The Downside Of “Come As You Are” Religion

(I wrote this article as a response to Conor Davis’ request for more article geared toward a young Pagan audience, hence the relative lack of ADF-specific language.)

When facing many of life’s great dilemmas, my mind turns to the issues of Mad Magazine I read during my tween years. I still remember many of them vividly, and I can see how the writing affected my own sense of humor and writing, noticeable still.

I’d thought that the “come as you are” party was a fad limited to the 1970s, but a Google search says that there was a 1954 episode of “Ozzie and Harriet” with the title, and apparently some people still do them, but I learned about them in the ‘70s and never heard of them again, so in my own head, a ‘70s thing it remains. The host calls guests up and tells them that a party is happening at their home right now, and that the guests should show up wearing whatever clothing they happen to be wearing. At least part of the appeal is that instead of the guests trying (and possibly failing) to match an established dress code, they will arrive in lots of different kinds of clothing, and it won’t matter because whatever they are wearing is the correct dress.

I’ll condense the Dave Berg cartoon from Mad down to the last panel, which shows a couple entering a room where several people are wearing l different kinds of clothing (suit, casual, swimwear, just a bathrobe, etc.) and staring awkwardly at each other, and one of the folks entering says, “That’s what I hate about these parties. No matter what you’re wearing, you feel like it’s the wrong thing.”

An amusing bit of cognitive dissonance there, especially to a tween who barely grasps why anyone would want to go to a spur of the moment party anyway. (Actually, I’m still not sure I get it as an adult.) And it’s an image that has stuck with me for over three decades now, and it’s the image that always comes to me whenever a Pagan tells me they’re worried that they’re somehow doing their Paganism wrongly.

When I started getting involved with Paganism back in 1990, the relative lack of restrictions had a certain appeal to me. Not so much in the public group rites I attended, because I quickly grasped that randomly figuring out what to do for ritual in the middle of the ritual wasn’t an effective way of building energy or connecting with the Gods or much of anything else. But in private, at the home shrine I’d assembled myself with only the loosest idea of what to put on it, doing rituals based on scripts from every Pagan and Wiccan book I could get my hands on, it was liberating to be so free, to know that I could experiment and see what worked and what I liked and as long as I didn’t burn the house down or make myself ill from inhaling too much incense, it was all good. Eventually my practice started to streamline into what I’d now call devotional polytheism, and when I started attending the local ADF Grove’s rituals and saw that that they were doing looked a lot like what I wanted to do, I started adopting their practices into my own. Nineteen years later, that’s still where I am.

One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that more people who come to ADF and to Paganism in general seem to want more specific instruction than I had, more than most of us had back in the’90s. Specifically, many of them say that they want those details of how to do it correctly “because I’m afraid that what I’ve been doing so far is wrong”. After learning to practice in a culture that was so open and tolerant that nobody expressed such a concern, that was a bit of a shock to hear. I generally feel very uncomfortable when people come to me asking for that level of instruction, like I’m going to ruin their learning experience if I just hand it all to them, even as I sense that these people are genuinely concerned and might seriously consider leaving Paganism altogether rather than keep doing it incorrectly, whatever they think that means. I’m trying to give them a path where everything they practice is fine, and they think it must mean that everything they practice is wrong. I’ve become the priest of a “come as you are” religion, for better and for worse.

I’d be tempted to blame it on not having a face-to-face working group to practice with, as I know that practicing any kind of ritual or religion in a group tends to reinforce belief better than solitary practice does, but I’ve known plenty of people with working groups who still feel that way about their household practice. If you’re not in a region where the dominant culture constantly shows you what other people do in private, and you don’t get some kind of group reinforcement because it’s a solitary activity, then how do you know for sure you’re doing it right? I can guess that I’m using the right technique to brush my teeth because I see people in movies and on TV brushing their teeth and it looks the same. How to behave when you’re alone in your car, or on a romantic getaway weekend, or even how to say your prayers to a monotheist God before you go to bed, all are reinforced through the lore we read and hear and see all around us. But only a few movies show us anything claiming to be a Pagan ritual, and most of those are lurid and overdone for storytelling purposes. It’s no wonder that we’re left wondering whether we’re on the right track.

I don’t have any awesome and wondrous secrets to telling you whether your practice is right or wrong for you. To some extent personal ritual is always going to be personal, and I don’t think there’s one system that will work perfectly for everyone. Even when you have a script laid out before you, I think you should be willing to adapt it to your own needs, if your tradition allows it. In ADF, we do have a formal Core Order of Ritual that we’ve spent decades developing and refining, but we still only require its use for our groups’ public rituals and for some of our students in training. We know that people may want or need something else in their home practice, and we’re fine with that.

What I can give you is some advice from my early days that I think would be useful to any Pagan who wants to make their practice the best it can be, regardless of their tradition or path.

* Have some form of daily practice. If you’re up for doing a full-blown High Day rite every day, then hey, knock yourself out, but simple works just as well. A daily meditation, or some basic form of purification, or just light a candle and say a simple prayer. Regular practice will become a very part of your being and affect your whole life far more effectively than huge but sporadic rites. Yes, you should still do the huge sporadic rites as well, as you and your tradition see fit, but constant practice makes a huge difference.

* Along those lines, if you do miss a day, don’t beat yourself up too badly about it. Things happen. You may have a sick child or some other emergency to deal with. Or you may end up in the hospital for seven months after surgery, as I did. The important part is to simply resume doing them as soon as you can. If it helps, you could devise some kind of basic expiation rite to make up for missing a few days, like a purification with salt water or a special prayer of apology. Absolutely positively do not get it into your head that you need to make up for the simple rites you’ve missed by doing some kind of super-special big rite to all the gods and spirits. That’s a trap that even an experienced Pagan can fall into, and every day that passes without doing anything makes the hypothetical make-good ritual every more imposing, which makes you more likely not to get it done, and so the snowball grows as it rolls down the hill. Just get yourself back to doing it daily.

* Document, document, document! If you’re not already doing so, keep a journal of your practices. Include as much detail as you need to remember what you did the same as usual, and what you did that was different, if anything, and include your own reactions and feelings. You’ll also want to keep a general journal of your life alongside it, or included with it. Isaac Bonewits, the founder of ADF, used to say that nobody should critique a ritual until 24 hours had passed, in part because the full effects of the ritual might not be felt until well after it had ended, so be observant and open to that possibility. Then be willing to go back to your journal and look at your past practices and results. The things that work for you, and the things that don’t, may be much easier to spot that way.

Should you discuss your personal practices with others? To the extent that you’re comfortable doing so, sure. I’m hugely introverted and generally not into sharing any part of my personal life in detail, and I suspect there are a lot of Pagans out there who feel the same. But if you’re willing to compare notes with someone else who’s also up for it, then that should work. And if you’re practicing with a partner or a family, then you’ll definitely want to share in the process!

So my advice for anyone who’s worried that they’re doing it wrong: You probably aren’t. And if you are, there are things you can do to make it less wrong. But ultimately, it’s you and your relationships with the spirits that will decide the rightness or wrongness of it. With a regular practice and a good sense of kharis or *ghosti- or reciprocity or whatever your trad calls it, you’ll be ready for anything that life throws at you, no matter what you happen to be wearing at the time.

Rev. Rob Henderson
Senior Druid, Shining Lakes Grove, ADF

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2 thoughts on “The Downside Of “Come As You Are” Religion

  1. A few of my thoughts after reading through this….

    (1) If you’re doing something wrong, the Shining Ones (or whichever of the Kindreds it may be) will let you know. I discovered that, although loose coins is a widely recognized offering to Hermes, He doesn’t like receiving pennies. I’m not sure if others have had that experience or it’s only part of our Patron/devotee relationship. All I know is that the one and only time I offered Hermes pennies, I ended up with a strong gut feeling that I’d done something wrong and a sense of “I’ll let it go for now, but next time…” from Him.

    (2) Ditto on the daily devotional routines. Since I began developing them a little over six months ago, shortly after I returned from Wellspring, I’ve begun noticing that I tend to be less stressed out about things. I think back to the omens from last year’s Summer Solstice ritual which I took to be a confirmation that my prayers were being heard.

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