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Beyond the "W" Word


I keep telling myself I'm going to go back and complete the thought I started, on what I am comfortable terming my religious life, and why. And I do keep trying. I've written at least three drafts so far, ranging from the purple to the clinical. Here's my latest try--I'm going to see if I can manage to keep it simple.

I hardly ever call myself Wiccan--or a Witch--any more. Why? Many things about how I live my life have been changing since becoming Quaker (and since becoming a teacher, though that's a reflection for another day). But this was changing long before that. So it's not about being Quaker, though it may share a root. I do know that I've long been drawn to simpler and fewer forms.

Being Wiccan is, it seems to me, in part a matter of the forms you have studied and hopefully mastered--ritual technologies having to do with cultivating intuition, focusing will and intention, and linking your mind and spirit with those of other humans, and with plants, animals, and spirits in nature in particular ways. Lots of religions do these things, of course. Wiccans do them in specific ways. Depending on the tradition a Wiccan belongs do, one might read tarot cards, sense auras, perform blessings, or undertake to commune with and carry messages from Goddesses and Gods. A Wiccan will almost certainly have ritual ways to invoke the elements of nature, to create sacred space by casting a circle, and to bless food and drink to be shared in ritual. I know I have done all these things from time to time. And I've gotten an awful lot out of them, too, both in an immediate practical sense (the Reiki I've learned to use, for instance, has been of practical use with my own injuries and my mom's sinus headaches) and in deeper, more personal ways.

But the longer I've been a Witch, the less I've tended to rely on specific tools and techniques. Where once I would have turned to formal divination to help me make an important decision, more and more often I got to the point where I would just...well... listen for what I sensed was true. And the Pagan and Wiccan rituals that have meant the most to me, over the years, have gotten simpler and simpler. So often, at another Witch's ritual, I have to bite my tongue and rein in my impatience with all the words--sung invocations, chanted invocations, ritual formulas, incense, wand waving... I want to just sit down and BE the ritual.

Years ago, my then-covenmate, Kirk White, was in an auto accident. Black Lake, another covener, and I, both wanted to do serious healing mojo for him, but he said he'd rather we didn't--that he was just going to try to listen to his body and get better. Around this same time, Kirk's favorite form of divination--of getting answers to the difficult questions in his life--was to go out into a field and sit, and wait for an answer to come. He said it always did: sometimes in the way a bird would fly across the sky... or sometimes, in just a sense of knowing. At the time, Black Lake and I found this rather frustrating. So many cool Wiccan tools and techniques to play with, and Kirk wasn't remotely interested! The whole listen to the body/listen to the universe approach to spirituality was annoyingly Taoist and abstract, as far as I was concerned. But, well, the more I hang around on this planet, the more it's how I feel about things, myself. I don't disdain the old toolkit... I just don't crack it out all that often.

Once, I needed formal invocations, costumes, and reminders of the myths we were celebrating in the form of music and storytelling in order to be moved by a ritual. I still love the flicker of firelight, and I still wear the flowing green cloak that was a gift from another Wiccan priestess when I go off to a Pagan gathering. (Instant garb--drape a good cloak over your shoulders, and anyone is beautiful. Plus, it's an extra blanket in the cold, a soft cushion for sitting on a rock in the woods, a raincoat in case of the inevitable camp-out shower... and it will last forever, if you keep the moths out of the wool!) But I rarely bother to bring out my "IPK" (Instant Priest Kit--a ritual bag packed with ceremonial essentials like salt, oil for annointing, a sacred corkscrew for impromptu libations, mini-chalice, mini-tarot deck, etc) from one year to the next anymore. It's just a bother! Why work a spell when I can lay on hands to relieve pain? Why formally invoke the spirits of nature when I can just sit down and see if there are any in the neighborhood who want to talk to me? And more recently, why perform healing magic when it feels so much more natural to hold someone "in the Light"?

Wicca--at least, formal, initiatory Gardnerian Wicca--has three formal degrees of initiation, given at various milestones of accomplishment. There's a joke that's going the rounds of the Pagan community. Q: What do you call a _fourth_ degree Gardnerian? A: A Buddhist. Or, as it's sometimes also expressed--Q: How do you tell who the Elders are at a Pagan gathering? A: They're the ones in street clothes.

I guess what I'm driving at is that it's more than the fancy ritual clothes that dropped away from my ritual practice of Paganism. Even before becoming Quaker, my ritual practice was getting simpler and simpler... losing, in fact, the specific techniques of Wicca.

Take away the rituals--the chants, the candles, the tarot cards, the herbalism, crystals, and invocations, and what is left? The whole lovely spiritual world itself, of course. It's still there. The Gods of the Wild are still in the wild, and the Mysteries haven't evaporated on me. I'm still Pagan--nature is my sacred book. But though I've got a whole shelf of others that give me hints, I don't often need the ones that come with a specific brand label, Wicca. I still honor it--I'm quite clear that I would not have learned to trust my own mind and heart, let alone to "hear" the silence of a Quaker meeting or feel the life inside a tree without it. I still value it, and I'm not trying to talk anyone into dropping elements of ritual practice of their own.

But for me, day to day? Given how practice-centered Wicca is, can I really describe myself that way? Maybe. Certainly I am Pagan still. Certainly Wicca is my knowledge base. But my practice--? 9 parts Quaker... 1 part, generic Pagan.

Call it like it is. So that's why I don't use the "W" word much these days. And even if my attempts to put the whys and wherefores of it into words aren't simple, the fact of it somehow seems to be.

To answer my student's original question--I'm a trained Wiccan priestess, and a practicing Quaker and Pagan. The journey is not the path; I'm trying to be faithful to where I find myself, not to the name for it on a map.


Laura said…
Thanks for continuing to flesh out your thoughts on this - many of them resonated with me.

As another Quaker Pagan, I'm very much enjoying your blog.

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