Last night, when I was talking with my Anglican-born best friend, who is now the music director at a Roman Catholic church (I consider it amusing that we've ended up doing music at churches in each other's denominations of origin), he mentioned that he thinks it's odd that the priest there doesn't believe that God specifically sent Jesus to die. I laughed and told him, "Welcome to the Catholic mindset." This might have been a bit of an overstatement, but not necessarily by much. While what it officially says in the Catechism might be different—and I can't say for sure, since it's been a while since I read it—every bit of what I learned about being Catholic when I was growing up really does seem to include his sacrificial moment as a sort of afterthought.
Sin and hell and all of that were, of course, a part of my religious education as a child and adolescent, but they were never the focus of it. Neither was what we're told happened at Calvary. (Well, except for around Lent and Easter Sunday, but that's kind of different.) The focus was always on what Jesus is supposed to have taught in life—and within that focus, the message was always, "This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you" (as a hymn we used to sing put it). Even the form of the service seemed to put its emphasis on this: come in singing, hear a few scripture readings (and take part in the responsorial psalm), hear the weekly lecture about whatever the priest had decided was an appropriate topic, pray a bit, sing again, celebrate the Eucharist, sing a bit more, pray again, and go out singing. Even the celebration of the Eucharist seemed to be more of a memorial—"do this in memory of me"—than hammering in the idea of "CHRIST DIED FOR YOU, YOU HORRIBLE ROTTEN SINNER!!!!!"
We were taught to pray, to be kind, to give to the poor, to feed the hungry, to love God and each other, and to live a Christ-like life. Whether we (or the Roman Catholic Church in general, for that matter) ever really managed to live up to those ideals is up for debate, of course, but that was what we were taught, and I still carry some of those lessons with me.
For all that it's a traditional Catholic belief that the bread and the wine literally become Jesus' body and blood through the miracle of transubstantiation, the sacrificial lamb aspect of the story of Jesus never really seemed to be as front-and-centre as I perceive it as being in many Protestant denominations. Though admittedly, I could be wrong about the emphasis on Jesus' death. Still, so much of my childhood religious education was focused on his life that I find the belief that the only reason for his life was to die a horrible death to be...difficult to understand, to say the least.
I guess that part of me will always be, for good or ill, ever-so-slightly Roman Catholic.
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Lately the Norse gods have been calling me. I don't think that they will ever take me away from my beloved Celtic pantheon, but despite all the negative publicity that the Sons of Odin have been giving the Norse pantheon in recent years, I do believe that there is wisdom and knowledge to be gained there. While the deity-focused part of my spiritual life is a bit difficult to pin down (to put it as simply as possible, I'm a bit agnostic; I believe that the Gods, if they do exist, reveal themselves to us in the ways that we're most able to understand and accept, and that even if they don't, their stories can still lead us to various real insights and truths), I am always drawn to Goddesses and Gods who are associated with the values of compassion, wisdom, and insight. And as much as I have heritage that ties me to various Celtic deities and mythological figures, I also have Scandinavian ancestry that links me to the Norse pantheon. I think that maybe it's time to learn a few things from and about them as well.
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I've also been thinking about the reasons why I turned to Paganism in the first place.
I first heard what I can only describe as the call of the Goddess when I was about thirteen years old, which confused me to no end because at the time I was a pretty devout Catholic. But (as kids often do, which many adults seem to forget) I had a pretty good bullshit detector, and I couldn't stand hypocrisy. At about that time, a local Catholic teacher was the defendant in a rather well-publicized trial relating to the sexual abuse of his students. I had also read several news stories about Catholic priests who had committed similar offenses, and it led to
At about that time, my mother had bought a copy of The 21 Lessons of Merlyn (I know...Llewellyn hasn't got the best reputation as a publisher, and I understand why, but this book did in the end send me down an interesting and challenging path, so I'm thankful for that). And I had always loved spending time outdoors; I grew up next to a surprisingly large forested area, and I took frequent walks out there, singing so that I wouldn't inadvertently surprise any wildlife that might, er, take exception to being startled by a human. When I started reading about a kind of spirituality that was more Earth-centred, one that didn't tell me that people were supposed to "subdue the Earth" but instead respect it and be thankful for it...something clicked. In time, I sought out information about spiritualities that weren't so male-centric and that affirmed that women weren't the vehicle through which sin had entered the world, but that we were every bit as worthy as men to be called by the Divine.
I think I needed that. And I knew from pretty early on—though for a few years I would deny it—that my path didn't lie solely in Christianity or Paganism, but in some strange mix of both. It's been more difficult than choosing one or the other would have been. I won't deny that. And there are people on both sides of the fence upon which I walk who would say that because I am both, I'm not worthy to be a part of either group—Christians would say that because I experience the Divine as a sort of multifaceted entity (which treads pretty close to a couple of heresies relating to the Holy Trinity, actually) that is One at its centre, but shows many faces to teach many lessons, and many Pagans would say that I don't belong to them either because somehow it's okay to worship Gods from most pantheons, but that it's a HORRIBLE HORRIBLE THING HOW DARE YOU to include Jesus of Nazareth (and of course God the Father and God the Holy Ghost) in worship because Christianity automatically equals evil.
For people who are supposedly free-thinking, there can be a lot of black-and-white thought where anything even remotely Christian is concerned. I can understand it to a certain extent; I used to think I was superior, too, because I had Broken the Chains of Monotheism and Reached a Higher Consciousness and all that stuff. I'd learned very quickly to equate Christianity with hypocrisy and hate and jealousy and all sorts of nasty things, especially after the death of Tempest Smith in 2001.
Smith, who was twelve years old when she committed suicide, was the victim of religious-based bullying; she had been bullied for years by her classmates, but eventually the bullying got worse when they learned that she was a Wiccan. Her bullies used Christianity as a weapon, and eventually she hanged herself in her bedroom.
While I had never been subject to anything even remotely similar to that kind of bullying, I felt that this reflected very badly on Christians in general. (I was eighteen at the time.) And then, later that year, the infamous September 11 terrorist attacks happened, and I heard so many Christians blaming all Muslims for the actions of a hate-filled few. Even my own father did; at the time, he was a big fan of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and other hateful conspiracy mongers of their ilk. In my disgust, I turned even more determinedly towards Paganism, developing some rather bitter feelings towards Christianity as a whole. It took years, and the invitation of a friend to join the Anglican church choir he directs, to really start resolving those. And in the past year, since my best friend became the musical director at a Catholic church, I've attended Mass a handful of times and plan to do so again. It has proven to be extremely thought-provoking. And though I don't think I can ever completely go back, as I said earlier on, some part of me will always be Roman Catholic.
I think that in the past year, I've come closer to being the Christo-Pagan I've always claimed to be, rather than a Pagan who regularly attends Anglican church services.
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I killed a forest tent caterpillar while I was writing this. It fell from the ceiling, narrowly missing my mug of tea. Almost reflexively, I squished it. I'm not sure how it even got in the house. As much as I know that in large numbers, they're really bad for the trees (as in they can kill them if the trees are defoliated too many times in a year), I actually feel bad for having done that.
Funny, that. I have no problem with swatting mosquitoes or blackflies, but squishing a caterpillar evokes feelings of guilt. Maybe it's because the caterpillar, on its own, presented no danger to me or even to any of the houseplants. Mosquitoes can spread disease, and their bites are painful and, later, painfully itchy. Blackflies can spread disease as well, and their bites are every bit as itchy and annoying. But caterpillars...they're relatively harmless unless they show up in long-term infestations.
And just before my mug came down on top of the caterpillar, it looked at me. That freaks me out a little.
At least I gave it a quick death. Still, conscience can strike at the weirdest times. This may not exactly be a major moral quandary, but it's got me thinking all the same.