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Wicca, Neopaganism & the Changing Face of Spirituality

On April 21st I addressed a group of students and an auditing professor (their actual professor was stuck in Scotland due to ash from the Iceland volcano) at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, CT.  Below is the lecture, which I “filled in” from my original outline, in hopes it might be of some interest.  It turned out to be a wonderful experience – the Divinity School campus is simply beautiful – and the students asked many insightful questions throughout the lecture and afterward.  All in all, a most successful day!  

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Yale Divinity School Presentation

April 21, 2010

Wicca, Neopaganism and the Changing Face of Spirituality

Hello, I’m Laura Lenhard – a married mother of four children ages 5 through 16, business owner and practicing witch.  I want to thank Pat Kriss for making this all possible, and I’m basing my talk today here at the Yale Divinity School on my personal journey to Wicca and what I see as the changing face of spirituality.  I guess I’m uniquely suited to this because I do own a new-age shop in Monroe CT  called Talisman which opened 3 years ago, and I am blessed to know and be in communication with many high priests and priestesses as well as shamanic leaders, elders in the Native American faith path and mystics and spiritualists all over the country and world.  So when I say “changing face” I do mean its changing everywhere!  I am also a writer and have written articles in publications such as The Door Opener as well as blogging for Hearst Publications and I’ve also been on several local radio talk shows, so I do feel qualified to speak on this subject which is near and dear to my heart.    

I want to start by letting you know I have reviewed the curriculum for Witchcraft and Witch Hunting in Early Modern Europe and America and so I guess we can move forward now, without my having to discuss the “Wiccan revisionist” accounts of millions dying in a sort of witch holocaust during the burning times.  And I don’t know, do we need to talk a little bit about the difference between “folk magic” and the organized religion that is Wicca?  Folk magic being primarily habits and superstitions, which may very well have merit and worth, but which are passed down through families and which vary by geographic area – and these may be very common sense, such as in my Irish family the “never bring an old broom into a new house” tradition, which I found in a book as being part of “the craft” but one which I remember my grandmother telling me was a big no-no and she always reminded me to get new cleaning supplies, mop and broom every time I moved into a new apartment.   This took on a “folk magic” connotation but it probably began as a way to not bring insects and pests’ eggs from the old house into a brand-new one.   Okay – so we understand “Wicca” is a religion broken down into traditions such as Alexandrian, Gardnerian, Cabot, Dianic etc.  each having its own unique rituals, rules of conduct, leadership roles, etc.  right?  Right!

But one more thing quick – regarding persecution, I thought long and hard about this because I never actually felt persecuted or gosh even laughed at based on my spirituality so I wasn’t sure how I could talk about the experience.  But I was just last week talking with one of my readers who is a shamanic witch and also a paralegal, and I was telling her about one of Talisman’s patrons who wants to file for divorce but she’s worried her husband will use her religious beliefs against her in court.  And my reader said to me “This happens.  I’ve actually known times when women have had to take the stand and been ridiculed and held accountable and actually have lost their children because they identified as witches”.  And not down south, mind you – here in Connecticut.   So be aware, this does happen and it’s a very real reason why many are afraid to come out and say what they believe and why the numbers of Wiccans remains inaccurate in terms of reporting statistically.  And my best friend’s mother was negotiating in court with her soon to be ex-husband on the terms of their divorce when at a point when things weren’t going his way, he actually stood up, pointed his finger at her and said, “oh, yeah – well you’re a WITCH”.  She laughed it off, shrugged, made it look like a joke … but there you are. 

Okay, so back to me.  I was born in Connecticut but raised from ages 5 through 15 in Southern California.  Even the little Mexican Catholic church we attended had a wonderfully open and far ahead of its time new-age kind of “Vibe” to it.  My father served in Korea and came back with a love of the culture and Eastern religion so a little of that got mixed in, you know some reincarnation, plus my mother and grandmother were mystically minded – I had a great-aunt who read tea leaves in Pennsylvania and this was a point of pride in our family – it was common to sit at the breakfast table and talk about your dreams from last night – it was nice.  Many of my readers have shared their horror stories of parents who again ridiculed or made them go to church and pray on their knees until they “got it out of their system” so to speak.   So what I’m saying is it was probably much easier for me to segue way over to a new spirituality than for most. 

Now I found myself truly studying Wicca in my mid-twenties when I was researching herb gardens as a horticulturist and freelance garden writer, and came across the magical uses of herbs in addition to their health and culinary uses.  Most particularly I was reading a book about Caprilands, a former goat farm here in Connecticut owned by a woman (now deceased) who was wonderfully eccentric but openly talked about magic and witchcraft as she led tours through her famous gardens. 

As I began having children, I started to question internally what I believed and why.  From a very young age I loved theology – the reasons why people believe as they do and how they practice their faith.  I found myself looking for explanations for the reasons I celebrated in certain ways – for example, why bunnies and eggs at Easter? – and found most of the roots of the Christian faith (even through I called myself a new-age Catholic at that time) to be pagan in nature.  So with what I was reading and learning – and my own intuitive gifts burgeoning – once I really cracked open some very good books on Wiccan principles and beliefs I found, as so many have described to me at the shop, that it just felt very natural and there were a great deal of Wiccan “practices” I was already engaging in. 

Why the draw to Wicca and Neopaganism?  (Note difference primarily that pagans celebrate the holidays versus ritualistic worship.)  Also “Heathenism” gaining in popularity, a Norse tradition which has negative connotations due to its presence in the prison systems – a “familial based religion” it centers on family and extended family as the “tribe” but this can unfortunately be translated into racial bigotry – which has given a beautiful tradition a bad feeling for some.

Environmental concerns; disenchantment with traditional religions in the wake of scandal; financial mismanagement and what I think comes as part of the global shift in consciousness – hey, I told you I was new-agey!!! – as so many institutions are falling by the wayside (investment, insurance, banking, auto) and conspicuous consumption appears more and more to blame for the mess we’re in – the idea of an earth-based nature religion that is gentle on the earth and easy to understand really works right now.  And unlike fundamentalist religions (and remember, the only three recognized religions are Muslim, Judaism, and Christianity – the others all fall under the “Pagan” umbrella despite the fact that many predate Christianity by many thousands of years – Hinduism 12,000-15,000 years old, Buddhism 9,000-11,000 and Shamanism some 35,000 years old!) Wiccans and pagans are allowed to respectfully incorporate aspects of other faith paths into their own highly personalized spirituality.  And that includes those more traditional paths such as Gardnerian, etc.  I mean, if Mary the mother of Jesus looks like the face of the goddess to you, then by all means have her on your altar!  Humans have a need to put a recognizable face on diety but really, how DO you put a face on that which is faceless or give a name to that which is nameless – when it is, in fact, pure energy we are talking about here.  But people aren’t ready to just give up everything they’ve grown up believing in, that may be too much all at once, but they can explore aspects of different faiths.  Interestingly enough a trend has paralleled in terms of diet and religion.  Some time ago, it became popular to look at the food of your ancestors – where did your people come from, geographically what part of the world, and what did they eat?  This ties into “cell memory” (an aspect of reincarnation) and the idea that this food is more appropriately nourishing on several levels.  At the same time, the question of  ”what did your people believe?” has been asked as well, and people do In fact come into Talisman, see the 7-day candles, and their faces light up and they begin talking about their great-aunt Sophia who oiled and kept candles lit all the time.  And we find that’s usually Italian, and that’s a very Strega (Italian witchcraft) or maybe Rosecrucian thing to do.  And there’s a comfort in that, a real tie which combines family history and spirituality.

Now, I personally identify as a Hedgewitch, also called a “green” or “kitchen” witch (although many feminists do not appreciate that term! The idea that you’re stuck in the kitchen practicing your art!) and this is a solitary path very much growing in popularity which is focused on the natural and magical aspects of the healing arts.  (talk about hedges/wise women in Western Europe).  So that’s working with the herbs, stones, and oils as part of our craft – also Reiki and energetic healing are utilized as well.  However, I also study Hinduism and continuously read about and am fascinated by the indigenous religions of Africa and Australia.

So that’s me – and before I move on, are there any questions about MY personal faith path that I can answer to clarify anything I’ve discussed so far?

Moving on, then, let’s talk a little bit about what I see going on at Talisman, spiritually-speaking. 

Talisman celebrates Universal Spirituality – the idea that all faith paths devoted to good works and higher principles lead to The One.  I’m very happy to report that Talisman has had no ugly scenes to contend with, no protesting or anything of that nature.  In fact, just the opposite – we have been embraced by a town which has a famous local witch by the name of “Hanna Cranna” who was a historical person and you can learn more about her by googling Monroe CT Hannah Cranna.  I’ve visited her grave and had people in the store whose great-grandparents knew her, so that’s very exciting and lends itself nicely to a metaphysically themed store!  I believe that, well, first the only thing I am religious about is brushing my teeth – however, your spirituality can be likened to a piece of cloth you weave.  And you may choose the body of the cloth to be Judaic, say, but interwoven with threads from the Buddhist faith path – or Native American – I mean, who says a Jew can’t find their truth in a Lakotan sweat lodge??  Not me!  I want to be right there, sweating next to them!

So that’s the premise of Universal Spirituality.  Now we’re seeing an ever-growing number of people who recognize Christ as their spiritual leader.  However, they also recognize such metaphysical ideas like reincarnation, Reiki (which the Catholic Church has recently denounced) and other forms of energy work, the value of divination, past life recall and karmic aspects to this lifetime … and we call these people “Mystic Christians”.  That’s a term those of you who are going into some form of spiritual counseling might want to remember.  Also know that many deeply spiritual people are also highly intuitive and many were not appreciated or encouraged – In fact, very much the opposite – as children.  And perhaps this is another form of persecution, albeit maybe a mild one, but I can assure you that many of these people who are intuitively gifted struggled with alcohol particularly to “shut themselves down” and stop receiving the visions or hearing the voices etc etc.  Last year, a lovely lovely woman I work with who accesses the akashic records and does beautiful spirit guide drawings, she shared with me her own battle with alcoholism when she was much younger and just wanted to turn it all off because she was frightened.  So know and understand that the “path to enlightenment” for many has been fraught with personal demons which had to be conquered and may still rear their ugly head from time to time.  Anyone with a congregation to tend or in counseling ministry position will undoubtedly come across this issue eventually. 

I don’t think we can talk about modern-day witchcraft without giving a nod to “The Secret” and the Christianization of the desire to work manifestations AKA witchcraft.  The difference is that The Secret teaches if you really want something, you get it as long as you ask constantly via Vision Boards and other means of constantly putting your desire In the face of the divine.  In fact, if you DIDN’T get what you wanted you just didn’t ask hard enough or really want it enough.  Your fault.  Okay, now we witches see this differently.  We don’t whine and we don’t demand that the Divine deliver on our desires.  We ask – maybe as a part of intricate ritual, but still, because we believe in a Higher Power that always has our best interests in mind, we don’t demand, knowing the answer may be “no” for our own good.  (reference handout article from Door Opener).  Now this headset of “I want it – I deserve it – It’s mine to take” goes along with a fundamental issue that witches and neopagans and Native Americans and Buddhists and Hindus and Santerians and all us earth-based or nature-based faiths have with fundamentalist Christianity.  And that is contained in the Book of Genesis – and please, I am not looking to debate, but fundamental Christian belief in the DOMINION of man over the beasts and the land – it’s that word, DOMINION – flies in the face  of OUR belief that we have a stewardship or caretaking role during this life here on this planet.  This is a core contention, philosophically, between the earth based spiritualities and Christian fundamentalists.  And we are concerned because I have heard it said – actually heard these words come out of people’s mouths – that “it doesn’t matter if we pollute or use up all the resources or endangered species become extinct because their habitat it destoyed” and why??? Because the Rapture is going to occur, Jesus is coming back to destroy and recreate the world … so it doesn’t matter.   And this terrible lack of responsibility goes hand in hand with the lack of accountability we are seeing in all these different institutions – I want my piece of the pie I don’t care who I hurt, i.e. the Bernie Madoffs or now the newest scandal with Goldman Sachs.   And how do you argue with that logic? It’s a core belief of the Christian faith, as outlined in the Book of Revelations.   We start off in the first book that it’s yours to take and end with the last book telling us it doesn’t matter anyway.  And yet – and I’m going to get political for just a minute here – these are the Sarah Palins, its doubly scary because they have children and grandchildren so we know this is what they really believe WILL happen.  They have children who are going to inherit this mess – and they help create policy and legislation as our leaders.  It’s frightening.  And many of us see this, understand what is happening, and want no part of it.  No part of a religion embraced by crazy people.

And I want to end this by saying that I feel the fundamental draw, at least for me, to this evolving new-age spirituality that we call “Wicca” is that it places the accountability square on the shoulders of its practitioners.  There is no confessional for us, no public Wailing Wall or place to absolve ourselves of our sins.  We truly reap what we sow in every sense of those words.  We don’t believe in the devil, per se, because we see the potential for good and evil in ourselves and try our best to elevate our energy to a higher consciousness.  And also, Wiccans and pagans while not openly visible in many cases, we’re easy to find.  We’re everywhere!  We are members of Greenpeace, we are busy doing our river cleanups and community service at the local shelters (both human and animal) many of us are midwives and hospice workers and metaphysical healers – remember back to a time when getting acupuncture was viewed as “out there” and ridiculous by the medical community?  Now never mind that – currently, Reiki healing is being offered in hospitals! 

These are challenging times but they are exciting times as well.  True religious freedom means freedom for all religions and we are blessed to live in a Country – unlike Haiti, where the aftermath of a tragic earthquake has been outright attacks on practitioners of Voodoo, their own native religion which has its roots in the indigenous religions of Africa – but here in New Haven and Fairfield Counties many of us who have chosen an alternative faith path can proudly display our pentacles and talk openly about our beliefs.   And for that I am glad.

Now – questions anyone?

Laura Lenhard