Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What Supports the Visible?

I’ve been reading Joseph Campbell again; maybe that’s to blame. I tend to go all mystical and inward-looking when I’ve been reading his wonderful works.

If I’m honest, though, what triggered this particular round of contemplation was a question from a friend: How did I go from almost becoming a nun, to Wiccan, to ‘don’t-label-me-but-I-guess-you-can-call-me-pagan’?

Yeah, well, I’ll have to think about that one for a minute. Actually, I’ve been thinking about it for days now. It sounds like quite the amusement park ride, doesn’t it? My spiritual life has definitely felt like a roller-coaster ever since I was old enough to contemplate the concept of the Divine and pose embarrassing questions to my elders.

I was raised in a Protestant family; seriously studied Catholicism as a teenager, to the point of considering entering an abbey and taking vows; discovered Wicca as a young adult and worked my way through its three degrees; and finally emerged as a no-name pantheist with mystical and shamanic tendencies. Yes, I know there’s professional help for that kind of thing.

The weird thing is, I’m finally happy, spiritually speaking. I’ve found what I was looking for, even though for years I couldn’t articulate exactly what that was. Obviously it wasn’t a formal religious tradition; I’ve run through enough of them, heaven knows. But it was a definable something, and in order to answer my friend’s question, I had to find that definition.

Joseph Campbell talks about the invisible world that supports the visible one, the numinous eternity that all religions try to describe but inevitably fail, simply because words are inadequate. The human brain, in fact, is inadequate. As soon as we start to think about It, we limit It. But It was what I was searching for: that fateful point at which the invisible world and the visible world touch each other, interpenetrate, and allow us measly humans, caught in the linear time-stream, to experience timelessness. It is that point which we reach in ecstatic states, profound ritual, deep mysticism.

As I thought back over my own journey through spiritual experience, I began to think of the general restlessness of society today, of people’s need for meaning and purpose and their often-disappointing search for it in a wide variety of religious traditions. I remembered the first time I realized, somewhere in middle school, that a typical Protestant religious service didn’t ‘do it’ for me. I tried lots of different flavors - Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, UU, Unity - but none of them provided more than a social experience combined with a touch of teaching.

I shifted to Catholicism; my Protestant relatives had derogated it as ‘practically pagan’ so of course I was intrigued. But by the time I went to my first Mass, the liturgy had been translated out of Latin and the priest had turned around to face the congregation, ‘like Julia Child doing a cooking demonstration’ as Joseph Campbell put it. I could still feel the remnants of power, of the ability to push through the veil, but it just didn’t happen.

So I entered fully into paganism, first Wicca and then, following ancestral cues, into Celtic and Norse history and spirituality. Every now and then something would feel ‘just right’ and I would think I had found The Right Brand of Religion For Me. But then the feeling would fade and I would be left wondering what happened.

Well, it turns out it wasn’t the brand that was the problem. It was that point of Two-Worlds-Touching that I was seeking. I think, underneath it all, it’s what everyone seeks, whether they realize it or not. The experience of the numinous, the eternal, the Bigger-Than-We-Are (or perhaps, Bigger-Than-We-Can-Even-Comprehend). In the process of figuring out what I was seeking, I found it. And stayed in it. For a long time. Wheeee!

What really knocked me for a loop was the realization that I don’t even need a religious tradition to find that point. I have it within me to find it, through contemplation, shamanic journeying, standard traditional mystical practice. Oh, sure, ritual helps, I won’t deny that. But it no longer matters what kind of ritual, what flavor, what ‘brand.’

I think we all have that ability within us. Maybe it’s in our DNA or our souls; I don’t know. I just know it’s there. For some people, a formal religious service will ‘click’ and shift them to that point. For others, being in nature, or meditating, or dancing. As my uncle used to say, whatever blows your skirt up.

As long as you do it. Go there. Risk finding out what it is that underlies everything that we are, everything that is. I dare you. I’ll meet you there.