Christian Neopaganism for Dummies
It was on this day in the Year of Our Lord One-Thousand Nine-Hundred and Ninety-Two that my very pregnant wife (she was four months along, but looked ten) and I attended a “Summer Greeting Rite” at the invitation of a friend, a millionaire composer and esotericist (I almost wrote “esoterrorist”) and his wife, a professor of psychology. The Rite, I was told, was brought to Canada by British expatriates who still practiced “the Old Religion” (meaning some sort of pre-Christian folk religion) and who wanted to preserve the Rite by releasing it to outsiders. It was kind of a Mummers Play thing, and I was chosen to play a character along the lines of Jack o’ Green or the Fool (no laughing!), more or less the emcee and director of festivities. I don’t recall all of the characters in the play/rite, but I do recall the Lord and Lady of Summer (our hosts). The Rite was followed by feasting, music, drinking, and finally by a game of hide-and-seek wherein the men were to try and catch the Lady and the women the Lord. Whoever caught their targets first were then to reign as Lord and Lady the following year. As it turned out, I caught the Lady and my wife—who was not really participating due to the enormity of her size—almost “accidentally” caught the Lord. As it also turned out, I subsequently had a falling out with my friend and my wife and I were not invited back the following year. So I guess, according to the august and venerable regula of the Rite, we must still be Lord and Lady. Huzzah!
The Rite had a very PG-13 Wicker Man vibe to it (without the human sacrifice, of course) and, while I have my doubts about whether it was some ancient relic of English folk religion or wonder if it was instead a modern imaginative reconstruction of what one might have looked like (there are boatloads of historical research from which to draw, Sir James Frazer’s exhaustive The Golden Bough, though certainly superseded in the interim, effectively provided a vocabulary for the genre), it certainly was a great deal of fun.
Of course, such elements of folk religion need not be understood as antedating the arrival of Christianity in Western Europe (or anywhere else, for that matter). In fact, they were to a profound degree intertwined (Ronald Hutton’s The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400 – 1700 is a classic text on the subject). Indeed, the English poet and Anglican priest Robert Herrick’s Hesperides & Noble Numbers (1648) fairly serves as an instruction manual for mixing Christian (particularly Catholic) along with pagan (as in Roman) and folk religious modes. It’s a chaotic mix, but, like life itself, what a glorious chaos it is. (I write about Herrick in the chapter entitled “Robert Herrick, Little Gidding, and Spectres of an Old Religion” in my book The Incarnation of the Poetic Word). Herrick, who was kicked out from his living as a pastor in Devon when the killjoy Puritans came to power, well knew the value of what we would now call the neopagan elements of rural English Christianity in the seventeenth century, as he writes in his famous poem, “Corinna’s Going a-Maying”:
Rise; and put on your Foliage, and be seene
To come forth, like the Spring-time, fresh and greene;
And sweet as Flora. Take no care
For Jewels for your Gowne, or Haire:
Feare not; the leaves will strew
Gemms in abundance upon you.
Every year at our farm (Stella Matutina), my wife and I host a May Festival (as well as a Michaelmas Festival in September) and for a couple of sessions prior to the event I teach the children who will be in attendance a brace of Maypole dances. At one practice, a couple of the girls, sisters who were usually very enthusiastic, became standoffish. I later discovered that when they told someone at their parish what they would be doing that afternoon (they attend a traditionalist church) they were upbraided by Saint Holyroller for participating in paganism and devil worship. The warmth. Of course, this was exactly the charge laid on Catholics maintaining folk religious customs in early modern England by the Puritan religious police. Alas for reincarnated partypoopers, even if they wear mantillas.
I’ve known many neopagans over the years. Perhaps my favorite was a woman (and her long deceased husband) who hired me as her gardener right about the time my wife became pregnant with our first. Seeing all the tricks I had for helping plants thrive (nettle teas, a deft hand at encouraging recurrent bloom in roses, a gift for pruning trees that borders on mysticism, etc.)—even though she knew I was a practicing Byzantine Catholic, one day she told me, “Michael, you’re more pagan than anyone I’ve ever met.” I hold it as a great compliment.
So, let’s just say I get highly annoyed when any of my religious confreres talk smack about “pagans” or use “pagan” as a pejorative. Neopagans, as far as I’m concerned, are trying to recapture what Christianity, to its shame, has lost: a connection not only to a community and to divinity, but a connection to the cosmos. And by “cosmos” I don’t only mean the stars and the planets, I also mean clouds and soil, birds and animals, rivers and meadows. As I write in The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics, “Tragically, Wiccans and Neopagans, sensing the loss of something sacred in a cultural milieu surreptitiously poisoned by Enlightenment values, have appropriated for themselves a host of (previously) Christian customs, stripping them of their Christian elements in the process. One can hardly blame them.”1
One of the central insights of Sophiology is that the spiritual and created orders are not so distant as we may have been led to believe. Folk customs, like those mentioned here, tend to acknowledge their coinciding. Christianity, alas, has become more an intellectual or political position-taking or identity than a lived experience. We have replaced life with explanations (... “if you don’t believe in Purgatory yet, just wait until you’ve run through ten weeks of RCIA.”)
It does not need to be this way. I find comfort in the ancient story in Plutarch that, at the moment of the Crucifixion of Christ, a sailor named Thamus heard a voice coming across the sea, crying “Great Pan is dead!”2 Some, like Eusebius, interpreted this as referring to Satan and his power being broken (look around—do you buy this?) but others interpreted it as an evocation of Christ, the God of All (“pan” meaning “all” in Greek).
So, if I’ve learned one thing from Sophiology, it may be that it is nearly impossible to be a good Christian without also being a good pagan, that is, a person connected to the cosmos as well as to community and divinity. Anything else, it seems to me, is simply pathology.
But at my house, we don’t celebrate the Solstice. Our celebration takes place on St John’s Day, the moment the strength of the sun begins to wane; or, in the language of the gospel, when “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
I hope that your joy will be complete.
Everyone’s favorite British neopagan folk-rock band.
Michael's latest book is Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses, including courses on Sophiology and Valentin Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot.
1 Page 171.
2 De Oraculorum Defectu, 419b-d