Converting to Paganism
To say that I converted to Paganism would be somewhat inaccurate. I think one must first belong to one religion before one can convert to another. As I claimed no religious affiliations when I came to Paganism, I don’t really think of myself as converting, so much as finding what was missing all along.
I’ve told a bit of my tale before on WitchVox, mainly to set the stage for some other topic. I’m not at all shy about the details of my arrival in Paganism – I came to it as a direct result of getting sober in ’93 and joining AA. I suppose it’s a bit indiscreet to mention the program in these essays, but since I’m using my “Pagan name, ” I think it still qualifies as “anonymous.” And I think one of the reasons the Gods helped me get sober was to help other Pagans in recovery, and that would be difficult if I kept the fact of my sobriety to myself.
But I digress…
The irony of the whole situation, I suppose, is that I found my way to the Goddess and the God through AA, which is founded on Christian principles, although it is – ideally – supposed to be a non-religious fellowship. The sad fact is that there are plenty of folks in AA who don’t mind you having a “God of your understanding” as long as that understanding is the same as theirs. They seem to echo the Religious Right that claims the founding fathers didn’t mean freedom of any religion, just freedom of Christian religion. Similarly, there are some who believe that the founders of AA really meant a Christian God of your understanding, not just any old Deity and certainly not – shudder – a Pagan Deity! You can even be an atheist, as long as you are a “Christian atheist, ” i.e. you choose not to believe in the Christian God.
Now how’s that for dysfunctional?
Thankfully, as vocal and obnoxious as this contingent of the fellowship can be, it does not hold sway, and many suffering alcoholics of non-Christian belief can find the help we need. Despite the attempts of some to co-opt AA for their own agendas, the fellowship remains open to all who seek it out, and anyone can get clean and sober regardless of their religious beliefs or spiritual preferences.
I was raised Methodist, in the suburbs of DC. I wouldn’t say that my parents are particularly liberal, but they are Earthy and pragmatic individuals, and as dear as the Church is to them, they don’t feel particularly constrained by it. They live their beliefs, through their relationship with life and nature, through right action and love, and don’t presume to limit the God of their understanding to a particular building on a particular day of the week. So it wasn’t really out of character when they decided to try their hand at farming in the early ’70s and bought some land on which to raise cattle. Needless to say, this took up most of their spare time and, little by little, going to Church on Sunday became less important than being at the farm. Eventually, around the time I was 13 or so, we stopped going altogether as a family. My parents didn’t insist that we children do something they weren’t, and they let us decide individually whether we would continue with the Church.
While my sister continued on, my decision was already made. For some time I had been restless and discontented with the Church. Not so much because I disagreed with the tenets of Christianity, but because I felt the Church was getting away from what we would now call “Mystical Christianity.” Our church, at least, was very much into socio-political issues such as the anti-war movement, women’s liberation, civil rights, feeding the hungry and homeless and such like. At the time, I didn’t have the life experience to realize that true spirituality can be found in just such things. Rather, I was looking for the “burning bush;” what later decades would come to call “peak experiences.” I felt I could get all of the “social studies” I needed from school or the morning paper. What I wanted from Church was to feel the breath of God blow through my soul, and I just wasn’t getting it.
So I went out to find it on my own.
My quest, as it were, started out pretty well. I began to read extensively on other religions and spiritual paths throughout history and the contemporary world, assimilating what I liked and leaving the rest. In my mid-teens, I was introduced to the martial arts – karate, initially – but within a few years had discovered aikido, and the whole concept of ki, ch’i and the Tao. Taoist thought and philosophy had a profound effect on shaping my personal spiritual philosophy, as it meshed so well with what I intuitively believed about the nature of Deity and Its relationship with us. As silly as it may sound, my self-conceived “Western Taoism” resembled nothing so much as Lucas’ concept of the Force – and this was years before Star Wars came out.
I saw Deity as the whole of existence, including all the myriad alternate universes that must exist. I saw Deity as both transcendent and immanent, existing both apart from and as a part of all Life. I saw no paradox in this, at least none that could not be resolved by a truly infinite Deity. And why then should that Deity be limited to any single gender, nationality or form? To even consider such a thing was ludicrous. An omnipotent God must, by definition, be able to assume any form, any gender, in any place or places, any time or times, simultaneously or uniquely.
Long before I new that modern Paganism or the Craft existed, I had decided that God could be Goddess and visa versa, if She/He/They wanted to.
With this general spiritual bent and direction, I probably would have found the Craft years earlier than I did, had my voyage not run aground on the shoals of alcoholism in my early 20s. But run aground it did, and I stayed a prisoner of the disease for the next 15 years.
One of the significant effects of active alcoholism is that it leads inevitably to what we call “spiritual bankruptcy, ” a loss of all connection with any concept of a Higher Power. Which isn’t surprising, since prayer and meditation don’t work very well if you are getting up every 5 minutes for a cold beer. Nor does a spiritual life mesh well with the desperation, frustration, humiliation and degradation that the alcoholic experiences with increasing frequency and force. Not only the physical addiction to the substance, but the mental obsession with it, crowd out all other considerations, and the first to go is often our faith and belief in a Power Greater Than Ourselves. For many of us, it happens as a result of the shame we feel at what we believe we have become. How could any Deity, no matter how loving, love us?
The beautiful truth is that the Gods do love us and care for us, even when we do not love or care for ourselves. For those of us who become desperate enough, They ultimately lead us to the solution.
In May of ’93, I had finally had enough, and I reached out for help. I went into treatment, where I received the bad news that, if I wanted long-term sobriety, I would have to join AA. Like so many, I thought AA was something of a cult, but I was desperate enough to try anything.
Happily, I discovered that AA was anything but a cult, and that the only thing required of me was a desire to stop drinking. I fell in with a group where not drinking one day at a time was the single most important thing in the world. No one really cared about your race, creed, color, politics, job, sexual preference or anything else. The quest for sobriety eclipsed all other considerations. It was from that group that I learned the true heart and purpose of AA. “Our primary purpose is to stay sober, and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.” That’s it – period. It doesn’t say anything about advancing our political, religious or economic agendas, although I have seen people try over the years. But AA remains resistant to such tampering, and for that I am grateful to the Gods.
AA’s concept of a personal relationship with a “God of our understanding” validated rather that repudiated what I had come to believe about spirituality in the early days of my quest. I found that quest renewed and nurtured in AA, and it was from the foundation of physical sobriety and spiritual awakening that I found in AA that I struck out again to find a personal spirituality that would “fill the hole in my soul.”
After less than a year sober, a friend brought to my attention a workshop on shamanism being given by a Lakota “medicine man.” Back then, I earnestly believed that everyone on Turtle Island was one big happy family, and that there was nothing intrinsically wrong with a white learning the Red Way. I’ve since come to understand that some among the Native Peoples find this distressing and exploitative, and that some Native “teachers” peddle spurious goods against the wishes of their Nations’ Elders. But I knew nothing of such things then, and I was intrigued by the advertisement for the workshop.
Whether Ghost Wolf was the real thing or not, whether he was earnestly trying to teach for the good of all mankind or was a fakir making a buck off of credulous white folk, I do not really know. Nor does it matter, in the final analysis. Because whether Ghost Wolf was a true and sincere teacher or not, he set me off in a new direction that ultimately led, not to the Red Way, but to the Way of the Witch.
I assimilated everything I could get my hands on regarding shamanism, eventually finding Michael Harner’s excellent book on the subject. In addition, I joined the online community discussing shamanism and journeying, and it wasn’t a far leap from there to the online Wiccan community. Again, my interest was sparked, and I took the “road less traveled” at the next fork. For some time, a desire had been growing in me to externalize some of the internal work I had been pursuing with such fervor, and the richness of Wiccan ritual seemed the perfect vehicle for that expression. Shamelessly, I admit that I began my career in the Craft as a “dabbler, ” trying out various rituals and techniques gleaned from books and the online community. But it wasn’t long before I was hooked.
What I found in the Craft was something that no other path had offered me – a spirituality AND a religion that expressed what I had come to deeply believe. AA often makes the distinction between spirituality and religion, and I think it is an important distinction to understand. The beauty of the Craft is that it fulfills both needs in me – the internal need for a mystical spirituality, a relationship between myself and the Divine, and the external need for ritual, liturgy and form. Not to mention community.
I am an initiated Wiccan, who now practices as a Solitaire out of equal parts circumstance and temperament. The Way of the Witch feeds my heart and soul, and I wouldn’t trade what I have found along this Way for all the green cheese in the Moon. My only regret is that I did not find this Path sooner. But then, O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba, the Founder of aikido, did not create that art until he was in his 40s. I have many years yet in which to serve the Lady and the Lord.
I left Christianity, not in anger but out of a need to find something more. I lost many years to the prison of addiction. In the end, through circumstances beyond my imagining or control, I found my way to the arms of the Goddess. Like so many of us, after years of wandering, I came home at last.
In Their Service,