Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A Pagan Unitarian Universalist Interview with Anne Clough Unitarian Universalist Church of Elgin

I want to thank Anne Clough for allowing me to post this interview on my blog.  I think you all will find it helpful in understanding what it means to be a Pagan and a Unitarian Universalist.  Rev. Tom

This interview took place May 20, 2016 by DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church member Karen Peck via email. 
Q: Can you name your practice? (For example, “Pagan, Neo-Pagan, Wiccan,” etc.)
A: I consider my practice pagan, mostly in the tradition of Wicca but with some 12-step and Vedic influences.

Q: Can you describe your title/your role as High Priestess?
A: I am the worship leader. I write or put together the rituals that we celebrate together. I take what my coveners share with me and write spells or meditations to help. I also offer some spiritual direction one-on-one when asked. I visit members who are sick. I also do tarot readings when asked.

Q: Does your title and leader status imply a hierarchy?  Are participants equal?
A: All members are equal. I do what they want me to do. When I am unavailable, anyone else in the group can lead. My title implies that I am the main worship leader, but we are all priestesses.

Unitarian Univesalist Church of Elgin: Diverse in Theology, United in Compassion

Q: Are there males and females?  Children?
A: Our group is open to both men and women. We have had men who attended regularly in the past, but for the past five to six years we have been just women. We are about half and half lesbians and straight ladies. We are about half and half 12-steppers and "normies." Half of us are UUs. Some of the others are members of other religious communities and some have this as their sole religious experience. Some of our older children have attended occasionally and are welcome. Our rituals are designed for those who are open enough to focus their energy and want to work on personal growth.

Q: Why does this practice appeal to you?
A: I have always been a person who liked the "smells and bells" of religious practice, the ritual and acting out of what is happening on a spiritual level. I also find that change "takes root" in me when I take a ritual first step. I was raised Missouri Synod Lutheran and became Catholic in college (although I really never went in for the papal authority thing; I just really liked the Jesuits). The Goddess found me through practices dedicated to Mary, and after that, I sought out more information about how to worship her. Once I began to explore Wicca, I knew that would be my path. I loved the freedom that I had to create ritual. I also loved that every aspect of my life was part of the practice, including my physical life. It incorporated gardening and eating and exercising and dancing, singing and sex. It exalted having a human experience instead of trying to tame or shame the everyday experiences. In Wicca, we are encouraged to co-create our lives with the gods, not to submit to their will.  

Q: Are there shared beliefs/shared values among practitioners?
A: We all have different relationships to the divine. We know the gods by different names. However, we all believe that there is a divine mind that we commune with during ritual and we relate to that as God and Goddess. We also happen to all be very liberal in our values, although that's really a "chicken and egg" type thing. We have invited our friends to join, and they are our friends because of shared values. Our circle is open to any open minded person who wants to attend, but those who stay do so because our religious philosophy speaks to them.

Q: How does the sacred manifest in the ritual?  (Use any ritual you wish to describe or answer this and the following questions.)
A: One of the wonderful things about Wicca is that we ritually celebrate what happens every day. The sacred manifests in ritual the same way it manifests in the "real world" through nature, community and action. We honor all three.

Q: Can you describe the setting in which you practice (lighting, items, dress)
A: We practice in the home of two of our coveners. We meet for a potluck dinner first and then we hold the ritual in their living room. The lights are dimmed but left on, as trying to do everything by candlelight is for much younger witches. The altar is set in the center of the room, a coffee table draped with an altar cloth that coordinates with the Sabbat we are celebrating. There are candles to represent the Goddess and the God. There are ritual tools and items to represent each of the four elements set at the cardinal directions. We are a "come as you are" coven with no special ritual dress, although most of us wear jewelry with religious significance to ritual.

Q: Are you in a circle?  Sitting, standing?
A: We are in a circle. We sit and stand at different parts of the ritual. We have a time for meditation and a time for sharing of joys and concerns, both of which are always seated. There are a couple of our members who are facing health challenges and cannot stand for long, so I always keep that in mind when designing the ritual and make sure there will be resting intervals between standing sections. We always stand to call in the gods, our guides and the elements. We always stand to close. Everything else changes with the ritual.

Q: Are people holding hands, separate, eyes open, closed?
A: We do all of these things, depending on the particular practice.

 Q: Can you share your key or central symbols of your practice?  What are their meanings?
A: The central symbol is the pentacle. It is a five-pointed star within a circle. It is a symbol of completion and wholeness. It also symbolizes power and protection, but they follow from that wholeness. The five points represent the four physical elements combined with spirit.
The four elements are also significant. All aspects of life are understood to be ruled by the elements and they are associated with the four cardinal directions. The east is air, and air rules the mind, thoughts, inspiration, words and sound. The south is fire, and fire rules passion, movement, digestion, motivation and career. The west is water, and water rules emotions and relationships and care for others and self-care. The north is earth, and earth rules the physical body and health as well as financial stability and home and security. Whenever I create rituals and spells, I always consider what element rules the focus of the action and choose ritual items that connect us to that element. We also understand the elements to be stronger at different times of the year, and we chose to work on aspects of our lives that are connected to the element that is strongest at that time. This is really oversimplified, but you get the idea. There are entire books on this, and it is really a paradigm through which we view our whole lives.

Q: Do you worship Gods/Goddesses? If yes, who, how?
A: We do honor the Goddess and the God. We ritually invite them to join in the work of our circle. Like most religious ceremonies, this action is for us to be focused on their presence, as we actually believe they are everywhere and with us always. We ask for their help in any work we are doing, both within the ritual and in our daily life. We give them thanks. In my personal daily spiritual practice, I keep an altar that I tend by lighting a candle and incense daily and meditating/visualizing with my patron goddess, the Vedic goddess Durga. I also chant prayers to her in Sanskrit.
I work with the Vedic pantheon. Others in my coven know the gods by other names. I don't believe anyone else works with an entire pantheon. Most work with particular gods or goddesses that have significance for them. Some work with their departed loved ones, but that is not part of my practice.

Q: Where does your understanding of Wicca come from; does it integrate or overlap with other ideas of the God(s) and Goddess(s).
A: My personal understanding of Wicca comes from the recreation of what is thought to be the Celtic tradition that was made known by Gerald Gardener starting in the 1950s, but of course I'm a UU, so I take what I need and leave the rest. I am a big fan of adapting the basic tradition to the particular group and I have done so. I know there are covens in which all members work with the same pantheon, but I have not experienced that.

Q: Duality (male/female, light/dark) seems to be a consistent theme in Pagan and Wiccan practices.  Comments about that?
A: I have mixed feelings about this topic. On the one hand, I like the fact that Wicca embraces and honors dualities. I like that we don't call the light "good" and the dark "bad." I like the fact that both the active and the receptive are considered positive qualities. We understand that we typically need a balance of polarities in our lives in all areas. I don't, however, like the assignation of those qualities as masculine and feminine. I like that we see both men and women as divine beings, God and Goddess, but I don't really like the idea of seeing certain aspects of our character as being either masculine or feminine. I choose not to focus on that in my practice.

Q: Are these entities imaginative, metaphorical, actual, other?
A: Ask twenty pagans this question, and you will get twenty different answers. My personal belief is that there is a Divine Intelligence. As a human being, I am limited in my ability to comprehend and interact with that intelligence, but I see it at work in my life and in the world around me every day. I interact with the divine as God and Goddess, talking directly to them and asking for their care and guidance. I visualize meeting with them directly in a temple I have constructed for them in my mind, and they talk to me. I act on that experience, and it benefits my life today and my personal growth. This experience is as real to me as any that would be observable by others, but it does happen solely within my mind and heart. I have a spiritual relationship with my gods, and an especially intimate one with Durga. She is as real to me as my human mother.

Q: How do you feel (emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, or another descriptor) during and after the ritual?
A: This really depends on the ritual itself, what we were celebrating and what change we were working for. I am always very energized by ritual, but that may just be because I'm an extrovert, as I'm usually energized by spending time with like-minded individuals.

Q: Do you perform Magic?  If yes, can you briefly define magic?
A: Yes I do. Magic is focusing my will and combining my energy with that of the gods for positive change. For me, it requires three things: 1) a true need for change, 2) a way to alter consciousness, and 3) a way to send energy out into the world.

Q: I have a hypothesis that Neo-Pagans in America are particularly interested in creative endeavors (based on research to date), i.e. inclined toward storytelling (writing), myths, performance (theater), and creative expression in general (painting, singing).  Does this resonate with you and fellow coven-members?  If so, do you think Pagans are more creative than other religious/spiritual practitioners? Why might this be?
A: We happen to be a collection of very intellectual women. I would not say we are more creative than others. I think that paganism as a whole attracts creative types because it is permissive and inclusive and doesn't try to define people or say what the "right" way to think is.

Q: I know you are also a practicing UU.  How does this practice coincide, meld, or otherwise relate to your Unitarian Universalist practice?  Is this group an offshoot, is it friendly, a separate group, or something else regarding the church?
A: I was a pagan before I was a UU. My husband is a theist, though not pagan, and we found the UU church because we wanted a shared religious experience and a place for our children to explore their own spiritual paths. I love that UUism gave us that home and that my pagan beliefs are accepted there. Currently, five members of my coven are also members of my church, but there is no official affiliation, and there are pagans at my church who are not part of my coven. I don't think that being UU alone would be enough church for me. I need a practice that specifically honors the personal relationship I have with my gods, and that practice feels more real to me with candles, incense, prayer, chanting, ritual actions and magic.

Anne Clough is a High Priestess and member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Elgin. She lives in Algonquin with her wonderful husband, two to three delightful kids (depending on the time of year) and the world's greatest cat.