Yesterday the Earth crossed the celestial equator. Since 21 December, the position of the sun on the eastern and western horizons has been shifting steadily northward, bringing more direct light to the northern hemisphere, and more oblique light to the southern hemisphere. These two days when the sun crosses the celestial equator are the equinoxes, equal nights, so named because the length of the day and the night are roughly equal. The equinoxes and solstices are days of significance which have been known to humanity for thousands of years. Our earliest religious rituals occurred on these days, calculated through generations of observation, and marked by stone circles in the landscape. The vernal equinox in particular was a day of celebration and renewal as life reemerged from its winter slumber. Wiccans and other contemporary pagans continue to celebrate this day, and the others, in the Wheel of the Year.
I spent the mid to late 1990s studying Wicca and contemporary paganism. I built myself a small altar and decorated it with stuff I liked. My athame was a dagger with a mermaid handle. The mermaid held a pearl between her hands. My cauldron was a ceramic bowl with hand painted mermaids inside. (In case you’re wondering, I’ve had a thing for mermaids since 1982.) I had the consecrating sea salt, the candles for the casting of the circle, and even a small crystal ball. I had the kit, now I was all set to become a practicing witch. So I practiced, and I practiced, and I practiced, but I still wasn’t getting the hang of it. Was I supposed to feel something? Was I supposed to enter into some kind of altered state of consciousness? Was I supposed to become ecstatic? Rituals felt artificial to me. So-called sacred space was just me sitting in my room. There was no god or goddess present because I knew a long time ago that gods and goddesses weren’t real. They were just characters in stories invented by our ancestors to explain natural phenomena or the origins of culture.
A friend of my mom’s attends the local Unitarian Church, and so I checked out their website to discover that it offered Wheel of the Year services. Having been a pagan for a decade, and a lapsed pagan for another decade, I decided to try attending yesterday’s Ostara celebration in an effort to connect with other human beings and maybe alleviate symptoms from nearly five years of severe social isolation. I accepted my awkwardness, acknowledged it, and still managed to meet people and engage in conversation. I figured my familiarity of the religion would ease my inevitable discomfort from putting myself into a religious social milieu. There was indeed familiarity. There was sage smudging, circle casting, calling of quarters, invoking of deities, meditation, singing, and dancing, all of it familiar, and all of it feeling just as hollow to me as it did when I was practicing it on my own fifteen years ago.
Truth be told, I don’t want to be religious. Religious ritual offers me nothing. Yesterday, in an attempt to create new social connections in my community, I found myself sitting indoors to pretend to practice a nature religion. The tiny sound of a ticking clock resonating off the wall behind me filled the room and reminded me of the artifice of the ritual. The experience reminded me a great deal of the underwhelming Christian services I’d attended. Sit down. Stand up. Sit down again. Sing a hymn no one knows the words to. Meditate, or pray, or whatever. I felt the same hollowness to the ritual that I’d felt years before in my solitary rituals. Afterward, when I walked out of the building to head over to my bicycle, I was greeted with a stunning view of the Orion constellation in a crystal-clear night sky. The planet Jupiter hovered over Orion’s shoulder. The spectacle stopped me in my tracks, and for that moment I found myself having an actual spiritual experience.
I’ve written before about the idea of secularizing religion, taking the rituals of religion and making them accessible to nonbelievers. It sounds like an interesting idea in theory, but I realize now that rituals, whether they’re secular or religious in nature, probably only work for people who gain something by participating in them. It might be friendship, a sense of community, or even a simple dopamine rush. I understand the mechanics of ritual, the symbolism of the accoutrements, the meaning behind the invocations, but none of that has ever connected with me at an emotional level. I’ve never been one for pomp and circumstance.
I used to be an avid practitioner of yoga, though I kind of gave it up after a particularly awkward breakup with a yoga instructor. When I did practice, I was particularly fond of vinyasa, the flow of the body from one pose into another. I’ve also been an avid cyclist all of my life, and have gone on numerous long-distance rides as well as short commutes in town. I have found that I’m the most at peace when my body is in motion. Not just any motion, mind you, but focused motion with intent. The physical movements of yoga bring strength and flexibility to my body. The riding of a bicycle transports my body across the landscape and allows me to see firsthand the world in which I live.
I’ve finally settled once and for all that ritual leaves me feeling unfulfilled. If I seek a spiritual experience, then I will do what I know works for me. I will stick to drawing, bicycling, stargazing, and maybe I’ll get back into yoga. And while I don’t plan on attending any more Wheel of the Year services, I will no doubt continue, as humanity’s ancestors have done for generations, to observe the solstices and equinoxes, even if it simply means taking a personal day to go outside and ride my bike.