"I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I write and I understand." - Chinese proverb

Friday, November 12, 2010


I was born, baptized and raised a Congregational Protestant (see "A Plain Glass Life," posted on 1/25/10).  Though I faithfully went to Sunday School, was an angel in the Christmas pageant and later joined P.F. (Pilgrim Fellowship, a group for teenagers), my immediate family wasn't terribly church-going.  My father says that's because he had to deal with townspeople all week long (he was the First Selectman -- in bigger towns they call it Mayor) and he needed a couple of days off.  My mother, although she worked as the church secretary for 12 years, kind of wanted to sleep late on Sunday mornings (I think) before having to start cooking Sunday dinner.  Besides, she would say, "I typed the sermon already, why do I need to hear the Minister recite it from the pulpit?"

I loved the church, though, when I did attend, usually on special occasions such as Children's Day.  I loved pulling the bell cord with my friends (when the Deacons let us), loved the organ music and singing hymns, especially ones that were geared to whatever season or holiday we were in the midst of: "Christ the Lord is Risen Today," "Come Ye Thankful People Come," and Christmas carols (my favorite was "The First Noel;"  I still like it, although my favorite one now is "I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day."  I don't think enough people know that one.  Or sing it.)  

I loved sitting in the pews with the dusty red cushions, turning pages in the dogeared hymnal, praising God, praising Jesus and praising whoever the Holy Ghost was (the only ghost I knew was Casper the friendly ghost, but I took it on faith that there was a holy one too).  Yeah, there were those nasty little contradictions we didn't understand and no one could explain, like kids getting cancer and dying young -- how come God allowed that?  And -- I am not being flippant here, this is important to me -- why didn't God make broccoli taste like a hot fudge sundae and a hot fudge sundae (and a jelly donut and fettucine Alfredo) taste like broccoli?  You kinda had to accept that there was a reason for this stuff, for bad things happening to good people.  It would drive you crazy otherwise.  The reason would be made clear only after we died and went to Heaven.  MAYBE.

And speaking of broccoli and donuts, I loved the church pot-luck suppers; Lent was my favorite time of year -- spring was here, summer on its heels.  The hustle-bustle of the Junior League ladies filing in and out of the kitchen like cuckoos in a clock, carrying enormous coffee makers and sheet cakes.  The hymn singing afterward with the hymns chosen by whoever shouted out a number (I always hoped someone would shout "Onward Christian Soldier," my favorite.  I was just a kid and didn't think I should shout and bring attention to myself.)  The church was home to me, maybe even more so because as a kid hanging around waiting for my mother to finish up work I had explored every nook and cranny from basement to belfry.

Then somewhere along the way I began to find out how ignorant I really was; I had no clue that there were other Protestant religions -- Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, on and on.  I had no idea that many of the world's people were polytheistic; it was the Beatles' famous trip to India that clued me in about Hinduism and the worshiping of more than one God.  I was in my thirties when a Jewish associate of mine asked if he could pray for my mother, who was undergoing open-heart surgery, and my answer was "Are you allowed?"  Talk about an embarrassing kneejerk reaction.  "Yes, we have the same God," he answered kindly.    

I wished I had been able to take a comparative religion class in college, or even mythology, or the Bible as literature, but none of those had been offered during my attendance, although we did touch on various religious philosophies in my (appropriately named) Philosophy class.  I began to seriously wonder what was right, what was wrong, what was possible, and why.  It was definitely not an "Eat, Pray, Love" quest; I was pretty happy in my own spirituality.  I believed (most of the time) in angels, Heaven, and God up there listening to our prayers.   But there was this nagging need to know more.  To see more.  To BE more.
A Bible study group would, I was pretty sure, have opened up a bunch of thought-provoking discussion, but there wasn't one going on anywhere.  I didn't feel that I'd benefit much from the Born-Again movement or that this would be the answer for me.  I thought it was all very nice but found the rather frequent attempts by these folks to "save" me absolutely abhorrent.  A boy I had a crush on and who hung with our crowd had become enamored with "The Way."  In later years I would learn that he had apparently been a victim of abuse at home, and when this movement came a-callin', he went a-runnin' like the vulnerable soul he was.  

We were in a convenience store once when my sandal slipped in some water on the floor in front of the freezers, and my foot went out from under me.  My reflex action was a strong "Jesus Christ!" uttered semi-sotto voce.  My guy, who a moment before had been happy and joking, grabbed me by my shoulders, his face darkening in disapproval.  "Do not use the lord's name in vain!" he yelled.  It scared the hell out of me, never mind making me feel like the sinner of the century.  

I mean, I had already been born once.  That's all folks...once is enough, okay?  It almost made me a little afraid.  Too much fire-and-brimstone camouflaged in evangelical cheeriness.  My friends who are Born Again Christians (I have many) thankfully leave me alone about it, with the exception of encouraging me to attend church, and that's all well and good and appreciated.  Maybe I do just want to go to church once in awhile to say hello to people, sing a few hymns and bow my head in thankfulness for my many blessings -- and let the preacher preach, for heaven's sake (pun intended). 

Then came a shocking revelation (this pun intended too), in magazine articles, interviews, books, movies: Christianity was no more than a sneaky religion that not only quelled the sacred feminine, it also hijacked certain aspects of the old religions -- the pagan ones -- and made them its more palatable own!  To serve its own interests!  You want not to believe this if you are a Christian; you want to grab your Bible and run, because you can never enter your church feeling quite the same way again.  You feel uneasy.  The charity and togetherness your church fosters and practices is good; the psalms and songs and prayers that comfort and inspire you are good; it is good to have a belief, and to have rituals.  But wait a minute, and as each minute goes by it becomes a little more real, a little more sad.  

Did the Christian church really do such a thing?  Did the Christian church have a valid reason for doing such a thing?  I mean my church doesn't forbid women from becoming church leaders, at least.  We're definitely not subservient.  But is that enough?  Did I want to join "my" church knowing all of this?

An article in U.S.A. Today states that "[best-selling author] Dan Brown says one reason his book [The DaVinci Code] is popular with women is because it confirms their sense that Christianity has kept women in secondary roles to downplay or disguise the feminine aspect of God, maintain male religious authority and stamp out rival beliefs, such as goddess cults."  Could be.  Wouldn't be the first time a male felt threatened by a female.  Or maybe it was.  Anyway, I wasn't nearly as enthralled by this tome as the whole rest of the world seemed to be.  I kind of felt it was a given, once I grew a bit savvy, that any large organization -- including organized religion -- had its Old Boys Network.  

There were times when this got under my skin, of course.  I'd love to see the "feminine aspect of God" given just as much attention as regular old God Himself.  But to combat this with crazy theories felt disingenuous.  We women had our little secrets, too.   Believe me.

But start doing research on the web and you find out that indeed, Christmas (which our Puritan ancestors were forbidden to celebrate because of its pagan origins) harks back to a very old, very primitive celebration of Yule, "the old religion," and Easter, arguably the holiest day on the Christian calendar, actually evolved from Ostara, a pagan celebration of spring, new growth and fertility (hello, rabbits? eggs?).  So how did these pagan holidays become part of Christianity?  

Apparently a lot as to do with the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, who was a pagan himself, but had a dream causing him to convert to Christianity.  So it wasn't necessarily the aforementioned Christians who swiped these pagan holidays -- it was a "reformed" pagan.   Why take these with him when he converted?  Did he hate to give them up himself, so he had to find a way to phase them into his new religious beliefs?  Or was he placating barbaric Pagan leaders who had no intention of allowing Christianity to prosper?   If so, he did it all brilliantly considering these holidays have been kept by the Christian church since before the Middle Ages!

One day a few years ago I walked into a shop in Poughkeepsie, New York called "The Dreaming Goddess."  Yes, it was New Age, complete with the requisite dream catchers, amulets, candles, crystals, incense, Himalayan salt lamps and gorgeous Indian-import clothing.  But my eyes were drawn to the statues and wall hangings of a figure so prominent she was everywhere: the sacred female, the mother -- the Goddess.  THE Goddess.  And I realized that though I'd seen her before, I had not really SEEN her until now.  Maybe it had something to do with turning 50...in the pagan plan I was definitely a crone; there, um, had to be a reason for being for crones like me...right?  I hope?  Please tell me yes.
And so began another journey, an exploration of the old beliefs and rituals that pre-dated Christianity by a long shot.  Half Scottish and a quarter Norwegian, I felt entitled to embrace the ancient Celtic and Norse legends and the fascinating beliefs, the primitive purity and earthiness of the pagan world; it validated my nagging suspicion that there was, in fact, something more to life than the plain-ness of the (albeit old and comforting) Christian calendar.  

Yes; I sought comfort, when I needed it, in prayers to a Christian God, in writings from a Christian bible.  There was something besides comfort to seek, however: there was mystery and joy and magick.  Yes, magick with a "k."  There was the beautiful celebration of the natural world, of nature, so reasonable to me, a country girl who embraced the natural world and the seasons and the animals and the dark and light.  The Wiccan creed of "Harm ye none" was soft and sweet.  Would anyone be mad at me for wanting to study this, or even take part in it?  Would God be mad?  Should I go forward with it?  Should I tell anybody if I do? 

This year Halloween fell on a Sunday -- the day of the Christian sabbath.  Because of the pagan roots of Halloween (though this day, too, is marked on the Christian calendar as "All Hallow's Eve," the prelude to "All Saints Day"), many communities and community leaders opted not to have trick-or-treating for the children that day, but to have celebrations and costume parades the Saturday prior instead.  This got under my skin a bit.  There are much more important things to worry about in life, I said.  I said I hoped that no taxpayer dollars were going to be used for the silly, petty purpose of shifting the Halloween holiday to Saturday instead of Sunday; after all, I said, Christians celebrate pagan holidays and they know it -- Christmas and Easter, for example.  So wouldn't it be a bit hypocritical to say the least to keep these holidays, too, if they fall on the Sabbath day (and Easter always does, of course)?  I mean, can't have pagan mumbo-jumbo on the Christian Sabbath.  Right?

No.  In my humble opinion (IMHO in computer talk) it would not be hypocritical.  In a state of openness and exploration, I thought hard about it and decided it doesn't really matter that the Christian church uses mid-winter to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ; Christians aren't celebrating the Winter Solstice, they're celebrating the birth of Jesus -- so what does it matter if they choose to do so on December 25th?  It could just as easily be June 9th or September 17th or some other arbitrary date.  It wouldn't matter.  And Christians aren't celebrating Beltaine on the first Sunday after the first Vernal Equinox full moon, they're celebrating Christ's resurrection.  Which could come on March 21st or April 9th or who knows when.  

That these dates mesh with, overlap or even overtake the original Pagan times of worship doesn't amount to a hill of beans, other than the fact that these "rival" celebrations do -- as intended, no doubt -- take the "spotlight" off the pagan celebrations.  Blame the fall of the Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Emperor Constantine, if you want.
The point of it all is gathering and worship and celebration, whether done in a stately cathedral or by a bonfire in the woods.  The point of it is that there is something much, much bigger than we know out there, whether it is God the Father, God the Mother or Intelligent Design.  And we have to let each other look for it -- if we want to look --  in whichever way makes sense and is most comfortable, even if that way is completely foreign to the belief system we happened to be raised in.  Maybe "it," whatever it is, is celebrating us too, or maybe it dumped us off and ran.  We don't know; we can not know for sure.  

Back in that Philosophy class our mid-term assignment had been to make a case for or against belief in God. It didn't have to be your own personal belief, just a good essay.  I weighed things out, and figured it would be easier to do a paper making reasonable arguments for God's existence than not.  I wish I still had that essay somewhere; I know I got an "A."  I remember some of the points: God made sex pleasurable to ensure the survival of the species (I would remember that one); made blood red-colored so we'd realize when we were hurt or in trouble, etc.  Start thinking about this, if you haven't yet.  Lots of thought went into making us and our world, didn't it?  I mean Holy Smokes.  (Holy Crap, actually.)

So somewhere along the way there was, of course, a Maker.  Maybe God intelligently designed things; maybe the Mother Goddess did.  (Kind of too bad that nobody could save the dinosaurs...and hey, was evolution planned for or an interesting accident?  And was anybody watching?)    

Anyway, the question is, how do you celebrate the holidays, how do you mark the wheel of the seasons -- and who do you turn to when you are feeling particularly scared, weak, alone and confused?  And who do you thank for the bounty in your life?  And when you put your life in the hands of a higher power -- when you give up, give in and ask for maybe a miracle or two -- who do you ask it of??

I have seen miracles.  I have also seen the presence of evil.  But I don't know if there is a miracle lottery somewhere up there, or if miracles are random, and I don't know if there's a devil with a pitchfork waiting to welcome us bad folk with open flames.  I do know that fighting over whether a certain day is Pagan, Christian, or some other damn thing is a natural thing for a human being to do.  That's us, we're, well, human.  But too many wars have been waged for the sake of religion, too many people killed in the name of religion.  Fanaticism leads to wars and cults, often with the scariest and most tragic of outcomes.  Leave me alone and let me worship.  Heck, I have friends who are so vehemently against religion of any kind that I wonder what they do with that empty place that's inside their spirit.

I often wish I lived a little closer to the Dreaming Goddess.  They don't just sell stuff, they have the greatest programs and activities that sound awesome: Pagan Craft Circle, Women's Drum Circle, New Moon and Full Moon Women's Circle, Shamanism, Reiki, a Cemetery Walk, Solstice Celebrations...  I checked out what was near-ish to where I live in Connecticut, and there are some groups and activities around, but I don't just want New Age -- I don't just want crystals and tarot cards and runes.  I want something more, something ancient, something satisfying and insightful and joyous.  

I mourn the passing of summer and the short darkening days of fall and winter -- but there are rituals to recognize and celebrate this season too, and I think I'd like to know them, and do them.  Maybe then I would feel less despondent.  Seems like a way of exploration I need to take right now.  I need to know these ancient Goddesses.  I need to know the Sacred Feminine, the Mother God.  I need to go back, to sneak and peek through those curtains of Christianity, to see what's waiting there, what has always been there, in one form or another.  I think I've always been a little pagan, and I have questions.  The most nagging one is, when you look for comfort and guidance, who do you talk to in your mind, who do you pray to, who is going to hear you?

I can't pretend to know a thing about most religions other than Congregational Protestant.  I still don't have a clue why God/Goddess/Designer is benevolent at times and wrathful at others and lets little kids get cancer and die.  But I do know the Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments.  Even an atheist knows right from wrong, says Nigella Lawson, one of my favorite cookbook authors.  (And an atheist.)   If there are indeed Pearly Gates somewhere or a Board of Directors who decides whether any given individual deserves eternal life in paradise, I know there are things I'm planning on getting on down on my knees and apologizing for.  There are one or two things I'll never forgive myself for, but I'm hoping Someone does.  And I'm hoping, praying and trying very hard to believe that I will see my loved ones again in some sort of Heaven.   (Including my animals.  They'd better be there too or I'm leaving.) I miss them all.

So I'm still not sure how I feel about the widespread decisions to not celebrate Halloween on a Sunday.  Seems to me it shouldn't matter.  Celebrate what you want when you want it, and if that makes you a bit of a hybrid -- a Chrispagan, or a Pagachristian, or something, it's all good.  It's okay.  It will all be over in the blink of an eye; in a hundred years no one will know.  In five years, no one will know.  There's one really important thing to keep in the forefront, to keep in your heart.  We are taught this early in life, but I wish we'd actually learn it: count your blessings whatever they may be, and  "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  Or, in other words, "Harm ye none."


  1. Excellent post, and enjoy your journey as you explore the alternate possibilities! The deeper you explore, the more you will find and in the end (if you ever reach a final conclusion) you will be blessed beyond belief. For me, I got to "But too many wars have been waged for the sake of religion, too many people killed in the name of religion" and decided it was all crap. Too many questions that the answers to could only be speculated on. I turned it all around and came up with "dog". I have two, we walk A LOT, and for the most part I am content.

    From Tony

  2. hi laurie- i so identify with your journey, and this is an excellent piece. sorry i've been swamped and haven't stopped by. over past few years i've come up against the chilling idea that religion is man-made-- esp. Christianity-- that we've made a God in our image. I come away from my ups and downs and writings to feel that it is likelier that a Great and Unknowable Something is involved and loves us than not, and that perhaps the teeming, amazing universe and its creations are not separate; that we are part and parcel of the divine. But then I get a brain cramp and think, time for a nap. Seriously, thank you for being a loving presence in my life and in this past year. xxxj