Saturday, August 22, 2009

Stepping Outside the Comfort Zone

A couple of weeks ago, I sang alto for my church choir.

That might not seem so odd to anyone who doesn't know me; after all, altos aren't all that unusual to find in church choirs! I'm a soprano, though, so it was definitely a bit of a change. But at choir practice on the Thursday before, neither of our altos (we're a small group) showed up, and since I sing second soprano (basically, if the soprano line on a sheet of music has two different notes in the same place, I sing the lower one), our director asked if I'd sing the alto line that week. Always being willing to try something new (within reason, of course), I said I'd give it a try.

My music reading is probably not as good as it should be, though it's improved by leaps and bounds since I joined the choir last November. I tend to learn music better by ear than by sight, and being on the soprano line I don't have to do much frantic sight-reading because we nearly always carry the melody in anything we sing. So this definitely represented a very decided step outside my personal comfort zone; knowing my limitations, our director helped me through the lines that evening, and I took my music home so I could familiarize myself with it over the course of the next couple of days. And I admit that I cheated a bit; I'm familiar with the ABC music notation system and I have a copy of BarFly, so I simply coded the alto line of my sheet music in and practiced along with that, then found MIDI files of the music I needed online so I could get used to singing my part along with the other three. Hey, when I have such a short time to do what I have to, I figure I may as well use any advantage that I have in order to not make a fool of myself, even among friends. ;) In the end, we did very well that day, even though we only had six singers and received many compliments for the sound that we were able to produce. (Incidentally, I heard that the alto line came through nice and strong. *grin*)

It occurred to me afterwards that I had recently had another experience in which it paid off to step outside of my comfort zone—the day that I decided I'd give this choir a try in the first place. Although I had been calling myself a Christo-Pagan for years, the truth is that I was neglecting the Christo- part of that description; I was simply a Pagan who believed in Jesus, and perhaps at the time that was enough. When my choir director first approached me with the idea of joining the church choir, I was very much afraid that perhaps my background—being far from that of a traditional Anglican—would make me an outsider in this community and make the idea of joining the choir a very bad one indeed. I was rusty on any sort of Christian ritual, even if I did say the Rosary every once in awhile; when I do that, I precede it with the casting of a circle and a moving meditation that I learned after my Level 1 Reiki attunement (with words I've adapted for my own needs, of course). Stepping into the rehearsal room for the first time was probably one of the most nervous moments in my life up to that point simply because of the fear I had that I would somehow prove to be not equal or valuable to this community that I was joining.

As it turned out, I couldn't have been more wrong. Several long-established members of the choir have told me that they're glad I'm there, and I feel genuinely welcome every time I step into that poky little rehearsal room now.

There can be great benefits from stepping outside the comfort zone. I should make an effort to do so more often.

Perhaps I should attend the next Pagan Pride Day—after all, I've never done that before, either, and I'm sure it would be an enlightening experience!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

"Never mind the whys and wherefores..."

(Title courtesy of Gilbert & Sullivan's "HMS Pinafore", which was the first musical I ever went to see. It contains some of what is still my favourite music after all these years.)

I'm posting this on the off-chance that I might ever need a FAQ page. Stranger things have happened, after all. :)

Why do I call myself a "Surprised Christo-Pagan?"

I call myself a Christo-Pagan because while I do involve myself in things like Goddess worship, divination (more as a means of seeing what's in my subconscious mind than what's in my future), Reiki, meditation and rituals I've constructed based on information gained in my "Wicca 101" days, I also find great comfort and spiritual benefit in things like saying the rosary and being involved in Christian worship. I can't turn my back on either system of belief because they are both a powerful part of who and what I am.

I spell it "Christo-Pagan" rather than "Christopagan" because I don't want to privilege one side of my path over the other.  (I could probably try to even them out by alternating the letters in "Pagan" and "Christian," therefore calling myself a "Pcahgrainstian" or a "Cphargiasntian," but that would be silly.)  And although I may use the term "Christo-Pagan" more often than "Pagan Christian", largely because it's not quite so cumbersome, I will probably use the terms interchangeably—much as I use the terms "violin" and "fiddle", which refer to the same instrument, depending on which kind of music it's used to play.

Please don't think it's ever been easy to reconcile the two. I'm very much aware that I'm on very shaky theological ground here on at least one side of the equation—Christianity traditionally disapproves of pretty much everything I do as a Pagan; if it weren't for a core belief of mine, the belief that all deities are faces of a "God behind the Gods", I would be violating both the first of the Ten Commandments and rejecting the very statement of faith that I make every Sunday when I recite the Apostles' Creed (or the Nicene Creed on the Sundays when we use the Book of Common Prayer), and even so, I am quite arguably still doing those things because "All the Gods are one God" still isn't a Judeo-Christian belief, strictly speaking. I pray for guidance every time I take communion and every time I celebrate a Sabbat or an Esbat. I'm not picking up any signs of disapproval yet, but I'm aware that it could very well be because I'm not listening the right way and I'm still looking for a lot of answers.

Neopaganism may be more lenient (in theory, at least) because "Neopaganism" is really just an umbrella term for a collection of various modern faiths that have been influenced by what's known about pre-Christian religions (and in many cases, a heavy dose of Gerald Gardner), but from what I've seen online, a lot of Pagans must be allergic to Christians—I've lost track of the times when, while I've been looking at the news on Wren's Nest over at the Witches' Voice, I've seen an article relating to Christianity where people have left comments ranting about EVIL HYPOCRITICAL XTIANS BOOGA BOOGA BOOGA. Much as the GLBTQ community tends to look askance at bisexuals, even if they're part of the name, and much as the medical community apparently hates fat people, Pagans and Christians alike tend to look at those of us who try to blend the faiths as if we're unnatural and threatening freaks, fence-sitters who should just place ourselves on one side or the other. After all, two paths that are (ideally, at least) dedicated to compassion, love and making the world a better place are bound to be mortal enemies. *sigh*

I call myself a "surprised Christo-Pagan" because the world is full of surprises—and because I'm still very surprised that I've managed to make a spiritual life that's as complex and downright strange as mine has been actually work for me.

Why do I choose to talk about such a personal subject in public?

I've always found that I do my best thinking when I'm just writing my thoughts down. I figure that if I can benefit from muddling through like this, why couldn't my ramblings be helpful to other people as well? Should anyone chance to stumble upon this blog, I hope that even if they think I'm crazy/stupid/weird/going to Hell/anything else, I still hope that I'll give them something to think about.

Why do I call myself "Zillah"?

Because I may write about things here that I wouldn't necessarily want people in my daily life to know about, a pseudonym was obviously necessary. I chose "Zillah" not just because it's a fairly obscure Biblical name (Lamech's second wife, whose son Tubal-Cain was apparently good at making tools) but because of the first context in which I ever heard it—Zillah Grey was a character in Victoria Holt's "Snare of Serpents", and she was not what she initially seemed to be.

Now, human beings rarely are what we appear to be on the surface, so in that respect neither she nor I can really be said to buck the trend, but I feel that the name is an appropriate one for me to take for the purposes of this blog. The Zillah in that story had a past she wasn't proud of, and her actions caused years of suffering for someone she was close to, even to the point where that other person had to leave Scotland for South Africa for a time. On a strictly spiritual level, I also have a past I'm not proud of (see the bit on my "Wicca 101" phase in my first post) and although I haven't done anything that caused that much trouble for other people, I did end up with a significant split in my spiritual life for a number of years, almost like a split personality. I was in denial about it for a time—I think that's the main reason for my outpouring of vitriol towards Christianity in general, because although I thought I wasn't Christian anymore, I still felt a pull and I didn't like it. When I finally allowed myself to admit that the matter of my spiritual life wasn't as simple as being one thing or the other, I felt like the exiled part of myself was finally being allowed to come home, just as Zillah's step-daughter Davina Glentyre was.

Zillah dies near the end of the book, true, but then...eventually, we all do. If I recall correctly, Zillah made peace with herself and with Davina before the end. And in the end, that sort of thing is really what this blog is about—reconciling with myself and achieving a spiritual balance that will allow me to go forward and, for however long I'm going to be alive, help me to be the best person I'm capable of being.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Missing Church...And Actually Missing It

Or, "A Not-So-Short History of my Spiritual Development"

Even at my most pious, I was never really of the church-going persuasion.

I was twelve years old and the "God bug" had just bitten me in a big way. My parents—a lapsed Catholic and a lapsed Anglican—had sent me to Catholic school since kindergarten, largely to keep my mother's Catholic family happy, and though I went through all the sacraments at the usual pace (well, except for baptism, which happened when I was three) and religion was taught in the school I went to, and although the whole school would attend Mass every other week, before I was twelve or so I didn't give it any more thought than I gave to anything else I learned. Sure, I paid attention and I got good grades for it, but it never occurred to me that religion was something to believe. It was just something we did a few times a day and got out of school for one morning every other week. I think that for awhile I thought that believing in God was like believing in the bell that rang for recess—I never saw that, either, but it was there and I knew it! But then, sometime after I turned twelve, something just sort of clicked and I thrived on the prayers and Bible stories that I'd been fed by my teachers since I was five years old. I even started enjoying Mass, which had always bored me before. Well, except for the bits where we got to sing; I'd always enjoyed those. :)

After that little revelation, for a brief time I even wanted to be a nun. I dreamed of being a saint. What a little idiot I was.

Now, to be perfectly clear, because some of my Catholic sensibilities are still part of my spiritual composition, I have a lot of respect for nuns and saints. But I have since come to realize that the life of a nun is most definitely not for me, and although I try to be a decent person, I admit that I'm not by any means a candidate for canonization. Besides, many saints tend to be martyrs as well, and I doubt that I'd ever go that far for my faith—I'd rather be quietly subversive and lead a longer existence on this planet. Perhaps that means that I'm a coward. Ah, well. *sigh*

And then, sometime early in my teens, I first came across the concept of Paganism. I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that I became extremely biased against Christianity (though not vocally so—my dad would probably have kicked me out of the house if I had been loud about it) because of the way it's been used and misused over the centuries. I became one of those "Wicca 101" fluffbunny Pagans who thinks Silver RavenWolf has the whole story on Paganism and its relation to other religions and spiritualities, and who resented Christianity because "they stole our holidays". Have you ever run across one of those Pagan web pages with tons of glittery pentacles where the writer says, "An' it harm none, do what thou wilt" and "Blessed Be!" a million times while talking about the Maiden-Mother-Crone aspects of the Goddess and spells and karma and "NEVER AGAIN THE BURNING TIMES"? I never unleashed the sparkly terror of such a page on the World Wide Web myself, but that was pretty much the state of my spirituality at the time. Thank goodness (Goddess?) I grew out of it, and in time the spirituality that I had adopted and so badly mangled grew into something beautiful that has helped me through many tough times since then. Eventually, I had a first-degree Reiki attunement and the meditation techniques that I learned from my instructor have also become part of my spiritual life.

And then, when I was 20 years old, I had another spiritual awakening, one that was far less conventional, smack me in the face. But as this entry's already going to be very long, and because it's something I'd like to meditate on further at another time, I'll say no more here than that it's had me questioning my sanity ever since, and that it's given me a new perspective on the world that I wouldn't have had without it.

A bit over six years later, an acquaintance of mine who directs an Anglican church choir told me he could use another good soprano in the group and asked me to join. After a few days of researching and soul-searching, I decided that participating in Anglican worship wasn't something that was at odds with the current state of my spirituality, so I told him I'd give it a try. That was about eight and a half months ago, and I've been singing with them ever since. At some point over the years I'd come to the conclusion that my faith was both Pagan and Christian, and once I got used to the services from the Book of Alternate Services and the Book of Common Prayer, I'll admit that it felt good to put as much emphasis on the Christian side of things as I was already putting on the Pagan side. I suppose it helped that the church where I now sing is a place that I'd known and loved since I was a child—one of my aunts was married there, and on the occasions over the years when I ended up there again (mostly because I sing in a choir that's practiced there several times since I joined), I was always struck by the beauty of its stained-glass windows—so, between that and the similarities between the Anglican and Roman Catholic denominations, in a way it was like coming home after a long absence.

Currently, though, my church choir is taking a break because the director and his wife are out of town for a bit. And though I know that I could've gone to church this morning without donning the cassock and surplice, I stayed home—I've got a cold and I wouldn't want to pass it on, especially since most of the congregation is over 60! So, today was the first Sunday since November when I haven't gone to church, and it felt...strange.

I hadn't expected that. I was un-churched for so many years before I joined the choir, and I have to admit that I didn't miss it. My spiritual life was already full and satisfying. I had my own rituals and prayers and meditations. I didn't feel a need to go back to all the Bible readings, murmured responses and occasionally nonsensical hymns.

And then I joined an Anglican choir, and something must have changed because a missed Sunday suddenly feels wrong. I doubt it's out of simple habit—after all, for years before my break with the Roman Catholic Church, memorized prayers every school day and Mass every other Thursday during the school year were a fact of life for me. Once I left that, I didn't miss it. Perhaps it's the difference between something I didn't choose and something that I did choose; I had no choice but to be raised as a Catholic, but I chose to sing in that Anglican choir and take part in Anglican worship. Perhaps it's because the general atmosphere of the choir is relaxed and friendly, and during the Eucharistic service (usually the only service we sing for) amusing things tend to happen, particularly during the priest's conversation with the church's Sunday School kids. (I'm not sure how common this is, but I think it's a good idea; the kids are much more well-behaved during the service than they would be if they didn't know and like him. Still, they can de-rail those conversations no matter how well he tries to guide them, and the results are frequently funny for everyone.) Overall, I feel at home there, which is definitely a pleasant surprise. For once in my life, I actually understand what keeps some people interested in going to church week after week.

And yet, I am always conscious that, even if I've been accepted as a part of that Anglican church where I sing, this was not the denomination into which I was baptized. I was certainly not confirmed there, and in many ways, I remain a guest, not an actual member of the church. While I could change this by formally converting, I must admit that I don't feel the need to do so—not yet, anyway. If I ever do so, I want to be certain that it is out of the true desire of my soul to be part of this tradition, not because of the enthusiasm for something new and different in my life. I made that mistake with the Roman Catholic Church, way back when I was discovering God as something to be believed in and not just acknowledged. I made it again when I started to be drawn to Neopaganism. be totally honest, although Anglicanism as practiced in the church where I sing is a much better fit for my current spiritual life than my former denomination was, the fact remains that part of my experience of the Divine is not Christian in origin or practice. I do not believe that I have to reject God (or Jesus, for that matter) to know the Goddess, even if I would have to reject Her if I were to become a true member of the Anglican Church.

Over the years, I've found that my spiritual path is far from an easy one to take. I know that it may look like I'm cherry-picking my spirituality, taking what's convenient from Christianity and Neopaganism, and that the result might look like some unholy Frankenstein monster that's somehow made worse from being made of Love An' Light An' Fluffy Pink Unicorns An' Stuff. I know that it looks like I'm taking the easiest way—why choose one over the other when I can have them both? But that's not how I experience it. I've had some very real spiritual conflicts with what it means to be Christian and Pagan at the same time. I've wondered myself if I was simply doing what seemed easiest just because it would allow me to make some measure of peace with a tradition I could no longer submit to while also being able to partake in the more "exotic" spirituality that I was drawn to while I was in high school. I've made mistakes. I've been judgemental, had a flirtation with the "Pagan persecution complex" (you know, the idea that so many Pagans have that Christians are evil, closed-minded hypocritical bigots who go Biblically psycho at the sight of a pentacle—even as I enjoyed the friendship of several committed Christians) and, as discussed before, gone through the "Wicca 101 is OMG TEH BEST THING EVAH AN' I WANNA BE A WITCH 'CUZ THERE SO COOL!!!" phase, too, though I'd hate to think that my spelling was ever that bad. ;)

Maybe one day I'll also decide that "Christo-Pagan" is a Really Bad Idea too, but for now, I think I'll stick with that and see where it takes me. In writing this blog, I hope to give myself a place to sort out all these messy little details that have made this path I'm on so interesting and so frustrating at the same time. And if anyone ever happens to stumble upon this blog, I hope that they'll find something to think about here. I know I certainly intend to. :)