The Moment of Brightening

There comes a time in the winter when, finally, you realize: the days aren’t so short any longer.

That point may coincide with the first sprouts of Spring peeking up from the ground, or the first buds on the trees. Or not: maybe it’s just snowing and freezing and wintering like hell, and Spring seems the farthest thing from possible.

Still, the light is growing. It’s not December any longer.

That brightening (thanks to Kendra Hicks of the Facebook Atheopaganism group for this term for the season) is the entire point of the seasonal Sabbath that is upon us now.

It goes by many names, and that is apt, because how we experience it varies so much by climate. Wiccans call it Imbolc or Brighid, after the Irish goddess and Christian saint; many Atheopagans develop their own names for it–mine is Riverain, the Festival of Water, because February typically marks the heaviest rainfall of the year where I live. True to form, we expect rain for most of the next week.

To me, this Sabbath marks the beginning of Spring–however tenuous, however wild the weather. For the light is definitely returning now, and where I am, daffodils and milk maids have made their appearances.

In Atheopaganism, we encourage people to adapt the “Wheel of the Year” of holidays to specific meanings that are consistent with the rhythms and cycles of the climate where the practitioner lives. So it is fine that my Riverain isn’t the same as someone else’s Brightening, or Imbolc, or Brighid. What is important is that they are gateways into deeper relationship with the Earth. 

When Atheopagans from different climates meet, they may well ask one another, “How do you celebrate your Sabbaths?” And that will open into a conversation about land and water and sky and creatures, and those will tell the stories of the places we come from.

So enjoy the season of brightening. Celebrate it as it seems most apt to you, be it by casting seeds upon the snow, or taking a hike in the rain, or crafting a Rain Baby to go through the cycle of the growing year with you.

In my Riverain ritual this year, we poured rainwater to splash and dance in a silver chalice, and recalled the age-old association of this time with the hearth and with repair and sharpening of agricultural tools by striking a small sledge hammer on an anvil. With every rich clannngggg of the hammer, I felt echoes going back through time, to days when we were better connected to the cycles of the Earth because we were so much more vulnerable to them in our daily lives.

And then we sang, because singing together is always a good and bonding and energy-building thing. It feels good. It helps to make a ritual powerful. We passed clear rainwater to sip and followed it with rich red wine.

We were together, contemplating the abundant, giving Earth, and giving thanks.

May you also enjoy meaningful and pleasurable observances of the season with those you love!




Mainstreaming, Pt. 2

Some weeks ago, I wrote about how Paganism is having a moment in the sun, and mainstream culture is noticing us. If nothing else, take as evidence the eternally fluffy and pop-culturey Huffington Post’s article about encountering Pagans. Seems pretty clear that between sugary media offerings like The Spooky Adventures of Sabrina and the explosion of “witchy aesthetic” material on Tumblr, plus the steep decline of Christianity and rise of “none” or “other” as a religious identity, Paganism has tipped—for the moment, at least—over the edge from obscurity into the public eye.

As I wrote before, I think this is a good thing. But there are certainly some considerations for Pagans that apply in the context of public attention that we haven’t had to contend with before.

The first is that we really should dispense with the in-group habit of describing Pagans and witches as “special”. It’s inevitable that some members of a religious minority will congratulate themselves this way, but the truth is that we are all just people, seeking to live lives of integrity and fulfillment. If anything, the “special” thing about us is that we’ve taken into our hands the choice about what our spiritual paths shall be, rather than opting for an off-the-shelf package like the various Christian denominations. There is courage in that, but it’s a courage that appears to be spreading. We should welcome those who investigate our paths without getting carried away with self-importance.

A challenge for many of us as we encounter newcomers is that we hold for ourselves a radical identity. We see ourselves—often rightly—as exponents of a marked divergence from mainstream culture and values. This can translate into belittling and even contempt for that mainstream as “straight”. The effect is that people who are coming from that culture to check us out can experience attitude rather than welcoming.

(…and for those who don’t so self-identify: exactly what are you waiting for? Trumpenmacht soldiers goose-stepping up your driveway?)

But there are a couple of things to keep in mind about those “straighter” people who are moving in our direction. The first is that culture is getting steadily less “straight”. While governments lag behind or even fight to resist it, younger generations are becoming far more inclusive and sensitive to issues of injustice. So we have no right to assume that just because someone is only just now coming to learn about us, that they are any less tolerant and radical than we are.

The second, though, is that we got to where we are through a growth process. None of us was born an Earth-loving, capitalism-shattering, pleasure-positive rainbow person. We learned that. We learned that Othering is a lie. We learned that body-shaming and “sin” are nonsense. We learned that economic systems that eat the world to make crap and sell it to us are offering empty calories and destroying what is really of value.

It is on us to be welcoming of those who may not be as far along in that process as we are, and to help them to evolve, too. Certainly no one is going to be helped to be a kinder, more independent person by encountering smugness or anger on the part of those who could instead help them to see what they may not yet possess the ability to see. So let’s ease up on the straights when they knock on our door, shall we?

When it comes to gods, I think a lot of the seekers who are checking out Paganism have been burned by the expectations of Abrahamic religions and probably aren’t all that interested in signing up for other gods. Others may very well be. I would hope that at the least, we would tell our newcomers and curious that Pagans can being theists or nontheists, and let them make their own choices.

Finally, there is the issue of “magic”.

As Atheopagans, we have a naturalistic understanding of ritual magic as a psychological-programming practice that affects only those who participate in the ritual, not spooky-action-at-a-distance like in fantasy fiction. But many who come to us from the mainstream have been propagandized by Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings and the aforementioned Sabrina and such stuff, so that they believe that by joining our movement, they will have literal magical powers.

It would be a great thing if we discouraged such beliefs as a community, and focused attention on the majesty and wonders of the natural world, on personal development and empowerment, and on efforts to make human society kinder and more sustainable. But on this one, other Pagan paths are going to do what they’re going to do, and nothing I say about it will make a difference. All I can do is speak to my Atheopagan community and say: You’re on the right track. Keep it up, and be welcoming.

The Atheopagan online community continues to grow, and so we are always in a “welcoming newcomers” mode. I think that is a good orientation for the Pagan community writ large…even traditions that have hierarchies and require initiations to join their ranks can at the least be kind and welcoming and helpful with newbies, pointing them to where they can go even if that tradition isn’t a fit.

I’m sure that for many of us, all these cautions are unnecessary. I say them because I’ve seen the attitudes I describe in the community before, and I hope they will fade as popular culture pays us more attention.

Imagine: what if our numbers doubled, rendering us about 1% of the US population? That’s half the size of the Jewish population. That’s big enough to matter in a whole bunch of ways.

Wouldn’t that be great?



Contemplating a Red Moon

Last night, 2019’s only lunar eclipse took place: a spectacular “supermoon” eclipse. We watched it from our back yard, watching the Moon slowly darken into a ruddy ball, and then, dramatically, the bright edge of ordinary Sun-lit surface burst into being and steadily reclaim it.

Lunar eclipses are really cool. Astronomical events as a whole are really cool: meteor showers, eclipses, transits, and particularly that extraordinary rarity, a prominent comet visible to the naked eye. Whenever possible, I take the opportunity to experience these phenomena, as they bring home in a visceral way that we are on a planet, in space, and there’s a lot of other stuff going on out there.

Until three years ago, when I was forced to move, I lived in a rural setting. I knew the passage of the year by the changes in the trees, the choruses of frogs and crickets and coyotes and turkeys, the ripening of the crops. Now we are in a suburban neighborhood and, though it’s pretty good in terms of light pollution and silence, it’s harder to keep hold of that knowledge that all the time, things are happening. 

That mountain may look as it did yesterday from a distance, but it isn’t. Countless changes have been made, as Life does its thing and all the individual creatures go about their tasks.

As a Pagan, I do my best to keep this in mind: Nature is hard at work here, every day. The great beauty of an eclipse, a sunset, the breathtaking flash of a heron overhead, the rainbow, the lightning strike: these are the “postcard moments” in a panoply of activity that carries on unseen and incessant. Nature casts weather across the land and sea, stirs dust and seeds and migrating spiders high into the air and over distances. Animals eat and mate and complete their cycles; trees and plants turn their solar collectors to the life-giving Sun, powering the whole enterprise.

It’s magnificent and ordinary. It’s Sacred.

Having a Pagan practice helps me to remember this. My daily observances at my Focus bring me into recognition of the wonders of this world, this life. I hope, as I age, that I will never forget how miraculous it is to be here, to be a part of all this.