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The Path I Choose: A personal account of self discovery
by D. Sylvian of the Sibylline Order and Ancient Ways

It's one of the most common questions that Pagans are asked these days: with all the intolerance running rampant in our "free" society today, why practice a faith so open to fear and misunderstanding? Why speak out about a much-maligned faith and subject ourselves to uneasy acceptance at best, ridicule at most likely, and outright persecution at worst? What is it about that Goddess of ours that makes it all worthwhile? Why not just stick with the status quo?

A good question, and one that each individual Pagan must answer for him/herself. I had to mull over it for quite some time, myself. It's true that my life would be (at least on the surface) easier if I were still a Christian. My community would be well-established, with its own cable channels and funding from all the richest old men in the country. Nobody would question what I did every Sunday morning; nobody would doubt the veracity of my faith except atheists and other "fringe" groups. I would have resources ranging from scholarships to influential lobby groups to whole universities devoted to meeting my needs and defending my rights, all at my fingertips and all perfectly acceptable to a society gone slowly and steadily mad with its own power. So why throw all of that away? Why step out of line and into the spotlight when I'm the kind of person who couldn't give a book report without throwing up?

To answer I have to start with a bit about my religious history. I was born into a Southern Baptist/Methodist family, a fairly laid-back bunch in a time before religion was as big a business as it is today, and where politics were mostly undiscussed in my small town. People where I grew up were more concerned with this year's rice crop and the coming county fair than what Washington had to say about gay marriage or abortion. We went to church semi-regularly, and I did all the usual Christian kid things: Sunday school, vacation Bible school, youth groups, camp. I didn't do these things because I felt any connection with God; I did them because they were fun, all my friends did them, and my parents told me to. When I got older I went through the whole Baptism rigmarole, accept Jesus Christ into your heart, confess and pray for forgiveness of all your sins, get half-drowned by an over enthusiastic preacher. Everyone was falling all over themselves with happiness for my being "saved."

What was going on in my soul? Very little, truth be told. I plodded along, reciting the Scriptures on cue and smiling my head off, learning some catchy songs and helping collect the Offering for our nebulous "missions overseas," but inside I felt I had missed the punch-line of the most important joke of my life. If I was going to Heaven, why didn't I feel better? Other questions began to surface, but I mostly downplayed them or forgot about them in the throes of adolescence. Why could my father be a deacon but my mother had to be on the Kitchen Committee? Why were people more thrilled about the way Jesus died than the way he lived? How did they all know the Bible was the true word of God if none of them were there when it was written? And why, if we all read the same Bible, were we right and the Catholics wrong?

All of these concerns got shoved to the back burner when I hit junior high. I was too busy being a lost, confused outcast adolescent who spent my time reading Mercedes Lackey when I should have been bingeing and purging and putting on makeup. I had a tight-knit group of friends who were also on the fringes of public school society (you know, the smart ones, the fat ones, the ones with too much heart and too many pimples to fit in), and we got along as best we could. God took a backseat to New Kids on the Block (yes, I admit it) and Christian Slater.

High school was a different story. By my sophomore year I was seriously depressed, watching all my friends date and join clubs and all the while wondering what was missing in my life that made me feel like a bolt in a drawer full of nuts. Sound typical? It's funny to me that while we're in high school we think we're the only one who's hurting, but in truth we all are, and for the same reasons. So needless to say I was ready for what would happen next.

It went this way: my current best friend and I were involved in a penpal network (this was before the Internet came to town) of fantasy novel readers. We had met people of all sorts of diverse backgrounds, and most notably, diverse religions. One of these mutual penpals was a Wiccan. I had no idea what that was, and was mostly interested because it was so unusual that sort of "stare at the circus freak" mentality. It seemed so alien to my family's way of thinking that I didn't look any further...until.

Until my well-intentioned family and well-meaning friends, under the guise of taking me to a "retreat" that was supposed to help with "girls and self-esteem," convinced me to go to what I found out was a three-day indoctrination and revival weekend. When I got there, the powers that be took my wristwatch and informed me that I couldn't call home unless I was verifiably ill or injured, and that I would eat and sleep when told and spend the rest of the time sitting in a cold room of folding tables listening to speeches on "Dying and Rising with Christ." There were about twenty girls there, lambs who had apparently strayed too far from the flock. We were very well fed, sang a lot of songs, and took Communion twice in one weekend. There was a lot of crying and holding and praying for forgiveness, and more love and brotherhood than I could stomach without Rolaids.

I sound sarcastic and bitter now, but at the time I was deeply hurt. First of all, my family had lied to me to get me there, telling me the weekend would have nothing to do with church. My friends had participated in the scam as wellˇin fact, the organization that puts on these weekends tells people who go not to tell anyone what happens, so they don't "spoil the experience."

Second of all, while these girls that I had practically grown up with were weeping and getting the Spirit and feeling such amazing amounts of joy and peace, I was empty. I faked tears, mouthed prayers, and stared at the walls of our windowless room wishing I could go climb in the lovely Hill Country trees I had seen when the van brought us in. I had never been so lonely, or so afraid - if this was religion, was I out of the loop? Didn't God love me enough to give me joy too? What was wrong with me? Was it the devil? Or was I just unworthy of divine compassion? God had never been terribly vocal in my life; what had a girl of sixteen done to be so forsaken?

Looking back I wonder if I was the only one.

So, when I got back to civilization I gradually weaned myself from the girls who had been on the "retreat" with me. They were involved in the organization very heavily, going to board meetings and giving talks at subsequent weekends. One of them, a girl I still consider a dear friend, went on to become a missionary on the other side of the world and will probably have a stroke if she ever reads this essay.

The point is, all of these things led to my final divorcement from Christianity. In the anger and frustration that followed that horrible event, I started to question the basic tenets of what was supposed to be a given in my life. Things stopped making sense, especially when I looked at the history of Christianity and its influence on American culture and thought. The imp of logic crept into my mind and left me spiritually wrung out like an old dishrag. I was pretty convinced that I was going to end up an atheist, and that felt so wrong to me somehowˇhow could a beautiful world like ours be without a guiding hand, and the abilities of the human mind only chemical reactions with no soul?

It was at this hopeless juncture that the Goddess stepped in.

I'll stop there. If you're a Pagan you know the rest - finally finding a religion that fills that gaping hole, that feeling of "coming home" and if you're not it's really hard to explain without sounding ridiculous. Really, religious inspiration is so personal that nobody can adequately describe it, whatever their chosen faith. That's why Wiccans call it a "mystery;" not because it's very esoteric, but because you can only understand it if you've felt it. So, before I get any further off topic, here is the short-short list of reasons why I am no longer a Christian:

  1. I refuse to belong to a faith that has denigrated the role of my gender to the false dichotomy of housewife/whore. I am no one's "help meet," and frankly there are a number of passages about women in the Bible that outrage me. I won't even go into the Witch Hunts, the Malleus Malificarum, or any of the other Church-sanctioned atrocities against women and other "heretics." I don't want my place of worship to have a glass ceiling.

  2. The idea of wearing a symbol of torture and death around my neck makes me ill.

  3. I will not have my spirituality dictated by a collection of writings whose origin, authorship, and logic I distrust.

  4. Modern Right Wing Christianity in this country, quite frankly, pisses me off. It is intolerant, money-grubbing, politicized, and heartless. The majority of people belonging to the "Religious Right" are the least Christ-like people I have ever known, and if they're all going to heaven, I'd rather not. Jesus, if he truly existed (jury's still out on that one, but I can accept that he lived), was an amazing man who spoke of peace, acceptance, and love. (the original hippie) And he's probably really cheesed off at the behavior of his twentieth-century followers. I have met Christians who were genuinely Christians, great people, if you can find them.

  5. I believe sexuality is sacred, natural, and a purely personal matter. Celibate priests and middle-aged white men will not dictate who I can sleep with and when. Wicca is an ecstatic path, and the concept of ecstasy scares many Christians (although if you've ever been in a revival tent you know it's not unheard of) into placing matters of spirit strictly above matters of flesh.

  6. Christianity does not encourage people to think for themselves or trust their own intuition, but to surrender to the will of a transcendent God whom I have never met or, rather, to that God's earthly representatives. No thanks. As a Witch I am my own Priestess, and the Goddess does not require an intermediary to get Her point across.

  7. I don't accept the idea that life is a one-shot deal, something you either get right or burn for. Humans are hard-headed creatures and resistant to change; the Wiccan concept of reincarnation, which allows that we have multiple chances to learn our lessons, seems much more hopeful to me. This brings up another point: Christianity is more concerned with what happens after you die than what happens while you live.

  8. Last point: I don't think Christians or other faiths are "wrong." The religion is wrong for me, but I don't believe all the happy Christians out there should convert to Paganism. I'm not going to go out and thump my Book of Shadows and demand that everyone accept the Goddess as their Great Mother; I respect the free will and spirituality of others. It is my feeling, and that of many Wiccans, that all paths to the Light are equally valid; it's all a matter of window-dressing. We don't recruit.

Sometimes, listening to my Christian friends, it seems like they're all marking off the souls of the converted on a giant tote board, and that you can't be a good Christian unless you're trying to muscle other people around to your way of thinking. It's an intolerable lack of respect for the faiths of others, and I'm not comfortable with that.

The above list probably sounds inflammatory and at times rather offensive, but each point is true from my perspective and I do not apologize for my opinions. I have to say that my experiences are similar to those of many of my Pagan brothers and sisters, but obviously there are plenty of people who have been exposed to a different kind of Christianity than I was. Please do not email me saying that your brand is better and I should give it a try; I've heard it all before. You cannot convert me; trying to do so will be a waste of your time and will only frustrate you. I am happy with my religion and wish the same for everyone else. I would love for everyone to experience the same day-to-day joy and wonder in their faith that I do, whether they are Pagan or Baptist or Muslim or a Snake Handler. The only kind of religions I cannot condone are those who do purposeful harm to others against their will, as this violates the most basic Wiccan ethics and hopefully those of others. Whether it is animal sacrifice or the Crusades or bombing abortion clinics, causing harm in the name of any god is inexcusable.

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