I don’t think that I was aware my family was Roman Catholic until I was about eight years old. It wasn’t something that we spoke of really. Dad never converted but agreed to raise my sister and me in the faith when he married our mother. When Mom died I think it shook my Grandparents faith quite a bit. Dad’s faith, if it ever really existed at that point, was destroyed. He took his solace from a bottle rather than prayer for years after. So I was raised without any real mention of religion. I was told that there was a god and that my mom was now with him, but that was it.
Fast forward several years. Dad had sobered up, gotten a job and bought us our first house. In his zeal to make up for lost years he attempted to do everything he could to make what was left of our childhoods perfect. So of course he immediately enrolled us in Catholic School. The same one, in fact, that my mother attended elementary and middle school at.
I was 13 years old. I hated it. I had to wear uniforms. I had to remember which room each of my classes was in. I had to take religion courses.
Then we went to mass. The first time I saw a processional walk up the length of the sanctuary to the altar I was in love. I loved the way the incense smelled. I loved the ringing bells during Eucharist. I loved the robes and the structured prayer. The art, music, poetry and pageantry of the mass stole my heart.
Here, I thought, is what it means to be Catholic; sitting in a beautiful building with hundreds of other people, thundering the responses back to the priest. I was part of the world’s greatest piece of performance art and I loved every second. I started to pay attention in my religion classes. Shortly afterward I was ready for Confirmation. The priest bound me to the church with oil and gave me my new name. Gabriel. I chose it after the first saint I learned about in Mrs. Slovak’s religion class.
I remember that first day of class so clearly. We all piled into the room and started vying for seats as far away from the teacher’s desk as possible. I ended up about three desks back from the front. Mrs. Slovak walked in. She was a short woman. Her wiry dyed blond hair clashed terribly with her florid face and garishly patterned pant suit. She was kind, though I didn’t know it then, and laughed easily. I was intimidated by her at first. I knew nothing of the subject she taught and thought she would resent me for it. She didn’t.
Halfway through class she handed out saint cards to us. I got Gabriel. It had a picture of an angel with a trumpet on one side and on the other a short description of what he did and his duties as the Messenger of God. The picture is what drew me in. I knew from the description that Gabriel was male, but this picture was so androgynous. He was really quite pretty in a way.
In eight grade I was a good little catholic. Leading younger students to mass and teaching them the liturgy. Reading everything I could gather about the lives of the saints or God and his mother. My priest, Father Pol, was convinced that I would be a priest one day. I didn’t just believe my religion. I lived and breathed it. It was every bit as vital to me as water.
Then, one day, during P.E. my classmate Daniel took off his shirt to play basketball in his A-shirt (a less angst inducing term for wife-beaters). I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I convinced myself that I was jealous of his athleticism for about a minute. I’ve never been very good at lying to myself though. I was fourteen years old, two years into puberty, and having my first moment of sexual attraction for anyone, and it was for another boy.
I kept telling myself that it was wrong. I tried diverting my gaze to the girls in my class over and over, but my eyes always returned to him. I told my teacher I was sick and went to sit out the rest of P.E. in the office. My thoughts were in turmoil the rest of the day. I knew what the bible said. More importantly I knew what my religion said. I was bad. I was wrong. I was a thing that wasn’t supposed to be and I couldn’t make myself stop.
The office staff later called my grandfather to pick me up. They had tried for an hour to calm me but nothing would stop my sobbing. One of the secretaries was in tears herself trying to get me to tell her what was wrong, but I couldn’t. I was so afraid that she would hate me, so afraid that I would be kicked out of school or church. I was only fourteen; I didn’t know how the church would react, how anyone would react. I only knew that I’d been told how wrong it was.
The word “gay” didn’t cross my mind until later that night. I’d heard my family talking about gay people. Proposition 22 was still three or four years away so gay people weren't an everyday topic in our house yet. I can only remember my family mentioning gay people a few times. My grandparents had two women renting one of their houses they’d referred to as lesbians and I’d overheard my dad mentioning that he had gay friends. I should have found comfort in that, but I couldn’t. I kept telling myself that it would be different because I was his son and my grandparent’s grandson.
I was the firstborn in my generation of the family and I was screwing it up. I was supposed to grow up marry a woman and have kids. One of whom I would name Mark as Dad’s father had named him and Dad had named me.
It wasn’t that I was trying to convince myself I wasn’t gay. An erection doesn’t leave much room for doubt that you like what you’re looking at. I just couldn’t imagine I would ever be happy again.
So I lied my ass off. I told the guys in class that I had crushes on some of the girls. I danced with one girl at a birthday party when the other girls said she liked me. I did everything I could think of to deflect any possible sign I was gay.
In my sophomore year of high school I was immensely depressed. I could barely make myself listen in class much less seek out friends. Something had to give. Finally something did. Quietly, and without my realizing it at first, my faith died. One day I was on my knees praying to a God I thought hated me, and the next I just... didn't.
It wasn't dramatic. There was no one moment I can point to and say, "that's when I stopped being Christian." There was just a gradual drift. Until I finally realized that the faith that had been so central to me for years was gone.
At first I felt so free. I could do anything now. I could thinking "carnal" thoughts without fear of punishment. I could question the bible and dogma of the Church. I felt like I was invincible. I was a brand new person. That didn't last very long.
It took two months before I noticed the void within me. I’d spent years filled with Catholicism. Packed with its beliefs and folk-lore and world view. Without it I was unable to interact with world fully. Imagine that one day you wake up and every color you see is washed out. Imagine that every sound is distant and that every taste is muted. That’s what I felt. My mind was healing but my soul was dying. The framework that my life had rested on for three years was gone, and I didn't know how to function without it.
I missed God and religion as well. Not Catholicism, I knew I wasn’t welcome there, but the structure, the liturgy and its majesty. I mourned for the loss of a community and my place within it. My family knew something was wrong but I didn't tell them. I was convinced that it would hurt them if I disclosed my lack of faith. So I committed myself to my school work and tried to ignore the gnawing inside myself, because that always works, right?
So my great-aunt, let’s call her Agnes, entered my life. I went over to use her computer one day as my father was stuck in the ‘eighties and hadn’t bought us one yet. I cannot for the life of me remember what we were talking about that led to religion, but our conversation eventually wandered there. I felt safe talking to her about my doubts, my lack of faith and crisis of spirit. She was the black sheep of the family. The one that everyone would profess their love for followed by a "but". If anyone would listen it would be her. So she started to tell me about her religious practice and called herself a "Wiccan". As I recall I may have made a joke about papasan chairs at that point. I don't believe she laughed.
Then, of course, Aunt Agnes called herself a witch and I thought she'd gone off her rocker. Catholic teachings essentially state that there is no such thing as magic. There are only people who have deluded themselves or been used by the forces of Satan. So, being a sixteen-year-old who was just full of tact, I told her that rather bluntly. To her credit she laughed at me rather than throwing me out of her house. I ended up staying the rest of the night at her house so we could continue our conversation. It was enlightening to say the least. A Goddess was something I’d never considered. They belonged in the past with animal sacrifice and polytheism. Aunt Agnes gently striped me of years of Christian indoctrination. Some moments were painful, but I like to think they were growing pains. My mind was expanding faster than it wanted to in order to take everything in.
I left the next morning happy. I’d seen another world and it was beautiful. There were Goddesses, deities shaped like the mother I'd lost. There were Gods beyond counting. Not just the one I'd been taught was Lord of All. There were spirits, ancestors and ghosts. The entire world was alive. Everything was thrumming with life and divine power. I felt as though my eyes were working properly for the first time.
Then I arrived home. Away from Aunt Agnes everything we had discussed started to seem darker. I had partaken of the forbidden. I’d drifted away from Catholicism but it seemed more than happy to follow me. I started to wonder why I’d never heard of the “Goddess” Aunt Agnes talked about. I was young and going to Catholic school. The only Goddesses I'd ever hear of were in classes dealing with myth and I was taught they were relics of the past.At that point I’d never heard of patriarchy or sexism outside of a joke or two on sitcoms. I had no idea that veneration of the Mother Mary could be considered left over from earlier religious practices.
I wanted to believe her, but if she was right why had I never heard anyone else talking about it? That was when I convinced my Dad to buy a computer. My school was fairly enlightened in some areas and one of the things they’d taught us to do was use a computer. In the late ‘nineties we thought the internet was the answer to everything. So I was going to take to it and find my answers.
When you’re sixteen, and your only experience with religion is Christian, typing “Wicca” into a search engine blows your mind. I was reading myths I’d never heard of before. I spent an entire day reading a series of essays by various people about “The Charge of the Goddess”. I was learning about color correspondences and why certain times of the moon cycle were better for different types of magic. Here was my proof that Aunt Agnes wasn’t alone. Here were hundreds, if not thousands, of people talking about a Goddess and a Horned God. Here were people debating polytheism and dualism. It was amazing and liberating. I thought for years that religion was essentially Abrahamic. Here was the proof that I was gloriously, joyfully wrong.
So I decided immediately that I wanted to be a Wiccan/Pagan/Neo-Pagan/every-other-term-I-saw. So I drove back to Aunt Agnes’ and proudly told her that. My aunt identified as a Wiccan. In hindsight she was an eclectic Pagan, but at the time the word Wiccan suited as well as any other. So there I was waiting for her to teach me the inner secrets of the universe and she told me to go meditate. Can I just mention that I really hated meditation at first? During the following months I got to meditate and read. When I was done with one meditation I'd be given another. When I put down a book another would be put in my hand. It must have been six months before I saw a ritual. She probably wouldn’t have waited so long to let me join her if not for the fact that I might have complained a bit about the delay sometimes. Or as she recalled to me once, "constantly and without end."
When I finally did get to join her the ritual was beautiful. It was compelling and powerful at times, but it left me feeling unfulfilled afterward. Aunt Agnes thought it was because I didn’t have a hand in its creation, but it was more than that. I couldn’t express it at the time but I missed liturgy. I was raised in a faith tradition that relied heavily on centuries of framework. I liked my aunt's free-flowing ritual, but I missed the structure I'd always known. I'd been trained for years that when the bells rang or the priest bowed to the host we were in a different place. That we had entered the immanently spiritual and left normal life behind.
I’m better at finding the spiritual in the everyday now than I was then, but I still prefer my ritual with a dose of liturgy. So here we are in the present. I’ve been an eclectic Pagan for over a decade. Reading everything I can, trying to build a daily practice and occasionally attending a festival or group. So one day I find Patheos.com and start reading my way through its Pagan channel. While I’m there I find a blog by a man whose story shares some parallels with my own. He was raised Anglican, I believe, later became Pagan and also felt the lack of liturgy A lack of formed and shared ritual frames so to speak Oh, and he’s married to a man so we’ve that in common as well. He mentioned joining a group named Ár nDraíocht Féin so I went to check out their website. It was like coming home. Their philosophy, their core order of ritual and cosmology practically sang to me while I read them.
So, I promptly went to bed. Mostly because I was tired, but in part because I knew I’d stay up all night reading if I didn’t force myself to sleep. The next day, Monday July 30th, I spent hours poring over everything on their website. By that afternoon I decided to go with my gut and joined. So here I am, waiting for them to get my membership fee and send me my membership package. Then I’ll start reading through the member’s area and deciding if I want to pursue the Dedicant Path. I likely will at some point in the future. So, I guess this is my first post in a series exploring ADF druidism or, more accurately, my impressions of it. It’ll likely be five to six weeks before I get anything in the mail, so I might be light on topics for a little while. In my next post I’ll try to explain why ADF appealed to me and the particular magic that liturgy can raise and empower.
Until then I hope you're all blessed and happy.