One of my favorite Reclaiming traditions is Waters of the World, the practice of collecting small containers of water for ritual use from the oceans, rivers, lakes, creeks, and springs that we visit. A bowl filled with Waters of the World makes a great centerpiece in rituals related to healing of self, community, or earth, divination rituals, or simply as an offering to spirits of the land. During a family visit to Northwestern Montana last week, I collected a small container of water from Harpers Lake to add to our Waters of the World pitcher at home.
For collecting water, any empty, clean, water-tight container will do, but I’ve found the 1-2 oz travel bottles, like those sold at sports and outdoor stores, are ideal. For storage at home, I like a glass container with a plastic lid. Although I would not drink this water, I like knowing that plastic isn’t leaching into it, and metal lids tend to rust. Our pitcher currently contains water from Bull Creek, Sieders Springs, Lake Austin, and Deep Eddy, here in Austin, from the Gulf of Mexico, from our kitchen tap, and now from Harpers Lake, MT.
A Waters of the World practice depends for its meaning on the underlying principles of respect, reciprocity, and sympathy. I try to understand something about where the waters I collect come from, and where they are going. Harpers Lake is a small pothole lake, part of a chain of lakes along the Clearwater River, which drains into the Blackfoot River, which in turn drains into the Clark Fork branch of the Columbia River. In exchange for a small container of water from Harpers Lake, I picked up cigarette butts, tangled fishing line, and discarded fish hooks from the shoreline.
Mingling the diverse waters that have nourished and refreshed me reminds me that all waters are part of one earthly well flowing through all living things, including my own body. My capillaries and lymphatic vessels flow into veins, which in turn empty into the heart, just as creeks empty into rivers, which in turn flow to the ocean (Roberts 247-248). Just as my health changes with age, activity, and environmental conditions, water may be clean and supportive of life, or it may be polluted and bear disease. My Waters of the World practice reminds me that I’m responsible and empowered to care for the health of my own body and the health of the one well.
Because all water is sacred, Waters of the World may be collected during travel to far-flung places, or they may come from your home tap. The same principles of respect and reciprocity apply. What is the source of the water you drink and wash with at home? Can you trace the path it would have taken to the ocean, if it had not been piped into your home (Starhawk et al. 373)? With which water sources does it connect you directly? Are there human stories and practices involving the local waters? Do all communities in your area have equal access to clean water? How do you care for and protect your local water sources? The power of the practice lies in reflecting on right relationship with water.
Roberts, Rosemary. “Healing my Body, Healing the Land: Healing as Sociopolitical Activism in Reclaiming Witchcraft.” Ethnologies, vol. 33, no.1, 2011, 239-256, http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.838.3339&rep=rep1&type=pdf.
Starhawk, Diane Baker, and Anne Hill. Circle Round: Raising Children in Goddess Traditions, Bantam Books, 1998.
John Halstead recently called for a Pagan prophet, someone who could unite naturalists and supernaturalists, someone to “come along to lead modern Pagans out of the wilderness of superstition and self-absorption.” John’s role, as he states, is the role of the critic, not the prophet, but he suggests a list of other Pagan writers who might serve. I think John’s list shows that Paganism already has prophets of various types; a shortage of inspired guides is not the source of our movement’s troubles.
What we need is a shared telos, or common purpose. Something akin to the Ancient Greeks’ eudaemonia, or Christianity’s redemption. What would that be for modern Paganism? Empowerment comes first to mind. As do embodiment, and a kind of natural harmony or right relationship with the more-than-human world.
With a shared goal, we could hold different philosophical commitments and still respect each other. We could create common symbols and rituals that support our striving for more developed states. And together we could celebrate our steps along the way.
I submit to awe of Earth, Sun, Moon, Storm, Sea, Wind, Stone, Fire, Rain, and Forest.
I practice the old magics of hospitality, reciprocity, story, and sympathy.
I choose to belong to myself.
I frame my choices around the ethics of care and connection.
I have many allies, ancestors, and descendants on the path. I am never alone.
I take as wild, holy scripture anything that compels me to laugh, cry, sing, or dance. I take poetry for scripture, as well as the cardboard sign carried by a drawn, sunburned man who regularly stands at the corner of Braker and 183. “This could be you,” his sign says.
I assert that spellwork is simply a particular kind of prayer, which is itself one of the most enduring and effective techniques for human transformation.
I believe that just as prayers are made by people, prayers are usually answered by people.
I have faith that life loves the liver.
I create art, and art recreates me.
I am a divine human animal.
I am brave enough to serve my shadow selves tea.
My only real home is the ground beneath my feet, which is at once constant and changing.
A few months ago, I wrote about outgrowing atheism, an admission which frankly made me uneasy. I’ve intentionally avoided the word “belief” in recent years, preferring to center my spiritual identity around practice. After all, as Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh says, “My actions are my only true belongings.” Furthermore I’m a naturalist and an evidentialist to my core. I don’t believe there exist worlds and beings outside of Nature, because I don’t have any reliable evidence for them.
And yet. Spiritual practice has opened me to spiritual experiences that I can’t fully interpret, without reference to stories, values, goals, and yes, even faith, for which there is no scientific evidence. So while what I actually do in this one real, precious world, or “walking the talk,” will always be the heart of my spirituality, allowing some beliefs for which I have no factual basis, for which there can be no factual basis, enriches my life. Moreover, I’m increasingly finding that I can no longer clearly separate my spiritual practices from my beliefs, if ever I was able to do so; they inform and shape each other in an endless loop. In this post I want to record and explore some of my current spiritual beliefs, with the understanding that, when things are going well, beliefs change in response to experience and further reflection.
First, I believe in mystery. I believe that the world as it is, the universe, is so vast and so complex that it is beyond human physiology to understand it completely. This is not to say that the universe is not understandable, or that any and every idea we have about it is true, only that it is beyond the limited perspective of a human mind to understand. In order to even approach an understanding of the world as it is, we humans need multiple investigative tools, such as art, reason, and science, and the multiple kinds of knowledge that result from their applications: aesthetic, logical, ethical, empirical. In other words, human knowledge, the meaning we construct from our experiences, is inherently contextual and limited. No single person or tradition has an exclusive angle on absolute truth.
Second, because I’m happier and more engaged with the world for believing so, I believe that the World As It Is, the Reality of Which We Are All a Part, the Whole Cosmos, is God Hirself. In Reclaiming Witchcraft we call this being the Star Goddess, or the Starry Mother, “in whom we live, move, and have our being.” In the Modern Minoan pantheon She is currently called Ourania. I tend not to anthropomorphize this Great Cosmic Mother, for she is more of a somewhere/everywhere than a someone, but instead think of Hir as the Web of All Being.
The Star Goddess is neither personal nor transcendent. She is Nature, the World, the Universe, the immanent, underlying unity that pervades and draws together into one big whole all of existence. Since She connects all, whatever love and respect I hold for the Star Goddess must naturally extend to the beings with whom I share Hir. Believing in a divine Web of Being that connects everything “makes the whole world kin,” as Ulysses says to Achilles, in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.
I associate with the Star Goddess webs, spirals, the starry sky, winds, birds, roses, tea, breath work, the Big Bang, music, dancing, singing, and silence. In trance I have encountered Hir as a great starry vulture, and as a tree unfurling star-shaped blossoms.
I actively choose to believe that the Universe is divine, not because I have any concrete, material evidence for believing so, but because believing that the Universe is divine enriches my life with beauty, peace, and a sense of connection to something larger than myself. The evidence for my Star Goddess is personal, aesthetic, and ethical, not empirical or rational. In other words, my faith is a conscious choice, one I make because it improves my psychological well-being and my relationship with the world, not a factual claim that can be evaluated using the scientific method. Scientific experiments result in data, which can then be analyzed in a number of different ways to check a hypothesis. Scientific experiments can’t tell us how to feel or what to value.
Grooving on my own personal mashup of naturalism, pantheism, and feminist theology, and influenced in no small part by John Halstead’s idea of “a devotional practice with the world at its center,” I’ve been working out a set of devotions to express the faith I’ve outlined here and invite the kinds of experiences that flow from it. For example, on waking up each morning I pray:
Today I entrust myself to the World
And the World entrusts Hirself to me.
May I be present, open, and compassionate.
Because pantheism is an ancient idea, reflected in a variety of religious and mystical traditions, sources of inspiration for devotions abound. For example, on leaving my house for work or other daily activities, I pause at the threshold and say this devotion, based on a Robert Lax poem:
My own little home,
The whole great World.
The whole great World,
And of course I have a devotion for sky/stargazing, which feels too private and powerful to post at this time.
The shape of one’s theology is ultimately a personal choice; there is no evidence, scientific or otherwise, that proves or disproves the existence of gods. Each us must ask and answer for ourselves the meaning of myth and ritual, what the world is really like, and what constitutes a life well-lived. As long as our theological choices do no harm to others, they deserve respect. I don’t expect or care whether anyone else chooses to believe in the Star Goddess unless it’s helpful and meaningful to them. Diverse perspectives make the world interesting and beautiful, and we can live in peace and mutual respect, even if our theologies differ.
I choose to believe in the Star Goddess because doing so brings me joy.
What way of doing theology brings you joy?
Even though there’s no official slot for it on the Pagan Wheel of the Year, Earth Day, which began on April 22, 1970, when millions of people across the U.S. demonstrated for peace and environmental protection, feels like one of the holiest days of my year, right up there with Samhain. To celebrate Earth Day, I like making a shrine together with my kids, going on wildflower walks, fishing trash out of a local creek, and meditating. Like many of you, I tend to spend the day assessing my current relationship with the environment and brainstorming ways I could better love this one, precious planet that supports life as we all know and enjoy it.
Honeybee on horseherb growing in my yard
This year I feel committed to quitting disposable plastic straws and to curbing my use of disposable cups and cutlery. Seriously, there’s no reason why I need to use plastic straws. And I already have reusable cups and even a travel spork that I could more reliably pack. Actually pulling the spork out and using it might be a bit socially awkward, but the best part about getting older is that I care less and less what others think of me, and more and more about living authentically, as I creep closer and closer to 40.
Those who choose to demonstrate, do community service, or make lifestyle changes in honor of Earth Day are certainly in keeping with tradition. Thank you! For picking up trash, for marching, for building compost bins and gardens at your neighborhood schools, for trading in your car for a hybrid or electric, for pledging to fly less and eat less meat, and to carpool and vote more often. Thank you for doing some of the things on the laundry lists of environmentally sustainable “shoulds” that are flooding all of our social media feeds for this week and this week only.
Compost bin made from wooden pallets at my kids’ school
But I want to suggest another way of celebrating our beloved Eairth this April 22, one that’s just as much work and even more radical and uncommon than community activism: take really good care of yourself, because real, lasting change starts at home. I’m not talking about pedicures or expensive chocolate, although I’m a fan of both. However, I am suggesting that the holiest things any of us can do on Earth Day are simply drinking enough water, resting if we need to rest, moving if we need to move, and eating truly nourishing foods. For the love of Her, we need to make our art, hug our people, and pet our fuzzy four-leggeds this week. We need to walk outside and exchange eye contact and smiles with friends and neighbors. We need to breathe slowly and deeply, to journal, and to practice gratitude. This week is the perfect time to take the first decisive steps on the path to wellness, whatever that looks like for you. Because we’re all a part of Eairth Hirself, self-care is Eairth-care.
Walking barefoot along Bull Creek
And if we’re not healthy, neither is She.
A number of recent posts in the Pagan blogosphere, including Lisa Wagoner’s first post in her new Patheos blog Witch, Indeed? and John Halstead’s recent post on why people may have good reason to make fun of Wiccans and witches, have me thinking about the labels that I put around my spiritual practice. I plan to explore the topic in a series of posts, but for today I want to focus on why I identify as witch and when it might be worth it to say so. Why use the W-word at all, when I’m likely to be misunderstood and disrespected for it, even by other members of the NeoPagan community? Continue reading “On Being Witch: How, Why, Where, When, and with Whom?”