2016-06-30
"Paganism is a religion of experience, not faith. It's not about what you believe. It is a path based on what you do, not what you think."

I first encountered this description of modern Paganism back in 1990, at a beginner's class on Goddess spirituality. Since then, it is the one comment I've heard most consistently made about Pagan religion. Druids, Wiccans, and other Pagans often regard dogma as a dangerous concept that leads not to intelligible truth, but merely foments conflict and division. Instead of doctrine, Paganism offers a variety of tools and exercises that enable its adherents to decide for themselves what, if anything, is worth believing. Even the most conservative, traditionalist Pagans still tend to insist that their teachings represent only one of many possible approaches to truth.

One of the reasons I embraced nature spirituality is because I found this rejection of dogma to be deliriously alluring. Christianity teaches, "You will know the truth and it will make you free." By contrast, Paganism seems to say "Assert your freedom, and only then can you find truth." This was an offer I couldn't refuse.

When I became a Pagan, I immersed myself in a vast intellectual playground. My new spirituality inspired me to study world religious history, shamanic and magical practices, Celtic mythology, and ecofeminism. I applied my non-dogmatic mind to mastering the elements of Pagan ritual, from solitary Wiccan circles to intricate Indo-European "reconstructionist" ceremonies. I explored guided meditation, the invocation of spirits and deities, and the practice of spellcraft. Meanwhile, no one told me what to believe. I chose to study with several teachers over the years, not because I was "supposed to" but because I could see that they had something to offer me. But as soon as a teacher no longer met my needs, I quickly moved on.

In addition to my studies, I helped establish a Druid grove and a Pagan meditation group, and eventually began teaching Celtic spirituality to a steady stream of enthusiastic students. I was a professional writer before embracing Paganism, so it's only natural that I wrote several books that explained earth-based spirituality for beginners and non-practitioners-and even a book on how to integrate Goddess spirituality with Christianity! Soon I was receiving invitations to speak at Pagan gatherings. I was living a dream life as a "full-time" Pagan, thanks to my teaching and writing.

And then it all fell apart.

"Little by little, Pagan spirituality stopped working for me"
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Despite what Pagans may say, a religion without dogma or doctrines does not render faith unnecessary. Faith is just as vital to Paganism as to any other religion-only not a proscribed, top-down faith. "Faithful" Pagans place trust in their personal experience. Since no one will tell Pagans what to believe, they must be confident regarding what they accept as true. If that confidence is shaken, it can lead to an ever-increasing spiral of doubt.

In the excitement of my demanding schedule as a writer and teacher, I fell into that spiral of doubt. Little by little, Pagan spirituality stopped working for me. The goddesses and gods who had once filled my rituals with power and purpose gradually fell silent and seemed absent. Magical workings became a chore, rather than a source of meaning and joy. Even meditation eventually lost its luster; what had been a reliable source of inner peace became a tormented forum in which I struggled against feelings of spiritual boredom and restlessness. I began to profoundly question Paganism's capacity to make a positive difference in my life.

Christianity has a simple, yet effective prayer for those who doubt: "I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24). Christians often view doubt as a problem to be solved through prayer, counseling, or study. But my Pagan doubt seemed more than just a transitory problem-it threatened my entire religious identity. Since Paganism relies on experience, what does it mean to experience profound doubt? If I dismissed such experience as "wrong," that would just lead to questioning all of my spiritual experience-even my happier "magical" experiences. Once mired in doubt, I found nothing to fall back on-no faith, no belief, no dogma. The very quality of Paganism that initially appealed to me seemed to leave me ill equipped to face my inner questioning.

Thankfully, I had two wise teachers to whom I turned with my spiritual crisis. But they had little to offer me aside from exhortations to keep meditating, keep studying, keep trying. Paganism became an endurance test: could I soldier on through my doubt, hopefully finding some sort of resolution where my faith could be restored? But faith in what?

Adherents of any faith-not just Paganism-can become lost in a crisis of doubt. Such a crisis hopefully leads to some sort of resolution-either a renewed commitment to one's religion, or a decision to change paths. I'm sure that many Pagans can turn a period of doubt into a time of growth as a Pagan, particularly if they have the benefit of an experienced spiritual guide. But in my case, my crisis has led me to a different religious path.

I discovered my path during several trips to Ireland. Like many American Pagans, I visited the Emerald Isle to explore its rich ancient Celtic heritage. But Ireland is also a land with a mystical, living Christian history. I've heard Pagans say that when they travel to Ireland, they find the near-ubiquitous Catholic presence to be disturbing and oppressive. But for me it had the opposite effect.

"I'd rejected Catholicism as patriarchal, oppressive, dysfunctional"
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I visited numerous Irish holy wells, where Druids likely worshiped in ages past. I found inspiration in how they function as sites of thriving Catholic devotion to Mary and the saints. In Kildare, home of the Pagan goddess Brigid, I felt moved by a sense of sacred presence in the churches dedicated to the Christian saint who shares the goddess' name. Christian holy sites like Glendalough or Clonmacnoise seemed just as powerful portals to the otherworld as Pagan sites like Newgrange or Tara.

I visited Ireland to deepen my understanding of ancient paganism. But there I also found a deepened understanding of Christianity, and saw that the Celtic Church embodies a truly earth-based expression of that faith. Irish Catholicism took such root in my soul that it began to impact my spirituality back home in America. When I'd pray to the goddess Brigid, I'd feel more connected to St. Brigid instead. The Virgin Mary became more real to me than any Pagan goddess, and Christ likewise filled the void left in my heart by the silent Pagan gods. After months of resistance (and gentle encouragement from my mentors and friends, both Pagan and non-Pagan), I came to admit something I would have previously considered unthinkable: my heart was leading me to release Paganism-and embrace Catholicism instead.

Having been raised Protestant before becoming Pagan, I had plenty of anti-Catholic prejudice to overcome. For years I had self-righteously rejected Catholicism as a patriarchal, oppressive, obsolete, dysfunctional religion. But now I found myself adopting a much humbler position-of trying to balance my politically correct, liberal ecofeminist beliefs with my heart's desire for the sacramental heritage of Catholicism, warts and all. As of this writing, I still don't know how to fit all the pieces of my spiritual identity together. But I am not the first person who has felt called to integrate the mystical treasures of Catholicism with our generation's urgent need to spiritually honor nature and the divine feminine. It seems to me that most people who become progressive Catholics start out as Catholics and then become liberal. I just did it the other way around.

Eventually, I reached out to the priest of my local Catholic church. When I handed him a copy of my book "When Someone You Love is Wiccan," I was afraid he wouldn't give me the time of day. Instead, he welcomed me with open arms and responded to my questions and concerns with respect and understanding. At his suggestion, I enrolled in introductory classes on Catholicism. Then, after almost a year of searching and questioning, I decided to join the church. I shared my decision with my friends and students, and the news traveled fast within the Pagan community. As could be expected, reactions varied. Many Pagans applauded me for being true to my conscience, while a few excoriated me for my spiritual infidelity. It seems that every religion-even Paganism, the path of no dogma-has to protect itself against apostasy.

While I want to be clear that Paganism ultimately didn't work for me, I have no desire to attack my former faith. As a Pagan, I affirmed the essential worth of all ethical religious paths, and becoming a Catholic has not changed that conviction. Granted, plenty of Christians dismiss Paganism altogether, and many Pagans similarly reject Christianity. But I feel most at home among those Christians, Pagans, and seekers of other paths who recognize that honoring different religions can be a way of enriching your own.

Ironically, I would say that becoming a Catholic was the logical result of applying Pagan principles to my life. Paganism taught me to trust the authority of my inner, intuitive wisdom. When my inner guidance directed me to do the one thing I would have dismissed as unthinkable, I did it anyway. With respect to Robert Frost, that single act of trust has made all the difference.



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