This past Sunday, I had the privilege of speaking to the Sugarloaf Congregation of Unitarian Universalists. The video recording and text of my sermon is below. As always, if you have any thoughts to share, I’d be happy to hear from you. Hit me up in the comments.
My name is Irene, and I am one of the rivers that flows between spiritualities. My personal faith can be most easily be described as Paganism. I’m a mystic, and one whose tributaries begin with earth-centered spirituality. I took my first steps onto the winding path of modern Pagan belief a little over 20 years ago. I am also a Unitarian Universalist because although I know my faith path works for me, I believe that your faith path works for you. And one of the things I love the most is what happens when we share the best of our beliefs with each other. My Paganism is flavored with science and psychology, Buddhist teachings, Hindu stories, humanist values, and occasional splashes of Christian ceremony. My Unitarian Universalism is steeped in deep reverence for the Earth, for the natural cycles around us and the teachings of faiths that predate Abrahamic belief, or grew separately from that particular well of story and ceremony.
So I flow. I carry within me many prisms from which to view the world. The waters I navigate are a liminal space, a meeting place for different paths. And from that slightly sideways perspective, sometimes I learn useful things.
We are just past the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. One of my greatest joys right now is my garden. I have had a vegetable garden for many years, but just this past year, I’ve also begun to cultivate flowers. To grow things purely for the sake of their beauty as opposed to the utilitarian purpose of feeding my family. Having this many plant friends at the house means that I spend at least 10 minutes, usually more, out in the garden every day. Although I sometimes grumble about the necessity of watering and weeding, more than anything I’m grateful for that daily contact with the world of sunlight and earth. Contact with that which is born, grows and fruits without any awareness of what’s happening on the internet or in the dumpster fire that is our current political situation.
It’s comforting to touch things that are constant in their cycles: living beings who follow a pattern that is not dictated by modern concerns, but is instead the ancient rhythm of seed to leaf to fruit to harvest to sleep.
One of the most useful perspectives my Pagan faith inspires in me has more to do with approach than belief. Although Pagans do experience time as linear, we also see patterns that repeat. For us, the year is a Wheel that turns endlessly, passing through the seasons only to return to them once more. One of the things many of us try to do is live with the pattern of the Wheel rather than fight it. There’s a wonderful Navajo word: ‘hozro.’ It means to go with the prevailing energy. So, rather than try to make it rain, that culture finds the rhythm and lesson of drought, and lives with it.
Embodying the Wheel of the Year in our own lives is similar. Right now, the Pagan world is in the middle of festival season. We are spiraling out. This is our time of great community. We are connecting with each other, strengthening our bonds and exploring our relationships under the summer sunshine. Like a wild wave of monarch butterflies, we gather together in bright, fluttering masses, periodically descending on some unsuspecting campground to make music, teach each other and join in ceremony together.
As we turn toward late summer and the harvest season, the tone of our gatherings begins to include deep gratitude for the bounty around us. That gratitude is frequently reflected in our personal practices at home as well. We also begin to prepare for autumn and the winter beyond it.
The turning of the leaves from green to gold signals us to begin our own turn. We start the inward spiral. For us, the dark season is a time of rest, healing and study. The spread of the Scandinavian concept of ‘hygge,’ of coziness and snuggling yourself through winter is a lovely thing to see catching on in our greater culture. A lot of the Pagans have been doing it all along. Part of getting through the cold and lack of sunlight is kindling some inner warmth. Many of us choose a Winter Work – a particular path of study that will inform the cold season’s direction. It’s a time for reading, for practice, for meditation. A time for smaller gatherings with close friends in front of a roaring fire. It’s time for rest.
The lengthening days and warming temperatures of early spring call us from the seeds that we have curled into under winter’s blanket. We begin to reach out again, to plan for the coming growing season. We integrate the lessons of our winter work and turn to face the springtime with new seeds to plant – both physical and metaphorical. As we come into connection with each other once more, we also nurture the efforts and energies we are growing in our own lives.
And we find ourselves here once more at Midsummer. By living with the Wheel, we not only integrate ourselves with the natural pattern of the world around us, we also tap into the way of life our ancestors knew: the way we all lived before the advent of artificial light, climate control and strawberries in January.
It’s tempting to fill our late fall and winter schedules with activities and gatherings. But what if, this year, you blocked off some weekends and evenings for rest? What if, this year, you chose something to learn that you’ve always been curious about? How would you feel going into spring if you rested? What could you grow if you let the soil of your life recover during winter?
Living with the turning of the Wheel links us to a greater river of experience as well as deepens our connection to the cycles of the sun. And most of all? Many of us find that it’s ultimately easier to follow ‘hozro’ – to turn with the Wheel rather than against it.
In most Pagan beliefs, our Earth and all the beings on it are enspirited: we believe they bear souls as well as comprehension appropriate to their state. When you approach the natural world as sentient and aware, it changes a good deal of how you treat it. One common practice within Paganism is making offerings. Now, when I say ‘making offerings,’ the image that may come to mind is of pouring out wine or lighting incense or candles. Those are definitely forms of offerings, but at its core, an offering is a gift. And when we give a gift, it’s good to consider what the recipient most needs. An offering can be water when a plant is thirsty. An offering can be cleaning up a stream or section of roadway. An offering can be turning your household scraps into compost rather than landfill. An offering can be improving the soil on the little patch of land you live on through small acts of soil amendment.
And who are we offering to? Sometimes our gods, of course, but not all of us believe in gods. Sometimes we are making offerings to the land itself. Sometimes, our offerings are to the generations after us: to the humans we will never know but who are inextricably linked to the choices we make today. By making some of how we live an offering, we pass light rather than shadow down the line of the human family. We place little floating candles on that river of blood, and know that somehow our gift will find its way.
Choosing to make an offering is an opportunity to bring reverence into our experience of the world. Reverence doesn’t require belief. It requires awareness: that what you are doing matters. That the offering of water or work or simple contemplation is a gift. Reverence is a matter of intention and appreciation. It allows us to feel the sacred stirring of gratitude, love and our place in the tapestry of life: the deep truth that we are all fundamentally connected not only to the plants, animals and birds that we can easily see, but also to the microscopic life dwelling in every handful of earth.
We are Unitarian Universalists. Most of us already work to make our impact on our environment more sustainable. Shifting the prism through which we view those actions can deepen them. What if the next time you picked up some trash along the road, it was a sacred offering? What if planting some native species in your yard became an offering to the land itself, and to the creatures that live on it? Making offerings can be a powerful tool for connecting more deeply to the world around us. I invite you to consider approaching some of your actions for and gifts to the natural world with reverence. It is a beautiful thing to give a gift. It is a beautiful thing to make an offering.
Another thread from the tapestry of earth-centered belief that I find to be incredibly useful is an area of spirituality we call Shadow Work. Shadow Work involves addressing the repressed, hidden or destructive parts of our psychology and working to heal and integrate those places. For many of us, this work includes getting professional help. I have personally benefitted from anger management training and counseling around stress and anxiety. However, we do not stop there. To the Pagan way of thinking, our minds, bodies and spirits are ultimately one being. Although humans love to organize by putting things in boxes, that tends to break down at some point. What happens to our minds affects our bodies. What happens to our bodies affects our spirits.
This personal work of healing and integration takes a spiritual as well as psychological path. For my own part, I wrestle with being judgmental – my sometimes black and white ideas about right and wrong are frequently out of step with the truth of the humanity of the people around me. One of my works for the last decade has been cultivating more compassion. For me, that means that when I walk the labyrinth on a full moon night, I am specifically working to release judgment: I release the need to be right, the need for control. I am releasing the narrative of black and white that sometimes fills my thoughts. In its place, I welcome in softness, love, empathy and community. For me, this work has been effective. Over the past ten years, I have experienced a dramatic change in the way my mind works. Sometimes I still get those snap-judgment reactions to things, but they’re almost immediately replaced by other thoughts, and those new thoughts are grounded in empathy and understanding.
Shadow Work means that when we discover an emotional reaction that is out of proportion to the situation or stimulus, we take a closer look. It means that if we come from a background of trauma, we spend the time and energy to become stronger and more whole in those broken places. Frequently, Shadow Work teaches us to find meaning and empowerment in the darkness. We do not generally follow the trope of believing that bad things are meant to happen for some nebulous greater good. We do believe that we can learn from pain and that we can find and cultivate meaning in our own shadows.
Sometimes Shadow Work includes following a spiritual path or particular deity who resonates with our wounds. There’s a world of beautiful mythology out there, full of Gods and Spirits that take many different forms. Wounded warriors sometimes find their way to Tyr, the Heathen god associated with justice who was a warrior but lost his hand and arm to the wolf Fenris. Pagans who suffer chronic pain sometimes find their way to Vulcan, the sacred smith who lives with constant pain from his injuries yet creates incredible beauty with his hands. Pagans who are the victims of sexual assault sometimes find their way to Medusa, a rape victim who was made powerful despite the atrocity committed against her.
For us, becoming whole is more important than becoming light. From an outside observer’s perspective, it seems like the dominant belief systems in our country encourage us to repress and hide our wounded places. What if, instead, we worked on them? What if part of spirituality was exploring the areas of our psyche that frighten us? What if we listened when people told us that something we did or said was hurtful, and then looked at motivating factors? What if, along with all of this, we used the incredible tools available to us now in terms of mindfulness, therapy and support mechanisms? Making wholeness and trauma work part of our spiritual path leads to a richer spiritual experience. Light is good. But wholeness is where the real power lies.
I’ll leave you with one last piece from the shining hoard of earth-centered goodies I carry around inside my head. One of the ways we frequently describe Paganism to others is as a celebratory religion. On a practical level, this means we come together regularly to celebrate and honor the good things. Most of our holidays mark harvests or growing light and warmth. We also come together to mark Rites of Passage – points in a human life that only occur once: birth, of course, but also transitioning from teenager to adult. We have sacred celebrations around becoming a parent, or choosing to live as a family with romantic partner or partners. We celebrate the growing of wisdom as we age with ceremonies that mark the transition to Elder. We gather together regularly to hold high the good things that occur every year, and the good things that occur less frequently as well.
One of the things I find myself saying a lot is ‘that which is fed increases.’ Community increases by gathering in community. Hope increases by speaking of hope. Love and connection increase in the face of love and connection. Spirituality increases by engaging in spirituality. It’s important to come together to mark challenge and sorrow, to share grief and pain. But these gatherings should not be the only time we come together in person to mark a particular moment in time. What if you celebrated a successful garden this year? What if, the next time you get a promotion or have a big, exciting life change, you throw a gathering? What if coming together as a community to mark the simple joy of the changing season was reason enough to connect in person? This is what celebratory means.
One of my running jokes is that I am one of the tallest, least-hairy Hobbits you will ever meet. So I will close today with words from J.R.R. Tolkein: “[W]here our hearts truly lie is in peace and quiet, and good tilled earth. For all Hobbits share a love of things that grow…[and} it is no bad thing celebrating a simple life.” Thank you.