Recently, I ventured to an Easter Vigil mass with a friend of mine. It was held by the Episcopalian Church in a small town, and one of the priests leading the service is actually a Celtic Christian who has been invited to use the church for his services whenever he might need. During and after this service, I had a number of reflections about the role community in religion and spirituality. My friend was also a friend of the Celtic Christian priest, and the three of us (along with the Father’s partner) ate dinner together. It was a small community of our own, temporary but sure. And it was at this dinner that I learned how some of the Christian communities within this small town faced similar challenges as the pagan community back home and the pagan community where I am. I suppose this post is my reflection on my own perceptions of a lack of “real life” community, and how I think these sorts of real-life relationships and practice can add to a practice (which is not to say that they are necessary for practice at all, only that they can have perks).
The Episcopalians in this town were few, and those with any interest or identification with my Celtic Christian friend’s denomination were even fewer. And yet, standing in a church that couldn’t have been larger than about 12 X 25, I realized how powerful group belief and practice can be. While the East Vigil is focuses on the Resurrection of Christ, it also focuses on the reintroduction of two very important symbols into the church building: water and light. During Lent, the water is taken from the church (for example, at the entrances, where people generally make the sign of the cross in Catholicism). I’m not entirely sure where the water is taken from at the Episcopalian church (as I’ve forgotten), but I believe they drain the baptismal fount (but I could certainly be wrong). The Pascal candle is also taken away, a symbol of light. On this day, the light and water return. There were many passages read that allude to these symbols – to light and water.
While it is a stretch to say one could easily use this as a template for Neopagan or Kemetic services at this time of year, there are some parallels to the use of these symbols and my own practice: At the Spring Equinox, the light overtakes the dark. I associate light with Heru, Ra, and Aset. Water, for me, is a symbol of rebirth and life, ushering in the green of the world (with the help of the sun). Aset, in my practice, brings life-giving rain. I see Wesir in rivers and lakes. Water and light are strong symbols to me. While these services were neither Kemetic nor Neopagan, the use of these symbols made me feel connected to those around me. Further, the use of these symbols to create a space and mark the passage of time was especially powerful. It was ritual at its finest – each symbol had many layers of meaning, and all the participants were transported to a space of reverence and celebration.
We began the service outside, near a bonfire. We lit the Pashal candle from this bonfire, then proceeded in the church. Within the church was a pall of darkness. Only the flicker of the Pashal candle shone in the little church. From it, every member of the congregation lit another candle, and the warm light lit our faces but little else. When the moment came in the service to signal the resurrection of Christ, the lights came on, revealing the Easter lilies in the windows and the smiles on each others’ faces. It was a powerful use of symbol, even for someone who was not a part of the tradition. But I think what makes it powerful was that this experience is shared.
Before I continue, I feel its important to state that I do NOT think one can’t have a legitimate spiritual practice as a solitary practitioner. However, I do think there is something to be considered about a group experience. There is something that amplifies the space we create when we share the experience with others when done right (in my experience).
Gathered around the bonfire or exchanging “Peace” within the church, I was made aware of the ritual space that shared belief and practice can create. There was a moment when the children would open the doors to go outside in the middle of the service, and for a moment the outside world peered into our affairs: the music from next door, the pedestrians in the street, a woman waiting in a Jeep at the intersection. It felt as if we weren’t apart of that understanding of the world – rushing to supper or home or a party. Instead, we were a part of a different interpretation of that same world, celebrating its underlying structure. But the passersby didn’t seem particularly interested; they either didn’t notice or simply moved along. Interestingly, we acted the same…the interruption was hardly noticed and not at all legitimized. The priest continued with his reading, everyone remained with heads bowed. It’s as if a boundary had been made by our songs and focus, and when the outside world was let in, it was hardly a distraction. With so many people focused on the same idea or purpose, it was easier to keep that feeling of, “Something special is going on, right now.” When the wooden door closed softly, muffling the music and traffic, it was all the easier to attend, once more, to the things in the church, if one’s attention ever even left it.
I do not get this feeling of “boundary” when I practice on my own, at least not very often. For one thing, if the outside world interrupts what I am doing, my first reaction is to safeguard my privacy. I’m still very closeted, and the last thing I want is for my upstairs neighbor to over hear my prayers or for the land lady to look curiously at my shrine or statues or whatever and ask questions I don’t want to answer. I’ve experienced this at public, group rituals as well. If we are at someone’s house and a new car pulls up in the driveway and we can see it, everyone cranes their necks to see who it is, if they are a friend or an outsider. If we are in an isolated park, though we know its public, there are still some of us (myself included), who feel the onlookers’ gaze and allow it to interrupt our affairs. They notice, and at least some of us notice. The boundary is weaker. I’m sure the fear of being discovered adds to this weakness, and overcoming this fear is still a lesson I’m learning.
Another is that, through these group experiences, I think, our experiences are validated, in a sense…well, I don’t know if validated is the right word. It provides a sense of belonging and a sense of shared reality. It’s one thing to feel and do on your own…it’s another (and sometimes more powerful thing to share this with others) And, I think, the boundary is stronger when its shared…its no longer my focus alone that makes this time and space special, its a shared focus, which is harder to break or penetrate. From practicing together, we can create traditions together, which can be passed from one generation to the next or from one family to the next. Sure, I’ve had great things happen on my own, and there are certainly times when only solitude can gift you certain experiences…but the same can be said for community.
I think this idea can be seen in Pagan meet-ups, public (or web-based) rituals, and pagan festivals – we are widely dispersed and often differ in our labels, opinions, and practice, but even still we find ways to come together and partake of a community. We are social creatures, after all. And we seek, I think, to build these palpable boundaries, shared experiences, and communal realities in safe and accepting places.
So this space that’s created…I don’t think it’s just during the rituals or services we do as groups. I think there is also a space created within the group that continues outside of formal ritual. Groups have informal social rituals (for example, Suzy and Arianna always text each other on Friday night) and traditions, either formal or informal. I’ve written about traditions once before, but this seems like another appropriate time to bring it up – I think traditions can be more easily cemented when they are shared with others. There’s something about celebrating with others externally that makes it seem even more concrete. Having others share in the same actions and profess the same commitments or joy makes it feel “real”. While we should never strive for the approval of others and while it is as real as you allow it to be, religion is socially constructed, and so it helps to construct with others. Even those of us who practice a solitary path, we are connected through others and we are practicing with others…via the internet where we share ideas, disagree or agree, and co-create an amalgamation of religions.
But the type of traditions we see in other churches are hard to recreate in the pagan community. We are more orthopraxic while they are orthodoxic. They gather regularly and have a long line of (often) bureaucratic records of their traditions. Some in the pagan community who belong to real life groups do have regular meetings and a long line of well-recorded traditions…but some of us do not. Some of us build our traditions slowly, over time. Some of us practice those celebrations alone. And while we can discuss it online with others, discussing together is not the same as doing together. What’s more is that without time and experience and the help of others, the layering of symbols (which I find, personally, to make ritual all the more rich) can be harder. At least, it has proven to be harder for me. For example, water can mean many different things in any one tradition. It can be tied to many different experiences and stories. However, the more time that passes, the more experiences and resources we can tie back to that symbol. The more people there are to connect to that symbol, the more richness they can provide to the traditions and rituals using it. A single person can certainly reach that level of symbolic depth…but I do think it will take more time and practice usually (two heads are better than one, sometimes).