Intersections

Exploring the crossroads of religion, culture, and science through a Pagan lens


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Virtues of the Goddess: Reverence

As the calendar moves through October, our local theater options tend to turn toward plays with darker themes.  Early in the month, I was privileged to see two beautifully realized musicals that turn a shaded eye onto humanity’s condition.  The first was Sweeney Todd, the classic tale of the murderous barber of Fleet Street.  The other was a surprise: a powerful stage musical adaptation of Disney’s animated film The Hunchback of Notre Dame (itself adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel).  

Both of these musical feature pious, powerful men who become villains in their thirst for even more power and control over a woman who is unlucky enough to catch their fancy.  In both cases, these men result to a scorched Earth policy to force themselves upon the women they lust after, all the while maintaining an air of haughty propriety – a sense that everyone should be like them, and those who are not are unfit to live.  And yet, each show features an intense musical number where the pious villain breaks down in his weakness, turns to mush, then commits to his vile course of exploitation and murder.

Sweeney’s Judge Turpin whips himself in shame, then sexually advances on his adopted daughter.  This, of course, years after he acquired that daughter by raping her mother and falsely sending the girl’s father away to prison for life.

Hunchback’s Frollo, a Catholic priest, prays to his God, begs for help, then strikes out to burn Esmeralda at the stake if she refuses to submit to his sexual desires.  

Both excuse their actions through prayer, begging their god for mercy while offering none to the women who deny them.  Both use their positions of power and prestige as a sword to the throat of the innocent.  Both are objects of reverence in their own community who aren’t worth the ground their victims spit on.  

At the end of Hunchback we are give a powerful riddle to solve:

What makes a monster,

And what makes a man?

What Makes a monster? Wikimedia

What Makes a monster? Wikimedia

 

What makes a monster? Source: Playbill.com

What makes a monster? Source: Playbill.com

 

At the darkness of Samhain approaches, it came to me that the answer is the final virtue in this series: Reverence.  You can tell a “man” (to be inclusive, a person) by whom and what they revere.  In this case, actions speak louder than words.  Both villains make a show of revering their Catholic God, but in truth they revere power over others, control, abuse, and manipulation.  Without getting political, I think we can find a lot of people in our modern society like that.  These are the monsters.

Yet, there are others, people from all faith traditions and those who claim no faith, who revere the ideas and morals than make them “a man,” and their actions also reveal their loyalties.  Do they stand up for love?  Equality?  Fairness?  Do they live that every day?  Do they speak out for these things?  Do they truly live up to the moral code they espouse?  All of these can be done regardless of religious practice.  And if you truly revere these qualities, you live them.

And What Makes a Man? eddieonfilm.blogspot.com

And What Makes a Man?/ Source: eddieonfilm.blogspot.com

 

We get tested when things get dark in our lives.  As we approach Samhain, the time of darkness, we face toward our ancestors and we know that they know our true selves.  We come face to face with our death, and we know that what we revered in life will follow us in the memories of those who live after us, those who will call us ancestors.

What do you revere?  Would you rather be a “monster” or a “man”?

Virtues of the Goddess is a series on the eight virtues mentioned in the Charge of the Goddess and their relationship to the sabbats of the Wheel of the Year.  This is the final installment – Part 8: Reverence.

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Virtues of the Goddess: Strength

Strength may be the most misunderstood of the Goddess’ virtues.  She advises us to be strong, but the tricky part is what exactly is strength, and how can it be used appropriately instead of abusively?

“There are two ways of exerting one’s strength: one is by pushing down, the other is pulling up.”

-Booker T. Washington

 When animals are attacked, they often react with a show of strength.  Dogs growl and bear their teeth.   Cats arch their backs and hiss.  Humans brandish weapons, puff out their chests, and lash out at others in all caps over social media.  It’s natural.  It’s automatic.  And it’s usually false.

dont_know_whats_comin_3926784260

Photo Credit: Prevetz Partensky, “Don’t Know What’s Comin'” [Source: Wikipedia]

These are instinctual reactions usually meant to scare away a threat by showing it how big and tough they are, but the point is to scare the intruder away by pretending to be strong.  If an actual fight ensues, the big scary animal often backs down.  These are natural reactions to threat – meaning that the bear on all fours or the hissing cat are actually feeling frightened, not strong.  In an attempt to avoid a fight, they make themselves look scary and aggressive, when really they are feeling insecure.

Humans do it too.  How often have you seen an argument devolve into a personal insult match, either in person or online?  It’s the same thing: a person feels threatened so they lash back with belittling ad hominems or long strings of paragraph-free text filled with ALL CAPS instead of defending their position.  It’s not real strength; it’s insecurity. And it’s the sign that your argument is weak.  It’s the opposite of strength.

 

size-of-a-blowfish

Blowfish [Source: Yahoo Images]

To put it in a more practical light, imagine a teenager coming home late from a big party.  Instead of listening to her child’s side, the mother leads by confronting her/him at the door and accusing the teen of all kinds of offenses (shades of Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized” are ringing in my head. If you know the song, you get it).  Her daughter isn’t going to back down.  She’s threatened, so she launches right into her own argument, and things escalate from there.  It’s the easy, natural road to take, but the escalation leads only to a painful outcome.

Instead, what if mom listened to her daughter?  That doesn’t mean let her get away with it.  It means to lead from the heart with how concerned she was, and the two move toward a discussion of the offense.  Punishment still happens, but it’s a measured punishment that fits the crime, coming from a strong position rather than the excesses of anger, and the child fully understands what is behind it.  In psychology, this is called an Authoritative style of parenting.  It has been shown to be the most difficult, yet most effective method.

 

“It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate,

It takes strength to be gentle and kind.”

-The Smiths

Strength is doing what is right, despite your fears of the outcome.  It’s doing the right thing, even when it is hard.  In the Wheel of the Year, Lammas is the time where the God is seen as sacrificing himself for the good of the community.  Acting with strength often takes some form of self-sacrifice:

 When we listen to opposing arguments without attacking the opposition personally, and we take the time to deliver a measured response.

When we ignore trolls.

 When we apologize for something we did wrong and accept the consequences.

 When we calmly and reasonably stand up to someone who has wronged us.

 When we see injustice on the internet and do our research before unleashing our inner hissing cat.

The list could go on and on.  These all take some form of sacrifice, and in each our natural reaction is to puff up like a frightened blowfish.  Doing what is right is difficult, especially when you are being asked to act against your own self-interest. One of the things that make humans special is our ability to overcome our instinctual fight-or-flight response, and it is in exercising this ability that we show our greatest strength.

 

Virtues of the Goddess is a series on the eight virtues mentioned in the Charge of the Goddess and their relationship to the sabbats of the Wheel of the Year.  This is Part 6: Strength.

 


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Virtues of the Goddess: Power

Virtues of the Goddess is a series on the eight virtues mentioned in the Charge of the Goddess and their relationship to the sabbats of the Wheel of the Year.  This is Part 5: Power.

 

Early in college, I took political science from a strange professor.  He was large and blustery, with a beet red face and an intense stare.  Although he identified as a Libertarian, he would often quote Adolf Hitler to us in German, then take pains to shame us for not understanding the subtle differences between the Fuhrer’s native tongue and the English translations of his speeches.  

As part of that class, we read A Parliament of Whores, an irreverent take on the U.S. government by Rolling Stone humorist P.J. O’Rourke.  O’Rourke’s political views differ from mine, but his book was funny, light, and mostly enjoyable. One particular section, however, still sticks with me.  While contemplating the nature of power and the type of person who seeks to hold political power, O’Rourke wrote:

“Authority has always attracted the lowest elements in the human race. All through history, mankind has been bullied by scum. Those who lord it over their fellows and toss commands in every direction and would boss the grass in the meadow about which way to bend in the wind are the most depraved kind of prostitutes. They will submit to any indignity, perform any vile act, do anything to achieve power.”

Parliament of whores o'rourke

To a young college student, not yet of drinking age, right at the height of the dramatic Bill Clinton vs. George H.W. Bush election, this passage hit me hard.  “But,” protested the young idealist in me who kind of liked that cool Democrat who wore sunglasses and played saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show, “some politicians really want to help people!”  O’Rourke had an answer for that too:

“Politicians are interested in people. Not that it is always a virtue. Fleas are interested in dogs.”

Is it any different now?  Look at this year’s downright frightening presidential race, and you almost prove O’Rourke’s points.  Both sides of the political spectrum have included a battle between candidates who swim in political power vs. candidates who tap into large groups who feel disaffected and alienated by existing power structure.  There is a large element on both sides that sees establishment power as the scum and the fleas that O’Rourke called them so many years ago.  Certainly, they all claim to be fighting for the people, but you have to wonder if their interest in the people is sincere or whether, as O’Rourke believed, they are simply looking to siphon a little blood off their hosts.

So how can power be a virtue, as the Goddess tells us it is?  We all have some relationship with power.  On the various stages on which we act throughout our lives, some have power over us, and on other stages we have power over others.  At work we have bosses and subordinates.  In school we have teachers and peers.  The police officer who pulls us over may have temporary power over us, but once she’s off duty, our powers are equal.  In social groups, covens, groves, or other voluntary groups, we often voluntarily recognize a leader.  Power is a part of our lives.

The problem is more about who seeks it and how they express it.  As we near the Summer Solstice, we come to the time of the Wheel when The God’s power is at its strongest.  He is sovereign at this time, but he uses that power to be a steward of the Earth.  Solstice rituals often involve a theme of standing in our own sovereignty.  Yet, with the God as well is in our lives, the king must be in harmony with the land he rules as well as its people, or his power will fade.  Just ask King Arthur.

The God’s sovereignty becomes a symbol of our own control over our lives.  His example helps us take charge of our own intentions, hopes, and dreams.  With his reminder, we are able to “manifest our change according to our Will.”  We can’t be true magicians unless we stand in our own power, in harmony with our gods and our lives, and the Green Man at the Solstice helps us do that.

It sometimes becomes fashionable in religious communities to deny your own power, to “give it up to God,” or “trust the universe.” Pagans don’t have to do that.  On the contrary, for Witches, “To Will” is one of the four base points of the Witch’s pyramid.  We don’t give up power over our lives to others; we strive to control our lives and manifest our intentions.  You can’t do that without accepting your own power. We can acknowledge our power to work with the universe or the gods and manifest the lives we wish for ourselves and our loved ones.  We can help others do the same.  

Witch's Pyramid

We can hold power without being fleas.  We can use our power to help others find theirs.  We can focus our power in ways that help us live better lives.  Power is dangerous, but so is electricity.  It can still benefit our lives,and the lives of others, immensely.


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Virtues of the Goddess: Mirth

Virtues of the Goddess is a series on the eight virtues mentioned in the Charge of the Goddess and their relationship to the sabbats of the Wheel of the Year.  This is Part 4: Mirth.

Mirth seems to explode around us as we approach the season of Beltane.  Nature seems to be slipping on her best dress and looking for a good time.  The flowers burst open with their colorful and aromatic call to be pollinated, and here in southern California, the eye-popping purple blooms of the normally unremarkable jacaranda tree light up our sunny days.  The birds sing beautiful songs and flutter about in elaborate dances to win a chance for love.  Thrilled with the longer, warmer days, humanity also begins to migrate from indoors to outdoors as we wear more revealing clothing or head to the gym in our quest for that perfect summer beach body.  After all that darkness, we’re all looking for a little fun right now.

mirth jacaranda

Jacaranda tree in full bloom

Jacaranda Mirth

The annual SoCal spectacle of Jacaranda.

The virtue of Mirth is unique.  The other virtues advised by the Charge of the Goddess can be claimed in some form by most mainstream religions.  That’s trickier to do with Mirth.  Mirth is a traditionally secular value that is somewhat opposed to most religions.  In some religious circles, the Mirth appears to celebrate THIS life and to turn attention away from the divine.  The Puritans even outlawed Christmas because people were having way too much fun.

 

But that really shouldn’t be the case.  For Pagans, especially those who identify as Wiccans or Witches, our bodies, this life, and the Earth are sacred.  In the tradition of “Remember thou art Goddess,” this physical world and this current life are expressions of the divine, so why not have just as much fun as the gods do?  Why not celebrate them?  As far as I’m concerned, that should apply to all faiths.  I’m not here to tell other religions what to do, but it seems to me that if your God created you as well as sex, dancing, wine, and other sources of fun, then it’s probably alright if you utilize His creation.

 

“Wine is constant proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

– Benjamin Franklin

 

I recently ran across a new style of mead called “Mirth in a Bottle.”  We, of course, enjoyed it with our Beltane ritual.  I could go over the tasting notes, but that’s not the point.  I love the idea of this mead because I believe there’s a greater truth to that name.   In everyday life, it’s all too tempting to avoid mirth.  To keep it bottled up.  Our jobs are stressful, our obligations close in on us, our lives are busy.  As a society, we often put our own needs – especially our own fun – last on the list.  That means it never gets done.  We often keep our mirth tightly corked.

Mirth Beltane Mead

It’s a shame.  Whether we have one life or many, we still have a limited time to enjoy the wonderful sensations and experiences only available to spirits in bodies.  On the cosmic scale, our chance to enjoy the wonders of physical incarnation, from laughter at silly pun to the ecstasy of amazing sex, is limited.  And yet, we squander that time doing work we often don’t like and performing the joyless chores that we place as a higher priority to the enjoyment of life.  We feel guilty when we take some down time for ourselves. We’re bottled up.

 

Have you seen that commercial that begins with the words, “When did leaving work on time become an act of courage?”  That ad expresses an unfortunate truth about our society.  We don’t allow ourselves enough mirth.  We bottle it up for the sake of the next promotion, peer pressure, or some other excuse. To me, that means we don’t value our lives enough to enjoy them.

 

Mirth is an expression of gratitude to whatever gods you believe it.  It is enjoyment of the gift the universe has given you.  To ignore it is to waste that precious gift and thumb your nose the gods, God, the Universe, or whoever you believe gave it to you.  In this way, mirth may be the highest and most spiritual virtue I can think of.  So dance, sing, feast, make music, and love.  For the sake of the gods, open up a bottle of mirth any time you can!

 

 

 

 


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Virtues of the Goddess: Honor

Virtues of the Goddess is a series on the eight virtues mentioned in the Charge of the Goddess and their relationship to the sabbats of the Wheel of the Year.  This is Part 3: Honor.

Last Sunday, I was treated to a special screening of the classic Mel Brooks satirical comedy Blazing Saddles.  The screening, which included a discussion with Brooks himself afterward, packed our gigantic Segerstrom Center with rabid fans of the comic genius writer-director-actor-singer-composer-producer.  The crowd spanned across all ages.  My dad, in his 70s, sat next to me.  The lady next to him looked to be not quite of drinking age, and she enthusiastically sang along the opening theme song as she zealously cracked her imaginary whip at all the right moments of the introductory number.

 

(Fun Fact that I learned at the screening: The singer of the theme song, Frankie Laine, had no idea the movie was a comedy, so the heartfelt passion in his voice is genuine)

I was worried about how this showing would turn out.  My father is an avid Mel Brooks fan, so I grew up watching this movie and knew almost every line, but I hadn’t seen it in probably 20 years.  Released in 1974, Blazing Saddles is a Western spoof that intentionally and constantly pushes racial conflict directly into your face.  The N word is tossed around as casually as a softball on a lazy spring day.  It’s not pretty.

Other racist epithets abound.  The language is often shocking to today’s ear, but it was partly written by the legendary Richard Pryor.  There is no limit on who gets insulted, but the central story is of Bart, played by the classically trained actor Cleavon Little.  Bart is a black railroad worker who gets appointed by corrupt white politicians to the post of Sheriff of Rock Ridge, a town that sits on prized railroad land.  Knowing that the racist locals will tear the lawman apart, they joyously sacrifice him to the white masses hoping to induce chaos and steal the land.

Little

Cleavon Little as Sheriff Bart

Could this play in our current political atmosphere?  It wasn’t very long before I realized that yes, it could.  The satire is plain – those who throw around epithets are portrayed as ignorant savages.  The racists are the bad guys.  They all are dishonorable. Gene Wilder’s Waco Kid character calmly explain exactly what they are: “morons.”  

Gene Wilder Blazing Saddles

Gene Wilder as The Waco Kid

 

This is not one of the Blacksploitation movies that were popular in the 1970s.  Bart is a fully fleshed out character, the least caricatured role in the film.  Bart is always portrayed as honorable.  He and the Waco Kid slowly plant the seeds of honor in the town of Rock Ridge, and those seeds bloom as Sheriff Bart begins to live up to the words film’s theme song:

“He conquered fear and he conquered hate,

He turned dark night into day!”

What makes Bart honorable?  He does what is right.  He lives up to his duty.  It’s not popular, and he risks his own life to do it, but he seeks the right course of action despite odds that are overwhelmingly against him.  He does the right thing, even for people who despise him.  Little by little, he wins the town over by planting seeds of honor.  Those seeds take root, and the citizens of Rock Ridge grow into their own form of honor.  They grow to love Bart.  They learn to honor Bart as a man who does his duty.  They eventually trust him with the ultimate fight against the bad guys, and he inspires them to stand up and defend their homes with honor.

Here at the Spring Equinox, we often contemplate the seeds we are planting.  What are we doing now that will blossom into a fruitful harvest in our lives come fall?  This year is especially important.  With seeds of anger and dishonor being cast far and wide across America, how are we contributing to a more just and honorable country?  t’s a time of contrasts.  We celebrate the returning of the light, yet we remember that we learn about ourselves in the darkness.  

Blazing Saddles is a film that unabashedly points out the dark parts of America’s soul, helping us learn about ourselves (even if it does include a scene celebrating the art of flatulence).  The movie takes racism head on and reduces it to absurdity.  It presents a vision where acting with honor, despite the dangers to yourself, can germinate real change.

I only wish we had learned that lesson back in 1974.  Still, as we rise out of the dark time, yet see so much darkness in the landscape ahead of us, may we plant our seeds of honor and do our part to “turn dark night into day.”


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Virtues of the Goddess: Compassion

Witches often point to the Law of Three or the last lines of the Wiccan Rede as the source of their ethical beliefs. The trouble is that even those simple guidelines can be controversial. It’s a wonderful goal to “harm none,” but it’s virtually impossible in practice. Just by driving to work, I harm the environment. The Law of Three has so many different interpretations by now that it can really only be a loose reminder that we get back what we send. Further, since we have no central authority, many people object to each of these for their own philosophical reasons.

So what’s left? It’s also easy to point to the words of the Charge of the Goddess, which tell us that “All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.” That’s a great start. Every time you are experiencing or causing love and pleasure, you are in accord with the Goddess. Still, there’s a lot of grey here. You can’t just orient your life around love and pleasure. Your job may not provide either, but that doesn’t make it unethical. I hate vacuuming, but that doesn’t make it immoral.

Thankfully, the Charge of the Goddess also provides us with a list of eight virtues that provide a fantastic guide on how to live our lives. You’re probably already familiar with these words:

 “Let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you.”

 

Over the next year, I’d like to explore each of these virtues and how they offer practical ethical guidance to the life of the Witch. There are eight virtues and eight sabbats, so as we turn the Wheel throughout the next year, each installment will come out near one of the sabbats. At this time of Yule, as we await the birth of light in depth of the night, it seems appropriate to start with the virtue of compassion.

 ***

220px-compassion-logo

Here in southern California, a local professional theater has been performing an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with the same actor always playing Scrooge, since 1980. It has become a Holiday necessity for many families in the area. My wife and I got to see it this year, and one line really stuck out to me. Early on, a couple arrives at Scrooge’s office to collect donations for charity. In their pitch, they attempt to remind the old miser that “Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts,” and that they select this time of year, “Because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.”

Underneath all the frenetic advertising and online arguments over the true “reason for the season” lies an ugly truth- for many, the darkness of December is not joyous. It’s not about shopping. It’s about facing growing cold, growing darkness, growing pressure, and growing debt. It’s a time of pain and worry, not of joy.

Certainly that’s true for those without adequate housing, but there’s more to it. Advertising constantly tells us what we need to have, yet many families don’t have the means to purchase every new thing that their children have been told they need. The music of the season tells us to be merry, but Dickens’ description of those without access to common comforts still rings true today. Worse, young children don’t understand this. They don’t realize just how hard their parents may work, how little they often are paid, nor how expensive their requests are. Sometimes, all they know is that their friend is getting (fill in name of big deal toy here), and they want one too.

For many families in my community, and probably near yours too, the darkness and cold of the Holiday season is more than just about the disappearing sun. It’s a metaphor for the fear and anxiety that slowly tightens its grip over them as we sit cozily by the fire and sip our hot cocoa. As the darkness grows, their Want, as Dickens would say, is ever more keenly felt.

We can’t all help everyone. That is a basic truth, but it can also freeze us up and keep us from helping anyone. Every virtue in the Charge is paired with another. Compassion is balanced with Power. To me, this is where the balance of Power and Compassion come into play. Most of us have some power to help someone in some way. We have the power to help others if we choose to seek it out.

Every Christmas Eve, my neighbors across the street organize a Toys for Tots delivery. They spend all day loading huge truckloads of gifts to give to local children. We can’t all do that, but most of us can donate a toy or two. Other places have coat drives, sock drives, and other charity opportunities for us to help others make it through this cold and difficult time of year. Whether you are able to donate money, gifts, or time, there are options all around if we seek them out.

Toys For Tots Logo

At the same time, we can’t forget to have compassion for ourselves. Earlier this year, I posted an article suggesting that compassion includes ourselves. While the response was mostly positive, there were those who vocally disagreed that they taking care of themselves was appropriate or valuable. For some, self-sacrifice is deeply ingrained as an indelible value.

Frankly, I see that attitude as a carryover from Christianity. Sacrifice is an important part of the Christian faith, but it is not an element of Witchcraft. In the Charge, the Goddess says, “Nor do I demand aught of sacrifice.” Helping others is compassionate and good, but you must also help yourself. Doing so helps you become a happier, healthier, and wealthier person, placing you in a much greater position to fill the cup of others. If I’m thirsty, and you give me your last thimbleful of water, the results are just two thirsty people.

One of the hardest things about this time of year is its contradiction. The darkness and cold turn us toward a period of moving inward, yet our culture implores us to be more active that ever in the outer world. We’re supposed to shop, go to parties, prepare family meals, and celebrate. Witches flow with the natural cycles of the earth, so this contradiction can be especially jarring. Compassion for ourselves, then, becomes all the more important. It’s vital to find that balancing point between self-care and outward celebration. It’s there somewhere, and it’s different for all of us. Finding it may begin with balancing your compassion for others with your compassion for yourself. Then, as Dickens encouraged, we may be able to rejoice in mutual Abundance.