Monday, 12 November 2012

Ness Battery



A meditation on gilding the past.

Being a prehistorian, I am not a tremendous fan of World War I & II archaeology, but I do love a good story well told with enthusiasm and for that reason, I recommend a visit to Ness Battery (HY 248 079).  The tours are offered by Stromness Tours Ltd (refer www.nessbattery.co.uk).
  
Ness Battery, just outside the town of Stromness, was built to protect the western entrance into Scapa Flow through Hoy Sound.  During World War II, Ness Battery became the head-quarters of Orkney’s Fixed Defences, from where several gun batteries around the harbour entrance were controlled.  There are observation towers, gun houses, magazines and stores, but the most interesting part of the tour are the preserved painted murals inside one of the huts.


Whoever painted those murals (and they are still doing detective work on that) was really pining for the Home Counties!  And that homesickness must have been a shared feeling because those murals stayed.


There are depictions of black and white mediaeval cottages with roses climbing the walls and cats snuggling in front of cosy fires, afternoon tea and cakes, apple orchards, English pubs and pints of ale, strolls in the woodland, fluffy white sheep, picturesque windmills, jolly gypsies around a camp fire, bridges and meandering streams ... England, oh England.  And all of it faked theme-park memories of a place that never was and which has been idealistically distorted by distance.



But as I looked and smirked, my laughter turned right around and inwards at myself, for I recognised that I empathised totally with that yearning for a home far away and a perfect life I had left behind.

Our guide informed us that in World War II the depression that set in amongst military personnel stationed in Orkney was well known – it was provoked by my own all too familiar complaints: cold, damp, dark days, miles from loved ones and a real sense of being trapped on an island buffeted by all that raw nature can chuck at you and not being able to get away or being able to obtain home comforts easily.  There was a name for the condition: “Orkneyitis”, which was even used on official medical reports.

Certainly much has changed in Orkney since then, particularly with the growth of the internet making the world a much smaller place, but there is still a sense of being cut off from the rest of the world, of being exiled here in this forsaken place.  But unlike those military personnel, I had chosen to come here and as I looked at those pictures I realised how false they were and how golden I had painted my own past previous to moving here.

As winter gears up again, I have found myself descending into my annual “depression” – a withdrawal which I am convinced now is born from spiritual needs not mental imbalance (not that this is a justification, I suspect that many modern maladies both physical and mental are spiritual in origin).  The self-obsession which characterises depression, forces me to reflect on my life and to germinate what is to be. 

I moved to Orkney because I sought a monastic experience of retreat and I thought I would be more likely to achieve that on a remote Scottish island than elsewhere.  However, since moving here I have focused more on what I have lost than on what I have gained, to my detriment, and I have been striving to find a way to rekindle my “career”, “status” and “earning ability” through increasingly desperate means.  In other words, the spiritual dedication I swore to myself I would make “once I have the time” has been repeatedly postponed now that I do have the time.

I reflected recently how I continue to read “spiritual” books but I still do not practice the exercises in them.  I do not have a daily disciplined meditation, ritual or prayer routine.  There is a yearning in me for something I do not yet have and which is just out of reach but which I cannot seem to identify or name.  This unmet need feels like an internal emptiness and in my younger days I could divert my attention from it by consumption: thrills, purchases and alcohol, but even that temporary relief is less easy to achieve these days.

The last time I was ecstatically happy and focused on the present moment was when I first fell in love with my husband.  Reviewing my life, the times when I have been in love have been times of peak experience for me.  I wonder now, if I my seeking love via romantic attachment in the past was an attempt to fill this inner void.  What then was I really seeking?

This deep sense of lack would appear to be a part of the “human condition” and most belief systems attempt to explain what is being sought and how to find it.  It is expressed differently in all religions but agreement within the mystical traditions is that it is for the true self, the inner divine, the direct link to God / spirit.  Moreover, these traditions teach that this connection has not been severed permanently but simply needs to be rekindled, the seeker just needs to awaken, to change their consciousness in some way.

So, I am gradually coming to realise that what is missing from my spiritual practice is love, but not as love has previously manifested in my life (i.e. romantic attachments to a series of men unto whom I project my subconscious desires).  Instead I need to love being alive and to love this world.  I need to love all, as all is already perfect and a manifestation of the divine, including all of nature and all of humanity.  All is one, all is loved and lovable.  And what I have been learning is that there is a promise from most mystical traditions that my seeking and yearning for union will be answered equally fervently; perhaps it already has been?

On hindsight, what perhaps I should have done was to have taken a “career break” and rented a place in Orkney for a year, to set myself a specific period of retreat, rather than creating a life trapped here in perpetuity.  That way I would not have "burnt so many bridges".  The hero’s journey is not only an adventure but also a return and I have a feeling that I will be required to bring what I learn in this experience back and that will no doubt mean that I will have to re-enter the fray that is urban England.  But I am jumping ahead, I have hardly set out on the journey yet, I may not survive to return.

But for now, in looking at those murals at the Ness Battery, I realised that it is time for me to stop mourning the past and gilding it with gold.  When I left the south of England it was fast becoming frantically unliveable for me, the pace of life here is slower and, for me, preferable.  Yes, both myself and my husband had jobs back in the south that we would bite your hand off for now but those jobs are now gone or under threat (inevitable change for changes sake and the recession).  And yes, we miss our friends and family in the south but we have many friends here in Orkney now.  And not being able to purchase things immediately has made us much less materialistic.

So, I am currently reflecting on what I have now in Orkney with a new and fresh gratitude – it is really rather lovely here and my greatest asset in Orkney is the friends I have.  Even now, just embarking on another winter, I am neither positive nor negative about it, but just accepting.  And whilst my husband will go “home” this year to visit his family, I will not, I will be staying.  And I don’t mind.  Perhaps I have found a cure for Orkneyitis?  And that cure is love.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Dwarfie Stane



This article was originally published in SPIN number 64 Autumn 2012 - SPIN is the journal of the Pagan Federation of Scotland and Ireland.

                                                                          ***

The southern island of Hoy has a different geology to much of the rest of Orkney; its twin hills are the highest points and they visually dominate the landscape, particularly the Neolithic ceremonial centres of the West Mainland, so much so that it is likely that the relationship between these hills and the setting midwinter sun entered into the mythology of the earliest farmers.  The Dwarfie Stane (HY 243 004) is situated on the road between Rackwick and Quoys, in a steep-sided glaciated valley, right between these twin hills.  Looking west from this monument, the hills look as if a giant fist once kneaded into their centre and they stayed as they were, like a massive lump of stiff dough.

The Dwarfie Stane is a large block of red sandstone which has been cut into to form a rock-cut tomb – an architectural form that is unique to Orkney and possibly to the British Isles.  The original stone is most likely a glacial erratic, left by retreating glaciers after the last Ice Age; there is another one, uncut, about 200 metres along the valley named the Partick Stane.  The Dwarfie Stane is 8.6 metres long, 4 metres wide and about 2.5 metres high.  


Its construction has been dated, by analogy with similar monuments in the Mediterranean area, to about 3000 BCE, although its internal plan is not dissimilar to other Orkney tombs.  There is an entrance on the west side which is 1 metre by 1 metre and inside the tomb is a passage that is 2.2 metres long with two side cells at the end, one to the right/south and one to the left/north, each measuring 1.7 metres by 1 metre, all to a height of 1 metre.  The work was skilful and careful and the hollowing out would have been carried out using only stones and antlers, the marks from the tools can still be seen on the roof of the southern cell.  Both cells have a low stone threshold to cross to gain entry to them and the southern cell has a "pillow" of uncut rock at its inner/eastern end.  


With the thresholds and the pillow it is easy to compare these cells with the beds that are visible at Skara Brae and Barnhouse and thus to draw links with death and sleep, although only a very short person (such as a dwarf?!) would be able to lie down fully stretched out in either cell.  But people do attempt to sleep overnight in the beds – I have heard local stories of folk who have spent the night in the Dwarfie Stane only to wake in the peedie hours, leave their beds, and find themselves in the Otherworld – like this one but shinier and with more vibrant colours – walking directly into a living dreamscape.  

And if you lie in the "beds" and sing or hum, you can get the stones to "vibrate" - this works particularly well with deeper male voices but is an amazing feeling.  Auditory phenomena such as this are capable of inducing alternate states of consciousness and this may have been one of the original functions of this site.

Immediately outside the entrance is another large piece of sandstone, which was originally used to seal the opening.  The entrance remained sealed up until at least the 1600s but was crudely broken into through the roof, leaving a hole that remained until it was filled with concrete (sympathetically) in the 1950-60s. Frustratingly, but quite usual for antiquarian investigations, there are no records of whether any human remains or grave goods were found inside ... so it can only ever be speculation that the original function of the Dwarfie Stane was as a tomb.

The name of this monument appears to have derived from Scandinavian mythology surrounding dwarfs, or dvergar, who were fabulous smiths who lived in stones or in cliffs on the sides of the mountains.  The surrounding cliff faces are known as the Dwarfie Hammars.  The echo from the mountainside in Orkney is called “dwarf talk” – dwarfs had a reputation for being garrulous – which is sometimes invoked in Orkney place-names as Dwarmo, possibly deriving from the Old Norse dverg-mál.  Local legends tell how the dwarf "Trollid" lived in the Dwarfie Stane, although giants are also involved in folk legends of its construction.   The place-name Dvergasteinn (Dwarf-stone) is also recorded in Norway and Iceland.

There is a range of graffiti on the Dwarf Stane, much of it dating from the 18th and 19th centuries.   On the southern end is an inscription in Persian calligraphy: "I have sat two nights and so learnt patience" that was most likely carved by Major William Mounsey who left many similar intriguing carvings in Cumbria, usually also incorporating his own name written backwards in Latin, as here.  This inscription has been interpreted as a reference to the local midges but I think there is a spiritual lesson here: the place insists on patience.  The stunning geology is the fruit of patience on a scale known only to creator deities; likewise, whoever carved the rock out would have had to have worked diligently and patiently.  To get to the site today you need patience: to book an available place on the busy ferry, to take the ferry as it chugs over Scapa Flow, to drive (or be driven) along the slow narrow twisting road, stopping often to allow others to pass, to park and to walk up along the wooden track-way which can be slippery and tricky in places. 

I am three years into my Orkney “adventure” now and Orkney does have a tendency to force patience onto its inhabitants – living on a remote Scottish island means there is often a wait for vital replacement parts to arrive, you learn quickly to always have a “back-up plan” or to get by without for a while – but I am no more patient now than I was when I arrived here and I observe how frustrated I still get with others’ more serene acceptance of the ways things just are.  Things happen slowly in Orkney, it is the way it is, you can accept this or fight it, but it won’t change.  Too many times I choose to fight and I always lose, I am still working through this lesson.

I am not a patient person and never have been.  One of the banes of my life is a nagging doubt that tells me I am not doing what I should be doing.  It is loudest when I am asked to do something which I consider “menial” at work (I admit to a lot of resentment in general at “having” to work for a wage) but it is fairly constant.  It is a disquieting emotion which plagues me even when I am having fun with friends – I find myself being internally nagged into finishing and getting on with something “more productive”.  Yet I am also an excellent procrastinator – whole weeks go by when I have neither read nor written anything, and when I certainly haven’t achieved what I had planned to do.  I realise that I spend much of my emotional time feeling I am wasting my life and feeling guilty about doing so.  I procrastinate equally as much when it comes to regular (and any!) spiritual practice such as meditation and visualisation.

Having tried and failed again to win the Lottery this week, I was intrigued by my responses to the inevitable “when I win the lottery I will ...” game.  The first item was: not go into work on Monday.  The second was: move away from Orkney.  I observe that I am now an expert in knowing what I don’t want to do, but still ignorant in identifying what I do want to do.

Ironically, when I moved to Orkney it was partially in search of spiritual growth and the cultivation of “virtues” such as patience, thinking (mistakenly) that I would be more likely to nurture these things in a secluded place than in a bustling metropolis.  When I think back about the number of different “spiritual paths” I have experimented with in the past three years (and in my life previously), yet how I have not persevered with any of them, it is a reminder to me of how impatient a person I am.  I want it now, I want immediate results, or my fickle ego will take its religious custom elsewhere!  Yet the voice in my head (the Female one that laughs a lot) has provided two persistent messages recently: “pick a path, any one, and stick at it” and “wake up!”

It is late July as I write this and I know that winter is coming on because it gets fully dark at night now, for just a couple of hours at present but this will increase until there is far more enveloping dark than light.  The year turns and I feel myself turning too, turning inwards, feeling a need more than ever in my life to be still and contemplative, receptive and open.  I have a strong and certain sense that I am already what I am meant to be, already have what I am meant to have, I just need to awake to realisation of these things: to remember that this is already so.  This is Lammas, harvest time, time to harvest my life, and to do so with patience.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Mending my relationship with Jesus. (Things we don’t like to admit to ... Part 2)



We were recently privileged to meet up with an Anglican priest on a fact-finding tour of UK Paganism and said priest suggested that I read “Jesus Through Pagan Eyes” by Mark Townsend.  I did and it really got me thinking, again this has not been a comfortable blog to write, hence the title.  I also didn’t intend to set out to write such a long article, it all just spewed out of me! 

***

It may surprise you to find a Christian site recommended as a place of Pagan pilgrimage but St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall (HY 449108) is rather special – with plenty of interest for Pagans.  This site is known as the “Light in the North” and was founded in 1137 by the Viking, Earl Rognvald, in honour of his uncle St Magnus, who was martyred in 1115 and canonised in 1136.  Earl Rognvald ambitiously planned to build a church “more magnificent than any other in these islands” and masons were brought in who had worked on Durham and Dunfermline cathedrals, although it wasn’t finished until the fifteenth century.  One particularly attractive feature is the use of red sandstone (from Kirkwall) set beside yellow sandstone (from Eday) (possibly similar to the altars/dressers found in Structure 10 at the Ness of Brodgar).  Further restoration work took place in the nineteenth century and still continues today, with a new stained glass window installed at the west end of the name in 1987 to mark the 850th anniversary.

The Pagan pilgrim may, however, be more interested in the Templar grave slab, the two carved green men and the most northerly known Sheelagh-na-gig – she is covering her vagina with one hand and her left eye with the other – go figure, your guess is at least as good as mine!  

Sheelagh-na-gig

Green man

Green man
In past centuries, as today, the cathedral had more functions than simply a place of worship; it was also a place of “justice” and trial.  “Marwick’s Hole” is a remnant of this: St Magnus Cathedral has the dubious honour of being the only cathedral in the British Isles with its own dungeon.  The chamber possibly dates from the mid-1500s and was in use until the 1700s; it was notoriously used to imprison those accused of witchcraft prior to their execution up at Clay Loan.  The dungeon can be found between the south wall of the choir and the south transept chapel, it is a place of tremendous sadness.  The hangman’s ladder can be viewed on the upper level, it is basically a double-ladder with two sets of rungs, one set is more worn that the other because the hangman also came back down, so his side had twice the wear.

The Marwick Hole - the entrance is from the first floor room down into a chute, the hole is in the wall
The hangman's ladder
View over Kirkwall

Until recently (pre-Tesco), St Magnus Cathedral dominated the skyline in Kirkwall and if you take the fascinating guided tour of the upper levels, for which there is a reasonable charge, the view of the town from the steeple is amazing.  The building of the cathedral itself does not belong to the Church of Scotland but to the people of Orkney and its doors are open to all – this is not just an empty statement, as with so many other cathedrals, but one which is genuinely meant: apart from the aforementioned tours, entrance to this magnificent building is free and donations are not requested with menace.  The Cathedral and ancillary buildings are not solely for church services and purposes; this site functions as a meeting place, a visitor centre, a concert hall, an arts venue and a place of contemplation.  This is a sacred site where it is remarkably easy to connect with that which is non-mundane; I have lit candles here and meditated, and have felt this to be appropriate and welcomed.  I haven’t always felt quite so welcomed in all churches, which saddens me as I never completely rejected Jesus’ message, despite labelling myself a Pagan.

I have had a “calling” to religion or spirituality for as long as I can remember.  I always knew there was something more to life than the mundane “reality” we immediately experience and the materialism of western consumerism which I viewed as rather empty. 

I was brought up as “C of E”.  I remember my dad’s answer to my question “What religion are we?” and my dad subsequently having to think about what the “C” and the “E” stood for.  The phrase was not linked with Christianity but rather with a generally safe respectable and middle class belief system which was about being independent and doing good if you could, and not being bothered with God too much, and religion being there for marriages and funerals, and perhaps Christmas.

My mum encouraged me to go to Sunday School.  I don’t know why.  My dad encouraged me not to.  I don’t know why.  I quite liked Sunday School; it was a Methodist one, I think, and for good attendance we were given individual booklets of the Gospels – what I now know to have been the Good News Bible version because of the excellent line drawings that illustrate it.  I can remember whenever I was “naughty” and banished to my bedroom that I would get out these booklets and try to study through the tears; I specifically recall one afternoon, when I felt entirely rejected by my parents, sitting and vowing to become “a woman of God” (whatever that was!) – there was a sense somehow that my parents might not want me but somewhere “out there” was “something” that did.  That sense was not answered particularly strongly, particularly reassuringly, but it was there and remained – a sense that no matter what the world chucked at me (and the world was revealing itself at that time to be an unkind, competitive and cruel place) there was something else, something more, something beyond, to which I could come home to.

I experienced a lot of bullying at school, in hindsight I now understand why but at the time I had no control over the situation.  I was not popular with the boys because I wasn’t pretty and I wasn’t prepared to “put out” as our American friends might say, or rather I wasn’t prepared to throw my “pearls before swine”; I didn’t want to sexually experiment with just anyone – even now, I’d much rather go without then merge with someone I don’t fully respect.  I was really rubbish at sport, and always last to be picked for team games – I loathed being picked for sides, or rather being left to the end to grudgingly be “We’ll take Helen as long as you take X and Y”.  I was intelligent though and hard-working, but not to genius level, just enough to foster resentment in those who were not so diligent and who didn’t get praised by the teachers so much.  My domestic situation had, by that time in my life, become what could generously be described as dysfunctional and my response to all of this had been to withdraw and cultivate an air of disdainful detachment – I was above it all and it was no wonder the bullies went for me.

When I was 16 I went to a local Sixth Form College to study “A” levels.  I used the move to College to get away from a group of “friends” at school who were not so much friends as a protection racket – all the time I had them as my friends the big bullies wouldn’t pick on me, but the “friends” knew this and exploited it holding me to ransom socially.  So, when I started College I was determined to find new friends, people more like me with a bit of depth and slightly alternative.  Unfortunately, not being musical or into drugs and alcohol, and still wanting to study hard, I couldn’t find many people as straight and geeky as me.  I was starting to realise at that point that “success” in life was more a personality contest than anything else – the alphas, the golden people, were making themselves apparent and the rest of us were being pushed to the periphery.  One of the “A” levels I was studying was Religious Studies, I chose it because the tutor seemed to be as intrigued about the nature of the human condition as I was; he didn’t offer any solutions, but he offered insights.  Several of the people studying with me were Christians and they were pleasant people, they didn’t seem so wrapped up in the cult of personality and they seemed less materialistic.   They also seemed dogmatic and certain, confident and genuine.

I can’t remember much about why I converted to Christianity but I do recall it was a wearing down of my theological objections to the question of evil and the nature of God as well as a response to a desperate need on my part to belong somewhere.  Given what I now know of how fundamentalists operate and their score-keeping of souls saved for Christ, I understand that what I was being offered was conditional friendship.  I remember how their attitude towards me changed once I “accepted Jesus into my heart” and for the first couple of days I was in a state of blissful euphoria as I was very warmly welcomed into my new “family”.

My conversion also provided an outlet for my teenage rebelliousness as I came to understand that the Christianity I belonged to was the “real” Christianity and not the watered-down safe variety of lower middle class “doing good” which my parents practiced.  Quoting the Bible to my parents allowed me plenty of opportunities to be obnoxious and “prove” my own righteousness.  When I started to attend Church, I learnt that the denomination I had joined was “Evangelical Church of England” and that some Christian churches were OK and some were not: basically those that were like us (the Baptists for example) were fine but there were some “free churches” around which were a bit exploitative and cult-like, and which I was advised to stay away from.  And as for the Roman Catholics, well ...

This was a Christianity which claimed to be seeking to go back to the “original” Christianity, to its Biblical roots.  I learnt that women were subordinate and that the purpose of marriage was to have children and to bring them up as Christians.  Child-birth was meant to hurt – it was God’s punishment to Eve.  Only humans had souls, animals did not have souls, even our beloved pets; dominion over the earth and all its plants and animals had been given to Adam and hence to all men.  Satan was everywhere, as was his influence.  The world and our souls were in a perpetual fight between the agents of Satan and the agents of God and Satan was a terrible deceiver so we might think we were following Jesus/God only to find that we were being deceived by Satan.  The only way to test this was against Biblical script.  The “End Times” were imminent, Jesus was coming back in the Second Coming and there were Signs and Portents and we would all be judged and many would “be found wanting”.  Hell and the earth after the righteous were taken up in the rapture, were places of desperation and torture.  Best to hedge your bets and worship the one true God ... I remember mentioning that my mum had bought a stone Buddha ornament for her garden and I was advised by the leader of our housegroup to smash it.

Although I did worship God, I remember feeling as if God didn’t really enjoy being worshipped.  I wonder now if this was me creating God in my own image because I also do not enjoy praise, I feel uncomfortable if I am adored or flattered.  Nevertheless, I was fine with loving and honouring God but not adoration, and I didn’t feel that it was being “requested” of me by God.

My relationship with my father at that time was far from brilliant and I did struggle with loving a Heavenly Father when the idea of a patriarchal figure was not a comforting one but rather an abusing, restricting, imprisoning, and punishing petty tyrant.  My mental image of the Old Testament God (for the sake of argument, let’s call Him “Yahweh”) was somewhere between a giant Zeus / Jupiter statue and the depiction of the creature that is the extension of Morbius’ own mind in the 1950’s film “The Forbidden Planet”.  I didn’t see the feminine honoured much in deity, we were encouraged not to restrict God to being male, but at the same time to imagine Him as neuter or as female was dismissed as demeaning.  Maybe He was super-male?

Sex was bad, very very bad.  Except in the context of Christian marriage and obviously only between one man and one woman.  We knew about those couples who were having sex outside marriage and we made sure they knew that we disapproved.  Sex was shameful.  Most of the world’s problems originated from unbridled sexual urges.  I attended confirmation classes and one of the abiding lessons I learnt is that a woman’s sexual response is kindled with a kiss and is not totally fulfilled until she breast-feeds her baby.  So there you go, kiss a woman and be sure to be prepared to stick around to fatherhood.  Or else.  Presumably “or else Yahweh will get you”.

I think, in hindsight, that the God-image conjured for us was one of an Old Testament jealous monster that periodically behaved incredibly badly and immaturely and once angered would subsequently start to smite people.  In many ways, it would be quite difficult to differentiate between this deity and the devil, except that the devil seemed a little more devious; God didn’t have to be devious – no one needs to be devious when they are all powerful, you just bull-dozer in and start smiting.  Our recently visiting Anglican priest asked me whether I was scared of Pagan deities (in response to many of his difficult questions I had to ask if I could “‘phone a friend” or reply “now that would be an ecumenical matter”).  I am not scared of Pagan deities; neither do I feel the need to “worship” them.  I am however in awe of most of the Pagan deities I bump into, but I am not fearful of them, and I honour them as I try to honour all.  If I encounter a deity (or power) that I am scared of, I tend to just Work with a different deity and try to ignore the former.  Fear does not work as a particularly good manipulator of me.  But I remember I was scared of “Yahweh”.

My mother converted to Christianity and joined the same church after me and I remember how she too seemed so absolutely terrified of God.  She was convinced that she was being constantly punished by God (for some of the most minor misdemeanours) and she lived perpetually in fear of being judged and found wanting.  Everything that went wrong in her life was God punishing her, including her terminal illness, and yet, to the best of my knowledge, unless she had a whole pile of skeletons in her wardrobe (and I never found any when I cleaned out her flat), mum did very little that was evil in her life. 

I went away to the annual church residential summer event for young people and hated almost every minute.  I realised that I hadn’t made the same cult-like and blind commitment that others there had; I was still questioning, still relying on my intellect, still thinking.  And I also hadn’t had a big “Road to Damascus” experience that some of the others had.  So I kept myself at the edge of activities not showing the same enthusiasm that others were showing.  I felt that we were being whipped up into an artificial frenzy in order to achieve some sort of brain-washing and I hung back preferring to observe.  This was noticed by several of the leaders who would periodically take me aside for “concerned chats”.  Unfortunately this only made me more nervous about their motivations; I had been warned all about how the “Moonies” recruited!

After College I went on to study Religious Studies at degree level and although I left my undergraduate course after a year, during that brief period of study I was introduced to techniques of Biblical exegesis and some of the history of Christianity such as Gnosticism and mediaeval mysticism, and I got rather excited at some of the ideas.  I knew there was much more ... more that was being covered up, more hidden teachings, deeper stuff, that was being kept from me. 

At about the same time I went to a service at a church that had quite a reputation for “expressing the gifts of the spirit” – in other words, people openly entering into “trance” and speaking, singing and playing musical instruments in “tongues”, and fainting and being generally strange.  This experience terrified me, on one hand I couldn’t deny that here was a very real spiritual power, but on the other hand I couldn’t quite see the point and I felt very left out.  I think I left the service early, sneaking quietly out the back and crying to myself, bewildered by what I had encountered and challenged by what I had seen.

I don’t like people being odd and behaving strangely, it frightens me and I don’t know how to respond – part of me feels excluded, although I could never imagine myself letting go enough to have the same experiences, and part of me feels deeply embarrassed at what other people are doing around me.  It’s just not, well, “English”!!!  Even today I do not enjoy being ecstatic – or at least not so in company, more so in private.  I do not enjoy “being out of control”, and this includes being under the influence of alcohol (etc), where I enjoy being tiddly and relaxed but loath being uncoordinated and slurry.  I fear being taken advantage of whilst in such a state – whether physically or mentally.  This manifests now as preferring to “lead” ritual rather than be under someone else’s instructions; this has quite rightly provoked criticism that I am a control-freak in ritual and elsewhere in life.  My inner cynic reminds me that mass hysteria can be used to induce vulnerability in the impressionable; I would not wish to be exploited nor to exploit.  Thus, I prefer my religious experiences to be sedate and gentle; I don’t need to be loud or to show off and when I conduct ritual I prefer to ensure that everyone present feels comfortable.  I suspect I may be the biggest prude in Paganism!  Interesting, I have felt exactly the same fear of other people being odd around me on a shamanistic practitioners’ course (on which I cried all the way through).  My poor deities must get so fed up with everything having to be “on my terms”!

I tried to find another Church to belong to but I no longer felt at ease and I stopped going to church and fell out with Christianity for that and a number of other reasons.  I was “living in sin” at the time and I sensed a great deal of disapproval from the congregation.  I was extremely cross at the questions over the ordination of women that were then taking place and I was incredibly frustrated that here was a powerful and respected organisation with considerable authority in secular society not using its power to change society.  But I never hated Jesus or His message; I just didn’t accept that His message was what some fundamentalist Christians claimed it was.  It was very much the church which I rejected, not the original messenger.

I do believe that there was a historical personage called Jesus who really did live and exist in the Holy Land about 30 AD.  I think this person was Jewish and the context of their entire life needs to be interpreted in the context of the Jewish sects and theology of the time.  I think that some of the things which this Jesus said and did were accurately recorded.  I strongly suspect that this Jesus had “woken” in some way, had become “enlightened”, and was seeing things “clearly” as they really were.  I think this person had “tapped in” directly, in some way, to this fundamental power source that is God and was trying to communicate what this was like to others and trying to get others to also “wake up” too.  In seeing “through the veil of illusion”, I think that Jesus had a radical message about our oneness and our true nature, and thus about how we are not separate from each other, so should behave with compassion to each other.

I am in awe that Jesus had such a close relationship with God that He spoke to Him as “Abba” – “daddy”.

I think some of the stories about Jesus such as those connected with His birth, His death and His resurrection may or may not be true.  It does not matter to me whether they are or not.  I think they mainly exist because they attempt to communicate something about the special nature of this Jesus person to specific groupings of (past) peoples.  They were additional teachings, additional interpretations.  It is clear to me that the Gospel writings incorporated, for example, a great deal of Mithraic mythology into the nativity, but I don’t think it does much benefit to argue how much or in what detail.  To my theology, these things are not relevant.

Just a little experiment (which will probably work best for UK readers aged 30-50, but give it a go anyway), without looking anything up, think about everything you know about Margaret Thatcher ...

I remember Thatcher in the 1980s, she brought in the idea about how the market and privatisation was good.  She sold off a lot of the state owned utilities, she crushed the Trade Unions and decimated manufacturing, especially coal mining and steel working.  She brought in “right to buy” with loads of social housing being sold off and the concept of “the polluter pays” which changed how archaeology was funded.  She took away free school milk, changed the civil service, and attacked the NHS.  She started the Falklands War and introduced the Community Charge (= Poll Tax).  The rest is cartoons from Spitting Image and that hairstyle – the Iron Lady. 

Thatcher is still alive (at the time of writing, summer 2012).  These things took place in my lifetime, some 30 years ago.  And I can barely remember anything.  This is the same timescale that the writers of the Gospels were dealing with, but with modern technology I can go and check on the details for Thatcher.  Think about it because this process is relevant to what happened to the historical Jesus when he became mythologised.

I think humans are amazing, especially the capacity which our brains have to create.  I don’t know whether other things also have this capacity or whether it is unique to humans.  I also don’t know, if this capacity is unique to humans, whether this makes humans “special” in some way, or whether not being able to do it also provides a spiritual advantage, albeit a different one.  But I suspect that humans have an ability to imagine something, to “feed” that imagined thing, and then draw it into existence, keeping it empowered and rendering it more real.  The form of existence may “only” occur in a non-material context, such as “the astral”, where the imagined thing becomes a “thought-form”.  Thus, when something is imagined and becomes created and “fed” with energy to make it real, its reality can become more “permanent” if more than one person envisages the same thing.  This, I believe is what has happened with Jesus-Christ-as-God.  If we think of Jesus now it is easy for us to imagine a young slender man in his early 30s, a good looking hippy type with a full trim beard and mid-length flowing hair, probably wearing white robes and sandals, he will be emanating compassion and love for all.  This is such a common meme, hard-wired into the western psyche, that every time we imagine it, we feed the image on the astral.  This entity is real.  This entity is God.  This entity may have been pooled into existence or may have been thought into existence, it does not matter it now exists.

I took a long time to admit to being a Pagan.  I began by exploring Buddhism but it was a bit too all-or-nothing for me, and then I started considering New Age concepts and divination.  My first forage into Paganism was through hedge-witchcraft mainly because, as I have written elsewhere, I got free stuff and made other stuff happen – I discovered fairly quickly that magick worked.  I enjoyed announcing that I was a witch, it was quite empowering; I got to wear lots of black and some odd jewellery, and I got to scare some people and to develop an air of mystery.  It also seemed a rather feminist decision, after all it is rather an empowering stance but also one which takes you out of the social norm, and I thoroughly appreciated being able to open to a divine feminine.  I am still a hedgewitch at heart, I like the practicalities of it and the renegade attitude of just getting on with making the world a slightly more bearable place and fixing the immediate things that present as well as you are able to.  I also like fiddling and mixing stuff up like potions and powders.  I have been a member of two covens, one awful and abusive, and the other brilliant that rekindled my trust and initiated me into Wicca.  I have trained as a shamanic practitioner, explored occultism and kabbalah, and am very fond of Druidry, particularly the courses offered by the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids.  I prefer to work alone now or with my magickal partner and husband – I really have got fed up with the politics of magickal groups and I simply am not interested in bickering and petty jealousies – even when I have caused them ...

My current theology is that everything is God.  This belief is different to what I believed last year and it will no doubt have changed again by this time next year, or even next week.  God may not be the best word to use, because God implies a distinct Being and a personality.  By God, in this context, I mean a sacred force that saturates, suffuses and shines through all things.  This force is subtly, but not overtly, benign and steers all towards metamorphosis.  Sometimes I “see” it, mainly when I am deliberately not trying to see it, and when I do see it everything gets a sort of halo.  Spiritual people appear brighter to me: I call them shiny people; I suspect I may be sensing auras. 

Obviously, this is not a personal God with whom one can have a relationship and a cosy chat, this is the ultimate unknowable and incomprehensible Divine, it just is.  This Divine is (in) me and (in) you; but sometimes I forget that this is so.  And because everything is God, everything is also, in some sense, “one”: interconnected and inter-related.

Because everything is God, nothing can be evil.  It just is.  It is unknowable and I will never comprehend (at least not through using my intellect) how and why things are working out as they are, but they are, and there needs to be trust on my part, although as a Pagan I am also empowered to do all I can to bring beneficial change to the world.  However there is one area in which I do accept the existence of evil and that is in human machinations.  Although I thoroughly believe that the vast majority of people are not evil – and that most “evil acts” are really ill-considered, lazy, opportunistic, stupid, naive, or desperate – I know humans who have set out to deliberately do malice out of pure enjoyment.  That I accept is evil. 

Because nothing is evil, including people, nothing needs to be redeemed, including people.  There needs to be no sacrifice bled out on a Roman instrument of torture to rejoin me with the Divine, I am already joined and whole.  I am not born into an impure and sinful state, I am perfect as I am, loved and wholly accepted.  This is liberation theology.  The link with the Divine is only broken if I am tricked or informed that it is; when I accept that it is open and flows, then it comes like a flood of spirit.

As well as God, I also believe that there are deities, spirits, energies and powers which are slightly more contactable and with whom more interaction is possible.  I think that sometimes this sacred force that is God organises itself into more concentrated and, if you like, denser energy parcels for a specific reason, often in order to enact with or communicate with us (i.e. other denser energy parcels).  These energy parcels take a form that is specific to the experiencer, for example, I may experience Lugh, you might experience Jesus Christ, someone else might experience Ra or Apollo.  The form will be what the experiencer finds comforting, accessible or even challenging; the form taken will be particularly meaningful to the experiencer.  This is also what is happening, in a way, with those people with whom we meet and interact, people themselves are parcels of energy which have formed and behave in a particular manner in order to be meaningful to the experiencer – just as others are here to teach you, you are here to teach others, but we are all God, all one.

I am therefore in some sense a monotheist, a polytheist, an agnostic and an atheist, an animist, a pantheist and a panentheist; I am all of the above and none, all at the same time and constantly changing.  Mine is a fluid theology that shifts to fit my current experiences.  I am comfortable with paralogic.

So when people ask me if I believe in God, I tend to answer that yes, I do, but probably not in the same way that they do and probably not using the same interpretation of the word “God”.  This is also why I have no problem with acknowledging that Jesus is God.  He was God, but so am I, and so are you; the difference is that Jesus was aware of this on a more profound and real level than I am aware of it and, I suspect, than you are aware of it.  I am God, but only as long as you are also God and this changes my own sense of being God.  As the same time it is the singularly most arrogant statement in the world and also the most humble.  It is two extremes and neither at the same time, because all is one, all is God.  There are no opposites in this theology, just perception.

And this is where Anglican priests asking difficult questions and Mark Townsend’s “Jesus Through Pagan Eyes” is relevant because I am fully aware that my opinions, beliefs and experiences are complete heresy and would be treated with utter disdain by many people; many would tell me that Satan is speaking through me.  For this reason I was not completely honest with the Anglican priest about my theology because I was too scared of causing offence to him – I could see that he had a real and abiding love for Jesus Christ and I had no wish to challenge, convert or change him (or anyone!).  Like the majority of Pagans, I do not proselytise, I don’t mind what you believe nor the extent to which you believe it.  I am passionate about interfaith and am active within interfaith in Orkney and my priority is to treat others with respect and to build bridges, to not reach consensus (what a boring world that would be!) but understanding.  For me to start saying “this is my opinion about Jesus”, knowing that it will cause offence to some, is not my agenda.  This article, therefore, is partly my gift to that priest as a fuller and more honest answer.

I am also aware that some of the things I believe are utterly audacious – I am stating that I believe that I am God, that I am perfectly and already in communication with God, and that I do not need to be saved, there is nothing from which I need to be saved, everything already is.  When I believe these things I am free, I do not feel guilt and I don’t need dogma, I reject much of the thought-control that comes from the state and from state-ordained religions and I am free to experience the Divine directly and openly.

Thus my problem is not with Jesus, nor his message, but what the church and state has done to Jesus and his message.  So, when I read Mark Townsend’s book and I learnt that many Christians and theologians and Pagans have also attempted to strip back Jesus to what his essential role and message may have been, armed with far more academic knowledge than my crude thoughts, I cried; I cried openly to the extent that some of the pages were wet with my tears.  Like Mark Townsend, I realised that I did not have to throw the baby out with the bath water.  I could accept that Jesus was special, but that his message was that I could become as special, and his ministry of inclusivity reinforced that.  I know that the “Kingdom of God” is now, it is within us, and it refers to a state of being.

That does not stop me from disliking how some Christians have behaved and in particular how some institutionalised denominations and churches have sought to control.  “Dislike” is not a strong enough term.  At the very least, it is spiritual abuse, but it can also be emotional, financial, physical and sexual abuse – the church is a perpetrator!  However, I accept there are many good Christians out there: St Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa of Calcutta (yes, I know the arguments, but she was far more hands-on than I am with the poor, so she gets the benefit of the doubt with me), and I have been privileged to meet many warm and progressive Christians here in Orkney (some visiting!), but I also cannot ignore the subjugation of women and homosexuals, the witch-hunts, the crusades, the burning of heretics, the heavy-handed conversions of indigenous peoples, and the ignoring of massive social inequalities which I am fairly certain were some of the same things that Jesus got a bit cross about when He was around two millennia ago.  Likewise, I concede, there are good and bad Pagans, no belief system has a monopoly on “saints”, nor on “sinners”.

So what is my relationship with Jesus now?  I know some of the Interfaith group in Orkney are questioning this as I have taken to quoting Jesus during Interfaith debates – to much mutual merriment!

I am respectful of Jesus – unlike some other Pagans, I don’t feel the need to laugh at Him, or His message, or to see Him as weak or a failure in some way because He was executed.  I don’t feel the need to attempt to disprove certain parts of His alleged life, nor make comparisons with other deities being worshipped at about the same time to show how much He has been mythologised.  But just as much, I don’t want or need to “follow” Him.  I rather like the Zen Buddhist saying “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him” – you are not to follow the Buddha, you are to follow the Buddha’s teaching.  I want to take Jesus’ teachings as guidance for the sort of life I could aspire to, or grow into, but they are teachings which I need to test for myself as an individual.  And, given that I do not accept the authority of the Bible for myself, these are things which I do need to test for myself. 

I certainly don’t want to come back to the church, sorry, but that is definitely not for me, at least not as the church is at the moment.  I am too much of a free-thinker and I am fed-up with being told I am only allowed to think in certain prescribed ways and that spiritual experimentation is dangerous.  Jesus’ teachings are valuable to me and my spiritual path, but I would prefer my relationship to be a polite but distant one: perhaps akin to that which might be had with an ex-husband after an amicable and mutually consensual divorce, where we agree to go our separate ways bearing each other no animosity but where we periodically check on the other’s welfare via the intermediaries of neutral friends and in-laws. 

Some Pagans would also not agree with my letting Jesus in even by a mere crack, some Pagans have been so damaged by the dogma of Christianity that they are anti-Christian.  I don’t think that is a helpful response, but I respect their choice.  I don’t expect anyone else to agree with the statements I make in this article, they are personal statements that are relevant to me today, they may change by tomorrow, I am not seeking to convert anyone, only to raise questions and possibly explanations for myself.

One of my favourite sayings of Jesus is “You will know a tree by the fruit it bears”.  Although judging anything is less than the ideal and keeps us trapped in a particular mindset, if we do have to know if something is “good” or not, we can tell by looking at what it produces.  Anyone on a spiritual path will be changed.  The changes may be subtle but they will be there.  When you start to align yourself with spiritual growth, you cannot help but to become more moral, more compassionate, more aware.  It becomes an intrinsic part of your nature; you find yourself returning too much change in a shop, or not trying to sneak in without paying, or thinking twice before lying.  It is as if an internal moral switch gets pushed!  So, if you want to know whether someone is really on a spiritual path, observe their life, observe the way they live, and ask whether the way they behave is in alignment with what they say.  This is one of my main arguments back to Christians who accuse me of being in league with the devil because of my Pagan beliefs – I ask them to judge me by the life I lead ... because I am squeaky clean ha ha ha!