I’ve been doing a fair amount of thinking since my last post, because it seemed to ring bells with people, both through comments that were left on the blog and private emails/FB messages that people left me.
Two things have prompted me particularly this week. The one is that I started writing this post on Beltaine (May 1st): an old Celtic celebration marking the mid-way point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. In the calendar it stands opposite Samhain (or Halloween, on October 31st). When, in my last post, I referred to a pagan ritual that had resonated with me, it was a Beltaine celebration that I was talking about.
The second prompt is that the day before Beltaine I taught on ‘Transforming the Environment’ to third year ordinand trainees at St Mellitus in London. St Mellitus was Bishop of London in the early seventh century and was part of the move to convert paganism to Christianity. I’m struck by a letter to St Mellitus by Pope Gregory 1, encouraging him to undertake the conversion gradually and in a way that integrated the pagan rituals and customs (although I’m very aware that the actual history is not this simple). To be speaking at something dedicated to the legacy of St Mellitus, on creational transformation, seemed very apt.
The Beltaine celebration I read about took place not far from me, in a wooded area with a cave. It had four main elements. Firstly, the group stood in a circle, saying words from a liturgy that welcomed everyone and drew them together. Secondly, the group then said words that welcomed the spirits of the North, South, East and West to their celebration and asked them to be present. The third, main, element focused on the cave. Each person was asked to take into the cave something that represented the darkness of the past year. They went into the cave and said some words about that and took time in silence to reflect on what they were wanting to leave behind. Then, when they were ready, they walked out of the cave into the light, leaving behind the object they had brought with them. Finally, they joined back together to say a liturgy about going out from there, leaving the darkness of the past year behind, walking into the new life and light of the year ahead.
I probably hardly need say how familiar this sounds to the kind of thing that might be done by those of us reading this who are Christians. Certainly I can think of responses in the Big Top at Spring Harvest that would be very similar! It even struck me with the second element that had the spirits of the N, S, E and West been substituted with ‘the Holy Spirit’ in the words of the invocation, I would have been happy with what was said.
Before I’m hounded out of the Christian world and forever labelled with the word ‘heretic’, let me highlight two key differences (among others). Firstly, there is a crucial difference between my faith and that of modern pagans, and that is the incarnate, crucified and resurrected Jesus (and so, a similar response at Spring Harvest would see people bringing their objects – or, more likely, bits of paper – to a big cross and leaving them there). Thus, while there are similarities, I am not being naïve or overly simplistic: without Jesus taking a central place, I see these celebrations as being at best misguided, at worst deceptive. Whilst this particular Beltaine celebration resonated with me, there are others that would not.
A second crucial difference is that, as a follower of Jesus, I worship the Creator and Lord of all creation, rather than the creation itself. Some of the comments on my previous post showed that this has sometimes been a problem, and the response from ‘David’ was really helpful in stating that Celtic Christianity has always been Christ-centred and has never seen any part of the created order as a god.
So, I am not advocating paganism and I write this post with some trepidation, aware of how the blogosphere can misrepresent what a person says and raise hysteria all too quickly. Nonetheless, having experienced a friend’s involvement with paganism (having previously been a very committed Christian), I have learnt that it is not something to be scared of and we need not always take an adversarial and hostile position towards it. We may even be humble enough to ask if there are things we can learn from them.
I have my own ideas on that but will leave them to my next post as this is already too long and I want to hear other people’s comments first, so over to you…!