It was night, nearly pitch black, and I had no idea how many steps extended before me, down into the darkness.
Down to the Underworld.
I was in a cave in Pinnacles National Park (then Monument) in California. And I was in Greece some 2,500 years ago.
I was a Mystes, a Seeker of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
I cried on the way down those stairs. I felt my life, my body falling away until I was only a point in darkness, seeing nothing, feeling for each step with my foot carefully and slowly so as not to fall. At first, I heard my fellow Mystai singing, but soon they were left far behind me.
The awful silence, the pounding of my heart as I descended so many stairs I lost count. I knew They were down there, but I had no idea what I would encounter as I sought Them, nor what They had waiting for me. No idea what They would demand, nor reveal.
How Persephone glittered in the dim light, her eyes in shadow! How massively loomed Hades her husband on his dark throne. And there, set aside a bit, casually, a pomegranate torn open and bleeding onto a silver plate.
I was watching the myth unfold. Even though I didn’t believe. Even though I knew that the “gods” before me were friends of mine, playing a part.
I swore to keep secret the mystery that was revealed to me that night, and so I shall. And I’ll declare flatly: I treasure the experience, but I simply do not believe key parts of that revelation.
It doesn’t matter.
What I remember most is the sense of connection across time and space, the sense of having been ushered into the actual living presence of the Sacred.
I tell this story because I was an atheist Pagan the whole time, and this ritual experience just knocked me out. When it was done, I was wrung out, exhausted, and felt connected at a deep, visceral level with the world, with the Universe, and with my fellow Mystai.
It is not the only time I have experienced such powerful, transformational moments in ritual circle. There have been many.
I describe this because the Mystical Experience, a sense of Oneness with the Infinite, is neither reserved to theists nor unnatural ground for Atheopagans.
Mysticism was described by Richard E. King of the University of Kent as “a constellation of distinctive practices, discourses, texts, institutions, traditions, and experiences aimed at human transformation.” As such, the rituals of Atheopaganism are often of a piece with mysticism. This ritual, for example, is designed for psychological healing: clearly a mystical purpose.
And there is nothing wrong with that.
Our inner worlds are vast. Buzzing and crackling within our synapses are patterns and associations so subtle and profound that in ritual state, we can heal ourselves of great wounds, empower ourselves to dare where before we would never, and right old wrongs. We can encounter imaginary beings the counsel of whom will nonetheless steer us true.
We don’t have to believe in them to understand that what they are saying to us arises from a deep and important place within us. That they are words to be heeded.
I wrote earlier to draw a distinction between the objective cosmological “reality” of the Universe and the “reality” of the inner world that each of us carries within us. The irony in this distinction is that what atheists are often most adamant about—that there is an objective reality and it doesn’t include imaginary stuff—cuts the other way, too: there is a subjective reality within which each of us operates, and though it doesn’t extend beyond our skin, it does include imaginary stuff. Working with the characters and stories of that inner world proffers a powerful set of tools for our growth.
So go ahead: play “let’s pretend” in your rituals. Go along as-if. As if Great and Awesome Powers were real. As if the stories that inform the core of your self are editable. As if what you believe cannot change can change.
You may find yourself, like me, transforming powerfully in a profound mystical state. Even as an atheist.
Even as an Atheopagan.