” As a result, humanity renounced the search for a great light, Truth itself, in order to be content with smaller lights which illumine the fleeting moment yet prove incapable of showing the way. Yet in the absence of light everything becomes confused; it is impossible to tell good from evil, or the road to our destination from other roads which take us in endless circles, going nowhere.”
Pope Francis “LUMEN FIDEI“
So I thought I would take another stab at talking about my own conversion experience. In the past, this feat has stumped me, because there were so many threads in my life that lead to the decision to leave the path I carved out of the darkness (though I was aware I could not see where I was going), and to take up the Light of Christ.
So I thought I’d look at the thought process, the pattern and progression of outlook, instead of the events that persuaded me that this radical change wasn’t as radical as it looked from the outside, but more taking ideals and realizing they were principles. Because having principles is radically different from having ideals, even if descriptions of same are indeed similar if not identical.
Ideals float in on the pedestal of the mind, but their consequences are not related to a chain of action. After all, they dwell in a different realm, and one not accessible to human action. A principle has a logical progression to a thing called morality– indeed, in our best moments it directs one’s actions. People without principles can’t be hypocrites, which is why idealism is so popular. You can rant about something all day, but if you don’t live by it, well– let’s face it, no one could, so you have an out.
What is interesting is that most of my friends I had before this experience are entirely baffled, confused, and lost by this small but profound change in my life. I hardly talk to them anymore, despite the fact I would like to. They never seem to have anything to say. I’m not here to shove anything down anyone’s throat. We are told to be witnesses, not used belief salesmen.
Yet even this stance is incomprehensible. Everyone thinks of Christians as shovers of belief, as marketeers of some old story. To think of it makes me laugh. There is so much more going on than that!
I mean, where do you think this whole love of rationality in the West came from? The actual stance of the idea that searching for truth in the physical world that is the monument we call science? The idea that the world is an orderly, comprehensible thing? IF we did not take this idea ON FAITH, did you know that science would be impossible? And how could it be impossible if we derive so much benefit from it? So what does the reality of these things have to do with Christ, and my witness?
I can’t leave well enough alone. I have to think about everything and try to make sense of it. If you haven’t seen evidence of this in my blog, you haven’t been paying attention. I just have to examine the foundations of every assumption and follow it relentlessly through to the end. And if things stop making sense, or go off into tendrils of thinking that clearly have no basis in reality– I get agitated, annoyed, and basically my whole world comes apart. Make me sound unstable? You better believe it. For me, what I think of the world and what it means has an immediate and direct effect on my entire quality of life.
Enter paganism. You see, back in the sands of time I was sort of a Calvinist. I believed in a sort of cartoonish god, but, also in one who enjoyed pulling the wings off of flies. Was I right to flee such a god? Yes! That image was a false one, a terrible Moloch type who devoured our suffering as some kind of rich meal. It was indeed a sort of paganism where true salvation is not possible. For sin and suffering were traded in some sort of celestial stock exchange– a machinery of suffering and death, with Heaven being a lottery prize. This is not True Christianity, but most people can be forgiven for thinking it is. The entire culture seems to believe it’s true.
God came to me and told me that I needed to find a more excellent way– that my misery was contrary to his desire for Joy. I really had no idea what he was saying. And I struggled with that for a long time– 19 years, perhaps, though for much of that I did not know it.
Yet– and yet— even that terrible falsehood had been preferable to atheism, where I saw no real meaning in anything at all. Why do things exist if nothing made them? Why is it important for humans to be, to do, or to think? Would we not be better as animals? What greatness could we have, if what we are is all there is? I simply could not fathom that all of this had come about by chance. And what a string of coincidences that went beyond anything I could think of! I could not even believe the evidence of my senses. Lest you think I’m some sort of credible fool. BTW, I was 8 at the time I dismissed atheism, and though I have checked my arguments and read some commentary, I do not regret my decision. But it took a slog through Calvin and a sort of headless paganism before I saw the real truth to it.
From here, I was ripe for plucking. A friend introduced me to a little witchcraft. A different friend took me to a public pagan ritual. At last, I could participate in the music of the spheres! I could touch the machinery of the universe- by building my own, and bringing my unique contribution to the banquet table of the gods. I could dance my love of existence, I could worship the beauty I saw in nature. I could exult in the timeless order that made everything possible. I could participate with power in the mysteries of the universe. But that’s not all. Keep in mind, more isn’t always better.
Sounds really great, huh? Well. The idea itself is very seductive, rich, and luxuriant. You can create the universe you want, and leave out all that suffering and dreck that you’d like to leave out of it. You can pick and chose the gods you worship, and knit together the mythology that appeals to you. But I’m telling you, as pretty as it is– as fun as it was– the price to be paid is mighty steep. And everybody pays eventually. The hell I’m talking about is right here on Earth– no death related threats here.
When it comes to living in a reality you don’t control and laws with grim portent (see ref: entropy) — it is a fair-weather religion. When it times are good, it is really really good. When your back is against the wall– it is all your fault, and no one will save you, because ultimately, in paganism you better be able to save yourself. In a bad day, your choices are Stoicism (suffer for the good of standing firm) and Nihilism, which is just atheism all over again.
Because if you can just cast a spell to change your universe, then that implies you can make everything you don’t want to happen just disappear. And, in case you haven’t heard, we don’t control everything that happens to us. Sure, some pagan philosophy says that we agreed to everything that happened to us before we were born. Which is another way of saying that it’s all your fault. This logic absolves everyone else for ignoring you while your life sucks, because well, you wanted it, right?
Or maybe it’s just Karma, and you just earned it. Congratulations. That’s really comforting when a beloved parent dies. Trust me friend, no one wants to be around someone who’s stuck in celestial “study hall”. Especially if the suckage continues for longer than a little while.
Your gods have no reason to save you, and your friends have no incentive to help you– or even forgive you if you screw up. After all, by the logic of paganism, if you experience trouble, then you must have asked for it, created it yourself, been cursed, or aren’t learning the “lesson” you have set out for yourself. So it’s a great life if you don’t weaken. It raises you up in your good times– then leaves you desolate when life sucks. And life can really really suck.
The other problem in paganism is that it is easy to draw the conclusion that hell is other people. Many pagans, do in fact believe that all evil comes exclusively from other human beings. It is continuously unclear as to what the gods have to do with it. I mean, if you start looking at the cultural solutions for the problem of evil as given over by paganism– ultimately no answers are satisfactory. Either we are to be slavishly compliant slaves to creatures alien to us, who would dain to use us, or… we must take what we can, when we can, and hope– in we know not what. Or perhaps hope itself is a curse. This is what the most civilized of pagans left us.
But they did leave us something more. Oddly, there is hope in “we know not what”. The most sensible pagans of the old times looked through the rather alarming conclusions of mythology and saw that nature was perhaps a more reliable guide to the divine. As much as they did not know about the universe, the laws of nature were more sensible than the laws etched in mythology, which must have come from men. They spoke of the Unknown God in hushed tones and worshiped it while mumbling their prayers and offered a fatuous pinch of incense to Poseidon and Demeter. This starts to feel rather hypocritical after a while. For some, Atheism was more honest.
And for the modern, it only gets worse when one remembers in the back of ones mind that this goddess or that god you ultimately picked out of a picture book with a three paragraph description. Many of the later details are added by modern authors, or either through earlier poor translations, wishful thinking, or “inspired knowledge”. How much of this is consistent with what very little we know from the historical record? Who knows, maybe they changed over time, right? You know, if someone ignored you for 2000 years, you’d change, too.
Then you start looking in history and trying to find “the true fingerprints of the divine”– and you discover confusion. By going paleo-pagan, I just found more faint trails leading into nowhere– or to the sorts of devotions that led me to suspect evil.
In the first case, trying to find a “true face” of a paleo god is nearly impossible. Each little town and village had their own mythology for a given name, often times their own statuary, colors, the whole bit. These stories even contradicted each other. I believe that there were two towns in Egypt who had a battle with each other over the same god and it’s nature and disposition. Also, it comes as a surprise that much of the original, first source material on the religion of the ancients– indeed most of them– actually was preserved by Catholic Monks and is housed in the Vatican Library.
In The City of God, St. Augustine relates a tale where a Roman Council hired a widely known philosopher and mystic do a survey of what the literature said about the gods. Then he was to do some scrying from ink in a bowl to see what they really wanted from man. When the Council who asked for this information, and took a look, he actually had the work burned. Why? We’ll never know. He vowed silence on the matter. The Philosopher himself insisted that no one see it and had the originals buried with him. As I recall a later emperor had him dug up and burned both his body and the papers he wrote.
I want you to remember– the actions he’s describing were not done by Christians. All of them were pagans adhering to the same religion, same culture, and the same mores. Further, if this story were false, people would have cited it from here to next week (in other words, all over the historical record) if he were lying about this. His own contemporaries weren’t all shiny happy Christians– far from it. Had he lied, we wouldn’t be so familiar with his work today, as he would have been discredited for lying long ago by his fellow Christians. If you study the Church Fathers, they abhor liars, even those who lie for the right team.
So those that did not lead to horrors or confusion had a tendency to breed experiences that certainly whiffed of brimstone. I’m talking about the sorts of assumptions that lead to the disrespect (they aren’t human, though they look it) of all other members of the species (or genocide), or other unacceptable outcomes that don’t bear mentioning. Suffice to say– that which asks for human blood or the slaughter of life in ritual– is the worship of death, not goodness and life. If this god is greater than what it created, why would it need the essence of that creation to survive– or even thrive? Why would it find joy in our destruction? Trouble after trouble bubbled to the surface, and I was left questioning again.
When you are left alone, you have a lot of time to think. I spent a year flat on my back due to injury, unable to walk, or even support my weight. Standing was a struggle for at least half of it. I slithered on my belly even to get to the bathroom. (Beats the heck out of catheters, my fine readers!) My brother dropped off groceries once a week. For a long time, he and my physical therapist were the only people I saw face to face. No one called me– save two people– one or two times a piece. A gent who clearly had an agenda (as much as I liked him, I was not ready to date) and a second gent who gave me a route to start a new life.
The second was one of those friends you talk to every few years like you’ve known each other forever and talk every day. But somehow you don’t stay in touch for various reasons. This time, he called, and– what do you know, he called again. He didn’t even give me that look or even ask me out on a date. He met me where I was, and accepted my headspace for what it was.
Somehow, not being heard from in over a year, just made people think that I did not want to be contacted. Or maybe they thought I’d gafiated and did not care about them. I had hoped that they at least cared whether I lived or died. But I did get a lot of time to think over all my research, to dream, to meditate, to pray. Because, I did a great deal of praying as a pagan. For me, rituals were concentrated prayer. But without my ability to move around, I could not participate in those rituals anymore. So all I had was my mind, and when I was finally able to sit up, (after my big cast was removed) I could get back on line and join life again.
By that time, I did not want to talk to anyone, lest I whine at them so loudly and so long that they would not consent to ever talk to me again. Because I knew from experience if I had too much to complain about, those people I cared about would disappear from my life. So I cautiously joined my social group, but mostly I talked to strangers on the internet. I joined a pagan BBS– And they were as lonely as me. I resolved to become an even more determined searcher for truth, to find the footprints of the gods who made us. It had to be about love, and life, because nothing else seemed reasonable– or failing that, nothing else led to any sort of reality I could imagine becoming for Good.
The peculiar thing is how quickly people flocked to me. It was frightening. So many people without hope– or placing their hopes on the outcome of a magic spell. I knew I had next to nothing, and yet people spoke of me as being their hope! The morality and advice I meted out of a sense of filial responsibility was devoured hungrily. But as a pagan, I had no basis, save that it was what my father taught me. He said that the value of the human being was our capacity to love. And that love, ultimately is choosing to place their comfort and needs above your own. And I could not examine where that came from.
I had this idea that I needed family, to support my flagging pagan belief. I knew I could not go back to atheism, but paganism was being troublesome. I went from a hard polytheist to a vague monotheist, because Nature was to unified to explain how it could all be one, if there were many gods running around arguing with each other, and having widely different paradigms which you’d think would have a concrete effect on reality.
I had my first fight with my boyfriend about joining a particular group- because they wanted me to take an oath. Matt said that if I was bound by an oath, that could preclude our marriage. I was shocked and devastated. He said simply that if I were bound by a group, I could not give of myself freely to be his wife, because I would beholden to a different group. This does make sense, because with the covenant of matrimony (I can’t speak to how civil law defines it these days) you offer your whole self to your spouse, without reservation. If a part of you is bound up in an oath to something else, that could possibly interfere with the bond as God sees it. Because an oath asks something of yourself. A covenant asks for full participation.
I studied this, (even from non-Christian sources– I was a pagan) and realized he wasn’t just being a spaz or whatever. Certainly we could be civilly married, but that would not be the real thing– especially for him. And I wanted to meet the love of my life half way– to meet him as he is. Yes, I know that sounds very Christian of me, but I was just trying to be a virtuous pagan. Because not only did he have an obligation to not be a bigoted Christian, I had an obligation to not be a bigoted pagan. That’s a double-edged sword, you might say.
One of the things that pagans themselves miss about the Christian conversion period, is that it wasn’t all forced conversions. In the early days, it was all voluntary, and at that, when people would kill you for doing so. People weren’t just “tired of trying to think”. They were embarrassed to admit that Christianity held up pagan virtues better than the pagans themselves could, using the foundation of logic that pagans had from the beginning.
And I had noted that he was far more stable about troublesome times, and troublesome things than I was. While I tried to stay off the drama llama, I couldn’t seem to keep an even keel about anything. Sure I could get some temporary benefits from putting a spell on myself to feel better, but it was temporary, and would sometimes have weird effects. It’s sort of like hypnotism or NLP. You can really mess with your head if you aren’t careful.
So, after failing to sign up for this group, after thinking I realized I did not know them. They would’t even tell me what I was swearing to before I swore it. The more I thought about this, the more disturbed I became. Shortly after I left, the group split, and the good friend who had recommended me in the first place (who’d been dear friends with the owner) was disgraced for reasons no one would talk about, and was sent packing. I haven’t heard from her since.
It was shortly after this that I’d left for Chicago-Land. When I’d just had developed a bit of connection to that park within walking distance from the apartment.
But then came moving again, this time to a nice but somewhat uninteresting suburb. I felt untethered in Indiana. In Chicago, there was a vitality, a job, and illness to recover from. In Indiana I was alone with my thoughts and needed to pull myself up by my bootstraps– with housework and a couple of cats for company. I could not find the wild beauty I’d cherished in Michigan. It was mostly flat grassland, which I had no real connection to. Sure, there were trees here and there, but they seemed tame compared to the great beauty I had known. Here it was mostly suburban banality. So I went for a walk to try to reacquaint myself with nature.
And what I found was a great echoing place where all my thoughts were laid bare. I knew my previous spiritual experiences weren’t delusion, right? But somehow, the most vital threads to a greater connection to this pagan divinity were all those that I’d sworn off of in the name of morality. Because, yes, my sex life had been a mess, but I at least tried to be honest in word and deed and work for the good of my fellow man, rather than only for myself. I tried to help people when they were down, and look at all life as a basic good. Heck, I even believed that forgiveness was better than holding a grudge.
Sure, life was good, but why? Where did love come from, and what defined it? Humans are valued by the fact that they have the capacity to love… but doesn’t that mean different things than people say it does? What about abortion? Is that right? No one seems to argue that it goes against ‘harm none’, which is supposed to be this big universal, right?
It’s not just about feeling good, or looking good, there really should be something more. I watched the elders, who were ‘respected’ only by being treated nice, and ignored and left alone when they were in need. I watched groups coalesce and break like waves on a shore. IT was always about some scandal or other, and one group argued they were pioneering new morality and the other said they’d crossed a line. No one could even agree what to order for pizza, let alone what to do for ritual time. Okay, there were the drum circles, but that’s about it.
The problem with paganism is that the surface trinkets are so shiny and the ideas are so beautiful, that no one looks to see where the ship is going, and it’s almost always headed for the coral reef. Which is gorgeous, but if you don’t stay at a respectful distance will rip you to ribbons.
And the problem with that, is that in order to stay consistent you can’t really stay away from the reef. Because that reef is the result of your ultimate conclusions, playing out for all to see.
Now some would say, “Well yeah, but like, we think for ourselves, and you traded your freedom for what a bunch of silly old men think.”
But what do you think? I should say, where do you get what you think? Do literally make up every thought on your own? Or you do just pick out from a catalogue of different other people’s ideas that appeal to you? Do you really ‘harm none’? How can you possibly know that you manage to not harm anyone, ever? I can argue all day that I have taken on a set of principles, that I have agreed to a certain dogma that constrains itself to a limited scope, which gives me a great deal of freedom, but I doubt anyone would believe me. That this system of thought I have attached to is not ONLY just some nice philosophy that gives order to the universe, or that it is a complex theology that talks about God– yet gives you a great deal of scope and choices to make that really are up to the human person and their relationship with God.
Because what the new pagans have doesn’t even qualify as theology. Most of them don’t even believe in a concrete truth, and just pick and choose from a pile of dubious data what it is they want to hear. You can’t make informed decisions about anything that way. It’s kind of like saying that the scientific method is really too restrictive, and if we were given some latitude about what was considered sound data, then we could focus on real science.
And you are really really sunk when your life starts to suck, and you run aground on a very sharp and unforgiving barrier reef. One of these are sorts of cult personalities that grow up around certain people who have a knack of being popular and create a following. These, through a number of different evolutionary paths, can warp into a cult– if not created with that aim in mind. I had a friend once who speculated on doing such a thing for profit and ego. I suppose that’s one of the experiences that led me to be a lot more cynical about the groups I joined– culminating to me deciding that I could not be the focus of some big following that was tied up in the sorts of damage that came from being a link to the sacred.
Because sadly, even the first century pagans– who actually had grounding in things like civics, logic, and natural philosophy– that is, the tools of reason proper to determine what is good and what is not in both the personal and political arena– were often hoodwinked and toyed with by very talented sophists. These fair weather friends and yes men were able to pick out exactly what set of reasoning would affect his hearers in the way that pleased him. This is rank manipulation. It is not a hard trap to fall for, given how much we like to listen to what we want to hear.
But. If you have a set right and wrong, that you can touch and point to– generally speaking, with time and considered thought, you can separate the wheat from the chaff. Those buffeting winds of manipulation aren’t as devastating for those who have a firm foundation. You have to get it from somewhere. Why not from the creator of the Universe?
I came to this path after I was posited a question. Yes, after that big argument, I went for a walk, and I encountered a spiritual wall of sound that was endlessly complicated by the turmoil inside my head. How much of it is real? How much of it is me listening to what I want to hear? The question that I was asking myself was the same one that my husband simultaneously proved his love to me.
He asked.. “Are you happy being pagan? Does it make you demonstrably happier than you were before? Does it help? I can’t stand to see you so miserable, when I know what helped me– yet you won’t let me talk about it! Answer that question and I’ll be happy to never mention faith to you again.”
Yep. That was a hard question at this point. Yet, I knew he was being honest, and true, and not some manipulatior coming from a zombie mindset. How could he be both a zombie and a manipulator? The two can’t use the same sets of ideas.
I’d been depressed for years. And I had forbidden him to mentioning his faith to me. Sure, I knew his conversion story (because I had to be fair), but I didn’t want to be persuaded by him. After a long honest look, all I could see were a few times when my belief system really lifted me out of my misery. And frankly, it did so only in temporary, and in somewhat dishonest ways. And I stared that in the face, and the fact that I’d spent weeks, months and years trying to contact some spirit, some god who would accompany me on my path and give me wisdom and solace. I could only attract one’s attention for about roughly two weeks at a time. Each one said something different, most of it was non-consequential.
A some of it sounded like what I wanted to hear. Some of it sounded calculated to anger or depress me. Now, I could either believe that my experiences thus because I was crazy, (and with me, everyone else who’d ever experienced the same), or that I was sane, and these messages were either garbled by my mind, or were this way for a reason.
Since I did not feel like giving up on life, (as not being able to trust my ability to discern reality would lead, and I was reasonably certain that I was adapting to the constraints of reality in a reasonable way), I decided to assume that I could trust my experience, as long as I was critical of those results and where they come from, and be realistic about self-deception. So, given that… I started on a logical chain.
IF these messages had been garbled by my mind, then there was no good way for me to find truth in them. Anyway, how would I recognize it? How could I train my mind to filter out what I inserted in it, when I wasn’t clear on the difference? I couldn’t just say, “Well, obviously everything I like must be false”, because there are ideas that I like who’s consequences or results I do not. Every idea has consequences that lead to things that don’t turn out the way we like. So clearly, even I could not use my own biases as a strict guide to truth.
So after that, I had to concede that I could not rely strictly on my own experiences. I backed up, and theorized that the Creator had to be communicating with us through time. There had to be more than just this thing that’s happening to me. That if our value is love, and that is why said Creator made us, then surely, he must love us as well, and want to communicate to us. If said Creator wants to communicate, then certain things must please this one, and other things do not. And I think that a dispassionate Creator who leaves us alone after doing all the fun making stuff would not really have a reason to make us in the first place. This is about humanity, after all. And if this Creator being is powerful, wouldn’t there at least be some partial success in the world?
Then I thought about collecting all the belief systems in the world and trying to find out the similarities. I discovered that this has been done many times throughout history, and the resulting religions designed this way tend to die out pretty quickly. Sort of a spiritual esperanto. Huh. I wonder why that is.
Around this time, I was also noticing that my boyfriend was, in fact, a different man than when I had first known him and met him. Sure, he liked the same things, he hadn’t changed on the exterior that much– but he responded differently to the tides of life. He was more stable and less whiny. He had a set of goals and things he was going to do, and he handled himself much better. He had a genuine love of life I hadn’t seen when we’d last met. He had a determination, and a desire to keep plugging away– no matter how hard things get. Sure, he had his flaws, but he had significantly grown up. I realized that I hadn’t, and I wanted to know how he managed to be that way.
Then I realized that the thing that was different– was that he’d hit bottom and come out of it a Christian. And that perhaps what I was seeing was his faith. This realization was earth shattering. I did not really know what to do. I was freaked out because this involved– well, having attitudes and beliefs– set beliefs that were not very popular. I’d loose all my friends if I went into all this. I was very resistant to this idea.
So I decided to explore Christianity in a provisional way. Since the love of my life was Catholic, may as well start there. But the biggest problem was about the definition about love. If the Catholic church said that God was Love, then… well, what’s the deal with certain types of relationships? THAT was an issue that I’d been wrestling with for a while.
So… at first I was afraid to ask Husband-to-be about any of this. I did not want him to “be the reason why I converted”. I wanted to decide for myself.
So I started an internet odyssey that culminated in reading Love and Responsibility, and Theology of the Body both by Pope John Paul the Great. It was through these, that I discovered that PJ II truly was Great, and not just a pope guy whom I’d admired as a child.
I mean, yes, he was a fantastic actor. He truly behaved like a Pope should in most circumstances. When he failed to do so, he did so because he was so enthusiastically good hearted that his eagerness tripped over certain dogmas. He also wanted to meet people where they were, and not stand in the back with a forbidding face and a shaking finger. He wanted people to meet the love God gave him face to face. And though I mostly remember him as simultaneously stately, joyful and loving pope, he also had his moments for knocking over tables.
He managed to start a wildly successful Catholic revival in Poland right under the noses of the Nazis and the Soviets. He risked his life countless times– though most of us never saw it– or have even heard of it. Thanks be to God that George Weigel (a gifted writer and speaker in his own right) turned out a masterful work on the subject of Karl Woitijwa’s ministry to poland both as a priest and a bishop.
But I digress. Seeing his fantastic witness and contribution to the Church– I argue that he should some day be declared a Church Doctor– I melted. He neatly addressed all my doctrinal concerns about Catholic membership. The good, bad and ugly. Homosexuality. Scandal. Matrimony. Male Priests. (Though, to be fair, a Jesuit taught me as a child in simple words why this was so… because Jesus was a man. It makes sense to me. I have been called at some level to minister spiritually to my fellow man… and indeed, were I a man, I might become a priest. But, I’m not. And there’s a reason for that, I have to believe. So that’s that.
Ironically, had I been called to cross the Tiber earlier in my history I might have joined religious life. I thought I was called to be a (yes, Catholic) nun when I was 7 years old. I felt then that the highest possible calling for a human being was to devote one’s life to God.
Fortunately, I still believe that’s true, and indeed, I believed that even as a pagan– I just had some confused ideas about divinity. In the beginning they were crude parodies of Calvin’s God, but that’s neither here nor there. My pagan conception was healthier still, being loving, and fertile and loving life, even if such terms were fuzzily defined. The Catholic model of a personal yet transcendent God, friend, King, and Creator of the Universe, is where I call home.