Cross and Pentacle: Two religions at the crossroads

I was a Jesus Freak, a passionate theologian, and a Southern Baptist minister. I worked hard to convert pagans. The pagans won.

Discovering magic as a witch with an intimate knowledge of western christianity I explore the juxtaposition of these two faiths. Christianity and paganism alike are undergoing dramatic changes with parallel trends, conflicting challenges, and a growing concern for interfaith dialogue.

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Annika Mongan

Annika Mongan

Born and raised an evangelical Christian in Germany, I joined the Jesus Freak movement as a teenager and became a passionate evangelist and worship leader. No one was surprised when I went to the US at age 19 and came back a tattooed and pierced fundamentalist Christian, betrothed to a "Chrispie" (a Christian hippie, that is). I was a virgin the day we married. Five years later I graduated bible college with highest honors and post traumatic stress disorder. I deepened both my theology and trauma on the road by traveling the country in a big yellow school bus. For three years I lived as a nomad, playing music and leading bible studies, from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine. I learned that Christianity in America encompasses a wide range of beliefs and practices, from Amish groups casting demons out of school busses to Roman Catholic priests breaking into government buildings. I saw Jesus in the oddest places. And then everything changed and I ended up a polyamorous Witch in a Pagan community in California.

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Finding Her within at my first Witchcamp
Every year over a hundred Witches gather at California Witchcamp, a weeklong Reclaiming event in the redwoods. When I first heard about it, I thought of it as something like Lothlorien, a fantastical place completely separate from my own reality. But a few years I found myself crammed into a tiny car with three red-headed Witches and way too much luggage, en route to Witchcamp.
 
I arrived in high spirits and found a wonderful site for my tent, right by the river, the stars were out, and the trees were beautiful, and so many people came and hugged me, dinner was delicious, and all the paths sounded amazing, and then I got depressed. 
 
I don't mean that I came down from my excitement and felt a little bummed out; I became depressed. I have been struggling with depression for years and have been working with doctors and blood tests to determine the cause. Recently I started seeing improvement, but the day I arrived at Camp, I descended into the darkness. 
 
The all-camp ritual on the first night was everything I had hoped it would be. Beautiful people circled around a big fire, drumming, chanting, hugging, laughing. There were powerful invocations and the circle was cast. I stood in wonder of its beauty and resolved to participate and be fully involved, depression be damned. 
 
I don't remember much of the ritual, just the general feeling of exhaustion and fighting depression. I was so miserable, I almost opted out of the spiral dance. I forced myself through the motion and figured I would be feeling back to normal tomorrow. 
 
Sitting in the beauty of the forest before breakfast promised improvement and I felt excited about the Witchcamp path I had chosen. My group met in a beautiful spot by the river, surrounded by giant trees and ferns. But instead of the bubbling of the brook and birdsong, we were surrounded by the sounds of chainsaws, heavy equipment, shouting loggers, and falling trees. The forest on the other side of the ridge was being logged. The sounds were awful but I tried to remind myself that logging wasn't always destructive, some sustainable tree cutting was necessary, and for all we knew this could be an environmentally conscious project. 
 
But in our path emotions were raw. Some shook angry fists toward the ridge. Some uttered swear words at the loggers. Some had tears running down their cheeks. Some spoke of the pain of the trees, how they heard their cries, felt them shake, felt them die. Overwhelmed by waves of sadness and anger in sunk back into depression. 
 
Later we met with our affinity groups which are meant to support us in our experiences at Camp. My group discussed crossing the ridge to confront the loggers or maybe even dumping sugar into their gas tanks. I was lost in depression and despair, feeling isolated, powerless to ask for the support I needed. My last hope was the big ritual, I planned on dancing until I pulled out of this darkness. 
 
The ritual was very beautiful - I think. I threw myself into the circle, stood close to the fire, focused all my attention, invoked along with everyone, sang at the top of my lungs. I opened my heart as widely as I could to let it all in and be filled with magick and love. I sank deeply into trance and listened to the words being spoken. 
 
It was a guided meditation on the distorted mirror of our culture. Oppression. Poverty. Patriarchy. Destruction. Logging. Rape. Cruelty. I sobbed and I wasn't the only one. Maybe this was necessary to transform our pain and could be my path out of depression. But the trance went on and on. More pain. More despair. More sadness. More darkness. More depression. There came a point where we were all going to transform the deception and pain by rising up. Rising up to be healers and changers, but I couldn't rise. I was lost and trapped at the bottom of depression and watched everyone else proceed into dancing and chanting, and raising energy or something - it all felt a million miles away. 
 
There was some sort of cone of power, I guess, and then there was more dancing and more singing as I sat on the cold hard earth in pain. The ritual ended and there were cookies and the sugar helped a little, temporarily, and then there was so much celebration around me that I couldn't take it anymore and went to my tent. 
 
And there I sat alone in agony. I used to be an activist and world changer but I was burnt out and had ruined my health. I felt pressured to go back to the front lines, guilty for not doing enough, not being all I should be. And then I felt angry, furious, and started cursing to myself, screw this Camp, screw the rituals, screw all of this, I am not accepting the guilt, I am not going back to the front lines, I am not going to be a world changer, I am not going to invite more pain into my life! 
 
The next morning I showed up at path ready to give up and leave before we even got started. We had a round of check-ins where everyone talked about their experiences so far, and to my surprise I found my pain and anger echoed by many. I decided to stick it out for a bit longer and actually enjoyed my path work, despite the logging. 
 
In the afternoon I surprised myself by changing affinity groups. I had heard about a writer's group and joined them. I spent the afternoon by the river and skipped my path homework. The next day I skipped homework again as well as my new affinity group. At night I showed up to the Blue God ritual wearing red clothes. I had fully planned to wear blue and didn't understand how I somehow forget to change and was now the odd one out. Most everyone else was wearing blue. I gave myself permission to leave the ritual and climbed up on a hill to watch, even taking some pictures, not knowing if there were rules against photography.  
 
I left groups, broke rules, skipped homework, and stopped taking my supplements. And I felt better. It turned out that my supplements were actually worsening my depression, which my doctor called to tell me as soon as I came back from Camp. I told everyone at Camp that I wasn't doing my homework frustrated that no one understood how big of a deal it was. My nickname in College was Hermione, I made color coded schedules for all my close friends, and I never, in four years of College, handed in a homework assignment late. I walked around Camp in a state of disconnect and confusion. What was happening to me?
 
I've always been the committed, loyal type. I was so committed to my wedding vows that I fought to save my marriage even after my husband threw me against a wall, threatened to beat me, and told me that his own vows had become invalid, that he didn't love me anymore and had earned the right to be with other women. I always stick things out, regardless of the cost. I am the person who gets annoyed at the inevitable trouble makers who think they need to make a point about being different. If we decide wear blue for the ritual, why do they have to wear red? Is it really too much too ask? Wouldn't it be so much nicer if we just all stuck to the rules? If we all showed up prepared, having done our homework? Rebel against the overculture, but for goodness sake, don't make things difficult for our community by being different for the sake of being different!
 
So here I was, wearing my red dress on Blue God night, without my homework, having skipped my groups, feeling utterly disconnected and left out and wanting so badly to fit in and belong. 
 
I consoled myself with attending an initiation salon that afternoon since initiation had been on my mind for a few months. I went to the salon and sat for a couple of minutes when I felt the overwhelming urge to leave and be by myself. I plunged into the river, hoping to shake this odd feeling of disconnect. I tried a grounding exercise. I hugged a tree. I sat in meditation. 
 
When it was time for dinner I asked my friend about the initiation salon. They really liked it but informed me that it was "so not going to happen" the way I had imagined it, that's not how it worked in the Reclaiming tradition. I argued that it would. They said that no, it wouldn't, it couldn't be done that way. I argued that I was my own spiritual authority and I would find teachers who would do it the way I felt was right for me. Another person in line chimed in and told me that I was wrong, it wasn't going to happen. 
 
My brain hurt. Everything felt wrong and I wondered what I was even doing here. Maybe I should just leave and find a different Pagan group. I didn't bother getting dressed, grabbed my dinner and sat down naked at a table. My friend came and sat with me and asked me if I was OK. I shook my head and that's when I fell apart. 
 
I sobbed. I mumbled about not belonging, and wanting to belong, and not being a part of it all, and it being all wrong, and being my own spiritual authority, and who the hell was I anyways? I cried and cried and then someone called my name and I ignored them, they called again, and then suddenly a whole bunch of people were calling my name, and then someone came and stuck a book on my bare lap, apparently I had won it in the raffle. I kept weeping and heard my name again and soon another book appeared in front of me. I returned to my misery when another book appeared.
 
I looked up and cried "why does this stupid raffle have to be happening right now? I need a moment to fall apart here!" and my name was called again, this time for an item I hadn't bought any tickets for. Naked and sobbing I stumbled into the middle of the crowd and was handed a candle opera. Dozens of Witches staring at me, I turned to flee, when they called my name again, this time I had won a hair piece, and from what I could see through the curtain of tears it was beautiful. Someone had purchased tickets in my name, seeing how perfectly it matched my hair. I stumbled back to my seat and heard my name again and finally started laughing. 

Here I was sobbing about how I didn't belong and didn't know who I was, standing naked in the midst of a community that had gifted me with raffle tickets, winning one ritual item after another. I was surrounded by people who loved me, who held me, who listened to me. And the fates were smiling on me and bestowed me with more raffle prizes than I knew what to do with.
 
After my meltdown I felt empty and calm, in an exhausted but pleasant way. I sat among the "chair tribe" at the end of the ritual circle, ready to participate or not, free to choose. I was starting to believe that I was accepted while being fully myself. Delightfully different in all of my idiosyncratic ways. A part of the whole, without being at the front lines. Loved, without having to conform. Welcome in red clothes at a Blue God ritual, free to leave and still belong.
 
We called in the Green God and I chose to aspect him. I put on the veil and felt a quietness and peace descent upon me. I sat in complete stillness, then walked to the edge of the circle and laid face down in the grass. Images of forests, ferns, moss, and grasses entered my mind. All was green, all was quiet. The phrase "stillness is" impressed itself on me. I thought about getting up, but my body didn't move. "You don't have to" I heard. "I don't have to what?" I thought. "You don't have to", I heard again. "Stillness is". I lay in the grass for an hour and a half and enjoyed the stillness. I felt like a tree for the rest of the night. You don't have to. Stillness is. 
 
On my last day I felt whole and happy and participated fully in the final ritual. We were honoring the Red God and I sensed heat circulating through me even when I was away from the fire. My blood was pumping with passion and life and I skipped through the forest in trance, dodging obstacles with perfect nightvision, listening to the sounds of Witches drumming and howling. When it came time to speak our commitments in the fire circle, there was only one thing I could say:
 
"I commit to this path and to this community"
 
The sense of empowerment I felt in that moment came as a surprise. I had made a choice from a place of my center, I had chosen a path and community dedicated to exploring my own spiritual authority. A commitment to this path, to this community, was different than other commitment I had ever made, for it was a commitment to myself, first and foremost. I came away from Witchcamp with many new experiences and thoughts, but the words dancing in my mind on the drive home, were the words of the Star Goddess:
 
"And you who seek to know Me, know that the seeking and yearning will avail you not, unless you know the Mystery: for if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without."
 
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  • Camille
    Camille says #
    I am glad everything worked out for you. Blessings.
How I became a Pagan #4 - Pentecost and Solstice Fires

 

The fog is thick and cold and I can smell the fire before I see it. Flames are lapping up tendrils of wet air. Robed figures stand solemnly around the fire. Then the ritual begins. A procession of the cross, red ribbons, and drums starts down the hill.

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  • Joyce ORourke
    Joyce ORourke says #
    I truly enjoyed your experience and the fact that you speak and write about them is owning to your personal truth. It is through y
  • Ilyssa Silfen
    Ilyssa Silfen says #
    Beautiful, beautiful post! My family is what we lovingly and jokingly call "Diet Jewish," so I was lucky enough not to be raised i
How I became a Pagan #3 - Storytelling


A few years ago I signed up for OKCupid account and was stumped by the question of what my perfect Friday night looked like. Would I go out for a fancy dinner? Would I go to the movies and see an artsy film? Would I go dancing in a nightclub?

None of this sounded appealing to me. Instead, the perfect Friday night I dreamed of had me sitting around a fire listening to and telling stories. I love stories. I love telling them and I love hearing them. I sometimes remember people by their stories, not their names. Like the child-who-fell-out-the-window-and-bounced-off-a-mosquito-screen-and-survived or the guy-who-spilled-soda-all-over-his-girlfriend-on-their-first-date.*

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  • Eara
    Eara says #
    There are so many great myths and lore in the community of witches and or pagans. I don't why we don't tell them more often. I lov
  • Hobbes
    Hobbes says #
    If you're interested, I'm a Pagan Storyteller from Montreal. You can listen to my stories at http://shorteningtheroad.blogspot.ca/
  • roland morman
    roland morman says #
    I so thank you for sharing..; ] I needed to hear that because I have journeyed a similar path. Story telling is so powerful and yo
  • Gwion Raven
    Gwion Raven says #
    What a lovely post! Storytelling is such a wonderful part of our lives, whether we are telling time-honoured tales, esoteric myths
  • Annika Mongan
    Annika Mongan says #
    Thanks, Camille!
My first lesson in magic - The Elements Song

Recently I wrote about the role music played in how I became a Pagan. I ended my story with the summer solstice of 2012, which marks the beginning of my Pagan path. The feeling of having come home, so familiar to many Pagans, took me by surprise that night and has stayed with me ever since.

 

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  • Gwendolyn
    Gwendolyn says #
    This is a beautiful story, Annika! Congrats on having such an amazing experience!
  • Annika Mongan
    Annika Mongan says #
    I'd have to have a recording first, but once I do, I'll post a link :-)
  • Gwion Raven
    Gwion Raven says #
    I've had the pleasure to hear you sing this song around a fire. I'd love if there was a link you could post so others could hear i

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How I became a Pagan #2 - Music

The walls of the medieval castle flicker in the light of the torches as crowds mill across the courtyard. The smell of cooking fires and stew waft from the kitchen and another group of people in medieval clothes, some in chain-mail, pass me on their way to the tavern. I watch them descend the well-trodden stone stairs, then turn toward the tower, hoping to get a break from the crowd and a better look at this medieval market from above.

 

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  • Annika Mongan
    Annika Mongan says #
    Rebecca, thank you so much for sharing your story. I can relate to so much of what you say. Transitioning faiths is so hard, but
  • Rebecca Kinney
    Rebecca Kinney says #
    I have been really enjoying your posts about becoming pagan, as I became a pagan just seven months ago. I too was a Christian, fu

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Over the past few months I have been a silent observer of troubling waters within the Pagan community. I was saddened to read many eulogies of Pagan leaders and authors. I watched firestorms of disagreement rage through the community, kindling arguments, sometimes productive, sometimes ugly. I listened as leaders discussed toxic influences of racism, cases of cultural appropriation, and issues of privilege. I met burnt out leaders and frustrated elders and saw dysfunctional group dynamics. And now I am following the blogosphere's reactions to the latest news of Pagan author Kenny Klein

This is a hard time for the Pagan community and I am deeply saddened by all of the losses, conflicts, and problems. But rather than wanting to distance myself from the community I feel more at home in the Pagan community than ever, and here's why. 
 
For over a decade I traveled the US and Europe,  visiting communities as far right as Christian reconstructionism, as far left as radical anarchism, and plenty in between. Conflict, discrimination, in-fighting, leader-bashing, and scandals were found in all of them, no exceptions. Since coming out as a Pagan, several Christians confided in me regarding their "secret lives" and I learned just how deeply communities are plagued by secrets and hypocrisy. 
 
When I was a Christian I responded first with denial, then disgust, despair, and finally bitterness. I struggled through jadedness and finally found renewed hope in humanity. I have seen too much in too many communities to feel shocked by the recent allegations, but my heart aches for all of those whose trust was betrayed, whose voices were not heard, and those now left to sort out conflicting emotions. 
 
While much of this feels familiar, the reaction of the wider community is taking me by surprise. There is the typical denial, flight from the community, the "I-told-you-so" attitude, the "no true Scotsman" argument, etc. But there is also an outpouring of thoughtful responses by Pagan leaders and writers from all over the country. 
 
The openness and courage with which Pagans are facing this news is different from anything I have ever experienced. Likewise, despite heated and sometimes ugly arguments, the overall tone of controversies in the Pagan community is significantly more friendly than what I am used to. I have tried to explain this to some leaders in the Pagan community. I understand their frustration and astonishment at my claim that it could be much worse, so much worse. Despite all of the difficulties, there is so much depth and beauty in how this community deals with it. 
 
I don't know why the Pagan community is so different. My best guess is the different basis for ethics between Paganism and Christianity. In our Christian communities, we expected to be transformed by our faith and through the influence of the Holy Spirit. We expected to be spiritually healthier than the rest of the world. We expected our communities to be more ethical, more "Christ-like". Non-Christians were supposed to be able to tell we were Christians by the sincerity of our love for one another. 
 
In Paganism we don't have this expectation. Several writers have pointed out that as our community grows, we will have the same problems as society. Jason Pitzl-Waters, among others, anticipated we would be faced with a story like the arrest of Kenny Klein sooner or later. This willingness to face reality is incredibly refreshing and valuable to me. Expectations of moral superiority or even perfection leave communities blind to dysfunction and ill equipped for dealing with scandals. Abuse gets covered up, predators are moved around within the community while victims are blamed and cast out.  
 
As Pagans we have no rules handed down to us from a holy book, catechism, or priest. Each Pagan has to wrestle with their own ethical framework. Maybe it is this struggle that causes Pagans to respond with such a level of honesty, integrity and humility.  Our Pagan community is far from perfect and the problems we are facing are real and serious. But after all I have seen in other communities, I can't help but also feel grateful for what we have. We have people speaking out with courage. We have leaders sacrificing much for a community that often shows little gratitude. And we have the freedom to acknowledge the complexity of our problems with honesty, depth, and integrity. 
 
When I first became a Pagan, I was terrified of spiritual communities and took refuge in the option of becoming a solitary practitioner. Shortly afterwards I received a calling to serve the Pagan community. I often felt inadequate and frightened but made the choice to commit. I am glad I did. For someone coming from a culture of victim blaming, cover up, and shame, the responses of the Pagan community have been deeply moving. I thank everyone who found the courage to tell their story and all of the leaders who have offered thoughtful responses on how to make our community safe. 
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How I became a Pagan #1 - Signs

 

It's been a year and a half since I began my journey into Paganism and almost a full year (Imbolc) since I chose a tradition (Reclaiming). I was the model Jesus Freak, the one my Christian community was sure about, the one who would never leave the fold. So how did I end up choosing a Pagan path?

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  • Kevin Thomas
    Kevin Thomas says #
    I too came from a strong Pentecostal/Evangelical background, which is very common among African-Americans. Now, ordained metaphysi
  • Jeanine Byers
    Jeanine Byers says #
    That's great, Kevin! And LOL about embracing "everything you were taught to hate." I know what you mean!
  • Cynthia Savage
    Cynthia Savage says #
    So, really, you are still Christian....
  • Lizann Bassham
    Lizann Bassham says #
    Thanks for sharing your story. I am both a Reclaiming witch and a Christian minister (in the United Church of Christ a Progressiv
  • Annika Mongan
    Annika Mongan says #
    I totally agree, Lizann. I hope we run into each other one of these days!

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