Diary of a Former Pagan: Celebrating Advent as a Catholic
In honoring Mary's pregnancy, we are reminded of that most subversive of spiritual qualities: patience.
BY: Carl McColman
Yesterday was the winter solstice. During my sojourn in the Pagan community, this day that marks the return of the sun was my Yule--Dec. 21, not Dec. 25. I attended numerous solstice rituals, including one crazy cold night in the mountains of Tennessee that involved skinny-dipping and getting caught in a winter rainstorm!
Compared to those hijinks, my behavior this Dec. 21 seemed almost mundane, although hardly mainstream. I attended the morning Mass at the monastery near where I live. In the chilly church where most of the laypeople present huddled in their jackets the light seeped through the colorful stained-glass windows only gradually as the unaccompanied chanting of the monks rose and fell in rhythms that seemed centuries old, even though some of the music was entirely post-Vatican II. No mention was made, however, of the fact that this was the solstice. To these monastics steeped in their 16 centuries of liturgical tradition, this first day of winter received nary a nod of acknowledgment. Only in the reading from the Hebrew Bible could I detect some sense of connection to a season--but it seemed to be the wrong season. The reading came from the Song of Songs:
My lover speaks; he says to me, "Arise my beloved, my beautiful one, and come! For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of pruning the vines has come, and the song of the dove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and vines, in bloom, give forth fragrance. Arise my beloved, my beautiful one, and come!It's a passage so passionately rich with nature imagery that any Pagan could love it (indeed, some Neopagan scholars insist that the Song of Songs originated as poems of sacred love for the Goddess). But I couldn't get past the irony of a passage announcing the end of winter, read on the first day of winter (or, in the eyes of many Pagans, the mid-point of winter). It felt, well, out of synch. It seems to me this reading would have be more appropriate for Candlemas on February 2, which corresponds to the pagan festival of Imbolc, marking the beginning of spring. Still, I appreciated having at least some sense of acknowledging the wonder of nature on a day I once held as sacred.
I suppose it's rather ironic how, at the close of my first Advent as a Catholic, I sit here nitpicking away at the short shrift my new faith has given to the turning of the season. It's easy to say "I used to be a pagan," or "Now I'm a Catholic" as though they were immovable realities, etched in stone. But conversion is not a neat and tidy process. I returned to Christianity because I wanted a faith centered on Christ, and specifically I chose the Catholic faith because (ironically) my exploration of Irish paganism led me to saints like Brigid and Columcille, who in turn led me to the church I now call home. I've had no second thoughts about becoming a Catholic. But I want a green Catholicism, where there is a deeper passion for the earth and the wilderness and the elements and the dance of the seasons than what I've found in my first year in the church. Writers like Thomas Berry and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin give me hope that such a green faith does in fact exist.
Christian liturgy is far more concerned with the Birth of the Son than the Return of the Sun. But as I prepare for the joy and the warmth that the impending holiday of Christmas promises me, I can't help but feel a little sad. I'm reminded just how large a gulf yawns between "the Christians and the Pagans." Folk singer-songwriter Dar Williams wrote a wonderful and playful song by that name a few years back about a couple of Wiccans who show up unnanounced at their Christian relatives' home on Christmas Eve:
"And you find magic from your god
And we find magic everywhere."
It's a charming and hopeful song, and every time I hear it, it makes me cry. But my tears are just as much tears of hope as they are tears of sadness for the present reality of how alienated from one another so many Christians and Neopagans seem to be. The chill of a winter's morn is an apt metaphor for the coldness that so many Neopagans and Christian feel for each other's faith. Sure, there are those who try to find creative ways to blend or integrate the two traditions, but they seem to be a curious minority in both camps.
As this Advent draws to a close and I prepare for the festivities that will mark Christmas, I am reminded that some of the "waitings" in our lives are less predictable than others. Christmas is a wonderful holiday--but it's safe and orderly. Jesus is reliably born, again and again, every year on December 25. Liturgically speaking, it is a comforting reality. But Advent is not just about the past; it's also about the future. For most Christians, that means we wait for the return of Christ. But in the meantime, we also wait for peace on earth, for a world where children and women are safe, for a world where Christians and Pagans can get along. Those "advents" will not go away, even when the colors change in church.