I wanted to be a polytheist. It’s not an easy confession to make, because despite my best efforts at various times in my life, I have never had any coherent experience of deity. Only shadows and suggestions, and odd moments in dreams. I’ve encountered enough words from true polytheists to know that personal gnosis is a big part of how they experience the world. My failure to have any kind of serious firsthand experience informed a lot of writing When a Pagan Prays. It’s not a book for people who have comfortable exchanges with their deities – more for anyone else out there who does not get what they went looking for, or is not easy with believing.
I had a bit of a lightbulb moment last week. I realised that I’ve been so busy angsting over my failure to experience deity, that I really haven’t given enough thought or attention to what I do experience. There are other things in my life, and it’s subtle, it seldom comes with a side-order of words, (although I talk to everything) and it occurs to me that this is, for me at least, the most important stuff.
Here’s an example. My computer is at the window, if I raise my gaze I can see trees, and sky. On any given day I will at some point raise my head at just the right moment to see buzzards, a heron, woodpeckers, nuthatches, flocks of little birds, comedy squirrel activity, rainbow light, tiny whirwinds… It’s the same when I go walking – I always see something. If I walk the hills I’ll find fossils, or limestone quartz. It’s easy not to notice, because it is normal for me. I’m very open to what’s around me, and had got into the habit of considering it all fairly mundane.
On the Five Valley’s Walk we saw a lizard and a deer. 1700 people walking the 21 mile route – hardly an invitation to wild things to show up. I watched half a dozen other people walk right past the lizard, not seeing it, but I had been drawn to it at once. I knew it was there. I see kingfishers and little grebes, I hear owls. I do not experience these as messages from the divine or the otherworld, just nature doing its thing and me noticing. I do not read what I see for omens or symbols, but I do feel blessed.
Even as I try and square up to the idea that this could be something really precious and important, I am conscious of my own reluctance to put any big names on it. Knowing when to turn my head to see the deer is just being present. It’s not the voice of gods or the voice of spirit, it’s just me in a wood and everything else in the wood. Would someone else construct a different narrative? Would someone else feel the need to turn, and in turning, see something beautiful, and understand that as the presence of deity?
I’ve spent about twenty years stumbling around, feeling lost and that on a very fundamental level, I wasn’t a very good Pagan at all. It may be that I just do not default to the language of deity when making sense of experience. I don’t see the horned god in the deer, I don’t see goddess in the flash of kingfisher wings. I see the deer and the kingfisher. Perhaps that isn’t a failing. Perhaps I am not as shut out of mystery, as incapable of experiencing it as I had feared myself to be. It may have been the case that I’ve been so busy being enchanted by one tree at a time that I did not grasp that I’d been in the forest all along. I don’t know. Not knowing is pretty fundamental to how I interact with the world. My not knowing has shifted in tone a tad, opening up new possibilities.