They say that the night seems darkest just before the dawn.
They also say that pride comes before a fall.
Time does not record who these mysterious “they” are; undoubtedly different authors in both cases, and yet the sayings persist – cliches, yes, but only because the test of time has made them so.
Last year, I grew disillusioned and discontent after the initial euphoria and high following my baptism had subsided. After a powerful, near-ecstatic experience such as that, it can be hard to readjust back to normality afterwards; there can be a sense of banality about the mundane quality of everyday life. Having taken one momentous step in the journey, it becomes all too easy to become dispirited when it is not followed by an obvious and measurable progression upwards – even though a plateau in which one reflects upon and deepens one’s understanding of an achievement is only natural and, indeed, desirable following an epiphanic experience. Instead, dissatisfaction with a perceived slow pace of development and advancement gives way to a depression of the spirit which, when combined with other life events, can leave one peculiarly vulnerable to self-doubt and questioning.
Following my baptism, looking back now I can see where I became guilty of hubris; I took too much pride in being a “good christian”. I developed an active life of prayer, attending the weekly Wednesday Focus prayer sessions, and I had half an hour in the morning and hour in the evening devoted to Scripture and prayer. I attended church faithfully every Sunday – sometimes even twice in one day! And I took full and active part in the weekly midweek group at the Bakers’.
But over August, that all started to fall apart. With no Wednesday Focus or midweek group, I’d lost a significant part of my spiritual routine – at a time when matters in my personal life were becoming seriously stressful, and in ways which were beyond my control. I grew depressed and full of self-doubt, withdrawing slightly; it was easy to drop out of sight as people were either away on holiday themselves or simply assumed I was; and I had no spiritual support at home to fall back upon – my partner being an atheist and our housemate being agnostic at best.
Routines can be hard to establish – and all too easy to fall out of. When September rolled around again, it was hard to get back into the swing of things once more – particularly with the lack of support in my home life. By this point I was second-guessing every response I made and seriously questioning my beliefs once again. I couldn’t shake the feeling of being alone in a crowd. I felt alien, out of place – and yet unable to approach anyone or articulate my unease.
And then there was the funeral in November; the first time I’d been among pagans since before my baptism. I felt at home and accepted there – one of them, simply and naturally, no questions asked. I didn’t feel a need to explain or go into detail; we had a common language, a look conveying a world of meaning in which we nodded, smiled, and we all knew what had been silently said. At the wake afterwards, although I didn’t know anyone there save the widow, they were people of a kind I was familiar with, discussing known topics, and I felt gracefully at ease with them and able to enter conversation with no hesitation or awkwardness. Afterwards, I could not help but contrast the experience with how I feel at St.Mary’s, where I have never been able to fully shake the feeling of being an outsider – of not quite fitting in; a difference that goes deeper than blue and purple hair, unusual home circumstances, or my pagan background.
I felt like a wolf who has come in from the cold, allowed herself to be collared, and sits at the hearth by the fire with the other dogs but cannot forget the wild places where she has roamed. She may howl with the dogs, her new adopted pack, but her heart cannot forget an older tune – one that runs in the blood. It is not easy living in two worlds yet belong wholely to neither.
I felt lost and confused and, indeed, still do. And yet, I remember how I felt that evening at the Bakers’, when things suddenly “clicked” and I knew, finally and with conviction; baptism was the logical next step. I remember that afternoon when after hours of reading, researching and opening myself up, I had that moment of epiphany and understood the nature of the Holy Ghost. I remember with clarity the power of my baptism. I still remember the feelings that drove me to Westminster Cathedral the night Pope John Paul II died.
And I cannot believe I went through all that “by mistake”. If I am a Daughter of the Goddess, there must be some reason why She desired me to have those experiences. If God truly exists, He must have His reasons why I must yet again go through the cycle of belief and disillusionment once again, only to feel myself drawn back once more as Holy Week draws on towards the recollection of His Passion.
How strange to be contemplating this great pageant of Death-in-Life; His gory, tragic death which brings us all the promise of Everlasting Life. For pagans, the Great Sacrifice comes at Midsummer, the price paid and promise fulfilled for the harvest to be gathered in that was planted at the Vernal Equinox and whose sprouting with new life was celebrated at Beltane – but for Christians, the Sacifice at Easter is a promise made for a harvest that has yet to come. (Incidentally, see here for an excellent and educated rebuttal of the neo-pagan Ostara myth and denial that Christians have “stolen” Easter from the pagans, written by occult historian Adrian Bott.)
Last Sunday – Palm Sunday, in fact – I went to church for the first time since the Winter Solstice, last Sunday of Advent last year. The welcome I received – from Jackie, Shirley, Elizabeth, Janice and Simon, to name a few of many – made me feel wanted and welcome, even though I was a little uneasy as I walked to church with Freda – well, “bundle of nerves” would probably have been a more accurate description. It was a Holy Communion service, and my initial instinctive urge was to refrain from taking Comunion and just sit tight. I couldn’t help but remember however what a Catholic friend had once told me; that when we feel furthest from grace, that is the time when we need Communion the most and we should not deny ourselves that touch of grace – and it seemed as though Simon’s words were echoing my thoughts as he said that some of us may feel we were unworthy to come to the table, but to please set those thoughts aside and come with open hearts and minds. So I did.
I would have liked to stay a little while afterwards, but Freda had grown unused to church whilst we’ve been away and wanted to get away from the crowds, so we left pretty much straight after the service after a brief chat with Elizabeth.
I’m not sure how I feel now. I’ve been mulling it over in my mind since Sunday. I think it no accident that in a time of my life in which much is in flux, I find myself looking for something to give me stability; but in truth I find myself no closer to faith than I was before. There have been times recently when, in despair, I find myself recalling how, when last I saw Sava before he died, he confided to me that he feared death because he had lost his faith. I don’t fear death; I’ve had enough close brushes with it that in some ways, it is almost familiar to me now, and certainly I have seen many good friends and loved ones pass on – many before their time. Even as I have been writing this post this evening, I have had a phone call from my mother letting me know that the time may be near when we shall lose my grandmother, and in her case death will only be a blessing indeed.
No, I don’t fear death. Instead, I have found myself wondering, what if the atheists are right? What if there is no God? Or worse, an uncaring, impersonal God, to whom we are little more than ants that merely stir Its curiosity from time to time? I still cannot reconcile within myself the apparently duality of the nature of God within the Bible; still it seems to me that the God of the Old Testament is a harsh, angry, warlike God who smites down both unbelievers and believers alike when they anger Him and Who sends two she-bears to rip apart 42 children when they – as children are wont to do – make fun of the fact that His prophet is bald. And yet in the New Testament, God is loving and kind, a benevolent Father who loves children and treasures them. Did taking human form really change Him so much? How is it possible for a seemingly omniscient being to change so drastically? And how is it that anyone of faith can reconcile these two very different faces of God?
There is much I am still wrestling with, and sometimes I wonder if the two halves of me can ever be at peace. I think it will take much more than one morning in church to achieve this. I fear my “dark night of the soul” is not over yet.
But I shall be back in church this weekend for the Easter celebrations. After that? We shall see. I’m taking each day as it comes, one day at a time.