A Pagan Primer – 24
One common question that keeps re-emerging at gatherings, on the web, and virtually anywhere that Pagans meet, is the question of coming out as a Pagan.
Usually, this is asked by newer or younger individuals, but occasionally might arise among the more mature, who, for whatever reason, have kept their faith a secret. Sometimes it’s asked by people who may only think they might like to be a Pagan, by those intrigued by a movie, or having attended a public ritual, and enjoyed it. Some in this last group may even be the sort who will stamp their feet, arms akimbo, telling people “Don’t presume to tell me what I believe”.
The truth is though, that there are many who will attend a public ritual, or pick up a book by Cunningham, Ravenwolf or someone else, read it over the course of a week or so, and then perhaps skip to a section on self-initiation or dedication, and declare themselves a witch, Wiccan or Pagan.
The problem is that in just a few weeks, it’s really difficult to understand ANY religion with any depth, let alone to know it well. The Catholic church, and others, understand this very well. For an adult to convert to Catholicism, the process takes about a year of study, through a process called RCIA, or the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.
The point of this study is to make a serious commitment, or rather, to understand just what that commitment one is making in the process of initiation.
In more traditional or initiatory paths of Wicca, most systems require a minimum of a year-and-a-day of study. Even some online schools will not permit test-taking more frequently than a 28-day cycle.
Perhaps part of the “I want it now” attitude toward considering oneself an initiate or a pagan comes from the Christian churches that let you convert instantly. You can say a prayer that takes perhaps 30 seconds, and you’re instantly a Christian. One might know little about who Christ was or about his teachings. Likely, most of the new converts know little of church history, and probably don’t know much about the Bible. Some may have been members of another church and become convinced through various arguments that their church doesn’t truly follow scripture. I’d suspect though that most converts via this method are simply not well-grounded, and don’t, prior to this conversion experience, have any serious religious commitment.
Again, the trouble is that a person so converted, may consider themselves fully equal to the others in their particular path, church or tradition, but they really aren’t equipped to explain their faith.
For any such person to “come out” as Christian or Pagan, after such a short “conversion” process poses severe problems. While they may have become convinced that they are “true believers”, with an accompanying change in their lives, they simply don’t have nearly enough information to convey to others what it is that they have done. How can one “come out”, when they don’t fully understand what it is that they are “coming out” about?
I suppose that my first piece of advice regarding coming out is to know fully what you are talking about. Even if you’re a solitary, if all you’ve done at this point is to read a book or two, maybe we can look for a systematic way of doing things.
The first thing to think about is that Paganism, at least most forms, is based on the seasons of the year. To understand such a religion, one needs to understand its celebrations. This is not something that can be done fully without experiencing them.
Some people might feel dejected at the idea of waiting, but this waiting period involves a great deal of work. Some traditions call individuals during this period dedicants … they have dedicated themselves to this period of study. It’s similar to the Catholic Catechumens who are studying for a year.
What many people don’t understand is that the initiation ceremony is not a magical event where one is instantly transformed in some way. Rather, it is a ceremony much like a graduation. It is as much a recognition of accomplishment as it is a transformative event. Initiation recognizes a level of accomplishment sufficient to explain something of substance about what one has chosen as a path to someone who knows little or nothing about it.
In terms of “coming out” then, as a pagan, one needs to be well-enough equipped to tell those to whom you are coming out, what it is that you truly believe. After the bomb-shell of “Mom, Dad … I’m a witch”, and when faced with the question “what do you mean?”, having studied seriously for a time, you’ll be able to give an answer. A well-reasoned and thought-out answer can offer multiple benefits … you won’t be dismissed as “going through a phase”, and you just might be able to offer enough information to let those you are speaking to understand that whatever path you have chosen might not be what they originally thought it was.
Another important thing to consider is that in coming out in a new faith, one implies that any previous faith may have been rejected. This brings me to my second point.
There are many people who will reject an earlier path for reasons of rebellion, to get back at someone, or to get even with them. For others, it may be that after a period of study, they’ve found a path which works for them.
To those who’ve chosen a path for rebellious purposes, coming out is something of a weapon, and is used for shock value. For those with deeper convictions though, the issue requires more thought.
When one makes a commitment to a different spiritual path, it’s normal to want to express the happiness and joy of the truth you’ve found. In our predominantly Judeo-Christian-Muslim western world, a pagan path might not be seen as the best of choices. It’s certainly not the most politically correct one. Interestingly, even the individual who truly knows their new faith might evoke as strong a response from others as does the rebellious individual.
For those who are coming out, there can be many reasons:
You might choose to marry, and wish to invite family and friends to the celebration.
You might want to have family and friends present for a dedication or rite of passage of a child.
You might be planning your own funeral service or ritual, and wish your family to honor your faith.
All of these, and more, are valid reasons to come out and have your own family and friends take part in your life, as you do in theirs. The difference is that as Pagans, our ways of doing things are different than many others.
Tossing family or friends into the middle of a pagan ritual without prior explanation can make for an uncomfortable situation. Just as a Baptist might not know what to expect or how to act at a Catholic wedding, so can most Christians become a bit confused when told that the wedding will take place in the grove beneath the oak tree at Beltaine. I’m certain that with all the rumors about Pagan gatherings, “What shall I wear” will not be least among the mother of the bride’s questions.
So, the first point is to know what you are talking about.
The second point is to understand why you wish to come out.
The third point is quite simply “how to do so”.
Honestly, this depends on your own family. The question of “how” might also be asked with the corollary “should I do so”. Honestly, there are families where coming out is simply not an option … at least not if you wish to maintain that family. Some people are simply so strong in their convictions that telling them you’ve left your religion would destroy any relationship you might have with them.
In my own family, this is the case with my parents. They see my pentacle whenever I visit. They know I do this radio program that they don’t want to hear. They know I don’t go to their church. They aren’t stupid. But to speak the truth to them would certainly cause them great difficulty. For me, honoring my mother and father involves not smearing my beliefs in their faith.
Are there difficulties in this? Certainly. It’s quite likely that they’ve seen in the newspapers that I was the officiant at a local wedding or civil union. Too, it’s likely that if I were to die, they might wish to have a service at a Catholic church, or perhaps to use my old name on a gravestone. That though, is something that a will is there to handle. If my parents wish to have a Catholic service, the church would have to consider that I’m not Catholic, and any such service would not be a mass. My tomb-stone would be provided by the Veteran’s Administration, and thus come with my emblem of faith. (Many thanks to Selena Fox, Patrick Stewart and others for finally making that a reality).
The point is that for some people, it’s simply best not to force the issue. Coming out doesn’t have to imply that others will recognize your choices. Coming out doesn’t have to be a formal declaration that is acknowledged by everyone.
For me, coming out is a choice as to how to live one’s life. It involves acknowledging your own truth and standing behind it, and not living separate lives depending on where you are. You can respect those who love but disagree with you, and still maintain your own integrity.
As a minister, and having performed public rituals, I can’t be more out. Still, I don’t introduce myself as Rev. Deirdre Hebert, a pagan and a witch, everywhere I go. I’m just me, Dee, and being a pagan is a part of who I am. I don’t hide it, but I don’t feel that advertising it or making a point of it at every turn, makes it any more true.
On the other hand, I have a friend who, probably as the gay antithesis of gaydar, is able to sense homophobia, and I’ve been around to hear him say “Hi, I’m Mike, I’m a shy homosexual” … It gets reactions, and certainly breaks the ice. The thing is that for some people, such an introduction can be an impediment to getting to know someone better. There might be some instances where such a confrontational attitude really clears the air immediately. On the other hand, sometimes letting people simply see who you are first can make a greater and even more positive impact when they begin to discover the other details of your life.
In my case, if my parents came to me and pointedly asked if I was Catholic anymore, I’d certainly say no. If they asked if it was true that I was a Pagan or a Witch, I’d certainly be honest. But in them asking the question, I can infer that they are ready to hear the answer. That’s a different case than merely dumping it on them.
In no case do I lie about who and what I am. Permitting another to live with their own chosen ignorance or misconception doesn’t imply a lack of integrity on my part.
So, the three steps …
Integrity, in the end, requires understanding. I’ve done some acting. I’ve played a number of roles. In playing a role, I present another person, but I don’t fully understand what it is to be that person. At the end of the day, even if I’ve studied their lives, I haven’t lived their life. Being, and acting, are two different things entirely. I suppose that acting can lead to being. The saying goes, fake it ‘till you make it, but in this one case, I’d rather study and learn, and then be, rather than to adopt a role, hoping that someday I’ll fit into it.