September is here and with it, school buses picking up the children in the morning, cooler days with sapphire skies, and leaves turning mottled and golden. As the languid days of summer come to an end and the world is pitched into change, we become more aware of our environment and the mystery of the changing seasons.
Awareness of the seasons is a central part of Paganism, a rapidly growing religion in recent times. In a world increasing dominated by technology, people are resonating with Paganism’s call to return to nature for spiritual inspiration. Having been raised as a Christian, then practicing as a Buddhist for ten years, I find that Paganism expresses the strongest environmental ethic, one that we desperately need in an imperiled world.
Just as there is diversity within Christianity, Paganism is an umbrella term that embraces very different traditions from all over the world. While Native American religions and Native African religions are sometimes considered pagan, most often the word pagan is used to describe pre-Christian European religions and its modern revivals from the 1960s and onwards. Because ancient indigenous cultures left very little record, pagans today practice a modern religion based on age-old traditions and contemporary sensibilities. Pagans commonly believe that the divine is manifest within nature, the divine is masculine and feminine, and they shy away from oppressive power structures. Paganism’s emphasis on nature and the feminine makes it very different from today’s dominant religions.
The belief that nature is sacred is the most fundamental tenet of Paganism. The divine permeates everything in the universe, from the light of the stars to the weeds growing in the sidewalk. A relationship with the divine is necessarily a relationship with nature, and since nature is all around us as well as within us, no church, congregation, or specific rituals are needed for us to experience the divine.
Saying nature is sacred has immense implications for how we relate to it. For something to be sacred implies that it is blessed or approved by a deity, is rare and precious, inspires feelings of kinship and love, and demands devotion in the form of actions. Let’s look at each of these meanings more carefully.
A sacred object, being, or place is one that is blessed by a higher power. It is designated by the divine to be the way it is and destroying or altering it is deemed sacrilege if done without first consulting the divine. For Native Americans, certain mountains and canyons are believed to be sacred dwelling places of the gods. People ventured into the wilderness to seek spiritual revelation, and if they ventured too far they risked injury and death. The limits nature imposed on humans instilled a sense of respect for certain places and in the power of nature itself.
When we say that something is sacred, we also mean that it is rare and precious and therefore should be treated with care. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Bible is sacred. It is the only book vested with divine authority and no other book holds its special significance. In the Catholic Church, relics of the saints, such as bones or hair remnants of saints are deemed sacred. The most sacred objects are not put on display and would only be taken out during special ceremonies or festivals, at which their presence would be celebrated.
Something that is sacred is something that inspires feelings of kinship and love. The sacred person or object is not something to be worshipped at a distance, but one with whom we have a personal, intimate relationship. The sacredness of the Bible invites us to read it and incorporate its teachings into our lives. When we say that we hold something sacred, we mean that the thing is deeply a part of who we are, such as the memory of a deceased loved one, truths that we hold to be self-evident and rights which we would defend at all costs. This kind of spiritual bond is unique with sacred objects, unlike our regard for a political leader or a civic institution for example. The sacred object has a hold over our emotions in a way that non-sacred objects do not.
Lastly, the sacred inspires, even demands, devotion in the form of actions. In Christianity, devotion could take the form of prayer and attendance at church services; In Buddhism, devotion could mean helping to clean the temple or giving money to support it. But more meaningfully, religious devotion consists of incorporating sacred teachings in our lives through living in accordance with the religion’s guidance, caring for others, and doing charitable work. The same principles apply to Paganism. Pagan ritual devotion includes ceremonies, prayers and chants, but it also includes incorporating its teachings into everyday life. Since Pagans believe that nature is sacred, acts of devotion might include growing a garden, maintaining a local park, making one’s home more energy efficient, or participating in environmental activism. As a form of devotion, caring for nature (or at least not contributing to its destruction) becomes as important as caring for loved ones.
An important way that Pagans pay homage to nature is through the celebration of a sacred year. Many of paganism’s holidays were assimilated into Christianity as Christianity spread throughout Europe. Like other religions, pagan holidays bring together the community and remind us of the cycle of life and death.
The sacred year begins at Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year which also marks the beginning of the return to light. Winter solstice is a time of contemplation; our energies are low due to the darkness, but we have faith that light is returning to the land. Decorating with evergreens and lighting candles symbolize the continuation of life in the darkest time of year.
The second holiday is Imbolc, celebrated on February 2nd, and coincides with Groundhog Day. Imbolc falls during a time of great cold, ice, and snow, but deep within the Earth life begins to stir and the hours of daylight begin to increase. Imbolc celebrates the growing light and the appearance of the first signs of spring.
Ostara, or Spring Equinox, is celebrated around Easter time. The day has reached equal length as night, and begins to be longer than the nights. Bunnies, painted eggs, and other symbols of fertility are part of Ostara and also Easter. Ostara is a time of growth and expansion, things being planted and the start of life.
Beltane, on the first of May, celebrates the full glory of Spring. Life surges through every tree, plant, and bud. Young animals born in early Spring reach sexual maturity. Youth go out into the woods to gather flowers and fall in love. Ribbons are wound around maypoles to symbolize the union of male and female, life and death.
The Summer Solstice marks the longest day of the year, after which the days grow shorter. Midsummer is a time of growth, strength, and power. Fires are lit on midsummer night to celebrate the sun reaching its zenith. It is an auspicious day to reach for one’s goals.
Lammas, on August 1, marks the first harvest celebration. The fruits of summer are ripe, including corn and wheat. Bread is made and the community gathers to eat it. Agricultural fairs and other community festivities help to celebrate the fruitfulness of late summer.
Mabon, the Fall Equinox, marks the time when the nights begin to be longer than the days. The signs of Autumn are everywhere and harvesting is underway in earnest. It is time to give thanks for nature’s bounty and also acknowledge the power of darkness until the return of Ostara.
Samhain is the last holy day of the sacred year and the underpinnings of Halloween. The final crops are harvested, gardens are put to bed, and pantries are stocked for the cold months ahead. The veil between the world of the dead and the living is said to be thin on All Hallow’s night and we set out jack-o-lanterns to honor the dead.
Does the modern world consider nature as sacred, something blessed, rare and precious, to be regarded with kinship and love, and cared for through acts of devotion? No. Today, we blast mountains to extract coal and flood valleys to generate electricity with utter disregard for their spiritual or cultural significance. Instead of treating natural resources as rare and precious, we have cut down innumerable forests as if they were all dispensable, driven to extinction species that were once so abundant they were considered to be inexhaustible, and polluted our atmosphere and our oceans as if they had endless capacity to absorb our wastes. But we are coming to the realization that natural resources are not endless, that the resilience of nature has a limit, and that when we look out into the universe, we find that life is incalculably rare and precious.
In addition to all the ecological destruction, for the first time, human beings are altering the climate and changing the rhythm of the seasons. A part of the natural order that was before thought to be beyond all human power is now fundamentally altered by our behavior, with drastic consequences to all life on Earth. Like cutting a sacred grove, damming a sacred river, or flooding a sacred canyon, what used to inspire awe and respect, love and devotion, are destroyed in service of human needs.
A sense of the sacred is not merely a nice addition to a busy life with other pleasures and obligations; it is fundamental to our existence as human beings. The sacred answers a deep yearning in us to be a part of something larger than ourselves and to feel a member of the community of life. As Mary Evelyn Tucker writes in Worldy Wonder, “For if the Earth is not in some sense a numinous revelation of mystery, where indeed will the human find mystery? And if humans destroy this awesome matrix of mystery, where will we find sources of inspiration pointing us toward the unfathomable, vastness of the sacred?”(8). A sense of wonder answers our longer for something more than ordinary life, filled with the hustle and bustle of making a living, shopping, and socializing. Beyond satisfying our physical needs, we need emotional connections, purpose and spirituality. A relationship with the sacred fulfills those needs.
More and more, the world has made it harder to experience the sacred in daily life. Buildings and roads replace fields and forests. Technology has made easy not to venture outside or contact people face to face. We spend more than ninety percent of our time indoors far away from any contact with nature. Even the food we eat, which has always been our closest link to nature, is manufactured and processed in a way as to be divorced from all sense of its origins. But if we allow ourselves to look, the sacred is all around us. We don’t need to go to a church or a wilderness to find it. We can experience the sacred in our neighborhood parks, a tree in our backyard, as well as in our own bodies and hearts. If we find that our work to conserve natural resources and promote social justice feels at times fruitless and mundane, we can remember that whatever we do out of the deep conviction of our hearts is devotion to what we hold sacred. And what we do out of devotion feeds our spirits as much as it helps the planet.
Authors, Various. Llewellyn’s Witches’ Datebook 2016. Woodbury, Minn: Llewellyn Publications, 2013. Print.
Higginbotham, Joyce, and River Higginbotham. Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 2005. Print.
Starhawk. The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. 20th Anniversary ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999. Print.
Tucker, Mary Evelyn. Worldly Wonder: Religions Enter Their Ecological Phase. Chicago, Ill.: Open Court, 2003. Print.