Summer Solstice 2007: Innovation and Tradition in Religion

This past spring, an arsonist destroyed the Church’s meeting house. It is now a two-story skeleton of blackened bones, wrapped round with a single yellow caution strip, as if that were the only thing holding it up. Around it, the forest, lawn and garden are lush with summer growth.

ire18Near the top of the hill stands the husk of a tree, struck by lightning. It was also smitten this spring. At the base of the tree, one of the Church’s members cut a crop-circle-like maze in the tall grass with a weed whacker, and placed a salvaged soot-covered statuette in its center. Before the Solstice ceremony, and late into the evening afterwards, the children played games in the maze, and chased lightning bugs.

The Nature Church has been purified by fire.

The Ancestors and We, the Children

The Nature Church has always been Pagan, but never particularly denominational. This day was no different. Three Pagan traditions were represented — Druids, Wiccans, and Goddess worshipers. Each tradition — whether thousands of years old, or just a few generations — brought its unique stamp to the ritual, creating a whole that merged seamlessly.

The ritual outline was as follows:

  • Entering the Circle. One by one we entered the circle, smudged with sage and asperged with water as we crossed the threshold. This ritual cleansing is common to all three Pagan paths, as far as I know.
  • Calling the Quarters. Here, the Wiccans and Goddess devotees invoked the elemental powers of the four directions, inviting them to enter the circle with us.
  • Calling the Three Worlds. Ellen, my wife and I (the Druids) called to the Ancestors, the spirits of Nature, and the Gods, in turn, inviting them to join us. Ellen called out to the three Dead: the Dead whose bones have gone into the earth around us, the Dead who are our ancestors, and the Dead who have built our culture and society. My wife called the spirits of the animals, the spirits of the plants, and the other nature spirits — the faerie — surrounding us. I called to Brigid and Lugh, gods of fire who would be most exalted at Midsummer, and the other gods in the high airs.
  • Offerings to Water, Trees, and Fire. Ellen, my wife and I then led the circle in giving offerings to these three elements, each symbolizing one of the Three Worlds, just as we do back in the Grove, while we all sang We are Children of the Earth.
  • Then Penny, an eclectic Wiccan, invoked and thanked Lugh and Brigid. Interestingly, she was not aware until the very act of the ritual that Lugh and Brigid would be the same gods that we Druids would invoke!
  • Then Bob, the Pastor of the Nature Church and Goddess devotee, movingly invoked the Earth Mother.
  • My wife and I and the children then sang a song to please and praise the gods; and our eldest daughter played a tune on her flute that she had learned at school. The simple haunting tones of the pentatonic flute were perfect for the occasion. (How I love Waldorf education!)
  • Ellen and my wife together then did a divination for the Church and those assembled, using the haruspicy cards as we did for the Equinox festival. (The haruspicy cards are a perfect mix of tradition and innovation: harispicy is an ancient divinatory practice of examining the liver of a sacrificed animal; the cards, a modern innovation, allow you to do this with, as Ellen said, “no muss, no fuss.”) You may recall that the last divination was not particularly favorable — the Sun in particular had not been ready to grant what we asked for. This time the results were different: not only was the reading favorable, but the primary element indicated was water.
  • We then closed the ritual — first we Druids thanked the Three Worlds, then the others thanked the Quarters, and, as appears to be de rigeur in these affairs, we sang May the Circle be Open But Unbroken.

Afterwards we went to our feast, and held a silent auction to benefit the Church, as the sun set behind the hills and the children played in the grass.

There was a palpable sense of relief for all of us. The haruspicy indicated that the time of purification by fire was over — just as the sun was starting its long journey southward; and the future would bring a welcome watery respite.

Potpourri

Here you can see the most common and basic reason for religious innovation: contact with other religions. We performed a ritual that was not part of any one religious tradition, but despite that (or perhaps because of it!) the gods were pleased and the outlook is good for the Church. If we continue in this style, it will become the traditional style of the Nature Church; and who knows? If the Church takes off and opens branches all over the world, our ritual pattern may one day become entrenched tradition. You can check out Sojourner’s excellent article for some background on how innovation becomes tradition.

When you see someone getting good results with something different, it’s only natural to wonder if it might not work for you, as well. In the old times, before the revealed religions put such a high value on the sanctity of religious texts, it was a common practice for a religious seeker to appeal to just about every god and spirit they could think of — you never know who might be listening, and it couldn’t hurt to try as many deities as you could.

As contact increased between cultures in places like Europe, so much religion began to be shared that it almost made sense to do as the Romans did and “translate” all foreign gods into their own native gods’ names. Caesar, for example, repeatedly said that the Gauls worshiped Mercury as the highest god, but Mercury was a Roman god. Caesar’s readers understood that Caesar meant that the Gauls worshiped a deity similar to Mercury (probably Lugh). When the Romans conquered Gaul and other Celtic areas of Europe, the Celts began borrowing Roman gods in earnest, and mixing them into their own pantheons without a second thought.

When Christianity arrived, it was hard for many people to understand the idea that when you decided to believe in Jesus, you had to give up all your other gods. Very many simply added Christ in alongside everyone else on the altar. For hundreds of years in Scandinavia and the British Isles, it was common to see people wearing a simple pendant that could be switched between a Christian cross and the Mjolnir, the Hammer of Thor, simply by turning it upside down.

This process of change-via-contact is extremely similar to what happens when languages come into contact. As is frequently the case, it’s useful to think of religion as a language of Spirit: a communication system between the human and the divine. It doesn’t really change and adapt like science does — with waves of successive theories proceeding as experiments are performed and faculties change at major universities. Instead, it changes like language does — through contact with other religions, through internal forces of simplification and elaboration, and through the interaction of the communicators.

Children in the Church

Children are a source of “errors” when passing down religion from generation to generation, but only certain kinds of errors. Children tend to simplify in some ways, but they can also create complexity. Simplification occurs partly because adults simplify matters to teach them to children, and partly because young minds do better with simpler things. Also, children like rules. They like everything to be down in black and white. They prefer irregular forms to be regularized; and rituals need to make sense (either intellectually or emotionally). Obviously, children don’t always get what they want. But eventually they become adults, and if they didn’t like a particular ritual as children, and it does not speak strongly to them as an adult, they will tend to minimize or downplay it in their practice.

Complexity can be added by children when they ask embarrassing questions that need new answers. Also, less obviously, children like to explore and develop relationships in the religious typology. They will think about the relationship between Jesus and Santa Claus, for example. It’s not at all uncommon for an adult to tell a simple made-up story about one of these relationships — a story that the children adore, and ask to hear again and again — and in turn they tell it to their own children… Next thing you know, the preachers are referring to the story in their sermons, even though it’s nowhere in the sacred texts. The idea that the color pattern of a dogwood’s flower refers to Christ on the cross is an example of such a process.

Your Own Soul

If you are devout, and committed to working on yourself and your relationship to Spirit, then you are bound to experiment with your belief system. At the very least, you will tend to emphasize one or another aspect of the religious system you inherited. Some people resonate with the choir, others reach God by gardening or community service, others study the numerology of the Greek New Testament — all of these things are sanctioned by a single religion, but they’re very different ways of reaching Spirit. Sometimes, though, there’s something about your inherited religious system that fundamentally doesn’t fit with your character, and you have to search elsewhere. This is when you head up to the buffet table and see what else is laid out, as in Slade’s article. You’ll put together your own personal language of Spirit.

Listening to Spirit

It’s vital to remember that religion is a dialogue between human and Spirit, and Spirit frequently has something to say. Usually, Spirit will be accommodating and stay roughly within the boundaries of whatever tradition (or innovative potpourri) you’re using to contact it; but sometimes not. I know someone who was brought up in a very traditional Baptist family, but the Spirit moved her to speak in tongues, and she had to leave her parents’ church. Spirit, for whatever reason, had to use that medium to get its message to her. A more radical example is the gentleman known as Jesus Christ: his message from Spirit was a huge break from the traditions of his community, and caused a bit of controversy. If you are really listening with your heart open, then the religious system you follow will be a mixture of what works for you and what works for Spirit.

The Real Creationism

“Creationism” today is most commonly associated with the belief that the book of Genesis is a reliable, literal guide to the origin of the Earth and its life; it’s a stranglehold on a tradition as hidebound as a taxidermist’s shop. But this isn’t real Creationism.

When you create new religious practices, new systems of belief, new ways of seeing the world and the Spirit suffusing it, you are in a real sense creating a whole new reality. Everything around you changes; everything becomes new, transformed, reborn. It is a new Creation, and it is a holy act itself.

If Spirit is the Creator, then so are we Creators; if this Creation is the greatest and holiest work, then so are our Creations our greatest and holiest works as well. When you engage the Eternal in dialogue and together create a new language of Spirit, you are re-enacting the union of the Goddess and God — the mixture of the hot and cold airs of Muspelheim and Niflheim — in creating the world. This is the holiest act; this is the real Creationism.

Thanks to Erik of Executive Pagan for suggesting the topic of this post!

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Comments

  1. I don’t know much about druids or wicca, other than I have probably been both in past lives. I don’t have any proof of that statement. It is just a “gut” knowing for me. Thank you for sharing your nature church ceremony with us. It sounds beautiful and strongly tied to nature. I have a deep connection with nature. You are educating me with these sharing. Thanks, again.

    I wear what someone coined as my charm necklace. On that necklace, I have 2 “charms” from India from Sai Baba, a pendant with a picture of Sai Baba on one side and Jesus on the other, a Mayan calendar symbol, a nice image on clear glass of Mother Mary and a few other “charms”. The picture with Sai Baba and Jesus, I usually wear with Jesus showing, not because I am afraid of people’s reactions to Baba, but because wearing Baba on the beneath side puts him closer to my heart.

    As in your example, I have an eclectic belief system that is totally my own. I don’t ask anyone else to believe as I do. When asked, I will share. I was at a church activity recently where 2 friends shared their experiences on a trip to Machu Pichu. At the end of the presentation, we did a short meditation where the directions, East, South, West and North were invoked. With each direction, there were animals that were mentioned. For a few years now, I have used the eagle and the butterfly on my business cards. I am also trying to figure out how to get them on my blog. I like them for what they represent to me. The Eagle represents freedom and flying high above the earth to see a bigger picture. The butterfly represents transformation. There is a wonderful poem about a cocoon turning into a butterfly that I love. Unknown to me these are the 2 animals having to do with the direction East. Look at all of the thoughts that your article has opened up for me. Thanks, Patricia

  2. Jeff Lilly says:

    That’s wonderful, Patricia! And Sai Baba was known for his efforts to unite Hinduism and Islam, isn’t that right? What a powerful charm — to have him on one side and Jesus on the other! It sounds like your dialogue with Spirit is going very well indeed.

  3. Jeff, I don’t know the answer to your question. It is possible. Sai Baba tells us to go home and worship whatever God you are comfortable with. I do know that my knowledge about other religions has grown since I have been studying Sai Baba’s words. He tells us that all religions ultimately lead to God. I find that as I grow more spiritually, then my personal view of who God is grows proportionally to my growth. When I was a child, my God was like me, very small. Now He is as big as the Universe and ever expanding. Patricia

  4. Jeff Lilly says:

    Patricia: Wikipedia has three Sai Babas listed. According to them, one lived from about 1838-1918, and preached a union of Hinduism and Islam. The next was born in 1926, and says he is a reincarnation of the original; he also places all religions of the world on an equal footing. The third is a future incarnation of Sai Baba, predicted by the living one.

    The Wikipedia has a lengthy discussion of the miracles reported to have been performed by the current Sai Baba, and various attempts by people to prove or disprove the miracles. Who cares, if he is helping people?…

  5. Thanks, I will check out the article. Shirdi Sai was the first incarnation. I don’t know a lot about him. The current incarnation is Sathya Sai Baba. The 3rd incarnation will be Prema Sai Baba. Prema means Love which will be his message. A friend and I are hoping to go back to India near the end of September. I have been twice before in 1998 and 1999. I am beginning to get excited about the trip. Patricia

  6. Great post, Jeff.

    Wolf and I are heading out for a Full Moon ceremony later tonight and he is bringing his drum. Hopefully we’ll be able to drum up the moon.

    Thanks for your kind words, btw. I appreciate them.

  7. Penny J. Novack says:

    Hi, Jeff;

    I like this description but I was also charmed by your “first reaction” post you sent to Ellen.

    It seems to me that the Nature Church membership are sincere in their nature spirituality in ways which are often a great deal of work for people who come to Witchcraft or Paganism simply from mythology. I appreciate that aspect.

    Actually, I invoked after Bob. It was my feeling that the site is “home” for him and that I should follow. The power of his relationship with the Great Mother is very impressive, isn’t it?

    To say that I am an eclectic Witch is correct in the sense that I have gone a long way beyond my initial training in a traditional coven. I suspect that most people who have been involved for thirty-something years or more have done something similar. The world of spiritual knowlege is huge and the Spirit is unending in It’s manifestations.

    Bright Blessings to all

  8. Elissa Small says:

    Hey Jeff,

    many thanks for the beautiful article!

    The future tick-devouring squad of Nature Church guinea hens are chittering and practicing their scratching and pecking skills in my bedroom, now a temporary Pagan Hencoop until Cara returns from her road trip. Their adolescent voices are somewhere between redwing blackbird song and the sqeaking of eight rusty gates.

    The pattern in the Nature Church hillside is actually a double spiral; it contains no false steps or dead ends. You enter, spiralling sunwise, by one of two possible paths, and come to the center, the hinge, and then exit going widdershins. Mazes tend to make people think of scary bureaucratic buildings, or minotaurs.This one is more a space for meditation.

    I made it completely on the spur of the moment. My nine-year-old nephew asked me to Weed Whack a smiley face into a bramble patch a few days before the ritual, and then Bob asked if I wanted to carve a spiral on the hillside. Bob later said that he imagined a small spiral taking 20 minutes to carve, but I like to use the whole canvas when I work!

    Three hours later I was in deep trance, nearly finished, working with ear protectors, so that the only sound I could hear was my own heartbeat. I had no idea that a Weed Whacker could be a Pagan Magickal Tool, but Spirit wished it so. Now to find a Solar-Powered Weed Whacker!

  9. Jeff Lilly says:

    Hi Nio! I was just reading about Wolf’s drumming over at your spirituality blog, Pensieve. That sounded totally cool! I wished we lived a little closer, and could get our families together for ritual.

    And Nio: you’re welcome! Know that you’re in my thoughts.

  10. Jeff Lilly says:

    Penny, thanks for coming by and making those clarifications. I admit I had no idea what your background was, so I asked Ellen, and she suggested “eclectic Wiccan”. 🙂 I guess you can tell by reading the post that I consider the word “eclectic” to be a badge of honor!

    The sincerity and truth of the spirituality of Bob and the Nature Church was absolutely palpable. It was a privilege to be there.

  11. Jeff Lilly says:

    Elissa, it was an absolutely magical spiral you wove. You probably know — but maybe not all my readers do — that the spiral form (not a maze really, as you point out) is particularly beloved in Celtic mystical art. As if any other indication was needed — the way that the children totally gravitated to it the whole evening showed just how magical it really was. Thank you!!

    And thanks, too, for taking on the guinea hens! The children will love them too — both for their tick-devouring prowess and because they love little animals.

    All four of the kids had a fantastic time and can’t wait to go back!

  12. Well, there’s always Lammas. We could get together for it, depending on the day of the week.

  13. Jeff Lilly says:

    That sounds great, Nio! As it gets closer, we’ll have to see how things look. I think we’ll probably be doing another Nature Church thing, probably on whatever weekend is closest to Aug 1, and it’d be great to have you there for that.

  14. Wolf and I will have just returned from a week in Maine (a *much* needed vacation) so that probably won’t work. But our BBQ is on the 11th of August, and although it won’t have any spirituality associated with it, food will be eaten!

    We do hope you and your clan (tribe?) can come!

  15. Jeff,

    That last paragraph was magical – absolutely in*spired*

    Love your work

  16. Jeff Lilly says:

    Thanks, K-L! Someone’s been doing their homework!

    I’m glad you enjoyed the last paragraph; it was by far the hardest to write. So often I find that writing really is like the old joke about “cutting away everything that doesn’t look like a horse”. You have a thought, or a feeling, in your head, and you have to keep splashing words up against the screen until it matches your inspiration. 🙂

  17. Hey Jeff,

    You know what – I hadn’t read that word of the day entry!

    All writing is rewriting, and edit edit edit…

  18. Jeff Lilly says:

    Wow! You picked up on the connection between spirit and inspired without reading about it?

    You’re good. Very good.

  19. You’ve taught the principles of linguistics well over via your posts and the Word of the Day site!

  20. If you are really listening with your heart open, then the religious system you follow will be a mixture of what works for you and what works for Spirit.

    Very true, and nicely put. Good post – thanks for playing with my little idea!

  21. Jeff Lilly says:

    Hey, thanks for suggesting it! It was very appropriate, as it turned out!

    I’m realizing belatedly that while I gave you credit for the idea a couple of posts back, I didn’t mention it here. Sorry about that! I’ll take care of it…

  22. Re:
    “as in Slade’s article (link)” — There’s no link.

  23. Jeff Lilly says:

    Thanks, Kate! Fixed now. … I make that mistake all the time. I even did it in today’s post. (Fixed now. 😉 )

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