Anxiety as a First-Time Guest…at a Wiccan Weekend (by Dr. Adam Webber)
Whenever I attend services outside of my own denomination, I wrestle with certain anxieties. Have I dressed appropriately for this congregation? Do I have something suitable for the offering? How will I maintain a good balance between respect for their beliefs and customs, and honesty about my own? One day in the spring of 2010 I was thinking about all those questions once again. It was late in my third year as a seminary student, and I was driving up to Wisconsin to spend the weekend with some witches.
The whole thing began, oddly enough, as a seminary assignment. We were studying different forms of Christian worship and the different theologies that go with them. For a final paper, we had to observe and analyze a service of worship outside of our own denominations. Like most members of the class, I was already serving a church, so this assignment meant scheduling a Sunday off. Where should I go, I wondered? I thought about Mass with the Catholics, Divine Liturgy with the Orthodox, or ecstatic speech with the Pentecostals, but all those options seemed too tame. Maybe it was my impatience with the heavy hierarchical process of credentialing and ordination. Maybe it was just the hint of spring in the air. But I thought, hey, the professor didn’t specify Christian worship. Why not explore something more adventurous? Why not find some witches and see what they do?
Practicing pagans proved difficult to find in my own community. They’re here, I’m sure; the bookstore has a shelf of their books, and the owner says those books sell well. But pagans in conservative small towns like mine have plenty of reasons to fly under the radar, so to speak. They do not advertise locally. Pagan groups are, however, easy to find on the Web. I zeroed in on the Correllian Nativist Tradition, an international Wiccan group that struck me as particularly well organized and open to interfaith discussions. I learned that one of their temples, the Northern Lakes Temple in Wisconsin, was about to host Correllians from around the world for their big annual ritual, the Lustration of the Ancestors. So I dropped them a line at the Northern Lakes Temple, explaining that I was a seminary student, and that I was interested in learning more about them and observing their big annual ritual, if that wouldn’t be too intrusive. I explained up front that I am a Christian—though not one of the intolerant ones, I said. (Alas that this doesn’t go without saying!) They sent me a very encouraging reply, suggesting that I attend the whole three-day gathering they were organizing, leading up to the big ritual. That sounded like too good a chance to pass up—which is how I found myself driving up to Wisconsin to spend the weekend with some witches.
When I was a boy I spent $1.25 on a paperback entitled The Witch’s Workbook. Part of it was a sort of cookbook of ritual magic, with spells for very specific purposes. The titles were fascinating: For Money; For Enjoyment of Good Health; For Success in your Work; Having No Person in Mind, to Attract a Desirable Lover; To Make Your Desired One See Your Rival’s True, Odious Nature, and so on. The spells, as I recall, were not of evil intent, but aligned with a normal range of human needs: health, love, prosperity, and justice. I think there was a spell for “just retribution,” but it was no worse than the desire for retributive justice that lies just below the surface in many Christian prayers—and right on the surface in some of the Psalms.
Memories of The Witch’s Workbook came back to me as I drove up to my weekend with the Correllians. Was that the kind of ritual they practiced? Would they fit into the dry outline of modern pagan beliefs that I had learned in the seminary? Would they fall into line with the description of pagans in the U.S. Army Handbook for Chaplains? Or would they be like various witches of stage and screen: Macbeth, Bewitched, Practical Magic, or (heaven forbid) Charmed?
I arrived early on that first day and introduced myself to the members of the Northern Lakes Temple. I volunteered to help them set up for the welcoming dinner and opening ritual. And I quickly learned that several of my preconceptions about Wiccans were quite wrong. In particular, I expected them to be—I wanted them to be—more lighthearted and spontaneous. I wanted barefoot dancing in groves. I wanted carefree singing, like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Hand in hand, with fairy grace, // Will we sing, and bless this place.” My Wiccans were a bit of a disappointment in that regard.
Wiccans are much more diverse than I had realized. I’m sure that some of them are lighthearted and spontaneous, but the Correllians turned out to be (as one of them proudly told me himself) the Episcopalians of the pagan world. They have elaborately scripted ceremonies and formal robes. They have three levels of priesthood, and most of the people I met were studying for one level or another. The subject of their three-day conference was not barefoot dancing in groves—it was clergy standards. Their meeting was not, perhaps, quite as stiff as a meeting of my own denominational body in the United Church of Christ, but there was definitely no barefoot dancing.
And the poor people! They were quite a diverse bunch, and it would have been impossible to guess, at first glance, what all these people had in common. But I can say this much about them: my little church attracts its share of outcasts from other churches, but compared to my Wiccan friends, we’re not nearly as close to the margins of society as I had thought. I met quite a few people whose clothes and piercings and tattoos announced that they didn’t need my approval. I met some ex-Christian gay and lesbian people who, after the way they’ve been treated, have resolved never to set foot in another Christian church. I met a fundamentalist Christian minister’s rebellious pagan son. And I listened to the story of a woman whose ex-husband used her Wiccan religious affiliation against her in the custody battle in which she lost her children. On the whole, I met a group of people who are heavily scarred, who are carrying a lot of battle damage, and who have no reason to love the Christian establishment I represented. Yet they didn’t seem hostile toward me, just curious.
The first two days of the meeting were taken up by presentations and panel discussions. There was a talk by high-ranking priestess on the “responsibilities of the higher priesthood.” This was surprisingly familiar—sort of a compressed version of the training on healthy boundaries that clergy get in my denomination. (The healthy-boundaries training lasts two days, but here’s the short version: no sex with your parishioners.) Then there was a talk by Rev. Donald Lewis-Highcorrell, the First Priest of the Correllian system, about his experiences in interfaith dialog at the Parliament of World Religions in Australia. Rev. Selena Fox was there as keynote speaker and honored guest, and I learned about her work as an advocate and media spokesperson for pagans. There was also a very interesting and practical presentation on “Pagans and the Law” by a woman who is both a lawyer and a pagan. Pagans encounter a variety of legal problems, finding that some religious freedoms that Christians take for granted don’t apply to pagans in practice: they often have trouble getting clergy visits in prisons or in hospitals, for example. During an interfaith panel discussion I answered a few questions about Christianity, about the United Church of Christ (the church I serve), and about the Quakers (the tradition of my seminary), but mostly I just listened.
It all felt surprisingly familiar. Here I was, seeking a weekend escape from the hierarchical processes of credentialing and ordination in my Christian tradition; and here they were, actively developing the same kind of processes in their Wiccan tradition. I wanted to warn them: don’t start down that path! Look what happened to us: instead of the Kingdom of Heaven, we got the Church! But my Wiccan friends have good reasons for seeking more structure and process. For one thing, they are seeking legitimacy in the world: they want recognition of their just claim to a share of religious freedom. They want, for example, to be visited by their own clergy when they’re in the hospital. That leads to credentialing for clergy, which leads to establishing clergy standards, and so on and on. A similar pattern has played out repeatedly in Christian history—for example, in the history of the early Quakers, whose struggle for religious freedom was heavily handicapped by their refusal to acknowledge a hierarchy of credentialed ministers. Enter hierarchy, structure, and process; exit barefoot dancing.
I was looking forward to observing the big annual ritual, the Lustration of the Ancestors, on the third day of the gathering. (Lustration is a word for ancient Greek and Roman rituals of purification—usually some kind of blessing using water—and, as I explained to my wife before she let me go for the weekend, no lust is involved.) But when a leader of the group took me aside on the afternoon of the second day, I was worried. I thought, uh oh, here it comes—after hearing me answer those questions about my Christian traditions, they’ve decided not to let me observe the ritual after all. But I was wrong, and taken by surprise again: the leaders of the group invited me not only to observe the lustration ritual, but also to participate in it.
I had been trying to be helpful all weekend—I did some dishes, and I helped someone set up a computer for a presentation—but I hadn’t expected anything like this. They were under no illusions about my religious beliefs and affiliation. But they seemed to feel that, as a seminarian, I should be offered the same courtesies they offered to visiting clergy from other pagan traditions. Was I familiar with “energy work”, they asked? I said yes, a bit: healing touch and visualization techniques are not taught in my seminary, but not unknown there either, and I had some little experience with them. So they gave me the script for the ritual, showed me my part, and gave me some time to think it over.
I’m still amazed by the fact that they invited me, a representative of the oppressive Christian establishment, to participate in the most important ritual of their year. It was safe to do so: I’m not the sort of Christian who might freak out in the middle of the celebration, take out my Bible, and start smacking them with it. But they had little evidence of my trustworthiness beforehand, and many reasons to be suspicious. How many Christian churches, I wonder, would have given an equivalent welcome to a stranger—would have welcomed a self-proclaimed Wiccan priest-in-training and given him a role in, say, the Easter liturgy?
Still, I questioned whether I could with integrity participate in a ceremony from a religious tradition so different from my own. Even when visiting other Christian services of worship, I sometimes balk at full participation; I don’t, for example, say the Nicene Creed, or any other unison assertion of belief, even if everybody else is doing it. Could I possibly find enough common ground with the Correllians to participate in their lustration ceremony? To answer that question, I started by reading the rubric—all twenty-two single-spaced pages of it.
More than any Christian ritual I’ve seen, the Lustration of the Ancestors consists mostly of preparation. It’s a really big ritual windup with the pitch at the end. There are some twenty different roles for participants. First, a priest with a large sword leads a processional; he ritually defends the space while the other participants file in. Then someone in role of the aquifer—the role I was offered—blesses the salt and water, and uses them to asperse the other participants. (To asperse someone is to shake a little water on them, a ritual gesture occasionally found in Christian ceremonies as well.) The aquifer must say the proper words of blessing, do proper hand motions, and do energy work according to their model: visualizing yellow-white light at one point, blue-white light at another, and so on. Then someone else censes all the participants. (The person swinging the incense pot is not called the thurifer, as in Christian contexts, but the lucifer—it was just as well they didn’t ask me to do that part, as it might have stretched my seminary’s open-mindedness past the breaking point.) Then there is an invocation of the four cardinal directions. Then an invocation of “the seventy Gods”. Then an invocation of the ancestors. And so on and on, all in preparation for the delivery of a blessing using “lustral waters”. The whole thing seemed way too ritualized for my taste, and it made theological assumptions that I don’t share. And yet, as I came to understand it, the ceremony was essentially a big blessing, for themselves and for “all the lands and people”.
Reader, I participated. Seeing how these pagans have been cursed, in word and in deed, by so many Christians, I wanted to bless them instead. I must admit that I found the ritual a bit corny and superstitious. But having come to know the participants a little better, I couldn’t sit in Christian judgment on what was, to them, a solemn and joyful occasion. At bottom, the lustration was a blessing. That’s something I can do. And more: understanding myself to be a follower of Jesus, a child of God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, blessing is something I feel called to do. So somewhere on the Web, you can find a video of a circle of ceremonially dressed Wiccans performing an elaborate hour-and-a-half long ritual of blessing. One of them is an incongruous, tall, grey-haired man in street clothes. Near the start of the video, he seems oddly intense about blessing everyone with a sprinkling of water. I’m proud to say, that’s me.
Dr. Adam Webber is a former professor of computer science and a longtime student of a traditional martial art (Karatedo Doshinkan). He is a founding member of the Open Prairie United Church of Christ in Princeton, IL, where he has served as organist, composer, retreat leader, preacher, teacher, chocolatier, and dogsbody. He recently completed an MDiv degree at the Earlham School of Religion, a seminary in the Quaker tradition. Adam blogs at adambrookswebber.com.