What little I know about reincarnation

Reincarnation is a standard concept in Hinduism and pretty common in the wider Pagan world, but I have long been agnostic about it. As a kid it didn’t make much sense to me, but then, neither did the ideas of heaven and hell.

The afterlife was a giant unknown – no one ever came back to tell us what really happens, so why let the hope or fear of an afterlife encourage us in the here-and-now? Any devotion to a god should be done for the virtue and blessings in this life. The concept of being a Christian so that one could get into heaven always struck me as sucking up to the popular kids to get invited to the cool party – really shallow and likely to be disappointing.

Reincarnation didn’t make sense because there are WAY more humans now than there ever have been, so maybe bugs are really living right and advancing quickly? Most people I heard or read about when talking about their past lives were always Exotic and Awesome. We can’t all have been Cleopatra or Julius Caesar, John Dee or Queen Elizabeth.

I made peace with reincarnation when I started contemplating the Cycle of Life. We die, dissolve into the earth, feed the worms and birds and bugs, they in turn feed other creatures and the soil. We eat animals and vegetables that ate that land or those creatures and they become part of us. What we eat literally becomes part of us: our bones, our blood. While pregnant that point was driven home even further, as a baby is built from my bones, my blood, my flesh. This seems like a form of reincarnation, even if it’s the most scientific of understandings.

As for the recycling of souls….. I’m not sure. I don’t have a good grasp of how all the Parts break down after death.

However, off and on throughout my life I’ve wondered if maybe……. just maybe….. there’s something to this reincarnation thing. I don’t understand where my almost obsessive drive to dive into the spiritual realm comes from. It doesn’t make sense in the context of my upbringing. Sure, becoming a Christian in modern America feels like a religious rite of passage. But my longings go much deeper than wanting to be Right about God or being saved or wanting a happy church community (the last two are perfectly fine goals; the first one leaves a lot to be desired, but is sadly all too common). I’ve meandered through mainstream evangelical Christianity (please note the lower case e) to Eastern Orthodox Christianity to liberal feminist Christianity to dabbling in general paganism to Feri to Feri AND traditional witchcraft AND Tantric Hinduism. What the hell am I doing? And why am I doing it?

I’ve been in the middle of an ongoing and extremely helpful discussion on devotion with my spiritual teachers. One of them said something to me that got me thinking about this topic once again. Perhaps this drive for devotion and spirituality is because I’ve been working at this for many lifetimes. I’ve often thought that if reincarnation is real, then I was likely a monk or a nun, or one of each. I have a strong scholarly drive, but once I was working on my PhD I realized that it is not the life for me. I feel a little bit like ‘I’ve done this before, I don’t need to do this again.’ With Christianity I feel as if I’ve gone as far as I can go.

Some might explain the urgings of my heart as God calling to Himself. But I know many people – spiritual and non – who don’t have these urges. If there is One God then this reason smacks of predestination, which is, in my opinion, the theology of an asshole god.

Maybe the urges of my heart are louder and clearer because I’m listening and so many people ignore their own heart (or don’t have the privilege to listen), so I hear the Universe calling to Itself. Oh maybe. But my husband will tell you that I’m only just getting the hang of this listening thing.

Ultimately I don’t know, and ultimately it doesn’t matter.

Perhaps my past as a monk is the reason that being a mother is so challenging and so important for me in the here-and-now. I don’t have quite the right temperament for the job and as a woman of my time and place, I certainly didn’t need to become one. Yet I’ve chosen it willingly and consider it an intrinsic part of my Self, my life and my practice. I wonder if my past lives of monks, nuns, and priests needed to balanced by being a householder.

Which leads to into my next post: Priest vs Householder.

Maxim Monday: Praise virtue

Virtues are good. Virtues tend to be linked to morality, rather than ethics.* This entire Delphic Maxim series is based on what I consider virtues. I also think of virtues as strengths of character. As a parent this particular Maxim is doubly important.

My son is 4 and 3/4 years. I don’t know if 4 was this hard for other parents (I’m hearing that yes it was/is), but in our house it has been the season of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One moment my son is being super rad: maybe he’s funny, helpful, independent, clever, brave, impressive, gentle, loving, or any other number of Good and Virtuous Things. The next moment he’s thrown a metal car at my face, punched his sister, run laughing through the house hitting everything he can, slammed all the doors, and told me I’m the shittiest parent ever. Do you have whiplash? Because I do. (No, really. I officially have diagnosable whiplash from this kid.)

At this age Son has figured out that he doesn’t have to sit on the time out step. He knows he can walk away from deep breaths. Punishments and consequences are in a bit of quagmire right now. So what’s the best solution I can think of? Praise virtue. Praise his virtues. Praise his virtuous deeds. And then do it some more.

While this might not work for all parenting situations or for all other Life Situations, I think celebrating what we think of as virtue is important. I want to read stories to my kids of imagined or real-life people living virtuously – or working to become so. I want to model a virtuous life. I want to see virtues reflected in the people my family surrounds themselves with. I want to see more virtue in my communities.

This wikipedia page has a great collection of different collections of virtues from around the world. Some of my favorites are: courage, justice, mercy, generosity, gratitude, trustworthiness, sincerity, and perseverance, to name but a handful. Humor isn’t listed anywhere, but I think humor ought to be!

According to the above linked wikipedia entry, Aristotle says, “virtue is excellence at being human, a skill that helps a person survive, thrive, form meaningful relationships, and find happiness. Learning virtue is usually difficult at first, but becomes easier with practice over time until it becomes a habit.” I agree with this. As with all of these Maxims and virtues, and as Gandhi said, we need to be the change we wish to see in the world.


*Some say there is no difference between ethics and morals; I think there’s an important difference. Morals are behaviours deemed Good, usually from an external source, like society or a god, and tend to be black and white/good or bad. Ethics are much more grey, more situational, and must be cultivated from within. I don’t think either one set or the other is intrinsically better than the other. Some people have terrible ethics; many of the morals my culture embraces are just fine.

Resistance is futile

Expansion, contraction, expansion, contraction. It would be nice if this was an easy, regular pattern for change and growth in our lives. Dependable like breathing, predictable intervals, clear pay-offs. But it’s not. Sometimes some parts of us are expanding, while other parts are contracting. Sometimes our expansion hits limitations or boundaries and we have to contract a little. Sometimes we resist one kind of expansion in favor of another kind.

I’ve had a season of dramatic expansion. Parts of it have been painful, all of it has been illuminating. As I sit in the pause in between expansions, I realize I’ve been resisting, avoiding even, a few core issues.

The first one is yoga. For many years I had a serious yoga practice. I practiced 30-60 minutes of yoga and meditation in the morning. I had thoughts of getting certified to teach it. Then I had my son, moved to Wales, and had a second child. One of the things I was excited about when I moved back to the States was renewing my yoga practice.

Shortly after arriving I found a class and a teacher I quite liked. I even joined in her home studio practice. That was ever so brief. I realized how exhausted I was from the move and I needed to not to do, only rest. Then summer came and it was a whirlwind of travel and emotional overstretching, so come fall I needed to rest some more. I haven’t been to yoga in months. But yesterday I realized: a yoga practice, a quiet place free of the children once a week, would have been a Good Thing in all of this. There are all sorts of perfectly valid reasons I give myself for not getting back to my yoga practice, either in or outside of the home. But the fact is: I’m avoiding it.

Sure, it’s frustrating rolling out the mat at dawn. My joints creak and pop. Inevitably a child wakes up and needs a morning snuggle and then of course wants to sit on the mat or play under my downward facing dog or hop on my back when I’m in plank. That’s annoying, pretty cute, and my present reality. It’s going to be years before I can get back to a place of uninterrupted home practice. But I’m not accepting that. I’m internally pouting about it. It’s a form of self-sabotage and perfectionism. There’s never going to be a perfect time. If I don’t get back to some form of practice my joints are only going to get creakier, my will weaker.

Yoga is so important to my well-being. It creates more space in my physical, emotional and spiritual Self. I feel more connected to my Hindu practice, too. I feel more present in all my Parts; each positive, healthy act of Will encourages and strengthens other positive, healthy acts. Why do I continually avoid my mat?

I’m also avoiding writing. Last year my editor over at Patheos suggested I write a memoir. I was flattered, but mostly confused and daunted at the prospect. A few other people have since asked me when I’m planning on writing a book. I laugh it off. What could I possibly have to say? For the longest time I thought my PhD dissertation would be my contribution to the discourse of feminist religious thought. Now, that is less and less likely. I’m critical of the memoir form, both as a reader, but also as a potential writer of one. So many memoirs feel self-indulgent. I particularly look askance at ones written by people in their 20s and 30s – how much life experience could they really have?

Of course, I’m in my 30s.  The thought of writing my spiritual memoir raises all sorts of doubting voices: what do you know? Who really cares? No one wants to read a book by a know-it-all. And so on and so forth. Instead of engaging with those voices and finding what might be true and helpful in there, I’ve just avoided the topic altogether.

After a particularly honest (read: brutal) heart-to-heart with Adam the other night over what my Work in the world might be, I’ve decided to revisit the idea of the memoir. Whether or not it will be my Contribution to the world of ideas, the act of doing it will be plenty potent. I know full well from my experience that whether or not this Thing is THE Thing doesn’t matter; it might be, it might not. What I do know is that it will open doors to The Work.

My resistance to even engaging with the idea of it is a pretty big sign that this is an area of teaching, growth, and struggle. What might I uncover?

Both yoga and writing are part of my spiritual practice, my daily routine (if I’m not doing yoga, I’m thinking about how I should), and ways I get in touch with myself. I’m not beating myself up about resisting – the very act of my resistance is a source of information. The first step is not to bully myself into doing the writing or getting on the mat, but to observe and be curious: what is this resistance about? What is it pointing out to me? How can I take what is valuable there and use it to refuel those practices?

That’s where I’m at these days.

What about you? What aspects of your life are you avoiding? What’s the payoff? Are you getting anything out of the avoidance?

Missing Pantheacon – again

This weekend – every President’s day weekend – is Pantheacon, the largest indoor Pagan conference/gathering in the world, in San Jose, CA. I’ve been twice, and I’ve been itching to go back ever since.

To me, PCon (as it’s known) is like a family reunion. I get to spend time with my fellow Feri students, meet other practitioners I’ve only known online, and share some magic together. There are rituals and workshops, lectures and panels, hospitality suites and parties, and lots of conversation in between times. It’s a way to meet up with other ‘spiritual kin,’ but also a time to branch out. It’s a ‘Big Tent’ Pagan gathering. You’ll find it heavy on Feri/Faery and Wicca, but you’ll also find Voudoun, various types of Reconstructionists, Thelema, Jewish magic, tarot, Druidry, and even some interfaith Hinduism, among others. For a social, religions nerd like me, PCon is the greatest event ever.

It’s also very overwhelming. Activities run from 9am until well past midnight. It is not possible to do everything. Some speakers and rituals attract more bodies than there is space. Picking and choosing one’s activities and exquisite self-care (rest, good food, down time, movement, etc) are particularly important. The first year I went I was five months pregnant; the next year I went with a 7 month old infant! Both of those situations required me to carefully monitor my energy levels and take time away from activities. I don’t remember being disappointed at missing parties or rituals – all I remember at this point is the joy of being with my friends and getting to hear my favorite Pagan thinkers and writers.

It’s hard to read all the posts on Facebook, seeing what and who I’m missing out on. But their excitement carries over and I look forward to reading about my friends’ (and friendly bloggers’) experiences in the week to come.

Adam and I haven’t been able to go for the last few years – we were in Wales, then freshly moved to the US, and this year the new housing policy and money issues got in the way. But next year! Like Jewish people longing for Jerusalem, I too long for my people and cry out: Next year! At Pantheacon!

My thoughts and predictions on the state of the Papacy

I got online yesterday morning and couldn’t figure out why so many people were talking about the Pope. I don’t have too many Catholic friends on Facebook. Was he dead? Many of my friends pay attention to religion in some form. What I found was even more surprising.

At this point, you may be aware that Pope Benedict XVI is resigning. From what I understand it’s the first time in around 600 years that’s happened. The last time was during the Schism – a period of time when the Papacy was contested and a second pope set up shop in Avignon, France. It’s not like popes just resign if they aren’t feeling up to the task. This is a job that people keep until they die. So I find Benedict’s resignation many times more interesting and troubling.

Albrecht Dürer's Mater Dolorosa, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Albrecht Dürer’s Mater Dolorosa, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Why troubling? The ROman Catholic Church is struggling. And well it should! In the face of widespread injustice and abuse to children it has turned a blind eye and refused to take responsibility. Its avoidance of justice has cost the Church billions and brought added shame upon itself. I can think of nothing less Christ-like than the papacy. If the popes are to be Christ’s representatives on earth, they are doing an abysmal job. How does a lineage of white, hyper-educated Europeans heading an institution wealthier than many small countries represent an illiterate, poor, anti-estasblishment Palestinian Jewish carpenter?

The deepest pessimist in me wonders what new revelations will come to light in the next 12-18 months. I don’t think Benedict himself is guilty of impropriety. I can’t say why, but that’s my gut. I don’t think he is being ‘pushed out.’ But I’m wary. What new scandal is waiting in the wings?

There is a set of prophecies from a 12th century monk coming up in some discussions about Benedict’s resignation. Supposedly he is the last pope and after this the Church will crumble. If this is the case I will both rejoice and mourn. As I am about many things, particularly in the Christian world, I am conflicted.

I have no love for Benedict. As a graduate student studying theology I had to read quite a bit of then Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings (who he was before becoming Pope). He was and is a legalistic conservative. I deplore the direction he has taken the Roman Church. It is increasingly concerned with its image, its institution and its rules over the lives of women, children and the poor. In my opinion, the Catholic Church is failing its flock.

This makes me sad. The Catholic Church is an easy target if someone wants to Christian bash. The institution has done a lot of horrible things in the name of God and continues to run from justice and mercy in the name of (self)righteousness. But the Church is also really beautiful.

I’ve spent a lot of my adult years reading Catholic theology, from the Church fathers to contemporary thinkers. My academic speciality was the Virgin Mary. I very nearly converted to Catholicism when I was 23 out of a love for Our Lady. The Catholic Church has been the supporter and inspiration for a vast amount of art, music and literature – things I hold dear to my heart. The Church has found a way to incorporate myriad cultures and representations fo the Divine Feminine.

What I’d love to see is the Church revitalized. I’d love to see a much more liberal church. Of course, that kind of radical change takes time and necessarily moves slowly, but I’d love to see the Church even beginning those discussions. I want to see nuns supported, women allowed to be priests, clergy to be married, non-heterosexuals embraced, and extensive humility in the face of and justice for the victims of the sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and others in the Church’s pay.

But that won’t happen. This is an opportunity for that. I see people in the news or on Facebook saying ‘let this be the time!’ But it won’t be. I am pessimistic – realistically so, I think. The Roman Catholic Church has avoided all opportunities for healing and growth. Under Benedict’s leadership the Church has battened down its hatches even more – a defensive position against the modern world.

I also don’t expect the prophecies to be true. I suspect there will be a struggle over identity as the Cardinals choose the next pope. I think there will be a strong push for an African, mostly because that is where the Church is experiencing the most growth (last I read) and because that area is much, much more conservative than just about anywhere else in the Christian world. Ultimately I don’t think the Catholic Church is ready for a black leader. Perhaps a South American? A friend suggested a nice Europeanish Argentinian. That would make a lot of sense.

I’ll be watching and waiting, much like most of the rest of the world. May the ever-loving and always merciful Holy Mother look upon her people with love and strengthen their hearts in compassion and justice. Amen.

(This post was written while listening to Rossini’s Stabat Mater. It is only appropriate that we have a painting and a musical form involving the weeping of the Holy Mother, appropriately melodramatic.)