The art of facing death

In this season when Wicca calls me to face the fact of mortality, I found a short piece on the poet Thomas Lynch to be deeply touching. Mr. Lynch says, “Mortality as a condition is one that I don’t think we should rail too much against. Living as if you’re going to be dead sometime is more sensible than living as if you’ll live forever.”

When I pay attention to the rhythms and realities of nature, I find that death is an integral part of them. Wicca teaches me to respect that and helps me learn how to face it. This is one of many reasons Wicca is a positive force in my life.

Costumes, identity, and love

I’ve been debating about it for a while, but I give up: I’m going to blog about social issues, and maybe even (gasp!) politics. I’m already writing about religion. I might as well include the other untouchable subject. And then mix them, just for fun!

Seriously, though, I believe that my religion affects my everyday life. My awareness of and relationship with Deity, especially my belief that Deity is immanent in every one of us, has serious implications for how I live. I think we, as Pagans and Wiccans, need to be having conversations about that, although far be it from me to exclude or snub someone based on disagreeing with me over politics! I’ll also try, hard, not to let this space get bogged down with too much politics, or rants.

We just passed Samhain, a Sabbat for Wiccans but also a time that the population in general likes to dress up and have fun. One mother wrote about how her young son dressed as Daphne, from Scooby Doo, for Halloween, and how other mothers at his preschool pitched fits over it. First, I have to say that even if you believe crossdressing erodes a person’s moral fiber in a way that can’t be fixed with a few muffins from Trader Joe’s, that’s no excuse for being cruel to children. But more than that, I think the idea of costumes and malleable identity is something that Paganism, especially at Samhain, has to offer to the world.

Masks and costumes let us assume another identity for a while; they also help us understand that how we present ourselves every day is full of choices. There’s some great academic work about how clothing and fashion are a form of theater – the theater of the body. It’s an interface through which we interact with others. And yes, that interface is a place where we perform our gender, where we conform, or not, to the constructed gender norms of our culture. (I’ll skip the intro to the theory of gender as a performance – if anybody wants it, let me know.)

One of the major tasks of childhood ought to be trying on identity in order to find the right fit, and the Goddess knows that many aspects of this continue throughout life. Costume is one of the wonderful ways to explore that precisely because it’s not “real.” It’s assumed by everybody to be outside the realms of normal behavior, so it’s a safer space to experiment. There’s a long history of things like this, including the Feast of Fools and other ways that “unallowable” behavior gets allowed. Renaissance Faires are one of the great examples of this today, I’d argue – but that’s another post. I will say that I agree with some of the Feri practitioners who see it as part of their role to inhabit the boundary spaces, to play with paradox, and to explore those bounds. Not because all boundaries are bad, but because we ought to be using the right ones – and we won’t know what the right ones are, individually or culturally, unless we explore, and examine them.

In particular, we as Wiccans do identity exploration a lot! Taking part in ritual drama, especially one where the power alluded to is invoked into the individual, is a common act in Wicca. We also often engage in trance experiences or other kinds of “possession,” even if it’s usually not as full-fledged as a practitioner of, say, Santeria might experience. (Note I am not saying that this kid was channeling the imaginary spirit of a cartoon character.) The ability to share in or temporarily take on another identity is a common way that we interact with Deity and spirits. This process of being someone else for a while has important social and religious functions, and that’s why it’s gotten carried along in secular Halloween. Understanding that process deeply is one of the things Wicca has to offer to the larger culture.

More than that, though, it’s important ethically. I believe in an immanent Deity, manifest in all of us. You, me, the boy wearing the orange wig, his mom, and yes, the other mothers who were so weirded out by the whole thing that they said unkind things to his mother. If you and I are connected, on some spiritual level, then what happens to you happens, in some sense, to me. Therefore it’s important – no, I’ll go further – it’s vital that I am able to imagine what being you is like, because if what I do hurts you, I am, in a significant sense, hurting myself. An immanent Deity connecting all of us implies that empathy – or at the very, very least a strong sympathy – is at the very heart of ethical thought and action. If I don’t know or can’t imagine even a tiny bit what it’s like to wear a dress, or worse, I don’t care, then my ability to act ethically is going to be impaired. As, obviously, the people who made this kid uncomfortable were impaired.

And for the record, that kid totally rocked the orange wig in a way that I never could. I’m impressed!

Open-ended promises

Like many Wiccans and Pagans, I was raised Christian. Unusually, I was raised Christian by a father who had a doctorate in theology. Although Dad believed that women couldn’t be pastors, he spent a fair amount of my childhood passing on his great love of intellectual engagement with the divine, his one real skill. Since I’m also an intellectual, it has been natural for me to be something of an amateur the(a)ologian. As my engagement with Christianity changed, I explored more liberal theological approaches. Eventually, it just couldn’t stand up to what I was experiencing in my life; maybe I’ll write more about that later. Regardless, I find myself occasionally comparing previous theological approaches from Christianity to what I now believe and live, and one of those ideas came up today: the open-ended promise.

Also like other Wiccans, I’m a Cat Lady. (I have not yet graduated to Crazy Cat Lady status.) I’m just an animal person in general. Violence to animals is almost harder for me to take than violence to humans – even when it’s fictional, or happened long ago. I was reading a murder mystery today where a victim’s cat is found with her body. I almost cried. Never mind that it was the third or fourth dead body of the book, that the victim and the cat were equally fictional – it’s the cat that makes me emotional. I found myself looking at the kitten occupying my lap and petting her, telling her that I would never let anything like that happen to her.

And it’s true: I won’t. I’ll take good care of her. She won’t be exposed to crazy fictional murderers, and probably not to non-fictional ones, either. She won’t face hunger or a life on the streets like her mother did. It is more likely that I will be struck by lightning before finishing this blog post than that my kitties will have anything less than the best possible life for pampered, beloved pets. But a small part of my mind can’t help but whisper: Will you?

Will I be able to take good care of her? What if she lives longer than I do? What if a natural disaster hits, or a fire, or the zombies kill all the humans? (Lord and Lady forbid!) What if, what if, will I…? And I know that it’s an impossible promise. It’s a promise that has a million little exceptions, unspoken, except in that whisper in the back of my mind. I’ll take good care of you, I promise. I won’t let anything bad happen to you…or at least I’ll do my best. I’ll try. The whispers get louder: You can’t expect me to do the impossible; if you get cancer, I might not be able to save you. If I die, my relatives will take care of you…I’ll do my best. I’ll try. But that whisper isn’t what I say to my kitten, because it’s not very reassuring, and it’s not what I want to say to myself, either. I want to say, I’ll do it. I’ll make it all okay. Nothing bad will ever happen. I want to make the open-ended promise.

One of my favorite Christian theologians, Robert Farrar Capon, actually tells the story of the Passion and Resurrection through this lens. (Bear with me – I promise these two threads will come together in the end.) Rather than going for an explanation of Jesus’ death that depends on an idea like “paying the price” for sin – as if God the Father were some sort of super-Shylock in the sky, propitiated only by flesh, and too stupid to notice that it’s his own son who’s getting his blood spilt along the way – Capon offers an interpretation of the Resurrection as the ultimate assurance of Jesus’ promises. All human promises, Capon says, are bounded by death. They all come with the implicit or explicit limiter: till death do us part. But Jesus, Capon writes, Jesus can promise without that limiter because he is also God, a God who cannot die. And the Resurrection is the ultimate proof of that – the down payment that is supposed to let Christians believe that Jesus will keep all his other promises to them, up to and including raising them from the dead and making it all okay in the end.

It’s a lovely exposition, really. It neatly solves many of the problems liberal Christians have with the traditional interpretations of the Passion-Resurrection narrative, the kind of problems that can contribute to some Pagans’ departure from Christianity. But it’s ultimately unsatisfying to me for several reasons. One of the biggest reasons is that it leaves me unable to make sense of the open-ended promises I desperately want to give – and receive! – in my own life. I don’t have the power to raise myself from the dead; by Capon’s reasoning, I can’t make an open-ended promise to my kitten. If I were still Christian, maybe I’d try to make that promise by enlisting God as a sort of co-signer on the bond I’m putting down: I’ll take care of you….and when I can’t, God will step in for me! And he can do anything! Even if I can’t fix everything, you’ll end up in heaven with me, and it’ll be okay. (Yes, Virginia, there are cats in heaven.)

But I always end up back at the problem of evil, and the feeling that Christianity’s transcendent deity really isn’t a lot of help, especially in the kind of things I face in everyday life. There’s the problem that the deity is out there, somewhere, watching what happens – or worse, making it all happen, even the bad things, even the evil. It turns the whispered limitations on my promise into a kind of fending-off the evil eye, every promise accompanied with the silent prayer, please, deity, don’t send something I can’t handle. Don’t make or let something so bad happen that I have to…no, don’t think that. And if it does happen, then at least let me believe that I’ll meet my kitty in heaven, and I’ll apologize to her there, and she’ll forgive me…I hope.

Believing in an immanent deity changes the question entirely. I believe in an immanent deity, one who is present with me and in me, and my cats, and in all things. I believe that the Lord and Lady are with us even in the bad things. Instead of a down payment on a promise to make it all work out all right somehow in the end, the immanent deity of my Paganism gives me the belief that I will face whatever comes, and that I will face it with love. The Lord and Lady aren’t somewhere out there, having gone through death and come out the other side; they’re here, with me, in my living and dying, having done it before and ready to do it again. They haven’t magically escaped the struggle, the joys, the sorrows, the amazing depth and breadth of experience. They are life, in all its cycles. They are the love that makes the wheel keep turning, that brings new life into the world, that makes going forward possible.

I told someone recently that the only act of faith I have to make in Paganism is the belief that love makes life worth living. That the good times are worth it, worth all the fear and uncertainty and even pain we go through as living beings. I don’t have to believe that deity is going to make good on an open-ended promise in some other world. I have the promise, right here. I am the promise. Every time I find the love in my life that makes it worth living, I am experiencing the promise fulfilled. Every time I act in love, I am making it true, making it real, making it happen for others.

And when I make an open-ended promise with all the power of my spirit – which is a part of the same spirit that is the Lord and Lady – to another being who also has a spark of the same animating spirit, we understand each other. And I know that deity is the support for my promise, the same deity that is in me, and my kitten, and all things. Without fear, without limitations, I can make the open-ended promise, because what I am promising is very simple: I love you. And we will face whatever comes with love. Because we, both of us, are in deity, and deity in us, the same deity which is love. Love makes this life worth living, and you and I will face it together.