Sunday, June 20, 2010

Christian and Pagan? Not so new. . .

I grew up with a Christian Witch.

My great grandmother, always Mamaw to 3 generations of young children, walked paths many women and men are trying to trod today: her love of gardening, people and economic independence meant that at the turn of the 19th century she maintained a midwifery business, a bread baking business, and to the shock of her family, her own bank accounts and book keeping. For the Appalachia of the time, she was a "witch, a woman who helped others through birthing, and that type of witchcraft in no way prevented her active participation in the Green Shed Valley Cumberland Presbyterian Church.

I know of Mamaw mostly through conversations with my extended family. Like all southern families, every quirk and peculiarity of personality must be traced through one's ancestry, and my own independence was usually traced directly back to Mamaw. As was my visage, tendency to know every one of my cousins, and my interest in herbs and gardening, spinning and weaving, and later my interest in theology. "You get that from your Mamaw," was a childhood refrain. That by the 1970's whatever embarrassment Mamaw caused the family had eroded into the feminism of the time was never lost on me. "You are just like your Mamaw," was usually said to me with both exasperation and a certain amount of pride, thank you very much!

On another note, however, Mamaw changed my spiritual life.

The only conversation I remember with her was brief. Her acre sized garden was her pride and joy in her last years, after midwifery had lost out to modern hospitals, and grocery stores replaced delivering bread on mules. On hot afternoons I would sit at my Mamaw's trailer, with her porch covered in roses, clematis and wisteria, while she made tea from her garden. One time, and only once, she had no fresh cut herbs and she allowed me - oh precious and rare treat!, to go into that flowered sanctuary and harvest herbs. She explained to my both solemn and excited self that there was a method to cutting plants.

"All plants have spirit," she explained to me, while I am sure I struggled to convey my understanding. "Just like everything else, you have a spirit; I have a spirit; the trees have spirits; the mountains have spirits. You have to cut the right plant, with the right spirit, to make the right kind of tea." She snipped at mint and lemon verbena while, most honored, I got to watch. "If you want to heal with plants, you have to pick a plant with a healing spirit. To work with any spirits, you have to know your own spirit."

That was it.

She brought the herbs in, and I got to put the scissors away (another rare honor; Mamaw did not share her garden tools), and she went back to her afternoon soap operas. I don't remember any more conversations with her until her death, not more than a year later.

That Sunday, she, as usual, refused to go to church, as she had lifelong arguments with the many ministers that came to the valley, and no one saw that as any lack of Christian belief on her part. Mamaw was famous for her critiques of area ministers, perhaps her best contribution to her little church community. I still hear, 40 years after her death, of stories when she publicly argued with ministers on matters of doctrine and text.

I would, of course, come to love stories of her many theological disputes, as well as her commitment to temperance and her equally famous (and I am told horrifically sweet) blackberry wine. I also learned from her daughter, my grandmother, of how opposed my Mamaw was to integration, Martin Luther King, and the Civil Rights Movement. Mamaw's racism impacted my generation; if not for Billy Graham integrating his television ministry, I don't think my father's family would accept integration to this day.

(Billy Graham, if you are reading this, thank you!)

Yet her introduction of meeting spirits stayed with my young self. From that special time with Mamaw, I started introducing myself to plants and trees and mountains, to lakes and valleys, to creeks and animals, and eventually figured out how important spirit is for people. I still find myself learning who my own spirit is, the better to pick the plants - and every other path - of my life.

Mamaw shows how easy it is to be Pagan and Christian. And she was a critical and loud mouthed Christian at that! (Finest kind, of course!) I find it amazing, when I head to church, or when talking with other pagans, that we still see the Pagan/Christian world as so separate and divided. "How can I worship both Goddess and still be faithful to Jesus?" is a question I hear weekly, and since starting this blog, almost daily!

Well, it isn't that hard, really. Folk traditions of my Appalachian family are easy enough to find for me; yet when I work with people as friend or counselor, I find most of us come from families with traditions and folk ways that lend to a spontaneous and creative spirituality. Goddess and pagan worship abound in Biblical sources, but if cakes to the Queen of Heaven seem remote today, most families come with more recent pagan traditions that just need to be dug out.

My childhood Lutheran friends, of Scandinavian ancestry, all kept trolls and dragons about their homes, for luck and protection. My African American sister grew up with voudou and conjuring, despite a rigidly anti-Pagan Black church. My English friend has a father who danced Morris dances. My Chinese friend learned feng shui from her mother. A friend from Maine had a mom who planted their vegetable garden by moon signs, and my Irish Catholic friends all grew up with saints and prayers and rosaries that I have added, with no ancestral connection, to my own worship. Scratch most any family, and you find paganism. For those of us without Jewish ancestry, that paganism almost always co-existed with Christianity just fine.

Recently a church friend was raving to me about how great my blog is for him, and how he wants to be more fully pagan and Christian, and how great a role model I am. (And thank you for all the compliments very much! They are appreciated!) However I had to admit that, well, however much I seem to be charting new paths, if you look at my family I'm not such a trailblazer as all that.

My Mamaw was a witch and a Christian. No problem. And she lived 100 years ago.

May all these paths be easier for our great grandchildren, 100 years hence.

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