Gimme that old time religion

I often think about where I’d be now if I had followed my earliest instincts. I have always had what you might call the religious temperament. The earliest thing I can remember wanting to be when I grew up is a priest. My mom believes that small children should have to sit through boring church services so they’ll learn to be well-behaved in school, and she also thought religion would be edifying for me, but she didn’t much care what sort of religion. So, as she tells the story, she decided she would take me to a different house of worship every week and let me choose which one I liked best. The first place we went was our local small town Catholic church (we’re not Catholic), and that was it. I didn’t want to go anywhere else. I was about 4 at the time. I can still remember how much I loved the stained glass, the statues, the paintings of stations of the cross, the singing, the incense… I begged my mom to sit in the front row. She made me a deal: if I behaved, we’d move forward one row every week. So the weeks passed, and we moved up, until we were in the second row back. That Sunday, as the priest was preparing communion, I stood up on the kneeling board, turned to face my mom, and said in a stage whisper that reverberated through the whole church, “Hey Mom, how come there aren’t any women priests here?” The priest started laughing. My mom was mortified. As I seem to remember happening so often during my youth, she said, “Shhh, I’ll tell you when we get outside.” And she did. “I never want to go back there,” I said. And I meant it. The Church lost its most devout follower that day, I tell you what. I was 5. Thenceforth I felt I was on my own where religion was concerned. I became obsessed with reading about every kind of mythology. By the time I was about 12, I was a hard polytheist, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was using tarot cards and had started learning astrology. Looking back, I have no idea how that happened. It certainly didn’t come from my family–I was an only child, my mom was raising me by herself, and she was and is a New Age Unitarian-Universalist-type Christian. She was not super thrilled about my proclivities, but didn’t make much of an attempt to discourage me because she was sure I’d outgrow it. I remember I would beg her to take me to the local Tower Books, and bless her heart, she bought me a lot of eclectic stuff over the years, including my first tarot deck. Had I not been discouraged, I would probably have become some kind of Celtic or reconstructionist. But there was a subtle disapproval. My mother has this dismissive way of saying, “Well…” when you propose something she suspects is tomfoolery that is like icewater in the veins. I was always very independent, but also very obedient–I think mainly because I hated it when my mom turned out to be right about something and thus I turned out to be wrong. Also I began to realize that mainstream society did not look kindly upon polytheism. I once told the librarian in high school that I was inventing my own religion, which I thought would be better than saying that I was a budding Celtic reconstructionist, not that I knew what to call it, and she naturally scoffed at the idea. I was going through a rough time then, and I just sort of put religious themes aside. I believed in God mainly because I was afraid not to, but felt no connection (and in fact, a good deal of bitterness) to the Christian god. My maternal family have passed down stories of ancestors who were witches, mystics, and psychics and it was taken for granted that it runs in the family. Yet my mom didn’t want to teach me anything about it, ostensibly because I was “too young.” My mom is convinced that I will manage to kill myself performing even the safest and most routine activities, so when it comes to magic she is certain I will summon and become possessed by legions of demons. The unintended consequence is that I became convinced that I was the black sheep who had no psychic or magical ability. I don’t think anyone in my family had any idea how much pain and shame I felt because of this. Everyone said it would come eventually. I just wanted to be special, and to think that everyone in my family but me had been gifted special specialness was hard. I know, cry me a river, right? But being special matters a lot to teenagers. When I was 15 my mom got a job in Sevilla, Spain and we moved there for the then-foreseeable future, which turned out to be three years. For the first time, I set foot in Christian churches again, put purely from historical and anthropological interest. One day during Holy Week of 1993 we went to one of the major churches as tourists and I had my first direct UPG (Unverified Personal Gnosis) experience.

Nuestra Senora de la Esperanza Macarena.
Nuestra Se~nora de la Esperanza Macarena.

Every church in Sevilla has at least one statue of Jesus and at least one statue of the Virgin Mary. Of these two, the Virgin is unquestionably of greater social importance. She is almost always depicted as a dolorosa, weeping for the deceased Jesus (though a church may also have a gloriosa, a mother holding Baby Jesus). When I lived there, I was asked more than once whether I was a follower of the Virgin or Christ. Or, not and. During Holy Week, crowds of thousands gather in the streets and each church’s principal images are put onto ornate pasos (sort of like holy parade floats) and carried through the city on young men’s shoulders to the cathedral and back. The air is filled with incense smoke and lit by candles. Drums roll through the night, while bands play dirges for Jesus and exuberant marches for the Virgins. Penitents carry crosses behind the pasos, wearing pointed hoods that gave the Klan the idea. On the way, people throw flowers at them and sometimes are so moved that they break into extempore devotional songs. Followers of a given Virgin will hail them with shouts of “Beautiful! Beautiful!” while members of other churches, and thus followers of other Virgins, yell “Whore!” The whole thing produces a very altered state of consciousness, especially at 3 a.m.

La Macarena on her paso. Her trip through Sevilla takes approximately 13 hours.
La Macarena on her paso. Her trip through Sevilla takes approximately 13 hours.

Things may be different now. Even then, the archbishop was trying to crack down on the insults and fist fights that occasionally broke out between parishioners of different churches. Devotees would start shouting “Beautiful!” or “Whore!” and then a wave of “Shhhh!” would run through the crowd. But then again, it might be the same as it ever was. In my experience, the more authorities or people from outside Spain encourage Spaniards to abandon something, the harder they hold on to it (bullfighting, for example).

El Baratillo going through the Plaza de San Francisco. Our apartment was on the top floor of the building second from left.
El Baratillo going through the Plaza de San Francisco. Our apartment was on the top floor of the brick building second from left (or third if you count the little sliver of building at the very edge).

And some of the statues move. I have seen a statue of Jesus reposition the cross he was carrying. I have seen a Virgin smile, move her hands and eyes, and turn her head to look at the people sitting in her church–and that was also witnessed by three people with me, one of whom was an atheist who had a transformative religious experience because of it. Most of these statues date from the 1600s-1800s, and they are not mechanical. Anyway, I’m not talking about mechanical movements or optical illusions. The reason people can call the Virgin Mary a whore without cognitive dissonance is because these different statues are not regarded as mere representations of the same holy person. Each one is seen by her followers as the true Virgin, while all the others are impostors. Yet the statues of Jesus seem to be regarded as all the same being. Certainly Jesus never gets insulted, but nor does he get ecstatic praise. I can tell you that each Virgin has her own unique “vibe”: La Macarena feels like the sweetest, most unconditional love, sympathy, and joy, while El Rocío feels like a wild mare who will smite your foes with extreme prejudice. At least that’s how they are to me. Far from being one saint, they are different goddesses. (I wrote a bit more about El Rocío and her horses here.) But they are tied to their locality and the cultural context that gives them relevance, and I found that they didn’t transfer very well back to America. (Neither did I, actually. So. Much. Depression.) I spent the years between then and my Saturn return, approximately a decade, trying my best to adult and keeping my nose clean and to the grindstone. I finished college and went to grad school because that was what everyone expected and I didn’t have any better ideas. I had always been good at school so at least I got positive strokes for that, and I enjoyed and was good at teaching and writing. But I was having increasing difficulty fitting into my atheist, super-scientistic academic milieu. I loved doing scientific research, but hated seeing the name of science being used to bully others. I saw myself as a believer with nothing to believe in. As my research questions evolved, I began to see that I would not be able to answer them from inside academia. I desperately wanted to think divergently, but no longer remembered how. I got very interested in Buddhist philosophy, but I had difficulty embracing the idea of being a Buddhist, in no small part because most of the others I met were annoying. The Saturn return gets a lot of bad press, but it was actually a pretty good time in my life (Saturn is a cake walk compared to the shit Pluto throws at you, but I digress). I began to realize that I was no less mystical or psychic than the rest of my family. I came to terms with and embraced my need for spiritual fulfillment, even though I hadn’t found the right outlet. I finally voiced out loud what I had long suspected, that most New Age pop-spirituality and the Law of Attraction in particular are BS. I guess you could say I finally started to come into my own, to see myself instead of the many expectations about who I should be. As I finished grad school, my mother became seriously ill, and I moved back to California to take care of her. This freed me from having to decide whether to abandon an academic career–the choice was made for me. Although being a caregiver is in many ways the most difficult thing I have ever had to do, being stuck inside for 20+ hours per day does give me a lot of time to read and write. In spite of all the work I do taking care of my mom, I have made massive progress on my Great Work, even though I am still just at the beginning. Hey, it’s a long road, and I walk slowly. Oh, and in case you’re wondering what religion I ascribe to, I have come back around to polytheism seasoned with animism, pantheism, and panentheism. (And yes I know those last two are supposed to be mutually exclusive, but I don’t see it that way.) I guess you could say I believe in all gods, though I wouldn’t work with all of them. There is no one cultural pantheon that calls to me more than another, but certain deities from various cultures. I find that I cannot bring myself to identify with the term “pagan,” though I suppose that’s how others would identify me, and there doesn’t seem to be any other term that fits me either. I naturally rebel against hierarchy and am not a joiner, so will probably never become a priestess within any organized lodge or temple, though someday I may choose that service. All remains to be seen.

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