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I am reminded, having read several things this week, that there is no litmus test for Paganism. We are, by nature, an eclectic and assorted bunch, with various tastes, skills, and goals. But those various tastes, skills, and goals do not make us more or less valid Pagans than anyone else.

This comes up especially in response to something I read over at Druid’s Cosmos, where I left what was probably a comment that should just have been a response post. She was feeling discouraged because she felt left out, or “less than” because of all the people around her (online) who were talking about direct contact with, or visions of, the Gods.

There are lots of people on the internet – on blogs, forums, and mailing lists – who like to talk about their mystical experiences. This is pretty natural. For one thing, when you’re first encountering something new and exciting (much like when you’re in the first, budding, exciting stages of a relationship) you want to talk about it all the time! You want to share how wonderful it is! Also, mystical experiences of the Kindreds can be a little scary, and it’s just as natural to want some reassurance from others that they know where you are and can relate to what you’re going through.  It becomes self-perpetuating as well, as everyone struggles to talk about THEIR mystical experiences, and the impression given is that everyone has these deep and powerful religious experiences (and frequently!) and that somehow you’re not “in” the group if you’re not having them.

This creates something of a selection bias that I’ve found myself falling prey to. I too grow quiet in those conversations. I’ve only recently had what might be termed a mystical encounter, and it’s not something that’s happened regularly or even sporadically since then. I get vague creeping-on-the-back-of-my-neck feelings that it’s still there, but nothing worth being excited about. Before that, in all my working within different parts of Paganism, I’d never had a *direct* contact with the spirit world before. Sure I’d had experiences that were powerful, that told me I was doing what was the right thing – but nobody had ever talked in my ear before.

And if I’m honest? I felt a little left out by that, especially once I joined the ADF community.

ADF specifically trains people towards mystical experiences in the Dedicant Path, even going so far as to encourage (though no longer require) development of a patron relationship to complete the DP. This, combined with our natural proclivity to talk about things that are happening to us (especially things that we think are special) – and to keep silent in discussions where we don’t have anything to add – gives the impression that *everyone* in ADF has all these amazing mystical experiences all the time (since someone is regularly talking about it on the lists) and that part of being a Druid is having a deeply personal, deeply mystical relationship with the Kindreds.

I think that impression is wrong.

Not that many Druids and Pagans don’t have those relationships – they obviously do, and those relationships are obviously fulfilling and meaningful. But many OTHER Druids and Pagans (equally as many, I’d guess, if not more) are there because the act of devotion is what centers and grounds their practice. They are there to honor the Gods, to follow the Old Ways, to worship the Kindreds, and to find spiritual fulfillment through those acts.

The internet is a tiny microcosm of Paganism, if Margot Adler’s numbers of modern Pagans are to be believed. Most of those Pagans are not writing blogs or posting to email lists, they’re quietly going about their business, being Pagans in their daily life. Maybe they’re Secret Agent Druids who work in offices (like me), or teachers or doctors or engineers or scientists or fire fighters or whatever it is that anyone else might do.

Those people – the quiet, every day, ground-and-center, worship on their landbase, remember the High Day Pagans – they are just as much Pagan as the devoted spirit workers, the god-touched, and the deeply mystical. They are no more or less than what their actions speak of them as being. They’ve been called to different work.

Paganism, and especially Druidry, is a Religion of Doing (orthopraxy).

We don’t much care whether you think of the Earth Mother as the land on which you stand, some great Goddess of tradition (like Jord or Nerthus or Gaia), the Great Biosphere Herself (Gaia Hypothesis), or some shifting combination of all three. When you do an ADF style ritual, you honor the Earth Mother. If you are honoring the Earth Mother (however you think of Her, and whether or not you have a personal, first-name relationship with Her or not) you are on your way to practicing Druidry.

In short, are you doing the stuff? If yes, all the rest is just you figuring things out on your own.

All the mystical experiences in the world might mean things to you personally and give you great comfort, but they are not Doing the Stuff. Because I don’t think my experience is so far out of line with others. I think sometimes you have deep and powerful rituals, and sometimes you have mediocre ones, distracted by the lawn mower next door. Sometimes you have rushed rituals, and sometimes you don’t get to do your morning devotions until noon because your spouse had car trouble and your kid threw up on the bus, and life happened.

Sure, some of those reporting constant mystical connection probably have it, but for the rest of us, Paganism has to be part of our lives – alongside all the other parts of our lives.

You’re not less of a Pagan (or Druid) because you can’t directly hear the Gods. You’re not more of a Pagan (or Druid) because you can. We all have different gifts, different callings, and different skill sets. Some people take naturally to divination, others do not. Some take easily to high liturgies and poetry, others like to work off the cuff. Some people worship an entire pantheon, others work with one or two specific Gods exclusively. Some people can organize and run a ritual or a festival, others simply don’t have the mental tools to do that. Some people have the mental connection that allows them to “hear” and “see” the Kindreds, others do not. We’re all Pagans (and Druids) together.

Can you learn to have those skills? Maybe yes, maybe no.

Is it important to learn what skills you DO have, and to work on developing those? Probably.

But don’t mistake “having a certain skill set” or even “having a certain relationship with the Gods” with “being a better (or more legitimate) Pagan.” It can seem glamorous or special to have that kind of deep relationship that allows you to truly hear the Gods – and it IS something special, and something that I’m working on developing for myself. But it’s not required.

There is no litmus test for Paganism.

Do the Stuff.

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This book review is part of the requirements for the reading list for the Dedicant Path. It intends to fulfill the requirement for the Modern Paganism title.

Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America. 3rd Ed. New York: Penguin Group, 2006. Nook file.

The stated goal of the Modern Paganism book is to understand where Neo-Paganism has been, and Drawing Down the Moon fills this role very nicely. Adler sets out to catalog the history of American Neo-Paganism, from the first offshoots of reconstructionist religions in the 30’s all the way up to the (then) current events of 2006. Her main thesis is an interesting one, but appropriate given the subject matter – that “the spiritual world is like the natural world – only diversity will save it” (8), and Neo-Paganism is nothing if not diverse.

From that stance she sets out to describe the main movements in American Neo-Paganism, from basic definitions and word usage, through the Witchcraft revival, through all the other flavors of Neo-Pagan movements, and into the relationship all these movements have with American society. She devotes an entire section of the book to the rebirth of Neo-Pagan witchcraft, but given the sheer numbers of men and women who have identified with various facets of modern witchcraft, in its many derivations, this isn’t all that surprising. As someone who comes to Druidry through traditional-flavored Wicca (with some time spent as a solitary), I think my situation is not unique – while some Druids obviously come to ADF as their first foray into Paganism, many people will come through the more public, more obvious, and more populous traditions that are so readily available via the internet, bookstores, new-age and spiritual stores, and 101 classes.

One of the most interesting things about this book is the overarching deductions that Adler is able to make, via her years of research and through use of surveys and interviews, about Neo-Paganism as a whole – things like sensing an “aliveness and ‘presence’ in nature”, a penchant for polytheism, animism, and pantheism, a gravitation toward “ancient symbols and ancient myths” (21) and the ability to have escaped certain forms of enculturation (54). However, as with any part of the Neo-Pagan movement, she can only ever use the words “most” and “usually”. Pagans are, as always, a religion of exceptions. This is true both of the movement as a whole and of the divisions within it. Even within a fairly well-defined path like the Dedicant Path, a prescribed subset of study and experience specific to ADF style Druidry, there is great variation. The Dedicant’s list is full of conflicting opinions, and the work itself is frequently about deciding how each particular Dedicant will experience things within a larger Druidic context – not about learning a set of beliefs by rote. While many of the Neo-Paganisms that Adler studies are similarly orthopraxic (as opposed to orthodoxic), not all fit that bill, of course, reinforcing the sheer diversity of the movement.

Adler spends a good deal of time talking about the various divisions and practices of modern, Neo-Pagan Witchcraft, and takes from this a very interesting attitude toward myth that I really found myself drawn to. Rather than be as worried about the actual, factual basis that many Witches began from (of which, as with so many things that happened even 50 years ago, the full story can never be known), she focuses on the more modern take, which is to accept the spirit of the myth for what it is – an inspiration – and let the actual craft work itself out, regardless of how old (or new) it is. “The realization has come around to everyone that it doesn’t matter whether your tradition is forty thousand years old or whether it was created last week” (Ed Fitch qtd. in Adler 97).

This attitude is important for ADF to remember, since we are both a Neo-Pagan religion and (at times) a reconstructionist one. The balance has to be there; a balance between what is ancient and what actually works in the modern day is crucial.

Of particular interest to me were, of course, the section on Norse Paganism and the section on Druidry, from it’s earliest start in the RDNA through the creation of ADF in the early 80’s (329). One thing I did find was that I’m more drawn to a practice of Druidry within a Norse hearth culture than I am to the practice of true Norse reconstructionism (at least for now). I am, at heart, a modern Neo-Pagan, and while I can learn a lot from Asatru and its offshoots, I like the balance of ADF. I thought it curious to have modern Druidry in the same section with the Discordians. I think perhaps this is more true of the earlier Druidic movements – the RDNA certainly seems to have more in common with the people who worship Eris than modern ADF does (at least to this solitary practitioner), especially given that Isaac Bonewits is quoted as saying that ADF would “keep nonsense, silliness, and romanticism down to a dull roar” (334).

I wish there had been more information about ADF in particular, but we are a much smaller group in the larger Pagan world. I also think the section on ADF could have been updated more recently. Still, I liked Adler’s final take on what became Druidry, that “when one combines a process of inquiry with content of beauty and antiquity, when, even as a lark, one opens the flow of archetypal images contained in the history and legends of people long neglected by this culture, many who confront these images are going to take to them and begin a journey unimagined by those who started the process” (336).

Overall I found this book to be a fascinating look into both the big picture of Neo-Paganism and the small snapshots of individual practicing Pagans. While I don’t see it becoming much of a reference, I truly appreciated the discussions about the definition of magic and ritual, and I look forward to participating in whatever the future holds for Neo-Paganism.

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