Grail Alchemy by Mara Freeman

Grail Alchemy: Initiation in the Celtic Mystery Tradition
Mara Freeman
Destiny Books
Rochester, VT 2014
278 pages

Reviewed by Micheal

I’ve had this book for a few months now, and despite my best intentions, I cannot finish it in one or two days.

Freeman, has done an excellent job at relating the Celtic myths to their counterparts in Christian, Hindu, and other mythos. Relating the Fisher King not only to masculine principle severed from the feminine but also to various other deities such as Osiris, Adonis(dying and being reborn) for example.

Additionally, Freeman views the silver branch to being a miniature version of the tree of life, and she correlates it to a Siberian Shamanic practice of attaching tree branches to their drums, as an aid to help them reach the tree on their journeys (pg. 49).

The meditations, VisionJourneys, are beautifully crafted, I would suggest that they be recorded prior to beginning the journey. Freeman offers a dedication and healing ritual at the end of the book.

Grail Alchemy presents the reader with a lot of information that simply should not be read over in one or two nights. While it has merely ten chapters, this reviewer would suggest that the reader take their time to truly benefit from the research and information that Freeman is making available.

Given the books depth of information, exercises, visualizations, I give the book:

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

ChristoPaganism by Joyce and River Higginbotham

ChristoPaganism: An Inclusive Path
Joyce and River Higginbotham
Llewellyn, 2009
310 pages

Hoo, boy. This book is bound to stir up controversy. There are plenty of pagans who seem to have no qualms with drawing inspiration and practices from other religions–pretty much all of them, except for Christianity. You have Jewish witches, and those who draw on indigenous religions (despite the protests of some indigenous practitioners!) Yet try mixing Christianity and paganism, and you get all sorts of complaints from those who say it can’t be done (no doubt many of whom are speaking from a history of bad experiences with Christianity–or at least Christians).

However, for those whose experiences in such blending do undeniably work, or for those who wish to give it a try, this is an invaluable text. The authors have a strong understanding of the theological concepts that go into blending such a seemingly difficult interfaith blending, and make a good case for it. They start out by giving good foundational explanations of neopaganism and Christianity. Some may balk at the “unconventional” approach to Christianity they present, which challenges a lot of assumptions that casual Christians may have, and goes back to a variety of historical research that shows a very different origin and growth of the religion than is popularly understood. (No, I’m not talking about the various grail mythos thingies that talk about Jesus and Mary Magdelene in Europe–it’s much better scholarship than that.)

In making the case for interfaith blending, they draw on a variety of contemporary sources, not the least of which are the writings of Ken Wilber as well as spiral dynamics. I will admit that I thought that occasionally the general message of a broader perspective being more evolved read like it translated into interfaith = more evolved, but a closer reading without this kneejerk reaction gave me a better sense of what the authors were trying to say–that a more evolved perspective allows for the existence of, but doesn’t necessarily include personally, such things. This sounds controversial, but this is a controversial book to begin with, so in for a penny, in for a pound!

There’s also a nicely substantial section of personal testimonies from folks who have done various combinations of Christianity and neopaganism. This may be really helpful to those who feel alone in their path, as well as give ideas on how-tos without dealing with dogma.

Ultimately, many people are going to come to this book with their biases intact whether I advise them to or not; needless to say, I still recommend approaching it with as open a mind as possible. Of all the ways this combination of faiths could have been presented, this is probably one of the sanest and most well-thought-out. While it’s not my personal path, for anyone who has been wanting resources on the topic of mixing Christian and neopagan religious beliefs and practices, this is a great text to have on hand.

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Women and Religion in the West edited by Aune, Sharma and Vincett

Women and Religion in the West: Challenging Secularization
Edited by Kristin Aune, Sonya Sharma and Giselle Vincett
Vermont/England: Ashgate Publishing Company
230 pages

Note: This review was originally published in the first issue of Thorn Magazine, which I reviewed here.

Women and Religion in the West, far from being a feel-good “we are all sisters” text, is an ambitious project that focuses on the female interpretation of religion and religiosity in the West. It is set within the context of a world that is becoming increasingly secularized, and whose discussion of secularization is also often male-dominated. Additionally, it avoids the common practice of approaching Christianity alone; while that religion is explored, Islam and new religious movements are given ample coverage as well. Each religious category receives its own section of the book, with four essays per section.

All twelve essays in this book are solid. While each essayist has a unique interpretation of the theme, there are a few that particularly stand out.

–“Religious Change in the West: Watch the Women” by Penny Long Marler: Are women the longtime “secret weapon” of organized religion? Marler makes a convincing argument that while men may have been the primary figureheads of Christianity, it is the women who have been the cohesive congregation that made the religion possible. She details demographic and social changes since industrialization, as well as the effects of the defection of women from organized religions to more free-form spiritualities. While the roles of women have often been relegated to the background, the “pink-collar” occupations and volunteer stations within Christianity have created the backbone of the religion. Particularly noteworthy is the adept approach to the nuclear family—and the current disintegration thereof—in conjunction with trends in the Christian religion. As the social structures that rely primarily on the nuclear family are replaced by more flexible ones, the roles of women shift as well. Marler points out research showing that in the Western world, while women may take the role of only homemaker, or only career woman, the majority have a foot in each world, able to adapt as necessary. The pink-collar roles within traditional Christianity have relied on the stay-at-home mother who is a staple of the nuclear family; as that particular structure has become less common, so has adherence to traditional religious structures. Beyond the church, though, there are implications in these changes even for industrial-capitalist economies, and male-dominated society, which Marler discusses to some extent.

–“The Soul of Soulless Conditions: Paganism, Goddess Religion and Witchcraft in Canada” by Sian Reid: While there is a modern trend to perceive secularization as the most advanced stage of cultural religious development, Reid counters with the fact that numerous women continue to find meaning through belief—albeit through spirituality rather than organized religion. She particularly focuses on pagan religions in Canada, as well as on the importance of the feminine Divine to many female pagans. I was particularly struck by research that noted that female and male neopagans may approach the Goddess in different manners: “…while women are inclined to speak of Goddess spirituality in terms of larger gender inequalities and as a means of obtaining ‘self-validation by having a female image of the divine with which to identify’…men are less likely to make reference to patriarchal social structures, and tend to discuss the Goddess ‘more as an expressive or nurturing force that aided one’s immediate self’” (127). This and other general statements may lead to some hearty debate among practicing pagans, and make the essay well worth reading. Reid’s ultimate conclusion, though, is that while traditional religions may be losing adherents, Canadian women are still finding outlets for belief—to include a mirror of themselves in Deity, and the structure of modern pagan religious systems that allow for more flexibility and personal expression.

–“Being Seen By Many Eyes: Muslim Immigrant Women in the United States” by Garbi Schmidt: Schmidt opens this essay by emphasizing some of the basic stereotypes and misunderstandings associated with Islam and Muslim women in particular, but this is just the beginning. The meaning and politics behind such things as the hijab, the veil that is so strongly associated with Muslim women; the specific roles and niches occupied by women within Islam; Muslim women as sexual beings; and other controversial topics are discussed in depth. Schmidt offers an excellent balance between exposing the stereotypes that exist, and denying those stereotypes power through counter-arguments and contrary examples from real life. She shows how faith is a source of strength for Muslim women, even with the negative aspects and assumptions, and it’s a truly eye-opening essay. What’s particularly remarkable is the discussion of Muslim women using differences to their benefit, rather than as a source of stress. While this is not a universal practice, Karima, one of Schmidt’s interviewees, turns the role of being Other into an advantage. Schmidt remarks, “Rather than choosing a strategy of retreat, she stresses the very elements that make her different. Difference becomes a powerful way of marking identity in public spaces. The identity and political position she chooses to take within the United States equally compels her to position herself towards and even against other localities, for example the region her parents came from. Within these diverse contexts, Islam becomes a means for protest and reform” (209). This theme of activism continues through the experiences of women in Schmidt’s essay, and counters the stereotype of the Muslim woman as a hidden, trapped figure.

Pagans should not make the mistake of shying away simply because some of the essays involve monotheistic religions. There is much to learn from all of the essayists regardless of their stance. Additionally, those who were curious, incensed, or puzzled about Kristin Aune’s claim that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is convincing thousands of women to leave church every year may want to get a more solid feel for Aune’s research on women and Christianity. It’s not about pop culture, so much as it is about the state of being a single woman within religious communities, and how this is a state of non-normativity (compared to the state of being married, which according to Aune “continues to hold sway as the normative status in contemporary Britain” (67).

The tone of this book may come across as being fundamentally against traditional religious structures, as the majority of the material concerns women who are defecting from those structures to more free-form spiritualities. One particular exception is Maria Trzebiatowska’s “Vocational Habit(u)s: Catholic Nuns in Contemporary Poland”, a discussion of women entering into a deeper relationship with traditional religious structures despite secularization and criticism by peers. Christianity, however, seems to get the brunt of the theme of anti-religiosity.

Additionally, the relatively limited scope of religions discussed may beg the question of how these themes apply to women in other religions. Judaism is a glaring omission, for example; how might modern Jewish women approach secularization, as well as traditional (particularly orthodox) structures within their religious communities? There is plenty of ground left unexplored, and it almost would have been better to release a series of books, each focusing on a particular religion, to bring more depth to the topic.
Overall, though, this is a much-needed discussion about the state of religion in the world today, with the added benefit of breaking the male-dominated mold too often found in religious studies. Even those not of a particularly sociological bent will find the material to be informative and applicable to everyday religious and spiritual interactions and experiences.

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

More Facing North Reviews

When God is Gone, Everything is Holy by Chet Raymo

When God is Gone, Everything is Holy: The Making of a Religious Naturalist
Chet Raymo
Sorin Books, 2008
148 pages

This is another one of those “Why is this important to pagans, anyway?” books. At first glance, it would seem that a balancing act between Catholicism, agnosticism, and strict scientific interpretations of reality would have little interest to your average neopagan. This is exactly the kind of book that I like to bring to my readers’ attention, however. It’s full of interesting little surprises, and I got quite a bit out of it as far as brain food goes.

Raymo presents a series of arguments towards a materialistic interpretation of Nature as sacred. Nature is not sacred because it is filled with spirits, but rather because the very processes which science is uncovering are endlessly fascinating. With this perspective, he skewers dualistic worldviews which separate Sacred from Profane, and the idea that Earth is just a waystation to be used and abused before we go off to some afterlife. However, as a dedicated agnostic, he proceeds to toss the idea of a personal God, along with numerous religious trappings (emphasis on “trap”) out and instead explains the Divine as the ongoing “I Don’t Know”.

It is this emphasis on admitting that we don’t know everything (and that’s okay) which I think really makes this book worth reading. Neopaganism as a whole lacks a healthy dose of skepticism. What Raymo presents is a nice alternative to some of the more militant atheist voices at the table; healthy skepticism (as opposed to outright debunking) is paired with the admission that, removed from its fundamentalist, harmful roots, religion and spirituality can still serve healthy purposes in the evolution of humanity.

Do be aware that Raymo tends to shove animism, pantheism, polytheism, and other mainstays of (neo)paganism into the same category of useless superstition, while admitting aesthetic preferences for certain aspects of Catholicism. This bias may not have been intentional, but it is glaring. If you are easily offended, you’ll probably end up unhappy with this (of course, if you’re easily offended the entire book may come up with the same result). However, I still found his conception of Nature as sacred (in his own interpretation of the idea) to be one that I could resonate with on numerous levels, even if I believe in spirits and he doesn’t.

Despite my enjoyment of the book, I’m still not convinced that animism isn’t a good theological choice for me at this point, so his argument against it wasn’t as effective as he might have hoped. And, as with anything, take what you read with a grain of salt. This is a book for considering over time, not simply to read and discard after first impressions. If you find things that you disagree with (and if you’re like most neopagans, you will), don’t disregard the text in its entirety. Give it time to percolate in your mind, and see what you think after a second read a few months down the line.

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Reason For Hope – Jane Goodall

Reason For Hope: A Spiritual Journey
Jane Goodall
Warner Books, 1999
282 pages

Biologist and chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall has authored a number of informative and approachable books. This one combines a summary of her life with her spiritual insights. Often ecospiritual in nature rather than “Worship God!”, the book allows the reader a sensitive look into Goodall’s personal thoughts on her experiences of the past few decades, as well as her thoughts on contemporary issues in animal welfare and environmentalism.

Reason For Hope is divided into chapters that each focus on a particular theme, such as solitude, war, evil and healing. While the material that Goodall covers is often familiar to people who have read her other works, there are some new writings as well. A variety of photos allows more depth to the text, putting faces to names. The book ends on a positive note, extolling the virtues of–and need for–hope. Instead of feeling as though there’s nothing we can do, instead Goodall explains the problems we face, and through her patient and courageous example, inspires us to continue the good fight.

Even though Goodall is a self-described Christian, there is much in here to interest pagans, particular those of an ecospiritual persuasion. You won’t find preaching and proselytization. Instead, Goodall glories in the wonders of this world and the potential for human depth and growth in harmony with the rest of the world. It’s an inspiring read, and one I intend to return to.

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Spiritual Transformation Through BDSM – Sensuous Sadie (editor)

Spiritual Transformation Through BDSM: Stories and Submissions from Fellow Travelers
Sensuous Sadie (editor)
Ephemera Bound Publishing, 2007
612 pages

This is a book that has desperately needed to be written. While there are a handful of texts on BDSM and spirituality (including Christianity, neopaganism, and other faiths and philosophies), this one brings together thoughts from well over two dozen people in the Scene for whom BDSM is a spiritual act. Generally well-known for their writings, the contributors have offered up their own essays, as well as been subjects of interviews by Sensuous Sadie herself.

Here is a treasure trove of thoughts and perspectives on spirituality and BDSM, from Christianity to neopaganism, Buddhism to animism, Hinduism to “no label, thanks”. Dominants, submissives and switches all weigh in with their thoughts; people from all walks of life, sexuality and experience levels make their voices heard. And the variety of ways in which they make their kink more spiritually meaningful is incredible–I never got bored reading the wide range of experiences these people had!

The editor has done a remarkable job of balancing out the content, as well as choosing a superb array of contributors. I really liked the combinations of interviews and essays, and I thought that both the topics the essays covered and the interview questions really got to the heart of the matter. This book really gave me a ton of brain food (okay, well, over a pound anyway–it’s a big book!)

What really struck me was how incredibly thoughtful the essays were. Unfortunately, all too often people outside the Scene (and even some within it) see BDSM and kinks as only tools for sexual gratification; those who are not kinky may assume that we’re all “perverts”, “deviants”, “sickos”, and otherwise unlovable, unwanted outcasts from society who are just out to get our next sexual fix. While there are certainly those for whom (healthy) kink is solely in the realm of Malkuth, there are also those of us for whom it is a transcendent experience. The contributors to this anthology do a remarkable job of offering up a variety of viewpoints to show the more spiritual/reflective side of BDSM, to show how it can make us better people–and even bring us closer to God (or whatever name you use to refer to the Divine). This is a truly valuable book, and it’s one that I wish I could show to anyone who assumes that BDSM is just about the slap and tickle for everyone. Sure, we may value the slap and tickle for what it is, but that’s not all that’s there.

Honestly, I really have only one minor complaint, and that’s the copy editing/proofreading. This book could have used one more pair of eyes looking it over, because I found a noticeable number of typos and misspellings in there, as well as consistent errors such as swapping its/it’s. Being an editor myself, I do tend to be more sensitive to these things, so it may not make as much of a difference to other readers; however, I found it a bit distracting.

Still, that’s a small thing in the face of 600 pages of pure excellence. I really, strongly recommend this book not only to those in the BDSM community, but also members of various religions who may be perplexed about how we “perverts” can find something so seemingly “messed up” to be such an incredible experience. Be forewarned, if you plan to read this in public, that there are a number of erotic (though not fully pornographic) photos scattered throughout for aesthetics–a brown paper book cover won’t cover those. But they’re lovely pictures, and I think they add to the text, as they’re artfully and tastefully beautiful.

Overall, a really nice book, and it comes quite recommended.

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

The Lost Books of the Bible – William Hone (compiler)

The Lost Books of the Bible
William Hone (compiler)
Testament, 1988
320 pages

I bought this back in college and just now got around to reading it. It’s basically a collection of apocryphal and otherwise “unaccepted” texts regarding Jesus of Nazareth and his apostles.

Most of it was letters to various congregations, with messages such as “Be more patient with eachother. Infighting doesn’t do us any good” and “Jesus still love you even though he’s gone to Heaven”. However, the parts I found interesting as a former Catholic were the books that filled in some of the blanks about Jesus’ life, particularly as a child.

Apparently Jesus was not the nicest kid to be around. He was incredibly intelligent and confounded his teachers to no end because he already knew everything. However, what really got me was how he treated people who made him angry. On more than one occasion he killed his playmates if they made him made, transformed them into goats for the fun of it, or otherwise wreaked havoc til the neighbors complained and Joseph and Mary had to bring him inside. No wonder the early church fathers cut these out of the Bible! Not a very flattering picture!

However, there were some interesting “rest of the stories” about his adulthood, too. Apparently the robbers who were crucified next to him came from an incident in his childhood, and that was an intrguing tie-in. In fact, a lot of the folks from his childhood came back to play key roles as her got older; many of the apostles were children he healed of illnesses. I also thought the description of Jesus descending into Hell after the crucifixion and pulling Adam out of there was an appropriate story.

I like this because it makes the Christian mythos more complete. Some of it, to be sure, came about long after his death, but then again great figures in history and mythology often grow greater with the passing years.

To be sure, I’m still comfortable in my own (non-Christian) beliefs. However, this is a nice addition to the traditions I was raised in as a child, the stuff they don;’t teach you in Catholic school.

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?