Friday
Nov152013

The Rudiments of Neopagan Spiritual Practice

Meditation, Magic, and Invocation

It’s hard to know where to start addressing interfaith prayer from a European Indigenous / Neopagan context. As is often the case with Earth Religionists trying to write in an interfaith context, the conversation is filled with a multitude of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim voices. These voices represent an Abrahamic model of what religion is and how it is done… a paradigm into which the Earth Religions usually do not fit. Several aspects of the Neopagan approach to spirituality sometimes seem at “right-angles” to those of the dominant Abrahamic culture in the United States.

An outdoor circle at a Neopagan handfasting, or marriage ceremony. – Photo: WikipediaThe many Neopagan traditions, including Wicca, Druidism, and Heathenism, formed over the course of the last 150 years largely in secret. Fear of oppression by the dominant Christian culture resulted in a self-protective isolation and a deep-seated opposition to all things Christian. Until very recently – say the last 20 years – most Neopagans were converts from other faiths, usually having rejected oppressive forms of Christianity that ruled the households in which their views of “religion” formed. It should come as no surprise that in such an oppositional culture, Christian words like “prayer” and the attendant practices would be avoided. Most Neopagans wouldn’t describe their rituals as “prayer” unless pressed to describe what we do in Christian terms.

Three Pagan Spiritual Practices

The preferred Neopagan approaches to the Gods have been meditation, magic, and invocation.

Neopagan meditation is a form of communion with the Gods. Through contemplation of a God’s or Goddess’s image, attributes, epithets, myths, and previous interactions with us we can bring ourselves into closer alignment with the deity as a manifestation of the One reality underlying all things. This alignment results in living in the world in a more harmonious way – going with the flow rather than against it. I have to say that, while almost all Neopagans recognize an underlying oneness to reality, few would use a term like “the One.” Neopagans, as a rule, focus much more of their daily practice on the personal relationships that are possible with the Gods and Goddesses than on distant abstract concepts.

Iamblichus Magic is an integral part of Neopagan spiritual practice. Magic may be defined as “making a connection with a reality that is perceived to be more fundamental – more true – than this everyday one, for the purpose of learning more about that fundamental reality or effecting a change in the everyday one.” For us, magic and religion are one. This was true in Classical antiquity, when the Neoplatonic theurgists like Iamblichus used the tools of magic to contact “higher” spiritual realities. We are their heirs and use magic in much the same way. Sure, you can work a spell to make a change in your day-to-day world, for instance to get a job; but the more important work is to make a change in your internal world, to change your self. For this reason – and as a guide to the ethical use of magic – Priestess Amber K has said that “All acts of magic should be acts of love.”

The personal connection with the Gods found in meditation combines with the embodied experience of magical ritual in the act of invocation. It used to be that invocation was central to almost all of the Neopagan paths. With the rise of the Internet and a more “popular” Neopaganism, fewer and fewer Neopagans receive the training to do this practice, and it is becoming relegated to the modern analogue of what used to be called “Mystery Religions.” Invocation is the calling of a God or Goddess to be present in an individual, typically a person who has been trained to be a vessel for such spiritual energies. It is always done in a group setting.

Sacred objects used in Neopagan ceremonies.Through invocation, a deity can speak with, give spiritual guidance to, heal, and otherwise aid a group of practitioners. We will sometimes call this “possessory work.” It can be distinguished from the form of possession found in Vodoun by being much less ecstatic in its manifestation. Most importantly, it can be distinguished from New Age “channeling” by being personally uplifting and transformative for the person being possessed. Channels stress how they are unconscious for the experience and how they go back to being “just an ordinary person” after the channeled entity leaves.

In invocation, the person being invoked upon can have the most spiritually intimate connection with deity we can imagine. In our practice, if deity possession doesn’t leave you a better person, then you are doing something seriously wrong. Through invocation, our relationships with the Gods undergo a transformation, from relating as a child to a parent, to relating as siblings, to relating to a God or Goddess as self or lover.

Gods and Goddesses in Person

And, of course, sometimes the Gods and Goddesses show up in person. It is rare, but not unknown, for the Gods to manifest in physical forms when that best suits the situation. Many of us have met our Gods in the flesh. I sometimes hear in Christianity that “the age of miracles is over.” We still live in that age. While the roots of our traditions are old, the current manifestations are still quite young. In many ways, the religious context of the Neopagan traditions is similar to the first couple of centuries of Christianity. We are going through the same transformations and growing pains, but thanks to the Internet and digital communication, it’s all happening much faster.

Deities are fundamental participants in Neopagan meditation, magic, and invocation, and each practice elevates our consciousness to be more like that of the Gods, allowing us to operate in the world with less reliance on meditation or ritual to attain that state of mind. For us, it’s a truism in the Neopagan paths that, “The more you practice magic, the less you practice magic.” In other words, the more you engage in the spiritual / magical practices, the more they are internalized, and the less you need to “practice” them to live a spiritual life in tune with both the Gods and the world.

Pagan Practice in Interfaith Settings

Bringing this back to “interfaith prayer,” it should be obvious that “prayer” of the sort described above could be problematic when it comes to sharing in an interfaith context. On the one hand, it takes a lot of explaining and preliminary sharing of basic ritual experiences before we can even really be talking the same language. On the other hand, it has always been very easy to share ceremony with other indigenous / Neopagan / Earth Religionists.

Don Frew, in the purple robe, participates in an interfaith ceremony in Berkeley, California.As a rule, indigenous and Earth Religions have never been exclusive. If the Divine is manifest to us as the natural world, then the Divine must be at least as diverse as is the natural world. The many Earth Religions of the world share so many concepts of cosmology and ritual that we regularly participate in more than one path at the same time. Long before the modern interfaith movement revived in 1993, followers of the many Neopagan paths, American and African indigenous communities, Taoists, practitioners of Shinto, Hindus, followers of Afro-diasporic traditions (Voodoo, Candomble, Santeria, etc.), were all attending each others’ ceremonies and even becoming priests and priestesses of each others’ traditions. None of us saw a problem with this, except to the extent that holding a priesthood in more than one tradition can really place demands on one’s time. However, there was always a sharp divide between the Earth Religions and Dharmic Religions on the one side and the Abrahamic Religions on the other. That divide was most clearly evident in the issue of exclusivism, but it was also just as strong in the difference of how we relate to the natural world: Is magic a part of your spiritual world or something to be rejected?

So, prayer in an interfaith context is something we do all the time within the context of the Neopaganism and the other Earth Religions, but is something very different when we try to cross the bridge to celebrate the Spirit with our Abrahamic brothers and sisters. The former bridge has existed for centuries and is very sound; the latter bridge is only just being built.

 

Reader Comments (2)

I would question the absolute-language of the above piece. Meaning that truth would be closer if the content was in the "in my experience" kind of language. Or even, "in my tradition".

I think that what Christians mean by prayer can be linked to what we Pagans mean by magic / aspecting (what you call invocation). Mention of the practice/belief in the fact that for us Deity is both within/without instead of seperate/distant would also inform interfaith communication.

I appreciate this attempt to communicate, build bridges as you put it. My comments are intended in the spirit of refining that conversation.

December 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHelen/Hawk

I think you are mistaken on several fronts. Not all pagans do the same things. We are an umbrella term and defining us is difficult. I would suggest that you read Johm Halstead's Three Centers of Paganismhttp://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/2012/05/23/the-three-or-more-centers-of-paganism/ so you may better understand some of the errors in your article. Perhaps what you say is true for your tradition or from your experience but is not true for probably even the majority of pagans.

We do pray and it's different from magic, meditation, or ritual.

March 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSwift Rabbit

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