A Change of Heart: Reflections on Paganism Inspired by the Pope’s Encyclical

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.

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15 thoughts on “A Change of Heart: Reflections on Paganism Inspired by the Pope’s Encyclical

  1. gwynn

    I really like your points in this blog-I can’t say I have read the Pope’s latest Encyclical (not many actually read these things in full-well done!) but you make several really telling points about Paganism and about spirituality/environmental concern that are just so perceptive, in my opinion. i recently met a guy at my Spanish pub night called Mark Dowd (ex Panorama BBC journalist, ex Dominican Friar, environmentalist -previously with Operation Noah) who has read and commented on the Encyclical in English Spanish and now French media-he wrote recently in the Tablet : http://www.thetablet.co.uk/features/2/5789/for-every-living -anyway-not sure if you can get that link 9you can catch a great video he did on vimeo (45 mins0 called ‘God is Green’ anyway I had already decided to read the Encyclical even though I’m not a Christian particularly-and now will surely check it out-but your article is just great -will check out references you have made-keep writing this stuff-fingers crossed for Monday in Preston but you’ve the wider context here . Very honest points you make

  2. Perhaps you’re being over-generous towards Pope Francis, and by implicaition the Catholic Church? A quick search turned up this by George Monbiot, for instance: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/18/pope-francis-liberal-bloody-sunday-catholic The present Pope is deeply culturally conservative of course – an opponent of gay marriage, women priests, contraception, etc and Monbiot may have been over-generous too given that the catholic church has presided over child abuse on an industrial scale. Catholics tend to be vitriolic about ‘paganism’, of course -not least when attacking (their conception of) pagan environmentalism.

    I’d like to think that one of the strengths of the wonderfully polymorphous fledgling that is postmodern paganism is its pluralism? There will, hopefully, never be pagan popes, or missionaries. Hopefully spirit workers and polytheists can develop ways of working with direct encounter and inspiration grounded in progressive and democratic values – including respect for humanist / atheist / agnostic worldviews. Without such grounding ‘divine inspiration’ has fuelled many horrors, and sadly continues to do so.

    Keep up the good work šŸ™‚

    1. I did think about adding a footnote about the many areas where Pagan and Catholic theology and ethics don’t agree, as well as mentioning the wealth of the Vatican etc. but didn’t want to end up writing a whole new essay…

      Yes the strength of contemporary paganism is its pluralism and, for the most part, its lack of structure, hierarchy, leaders and, to be honest, any two people who agree!

      My main point was (as mentioned in another reader’s response on ‘The Wild Hunt’ which provides a balance of perspectives http://wildhunt.org/2015/06/popes-environmental-encyclical-elicits-pagan-responses.html) the Pope has ‘got it’ (ie.the power to move people). Admittedly this divine spark can be used for good or ill… At the moment he’s using it to further an ecological conversion of the Church, which is for the better… if this shift can happen *perhaps* there is hope of further change in the future…

      1. gwynn

        I don;t think you need to spell out the inadequacies and faults of the Catholic Church -you would hardly be saying anything new-but I think you are right that the Encyclical has some influence and that is basically good, I think. What I particularly liked about your article is the recognition that Paganism, while diverse, can sometimes be a bit superficial.. my problem I suppose is that I do think ‘psychologisation’ or being aware of psychological motives is actually really important in fighting untruth-there are a lot of cranks out there and a lot of outlandish rather dubious ideas and it has put me off paganism-but I recognise that people like you and Brian are genuine and it means that I’ve not lost hope that my tentative experiences with paganism might be worthwhile-we certainly do need a closer relationship with Nature and some sense of awe or even of the divine present in nature but I feel its there without ‘spirit work’ or ‘fairies’ or ‘myths’ or ‘polyhtheism’ or even words-its just there, that sanctity and thats about as much as I think I can believe-anyway i;m clocking off but I thought you hit on something even if I’m poles apart from your starting point

  3. I think this is part of why new stories are so important right now. The ancestral stories with all the issues you flag up, do not give us the focus we need. We need a language of engagement, a language of landscape, and we need to re-empower people who have been sold the idea that they can’t do much in the first place. Personal growth is no longer enough (if it ever was!), and the ‘acute pain’ is something we need to feel, and then do something about, in whatever ways we can. I’m a long way from having any proper answers, but looking harder for things I can do.

    1. More positively I’ve seen quite a shift at the moment amongst pagans and other religious and non-religious people to reject materialism in favour of a combination of deeper connection with nature (and the divine) with some form of activism. A need to reach deeper to find new stories and bring them back into the world to enact change. It’s possibly not finding the answers (who says there are any) but the doing that’s important?

      I’d agree the pain is something we need to feel. Whilst I don’t deny that ‘mental illnesses’ are as real as a broken leg, I think alot of the pain we feel does come from living a world we have created that is out of synch with nature and human nature. Thus it can be a wake-up call and symptom of the need for change.

  4. You touch on a number of crucial points here, circle around them sensitively, and indicate some lines of necessary future debate if neo-paganism is to ‘come of age’ rather than just be a general lifestyle choice or part of the personal growth industry. Most crucial is your focus on the twin paths of devotion and spirit work. The former is sadly lacking, but that is not restricted to paganism. We should, though, put our own house in order and achieving the balance between personal devotion and what we can share, between recognition of the gods and identifying where they lead us as groups as well as individuals, and taking responsibility for the implications of what we perceive, what we say and what we do.

    1. Thanks for your feedback. One of the points I could and perhaps should have mentioned in relation to devotion and spirit work is the stirling work people like yourself and the people at Dun Brython have been doing quietly over the years. So sad that Brython never became a big movement in the UK in the way that devotional polytheism and spirit work have in the states.

      (May be due to the primarily Brythonic focus and the lack of knowledge we have of ancient British religion and the difficulty in re-reading our fragmentary myths, in contrast with Roman, Greek, Germanic and Norse Polytheisms? The apparent lack of Brythonic polytheists may also be because many identify primarily as Druid?)

      Yes, ‘putting our own house in order’ is important (rather than going off on a rant, which I’ve kind of done here!)… and also together seeking new ways to relate our devotions to and gnoses of our deities, as individuals and groups, to the socio-political realities we face today.

  5. I’ve read some very interesting things about the encyclical. Whatever else can be said about the Pope and the Catholic Church, it is a very good thing that such a widely-disseminated document, from a source of such perceived authority and power, is getting people from all over the world to think more carefully about what we are doing. His articulation of ecological crisis created by our current way of living as a spiritual problem, as much as a social/economic/environmental problem, seems self-evident from a pagan perspective – but I can’t help feeling that it has remained somewhat under-explored by pagan writers until now, perhaps for this very reason.

    I am still dragging myself out of a bout of depression at the moment, which is making it hard to articulate ideas, but your comments about devotion and your questions about deity really struck a chord. At the moment I struggle to find the time and energy to practice what I would think of as ‘proper’ devotion, let alone to write about it (and, again, must remind myself that beating myself up about this is part of the problem and not the solution). At times like these I fall back on the pattern of morning and evening devotions laid out in Caitlin Matthew’s Celtic Devotional, which dedicates some focus every day to the real-world problems that are so often ignored in pagan ritual (excepting the vague call for peace in druid rituals). I am working, slowly, on building a personal, dedicated devotional for the children of Llyr, from the framework provided by Matthews’ book and the ADO ritual liturgy, and will take pains to maintain this connection between personal practice and awareness-raising (for want of a better phrase). I remember attending a PF conference some years back, in which Phillip Carr Gomm wondered questioned whether we would see a shift from the introspective, self-development tendencies within C20th paganism towards a more outward-looking, service-orientated practice in the C21st. I hope so.

    1. I haven’t come across Caitlin Matthews’ Celtic Devotional, will have to check that out. Have you been involved with ADO?

      Similarly, very slowly, I’m trying to create a yearly devotional cycle around Gwyn and his mythos – with Calan Mai and Nos Galan Gaeaf as the pivotal points with a focus on Creiddylad’s transition between the worlds and the turning of the worlds through summer and winter… Gwyn’s feast… and would like to do more for the spirits of Annwn… very early days… and to be honest my life recently has been so hectic and trying I’ve been distracted from deeper workings and falling back on very simple rites of connection and getting by.

      1. I have indeed been involved with the ADO šŸ™‚ I joined the order after completing their training course over a four weekends on Anglesey last year. Magical times. Anglesey is such an wonderful island.

        The Celtic Devotional is a lovely little book I found in a secondhand bookshop somewhere – I have a review here: https://incidentaldruidry.wordpress.com/reviews/celtic-devotional/

        One thing that occurred to me, after reading your comment last night, was that we sort of expect devotionals to come first – if that makes any sense. We expec to get the devotionals right and then build our practice from there. But really, the devotionals are the path, and where there is no clear path we have to build one – and that takes time, perhaps even a lifetime of learning and practicing and refining. I have days (like yesterday) when I feel like all I can do is go through the motions – but perhaps even the motions are important in their way.

      2. Ah, ADO- The Anglesey Druid Order- I did know you had completed their training course, but for some reason got ADO and ADF confused and thought that you’d also been involved with ADF and were also using their liturgy! Apologies. Duh.

      3. Ah yeah – not been involved with the ADF, but I had considered their course as something for a vague unspecified future. I used to follow the solitary druid fellowship devotionals for a while, which were I think based on the ADF tradition, but they felt a bit off-kilter for the sense of relationship and devotion that I was trying to articulate. Though I am growing in my belief that integrating moral and ethical concerns into spiritual and devotional practice is essential.

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