Sacred Magic and Finding the Divine

I’m writing this to work a few things out. I’ve changed tremendously over the past few years. What’s amazing is that with all that change, my relationship with Maria has only gotten deeper, more wonderful, and showers me with gratitude our lives are linked on this journey.

For some reason, religion has been coming up a lot in conversation lately, so it’s prompted me to pull a few mental programs out and re-examine them. I’m comfortably settling in to my post-Catholic belief in some form of the divine even at the same time Maria attends church and our children are being raised in the faith we both grew up in. At the time I wrote this post, my position was still relatively new. If you’re a newer reader, most of what I wrote there is relevant to the beliefs I have two years later but I’m not going to rehash the same points. I’d read that and then come back here.

Humanity’s knowledge of the world has progressed very far since the founding of the major world religions. Dismissing religion as something needed only to explain what has not yet been explained is not something I see as correct. If anything, as science has progressed from early reductionism, we’ve discovered more mystery. Soil-food webs, ecology, the microbiome, epigenetics and more are fields that are revealing incredibly complex networks. The interconnectedness of all life is mind-boggling. I’m okay if they never get explained. Mysteries, to my mind, provoke more respect than positive knowledge.

I diverged from the Catholic tradition in a lot of small ways over time. Looking back with the perspective of a few years’ distance, the division was forced by two wedges.

Wedge #1. The sacred is absolutely a thing. The author of Meditations on the Tarot is absolutely correct when he refers to the sacraments of the Church as sacred magic. While I’ve experienced mystical peace in several settings, my two most powerful experiences were in churches. The sacred energy in the shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and, even more so, in the crypt churches of the National Basilica practically bowled me over. When I was a believer, the sacred energy in the Eucharist was incredibly powerful, nor do I look back on it all and see it as a figment of imagination.

The Church, and in truth probably all faiths that have not twisted themselves to the dominion of others (e.g. fundamentalist currents or other perverted currents like the prosperity gospel), possess conduits of immense power. This is going to sound relativistic, but if those religions work for their believers, all power to them. The divine is like pure white light, and each religion a prism that breaks the infinite oneness into slightly different discrete, but understandable, spectrums comprehendable by our finite minds. Humans tune in to the energy around them.

But despite my respect for the sacred magic in the possession of the Catholic Church, I had to leave. My experience of the sacred power in the Basilica’s crypts was 2 years after leaving the Church. I know the sacred energy is there, but I can’t tap into it in the form its active believers do. There are just too many differences between me and the stated teachings of the Church. The principle three are as follows.

I’m bi-sexual. I believe this is the first time I’ve “come out” to many of the readers here, so it may shock some. I realized my dual sexuality only somewhat recently and in fact I used to be an outspoken anti-gay person in my youth. Looking back with new clarity, in hindsight a variety of small experiences growing up make a lot more sense. I’m obviously happily married straight, so this really doesn’t change my life, but it is who I am. Moreover, I don’t see anything wrong with homosexuality. Embracing it creates a lot of good. Oppressing it through legal force, stigma or by ‘curing’ people creates a lot of tortured souls.

I think the Catholic position on reproduction is wrong, or at least is not universally workable. If science could develop a 100% effective birth control method that wasn’t permanent, I think it would be a major coup to human well-being. Sex is an incredibly important bonding experience. Having been through three surprise pregnancies, even though we did want to keep them, was a trying emotional experience for me – and I can only barely comprehend what they were like for Maria. Seeing the intense emotion of a partner is a shadow of experiencing it for yourself.

Life has a way of surprising us, it’s true, and I don’t think perfect control is necessarily the ultimate good but no one should have to go through that if they do not want to. Unwanted and unloved children live miserable lives. Yes, there’s adoption, but first the massive social stigma associated with carrying pregnancies to term and then giving them up needs to be fixed. The clusterfuck that is the family court system also needs to be fixed. Seriously, talk to any foster parent.

Abortion is not a good thing in my mind. Like many not-very-good things, however, it’s been with us for nearly all of human history. Wise women of many cultures found and secretly passed the knowledge of natural medicines to terminate pregnancies down. Until unwanted pregnancies can be prevented, abortion is going to be a thing, and taking away access to it before solving the rest of the issues is folly.

It’s a mess no matter how you look at it but the more I compared my inclinations versus the teachings of the Church, it drove me away.

The third issue is my distaste for the intensely hierarchical nature but a lot of this feeds into the second full wedge.

Wedge #2. Jesus said “Wherever two or more are gathering in my name, I am with them.” The central ritual – and most potent sacred magic – co-opted the Jewish blessing before every meal, the breaking of the bread. The central prayer asks God to “give us our daily bread”. The sacred magic is in the gathering, in the food, in the home.

The sacred magic was quickly co-opted by an elite priesthood. The ritual was taken out of the home and put back into temples where believers face the invisible God instead of facing each other and finding God in the connections between us all.

Think of how much wealth and life energy has been tied up in religious structures over time! Monuments to the sacred have their role, something my own experiences can’t deny, but still I wonder what the human landscape would look like if the major religions devoted their energy and money to neighborliness instead of capital-intensive structures. Plain communities, for all their human flaws, give us a glimpse at what might have been and could be.

Joel Salatin and I would disagree over the social issues I highlighted above, but a thing in his Christian faith I absolutely respect is his commitment to ‘home church’. They worship in the house, as I think it was always intended by Jesus himself. They have an intensely personal relationship with God, and the families who share the journey with them. This faith energy is bound up in the home, in the meal, in each other – not an impersonal structure separated from the home. It’s powerful stuff.

In his most recent book, he talks about Jesus’ parable of the wheat, that only if the seed dies can it give life. All life requires death. Every meal, every breath we take is the result of a sacrifice. Our fundamental relationship with creation is drawn to a head around our table. Do we worship with our food? Do we worship with those we share a meal? Do we worship in the home? Food, life energy, is so important. Disconnecting the central ritual of Christianity from this basic truth is a mistake.

I’m not sure how to go about finding partners on this journey. I’m not arrogant enough to say I have truth. I’m no prophet or priest. My beliefs are so different from the norm. They’re also nebulous, wisps of wordless thought I can barely grab onto long enough to force into words. I’m frankly surprised this piece has come out as coherent as it has.

If you have one, what is your faith journey like?

Do you search for the divine outside of a conventional religion? What is your ‘worship’ like?  Have you found others to share it with?


Old Tyme Religion

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Because I like to break the rules, today we’re going to talk about religion. The Alchemist and I have had some marital friction lately. All of us do. I won’t say more than that here, but the hard talks and sparking connections we’ve been putting back to rights have gotten me using parts of my brain I haven’t used in ages.

I was raised Catholic but slowly fell away, until, all of a sudden I realized I needed to make a clean break. That clean break put me in a nebulous theological position. I have a lot of formal training in the area, and none of the other Christian traditions could hold water (for me). I knew all of the arguments backwards and forwards. This led to a questioning of Christianity and, by extension, religion as a whole.

I’ve even gone so far as to toy with the label of atheist. Those who know me, know I hate labels. I used it more for provocation than anything else.

When pressed to think about it, both in getting to reconnect with the love of my life, my diadh-anam, and those helping me along my journey by sharing their own highly personal stories (if you’re reading this, you know who you are) I can’t say that I don’t believe anymore. I do believe. Catholicism doesn’t work, but reductionist materialism doesn’t work either.

I believe in God.

I also believe that God, at its* core, is fundamentally unknowable. As an accurate translation of Pseudo-Dionysius reads, it is beyond-being, beyond-essence, beyond-knowing.

The revelation traditions which have risen throughout human history, in my opinion, teach us far more about the human psychology of those receiving and proselytizing that revelation than any positive truth about the divine. At the same time, it’s difficult to critique traditions (excepting hard ethical boundaries like discrimination, physical mutilation, etc) because I’d take a very pragmatic or teleocentric approach: if your religion makes you a better person, so be it. That’s wonderful.

Tying back into the beyond-beingness of God is the fact that, what makes humanity special among all of the (known) universe, is that each one of us shares this core of beyond-knowingness. When approaching one another, we have to remember that – no matter how much we know about a person, their history, their motivations, their desires – they are an agent. Agency is an incredibly powerful concept. At the other’s core is otherness. A locus of choice, a wellspring of activity, the foundation of consciousness – something we can never, ever understand.

We have to embrace the wonder and mystery of unknowability. We have to meditate on this.

Someone I’ll refer to as M shared with me an incredible story. The key to it was learning to love her husband unconditionally. Replacing what she called a Spirit of Disrespectful Judgment with a Spirit of Curiosity. I haven’t dug into the sources she recommended, but the Spirit of Curiosity really resonated with me. It’s a method of looking at your beloved (and, really, anyone you encounter) asking to be surprised. Not answering their question in your head before they’ve even asked it. Not criticizing them constantly according to your judgments. Instead, seeking to understand them. To fall into the core of their personality – even though you know you can never, ever fully understand it.

Whatever your religion or lack thereof, I hope you’ll consider joining me on this journey into the unknown.

*English desperately needs a non-gendered pronoun which conveys positive being more than the impersonal and inanimate ‘it’.

 


Non-Earth Universes

I’ve started and abandoned several Earth-universe books, typically near-future sci-fi joints. They can be interesting psychological exercises – a reflection of the author’s political and cultural biases – but the defined historical root of the real world ultimately hamstrung me. (I’m sorry for inflicting one of them on the two people who’ve read it. You know who you are!) The world-building involved in getting from a known past to a future there can be an interesting theory-crafting exercise but becomes overly idealized or depressingly gritty. Neither appeals to me personally.

So I’ve found myself devoted 100% to the universe I’ve slowly built over the past decade, which I’ve come to call the Grey Empire Universe. My strongest WIP is a novel called The Thirteenth Orbit (current in a second draft and being actively beta read), set roughly 4,000 years into the established history of the world, but I’ve got unfinished projects at many points in the past and future relative to this book.

Designing a universe from the ground-up can seem a daunting task, even if you avoid the epic fantasy problem of needed a thousand or more invented names, languages, races, etc. It certainly hasn’t happened overnight, but two things about my particular non-Earth universe appeal to me – and have triggered writing this post.

Even when I was devoutly religious, I never put religion in my universe. By the time I realized this, I was years into writing the world. At first it was a curiosity – as in, “huh, I forgot the religion!” Cursory reflection quickly concluded that adding a religion in at this point would be difficult at best. Deeper reflection revealed that I liked it this way. It seems that the need for invented religions is assumed in non-Earth universes, but I have never seen it that way. My characters seem completely believable without it at all points in the universe’s history.

This is important, because I want to explore an alternate evolution of technology versus magic and organic living. The Empire is founded at the tail-end of a quasi-medieval period of my world’s history, at a critical juncture of relative influence between technology and magic. The First Dynasty suffers from a classic succession problem, where the second Empress nearly squanders the success of her father. In the end, the large Asia Minor-esque isthmus is established under central rule, and increased technological prowess allows the Empire to slowly expand and consume the independent entities of Nelara.

The principal obstacle to the Empire’s success is a magic society known as the Revealers. They made the likeliest candidate for a religion in my universe. I wrote a short story using the term priest to describe the mendicant wanderers who make up the magicians, but it didn’t work. It falls apart because magic and science in my world are two sides of the same coin. There is no act of will. No act of faith. Magic is simply an alternate set of knowledge, and the application of an alternate set of forces. Two of my protagonists are apprentice magicians, so I’ll leave the specifics for the books.

In the quasi-medieval period before the Empire’s founding and during the First Dynasty before their eradication, the Revealers’ principal function was the ‘revelation’ and interpretation of disease. In a fun bit of anachronistic (by Earth frame-of-reference) world-building, I give them the ability to visualize and manipulate DNA. Progress in agriculture and medicine is owed almost completely to them. Almost. Traditional scientific knowledge exists, even though it has to play catch-up. Concentrated in the hands of the Empire, it becomes a powerful enough substitute that the Revealers are scourged – plunging the enemies of the Empire into a Dark Age.

When, later on in the Empire, the writings of the Revealers are re-discovered by a team of free-thinking scientists searching for immortality, it triggers another war between magic and technology. Because they use different knowledge-sets and world-views, one could argue that this war (and the eternal tension in my world) is a holy war of sorts. The Empire fears magic because it can’t control it. Technology can be disseminated of course, but it is tied to an industrial complex that is far less portable, if you will, than magic. It is a political consideration. There is no act of faith. The Empire requires no worship of the ruler, nor is their any supplication required to become a novice magician – just a healthy disregard for one’s personal safety.

Plenty of magic-as-hidden-reality books are based in our world. Many of them are fantastic. But the real world doesn’t work for what I want to explore.


The Way of Agnosticism

One of the only posts I wrote for a now-defunct blog was titled Catholic No More. I’d struggled with my faith for a few years, and that post was where I had reached my breaking point. I was ready to say “no more” and make a conscious break. The prompting for that break was primarily negative. Flaws I saw in the Church. Flaws in my own relationship with it.

Everything about the decision was negative, ontologically speaking. I didn’t yet have anything positive to replace it with. Explaining my (negative) position has been almost entirely counterproductive. Explaining my reasoning has been taken as an attack on what I am leaving behind. That’s why I feel peace at having something positive welling up inside of me. The negative label can die.

I hate labels. I refuse to label my political beliefs. I hesitate to label my spiritual beliefs, such as they are. But I recognize that words, while imperfect containers of meaning, function to convey understanding. For lack of a better term, I will say that – in a positive sense – I have laid claim to being agnostic. By ‘positive sense’ I mean that I identify as agnostic, instead of as a fallen-away Catholic.

Words are imperfect. Let me unpack what I mean by agnostic. I believe there is something more than reductive materialism. Magic, belief, transcendent pursuits such as art and meditation  – all of these have an innate appeal to humanity. Evolutionary psychology can have powerful explanations for the source of this appeal, but full-blown atheism is a barren wasteland which holds no appeal to me.

So, what are my beliefs? They can’t be identified with a single tradition. The closest would be the core of Taoism, that all Ways lead to the Way. Human beings are called to the following:

  • Care of nature as the apex predator and only self-aware creature in the world
  • Transcending the circumstances of our animal birth. Striving to improve in all things, a sprout reaching for the sky.
  • Harmonizing with those around us. Living with as little negative and as much positive impact as possible.
  • Accepting that the past and immediate present is unchangeable. We can only influence the future. At each and every moment, presented with the rigid fatalism of the NOW, we ask ourselves: what is the best thing to do NEXT.

I will permit myself a last shotgun blast of labels, trusting the reader to understand that the admixture of these is something I am still working out: Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Stoicism, and Transhumanism.

Ritual, institution, and authority are rife with the imperfections of humanity. Religion, historically, has been more of a political tool than a true aid to human transcendence. This is not to attack it. All Ways lead to the Way. For many, many people it is the right course.

I am convinced in a manner that I haven’t been convinced until now that is is not my Way.