The Sacred Marriage

What is your definition of the word “ritual”? What are your rituals- mundane and spiritual? How do they inform each other? Is ritual a necessary component to spiritual practice?

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Of all the Pagan Experience writing prompts so far, I found this one the hardest to answer. Ritual seems such a big word to me. I practice alone, by praying, meditating and lighting a candle. I give thanks for a beautiful day, for my family’s health and good fortune. I decorate our home and garden according to the seasons and the holidays to honour the Wheel of the Year, and Life itself. Are these rituals? I shy away from naming them so. It is something other people do, I feel. But the prompt caused me to reconsider one of the few rituals I have taken part in, an ongoing ritual called marriage.

I married young, and it was a marriage of convenience, although I loved and love my husband deeply. I was pregnant at the time and it seemed the proper thing to do. Although Dutch law provides partnership contracts and the like, it is plain easier and cheaper to get married when you buy a house and have children: everything is automatically sorted with two autographs and a kiss in the local town hall. I still considered myself a Christian back then, but as my husband is an agnostic, only a secular wedding was possible. So we had a modest wedding, but with all the mandatory trimmings. I wore a simple whitish dress and even a veil. My husband wore a proper suit. It is more than 12 years ago and when I look at these photos now, I’m always surprised at how unfeasibly young we look. We had no idea what we were in for. I remember being relieved when it was all over. I do not really like being in the centre of attention. The whole day, even though it was fun, felt like a bit of a charade to me. Instinctively I sensed getting married had to be more than just this one day of cake and drinks. That instinct has turned out to be right. During the time we have been married, we have seen a lot of people break up, married and not married. This promise we offer each other, in nice clothes and with family and friends around, seems to mean little to nothing.

These years have thought me that marriage demands ongoing sacrifices and offerings of both partners. And sometimes we both slack off in our devotion and then the whole ritual seems to lose its meaning altogether. It has taught me that devotion is not meant to be fun all the time. Indeed, the marriage vow and ritual has little to no value in itself. Without daily practice, it quickly becomes void. It is an ongoing ritual and only we can keep it sacred. In that sense, I find this one ritual a necessary component to my spiritual practice. Marriage forces me to become a  more selfless, more discerning person. Yet every time I think I am getting the hang of it, I invariably fail. Yes, this ritual has the power to lift you up, but it humbles us too, and strips us down to the bone as well. It is transformative for all participants, and if it isn’t, something must be wrong.

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the Sign of the Cross

One of my first encounters with religion were the rosaries in my grandmother’s spare bedrooms. They fascinated me. They looked a bit like jewellery to me, yet I knew I was not allowed to play with them. At the bottom dangled a lonely figure, stretched out in pain. I knew His name was Jesus but I understood very little of why He had ended up there.
When I grew up, the cross became a defining symbol of my religion but I was always deeply troubled by it. As long as I did not truly focus on it, it was a comfortable, homely presence in my life, an object that carried the light and gravitas of God, of eternity, into our daily life. I wore a cross as a pendant on a necklace, but deliberately chose one without Jesus Himself. Not because I found Him awkward, but his violent death unnerved me. When I looked at a traditional crucifix in prayer or just in idleness, it scared me. How could a Man tortured and dying be the ultimate symbol of what a life-giving faith stood for? What God would demand such a price? These days, I find myself remembering both the holiness and the awkwardness I felt during these important Christian holidays. My children go to a Christian (protestant) school, because it is a good school and in walking distance of our house. They have not inherited my religious streak, like their father they are natural born agnostics.  I have always left it up to them what to believe, yet I try to acquaint them with various points of view. On Maundy Thursday we watched a popular Passion special together and my daughter said:’I do not care if it is true or not. It’s just a great story.’ I found myself agreeing, yet thought to myself, if it is true, it’s pretty horrible, pretty and horrible.
Just the other day my crucifix passed through my hand while I was cleaning. I considered the cross in a new light and wondered if the widespread adoption of the cross in Europe had anything to do with our Pagan past. Among evangelicals in this country the Ichthus symbol is more common these days as a token of their spirituality, which makes more sense to me. But the cross by itself is an almost universal symbol and by no means a Christian one.  It is found in various forms across religions, across the world. As I held the crucifix in my hand, I wondered about the hold it still had on me. Learning more about sacred space in the last few months, I have come to see the cross as a symbol of our humanity. It is a symbol of what divides us from the animals and from the natural world: the ability to create and perceive structure in the chaotic blur of reality.  It marks the elements, it signifies life, death and renewal. It is a powerful and potent sign. Then I looked outside: spring unfolds itself with vigour in my garden now. It is the living woods that speak to me now, those who make no claim on eternity and faith. They are just there, I’m here and that is all I can be certain of.  I no longer wonder about the truth. What matters most, is that I live my life honourably.

Endings

When I consider all my spirituality has brought me in the last few years, one specific lesson comes to mind: coming to terms with endings. Or rather: letting go of the concept of forever, which is actually quite a surprising turn of events. I am fairly certain my fear of endings, of the ultimate ending called death, drove me in the arms of religion in the first place.

My first brush with finality were the images on the telly of a soccer disaster in a stadium. I was five years old at the time. Even now, as I think back of those coffins with Italian flags on them, tears well in my eyes, so tangible was the unfairness, the sense of finality that emanated from the images. Yet, these were strangers. The images etched themselves in my mind, but I could still pretend death had nothing to do with me. Later, death came to our household. It lurked from behind the ever increasing boxes of medication and the oxygen tanks in the bedroom. My parents chose not to introduce us to this guest, in order to give me and my brother a happy childhood. Maybe they were still hoping he would go away. But I was aware of him all the time, and when he finally left, taking my mother with him, it made me a seeker. I knew we could not conquer death ourselves. My mother had fought him for years. She had her minor victories, but in the end, he won nonetheless. It made sense to find solace in the one religion that followed in the footsteps of One who was said to have conquered death.

I did not only seek permanence in religion, but also in my relationships with other people, which was problematic. As a teenager, you are bound to be disappointed when this is what you look for in a boyfriend. I learnt the hard way that we are always in flux, and new beginnings invariably demand an end to something else.

That was years ago. Gradually, death and I have made our peace. More people and pets in my life made the crossing. We are still not the best of friends and I doubt we ever will be. Letting go of the linear narrative of Christianity and adopting the circular outlook on life, has helped me to respect the necessity of his presence though. These days, I also find it easier to deal with little endings, little deaths if you will. Letting go of a friendship that is only a shell of what it used to be, saying goodbye, seeing a grey hair. It’s all part of the game.

Someone very dear to me talks with ease of her own death. She is in her early sixties and as hale as can be, yet the prospect of not being around forever is not particularly problematic to her. She says this is something that happens to you when you’re older. Maybe I will be as comfortable with my own end, one day. But not yet. There is still so much living to do.

 

Doubts about the hidden world

One thing that withheld me for a long time from calling myself a pagan, is the popular association with witchcraft. As Christians, we were often warned for dabbling in what is called the occult. As a student of philosophy, magical thinking had no place in the framework of the mainstream world view.  Words like magic and witchcraft were a no go area in two distinct ways, so I have always gone out of my way to avoid it.
Yet I have always had experiences with what could be described as the supernatural or a usually hidden part of the natural world. Many of these experiences were unpleasant. There were nasty dreams that came true, and I was almost always afraid in my childhood home at night. The most striking encounters with this world were my involuntary meetings with the shadow people, or the so-called hatman. I thought I was crazy at the time, but since the advent of internet I have learnt these experiences are extremely common across the world. I was very surprised to learn these sightings are as common as they are. Luckily I have not had these experiences in years. Either it had to do with where I lived, or I have become more “grounded” and less susceptible to these experiences. But it has left me with two clear impressions about this other world: it exists, and it does not always feel benign. Those events made me follow the warning about witchcraft and divination in the bible for a long time.
Lately I have been rethinking this. Reading The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler made me consider the story of Adam and Eve, or rather Eve and the snake, in a new light. I found this book very interesting, although from a scientific view there are many problems with it as well. But what if this myth is in some ways an allegory of a conquered female spirituality? Snakes were in many cultures a sacred animal, and snake cults were usually associated with the reverence of female goddesses. An inextricable part of these older religious practices were divination and spells, or at least that this other world could and would be influenced by humans. By choosing the apple, Eve expressed her desire for an independent path of (self-)knowledge. This, however, went against the desire of a jealous God, who reveals himself as a male entity.
It is understandable why people who reject Jahweh, the jealous God, also disregard the warning on witchcraft and divination. Yet Christians themselves practice a kind of magic, by healing prayers for instance. They will, of course, say God does the healing, but in a way it is also using a spiritual energy. In more recent years, I have felt the power of prayer myself. Good, wholesome things were miraculously manifested in my life by truly believing and actively inviting them. One could call that the grace of the God(s), but it could very well be a form of magic too. Maybe it is the former Christian in me who fears to tread into that part in the woods. Maybe it is self-preservation: I have unwillingly encountered the other world and it was not always benign. Maybe it is just not for me or I’m not spiritually mature enough to handle these energies. I remain indecisive on this point.
I cannot and will never judge for anyone else. Someone with a completely different set of experiences will of course come to different conclusions. Personally, however, I will stick to what I have been doing before. I will burn my candles, say thanks for and honour the woods, the river and the fertile soil I live on, share my worries. But I will not actively invoke anything, or anyone.

Thoughts on reconstructionism

Ever since I came to perceive myself as essentially pagan, a couple of years ago, and started reading widely in the online pagan/heathen subculture, I have been intrigued by reconstructionism.
Almost all of the European pagan traditions have been severed, but some more so than others. In parts of Scandinavia and especially the Baltic region, Christianity arrived late. The veil that covers the way of the ancestors is thinner than it is in other places. Yet even they have little to go on. The Prose Edda for instance is beautifully written and a rich legacy to all northerners, but one should never forget it was written by a Christian in one specific corner of the Northern world. We may assume the other Germanic tribes worshipped at least similar Gods. In the Old Saxon Baptismal Vow, used in my country, three Germanic Gods are mentioned: Thunear (Thor), Wōden (Odin) and Saxnōt (or Seaxnēat). Still, there is no way of knowing how similar their worship was to what we know from Scandinavian sources. The larger part of what is now known as the Netherlands was inhabited by Germanic tribes. Especially the Frisians in the north stayed true to their own religion for a long time. Their language, which is still very much alive today, shares features with English as well as Dutch. They were without a doubt a Germanic people. But the region my family hails from however, was most likely Gaulish or at least a mixture, and had lived under Roman rule too. I can’t imagine the people of the south-west strictly thinking of themselves as either Germanic or Celtic. We know they had their own local Goddesses, who were perhaps even pre-Germanic or pre-Celtic, and later Romanised.

A chapel in the woods
A chapel in the woods

In one way, I understand why many people try to reclaim what was lost so long ago. But what if, like in my case and many others, there is precious little to find? We cannot pretend we stand in some unbroken line of tradition. Let us for a moment assume that Christianity had never come to the north. Would our cultures still worship in ways comparable to what we know of our ancestors? Maybe some parts of the worship would essentially be the same, but without a doubt it would have evolved almost beyond recognition in 1500 years. But as it is, Christianity cannot be taken out of the equation. Some people have very adverse feelings towards Christianity, which I understand, if you have had very negative experiences. But it is folly to pretend you have not been touched and shaped by it at all, when you have grown up in a Christian or post-Christian society. There is bound to be some syncretism in your worship or worldview, even if you try to stay true to whatever we know of our ancestors. They themselves were flexible in their worship. After the arrival of Christianity, many of their religious practices remained more or less the same. The Lady of the Woods and Water still appeared at wells and trees, only by another name. They still gave Her thanks for a good harvest in August.
Reconstructionism can be a tool to shape a spirituality and practice that feels true to you. But by itself, it seems too little to go on. If the Gods of the land are indeed around, they must still be able to speak to us as they did to my ancestors. We will have to use our creativity and our own recent history to allow the Divine to touch us in new ways for a new age.