of ‘Pagan’. If you’re a Pagan then, to some people, you’re a bit of a New Age hippy at best, at worst a joke. Ha, worshipping trees? This, I’m sorry to tell you, is a bully boy tactic employed in the sweeping change to Christianity. If you make something small, if you pick on something you can diminish it, you can push it aside. Its like a mega brand supermarket taking over the corner shop. You disconnect people from their own spirit and frighten them and force them into your way of doing things. You must be a bully boy if you want to steal away belief. Let’s, for the sake of this blog, slot in the phrase ‘pre-Christian belief systems’. Yes. Before there was Jesus there were other ideas, there were trees and the sun. There were wolves and snakes and hares and it was all connected.
Pre-Christian belief systems were about this connected sense of the world. People worshipped the sun because it affected their lives. It shone on the crops and it all but disappeared in the winter time. If you are living in the landscape you are more connected to it. To me, there is nothing stupid about worshipping the sun. Why not? Saint Sun? There is a certain logic to it.
I was raised in the Church of England, so that’s my established religion reference point. Sundays appeared to prove Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity; outside Church, time ticked with an atomic regularity; inside Church, it slowed to spaghettify us all. The joys I found were in singing hymns and candlelight. I even like the word ‘Hymn’ and its odd cluster of consonants. There are lots of other beautiful liturgical terms; plainsong and litany are two examples. Language played a big part for me. There’s a lot to be said for ‘Thee’ and ‘Thou’.
The vestments were splendid too, my mum, a skilled needlewoman, embroidered two sets of vestments for our church, that folks, is just how Churchy we were, plus my dad was the organist. I loved the colours of the fabrics, the gold of the thread she had used. At the end of the service the servers at the altar would snuff out the candles and I loved to watch the thin curls of smoke leave contrails in the cold church breath.
It was brutal stuff of course, even in the soppy old C of E. At Christmas we were all singing to the Infant Jesus and everything was Christingle and mangers. A few months later Easter dawned and there was the violent and dark story of the Crucifixion. There is little more bloodthirsty and terrifying, to your average eight year old, than the Easter story. Crowns of thorns. Swords. Nails. Crosses.Tombs. Religion is not PG rated. I shudder at the memories of Good Friday. I will gloss over the fact that Christianity plastered its Paschal doings all over the Pagan idea of Oestre, a time of rebirth and fecundity. You don’t nail the Easter Bunny to any sort of cross, rather you let him run wild and free across the nearest field bringing life and vigour. Oh. Er sorry about that. Forgot to gloss. Oops.
I preferred the Roman and Greek Gods and their squabbles and triumphs. There was sunlight and magic in these Gods, they were more, well, human. They had faults and mischief and they were connected with the world. There is the Celtic pantheon too, appealing with its wise salmon and War goddess. Yes, a woman on horseback, wielding a sword, talking to crows, an idea that plugs straight into my central imagination system. Mabh and Epona make my heart beat faster.
My idea of being Pagan is the idea of looking out into the world and letting it speak to you. It is about looking up into the sky or into the branches of a tree, watching a squirrel move her kits out of the path of the sparrowhawk. It’s more Springwatch than Eucharist. It is about the wooden spoon that speaks to you because of its shape and the burn marks you have made on it over the years and the fact that that spoon adds better flavour to the stew than this other spoon and you have no idea why. Let everything speak to you, you just have to listen. It is not about commanding or chastising or a catechism. The badger is your bishop if you are Pagan inclined.
My own Pagan beliefs are about the mythic whilst also looking out and up in the Here and Now. Each day Odin sent out his ravens, Hugin and Munin, Thought and Memory, to keep an eye on the world and I think about that whenever I see a raven or any of the corvids. I connect to their intelligence and beauty. I did some research on the flight of birds for a creative writing workshop and the knowledge that their muscles are springloaded, that they have big hearts to power their flight only added to the joy I feel when I see jackdaws lift out of the trees in my garden. They enjoy their flight. Walking along the canal last week, my husband and I watched the jackdaws coming in from all across the sky to roost in a particular stretch of woodland. The massed sound of their calling reached right inside, to the place I would call my soul. The way that they greeted each other, one battalion rising to thread themselves through and between the other and all twist and drop and swoop together, lit the twilight of the day. There are some religions that maintain animals don’t have a soul; stand beside that woodland and tell me they don’t. You are missing the point. The spark. The life.
There is something epic about a red kite hanging on the wind, yawing and stooping. There is beauty and practicality and strength in a swan’s foot. Ever looked at a swan’s foot? It is time you did.
Of course somewhere I can hear Richard Dawkins footsteps rushing to catch me up and tell me that nothing has a soul, only bones and sinews, it’s all neural synapses. I’ll listen to him. Yes, I know, Biology. Yes, yes, Physics. I see the science, Richard, I understand perfectly.
I also see the sky reflected in a robin’s eye.