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I’ve always had a Romantic view of Paganism. Wise Druids, bearded and robed, wandering lonely footpaths, sharing wisdom and insight with reckless young warriors and chaste maidens pretty much rings my bell. Lifetimes dedicated to the acquisition of knowledge bound to the Earth and the changing seasons; ceremony and ritual and the ancient oak. And witches, wild and mysterious; meeting at midnight and bathing in moonlight, their sweet incense burning from bitter herbs, sanctifying the circle and purifying the offering of devotion to the Goddess. Spells cast in darkness bringing love to an unknowing world. And Odin’s hoard sailing in from the North, scary and unpredictable but compelling in their savagery. God’s placated through violence and conquest. Pirates and sea-wolves sharing moments of tenderness with their wives and children. And Nature alive, beneficent in Spring, rolling through the glory of Summer, the burnt orange of Fall and the crisp, cold, silent Winter; a reminder to us all of our own journey and our own journey’s end. There’s justice as well in this world; and mercy tempered by a simple law… harm no-one, a commandment easier said than done but offered with the acknowledgment of the following in the attempt as much as in the outcome. Life validated not by achievement but by the striving after it; the search for the City of Gold, not the finding it.
But Romance isn’t memory, imagination isn’t truth and I don’t live in Camelot… I live far, far to the east.
23:00hrs on a Friday night. Jack and Lylia stumble from the Rose and Crown. Her mind numbed by vodka and his fuelled by cannabis and lager, he is focused upon immediate pleasure. He holds Lylia’s hand and walks up a side alley to the back of the pub. Pushing her against a wall he limits foreplay to the half-perceived necessity of a mumbled “Come on” and pulls her skirt above her thighs. Grasping at her waist he forces himself into her. Aged sixteen, it’s her first time.
At the entrance to the alley two brothers and Lylia’s best friend, Jenn, stand and wait, not knowing if the muffled groans they can hear Lylia making bespeak ecstasy or regret. Minutes later Jack emerges out of the darkness. “Fucked her,” he says as he pushes past them and walks away into the night. They wait for Lylia to join them. Hunched against the chill the older brother puts his arm around Jenn, feigning comfort while wondering if she might be receptive to a similar fate. Tears well in Jenn’s eyes as she thinks back to a time when another young man held her in his arms and offered nothing but unconditional love. Unwillingly, her mind forces her back to recall the night she had rejected James and her head bows in recognition of the path she should have taken and the question she never answers, “What have I done?” Lylia steps out from the alley, “We’d better go,” she says “Mum is waiting up for me.”
The four walk down the street together towards the taxi rank. A youth from another group shouts an insult at passers-by, one of whom swears back while his friend spits on the pavement. Street lamps and brightly lit shop fronts illuminate the walkways. Three girls get out of a taxi, laughing and speaking loudly, clearly excited by their night out. In the distance a siren pierces the air.
A young man lies motionless in a shop doorway. Many have passed by already assuming he is drunk. Those that bother to check, stoop down to see his bloodied face, assume he got what he deserved and walk on untouched by his obvious distress. Montague Street on Friday night is fresh out of Samaritans. The four also glance at the man and walk by without a word. As they reach the taxi rank the brothers wave goodnight and press on towards the station. Jenn helps Lylia into a taxi and, looking back down the street, pulls out her mobile and directs an ambulance to the shop where the injured man is laying. She gets into the cab and they journey home together.
04:00 is an inauspicious hour. Lylia lies sleeping in her bed, comatose by alcohol, temporarily unaware of the events she must re-visit in the morning when she wakes. Jenn lies on the floor wrapped in a sleeping bag, but with sleep evading her. Her hand reaches out to touch the base of the bed where her friend lies and contempt overcomes her, “Stupid bitch.” Her thoughts run back to James and a lyric rises up in her mind to taunt her as affectionate moments, now fixed in time past, flash before her closed eyes. Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Seeking refuge from the realisation of all she has thrown away she turns her thoughts to the future and alights upon the English homework due in next week. She lays motionless as the reality of the drama she has been studying unfolds before her and for the first time she glimpses a greater truth. “Romeo and Juliet, it’s not a tragedy”, she whispers, “The tragedy would be choosing to live”.
As dawn arrives she still can’t sleep. She gets up and stares out of the window. Looking out into the garden from the pale sky she sees a sparrow hawk swoop to its prey, land on the back lawn and pulse the life from its captive; hunter and hunted bearing witness to the final vestige of nobility. She lies down again and as sleep overcomes her she dreams of an old man, bearded and robed, telling her about a city of gold and of a lost pathway that will take her to it.
What is religion for? Is it something for drawing people closer to God, or for drawing God closer to people? Is it something designed to unite a tribe or nation or a way to discover the truth? Like religion itself the answer to that question has changed over the generations. Palaeolithic religion had a practical quasi-scientific function. It helped communities understand and control their environment. It had a supernatural element as well, of course, through its shamanistic practice, but that was also much concerned with human well-being through contact with the spirits and with healing. Religion ensured your survival either through the control of nature or the appeasement of those beings that controlled nature.
The religions that today we classify as World Religions have at their centre the notion of salvation. They tell the adherent what she must do to be saved. Of course, what you are saved from and what it all means depends upon the worldview each religion holds; you might be saved from a supernatural hell or from a disadvantageous re-birth; you might be gathered up into the presence of God or you may merge with God and cease to exist as an individual. Do you want to be sugar, or to taste sugar, to look upon the face of God or become God? Settle upon your ontological preference and one of the World Religions will guide you into the right way to think and the right way to behave.
But Western multi-culturalism has brought it own redemptive hazards. Simple logic demands not everyone can be right. So is religion a metaphor or are billions of people in for a nasty surprise, or, if the atheists are right, no surprise at all? The rise of secularist thinking and the material scientific worldview has also gone some way to the re-orientation of religious thought as we increasingly draw a line between the dogmatic objectivism of historic faiths and the spirituality that issues out of an encounter with a world that functions without the need for a belief in anything and yet in essence still seems to believe. What is religion for? It is for me.
The numerous New Age groups, the resurgent Goddess movements and the development of different neo-pagan paths reflect a society in an apparent state of religious and social change. The partial break down of central religious authority coupled with greater religious freedom and tolerance has produced a creative and imaginative explosion in the human expression of the divine. Many, of course, still follow the Man from Nazarethalthough the original exclusivity of their claims are now tempered by increasing awareness of other faiths, some older even than Jesus himself. Others look to the stars; this is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Others still reclaim their past and recreate the once banished Gods of the indigenous people ofEurope. All bring something to the altar; a revisioned heritage, a feminising of deity, even Jesus born again for our time. But the religious journey of the West is a journey without end; like a pilgrimage without a destination our imagination, individual and corporate, moves forward into a future reflecting and expressing the ever-changing reality.
The greater religious freedom of recent times has allowed the West to re-acquaint itself with Nature. Christianity has always been always wary of Nature. It flirts with it at times; the rising Sun is a metaphor that is hard to resist, the raging storm is like the wrath of God and the fields of ripe golden corn reflect His beneficence. But Nature is uncivilised and unpredictable and civilisation and control are the things institutional religion needs to develop a sense of community or a following. Paul didn’t travel to the desert to proclaim the Gospel, he went to he settled populations where his message could take root in the community. But, ironically, although the way we live, in towns and cities, makes us the most communal society the world has yet seen, we less and less represent a religious homogeneity; and as dogma has been breaking down, so Nature has been breaking in.
Nature has always been there, of course, in Pagan traditions and folklore, but these were dangerous playthings to our Christian fathers. Merlin inhabited the dark wood, stirring at times like a memory, rising up in our unconscious. He reminds us of the sunrise we used to celebrate, of our passion for our homelands, of our communion with ancestors and of our loyalty to clan and to the land. And our mother too, the Goddess, she waited patiently in the background, like a mother does, awaiting the return of sons and daughters. Reclaimed in ritual, recognised once again as Our Lady and the Magdalene, as Isis and as Brigid, the Goddess is now the subject of festivals, a metaphor of healing and a fountainhead of Wisdom – the once and future Sophia.
In our current society, one dominated by the secular and the material, human beings demonstrate attitudes that are distinctly pagan. Pagan not only or just in the choice of allegiance to indigenous deities of old or in the upholding of what are presumed to be archaic or ancient rituals, but rather in the very way we live, think and respond to the world. Ideologies, meta-narratives to give them their post-modern nomenclature, are more often than not mistrusted and from within the loose bounds of democratic society individuals increasingly forge their own beliefs, make sense of their own world and give meaning to their own experience. It is, perhaps, that within Western society the condition of paganism has arisen once again; a condition both illuminated and sponsored by freedom of choice, growing understanding of the past and our place in it and simple acknowledgement that truth has a subjective quality and deity a poetic one.
So what have we discovered – is it simply a case of from Paganism we came and to Paganism we shall return? If our archaic or indigenous traditions do indeed ground us in our apprehension of our understanding of transcendence; if Merlin and Minerva do represent a return to a place we need to re-discover then doubtless from just such a homecoming we will one day journey out again upon another road to Emmaus, another voyage to Colchis, where the Gods wander silently awaiting our recognition; lost, found and lost again in a mythical hinterland of miracle and rumour.
Yesterday evening I got this text from Jesus… “Heyy bro long time no c. R we still m8s. Church on Sunday wb gr8. C U there J” I know it’s from Jesus because there isn’t a log entry in the text history on my phone and no number to return the call to. So it must be from a supernatural source. I’m so close to proving the existence of God. A text from Jesus and the caller number withheld! Incidentally, now I know why Yhwh won’t have vowels in his name… it’s to cut down on the number of characters he uses to text. Mobile phones are the Second Coming, texting is the apotheosis of God and heaven is Carphone Warehouse writ large.
But Jesus is right, we have grown apart and it was good of him to get in touch. The truth is I have always liked him. He’s a friendly, sociable, peaceable sort of guy and always happy to help out. But I find him a little distant at times and not always as approachable as he was when we were younger… well, we all lead busy lives.
I think a lot of the problems that we had were over his friends. I went to Church a few times, chatted to a couple of people and started getting invites to house groups. But it was all a bit, well, uncomfortable. They didn’t drink, they didn’t swear and a couple of them had drop dead gorgeous wives and I wasn’t even supposed to notice. Trust me, three thousand years after Moses the capacity to covet remains undiminished! Anyway, I just didn’t fit in. For a while I eschewed Sunday afternoon football on TV for the opportunity to sing Psalms around someone’s house. But I found there was a limit to the number of times I could sing Lord though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil and pretend that I liked the tune, or even pretend that the lyrics fitted the tune. So gradually I returned to the comfort of my own sofa and the vicarious pleasures of Man Utd versus Liverpool, and of Bolton versus Blackburn. I don’t see it as giving in to temptation; more of a levelling of my own expectations.
In one sense my experience of Christianity was not unlike the Jets and the Sharks, a Westside Story without the music. Sinners and Hypocrites; I left the former to join the latter but returned again to those that I knew when I realised that holiness wasn’t really getting me what I wanted. Actually, it was getting in the way of what I wanted. The Sinners welcomed me back with open arms. Truth be told some of them didn’t even know I’d swapped teams, so wrapped up in their on lives. But clan loyalty is strong… Say it aloud, Sinner and Proud.
But what did I want, if not Psalms and prayers and sermons interrupting my day? The answer, I guess, is de-regulation, a low-impact belief that let me do what I wanted and then validated it using a curious blend of ill thought out logic and faith in something I couldn’t, or didn’t have to, relate to. Less of the Coptic, more of the Copout. It comes back to haunt me, this indolence, because despite my own well studied argument I seem to still expect a certain level of respect for my higher calling from others.
So, finally cut adrift, like a pilgrim without a destination, I asked myself a simple question… what do I believe in? I resisted for a while because the only answer I could come up with seemed so trivial it occurred to me I’d actually missed the point of my own question. But it wouldn’t go away and in the end I just gave up trying to manufacture an alternative. So, Jesus is on the road to Emmaus; Moses is on a mountain looking down upon Canaan; Yahweh is loading the dice in favour of a Semite tribe in their coming battle with the Moabites and Allah is preparing for an austere and terrifying Day of Judgment…
But I believe in Cissbury Ring an hour after sunrise, my dog fifty yards ahead of me trying, forlornly, to catch rabbits, sheep bleating in the paddocks below, grey-sky breaking to blue and the soft earth beneath my feet. I believe in chalk and flint, white bones of the ancestors, wind and rain, and the sacredness of this place.
What am I saying? That Nature is divine? Absolutely not, Nature is Nature… blood and bone and dung and death. There is tooth and claw savagery in the killing zones, but there is spirit as well in the world, pulsing through the rhythm of the seasons, in sunrise and sunset, in the sacrifice of the fish and the bird and in the love that passes between us. And it is greater than the sum of its parts. And it’s there, on Cissbury Ring, that I sense it.
…whilst the acquisition of knowledge can be painful, it’s the acquisition of wisdom that proves lethal
Call me Pilgrim. It has a certain connotation. It presents an image of someone walking to somewhere in quiet unassuming certainty that the journey upon which they have embarked is more significant than the destination. Enigmatic and alone, at one and the same time both social and anti-social, an apotheosis of contradiction. I am a spiritual gunslinger, like Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider, except I have a Bible in one holster and the Bhagavad Gita in the other and I’m probably a little more handsome. That’s how the image presents itself to me, but if nothing else I’m nobody’s fool and I know that Call me Pilgrim offers something else to my fragile self-perception… the smug satisfaction that derives from knowing that only people who have read Moby Dick, or at least the first sentence, will get the carefully crafted allusion to the painful, disturbing but sometimes insightful and happy journey upon which we all embark from womb to crematorium; fragments I have shored against my ruins, as T. S. Eliot would have it. Christ, Trevor, you’re such an arse, as my friends would have it.
I have never known adventure and I’m a stranger to uncertainty. A wife, three kids, two dogs and a weekly trip to Tesco; such are the idylls of my life. When confronted with Achilles dilemma, choose adventure and death in exchange for literary immortality or stay at home and be forgotten it was never any contest. Put the kettle on and see what’s on TV. I have measured out an average existence. But living this way I have discovered, much to my surprise, that average is good. There is alchemy in average, the distillation of reality from the confusion of children’s tears, the words of dying parents and the simple emotions of love turned to hate. There is potential and transformation in average, the world in a grain of sand. Well, maybe, let’s hope so anyway, it’s what we have.
Literary allusions quickly fade. Eight in the evening in a quiet house is not the time or the place of the anti-hero. Coffee to hand and an evening to confront I glimpsed the Moon before closing the curtains. I sit on a broken sofa and sip Columbian deep roast from the cup and the bitterness surprises me. I don’t know if she ever thinks about what happened or about the other path she could have taken. She probably does but I specifically asked everyone not to keep me informed. As a consequence I’ve heard nothing. I don’t know if that was a good idea or not. Perhaps I was wrong; perhaps, in the end, it’s not the knowing that destroys you, it’s the not knowing.
Laptop on the seat next to me, I try to think of a way in… articulate, evasive, funny. Nothing works, this is not the time for Achilles or Don Armardio, this is the time for Tiresias. I’m a middle-aged man, balding, grey-beard and belly swelled by a life dedicated to a gentle excess of beer. The rest doesn’t really matter because I’m leading you to the point of recognition, the point of writing all this…
It happened in March. Personally I think April would have been better because then I could have rehearsed more lines from Eliot or drenched my imagination in religious images of re-birth. Then there would have been some meaning to it, at least to me. But you can’t choose your moment; the turning planets, the sirens and the satellites do that. Our part is acceptance, either with quiet dignity or with anger. Or so I’d always thought. Because up until that moment it had never occurred to me that I could simply tell you all the truth.
This realisation, that I could simply tell you all the truth, came by a circuitous route. I had been crying on and off for days. I hadn’t eaten and I couldn’t sleep. It occurred to me that I might be losing my mind, or at least my already faltering control over it, because the point beyond which grief turns to melodrama had long since receded over the horizon. I was locked into my loss. So I phoned a friend of mine, a therapist of many years standing who invited me round for coffee that same afternoon, “no therapy man, just a chat, you can’t afford my fees anyway”.
The door was already ajar when I arrived and he called out my name in response to me calling his. Ushering me through the kitchen to a conservatory, I sat down and stared out at the daffodils. He entered with two freshly brewed mugs, passed one to me and sat on the opposite couch. This was already therapy of a kind, two friends in their middle years staring at each other, breaking to smiles, each trying to understand the presence of the other as if, somehow, the companionship of friends needed any justification. We sipped our coffees and allowed the silence to settle. I wanted to say “how are you?” as though me checking on his current state of health would bestow some sort of emotional equality to the proceedings, a joint sharing of concern that, clearly, he didn’t need. But, I never got the chance. Before I could deliver my line he pointed to a shelf on my left and as I looked towards it he said “the tissues are there”. “Tissues?” “The tissues are there, you said you can’t stop crying”. I let the silence descend again, it was comfortable and there seemed no point in pretence. So I allowed him to ask the question “what’s up?” and he allowed me to answer.