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!”

20 Comments

  1. Hennie April 3, 2018 at 1:17 pm - Reply

    Actually there seems to be a whole range of ‘sacred ‘ writings for many different peoples and paths. But none claims to be the final answer to all your problems. And even the solitary practitioners like me have need of experiencing all things magical and more. When I go out to greet the Full Moon, I don’t take it from a book what I should be aware of.
    ‘Making it up as we go’ has been said, but it is so much more, changing with the world.

  2. Yvonne McDermott April 3, 2018 at 1:33 pm - Reply

    Beautifully said Damh – so off into the woods I go!

  3. Sheila April 3, 2018 at 2:42 pm - Reply

    I do like how you cook! Inspiring and so very true! So, through my kitchen door, is the woods as well, funny how that just is.
    Have a splendid day, you have certainly given me one!

  4. Mel April 3, 2018 at 2:45 pm - Reply

    Yes! Thank you for writing about this. I did have a few moments of missing the “restaurant” when I first set out on a Pagan path (I was raised evangelical Christian), as without that framework, the world almost seemed *too* wide, if that makes sense. You couldn’t pry me out of the kitchen now!

    There is a certain comfort in having it laid out for you, definitely, but I think those systems run the risk of robbing a person of their spiritual agency. My ethics and lifestyle have been defined not according to what my *ancestors* felt was right, but according to my own experiences and what I truly believe to be wholesome and beneficial to myself and to the wider world around me. My path reflects my experiences and the values I have chosen to center my life around.

    I find fulfillment in this journey because it is uniquely mine; I don’t have to try to cram myself into someone else’s spiritual shoes (ergo there is none of the discomfort of, “I know I’m supposed to believe or do X but it doesn’t work for me/feel right”). I belong. And as I grow and change, my path has the flexibility to evolve accordingly — a limitation of beliefs that *are* written and handed down is that they tend toward stagnation. I don’t believe that we are ever at a point where we cannot learn and grow further.

    (You also raise a very good point that we — myself included — so often neglect our spiritual health when other things get crappy or hectic, when it’s at those very times we ought to take special care of these parts of ourselves!)

    • Cathie Rayes April 3, 2018 at 5:20 pm - Reply

      Thank you for sharing your views and articulating mine in the process! I couldn’t have said it any better.

  5. Sheryl Yearwood April 3, 2018 at 2:46 pm - Reply

    Very eloquently said. I shall be more active in the nature of our. I believe it has been calling on me, to turn up.

  6. Sonia Smith April 3, 2018 at 3:47 pm - Reply

    So true. Who needs dogma? Our faith, whatever that we choose it to be, comes from within. It is individual to us.

    Greet the dawn, kiss the moon. Speak to the stars. Drink the healing balm of Nature into your soul. Be in love with everyone and everything. Live. Nature teaches us that everything is so Alive. We need to be so too. And sometimes we go to sleep in the humdrum of life and forget the magic and beauty.

  7. John Davis April 3, 2018 at 4:28 pm - Reply

    It used to be said in photo-journalism: “f8, 1/50 sec and be there”. The last two words are the key…be there. You can get all the settings right but you still need to turn up. It’s equally true of a spiritual path….John /|\

  8. Corrie Raven April 3, 2018 at 6:05 pm - Reply

    Sometimes it’s nice to have the written words to read or search for certain answers. But when we seek out natures story, we are always amazed with the glories of creation. Mystified by its beauty and like words which stay the same in a book, we find natures words and beauty change from day to day. Season to season. Books are always someone else’s thoughts where a walk in nature, you write your own story…/|\

  9. Geoff Newman April 3, 2018 at 6:37 pm - Reply

    I agree, but perhaps only up to a point. Of course telling people what to believe is not who we are, but, I think, it would be nice to know more details of what their beliefs were, if only for the historical interest. Not a religious text, as such, in the way the bible or quran are, but a collection of their stories, prayers, rituals, societies, spells and so on…just to get more insight into how they thought, felt and lived.

  10. Linda April 3, 2018 at 7:06 pm - Reply

    Absolutely Damh! Another thing that can help in ‘dry’ times is if we have our own book to look back on – call it Journal, Book of Shadows, Scrapbook, whatever – where we have noted down our experiences, favourite quotes, prayers, poems etc, maybe the odd sketch. I’ve just started a playlist of music too that inspires me or reminds me of experiences, or deity.
    To be honest, even when I was a christian and going through times of doubt or spiritual exhaustion, it was my own record of faith rather than somebody elses that kept me going. And it was my own experiences that changed my beliefs and eventually, my path. Blessings /l\

  11. Boardman Rebecca April 3, 2018 at 7:17 pm - Reply

    Probably my favorite thing that you have written so far- and I can even hear you in my mind saying it. Nature, the beauty of it, even the scariness of it, says “I am that I am (sound familiar?)” and it is we who choose to take part in or separate ourselves from her. The hawk, the dawn, the clouds, they are all there. It is we who choose to be missing, or partake.

  12. Willow April 3, 2018 at 8:00 pm - Reply

    Thanks for this. I need it now more than ever. I recently moved cross country, disconnecting me with all my sacred places, and Pagan friends. Add to that the fact that I have fibromyalgia and some days do not feel like getting out of bed, much less exploring my new home, I have really felt disconnected lately. But, Spring is here….And tho I now live in a city, there are some wild places close by I want to explore.

  13. Ann beer April 4, 2018 at 2:34 am - Reply

    Thank you for this wonderful post. I have been struggling to stay on the Spirit Path this winter; yesterday I finally made the effort to walk down to the Lake near where I live (in Canada) and immediately a huge flight of snow geese flew overhead, their white wings shining in the morning sun. It was a Springtime awakening and an incredible blessing. Just as you said, it was just a question of being there. The energy of the land was present all along. Thank you!!

  14. Anne April 4, 2018 at 11:05 am - Reply

    I completely agree that it is experience that is important. When I’ve felt that I may be losing my way I do two things; firstly I meditate and ask for help to calm my thoughts; secondly I go for a walk along a woodland path, breathing in the healing air and the scents of the plants and trees around me. This is, for me, the only way to refresh my soul, and sometimes I sense my spirit animal, a Grey Wolf, walking beside me and giving me strength and comfort.
    Yes I read books too about our Pagan heritage and the rites and myths, but they are there for us to learn about the past and to perhaps encourage us on our paths. Different books by different authors enrich my knowledge of Pagan ways, but it is experiences that helps me through difficult times. Thanks for this chance to share my views and for a great article.
    Blessings

  15. Morgaine April 5, 2018 at 12:05 pm - Reply

    Damh, you have inspired me so much with your music, and now your words are filling my soul as well. You are truly a Bard in the absolute best sense of the word.

  16. Brigit April 8, 2018 at 7:27 pm - Reply

    Yes indeed, it is through our Own spiritual experiences, that may confirm Truth for each of us. Intellectual Dogma may be interesting reading (& may even provide some type of comfort for some), but if it isn’t “backed up” with with our Own actual experiences, Heart Truths, & Inner Knowledge, it may simply be “marks on a page.”

    Many religious books have been re-translated, with the perspectives of those we may not even trust as “truth experts.” They may have promoted their own agenda, to support their own personal/group dogma & purposes. Also, the Conquerors of cultures, often wrote about those they conquered, with great misunderstanding & ignorance of Who the Conquered ones Really were.

    Connecting with our Own Inner Guides, going back to our Own past lives, & having our Own Spiritual experiences (alone or together with our Spiritual Community), can create powerful anchors & memories to “fall back on,” when we need inspiration/support in the Here & Now.

    Connecting daily with Gaia, & listening to Her Guidance (& the guidance of all our Inner Teachers), & communing with Nature (even if only through a plant), may keep us “on track.” Bright Blessings… /|\

  17. Robin Ashe April 9, 2018 at 6:44 am - Reply

    I needed to read this. I’m in a dark night of the soul time right now, questioning if my beliefs are the source of my problems and neglecting my practice. I kept having the vague thought that abandoning my path would be the exact wrong thing to do. I just needed to hear it the way you expressed it.

  18. Angela Samson April 11, 2018 at 10:41 am - Reply

    Thank you so much for this Damh, I have felt disconnected for quite some time and this article has made me realize I need to make the effort to reconnect and as you said……….They are all there waiting.

  19. Paul April 27, 2018 at 9:59 am - Reply

    Absolutely loved this. Just what i needed today (isn’t it weird how that so often happens…or maybe not?).
    Going to re-read it now and then have a walk and a think.
    Thank you.

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