When you really can’t go home again

“Home” is such a small word to mean so much. You can hardly say it without longing in your voice. Literature is full of statements about home that fall from people’s lips even if they haven’t read the source: “You can’t go home again,” “Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in”. Maybe Spielberg’s E.T. was so successful because everyone, anyone could recognize the little extraterrestrial’s longing for his home and feel something of the same thing.

What happens, though, when you find out you really can’t go home? When you go there, and they’re ready to take you in, and yet you realize it’s not really yours any more and you don’t want to stay?

The last year and a half has been hard for everyone, except perhaps the culpably rich. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has hit burnout or some kind of blockage in their spiritual life, along with other areas. I’m sure it’s not limited to pagans and polytheists and magical practitioners, either. We’re having a pandemic, for gods’ sake, and a lot of people are not getting the help they need to get through, and a terrifying number of people are just outright denying it.

I’ve been tired. My spiritual practice has dwindled to what might be an all-time low. The gods are mostly silent right now, and I think maybe they’re tired, too. I think the gods care that over four million people have died, globally, and that many of those deaths could have been prevented, and the pandemic isn’t over. So here we all are.

A few weeks ago, I hit what felt like the bottom. Or the opposite of hitting the bottom; not having any ground to stand on. And after reflection, after prayer, with the blessing of my gods, I decided to start practicing Christianity again.

It was a matter of practice, of things to do. I grew up an Episcopalian, with an emphasis on praying together in the liturgy rather than on believing certain things. I never had to swear to any particular interpretation of a dogma, like exactly Jesus is present in bread and wine or the sequence of events at the Second Coming. Just sit, stand, or kneel with everyone else, sing the hymns, say the prayers. And if you want to be hardcore–which of course I did, and do–say some kind of Daily Office, morning and evening, and have private prayer as suits your temperament.

I told myself that it didn’t matter what I believed, that my gods weren’t upset about the decision, that it didn’t mean I would turn into a raging anti-queer anti-vaxxer; that I just needed a stable practice, and a community that was local and in-person and supportive. I went back to the church where I grew up, a small congregation in a small building (and even smaller now, in late summer, during a pandemic). I started saying Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. I got in touch with some old friends of the churchy persuasion. I felt enormous relief to be doing something simple, stable, familiar, even dull.

Two weeks later, I’m done. Thomas Wolfe was right: you can’t go home again. Even, sometimes, when you are welcome there. When they willingly take you in.

I grew bored with the Office. The words tripped off my tongue, but they didn’t engage my mind or my heart. I liked the same Psalms I have liked for years and disliked the same ones, too. Jumping into the first book of Kings was a bit like starting to watch an HBO drama two seasons in and not being sure why all these elaborately costumed people hate each other so much, and it wasn’t the least bit relatable. Over the last few years I’ve come to feel pretty strongly that the “Old Testament”, or more properly the Tanakh–the Torah and the other Hebrew scriptures–belongs to the Jewish people, and while there is wisdom and poetry in it that anyone can appreciate, it’s not my story. It’s just not about me.

I did some private prayer and deliberately took an approach of getting to know Jesus better, of trying to make contact with him. “Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy-laden,” he says in the Gospel of Matthew, and I sincerely wanted to go to him and put down my burdens–my confusion, my perfectionism, my burnout, my sheer weariness. But it was like calling for someone because you think they’re in the next room, only the room is actually empty. I have never, in over fifty years of life, much of it spent in the Church, had any real sense of Jesus, specifically and in particular, as a person or as a deity. He is the lead actor of a magnificent theatrical production who goes home immediately after every performance, never greets fans at the stage door, never reads or answers fan mail, simply plays his part and then disappears. And no one, not even the Christian writers most helpful to me, has been able to tell me how to contact him.

As I write this, part of me is decrying my pride and hubris and impatience at giving up on a practice after only a few weeks. I’d like to remind that part of me that I practiced Christianity for decades before really and truly committing to polytheism. And the results have always been the same: silence on the godphone, feeling that I don’t really even know Jesus and reluctant to ask him for what I need, feeling “sinful” but never sure what I’ve done wrong (confessing personal lapses that I now see were rooted in my then-undiagnosed depression and ADHD), confusion, frustration, and ultimately seeking elsewhere for a practice that makes sense to me and genuinely supports a thriving life.

I don’t know what happens next. But I have some core practices to fall back on, and Antinous and the Forest God are still there, still listening. I could start by cleaning their shrines.

3 thoughts on “When you really can’t go home again”

  1. I appreciated your observation that the gods Themselves are probably weary right now. It’s not something I’ve heard anyone else suggest.

    As someone who has been witnessing your spiritual journey for many years, I feel like this is a particularly significant milepost. The briefness of your re-connection with Christianity this time, after all the times you have swung into and out of it for as long as I’ve known you (*not* a criticism, just an observation) suggests that you may be ready to come to the end of that relationship.

    I have long missed the support of a positive and loving church community, as well as the cycles of communal worship and celebration. And living alone certainly intensifies that desire to belong. But I share your sense of not being able to go home again in this sense. And I *do* have a long-standing positive relationship with Jesus. I just break out in hives when I think about trying to re-integrate myself in a Christian community.

    Even though I have realized I’m not actually monastically inclined, I do wish there was a place the likes of us could live in community with other introverted devotional Pagans, where we could share the experience of deep commitment to our spiritual paths in the company of like-minded brethren, even if our beliefs were not all the same.

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  2. First, thank you for this comment. You have indeed been a witness to my long and winding road.

    It occurred to me sometime in the last seven years that living with a spouse who worked for the Church probably had a lot to do with my recurring return to the Christian fold. So there’s that.

    Monasticism has always meant, to me, having a regular, stable personal religious practice and organizing one’s mundane life around it. I still read the Rule of St Benedict daily because Benedict still has a lot to say to me about that. And I still hold the theory that priests and priestesses of the ancient world probably looked more like monastics or lay affiliates of monastics than like today’s Christian clergy.

    I’m still going to wish for local community, but it’s been my online experience that there are some folks under the big pagan/magical umbrella with whom I have very little in common, and that I don’t want to claim community with. I have to admit that online fandom has been at least as supportive of me as online paganism, and often more so.

    It’s been very hard to reach a point where I feel willing to write openly about my experiences again.

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  3. I think the past couple of years have been tough and exhausting for all of us and for the gods too and they understand that… I get the craving for something communal that millions of people tap into daily when I enter do my oh-so-solitary devotions to a god only a tiny number of people have heard of, fewer people conceive as a god, some small number (I don’t know a dozen to fifty?) all so scattered actively worship. I often look at churches and crave to be part of that large collective space inside. But know by vows to my god I will always be outside, with him, with countless other spirits, with countless more dead outsiders, then I feel a bit less alone… but it doesn’t really make up for having a recognised religious community.

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