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Finding Your Pagan Moral Compass: On Forgiveness

Sometimes being a Witch is challenging. We have a much murkier moral structure than many other world religions, especially if you don't subscribe to one branch of spirituality like I do. Sometimes, I miss being Catholic, in my own way. While it wasn't always easy to adhere to the belief structure, there was a structure to follow for everything. You could expect Mass to go a certain way, you could expect sinning to go a certain way, you could expect forgiveness to go a certain way and you could even expect death to go a certain way. As a creature of habit and structure, I miss those certainties even if they weren't always necessarily certain in my own head as when I was a Catholic. 

When I learned about the Japanese tea ceremony, learning all the structure to it seemed very daunting to me. There are so many nuances to it. But it made sense when it was explained to me that this was how many people in Japan relax. The structure dictated literally everything that happened during the ceremony, from the conversation to how you held your teacup.   That meant that you could relax because there was no uncertainty. Everything was decided before you even stepped foot into the teahouse. As someone who is incredibly anxious and who is triggered by uncertainty, it made sense to me. 

Setting up your own moral compass is challenging, which is why a lot of people prefer a pre-fab version, even in Paganism. Some subscribe to a general rule of three and/or some kind of karmatic system. I don't actually really personally subscribe to either of those. I don't disbelieve in it or anything; it's just not for me. 
Karma is amassed over lifetimes so it's hard to tell when anyone has anything happening because of that and the universe seems too chaotic and complicated, like a constantly weaving and unweaving tapestry to give me my justice Judge Judy style like I prefer it. As for the law of three, I have witnessed it play out spottily at best.

This means that a lot of times if I want to see justice done in a particular situation, I need to do the mundane work myself. I do some magic work to give the universe a good hard shove to influence the outcome and to petition my gods and spirits to step in on my behalf as well. Generally, I've found this approach to work out pretty well for me when I find a  situation unjust, though I need to contemplate beforehand how worth while it is to spend all this time and energy on something or if it's best to just let it go. 

But there's justice and then there's forgiveness. I haven't really seen too many large religions not espouse forgiveness. Forgiveness has been linked to a lot of things: a lighter heart, better psychological health and the Mayo Clinic also cites actual physical health benefits like lower blood pressure. Gurus from all over the world from Jesus to the Dalai Lama think it's a good thing to do. But honestly? I don't always forgive. I personally have yet to find a spiritual explanation that I feel sufficiently adequate to dictate what to do when someone does something to you that's unforgivable.

And I think that can put a lot of stress on people because we are taught from a young age that forgiveness makes us better people and makes us closer to the gods by doing so. Refusing to forgive then must therefore make us bad people who are mean and not at all close to our gods and our hearts must be full of little rain clouds. We are not worthy of love or goodness in our lives because someone (s) did something unforgivable to us.  Then it's very painful and difficult as we try to force ourselves to do something we don't want to do or are not ready to do so that we can go back to perceiving ourselves as generally good people.

Let's unpack this some, shall we? Obviously, forgiveness in general is a good thing because we want to be forgiven ourselves for wrong doings.

In general, you should not be giving yourself an aneurysm every time a stranger cuts you off in traffic or acts badly towards you. It's not good for you as your stress levels become damaging to your health.

If you plan to have a relationship with someone – a family member, a friend, a lover, whatever - where you have a close, loving relationship and you would like to continue to have a close, loving relationship, forgiveness is necessary for you to be able to have a good relationship otherwise the relationship becomes too weighed down with negativity and distrust to be able to function. 
So let's talk about two different situations where, in my opinion, forgiveness is not strictly necessary. The first would be an acquaintance like a co-worker or someone you see at larger Pagan gatherings. Maybe you worked on a project together and they undermined you, discredited your work and perhaps spread a rumor through the workplace/community that was hurtful and not at all true to you and damaged your reputation. 
In this kind of situation, you should address the problem with this acquaintance and let them know that what they did was not okay. You should also address the issue with your manager/community leader to explain your position. 
From there you have two options – one would be to give that person another chance to not act like an ill-mannered lout (and not to be surprised when they do the same thing again) or two, try to avoid that person as much as possible. 

If it's a work place scenario, document all of your work and make sure to keep your boss in the loop as much as possible. If it's a Craft situation, how much you work with that person is up to you. I would personally not attend any ritual led by someone I was on bad terms with and I would definitely not work with him or her on creating a ritual. If my group was big enough, I would however likely attend a ritual with that person present and potentially be on a committee with that person if s/he was not in charge of it. I would avoid direct contact as much as possible as well. 

In both scenarios it's best to avoid talking badly about the person as it will likely bite you in the butt, but it's not a bad idea to be honest if asked about it. For example, “Sarah told me that you were sleeping with half of your coven. Is that true?” “No, it's not true and I find it hurtful that Sarah would say that.” Note the response was about finding Sarah's behavior hurtful, not a verbal vomit about how Sarah should talk because she's a useless skank herself. 

Now let's get to the real meat of the matter: someone close to you has done something that you find unforgivable. Maybe your best friend slept with your husband and that's not okay in your relationship. Maybe your spouse hit you and was demeaning to you. Maybe a family member stole and sold a priceless family heirloom from you. Everyone's line in the sand is different as to what crosses into unforgivable territory. But my point is that it's okay to have that line. 

I've personally found it's possible to not forgive someone and not have it eat you up inside. If that line has been crossed for you, it means you can't have any kind of relationship with that person anyway. In fact, I've found it easier for it not to eat me up inside because I'm not forcing myself to do something I don't want to do and to force myself to reconcile something I haven't reconciled. I've found it more healing to give myself permission to say, ‘What that person did to me was so messed up that it hurt me more than I ever could have imagined and shook me up so badly that I will never be the same again for it and it was not okay and it will never be okay and I don't have to ever forgive that person of what s/he did’. 

Forgiveness doesn't always mean acceptance, but the line is thin and there have been points in my life that it was too thin for me to be able to navigate successfully. I was still able to process the situation and come to terms with it without having to forgive it. I honestly slept better because I could come to peace with how I felt. 
When making our moral compasses for ourselves, we shouldn't force ourselves to do something we're not ready for (and may never be ready for) and give ourselves permission to not forgive if it doesn't feel right to.  We need to be able to enforce our own boundaries and lines in the sand, where ever they may be.
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Deborah Castellano's book, Glamour Magic: The Witchcraft Revolution to Get What You Want (Llewellyn, 2017) is available: . She is a frequent contributor to Occult/Pagan sources such as the Llewellyn almanacs, Witchvox, PaganSquare and Witches & Pagans magazine. She writes about Charms, Hexes, Weeknight Dinner Recipes, Glamoury and Unsolicited Opinions on Morals and Magic at Charmed, I'm Sure. Her craft shop, The Mermaid and The Crow ( specializes in goddess & god vigil candles, hand blended ritual oils, airy hand dyed scarves, handspun yarn and other goodies. She resides in New Jersey with her husband, Jow and their two cats. She has a terrible reality television habit she can't shake and likes St. Germain liquor, record players and typewriters.


  • Linda Pardue
    Linda Pardue Friday, 06 June 2014

    For me, forgiveness isn't about a moral compass. It's about not allowing the person that did damage to me any more of my time. Period. If I hang on to the pain and resentment they are occupying more of my head and heart than they deserve. Does that mean I forget? NO. It just means that I will GIVE them nothing on top of what they TOOK. A second chance they have to EARN.

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Saturday, 07 June 2014

    Good advice all around. Not being able to forgive does NOT make us bad people who are mean and not at all close to our gods. It just signifies that we are not ready yet. For everything there is a season. The Wheel turns.

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