Ghosts of religion past

In hindsight, the haunting started well before the holiday season, but the Christmas carols were the first undeniable sign. I haven’t been a practicing Christian in nearly fifteen years, and I hadn’t sung a religious carol in about that long. But all through my childhood, they were part of the fabric of winter. A bit before the beginning of Advent, my mom would dig out a cassette album of traditional carols, and she’d play it most evenings while cooking dinner.

I always loved these songs much more than the secular stuff. I liked that you can hear just how old their roots are – the slightly atonal harmonies, the erratic grammar, the weird symbolic holdouts of indigenous Europe. (Oh, the holly and the ivy!) The medieval sound of those melodies was intrinsic to my experience of the season, and to my sense of being Catholic, part of a cultural lineage.

Like I said, I haven’t been a real Catholic in a very long time. But this past December, spurred by nostalgia one evening, I found the album of carols online and listened to the whole thing. Then I listened to it again and sang along. I felt a little strange singing Christian songs, even such blatantly pagan ones. Mostly, though, it was comforting.

But after Christmas and the carols came a more sinister ghostly visitation: the hymns. Suddenly all sorts of regular hymns have started wafting out from the attic corners of my memory. I’ll wake up with an obscure scrap of verse in my head, and there it will stick all day, rubbing like a rock in my shoe until I manage to recall the rest of the lyrics. Or a hymn will possess me while I’m folding laundry, my traitorous voice absently humming in rhythm: Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you, Allelu-Alleluia!

Part of my discomfort with all this involuntary joyful noise is the knowledge of how a Christian might interpret it. Clearly Jesus is shepherding me back to the flock through the use of subliminal musical messaging; all I have to do is heed the call. (Rejoice and be glad!) And this theory does have a certain magnetic force to it – a force of both attraction and repulsion, the sensation of my skin recoiling from an intangible touch. Or the sensation of hairs stirring when you glimpse something you thought was long dead and buried.

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Waiting on the Lord

There’s a joke my grandfather used to tell about a guy who gets stranded in a storm. Or I guess more accurately, he strands himself in a storm. The hurricane is coming, and everybody’s been told to evacuate, and this guy clicks off his radio and his TV and says, “Nope, I’m staying here until I get a sign from the Lord.”

So the rain starts coming down and the winds start coming up, and water begins to lap at the doorstep. The last truck heading out of town stops in the road and the driver yells, “Come on, grab your bags and get in!” And our hero says, “No thanks, y’all go ahead, I’m waiting on the Lord.”

You can see where this is headed: he ends up trapped on the second story, then out on the roof. A motorboat of rescuers comes by, and finally, in the eye of the storm, a Red Cross helicopter. But the guy waves them off and says he’s waiting on the Lord. Then the waters wash over his house and he drowns.

At last he gets to the gates of Heaven and Saint Peter is standing there waiting, looking a bit miffed. The man drops to his knees and says, “I was so faithful, I waited and waited for the Lord to give me a sign, why didn’t He come to me?” And Saint Peter rolls his eyes and says, “Look, we sent you a truck, and a boat, and a helicopter with a cross on it, what the hell kind of sign were you expecting?”

I’ve taken a couple liberties with this joke; my grandfather was a strict Southern Baptist and wouldn’t have said “hell” even as part of a punchline. But the gist is the same. If you’re going to ask for signs, you’d better not be too particular about what you think those messages are going to look like, or you’ll end up missing your helicopter out of the hurricane.

I have to admit that I spend a lot of my spiritual energy and time asking for signs. I’m not actually daring divinity to prove its existence, since that’s not how I think divinity works. But I am always waiting for the nebulous, numinous thing that will make it all feel valid and real and worthwhile – all the time spent reading religious philosophy and depth psychology and esoterica, all the shuffles of my tarot deck, all the attempts at pathwork and craft and ritual. I’m waiting for the life-changing event that will make me think and believe and be differently.

By this definition, no signs have come to me. I don’t have ecstatic visions or lucid dreams or spirit sickness. I don’t see dead people. I’m not a mystic or a medium. At times it feels like the only answer to the question I’m asking is silence.

But beneath that conviction is another one, less provable but no less persistent. Beneath the disbelief is the sense that I’m up on the roof of my house stubbornly watching helicopters fly by. Or that I’m straining to hear a phone ring through the storm while the person I want to talk to is standing yelling in my ear and waving their arms: I’m right here, you fucking idiot, just look, what the hell kind of sign are you expecting?

To be silent

If you’ve read any sort of Pagan 101 book, you probably know about the Witches’ Pyramid. The phrase is usually in there somewhere after the elemental directions, sometimes with a helpful diagram of an actual pyramid, one face for each of the principles: to know, to will, to dare, and to keep silent. Silence is supposed to come last. It’s supposed to stand for keeping your own secrets, for maintaining the power of mystery, for knowing who and what you can’t trust.

I first read about the Pyramid as a teenager and then more or less forgot it. But a scrap of the formula has been threading through my mind more and more lately. To be silent. Silence, I’m realizing, doesn’t come at the end. Silence is the beginning of everything. Silence isn’t about keeping secrets. It creates the conditions for secrets to emerge.

Each week, I’ve been going back to the creek, to practice being silent. I find a spot to sit or stand and hold still until the place gets used to me. I don’t ever know who exactly will be around, but somebody always is. Maybe a bird (green heron, blue heron, jay, eagle), or someone furred and four-legged (muskrat, deer), or the ever-present fish (sunfish, common carp, bigmouth buffalo). Once, I met a serpent (northern water snake), who was even more silent than me, so silent I almost missed them coiled a few feet away.

Another Pagan principle I’ve often read is that the spirits of things will teach you who they are. I’ve seen this written by hard animists and polytheists, by mediums, by traditional cunning folk. It’s a common thread in many cultures beyond the Western worldview, the cultures we white Pagans so often treat like crib sheets for the numinous. As with most spiritual concepts, I’m both drawn to the idea and daunted by it, or even repelled – what does it mean, for spirits to speak? For spirits to be there at all, within the world of things?

To practice being silent is also to practice being in and of itself, to sink fully into the place where you are. When I am silent, I’m in a place before and beyond knowing, willing, daring. In that place, the doubts and desires and discomforts become irrelevant, subsumed. Around me is the world, stripped of mute things and full instead of living voices – of the two herons facing off across the creek, raising their wings and turning their pale chins to the sun, speaking to each other and to me of who they are. Their sharp beaks speak of the stabbing-quick, impartial plunge where life meets death. Their circling, weaving steps speak of autonomy negotiated within a shifting, collective web.

When I am silent, other spirits speak to me: the muskrat, with their swift-swimming tail and their nimble, plucking fingers and their indiscriminate teeth. At home in the backyard are the bees and butterflies (European honey bee, native solitary bee, monarch, skipper), their single-minded alertness harmonizing with the deceptively quiet spirits of the wild onions blooming against the fence. The onions speak to me of themselves, with their subtle scents of sweet and sharp, their fresh yellow pollen merging and moving with the bees, their green pods swelling as the petals fade and diminish, soon to burst with seeds.

When I am silent, I am open to information available to me simply by being a living thing. I become open to the information that all things are living. All things are made of life. Silence teaches me that all things speak, in ways I don’t have to read about, ways I can see and hear and smell and taste. And within the conversing silence, I can hear another spirit voice: my own, one of the many, a secret emerging.