Putting the Finger on Modern Paganism

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I spent a fortnight in England this summer. Staying in an excellent Orthodox monastery (St. John the Baptist in Essex) and touring the country for another week. The greatest part of the week, I believe, will prove to be the fact that I was roommate for 14 days with my 19 year-old son, James. He’s good company and very down-to-earth in his assessments of things. Solid man – the type you’d want in a foxhole with you. The most fun moment probably came at Stonehenge. We enjoyed the monument, even when it was attacked by a giant finger! It’s an incredible piece of prehistoric work, whatever it was used for. Shortly after we arrived (in the week following summer solstice, mind you), busloads of badly dressed pilgrims showed up for druid stuff. I say, “badly dressed,” not because it was poorly sewn and what-not, but because everyone seemed to think that something period-based was necessary. Now, mind you, I was standing there in standard issue Russian Orthodox cassock, so I can’t complain about looking a bit different. But things suddenly looked like historical reenactment events – only, organized by highschoolers. They drifted away to a neighboring field and carried on whatever religious rites they have contrived.

The great tragedy is that they are drawn to this mysterious place for something (they know not what) and nothing has challenged them beyond the ordinary other than this silly dress up druidism. Not the Church – nothing else. Something has got to be better than a do-it-yourself religion (no one knows more than a paragraph or two about genuine druid thought). Here I ached for the children of Britain (and America). Their experience is emptied by our vacuous culture. They’re willing to buy literally just anything. And the greatest story ever told has become somehow so tame that it cannot capture their imagination. How sad. How deeply sad for us all.

The deepest longings of Paganism, strangely enough, are fulfilled in the fullness of the Christian faith. Everything man wants and desires (truly) is to be found in this fullness. I did not preach at Stonehenge, though I wanted to. St. Paul is  braver than me and would not have avoided such an opportunity. God help us and make us more like St. Paul.

14 comments:

  1. Of course, you have plenty of neo-paganism to deal with in East Tennessee, just not a focal point such as Stonehenge.

    Happy to see if you’ve got your own blog, Father. May I suggest that, if possible, you add the dreaded “math question” spam blocker?

  2. Most of our neo-paganism in Tennessee is carried out on certain Saturday’s in the Fall. They’re wrestling with the neo-pagans from Alabama as I type this note.

    I’ll look into the math question. Good suggestion.

  3. You reminded me of a trip my wife and I made last year, only we visited Stonehenge on the first day, and spent our last weekend at St John the Baptist Monastery.

    And yes, I think what you say about neopaganism is right on. I think it is probably the Orthjodox Christian faith that is what many are searching for, but we have somehow managed to hide it from them.

    I wrote something on it, Christianity, paganism and literature — would be interested in your comments, if you have time.

  4. Father,
    I often come back to the words I read from you right here regarding (the discernible external testament of) “specialist religious clothing” (that Islam has yet -unless one is a monastic or a priest- we haven’t).
    A famed Eldress in Greece – Mother Gabriella – once said that upon putting on the habit, she found she could stop speaking to others about God as much, she just needed to try and be joyous, loving, holy, radiant and the clothes did the talking/directing. Of course, this could work the other way too… 🙂

  5. It’s interesting that this came up on the recent comments bar. I appreciate this essay, particularly the words, “do it yourself” religion. As a kid I was brought up in a contemporary version of Seminole culture which included what might be called “pagan” practice interlaced with a Seminole version of Christianity. (Seminoles have been exposed to Christianity for about 500 years I think–but I haven’t checked up on this to be sure).

    My Seminole mother was expunged from Protestant “Christianity” where we lived because of prejudice against her race and because of her understanding of Christianity was admittedly quite different from Protestant thinking. I never got over that really. And I’ve been working on this darkness in my heart with prayers. We grew up in particular practices which I carried on in my life, small simple practices of thanksgiving to “Breathmaker”–a Seminole name for God, but I suppose that this might be called “paganism”.

    Several years ago I encountered someone (from European-American heritage) who had not been brought up or lived in a Native American culture, put a “medicine wheel” in their back yard. They spoke of the “spirits” they heard there. They invited me (the token neighborhood Indian–Ha!) to join one of their ‘ceremonies’ which they had created. Need I say I declined? In honesty I was disgusted, but I realize as I write this that this demonstrates my judgmental attitude.

    I appreciate the conversation about contemporary paganism in the U.S. that I hear in this blog from those who are learning Orthodox theological studies. I wish to learn more about this thinking and I suspect it might relate to the Western Culture regarding how the Western Churches have ‘developed’, as well. But I’m admittedly ignorant about this.

    Meanwhile, my family believes that all of Christianity has a negative and derogatory perspective of Native American practices, which they claim that ‘the Christians’ ascribe to Native American practices the label, “paganism”, and that they (Christians) think that such practices should be “wiped off the earth”. My response to my family was that the Native American beliefs might fall into the category of paganism, perhaps, but the Orthodox did not have the imperialistic perspective that is retained to this day in the Western Churches. My family doesn’t believe me.

    When I first discussed my desire to come into the Orthodox faith, my family wanted me to say explicitly to my spiritual father that I had maintained what the western church christians would call “pagan” practices of the Seminoles, with the thinking, I guess, that this might put off my spiritual father. And so I told him everything, and he wasn’t put off. Instead, he expressed that he knew I was coming into Orthodoxy, and learning to live in the Orthodox way, this takes time and not to worry about forcing changes (they were in essence not contrary to Orthodox thinking). Former practices, what little that there were of them, did fall away long before my catechism was finished. And this happened without forcing.

    However, I think it’s interesting that when I hear of “paganism”, I seem to automatically think of western culture rather than Native American practices. I ascribe to western culture’s attempt to appropriate Native American (or other ‘nativistic’ spirituality) as a form of paganism, but not to Native American culture/spirituality, itself. This might be because of my own history and a emotional desire to “protect” it, perhaps, from what can be called ‘imperialistic condemnation’ that I witnessed in my childhood. Sometimes in the conversations among evangelical Orthodox I hear what I might call “old Western Church imperialistic” thinking. One might argue this is just a perceptual problem I have, but the talk about ‘paganism’ a term applied in generality, without specific practices mentioned, does make me nervous.

  6. Very interesting, Dee. Perhaps your family might be interested in the approach of the Orthodox missionaries to Alaska? They very much reflected the Orthodox approach to different cultures and religions.

  7. Yes, I own a book called, “Orthodox Alaska” by Michael Oleska. I really enjoyed it and have talked about it with my family about a year ago. As time goes on, my family’s anxiety has diminished, but initially they wouldn’t read the book and ascribed some of contents of the book that I read and described to them, as a form of assimilation to european culture (a little confusing I guess since the early Orthodox were from Russia). Anyway, I have learned not to push the subject, and slowly the emotional tide seems to turn and ebb away in my family. Glory to God for all things!

  8. Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on us

    Dee,
    Do you know if any of the Church’s prayers or services have been translated into Seminole?

  9. Chris, I know that there was a language project going on about 17-20 years ago. The language was dying out with the elders and I believe they hired people to help keep the language alive. There are two cultural (language) groups that I know of Mikoosukee and Muskogee. I believe parts of the Bible was translated but not sure which of the cultural groups (probably Muskogee the dominant group). I don’t know more than this. The language was tenuously held in the younger (my) generation (I’m now 62). I used to be able count in the language but I’ve long lost that.

  10. Dee, if you can find it, there is a book I read “Dancing God’s”about the dances of the Plains And Southwest Indian tribal dances. It was a step in my journey that helped me see the sacramental reality of creation.

    I am not sure that calling Native American practices pagan is exactly correct. Even if they are there are many good pre-cursors to Christ. I know I have gained immeasurably from my contact with and investigations of Native American faith.

    My mother studied and had annotated some of their dances and taught me the rudiments when I was young. My lovely wife was attending the strangely name United Methodist American Indian Mission church when we met and we were actually married in that Church due to certain canonical impediments to our marriage in the Orthodox Church.

    There was a ceremony for us that the pastor performed after the traditional wedding service that involved an eagle feather and smoke from a cedar-sage bundle burning. He blessed our marriage against any intrusions past or future. Frankly it was quite a bit like Chrismation as the smoke was directed at the same points on our bodies that are announced in Chrismation. It was powerful.

    There is much in Native American faith and practice that fits well with the Orthodox practice. I learned a great deal from my contact with them.

    Are you familiar with the life of Matushka Olga? A Yup’ik in Alaska. Many consider her a saint and there are proto-icons of her available.

    My wife had a friend an Alaska Native who lived with her because his alcoholism and previous head injury made it impossible for him to live on his own. He continued living with us after we married. He was deep in the throes of an alcoholic relapse when I introduced my then fiance to Saint Herman. We prayed for Adam. As soon as he finished Adam called my wife and asked what she was doing. She told him praying to St. Herman of Alaska for him. His only comment-“That explains it”

    From that day to his death he never drank again. It was about three years only because of the prior damage but is was the longest time dry since he had started drinking.

    Rambling but I hope it communicates something.

    If you cannot find the book “Dancing God’s” I would be glad to send you my copy if you would like.

  11. Dee, unfortunately, your family is largely correct. You are also correct that we Orthodox do not do that when we are in our right minds. I can truly say that a big part of my journey to Orthodox was because of Native American faith that I encountered.

    My wife’s too in a much different way.

    May God continue to guide you as He opens their hearts.

  12. Thank you Michael for your reflections and sharing your personal history, I really appreciate your willingness to share this. I’m grateful for the United Methodist Native American Mission that honored you and Merry in your marriage ceremony and union.

    Who is the author of Dancing Gods? I’m going to look for it. I think you are right about the sacramental reality in creation. If this book goes into more of that, I might be able to find a better way to describe/explain to my family how the Orthodox life relates to our history and culture in that way.

    I’m grateful that you bring up Blessed Olga. Fr Stephen and you (and/or Merry) had mentioned her before and I looked up her history. Then I discovered her icon, a diptych with St Herman in my parish book store and bought it, asked for the icons to be blessed and brought them home. With them living at home, their blessed intercessions and a home blessing from our parish priest, it seems there is more light at home. I believe that this slow moving ship (my family’s concerns and a willingness to be open to Orthodoxy) is changing coarse, into smoother waters.

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