Thinking About – Belief and Experience
I was on a panel at the recent Pagan Federation Devon and Cornwall conference and said something that a number of people have mentioned to me since, so I thought maybe a blog article on it would be of value.
Over the years I’ve heard some Pagans lament that our Pagan ancestors, particularly the Druids, didn’t write anything down. That it would be a lot easier if we all just had a book, like the Bible, that told us what to believe. I couldn’t disagree more, and this was the focus of what I said on the panel.
A book like the Bible is useful if, as Philip Carr-Gomm has said over the years, you like to be in the restaurant. You can read through the menu (books) and chose your denomination and off you go. The meal has been made for you. Enjoy it. But most Pagans and Druids I know prefer to be in the kitchen, with all of the ingredients, creating something that exactly suits their taste. Neither is better than the other, it’s all personal choice.
So the pattern is reversed for Pagans. With the ‘revealed’ religions the book contains the belief system. Of course people still argue about the meaning, but it’s there. From reading, listening to, going to church, a person following that path may then have experiences that back up those beliefs. The huge benefit I think is that, if a person has some kind of crisis of faith, comfort can often be found within the pages of the book.
But Pagans don’t have a book. We do have myths, poetry, sacred sites, places of power, folklore, but no one book. So when a person’s feet fall for the first time upon a Pagan path, we might read the myths, or take a walk to an ancient sacred site, we might find out if there is a place nearby that has connections to stories of the Fair Folk. If there is, maybe those first few steps might take us there, to that hill with the three trees, or the old Barrow, or the crossroads in the woods.
We actively seek out experience.
We might join a Coven or a Grove, take part in an open ritual, be led on a path of creative visualisation. All of those things give us experiences, direct connection with the Great Big whatever It Is (They Are). So gradually, and it might take a very long time, those experiences shape the way we view the world – from the prayers we might say, to the food we eat, the choices we make, the way we live our lives. So with the revealed religions the belief leads to experiences, with Pagan paths the experiences can lead to beliefs. Which is why people chose the path they follow, and can indeed change that path if the experiences just don’t feel right anymore.
Now, as I said above one of the strengths with having a book is that there is comfort within those pages. When life takes a turn for the worse, or maybe it just gets so busy we feel a disconnect from our path, where does a Pagan turn? If life is so busy that we stop going to our Grove or Coven (or maybe resent the time it is taking up), or stop taking those walks to our favourite sacred space, it might not be long before we begin to question those beliefs. If we are no longer experiencing the magic, how strong is the faith? Will it see us through, or will we walk away?
It’s ironic that, when things get on top of us, when life gets crazy, the first thing many people drop are the things that are good for them. One, being their spiritual growth. “I haven’t got time to meditate/read/walk/maintain my altar/go to Grove meetings, or Coven meetings, or a Moot” etc etc. So we don’t. Then we wonder why we are feeling even more disconnected. Maybe we even question the validity of our path. Was it all just nonsense? It is when life gets in the way that the experiences of Spirit/the Gods whatever you call it/them are so important. That is the very time to start a daily practice (or restart it, if you stopped). Experiences are the Pagan’s book. It takes more effort to seek them out instead of just reaching for, and reading the contents of pages, but it’s not the experiences that have stopped, they are all still there. We just need to show up, and open up again.
So I get up early, and head off into the countryside. Maybe up that hill to the old Iron Age hill fort. You know, the one where it’s said the Faeries dance on Midsummer Eve. It’s not yet dawn and as I walk the birds begin the dawn chorus. They sound so beautiful, as if they are singing just for me. Staff in hand I walk the last few feet, up the ramparts, and look out across the valley below. The sky is turning from red, to orange and blue. The undersides of the occasional cloud begins to shine out, and then the Sun, in all of his glory, breaks the horizon. I raise my wand high to be blessed by the rising sun and sing the Awen. Below in the valley I see a hawk soaring. The Hawk of Dawn, soaring in the clear, pure air. A moment of bliss, of magic, of wonder, of connection.
Some might say that all happened because of my presence, but that sounds a little self-important to me. The truth is that these magical moments happen all the time. The difference today was I got up to be there, I made the effort to witness and experience it.
I turned up.
It was actually the other way around. It was the countryside, the Sun, the clouds, the hawk saying to me, “Ah! There you are! We’ve been here for ages!”