A few weeks ago, I attended a discussion at Faith House Manhattan by Samir Selmanovic. The theme for this discussion, talk, and reading was the important spiritual role of the Stranger.
Mr. Selmanovic used two biblical texts as the core of his discussion- In the Old Testament, chapter 18 of Genesis, in which Abraham, sitting in front of his tent, is visited by two angels who tell him that his elderly wife is to conceive. The second text he used was from the New Testament- the 3 Magi, who visited Jerusalem, looking for the event that they had divined from the stars- the birth of the Christ child.
In both of these texts, it is the stranger, the person who perceived to be from outside our world, who perhaps does not even share our beliefs or world view, who is the catalyst for change in our spiritual faith. Often, the best messenger is the one who makes us uncomfortable in some way, an outsider. The Stranger, and The Other, is a spiritual initiator.
We then broke out into discussions with the strangers sitting around us-discussing the ways or the things that would make us feel exiled, or hopeless, or deflated. I said that if I lacked the freedom to feel sunlight and grass, in short, if I was imprisoned, that would deflate me.
The more I thought about this whole discussion later and how it applied to my spiritual path, the more I thought not so much of other “people” but of other worlds.
I think in Wicca and polytheism general, of the Western variety with which I am most comfortable and familiar, we have a very different relationship, I would say, even a romance, with the Other.
We Neo-pagans live in a world that all around us denies, even ridicules, our own spiritual paths. Many, indeed, most of us-practice magic in an age of science. The natural cycles of the world, the fear of cold, the possibility of hunger and the lack of harvest, which in the past contributed to what many modern minds would consider a superstitious world view during the paleo-pagan times, are divorced from the mindset of many in the Western world. We live in cities, get our food from supermarkets, and have longer life spans. The cycles of sun and moon do not affect us as much as they once did because we heat our homes with electricity.
So as a pagan, when I think of the Other in my path, I think not so much as Other things but of Other Worlds. Cosmologies that inform my spiritual beliefs, and re-align my soul. I believe that by journeying into the source of my gods and the places where they reside, I dwell in worlds that are “Other” and yet present to me here and now at the same time. I claim my right to assuage my spiritual hunger by consistently packing my mind, body, and spirit into a suitcase and getting my passport stamped by other Worlds. The act of ritual, of setting up sacred space, especially in a Wiccan context, means creating a place- between my physical plane and the other world- in which both can combine and interact. I create a 3rd space- neither the physical plane, nor the etheric one, in which Gods and Humanity may meet, as the words of some of our liturgy go.
I attune myself in this way because the “Other”- meaning, all that I cannot see readily as I walk down the city streets and sit at my mundane job, is the source of my spiritual peace and power.
But what then of the Stranger who comes to Abraham and makes Sarah laugh by telling her of the possibility of becoming a mother of nations, and the Magi (yes, the Magicians, after all, are the ones who told us first about Christ child!) who mysteriously appear and shake up the religious, political and social order, telling Herod that a challenger will soon be born in his midst?
Do they have a counterpart in my space “between the worlds?” Do they exist for the Wiccan, or the polytheist in the modern world? If my spirituality depends on Other Worlds, what happens when the Gods sent a spiritual Stranger, or Other, into my midst? What would this Other look like, to me?
I conclude that the Stranger that the Gods will send to me (or to us neo-pagans) will have to come in the form of a someone who does not seek to bring the Other World into this one, as we do, but who is grounded by necessity or circumstance in this one. Someone who challenges our otherworldly orientation by virtue of their human condition. I think about human suffering when I consider this- in places like Haiti, or in our own back yard, with the homelessness and poverty of the big cities, not to mention the poisonous effects of polluted water. I think that people whose very physical existence is tenuous are those who are not thinking about their next ritual invocation, or shamanic journey. They are thinking of human existence, and perhaps spiritual hunger, in precisely the way our ancestors did-as a question of survival. From this population, I believe, will the modern Neo-Pagan find its own Strangers and its Others.
When we see encounter human suffering, we are jolted from the beauty and mysticism of our rituals- whether they be in carefully constructed cathedrals, or inside drum circles by the firelight at night- and forced to encounter ways of channeling our spirituality into seeing the Other.
In a way, I have a chip on my shoulder. I want to prove that organized polytheistic altruism is possible amongst followers of Mystery Traditions and polytheistic faiths. Indeed, I know it is, because I have seen it myself- with organizations like Officers of Avalon, Pagan Pride, and the Lady Liberty League, amongst may others. I think we can do this without abandoning the crazy lack of hierarchy in our faith traditions, the centrality of experience and mystery over scripture, and the do-it-yourself, living room and back-yard locations of the sacred that we embrace.
In doing so, I am sure we will encounter our fare share of Strangers.