A Still and Sacred Moment

When we create rituals, we define a separate condition, a special state of being within which our intentions, our aspirations and our ritual activities are expressed. The common term for this condition is “sacred space”.

There are many ways to create sacred space. Among the most common is the concept of “creating a container”, which is often done by drawing or pretending to draw a circle around the area where the ritual will take place. This is an element of the beginning phase of a ritual, which I have termed Arrival. It contributes to the establishment of the ritual state of consciousness, and to the sense of security and presence which that state requires*.

Sacred space can also be established through a visually delimited space, such as that defined by the glow of a candle, a lantern or a fire, or by the area of a special room, temple space, or place in nature that is hallowed to the ritualists, or by a circle of candles or other objects.

Additional sensory cues can add to the sense of sacred space: A Focus at the center, for example, or burning incense or herbs, anointing with sacred scented oils, or playing sacred music.

The establishment of sacred space is important because presence and focus are absolutely essential to successful ritual. If your mind is always “looking over its shoulder” to wonder if it is safe, it will not be able to go into the deep presence of the ritual state.

So think about it: what are the qualities that help you to feel safe and contained, so you can focus on your work? For some, it is as immediate as wrapping a garment like a cloak around themselves; for others, lighting of that single candle in darkness; for others still a carefully inscribed literal circle is the only way they can go.

The point is to establish what works for you.

What means “magic time” to you?

*For more on the ritual state and ways to induce it, see the Atheopagan Ritual Primer, which you can download for your use.

Illustration is “The Magic Circle”, by John William Waterhouse.

Confessions of a Naturalistic Witch, by Anna Walther

With the new year, we are starting a new series called, “What Naturalism Means to Me”.  It is an opportunity for our readers, like you, to share what Naturalism means fto you.  We are looking for essays between 1000-3000 words.  Send your submissions to humanisticpaganism[at]gmail[dot]com.

As a naturalist, I believe that there exists an objective, physical reality, which I call nature, and I doubt that anything other than nature exists. Supernaturalists, in contrast, believe that both nature and other realms outside of nature exist. Many supernaturalists furthermore believe that there exist immaterial beings and/or undetectable forces operating in other realms which may in some way manipulate the physical world. Which of these worldviews to subscribe to was one of the first choices I realized I had to make, when I began the task of creating a meaningful personal spiritual path.

Both naturalists and supernaturalists have spiritual experiences. The experiences themselves are factual, in as much as we can tell in the moment we’re having them. But we diverge when it comes to the meaning of spiritual experiences and the methods for interpreting them, because naturalists and supernaturalists hold radically different epistemological commitments. My purpose in this essay is to describe my own naturalistic worldview and reflect on how it shapes my personal practice of witchcraft.

A naturalistic worldview: metaphysical commitments

My naturalistic worldview is grounded in several metaphysical commitments. The first is an ontological commitment that there exists an objective, physical reality to be perceived, which I call nature. For example, I take it as a given, that when I look up into the night sky and see the full moon, there exists a physical moon to see, independent of my thoughts and perceptions of it. I can validate my perception of the full moon against the perceptions of other observers. If others also report seeing it, it would be nonsensical to think that my act of observing it caused the moon to appear. On this much I think most naturalists and supernaturalists would agree.

But my naturalism also relies on two epistemological commitments: first, that my beliefs about reality should be supported by evidence; and second, that empirical observation of the natural world is the most reliable source of evidence for what reality is like. In other words, direct sensory observations and unbiased, objective methods, such as the scientific method, hold privileged places in my worldview. While undeniably interesting, mystical revelations or insights, even those shared by a number of different people, are inherently biased and neither empirically observable nor repeatable, which suggests that they have more to do with the subjects experiencing them than with the entities perceived.

I do not mean to disparage subjective experience; on the contrary, a certain kind of subjective experience is the goal of my spiritual practice. However, I don’t believe in the existence of other realms apart from the natural world, because there’s no empirically verifiable evidence for their existence. Can anyone irrefutably prove other realms don’t exist? No. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the saying goes. But an epistemological commitment to empirical evidence precludes belief in worlds for which I have none.

Note that it’s easy to tangle a debate about naturalism with a debate about theism, because both discussions are relevant to understanding spiritual experience. An exploration of my relationship with gods is outside the scope of this essay, but I want to make explicit that I’m no atheist. What I cannot accept is the idea of gods who stand outside of nature and manipulate it. This has important consequences for my practice of Witchcraft.

Naturalistic magic

As a Witch, I honor Nature, and I practice magic, or the “change of consciousness at will,” following the definition suggested by Dion Fortune, Starhawk, and others. As I understand it, many supernaturalists use magic instrumentally. Their practice involves the collection, containment, and projection of one’s energy or will from some place “between the worlds,” in order to achieve a goal in the real, material world. So what does the practice of magic look like for someone who rejects the idea of otherworlds?

First, my approach has more in common with folk magic than with high ceremonial magic. For example, shortly after my family moved into our current home, I made a witch jar and buried it in the yard, to symbolize protection of the home and those who live here. There was no need to call quarters or deities or cast a circle for the spell. I simply filled a jar with glass shards from a broken window, a few nails, some tangled twine, some prickly pear spines, and fingernail clippings (ew, yes), sealed it with a silver ribbon, charged it, and buried it; that was enough for my purposes.

I also grow my own herbs, use essential oils, and brew wildcrafted teas. I journal. I build altars and shrines. I collect hag stones. I pray. Several times a week I walk my neighborhood “territory” with my beloved dog Poe. As a result, I tend to know what the weather’s like, what’s blooming, what’s dying, and which insects, birds, and human neighbors are active in my part of the world. These workings don’t require the performance of elaborate, otherworldly rituals, nor do they require going out in search of pristine wilderness (although I love to camp and hike). Instead the heart of my practice involves enchanting my practical, everyday routines in this world. I pay attention to my local environment and communities, not as I imagine them to be, but as they actually are.

My naturalistic magic is more expressive than instrumental. It won’t change the weather, levitate objects, summon birds from the spirit world, bring me more money, or cause anyone other than myself to fall in love. The tests of whether my magic works are these: does it deepen my sense of connection with the rest of Nature? Does it help me fully inhabit and appreciate the world as it is, where I am? Does it leave me open to the full range of human experience, including most especially beauty? Does it induce a healthy, empowered mental and emotional state that leads to action?

Back to that witch jar spell. How does it hold up against these subjective tests? I don’t imagine that the jar has protected me or mine from any ill wishes or malefic magic from a distance. But knowing that the jar is buried near the front door has inspired me to enter and leave my home with intention and reminded me to worry less when I leave. Moving through the world with presence and intention helps me to enjoy life more and to cope with daily challenges outside the home as they come. So the jar has helped transform my mental and emotional state. The transformation of my mental and emotional state in turn transforms the world, because I am not separate from it. And curiously, I would have formed a different emotional association with the space around my front door, if I’d filled the jar with cotton balls and marbles. The contents of the jar appear to be magically significant.

On diversity in pagan practice

Nature is nothing if not creative and diverse. Therefore as a naturalist, I feel called to challenge myself toward diverse points of view. Though I don’t interpret my spiritual experiences in the same way supernaturalists do, I read books and blogs authored by supernaturalists, and I join them in ecstatic ritual as often as I get the opportunity, because I admire and respect them and their path. None of us knows everything or has an exclusive angle on absolute truth. We can all benefit from collaboration.

The goal of my naturalistic practice is not to project my will onto the world, but instead to harmonize my will with reality, which is Nature. In other words, I want to fully inhabit my life in this one world just as it is. I have no evidence for an otherworld, but belief in an otherworld is not required, for the meaningful practice of magic.

Anna Walther

Anna’s spiritual interests include healing, meditation, the creative process, sacred place, gardening and foraging, poetry, mythology, Reclaiming Witchcraft, and Modern Minoan Paganism. She attends First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin and practices a mostly solitary, mostly naturalistic form of Green Witchcraft. Anna’s work also appears on TejasWeb.org, JustThis, the journal of the Austin Zen Center, and her blog Wildseed Within.

Outside of the circle, she enjoys walking her dog, cooking, and hiking and camping with her husband and school-aged children in the beautiful Texas Hill Country. She makes her living as a registered nurse specializing in maternal and child health.

See Anna’s posts

spiritual practice

A number of recent posts in the Pagan blogosphere, including Lisa Wagoner’s first post in her new Patheos blog Witch, Indeed? and John Halstead’s recent post on why people may have good reason to make fun of Wiccans and witches, have me thinking about the labels that I put around my spiritual practice. I plan to explore the topic in a series of posts, but for today I want to focus on why I identify as witch and when it might be worth it to say so. Why use the W-word at all, when I’m likely to be misunderstood and disrespected for it, even by other members of the NeoPagan community?

It’s worth considering whether I can claim the W-word in the first place. What makes a witch? Ask five different witches, and you’re likely to get five different answers. For me a witch is as a witch does: they do ritual involving work with the Elements, they revel in connection with Divine Nature of which we are all a part, and they serve their communities.

As I’ve written before, my ritual practices have more in common with folk magic than with ceremonial magic. I’ve completed some Reclaiming core coursework in recent years, and I continue to circle with other Reclaiming Witches and members of my local Feri community, but I have no desire to seek initiation in a hierarchical, initiatory tradition of the Craft. Usually the rituals I perform are done only for myself, to express personal union with the Divine. I don’t need printed liturgy or a priesthood to intervene in the process; the world as it is, where I am, tells me what to do.

Meditation #2

Begin here:

Holy is the World.

Holy am I.

When I breathe,

the World breathes.

Although personally empowering, the craft that I practice is highly individualistic and honestly often slow and tedious. I can’t really recommend it. Identifying the stories that resonate and cobbling together meaningful ritual outside of established tradition is a lot of work. (Yet this points to another characteristic of the path: the witch’s rituals are usually not sanctioned by the politically powerful overculture.) Truly connecting with and committing to your communities, both human and other-than-human, involves more listening than speaking and also often service offerings that stretch you past what is comfortable.

I’d have no claim to the W-word, in fact, if I weren’t answering a call to actively mind the balance of my community. My commitment to a lived wisecraft calls me to vote, for example, to respond to my neighbor’s call for help with learning to breastfeed her newborn, to take a share of what I cook for my own family to the widower down the street, and to compost the onion peels after preparing the meal. I like to think that I’ve left the Catholic concept of sin behind me, but in my personal, unwritten book of wisecraft, missing voting day, using plastic straws, or choosing not to compost or recycle come pretty close.

In the Yellow Room of Vince Hannemann’s Cathedral of Junk

So does making fun of or insulting others for how they express their identities, provided they aren’t harming anyone. For example, wands and robes are fun on Halloween, at Ren Faires, and birthday parties (all of which I deeply enjoy), and not directly related to my practice of wisecraft. But inclusivity and freedom of expression are foundational to my feminist thealogy. Most other witches are women, who, like me, have been instructed their entire lives on dressing and otherwise presenting themselves in ways that are pleasing and non-threatening to the male gaze. Many of my sisters choose to wear colorful ritual robes, jewelry, and makeup as outward expressions of their identities, and although these aren’t a part of my regular personal practice, I get what they’re about, and I will be the last to shame anyone for them. I refuse to Other those whose practices don’t look like my own.

W.I.T.C.H. Someone who seeks harmony with Nature, who knows how to nourish herself, who serves her community, and who, in spite of the risk of shame or other violence, chooses to speak and love freely. I aspire to the state, but I often choose not to use the W-word. What’s my goal for the conversation, how much background and how many values do I have in common with the listener, and therefore how likely is it that I’ll be understood and respected, if I use the word? These are questions I ask myself, when I’m present and on my game. If I’m not sure, if it’s not important or relevant to identify myself as witch, or if I have reason to think that doing so will evoke a hostile response, I simply go on doing what I do, without saying the word. Knowing when to speak and when to hold silence is one of the juiciest edges of the craft, after all, and the truth is that we still live in a patriarchy, one that operates even under the big umbrella of NeoPaganism. Everything in context.

However, not saying that I am witch out loud in public doesn’t make it any less so.

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