Do you know how you’re going to handle your own death? Have you thought about it? Does thinking about death frighten you? Maybe it’s time we really talked about it more publicly.
It’s a gloomy, rainy day here in Chicago, and it seems rather fitting that today. So many Ancestors in so short of time. I’ve already done my rituals: lit candles and incense. But today I feel the need to write about them and what they meant to me.
A little less than two weeks ago, my mentor and friend, Lizann Bassham passed after a long struggle with cancer. She had decided that she wanted to stop treatment and die on her own terms. Her partners kept vigil with her, both in person and online, updating those of us who couldn’t be there on her Facebook page.
She was an amazing woman and an amazing spirit. She was also the first mentor I’ve had that was a both/and priest: both pagan and Christian. When we first met when I was in seminary, it was the first time I could see that the idea of both/and could be done in a professional capacity. We had many deep and poignant talks while I was at PSR and learned so much from her. Not just about being a multi-faith priest, but how to navigate this world from the spaces in between. We were both priests who lived in the in-between spaces, and as beings who intimately know those spaces, it can sometimes be very difficult to live in this world with that knowledge. But Lizann did it with such gentleness and grace and love, that I hope that I, too can emulate that.
After seminary we didn’t talk as much as when I was still at school, but I would occasionally say hello to her online and read her blog posts. I will miss her greatly.
Yesterday, we found out that Valerie Walker (aka Vee or VeeDub) also left this world after deciding to stop her own cancer treatments. It had been the second round of cancer for her and she basically was done with it. She wasn’t a mentor as such to me as she was to my wife, but she was an awesome friend to both of us. I had heard about her a lot from friends of mine who were studying Feri witchcraft under her (including my wife), and I remember I was a little nervous meeting her for the first time. If I’m remembering right, Sarah asked me to come with her to a circle at Vee’s house. And while I wasn’t interested in learning Feri tradition from Vee as an initiate, I did learn a lot from her. She also always treated me as a colleague, as fellow witch also navigating being a leader of a tradition. Unlike some other leaders in the Bay Area, she never treated me as “inferior” because I didn’t happen to be initiated in her tradition. After that, we were friends and Sarah and I went to several holy days at her house. Sometimes we just came over to say hello and catch up. In the last several years, it had been harder for Sarah to get some time with her, or for both of us to go visit, since we had moved first to San Jose, then to Chicago. We did keep in touch online off and on.
Vee, to me, was like that BadAss Grandmother you never knew you needed in your life until you met her. She was fierce, and blunt, but always accepted you for who you are and was kind in that no-nonsense kind of way. She died how she lived her life: on her own terms, and I will miss her presence on earth, too.
Then, this morning I heard of Anthony Bourdain’s passing. My Mom texted me about it, and at first I was like “No way!” but then I saw the BBC article. I didn’t know him personally, nor did I ever get to see him in person, but he’s been a virtual mentor in the sense that he showed me places I had never seen before and made me see that the food of a people, and eating with people, will tell you more about a country than anything else you can do. I started watching “No Reservations” many years ago, and ended up binge watching the whole series. From then on, I couldn’t get enough of his work. I watched everything he ever did on TV, shows he helped produce, or where he collaborated with other chefs. I’ve read almost all of his books on his life and thoughts about being a chef (although, I’ll admit I haven’t read any of his fiction yet). His Parts Unknown series, to me, was some of his best work, bringing together food, people, politics, and culture in a very unique way. It’s inspired me to do my own filming of my own travel when I move to Europe, and while my own work will be more of a vlog type thing, I do want to incorporate some of the same sensibilities that he brought to his show into mine: seeing past the tourist view and into the hearts and souls of people who live there.
What I found really interesting in watching all his shows is that you can saw him grow as a person. The very beginnings of “No Reservations” he comes off as an asshole, bad boy chef playing up his asshole-ness to the camera. But as the seasons went on, you can tell that the travelling made him think and grow. One of the episodes that showed that is the episode where he was in New Orleans a few years after Katrina, where he went and apologized to Emeril after dissing him years earlier. He did it in his Anthony Bourdain way, but he was sincere. But that wasn’t the only episode that you could see that, but it’s one that stands out to me.
Then again, he was pretty open about when he messed up, especially in his writings. From his drug addiction, to when he didn’t communicate right with locals, and so on. This, and in so many other ways, his work always spoke to me as a food nerd, a priest, a traveller, and a person. Even in the end, he went out his own way, by his own rules. I hope that wherever he is now, there’s a full pig roast going on, with sausage, BBQ, and Pho.
All three of these people have had a big impact in my life, and mostly because they lived life to the fullest by their own rules and in their own time. I honor them as my newest Ancestors, and I hope I can honor them by doing the same: living my life, living it well, giving where I can, and teaching when I can.
What is remembered lives.
The biggest question I get as a pastor and priest, and a multi-faith person, is “How do you reconcile your Christianity with Wicca?”
The quick and confusing answer is: I don’t.
The more detailed and hopefully less confusing answer is this:
When I was in seminary, I came to a point where I realized that I hadn’t really ever given up on the whole Jesus thing, even though I was definitely Wiccan and not likely to give that traditions up any time soon. It did take a bit of time of the idea rattling around in my brain to really get to the point where I accepted that I was Wiccan Christian. It took a lot longer to really figure out how that worked and what it meant to me.
About halfway through my time in seminary, my wife and I were chatting a lot about truth, theology, radical inclusion, and the meaning of belief (I think this was around the time I was taking Systematic Theology, but I digress…). Something clicked in her brain and she ended up writing a paper about a concept called metafaith.
Metafaith looks at religion from a different point of view and is based on mathematical principles. (Although, there are some of you now who are probably freaking out that I said that math is a part of it. Don’t worry, hear me out.) The mathematical principle it uses is the axiom, which is a basic, fundamental belief that stands on its own as basic to the person holding it to be true (Sarah Thompson, metafaith, 2013). In other words, these are the basic principles that you understand to be the foundations of your worldview. The axioms that I hold dear, and the ones that you hold dear may overlap, but they definitely won’t be exactly the same. Beliefs, on the other hand, stem from our own set of axioms, but are changeable. I can be persuaded to change a particular belief, but it would be much harder to convince me to change one of my fundamental axioms.
Metafaith accepts that my axioms and beliefs are true for me, just as your axioms and beliefs are true for you, and that “Truth” is relative to one’s point of view. In other words, all of us are right from our own point of view and that whatever “Truth” we perceive from this is real and all of these truths can exist together in the same time and space.
So how does this help me reconcile my Wiccan and Christian beliefs? Well, there are axioms and beliefs from both traditions that inform my own spiritual practice. However, there are some aspects of Wicca and some aspects of Christianity that just don’t, and can’t, overlap. Now, I could try to turn my brain into a pretzel and attempt to mush the traditions together, forcing them to become one thing. But, that could be really damaging emotionally and psychologically, and it wouldn’t necessarily come out with something meaningful for me. I could try and justify things in the Bible about my Wiccan practice, but who’s got time for that? Letting go of the need to force all of each tradition to play with each other lifted a great deal off my shoulders.
Besides, as someone who does a good deal of interfaith work with folks from many traditions, I think it’s important to recognize that the differences between religions aren’t bad or evil, they’re just differences. And there can be beauty and peace in the differences. I also think that having this realization has been really important when doing interfaith rituals. In some groups who attempt interfaith rituals, people try to mush things together so that the ritual works for all traditions. Unfortunately, in my experience, this tends to water down the impact of the pieces of ritual you are trying to put together. When I do interfaith or multi-faith rituals, I let each piece of the ritual stand on its own merits. The Christian parts are Christian. The Wiccan parts are Wiccan. If I want to try and put something in from one tradition, and it doesn’t work, then I figure something else out.
What it boils down to is that I don’t really “reconcile” as such. I accept each tradition as they are, and I put together what will go together. If there’s a Wiccan ritual that doesn’t work in Christian circles, I don’t do that Wiccan ritual in Christian circles, and vise versa. And if there’s stuff that doesn’t work for me in either tradition, I let it go. I take what I need and leave the rest (you 12-step folks see what I did there?).
In many areas of our lives we try to make others see what we see, or think like we think. But I’ve found, even when I make the mistake of trying to make someone see my way, that it’s ok for people think differently than I do. I remind myself that a person’s truth is important to them, and that I don’t have to make them give up their axioms. I can be an example of a different way, a more compassionate way, that follows my Wiccan beliefs and the teachings of Jesus. No one has to accept my axioms as truth, just I don’t have to accept other’s axioms as truth. (This does break down, however, when one person is trying to stomp on my, or my family’s, human rights, but that’s when you have to try and work around someone’s axioms to find compassion. That, though, is a whole different post.)
But the one thing I know, believing the way I do, is that I will NEVER have the ABSOLUTE TRUTH, and neither does anyone else. And, really, I’m ok with that.
I want to be able to say something profound here about my working, but I just can’t. At least, not in any way that’ll make sense to people other than myself. Most of what I’ve learned this week is that I shouldn’t read any social media until after I’ve done my morning prayers, had breakfast, and done my writing for the day. I’m writing about social justice, and reading other people’s social justice stuff, or about the election, before I get into my own work makes things difficult. My wife says “Social justice work comes at a cost.” and that’s quite true.
In my meditations, Jesus keeps telling me that even He had to go find solitude while do His public work. Gethsemane, the desert, and many other times He would go alone somewhere to pray. I think that’s one of the biggest lessons from Him: that quiet prayer time isn’t a bad thing to schedule into the day. Or, rather, schedule my day around the prayer time. Public work is hard, especially when you feel like you’re banging your head against the wall.
Speaking of that, one thing this week I commented on (yes, yes, I shouldn’t have bothered, but I was feeling ornery), was a post on Patheos where Gwion Raven was ranting about his identity as a pagan. Mostly about what it is, what it isn’t, and what he didn’t like about Christianity. This isn’t anything new, really, and when I challenged him on his wording, there was a “oh, well, I didn’t mean it that way” kind of response.
Gwion made it pretty clear that he wants anarchy for paganism. But here’s the thing: that’s fine for your tradition. That’s what works for you. You don’t want institutions or churches? Ok, then don’t build any. No one’s forcing you to build any or go to any. Just like no one’s forcing you to accept Christian lore or ritual in your practices.
My problem isn’t really with any of that. My problem is with the unspoken assumption that multi-faith pagans, especially those who are Christo-pagan, are somehow less than “real” pagans. I get it. I get that you don’t want to look like Christians, act like Christians, or have anything to do with Christian ritual. (Although I think that’s tough to do, given that any Gardnerian based tradition, which is the model for most witchcraft in the US and parts of Europe, has Judeo-Christian roots. I’d say that it’s a bit too late to be complaining about that. Doubly so if you’re in a Golden Dawn tradition. But I digress.) Again, that’s fine…for you.
But don’t insinuate that Christo-pagans are “fence sitters,” or delusional, or are only Christo-pagans because they don’t want to be “fully pagan.” While being neopagan and Christian is somewhat relatively new, traditions that combine magick and Christianity are not. And, really, many of those are seriously bad-ass magickal traditions in their own right. I wouldn’t want to tell a practitioner of one those traditions that they are somehow “doing it wrong.” Never mind the Euro-centrism of denying mystical Christian traditions.
Again we have a case of someone saying “All pagans should do X.” or “A proper/real pagan is…” I know the pagan community is full of humans doing stupid human tricks, but for once, I’d really be happy if people would really take a good look at and think about what they’re saying.
These lines are familiar aren’t they? Here, let me spell it out for you: “All Christians should do X.” and “A proper/real Christian is….”
Or what about: “You aren’t really bisexual, you’re either gay or your straight.”
Or: “It’s just a phase. You’ll get over it eventually.”
Yeah, we’ve been down this path before. Many people became pagans to run away from this type of thinking, and yet, here we are. Saying the same things that we came to paganism to avoid.
Why people don’t seem to see that they are guilty of this, no matter what progressive community they’re in (since this happens in any movement), while they loudly proclaim that they aren’t being exclusionary, boggles the mind. It’s as if the people they are railing against are the “them” and not really humans!
I’ve just realized that I’m over halfway done with my Lenten working. On Tuesday I started the Jesus part of my working, and so far it’s been good. What I’m realizing, though, is that Jesus and I don’t know each other quite as well as we used to. What I mean by that is that while I’ve had a relationship with the spirit of Jesus, it’s been more as an acquaintance rather than a close relationship like I have with The Dagda and Hecate. I realized that this morning at the beginning of my morning meditation, and so instead of doing the rosary like I have been doing the last few days, I just did a quiet meditation and had a conversation. It was a good conversation, and I think I’ll need to keep doing that for the time being.
In the evening, before bed, I’ve been doing a set of Compline prayers that I adapted and redacted from the Daily Office of the Society of Saint Francis. (Out of all of them, the Franciscan prayers and theology are the ones that speak to me. It doesn’t really surprise me, given my witchy proclivities.) I’m finding that I really like the little ritual each night. It’s got me thinking, though, about maybe creating a Wiccan Christian Daily Office (as if I need yet another writing project), but it’ll have to wait until after I get the radical inclusion book done.
I still have a couple of weeks until Easter and the end of this working. I’ve been learning a lot, and I know I want to keep doing the morning and evening meditations, but right now, I’m not sure exactly what that will look like. While part of my brain wants to figure it out right now, but the rest of my brain is saying “Don’t worry about it until the working is done.”
I think that would be the wiser course. Besides, there’s still 16 days left….