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Cat's Spiritual Journey, Part VI: A Letter and a Kiss

All posts in this series:
Part I: Getting (and Losing) That Old Time Religion
Part II: Coming Home
Part III: The Fool's Journey
Part IV: The Underworld
Part V: Seven of Cups
Part VI: A Letter and a Kiss
Part VII: Morticia Loves Gomez
Part VIII: Nora
Part IX: Felicia Hardy and the Tower of Babel
Part X: When Babel Fell
Part XI: Community 2.0
Part XII: This Forgiveness Stuff

I wish I could convey the essence of a small Pagan gathering, like the one the Church of the Sacred Earth hosted the Samhain of that year. Combining the best features of an elementary school sleepover, a college dormitory bull session, and a Thanksgiving dinner in a large, boisterous family, weekend-long retreats like that are one of my favorite aspects of Pagan life.

Picture, please, a woodstove popping vigorously in one corner of a ramshackle farmhouse. Music plays in the background--maybe a a track from the Libana album, A Circle is Cast--and there is a babble of happy, animated voices coming from every room. Over the kitchen table, heads are bent over a sketchbook filled with drawings taken from dreams. On the living room rug, five or six different Tarot decks are spread out across the floor, and their virtues and flaws are being eagerly discussed. On the stairs, in the hallway, and in a little knot by the kitchen sink, Shamanism is compared with Druidry, issues of two or three Pagan zines are passed from hand to hand, and a new chant is sung in soft, sweet voices. Suddenly the door opens in a draft of cold air, and the Tarot decks and artwork are laid down for yet another round of welcoming hugs and introductions.

There were somewhere between fifteen and thirty of us crowding the little farmhouse, and though there were lots of new faces, everyone knew someone already, and everyone knew stories about people they were meeting for the first time. The atmosphere was lively, contented, and curious. Pagans are, as a group, very, very good at establishing a warm and intimate sense of community, and, in some ways, that weekend retreat marked the zenith of that sense of connection and love among us.

So many people that I loved were there. My covenmates, Kirk and Doug, of course. Harold and Lindy, whose home we were in, and the many members of their coven and study group, flourishing in spite of how remote and rural their community was. Peter had driven all the way up from his home in Western Massachusetts, and Brian had come from his home near Boston.

I was there to act as the priestess; for the first time, I was going to draw down in a ritual for a larger group than my own small coven. Brian was going to draw down the spirit of the Caribou, his totem animal, Kirk was going to draw down the Horned God, and I was going to draw down the Goddess as the Lady of Summer, preparing to leave the land until the return of spring.

When we finally spread out our wall-to-wall sleeping bags across the floor--I rolled mine out at the landing at the top of the stairs, literally the last shred of floor space not covered in linoleum or other sleepers--I felt fully and deeply enfolded by a community I loved, and absolutely determined to serve them well in ritual the next day.

Drawing down the Moon (or Sun, as the corresponding ritual for men is known) is a practice I have never ceased to wrestle with, and my feelings and understandings have evolved a good deal over time. This, however, is how I understood matters then.

Lindy, the only woman I had ever worked with on this aspect of Wiccan practice, set the bar high: I don't know that I have ever seen a priestess carry the spirit of the Goddess in ritual as powerfully as Lindy did. She was someone who naturally tranced very deeply; it was sometimes necessary to assign a watcher for her, to make certain she did not accidentally stray too close to the bonfire, for example, or to bring her food if her blood sugar fell dramatically after a ritual. She also not infrequently experienced trance amnesia--she might not remember at all what happened from the point of the invocation on. There was a numen and a gravitas to her ritual work that were easy to admire. My aim was to approach the quality of her work, not through direct imitation, but through working to acheive as deep a level of trance in ritual* as I possibly could.

I knew sleep deprivation tended to deepen trance for me--luckily, as I don't think I got more than two or three hours sleep, at most, that night. Emotional stress could do so (and Afagddu had neatly taken care of that for me) as could ritual cues like incense, candlelight, woodsmoke, or the sound of drums. And hunger helped, too--it did not distract me, but opened me up. Therefore, I had resolved to fast the day of the ritual.

Perhaps if I'd mentioned that to Lindy the night before, she would not have begun Saturday by cooking batch after batch of homemade pumpkin doughnuts.

We gathered in Lindy's kitchen in a big ring of mismatched chairs, and held the annual church business meeting there as Lindy fried up and passed around huge platters of doughnuts. (I lost count after six dozen.) And, though business meetings are nobody's idea of a good time, that one was unusually friendly and efficient. We finished around noon, and had the next three or four hours before we would start over to Thea House, a small Catholic retreat center nearby which had agreed to rent us their cabins and fields for the night.

The day had some of the same atmosphere as Thanksgiving Day before the turkey is ready or all of the guests have arrived. It felt like the part of a holiday that's all about waiting, like "the night before some festival/To an impatient child that hath new robes/And may not wear them." It was a curiously empty day, but also crammed full with expectancy.

We spent the day in a variety of ways. I seem to remember Peter and Lindy in solemn conference, discussing the nature of the gods. Kirk and I discovered that, not only had no one brought any ritual wine, but there was nowhere nearby that sold alcohol at all. Harold told us the story of the dry doe, whose life he had taken to provide the venison we would share in sacrament at our ritual that night, and the available drummers passed the time rehearsing drum beats to use that evening.

At one point, Lindy showed me the mountain of firewood she and Harold would be needing to get through the icy northern winter. At another, Harold took a group of us down the road, to his family's house, where (over his objections) they ran a sort of roadside zoo, which included a partially tame mountain lion Harold had helped to raise from a cub. With his encouragement, I reached through the bars of her cage. Reasoning that the worst that would happen might be the loss of some fingers, I brought my hand close for her to smell... and then petted the side of her head. She nuzzled her jaw against my hand, just as a kitten might, and I could hardly breathe for the wonder of it.

There was time for Peter and me to walk together that afternoon, arm in arm down the path that led into the deep woods behind Harold and Lindy's home. Lindy had told me a story of an encounter she had with a stag (the god Herne?) in those woods during a blizzard the previous winter; Peter and I discussed Herne and our ideas about him, about the gods in general, and what we thought They might want from us. "To grow," Peter suggested, "so that we will be more interesting company." We agreed that it was almost certainly, for Them as for us, all about the relationships... And when I got cold, Peter, so much taller than I am, wrapped his long, green cloak over and around my shoulders, too, as we continued walking.

When we returned, the chaos of packing up had begun.

All those sleeping bags, paper shopping bags filled with potluck food--casseroles and loaves of bread and cakes and cheese and butter--all those Tarot decks and drums and cloaks and robes and wands, athames, antler or crescent moon crowns, silver jewelry and bottles of essential oils... all those things now needed to be bundled up and transferred to the next fleet of cars, ready to move farther down the road to the site of that night's ritual. Our line of aging cars made its way across the flat, black, darkening farmlands around us to where a little cluster of houses set among a few trees marked our destination: Thea House.

The rest of the crew set to work: cooking, setting up the altar and ritual space, pulling out ritual tools, setting up makeshift beds for the night, and so on. But Lindy and I were a small island of quiet in the midst of all the bustle. There was one--and only one--bath at the retreat center, and it was not usually available to guests, but reserved for the nuns who kept the site. Lindy, however, had negotiated for us to use it, and she ran me a bath, and filled it with herbs and oils to help me prepare for the ritual.

She had also provided me with a robe to wear for the ritual. I don't even remember what I had originally planned to wear--some second-hand dress with a long hem and no particular style, I'm sure. However, unlike me, Lindy had a wonderful collection of ritual garb and jewelry; as a member of the SCA, Lindy had a definate sense of style. When she brought out the robe she had chosen, I had no words for what she was offering me. Not only was the robe beautiful, but it was one I had seen her creating over the course of many months. Made of an earthy brown wool, it was lavishly embroidered with Celtic knotwork and leaping stags. It had been, Lindy explained, her masterwork, and she had planned to be buried in it one day... but she wanted me to wear it. She wanted me to have it.

Needless to say, I have it still.

One oddity: Lindy stands about a full head shorter than I do. And, especially back then, our figures were very different--hers quite round both above and below a narrow waist, and mine essentially without a waist, and nowhere near as round in the hip. It did not seem possible that Lindy's robe would fit my body. But when I dropped it over my head, much to my surprise, if not Lindy's, it fitted me. Perfectly.

We could hear drums warming up outside. I took Lindy by the hand and asked her please, if she wouldn't do me one more favor?

I was really afraid of screwing up my role. I was afraid of making some mis-step, of not achieving trance, of... I'm not even sure what. But I really, really did not want to have the whole weight of priestessing that ritual on my shoulders. I asked Lindy to also draw down. Could she, quietly, privately, on standby as it were? Sort of a priestess or a goddess on call?

I think it probably warmed her to be asked. Though not a perfect person, Lindy could be absolutely gracious when asked for help. As I walked out to the finished barn where the ritual was to be held, she was drawing the symbol on her brow which marked her own preparation for ritual. I was reassured; she had agreed to "spot" my ritual work.

The ritual we had planned consisted of three parts, almost like the three acts of a play. First, after Kirk and I drew down, the Goddess and the God would bless the "wine" in a symbolic Great Rite. Then Brian would draw the spirit of the Caribou into his body, and a symbolic hunt would occur, in the form of a dance--drums in the background, Herne stalking His other self round and round the circle. When the Caribou had been "killed," the Goddess would say goodbye to the people assembled for the ritual, one by one, and then escort the spirit of the Caribou to the Underworld (otherwise known as just outside the barn) where Brian and I would return to our ordinary selves** and reenter the ritual to share in the sacred feast, the venison and grape-juice wine. Everyone would have a chance to interact with Herne as well as with the Goddess, and, after some time spent in song and storytelling, we would bring down the circle, thank the Gods, and go back into the main house for a big potluck feast.

I am not, like Lindy, someone who experiences trance amnesia during ritual. However, I have learned that my memory can become dreamlike and choppy for time in ritual. Some things I remember with great vividness, I remember the wine blessing--and it really didn't seem like grape juice when we were done. I remember the Caribou's dance--quiet drumbeats, the sound of bare feet against the floor, and an almost unbearable quiet tension. I remember the moment when the Caribou decided to yield to the God and the solemnity of it: a life given to feed life.

And I remember the faces of the celebrants, in a ring, as I moved from person to person to person, and the Lady gave words of condolence or encouragement or greeting to each person in turn, but even the day after the ritual, I remembered little or nothing of what She said.

And of course I remember the kiss.

The kiss... that changed everything for me. Because when I got to Peter, She spoke to him briefly (did She call him Herne's son? I think She did) and then kissed him. Right on the mouth. And moved on.

Let's talk about that kiss, shall we?

Observant readers will no doubt already know what I did not, at that point: that I was falling in love with Peter Bishop. You may wonder why I didn't know it myself. Remember, reader, you have the advantage, not merely of my skillful forshadowing as I have written this tale, but of knowing already that I am married to him today. What I knew was that I had a perfect and happy life, married to my high school sweetheart. Being in love with anyone else did not make sense, given that context. And it's always harder to know things that don't seem to make sense.

Nor did the kiss change that. On some level, I was disconcerted by it. But I was in ritual, and so I kept on rolling, until it was time for the Lady to leave the stage, and exit to where Brian (another more experienced ritualist than I) was waiting to help me "devoke" the Goddess--to ask Her to leave, so that I could return, as Cat, for the last part of the ritual. In other words, I had my hands full at that moment, and did not have the luxury of unpacking it.

But I've had lots and lots of time to think about it since, and, in hindsight, even as someone who is happily and securely married to the recipient of that kiss, I have a real problem with it.

It's just so convenient, isn't it? I "didn't know" I wanted Peter. It "wasn't me" who kissed him. The potential for abuse of that kind of thinking is overwhelming, and just swapping the genders of the participants is enough to make that clear. Imagine, please, a married male priest, and (let's make this as clear-cut as we can, shall we?) an unmarried and perhaps much younger female ritual goer. The God (or the priest and the God, or the priest pretending to be the God, in the worst thinkable scenario) plants a juicy one right on the sweet young thing's lips. What's she supposed to do? He's a God, right? If unwelcome, what recourse does she have?

Just how different was this incident from the one I'd just been through with Afagddu, anyway?

Peter says I am too harsh in how I describe the ethical problem here. He says that I frame the issue in terms of an abuse of power to justify the action, but I've never sought to justify my actions here; I've never claimed that the presence of a Goddess or the ritual context made it OK that I kissed him--that, instead, I've vigorously championed the idea that we are responsible for the Gods we choose to worship, and, by extension, for the acts They do with or within us in our rituals.

Yes. But. Was there, perhaps, a kind of self-justification involved in this incident? Was I able to act on a wish I was unwilling to admit to myself at all, only because I'd set up a context where I could believe that "the Goddess made me do it"? Just how much did the water served that night taste of my pipes?*** It has always struck me as an important question. And I... don't...know... the answer.

If nothing else, I think I look pretty dishonest in that moment. So there it is: the case for the prosecution.

Here's the case for the defense.

Not only didn't I know--and I really, really did not know--that I was falling in love with this guy (yes, I was that dumb) but the kiss I experienced was not the kiss that he experienced. The kiss that I remembered was not the kiss that Peter got.

In our culture, it's not completely outrageous to kiss a friend or a family member. Generally, such kisses are on the cheek. This was, as I said, a kiss on the mouth. But the kiss that I witnessed or gave (take your pick, ladies and gentlemen) was, despite being a kiss on the lips, a kiss that would not have greatly startled my mother. A close friend would have blinked a bit, wondered if I'd been watching too many French movies, and forgotten all about it. It was, in a word, a friendly kiss. One second of kiss--maybe less.

That was not, however, the kiss that Peter got and my friends got to watch, which was long... and juicy... and (I blush to acknowledge) involved more than lips alone. His kiss was not a "friendly" kiss.

The ritual ended, the feast began. Best of all, the evening cleanup began, and just as with a good family Thanksgiving, the best part--the singing over dishwashing, put the cap on the whole night.

It was after breakfast the next morning that Peter asked if he could talk with me privately, and we made our way to the barn where the previous night's ritual had been held.

I remember the feeling of lassitude I had, after two nights in a row of minimal sleep, and I remember that, despite the pre-ritual bath I'd had the night before, I felt horribly sticky and sweaty and in need of a shower. I had no idea what Peter might want to talk to me about, but, given the easy intimacy we'd enjoyed in our conversations so far, I was happy to hear him out. We sprawled out on a set of floor pillows, me with a tired grin on my face.

When he began to talk though, I was taken aback.

"I know I said I'd like to come up and work with your coven sometimes," he began. "But I've changed my mind."

I blinked--I sat up. I took in the seriousness of his expression--and blinked some more. "Oh--uh." I could not figure out what was going on here. "Why? Is something wrong? Did I say or do something that offended you?"

"No..." he focused hard on the wall behind my head. "It's just--I don't want to be in a situation where there's uh--gender polarity with you again."

I was still not getting it, and a glance at my face told Peter he had to be clearer. Quietly, in tones of slight embarassment, he explained that he thought he was falling in love with me--clearly a bad idea.

Peter was falling in love with me? Peter was falling in love? With me?

No. No way! Couldn't be!

Wow. Peter was falling in love with me! I felt--well! Surprised! But really, really pleased.

I told him that I felt flattered. I think we talked about our friendship... Peter may have told me his philosophy of dating: "With the married ones, I don't even ask." We talked a little more, inconsequential things, mostly. And then he asked me never to kiss him again.

Oh. Oh, well... Okay.

Could I hug him goodbye? Yes. That was all right. So I did--a nice, no sexual-subtext, friendly hug, and we went off to pack up our bags and bundles, toss them into our separate vehicles, and head off into our normal daily lives.

Hours passed. Brian and Roxanne, riding with me, were keeping up a facinating discussion of Unitarian Universalist politics around Paganism, and of fallacies in Pagan discussions of the ancient world--topics that would normally have me rivetted. But, driving past flat field after flat field of upstate New York countryside, I could hardly take in a word they were saying.

I just kept replaying that goodbye hug, those astonishing words. "I think I'm falling in love with you."

It took me most of the ride home to recognize that I was falling in love with him, too. And all of a week before I broke my resolution to keep that knowledge to myself, and fired off the first in what would become a long, long exchange of love letters between us.

The kiss started it all, and it may have been me, or partly me, or not. I can make out a good case for that having been obliviousness. But that first letter... I knew what I was doing. I knew that no good could possibly come out of it for my marriage. And I did it anyway, and began the process of unraveling my married life.

*I no longer believe that depth of trance ensures validity of sacred possession. At that time, it was my belief that I would have the best chance of providing a clear channel for the Goddess to speak through me if I released as many inhibitions as I could and tranced as deeply as possible. Since that time, I have seen that depth of trance does not neccesarily imply anything about the ability of a priest or priestess to avoid contaminating the messages of the gods with their own subconsious wishes and expectations, and I have heard the story of more than one abuse of power incident to this practice. Partly as a result of my own experiences described in this post, I've become very wary about the traditional Wiccan practice of drawing down the Moon; I vastly prefer the Quaker practice of testing and sharing purely verbal messages in vocal ministry, in part because the responsiblity both for hearing the voice of the divine and for discerning spirits in meeting lies with the whole group, and not one fallible priest or priestess.

I'm not condemning the practice of drawing down the Moon overall, and I wouldn't absolutely rule out the possiblity of ever engaging in it again myself. But I do have deep concerns about it--not so much in terms of the nature of the Spirits carried--a fear I suspect some Christians would entertain--as because of fears about my own ability to maintain a high enough level of discernment and ethics to engage appropriately in this practice. I dread the liklihood of "miscarrying" the deity, to coin a phrase, and I strongly dislike the lack of checks and balances upon me, when I act as the sole priestess within a group... and I do suspect that I'm not the only HPs to find this aspect of the practice difficult and distressing.

**This was the first and only time I ever asked the Goddess to leave on cue, because I learned better that very night. It's not that Rosie minded, at all; asked to leave, She did. But where, in other rituals, before or since, I had allowed that communion to fade it its own time, and had felt some level of sadness or lonliness when it was over, having Her leave--WOOOSH!--in a rush that way, felt awful. I got the shakes afterwards, and I was very grateful that Doug, who had worked with Lindy many times over the years, noticed how cold I was and brought me someone's thrown-off cloak to wrap myself up in. Drawing down is warm, and intimate, and joyful; shutting that flow off deliberately and suddenly turned out to be a lot like going from a cozy sauna into an ice bath...only with the cold on the inside, not the outside.

*** Henry Wilbur once said, "Messages in Quaker meeting are like water going through pipes, and sometimes the water tastes of the pipes!" (From Poley, Irvin C. and Poley, Ruth. Quaker Anecdotes. Pendle Hill, Wallingford, Pennsylvania,1946. Quoted at


Liz in the Mist said…
Thanks for your explanation, I hope to have time to read your blog posts soon.

Ever since I was little I have always felt spiritually connected to nature (and still do) so I def. understand that aspect of it and am curious to find out more.
Honey said…
wow, talk about baring your soul. Thank you, that kiss will haunt you but you have already grown from it. I love your writing.
Kate said…
Lindy, up in New England, in the SCA. Is her SCA name Brid, by any chance? If so, I know her...
I'm posting this for David M., who writes:
Hello Cat,
Blogger seems impeneterabe to me, so I'm writing you directly.

First, this series takes enormous courage and honesty. I've only seen this in a pagan writer once before, but I'll get to that later on in this email.

Your description of drawing down and the moral issues surrounding it seem to me to be part of a larger theme that pagan spiritual practioners (and probably others) deal with on a regular basis. Unlike a lot of religions, desire is firmly embedded in what we do. We open to the sensuality of our experiences both in this and the Other world. With no filter, we take what we receive- raw, beautiful and dangerous. So there are highs and screaming lows. I'm reminded of a documentary on the Summer of Love, where the whole discussion of bad trips came up. One of the folks said simply, that psychedelics tear down neat and orderly structures that we call our lives and then we build them up perhaps new and improved. But, she went on - if you're 14 you may not have the reasources to build yourself up again. That is the underlying risk we take, that we may not survive the gifts we're given.

It seems spectacularly unlikely that you consciously abused your role. More likely, you were given a gift, but I'm only guessing and only you can really know.

Which brings me to doubt. Circa 1999, I was in a real spiritual low. I felt what I was doing was inauthentic while simultaneously leading circles in a sort of non-denominational wiccan group. I stumbled on Emma Restall Orr's (Bobcat) Spirits of the Sacred Grove and was immediately taken by it. Two quotes within a page or two of each other. The first - a true encounter with a dark night of the soul.

"Who am I calling to? Why am I still fooling myself that anyone is listening? How could I live so long with such an illusion, such a pathetic search for purpose when there is none, such a sad craving for friendship that I have to create invisible people? Isn't it time right now to admit the reality that all this is no more than the stench and bile vomited out of my twisted psyche, somehow made into art...?"

And the second was -

"Doubt is always there. Perhaps if it weren't, we would not be so very wide awake, nor so open in our senses, listening , watching. In Druidcraft, as we search for where we belong, in time and space, we respond to the songs and calls of every spirit around us, nurturing relationships, learning to hear and to truly communicate, knowing that ony by doing this will we find true responsibility."

(which incidentally, sounds a lot like the way you talk about Meeting)

This sealed the deal for me and I began a druid (OBOD) path. In my mind, I see you two as spiritual sisters. She too moved on from an HPS position and the issue was also about power, but with a different twist. Her book Living Druidry, may be the single most important book of neopagan philosophy written to date. And it is certainly one of the most soul searching and honest ones.

peace and health,
I'm not sure what the deal is with Blogger and comments--I've been having some weird issues myself, lately.

Liz--I'm glad to share whatever I can with you of how that connection to nature has been important as my spirituality has grown and changed over time. Glad you could stop by--your blog is terrific!

Honey, thank you so much for reading. The kiss has done so much more than haunt me! Nothing but good came out of that event... and yet, I do have concerns and reservations about that part of my Pagan practice, and one more way I'm happy to have become Quaker these last few years!

Kate, I have lost touch with the Lindy of this memoir, most unfortunately. I can't tell you about her life today.

And David, since Emma Restall Orr is, in many ways the Pagan writer I was most directly inspired by when I began this blog, you have won my undying friendship by comparing me to her! I love the way Orr writes from her center, about the direct experience of Druidry, and I heartily recommend her book, Spirits of the Sacred Grove. (To any Pagans in our studio audience looking to deepen your spiritual practice, I say, buy it! Read it!)

Thank you so much for your comments here.
Anonymous said…
Dear Cat,

Here it is the morning of July 18 — nearly six days after you posted this essay — and all I can say is, I've been praying over it, and over your decision to share this story publicly, ever since it came out.

I believe David M. is right in saying that paganism is unusual in its handling of desire. (It's not unique in that regard, though; there are tantric traditions that operate similarly.)

Traditional Quakerism, on the other hand, handles desire in the same way as first-century Christianity: it says, desire is good if-and-only-if it is in step with what God wants. There are some very moving letters written by early Friends to their spouses, expressing how much they wanted their love for each other to remain in harmony with God's will. One can see in those letters how the early Friends struggled to rein in their desires, to keep those desires from becoming unhealthy and hurtful, while at the same time rejoicing in the gift of their love for one another.

The big question that this essay of yours, and the one that follows, tend to raise in my own mind, is whether your desire for Peter, and his for you, were in step with what God wanted. A traditional Protestant or Catholic would answer that question in a knee-jerk fashion: since it was extramarital, of course it was wrong. But I am not a traditional Protestant or Catholic, and for me the question is complicated by the thought that it may have been your first marriage that was the real departure from what God wanted. (You have indicated, in the essay that follows this one, that your first marriage was barren of any shared spirituality, and I am guessing it was not preceded by the sort of slow and careful discernment that early Friends would have required.) So I have to answer, I don't know the truth of this matter. I am not in a position to know!

For a traditional Friend (Quaker) such as myself, this matter has to be seen in the light of Christ's teaching that marriage is a once-and-forever proposition — that things like adultery and divorce are contrary to God's will. (Mark 10:2-12 / Matthew 19:3-9.) But I am simultaneously mindful of Christ's example in the case of the woman taken in adultery: he said to her, after rescuing her from her executioners: "I do not condemn you; go your way, and sin no more." (John 8:3-11)

Thus I read Christ's teaching on the permanence of marriage as representing an ideal that God intended for us all — an ideal of closeness and companionship, mutual support and loyalty, harmony and happiness, that Christ wanted us all to enjoy. But it's evident from the story of the woman taken in adultery that Christ didn't want our striving toward that ideal to be tainted by judgmentalism in the cases where one of us struggles and fails. His attitude (it seems to me) was, when one of us stumbles and falls, the rest of us should be there to help the stumbler find her way back to the path of goodness, the path where happiness lies. Our job is not to tear the stumbler down.

Paganism's handling of desire seems to me to be in error, because it fails to provide an adequate answer to the problem of harmful desires. But that is not to say that all pagans are willfully choosing to cultivate harmful desires! And your own story is, in that respect, a case in point.

As I read your story, it seems clear to me: (1) that your struggle for a right marriage was sincere; (2) that when you failed the first time around, it was due in large part to spiritual immaturity (a spiritual immaturity that expressed itself as a less-than-whole first marriage, and also as a lack of familiarity with the skills needed to handle strong temptation); (3) that the failure of your first marriage was partly due, too, to a lack of a good community support system that would have helped you marry right the first time, and helped you handle subsequent tests of the marriage; and (4) that now, after the first marriage fell to pieces and you've had to rebuild your life and learn from the pain, you do strive sincerely to do what's right.

I share your own grief over the fact that you had to go through an affair and a divorce to get to a happier ending; that is a very, very painful route to go by! And I see from what you say about your children, in the essay that follows this one, that the ending is still, even now, not without its painful edges. But I am very gladdened by the values you express as you tell the story now.

I am moved to say, I believe in you, Cat.
Ah, Marshall, I am so pleased that you have posted your comment here. If I were simply Pagan and not Quaker, then reexamining my story through your eyes--the eyes of a kind, compassionate, and Christian Quaker--would not be relevant to me. But I am a Quaker, and the corporate discernment process is one of the reasons why. So, despite our different ways of understanding the world of Spirit, I see your understandings as very relevant.

I'd like to make an aside at this point, to any Pagans reading this comment and Marshall's, to avoid the temptation to leap to my defense or that of Paganism here. Marshall is not attacking me, and his Christian perspective is invited here. (I know, we're all used to anti-Pagan blog spam that cites Jesus and the Bible. But just because the man talks about Christianity, doesn't mean he's intolerant or attacking anyone--go read his other comments here if you doubt this!) So, if you choose to respond to his ideas, please let it be to the ideas, my friends. And let's keep it in a spirit of open-minded and thoughtful dialog, OK? Plenty of Light--but no call for heat. :)


Here I was, thinking I'd hear from you on the Wiccan practice of drawing down the moon... but you have instead responded to the (in some ways) far more delicate and important question on the place of desire and fidelity within Pagan life.

Paganism, and particularly Wicca, take as a central myth the relationship between a Goddess and a God, who between Them generate the world and all life. An oversimplification, of course, that leaves the impression that we're truly duotheists, which I don't believe we are. But it's definitely an important element in how Pagans see the world: a central mythological event is creation through sexual desire. Thus, sexuality becomes a central metaphor underlying much of Pagan thought and ritual.

Christian myth, on the other hand, removes sexuality from the process of creation, and takes for its central metaphor the relationship between a Father and his Son (and by extension, his other, younger children as well).

I see both myths as valid--in the sense of tying into powerful human instincts, in ways that help us have a way of understanding, in terms that mean something to us, the love that fills the universe. I doubt very much that either is a very adequate way of describing God's reality from God's point of view... but that's one point of view I can't take in, anyway.

You write, "Traditional Quakerism... handles desire in the same way as first-century Christianity: it says, desire is good if-and-only-if it is in step with what God wants... ...[E]arly Friends struggled to rein in their desires, to keep those desires from becoming unhealthy and hurtful, while at the same time rejoicing in the gift of their love for one another." This is my impression of Friends' views on sexuality, too.

One of the places where I draw an absolute blank, in the sense of words holding no meaning for my tiny little mind as I read them on the page, is in the whole concept of sexual desire as harmful or undesirable in itself. It's one of the things that I come across over and over again reading the works of early Quakers. Time and time again, I'll be reading a passage that I absolutely get, on what it's like to listen to that inward Voice, and then I'll stub my toe mentally over a phrase about resisting lusts or fornication or the flesh. And I go..."huh???"

I will admit, I have trouble with the whole concept of "sin," which I can really only understand through the insight I had some years ago that (earthy language alert) we are all, indeed, ordinary human assholes; we do the dumbest and sometimes most obnoxious things from time to time, dammit. And, for the most part, all we can do about it is pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, say, "Oh, crap, I did it again," and go make right whatever we can. It's also a really good idea to remember, when another ordinary human asshole does something dumb and obnoxious to us, to remember the last time we were that kind of jerk, and that it comes with the territory, and to get over it already. I'll just add that my ability to do these things, in relation to being one of a group of ordinary human assholes has been greatly aided by two things: active and loving participation in flawed but beautiful human community (via Paganism) and experiences of divine love, both in communion with the Goddess and in Quaker meeting. I'm a little better able to overcome my innate asshole-ness through repeated spiritual practice that involves these things, which I take for a sign that I'm on the right track.

So, with that as my operating definition of "sin", let me scandalize my Pagan compeers by recognizing it as a concept that has at least some meaning for me.

But the emphasis on lust as sin, fornication as sin, the flesh as sin...that's just a big ol' question mark in my mind.

Nope, the sins I find myself slipping into in the course of my life tend to fall into one of four categories:
1. Giving in to angry and spiteful impulses.
2. Falling into addictive behaviors that take what could be pleasurable and positive, and ignore the limits that would keep it so (mainly, for me, that's around food, the Internet, and reading suspenseful books well past my bedtime).
3. Being too lazy to do what I know it really is my job to do, and letting something important go undone, or another person carry my share of the load (that would be Peter, alas...)
4. Saying snipey and gossipy things about other people (or telling parts of their story that are not mine to tell) either for comic or dramatic effect.

In the case of each of these, I have an early-alert system--a voice or a sensation that lets me know I'm doing wrong. And when I do wrong, I ignore that voice and carry on with my ordinary human asshole-ness anyway. (I don't capitalize Voice here, because sometimes I think it's ordinary conscience; sometimes it may be the Inner Light. But I'm not clear on which is which, probably because in those moments, I'm busy trying _not_ to hear that voice.

I notice that you did not, in your description of early Friends and traditional Friends understanding of sexual morality, condemn desire on its face. Nope--you spoke of early Friends working "to keep those desires from becoming unhealthy and hurtful, while at the same time rejoicing in the gift of their love for one another." It's not desire that's the problem here--it's unhealthy and hurtful desire--desire not "in harmony with God's will."

I'm taking that to mean something like what I've noticed about my addictive behavior--when I take what should be joyful and pleasurable, and ignore the Voice that counsels when to stop and when not to engage at all. It's not that it's about sexual desire... its that it's about desire that ignores the Inner Guide. And here I am using capital letters, because it becomes very important to distinguish between my own, merely humanly wise conscience, and the voice of the Inner Light of God.

My conscience will be wrong, sometimes. And, though we're used to thinking of that in terms of people who rationalize away the voice of conscience, that's not the danger I'm thinking of. I'm thinking, instead, of the adolescent, for instance, who is embarrassed by his developing sexuality (and aren't all adolescents so embarrassed?) who takes his discomfort with his desire as a sign that, say, his masturbation is sinful. Lots and lots of kids out there torturing themselves over that one. (And it's so much worse for the ones who are gay...) But I simply cannot believe that masturbation, per se, is sinful and evil and something that the Inner Guide counsels against. Nope--I suspect that the guilt that arises over that one comes from our muddled human consciences, and not from the Guide at all.

So I'm saying, I think, that sin is turning away from the Voice of that Inward Light; and that the issue is confused by how hard it can be, especially when we're inclined not to listen to that Voice, to distinguish between it and our own human consciences and instincts.

I think that, for me, the "sin" in my divorce was in refusing the self-awareness of my developing feelings for Peter. I think that I really was offered a choice (Seven of Cups, remember?) and I tried, at least for a while, to weasel out of knowing I was going to be making one, and one that would certainly hurt someone. (Peter would have been as harmed as I had we not married in the end.) But I wanted things to work themselves out without my needing to know uncomfortable things about myself--such as the fact that I'm capable of hurting people. The Light illuminated who I really am. I did try to turn away, at least for a time. And I think that that is a large part of what has always made me uncomfortable about that kiss in circle. Beyond the questions of possible abuse of trust, there's the question of what it implies about refusing to know what I felt. And acting on an unacknowledged desire...

*sigh* Now I'm frustrated, because words for what I'm trying to explore here are failing me. Perhaps a sign that I haven't quite got it yet. But I do think that refusing to see what was in me is the biggest part of my failing in the parts of the story I've shared here, and echoes in the parts I've not written down...

Something Herne said to Peter around this time seems very relevant to me. He told Peter he was going to have to "act, and face the consequences." And while I don't think that's a universally good idea, I do think it was what both he and I needed to understand at the time of our affair. It was True for us in that context. And refusing to know that, for as long as I did, was part of my failing.

As for my first marriage...would Friends discernment have kept me from marrying? Maybe. Were we spiritually immature? Oh, yes, definately. And yet, we were both 22, and smart, and clearly cared about one another a lot. I'm not sure most Friends meetings would have gotten much traction with us. Nor do I remember any of those promptings of the Inner Guide around the decision to marry (though I had some dreams that, in hindsight, might have told me something... but only in hindsight, and I did not have to tools to examine them at that time).

I cannot even call my first marriage a mistake. Not only did we both grow, and support one another in our growth for many years, but my daughter was born because of it. How can any mother ever consider her child to be a "mistake"?

So... it's an odd story, at least to my own ears. I see that I have done harmful things, and yet, I cannot regret any of them. I'm grateful for it all... skeptical that, had I been either Quaker or Pagan earlier in my life than I was, it would have made very much difference to my choices at the time, and even where it might have, incapable of wishing it had turned out differently.

*Laughing* As if I weren't long-winded enough! What a lengthy comment! Thank you, however, for being so indulgent and willing to turn this over in your hear alongside me. (Now, if only you could also counsel me on how to Get Right with Hera--I've always been nervous around Her since the time of my affair and divorce! But that will perhaps have to wait for a patient Hellenic Pagan to discern...)

Bright blessings, Friend.
Anonymous said…
Some clarifications for Marshall about my own post and maybe a bit more.

I didn't say what the object of desire was. Perhaps, since I was writing to Cat, I took some shorthands that deserve more explanation.

Probably the majority of pagans see Spirit (or Goddess or God, but I'm going to use Spirit here) as infusing creation. Spirit in every blade of grass. One druidic approach is to open up to relationship with Spirit in Creation -to recognize and honor and respect our spiritual interdependence. There is a deep desire within each of us to live again in this spiritual awareness. If I were Christian, I would describe it as a return to the Garden. (For Cat - If you decide to try again, the opening chapters of Bobcat's Living Druidry describe opening each of the senses to Spirit.)

So there is the desire to reconnect spiritually with creation and the method is our senses, whether outwardly or inwardly because Spirit is outside of us and also within each of us.

Connection with Spirit is a gift. Our gift of honor and respect is sometimes returned with the gift of Spiritual presence and with insight. And those insights may change us. And these gifts may also make demands on us that we have free will to follow or ignore. Not every Spirit is true or as Cat says, we are responsible for the Gods we worship.

This is how I mean the words sensuality, desire and gift.

Kate said…
Alas! I shall simply say, then, that I imagine that your Lindy and my Lindy, kind, generous, loving ladies both, are the same wonderful woman I know.
Anonymous said…
Hello, Cat and David M.

This is a very busy time of the year for me -- three yearly meetings in less than two months, and the final one of them, the one coming up next week, a yearly meeting at which I am scheduled to do a major presentation. So if I seem slow to respond to your words, it's because I am up to my ears in pressing commitments. I hope you understand.

Cat, you wrote, "One of the places where I draw an absolute blank, in the sense of words holding no meaning for my tiny little mind as I read them on the page, is in the whole concept of sexual desire as harmful or undesirable in itself." Let me respond. I do think that for puritan Christians, whether they are Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox (puritanism has historically existed in all three branches), sexual desire is indeed harmful or undesirable in itself. But puritanism has never been the only form of Christianity. It has never even been the dominant strain. It is a strain, and nothing more. There have always been plenty of other, non-puritan Christians able to say that God pronounced the whole world good, just as He created it (Genesis 1:10,18,21,25,31), and sexual desire was quite obviously part of what He created, since part of His blessing on both animals and people was that they "multiply and fill the earth" (Genesis 1:22,28).

Historically speaking, for spiritual Christians, the big problem with sexual desire has not been that it is "harmful or undesirable in itself", but that when it is aroused it becomes very hard for the person under its influence to hear or obey God's urgings to do what is right. Desire is not the only thing that can make it hard to hear God's urgings, either -- all the passions can do that, which is precisely why what is traditionally condemned, in Christian spirituality, is not desire alone, but passions generally. (You say much the same, I think, when you condemn "angry and spiteful impulses", "addictive behaviors", etc. For all these would be categorized as passions in Christian thinking.) The flesh is problematic because the flesh is where such passions arise and are experienced.

So this does not mean that desire is evil, or that the flesh is evil. It means that they all too often generate distractions that make it hard to hear and obey God.

You go on to say, "...I have trouble with the whole concept of 'sin,' which I can really only understand through the insight I had some years ago that (earthy language alert) we are all, indeed, ordinary human assholes; we do the dumbest and sometimes most obnoxious things from time to time...." There are several Hebrew words in the Bible that are translated "sin", and what they mostly have in common is an idea of straying from the right path, crossing over a boundary between what God intended and what is out of place. So these meanings too are tied to an essential concern for discerning and following God's will, rather than to a concern about not doing dumb and obnoxious things. (You yourself repeat this understanding, Cat, I think, when you write, "...I'm saying, I think, that sin is turning away from the Voice of that Inward Light....")

So it's maybe worth noting that the Hebrew prophets and the Christian apostles did dumb and obnoxious things from time to time in obedience to God's will, and those dumb and obnoxious things bore healthy fruits. And it's also maybe worth noting that the Jews and the early Christians -- like spiritual people everywhere -- had little respect for human wisdom, no matter how skillful or gracious, when such wisdom stands on its own two feet, apart from a submission to God's will. "Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!" said First Isaiah (Isaiah 5:21). And the author of the book of Job put this observation into the mouths of one of his characters: "He (God) frustrates the devices of the crafty, so that their hands cannot carry out their plans. He catches the wise in their own craftiness...." (Job 5:12-13)

I must decline to guess what the sin in your divorce was, or even to decide whether there was a sin or not. That is a matter between you and the people you were entangled with in making that choice, and also between you and God. It is none of my business unless you choose to make it such. What I wrote in my previous comment was not an attempt to assign blame or sin, but only an attempt to share something of my own thoughts about what Christ was teaching and about how all such situations as the one you went through might perhaps be viewed in the light of his teachings.

Let me say, though, that when you write, "I see that I have done harmful things, and yet, I cannot regret any of them,", you and I part ways. I deeply regret all the harm I have ever done, and I answer to my God for the harm I have done to others, every day of my life.

David M., the only thing I will say here is that you, and the group you refer to as "probably the majority of pagans", may not necessarily mean the same thing by "Spirit" that the Hebrews and Jews of the Bible, and Christ and the apostles, and the early Friends, meant when they used the term. Biblical usage, like classical Mediterranean usage generally (including classical pagan usage), made a clear distinction between Spirit and the life-force that flows through living beings; Spirit was (in Hebrew) ruakh or (in Greek) pneuma, while the life-force was (in Hebrew) khay or (in Greek) zoë. In Biblical thinking, the life-force infuses every blade of grass, as you say the Spirit does. But the life-force is only a blind vitality, far simpler than the grass itself, let alone the Person, the Spirit, that breathes that life-force forth.
Anonymous said…
Word derivations are tricky, but I won't argue against your interpretation of the orthodox Christian interpretation of pneuma. The word had a life before the New Testament, however, especially in the Pythagorean system where there was an element pneuma and a fifth class,which seems to mean alternatively idea and "divine thing." The earth religions family containing wicca and druidry recognize this fifth element, the center, as spirit. So, perhaps every 2000 years there's a reinterpretation:-)

As a question, if the life force is "blind vitality" what do you do when it talks back? Perhaps a strictly orthodox Christian would say either a) it is delusional and self-generated or b) it is not from God so it is either erroneous or evil. And, any honest pagan would tell you that either is possible and must be tested and struggled with. Or as someone once said "Just because your ancesters are dead doesn't mean that they know anything."

So, I'm going to make one more stab at finding commonality and ask this question. Does it make any sense, to practice a religion that does not provide spiritual feedback - that does not place you in the presence of Spirit, however you conceive of the presence of Spirit? Most pagans left their home religions over spiritual emptiness and the negatives of much of organized Christianity. ( But I see neither of that in your Quakerism.

I'm going to stand clear of the discussions of pneuma and ruakh and all the rest--I'm not much of a philosopher, myself, so, though I'm happy to see conversation on such topics, I'm going to sit over here on the sidelines and just listen in...

Marshall, if it is not obvious, I in no way feel judged by you. I'm quite aware that you are writing your responses, as I am trying to write my comments and the original posts, from your heart, striving to hear and speak in clearness. You are simply sharing with me your understandings--how could I ask for more?

Incidentally, I'm not sure our understandings are quite as far apart as they may seem at first blush--some of what I rendered in my comments earlier with irony and humor (attempted, at least) I think I may have articulated unclearly, particularly in the area of what I mean be being "dumb and obnoxious," and not regretting "causing harm." But I think we're probably pushing the limits of clear communication through words alone--face to face discussion, where words can be weighed together in the Spirit might be needed to sort out the areas of clear disagreement from the areas of miscommunication. And, I suspect that if I ever had the chance to meet you and talk with you face to face, I'd have a thousand more important and immediate things to talk about, starting with, "Wow! You're Marshall Massey! How great to actually meet you!" (David, Erik, as two of my most regular and thoughtful readers/commenters, I believe I'd have the same feeling about meeting either of you two.)

As for there being delays in anyone's responses, I'm honored by every person who does respond here, briefly or at length...I know everyone's life is busy, and anyone who takes the time to read my words, let alone respond, is giving me a free and lovely gift! I take it that way.

I don't mind my tale being reflected upon critically. Well, obviously, since I'm doing so myself! I think I'm holding it out for public view because it's the best way I know to make spiritual matters concrete and real--and not notional! (One of Paganism's great failings is that we can become very, very notional at times, and lose our way in a maze of intellect.) This happens to be the only story I both know is true, and hold the "patent" on, so I can share it as freely as I wish. And if I tell the truth well enough, more people than I may be able to figure out a thing or two about how spirit (in whatever forms) affects our lives.

I suppose someone could approach my tale uncharitably. It's been done, on occasion. But there's a real difference between that and the discussion you have held out to me here, Marshall... and, David, thank you very much for engaging with these ideas. You are so much more articulate than I in many of these areas (how very Druidic of you, friend!)and, though I may not agree with your every word, I'm enjoying holding your ideas up for reflection, too.

Blessings, y'all... *big smile*
Anonymous said…
Blogger seems to have eaten my last comment so I'll restate and be brief.

Cat, you are too kind. Experience and meditation are more important than philosophy. You remind me to get back to work.

Marshall. I'm a bozo,or at least a Greek bozo. Pneuma is not Pythagorean. Means breath in Greek. Aer is Pythagorean. I could make an argument that pneuma and ίδέα, Idea or ίερόν, Hieron "a divine thing" are analogous, but I'm just going to stop now.

(and get back to work)
Yewtree said…
Regarding the issue of life-force and spirit.

The Eastern Orthodox Christians make a distinction between God's essence and God's energies. It seems to me (as a panentheist) that what Marshall refers to as "blind life-force" is what the Orthodox call God's energies - surely these are as much part of God as the essence? In Islam, they say that God is "closer to me than my jugular vein" - surely, then, God is in Nature too? (Though in Judaism, the Shekhinah appears to be in nature.) And I think, in discerning the difference between one set of symbols for describing the ineffable and another, it's a case of "by their fruits ye shall know them". Does it affirm life & love & ethical behaviour? If so, good. If it doesn't, think again. It seems to me that everyone in this discussion is trying their darndest to be ethical and to affirm life and love, so if we see it differently, that is intersting and educational, but not harmful.

A couple of interesting articles:

The One-Storey Universe

Through Creation to the Creator

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