Saints and Heritage

My heritage is a mixture of various northern and western European nationalities, but the largest part is Irish. I have always had somewhat mixed feelings about my Irish heritage.

Growing up in a community without much real Irish culture (German heritage was dominant in that area), the Irish American culture seemed to largely be either kitschy manufactured junk or Catholic religious materials. My Irish ancestors had been in the United States since before the Civil War, so there was no living memories or even much in terms of oral family traditions about the Old Country. There’s always a cultural undercurrent that the Irish left to escape poverty, war, alcoholism and squalor. The green land was beautiful to look at, but couldn’t feed her hungry children.

The one aspect that seemed to stick through the generations, on my Mother’s side at least, was Catholicism. There were always wishes that roads rise to meet you and that you’ll be in heaven for a half hour before the devil knows you’re dead. At the center was always Saint Patrick, the man who brought Christianity to Ireland and drove the snakes out.

In my teens, as I rejected Christianity, treating Patrick as a hero didn’t seem to make much sense. Ireland had been at war for centuries over different factions of Christianity, and that war was alive and well in Northern Ireland when I was young. It didn’t really look to me like it had been much of a gift.

Oh, and there were never snakes in Ireland, by the way, so that part of the story is just fabrication.

I also started to discover some parts of Irish heritage that were far more appealing to me, such as Ireland’s fantastic tradition of writers and story-tellers. I was much more interested in Yeats, Wilde and Synge than the likes of Frank McCourt, whose work seemed to just reinforce that poverty, alcoholism and squalor storyline.

It was through Yeats that I finally heard about some of the rich culture of pre-Christian Ireland. He has references the Tuatha Dé Danann and the hero Cuchulain. I began to learn about Brigit and Lugh. At some point these stories and deities belonged to my ancestors, but somehow, somewhere, this heritage was lost.

I puzzle over this. Ireland seems to have turned to Christianity voluntarily, and though vestiges of the older culture survived, much of it was whitewashed, co-opted or suppressed. Churches were built on top of ancient ruins. Brigid turned from a goddess to a saint. Some parts of the old culture were kept, if in a new form.

Still, why did they reject the gods and goddesses of their land and their ancestors and adopt a foreign religion that instructed them to reject the divine world they knew? It wasn’t an addition to the landscape; it was a bulldozer that aimed to flatten what was there before so a different belief could be built.

This is a puzzle I have never quite worked out.

I have gained more knowledge about Irish history and the complications over the English domination of the land and how that conflict brought about much of the poverty as well as the civil wars. It is really only in the last few decades that those struggles have truly been overcome and peace and prosperity have taken hold in Ireland. But understanding later history still doesn’t explain the earlier rejection of a cultural heritage with regard to religion.

I have much to learn about ancient Irish religion. Sadly, little was written down before the Christian period, so reconstruction has some challenges. I know that there is a devoted community of reconstructionists, though, who have done great work to reclaim what was lost.

Invocation for a College Event

One of my activities is an involvement with my alma mater, Macalester College in St Paul, MN. I am an organizer for the local alumni group. I have been on the Alumni Board for the past 3 years. I am about to make a trip there for a meeting. In many ways, it is a community that supports diversity. It was a great place to come out as a gay man in the late 1980’s. They have always highlighted a large international student population and they strive for diversity among domestic students.

In some ways my spiritual path into Paganism takes me beyond the circle of their typical diversity. The college was founded as Presbyterian, but has not had any affiliation for decades. Still, mainline and liberal Protestantism dominate, with Catholicism, Judaism, Agnosticism and Atheism well represented. There are nods to Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. There doesn’t appear to be any presence of Paganism today, though. I found some evidence that there was once a Pagan student group, but it seems to be gone now.

As with many places that believe that they embrace religious diversity, there’s a watered-down monotheist wash that says “Don’t we all believe in the same God? Why can’t we all just get along?” I’m all for getting along, but honestly, I don’t worship the same God as Christians or Muslims. My Polytheist spirituality involves connecting with various Gods and Goddeses, genii loci, and spirits. They all have personalities and identities and they don’t just fade into some amorphous blob of a God.

Anyway, I wrote this as a sort of fantasy that there would be a college event that opened with a different kind of prayer – a Pagan prayer. I seriously doubt that such a thing would ever happen, but I can dream a little, can’t I?

 

Invocation

 

Spirits of this place

Spirits of those who have been here before us

Teachers, builders, open young minds, travelers from near and far

Those who came as children and left as adults

Those who ushered generations into a new reality

Midwives who gave birth to a young person’s purpose

Ancestors who know the secret alchemy of learning how to learn

Be here with us

May your purpose be our purpose

Whisper your wisdom in our ears

Infuse this place with the magic of education

 

Let us breathe together

Inhale the air of knowledge shared

Feel the warmth of purpose and passion

Drink in the feelings of community and friendship

Feel the commitment to our Earth and its diverse people

 

Look at the faces around you

This is our community

These are our supporters, our friends

We share a bond with each other

And a bond with the spirits of those who came before us

From the wild Dionysian dancers at Springfest

To those who reached out to the world and flew the flag of the United Nations

To those caretakers who watched the students’ P’s and Q’s in an age with far more rules

To the native people who walked this land before this college was even a dream

We are all here together at this moment

 

Let us dream together

And make a new world

Pagan Thoughts on an Oscar Night Speech

Lupita Nyong’o is a lovely young actress who gave a powerful performance in the film “12 Years a Slave” She won a well-deserved Oscar as Best Supporting Actress on Sunday night. She is an articulate person, even at that emotional moment, and there was something in her words that jumped out as resonating with my own spirituality.

“Thank you to the Academy for this incredible recognition. It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s. And so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey for her guidance. And for Solomon, thank you for telling her story and your own.

Steve McQueen, you charge everything you fashion with a breath of your own spirit. Thank you so much for putting me in this position; it’s been the joy of my life. I’m certain that the dead are standing about you and watching and they are grateful and so am I.”

The idea of the honored ancestors is a powerful one that is woven into much Pagan thought. Many practitioners feel the presence of the ancestors, both blood ancestors and, in a broader sense, ancestors who have walked the path before us.

Lupita was speaking in this spirit, when she acknowledged those ancestors. Her performance was an act of connection to the pain and strength of a remarkable woman, and she gave her voice and body to make Patsey’s story live again. The act of portraying a real historical person may be one of the most direct ways to honor their memory, and I respect the actors who do this, especially when they convey messages so desperately needed in our time and when they bring forgotten voices to the surface.

I know nothing of her personal religious views, and I don’t even know if she meant her words as a spiritual statement. That’s the way that I heard it, though. I was so happy to hear this next to the oh-so-common thanking of a Christian God. I don’t doubt for a moment that many people gain strength from their faith in a Christian God, but I also like the acknowledgement that the world has many powerful entities, many spirits that can inspire, and many voices that should be heard.