Cross and Pentacle: Two religions at the crossroads

I was a Jesus Freak, a passionate theologian, and a Southern Baptist minister. I worked hard to convert pagans. The pagans won.

Discovering magic as a witch with an intimate knowledge of western christianity I explore the juxtaposition of these two faiths. Christianity and paganism alike are undergoing dramatic changes with parallel trends, conflicting challenges, and a growing concern for interfaith dialogue.

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My first lesson in magic - The Elements Song

Recently I wrote about the role music played in how I became a Pagan. I ended my story with the summer solstice of 2012, which marks the beginning of my Pagan path. The feeling of having come home, so familiar to many Pagans, took me by surprise that night and has stayed with me ever since.

 

Shortly after, I found my first teacher and was ready for my first lesson in magic. My teacher talked about the concept of casting circles and the role of the elements. ”Hydrogen, helium, something starting with 'Li'?" I wondered. She laughed, and said "earth, air, fire, and water". Oh, of course.

 

My first homework assignment was to meditate on said elements. "And since you're a musician", my teacher said, "why don't you write a song about them?" Of course she didn't know that I was not a songwriter, so I explained it to her. "Why not", she asked. I told her that I just don't have that kind of skill. Some people do, and I really wish I did, but I am just not the kind of person that has the ability to write songs.

 

I should have known I was setting myself up. A glint came into my teachers eyes and she said "oh reeeaaaally?" in that annoying drawn out way that is a challenge saturated with sarcasm. "Well then, even better,” she said, and rubbed her hands. "In that case, your homework is to write your first song. Practice sitting in sacred space and meditate until the song comes. We'll get together again when your song is finished."

 

That was not how I had envisioned my first magic lesson. It was rather disappointing. I was looking forward to learning magic so I could do amazing things, but my teacher didn't teach me a thing about magic and asked me to do the impossible instead. Great.

 

I figured I'd try, if only to tell her it didn't work and that I either needed a different assignment, or, well, a better teacher. So I thought about earth, air, fire, and water, and turned an unused room in the house into an meditation and music room. And there I sat with my guitar, strumming, and humming, and thinking about elements, and fighting frustration over the pointlessness of it all. This was not like the magic you read about in fantasy novels.

 

A couple of weeks into this exercise in futility, I was walking to the farmer's market humming a tune, something by the band Faun, then a song by Omnia, waiting for the traffic light to change. I walked out into the street when the crowd around me moved, not paying attention to the light or my surroundings, just humming, thinking about my upcoming trip to Mount Shasta. I was in the middle of the intersection when it hit me that I couldn't place the origin of the tune. I stopped, humming the tune once all the way through and asking myself where it came from. Where did I know this tune from? Did I know this tune? I didn't! I didn't know the tune, it was new, and catchy, and I had never heard it anywhere.

 

Someone honked and I realized I was still standing in the middle of the crosswalk and the light had turned red. I hurried across the street, pulled out my phone, and recorded the tune. Was this really my tune, my very first tune, and maybe the only tune I would ever write?

 

I sang the tune over and over while picking out veggies at the farmer's market, selecting my favorite greens, and even splurging on some very expensive peaches to celebrate the occasion. I couldn't wait to get home to my guitar.

 

That night I sat in my music room, strumming chords and singing earth, air, fire, and water, earth, air, fire, and water, earth, air, fire, and water. Oh, now I really wanted to know the elements, the spirits of nature, the guardians of the world, and I kept strumming, and humming, and sang

 

Earth, air, fire, and water

Spirits of nature, come and join us now!

Earth, air, fire, and water

Guardians of the world

 

And then I cried. I was singing a song, and it sounded good, and it had come from inside of me. Ten years I spent envying the man I had married for the music in his head. Now there was music in my head, too, and it was flowing out, and I felt like a whole new world had opened up, a language, the cadence of which I was so familiar with, now available for me to speak, to sing, to express myself in. I was no longer mute, I was learning how to speak "Music".

 

Full of gratitude I watched the sky grow darker and the moon brighter. My music room had a beautiful view of downtown Oakland with the San Francisco Bay Bridge off in the distance. The summer fog was rolling in, swallowing first San Francisco, then most of Oakland, reflecting the moon's light, rising ever higher to meet the moon. Lost in wonder, I continued to strum and sing

 

In the night when the fog rises from the West

In you I believe

Weightless ocean tides swallow the moon in mist

Life's pattern you weave

 

The moon's light grew dimmer, tendrils of fog lapped at the windows, and the room felt cold. I put my guitar in its case, closed the windows, and said out loud, just to hear someone say it: "I think I just wrote a song!"

 

But of course fog was not one of the elements, it was kind of a form of water but I didn’t particularly like it. When I thought of water, I thought of mountain streams, lakes, ocean waves, you know, the romantic stuff. Fog felt more like water out of place.

 

The following week I went on a hike, and it was windy as I trudged up a hill, through a grove of eucalyptus trees. The wind was causing them to rub against each other, which made all kinds of interesting sounds. It reminded me of one of my first nights in California, hiking through a patch of eucalyptus trees under the light of the moon. When the creaking and moaning sounds began, I had no idea where they were coming from and it felt like the woods around me were playing music and singing. Today, on my hike in the Oakland hills, I heard the same sounds and it made me think of "the singing woods". The combination of creaking, bowing, and squeaking was like a wooden orchestra, playing a eucalyptus song.

 

On the other side of the crest lay rolling hills covered in wild oats. The wind was strong and I watched gusts sweep across the golden grain and press it down against the earth. I saw some birds of prey circling over the fields and watched them, hoping for inspiration. They were beautiful, lofty, and I could see ruffles run through their feathers whenever they turned into the wind. But try as I might, no words came to me describing these majestic birds. My mind was stuck on the creaking trees and the flattened oats.  

 

I failed to capture air in the way I wanted to, the gentle breeze, the graceful flight of birds. I consoled myself with my upcoming camping trip to Mount Shasta, there I could write about bubbling streams, clear mountain lakes, fresh water springs. I would stare into the campfire and write about the gentle crackling of the wood and the ruddy glow of the flames. I would write about moss covered earth and mushrooms and rich humus, green saplings in living soil.

 

My friends postponed our trip several times until there was only one weekend left, labor day weekend. I was unhappy about the timing, not excited about the crowds. As we studied the map for possible campgrounds, one stood out to me strongly, but it was first-come-first-served and very remote,  and my friends vetoed. Instead we tried several other places, but ran into problems with every one of them, and finally decided to try for "my" campground.

 

I couldn't believe what I saw when we pulled up. A group of dreadlocked hippies was making food, and the sound of drums echoed across the forest. The place looked like a miniature rainbow gathering and I imaged the forest welcoming me with the rainbow greeting "Welcome Home!". There was exactly one spot left in the campground. One of the rainbows asked us if we had come for the event on the mountain.

 

We asked him what he meant, and learned that there was a drum circle and celebration at the summit of Mount Shasta every full moon, and tonight was going to be huge, because it was a blue moon. I wasn't following the phases of the moon yet, but suddenly the postponing, inconvenient date, and failure to secure any other campsite didn't seen so unfortunate anymore.

 

We drove up to Mount Shasta as dusk was falling and saw dozens of people walking around, setting up drums, laying out crystals. By the time it grew dark a couple hundred people had gathered. Some looked like rainbow family, some like owners of new age shops, or street fair psychic readers, others like regular hikers.

 

The drumming started, the sun set, blankets were spread, crystals traded, magical tools brought out in anticipation of the blue moon. I walked a stone labyrinth, stopping at each direction, saying a prayer, giving thanks and greeting each element. Then I stood in the center of the labyrinth, connected to the earth, watching the stars come out, and wishing someone would join me, another Witch who would meditate with me. I closed my eyes and after a moment heard crunching sounds on the gravel.

 

When I opened my eyes again, a girl stood in front of me, grinning. She hesitated to step into the center, I made a welcoming gesture, and she came close and stooped down to pick up a cloth bag. "My runes", she said, "I brought them into the labyrinth to charge." I nodded, and held out my hands. Without a question she took them, closed her eyes, and together we stood, connected to earth and sky, to mountain and stars, feeling the pulse of drums, smelling the cold air, and listening to the night, waiting for moonrise.

 

The first sliver of light broke across the black ridge, the drummers sped up, someone howled, a few people began dancing. The moon was almost too bright to look at, the labyrinth lit up, energy rose up inside of me, and I couldn't decide if I should scream or just stand there and bathe in the moon. I walked out of the labyrinth, into the spreading moonlight, and knelt, extending my face and my arms to the moon. Then I dropped all the way down, arms and legs spread, my face touching the rocks. I was one with the mountain, one with the moon, one with the ground. I let my fingers run through the grey dust, my fist tightening around some dirt, and I let it drizzle all over my body. I grabbed dirt and rocks with both hands and let them fall on my shoulders, my belly, rubbing some on my face, inhaling the sharpness of the rocks. I laughed with wild abandon and rolled over, crawling, digging, throwing dirt on myself, being the mountain.  

 

After a while I rose and looked around self-consciously, but no one was paying attention to me. I grounded, centered, and found my friends, who were eager to get back to camp and start a nice campfire.

 

I tried to be sociable on the drive down, but my mind was far away. Suddenly we pulled over and my friends stepped out of the car. "Check this out," they said. "Either the fire spread like crazy, or this is a new one. The entire South is on fire!"

 

And on fire it was. Two forest fires were raging south of Mount Shasta, and both had reached the top of a mountain range, drawing a flaming line across the horizon. The world in the South was burning, the forest ablaze. Why did it have to be the South? Why not the East, the West, the North? Chills ran down my spine. When we got back to camp, no one wanted to build a campfire anymore.

 

The next morning I woke up early and watched the sun come up, the world come alive again. I stripped out of my clothes and jumped into the mountain lake, letting the icy water shock me fully awake, numbing my limbs. As I floated on my back, I thought of the previous night. I had seen fire in its most disturbing form, and earth in its most barren. I didn't want to write about the elements that way. But today we would hike through a dense forest, I would connect with rich fertile soil there, I would write about the waters of this lake, and tonight, I would write about a cozy campfire.

 

The hike to Castle Crags was much steeper and more strenuous than I had hoped and I didn't want to climb all the way. I parted ways with my friends and descended the trail by myself, keeping an eye out for inspiration. Much of the trail was rocks and dust, and shortly before reaching the end of it, I hiked through a section with dry old trees and red soil with no undergrowth. I stopped and sat in the dirt. Clearly, this wasn't working. The birds-of-the-air verse wasn't coming together, the lake wouldn't write itself into a song, there was no moist soil to be found anywhere, and I couldn't get the image of the forest fires out of my head.

 

I scooped up some of the red soil and let is run through my fingers. It stained my skin so I used some to draw markings on my face. In that moment, I surrendered. I gave up on writing the elements. It was time to let the elements write me.

 

That night we sat around the fire, eating gluten-free pancakes made with foraged wild elderberries, gooseberries, and thimble berries, and I sang my first song to my friends and our campground neighbors, who went by Goat and Wizard.

 

Earth, air, fire, and water

Spirits of nature, come and join us now!

Earth, air, fire, and water

Guardians of the world

 

Sacred mountain top, blue moon bathed in the North

In you I believe

Red soil nurturing old growth awaiting birth

Life's pattern you weave

 

Sky caresses wild oats swaying toward the East

In you I believe

Eucalyptus song dance with each gust unleashed

Life's pattern you weave

 

Hillside forests glow, wildfires burn the South

In you I believe

Transformation through black death pour from your Mouth

Life's pattern you weave

 

In the night when the fog rises from the West

In you I believe

Weightless ocean tides swallow the moon in mist

 

Life's pattern you weave

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As unlikely as it sounds, I was born and raised in an evangelical Christian family in Germany. Everyone knew me as a Jesus Freak. No one was very surprised when I went to the US at age 19 and came back a tattooed and pierced fundamentalist Christian, betrothed to a Chrispie (a Christian hippie, that is). I was a virgin the day we married. Five years later I graduated bible college in highest honors, with academic awards and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I took my theology and trauma on the road and deepened both by traveling the country in a  yellow school bus. For three years I lived as a nomad, playing music at festivals, teaching seminars at conferences, and bringing my expanding understanding of Christianity to churches from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine. I learned that Christianity in America is as diverse as the Amish exorcising school busses and catholic priests breaking into government buildings - I saw Jesus in the oddest places. And then everything changed and I ended up a polyamorous witch owning a chocolate factory in California.

Comments

  • Gwion
    Gwion Tuesday, 03 June 2014

    I've had the pleasure to hear you sing this song around a fire. I'd love if there was a link you could post so others could hear it too.

  • Annika Mongan
    Annika Mongan Tuesday, 03 June 2014

    I'd have to have a recording first, but once I do, I'll post a link :-)

  • Gwendolyn
    Gwendolyn Tuesday, 03 June 2014

    This is a beautiful story, Annika! Congrats on having such an amazing experience!

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