This Bright Journey: Leaving the Beaten Path Behind

A child looked up at the stars and prayed to the Goddess of the Stars.

I felt certain that I was known, heard, watched. I didn’t get everything I asked for, even when I really, really wanted it. But that did not mean no one or thing was there. That I was utterly ignored or abandoned. That the stars didn’t look down on me.

The world was complicated, and I knew that. And to doubt my Goddess of the Stars wasn’t something that occurred to me. They were real. She was real.

It was my own private, self-invented religion, only it did not have the feel of an invention. I was trying to connect to reality, to respond to what I felt was real, and to find the comfort I could.

But no one had led me down this path, or if it was, it was by accident, a stray word or concept here or there, that so resonated with me that I took it where it had never, ever been intended to be taken. For all I had been told of Paganism was that it was false worship, evil, idolatry, and an offense against the One True God. I knew next to nothing of any world mythologies, pagan religions, or practices when I began my worship of the stars.

Not that I wasn’t permitted the study of these things. After some time, I expressed interest in the study of mythology. But I didn’t adopt any of the mythologies I learned about. None of them – or at least the pieces I found in the books I read – quite connected. Whatever they were, I didn’t know their gods. They didn’t speak to me, or my heart didn’t answer to them.

As for the One True God, I didn’t doubt His existence any more than I doubted the existence of my Lady of the Stars. But I ignored Him as best as I could. Anything that reminded me of Him was intolerable. It was too confusing and too frightening. And what I told myself was that I was terrified of Him, not of Hell – that has never been something I could fear – but of what He might demand of me. In this life. Not to deny Him. To confess Him before men. Even if that meant death by torture.

And that was intolerable. I was too afraid. Afraid it wouldn’t be worth it. Terrified.

But with my Lady of the Stars, there was no such terror. I offered her devotions by starlight, and the stars were easily altar and symbol enough. I needed no more, and neither did she. And she certainly did not demand that I be in any way open about my belief in her. Or that I die to confess her. If I said I didn’t believe in her to save my skin, it wouldn’t be a problem.

And it was so unlikely to happen anyways, at least explicitly. No one thought of her, considered her worship or belief something I might even consider. Something that might even occur to me. It wasn’t even a form of pagan worship anyone I didn’t choose to tell would know existed. They would never ask me to explicitly deny her. And she would never ask me to do anything that might reveal myself to someone I didn’t want to. It was not as if it would ever even occur to anyone that my fascination with the stars and the night sky was more than just that I found the stars beautiful, but that I prayed to them.

As for the possibility of having to affirm I didn’t believe in any gods, that was easy play.

But it was more than that, too, and that more may have been the most important part. She was my private goddess that I’d found on my own, by following my own heart and no other guide. My belief in her wasn’t confused with other things, teachings of men, some of which repelled me, and some of which I really wasn’t sure how I felt about. I might not know her very well, but there was none of the confusion and revulsion of organized religion attached to my thoughts toward her.

But something in me kept tugging. I wanted what the One True God seemed to offer: a peace and confidence that was utterly unbreakable. A joy that was worth anything, even the most vile of tortures. A strength that could not be broken. The story of one of His martyrs – Bibiana – who was said to have “endured the blows with joy” could not be gotten out of my mind.

And I was in love with Him. With the thorn-crowned King. With the One who freely chose to take on every suffering and humiliation to be with us. With the One to whom no price was too great to come to us and save us.

And, above all, with the Resurrection and the Life, the Risen Savior.

I couldn’t deny it. I never even tried to deny it to myself. I only ran away and tried to ignore it. And even then, even when I was running farthest, I’m not sure I could have explicitly denied it, have said that I didn’t believe in Him or His Resurrection, if I had been asked to – even on pain of death. Maybe, but I don’t know.

And one morning, things snapped, and my path took a sharp curve.

The book, Hinds’ Feet on High Places, was part of it. A simple presentation on the Resurrection of Jesus that He’d already done everything, knew everything, and there was absolutely nothing but my own present choice that could come between me and His love, was the actual, immediate moment when things turned.

That was when I became steadfastly, devoutly Christian. I stopped ranting about politics: what people needed wasn’t a change of government, but to know His love. To have the joy that made anything worth it. That was the only sure thing. I was still so terrified of torture that half the time any mention of it or anything that reminded me was enough to set my heart racing, and sometimes more, but the other half the time I couldn’t see that it mattered. All that mattered was that I had Him and He was enough. And I wanted to be a missionary, to take this wonderful good news I’d discovered to everyone I could.

And I believed that this was my particular sin, that my fear was embarrassing, exceptional and befitting to a Christian. So much so that it took me a very long time before I realized that for most of the people around me, they were probably more afraid than I was, not less. They just didn’t really believe it might happen to them. And I should have realized sooner, since they said it to me in almost so many words, cautioning to me to be careful, cautioning me that one couldn’t preach the Good News in a way where it meant – might mean – one would rot in a dungeon (quoted almost word for a word)….

I say I was a Christian. But I was never what most people see in that word. I wanted to know my Jesus the same way I had known my Lady of the Stars: directly, immediately, for Himself, for myself. Not because other people told me about Him, or what other people told me. I tried to unravel everything backwards, behind the theology I’d heard, behind every dogma, to know and believe for myself. I read the Bible and memorized – or nearly memorized – many chapters, but it wasn’t what my faith was about. It took me some time to discover that it was most definitely fallible, but I considered that it was infallible as a proposition, not something I really believed.

And when one day I remembered something I’d read, and realized what I’d read, and that my Jesus would never decree that, there was no resistance. The Bible was fallible, but that did not matter to me very much. I wanted to know Him for Himself, not from a book, and I’d already discovered the Church was fallible.

But thinking through things can be a very slow process, when you’ve been taught to think a thousand things are synonymous, and they aren’t. It’s like learning to see. Trying doesn’t make it happen instantaneously. But that didn’t mean my attitudes and understanding were really acceptable to the Churches, and one day quiet antagonism, wishing that I’d notice I wasn’t wanted and go away, (something that happened more than once before, but it usually took a long time past when I was probably supposed to have known I wasn’t wanted) turned into something far more.

And my attempt to share an inspirational piece I’d written about how the love of Jesus was everything in life, without first consulting the elders, led to having the police called on me, to harass and threaten me, even though I’d actually left the church property when I was asked … but without ceding that they were right in their request … no, it was definitely a demand.

I’ve never been back to a church, but this isn’t the end.

This isn’t the end. Where I am right now isn’t the end. But this isn’t even where I am right now.

As painful as that was, and as disorienting in some ways as it was, it didn’t shake my faith, after everything my belief had already survived, or returned like the phoenix – after what my belief had always been, and was revealing itself to me to be. After wanting to know Him for myself, and trying to do that, throwing out one thing I’d been taught was synonymous with knowing Him after another over the past handful of years. Or even over my whole life to-date.

And then, apart from the churches, watching the world, listening to its song, and writing my novels, Children of the Dryads I think it might have been, I realized something: I didn’t have to choose between the Crucified and Risen Savior and my Lady of the Stars.

She wasn’t the same kind of thing that He was, only an inferior version I had to believe I had imagined. She wasn’t trying to stand in His place. She wasn’t a copy. She wasn’t an usurper. Or if she was, I might as well have believed that the very shining stars in the night sky were copies, usurpers. That the whole universe and I myself was a fall from grace. That individuality and personality were evil.

And He wasn’t in any more conflict with her.

I could adore and be in love with my Jesus, and I could acknowledge my Lady of the Stars, I could commune with the personalities in the Storms, and I could listen to the trees and respect and accept them, too – as I had, in fact, been doing since I couldn’t help it very well.

There was a great deal of relief, but it still wasn’t over. I continued to experience conflict and worry, one that resonated and seated neither in my desires nor in my thoughts, but was there nonetheless, a left-over from what I’d been taught: respecting spirits of nature, interacting with spirits so unlike men, is idolatry against the One True God. And what was the difference? How could I tell the difference between the adoration I had for Jesus and what I gave these other beings? How to tell the difference between the prayers I offered each?

Even though my heart told me I was being stupid, and my mind didn’t agree either.

Until one night, I fell asleep after reading over and over some prayers and hymns to a god and goddess from a fantasy world. I fell asleep almost repeating them, nearly sick with longing, with something that felt like homesickness, with need and desire. To pray to and respect the gods of nature, and have a relationship with them.

And I dreamed: I dreamed I was in the U.S.S.R before it fell (many kinds of travel, across time, continents, and worlds is the stuff of my dreams), and I found myself under suspicion, doubtless about to be detained. And rather than try and see if I could wiggle my way out of it, I just let it go, as if my mind and mouth were possessed by words about the Lord I loved and His gift so wonderful and so beautiful I wish I could remember them, but even upon immediate waking, I couldn’t, not really!

And I woke with peace in my head. To have fallen asleep dreaming of interacting with the powers of nature – to dream that – it cemented into my heart what I’d known for a while now: there wasn’t any contradiction between my desires. None at all.

I could offer prayers and develop my relationship with the spirits of nature, and it had no bearing at all on my belief in Jesus, even to the point of giving my life for Him if I liked.

It’s a weird, weird journey I don’t expect to ever end, and this is only the smallest part of it. There’s still so much I don’t know, so much I haven’t figured out, and I’m certain, that as always, there’s more that I’m not even aware that I don’t know, than that I’m aware I don’t know.

And, as I go, my way becomes clearer. Sometimes, perhaps, a mist blows across, or I become so fixated on one thing that I feel like I can’t see because of my confusion about that one thing. But, though I learn more and more how little I know, I don’t feel lost, or not in a bad way. I certainly don’t feel like I am becoming more lost, but like I’m starting to learn a little of where I am, and even when I realize better how lost I am, I’m still discovering more about where I am. Still getting less lost.

However much there is that I don’t know, some things are certain, and the more I discover what I don’t know, the better I understand what’s sure.

Sometimes, being lost isn’t such a bad thing. Certainly, if you’re not afraid of being lost, or of where you’re lost. I’m exploring, and that’s a delight. It’s much better to step out of the stale bunker into the living world outside and discover it’s nothing like what they told you it was in the bunker, than to sit in the bunker thinking that what they’re showing you on the cameras is the real world, and not some sort of show they made up.

And when you climb out of the valley, and discover the mountains are even more unlike what you’d been able to imagine from the shows, you’re still not losing something. Only gaining it.

At least, that’s how I feel about this journey. I’ve taken my way off the beaten path, and I’ve discovered the world is a lot different than it looks if you keep on the path and your eyes on the dirt beneath your feet. Things out here are weird and mysterious, and I’m sure I’ve only seen the smallest part of all there is to see.

But I’m here to find out.

Someone else, who’s taken their way off the path in a different place and forged a different curving trail from there, may have been entirely different places and discovered entirely different things so far. And I’m not here to make another path for you to follow, to try and lay a road down more or less along the trail I’ve come.

I’m just giving you a tiny glimpse of what I’ve seen in the world and encouraging you to explore. You don’t have to keep to the beaten path. Sometimes, there are junctures on that road, but those aren’t your only options.

If you want to go somewhere that’s not on the map, become an explorer. If none of the paths suit you, make your own trail.

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