I recently finished reading Pope Francis’ Encyclical: ‘Laudato Si’ (‘Praise be to you’) ‘On Care of our Common Home’. Although there are vast theological differences between Catholic Christianity and my Pagan path as an Awenydd, it is clearly an inspired piece of writing and powerful call for change.
At the centre of the Encyclical lies the Pope’s concern for the earth and the poor. His main argument is that our destruction of the earth and mistreatment of its inhabitants (human and non-human) stems from consumer society and the selfishness and emptiness of heart it creates. He calls Christians to enter a ‘painful awareness’ of our current ecological crisis and convert to more ecologically sound ways of living. For the strength to meet this challenge he prompts them to turn to God, the wisdom of the Bible and their saints and mystics.
The power of the Pope’s Encyclical highlights areas in Paganism where care for others and divine inspiration are lacking. Most problematic is its focus on self-development and complicity with commercialism. This has led to an effluence of market-driven self-help, how-to and spell books promising easy methods of spiritual and material gain. Their false veneer obscures the idiosyncrasies and difficulties of lived religion based on authentic relationships with others.
Tendencies toward psychologisation and demystification are responsible for the lack of divine inspiration. How can we find the wonder and awe needed to meet life’s challenges if the gods are mere archetypes or aspects of the self rather than real, awe-inspiring others? When visions of our deities are personifications resulting from a naive unscientific worldview?
Another problem is that, unlike Christians, Pagans do not have a two thousand year old tradition to learn from. Whilst the roots of Paganism are ancient, as a modern religion, it is very new. Our ways of communicating with the land, gods and ancestors are early in development. Our myths are fragmentary, heavily Christianised, scattered and obtuse. Too often they are over-simplified or psychologised. We lack not only the hermeneutics necessary to re-discover their significance for today but, more importantly, the courage to live them alongside our gods with conviction and belief.
Because mysticism is a topic either avoided or sniffed at in Pagan circles there is an over-arching tendency to avoid seeking and talking about deeper experiences of the divine. This has led to the stultification of mystical tradition within Paganism, the rule of superficiality and lack of inspiration not only in the market but at moots and camps.
However, more positively, over the last decade a number of Pagans have recognised these problems and begun to establish alternatives. A prime example is the formation of The Druid Network; a one hundred per cent volunteer run (dis)organisation eschewing system and hierarchy and promoting respectful relationship with the whole of nature.
Another is the development of the ‘twin paths’ of devotional polytheism and spirit work. These focus on devotion and service to gods and spirits viewed as real, independent persons. Direct encounters are central. A growing amount of devotional polytheists and spirit workers are sharing experiences and encouraging others to do the same. (I see my path as an Awenydd to correspond with these twin paths within Brythonic tradition).
More recently Rhyd Wildermuth set up Gods & Radicals: a website uniting Pagans in ‘beautiful resistance’ to capitalism. This has created a space for Pagans to share perspectives on how our religious beliefs and practices can be channelled into opposing the system which is destroying the earth and degrading the poor. Gods & Radicals also supports those questing to find alternatives through deeper experiences of the land, deities, ancestors and otherworlds.
Whilst there are signs a change of heart is taking place (not only within Paganism and Christianity but other religious and non-religious movements) there are also very real signs of increasing oppression, including here in Britain, with the impending abolition of the Human Rights Act, cuts in benefits and the threat of fracking.
At the heart of the matter lies the fact that change has never been easy, risk-free or painless. Every revolution has its casualties. We stand on the terrifying edge of a pivotal point where each choice we make and each action we take could sway the balance between those willing to fight for the earth and its inhabitants and those responsible for oppression.
Yet on that edge we meet gods, spirits and ancestors who guide and inspire us. Remind us others have walked these paths before. Of how lucky we are to live at a time when we are free to engage with deities and enter the spirit world to seek inspiration without risk of ostricism or execution.
History teaches us our current liberties are not set in stone. Changes can be reversed by repressive and regressive movements and governments. Hence we need to pour every ounce of our vision and effort into maintaining the reforms our ancestors fought for and creating a juster, fairer, more caring and deeply inspired world.