Y’all, I love books. I have a long history with books. When I was growing up, I would voraciously read pretty much anything that was available to me. As a kid, it wasn’t uncommon for me to leave the library with a stack of books almost as tall as I was!
This love of reading wasn’t limited to a particular genre, either. I loved fiction – mostly fantasy, sci-fi, and coming-of-age stories (because even I could be a moody pre-teen/teenager sometimes). I also loved non-fiction. I had books on nature (naturally), a manual on quantum physics, a German grammar book, and a (hidden) stash of books on Wicca/Witchcraft.
I was a bit of an overachiever when it came to school and learning (I still am, to be honest). In high school, I took all the AP classes I could – Calculus, Biology, English Literature, Environmental Science, Physics, European History, and Psychology. I read A LOT. I studied A LOT. Books, and the information contained therein, were, in a sense, sacred to me. I learned mostly because I wanted to, not because I felt like I had to (with the exception of Mechanics in Physics, maybe). If I wanted an answer, it was in a book. Or on the internet, which had its coming of age in my later teen years.
I went to college, where I discovered research and the idea of discovering your own knowledge. This was amazing to me. I majored in Environmental Science, which more or less meant I had to be knowledgeable in all the science disciplines, and more. I took classes in biology, chemistry, physics, geology, ecology, mathematics, geography, and computer programming. I minored in Marine Science, so I took classes in hydrology, estuaries, and oceanography, too. And I doubled majored in Italian, so I learned a whole other language and culture, studied abroad, and even took science classes in Italian while abroad.
I. Love. Learning.
I even went to graduate school for a PhD, because I loved learning so much. It turns out that, as fascinated as I was with the idea of creating your own knowledge, I actually despised research. Or at least the research I did. But you need research when you get to the phase in your learning where books aren’t enough. We don’t know all the answers. So we have to find them ourselves.
I left grad school (with a Master’s Degree instead of a PhD, if you’re curious), and that’s when my spiritual journey really started to pick up. While I was in grad school, I started buying all the witchy books I would have loved to have had years ago when I was a fledgeling Pagan. I devoured them, as well as pagan blogs and any other media I could find. Once I left grad school, I started having experiences that they didn’t talk about in the books. And I didn’t know what to do.
I was lucky to have a very supportive community and a close group of friends that I could share my experiences with. A goddess started talking to me (well, two actually), that there isn’t much (if any) reputable modern scholarship on. And I freaked out. None of my science training had prepared me for this. I was in completely new territory – having actual ecstatic experiences of deity. No amount of reading in the world will prepare you for that.
Sure, there are things that you can do to be more prepared. Having a good knowledge base of your deity is an excellent place to start, as is having practice with grounding, shielding, centering, meditation, and trance. Knowing basic energy dynamics and how to move between different levels of consciousness is also extremely helpful. However, none of this adequately prepares you to truly encounter the Divine.
I think ecstatic experiences of deity are supposed to be overwhelming and slightly terrifying – Awesome, in the antiquated sense of the word. If you were able to prepare for it, the experience wouldn’t be as meaningful and profound. You are encountering something Otherworldly – it being alien and ineffable goes along with the territory.
One important thing to remember as you blaze the trail beyond books is to believe in yourself. Believe in what you are experiencing. Our perceived experience of the world is all we have to go on, anyway. It’s how we get to know the world, scientifically or spiritually. When we are children, we throw things off of high places to see how gravity works. There’s a learning curve, we experiment in different environments, our aim gets better, and maybe in a few weeks we can play trashcan basketball with a decent degree of accuracy.
Spirituality is no different. We have to experiment, to do our own research, to figure out what works for us and what does not. How can we have ecstatic experiences with deity more consistently? We can change the time of day, the chant we say, the phase of the moon, how recently we ate, how we construct sacred space, and a million other things, but we won’t know what works until we try.
Believe in your experiences, but be cautious in your interpretations. When something Big happens, we often want to jump to spiritual conclusions, especially if we’ve been putting in the work to help facilitate these experiences. Questioning is essential. A good dose of skepticism is what keeps us on the healthy side of delusion. Can the Divine speak to us through synchronicities? Absolutely. But is every coincidence that happens actually a sign from a Goddess? Probably not. Believe in your experiences, but use wisdom, intuition, and common sense when you interpret these events. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. (And Freud probably didn’t even actually say that.)
I am so grateful to my group of Pagan friends who helped me navigate my first visceral experiences with deity. They were my sounding board for all of the crazy things that had started to happen. I got to share my experiences, as well as my interpretations and concerns. Explaining my experiences to others helped me to sort out what was probable and improbable. I was able to draw on the spiritual knowledge of several other people, not just my own.
If you are starting down the path where books aren’t enough, I highly encourage you to find a group of like-minded spiritual seekers, ideally with varying backgrounds and experience levels, to help you navigate your new experiences. No one should have to do this work in isolation. You can do research and experiment together, and sharing in adventures such as this helps to create community.
What do you do when your experiences don’t match the lore? Or others’ experiences of that deity? Questioning comes in handy in these instances as well. Could it be another deity that you are communicating with? Do some old-school book and internet research and find out if your experience is more in-line with a different divinity. What would this deity look like in a modern context? Most of our original source material as Neo-Pagans is several thousand years old, and was written by humans and subject to their own (potentially erroneous) interpretations. Isn’t it possible (or even probable) that the Gods would present themselves differently to different people? I encourage you to think deeply and talk with others about these questions.
Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG) gets a lot of airtime in Pagan circles these days, and I am heartily in support of it. I am not a Hellenic reconstructionist – I do not believe that we need to do things exactly the way they were done before. A thriving religion evolves over time, and I believe that our deities (and our relationships with them) do, too. I don’t experience the same Aphrodite that Homer wrote about – and that’s okay! I know people in my community who have experienced Aphrodite in a similar (though not exactly the same) way that I perceive Her. This gives me some confirmation of my own UPG. However, when I went looking for modern-day reference material for Her, I found very little. Part of the goal of this blog is to help build a resource for the contemporary worship of Aphrodite.
Eventually, you have to put down the books, stop reading, and start doing. You never stop learning, but you do start discovering. You do your own experiments. You have your own experiences. You make your own knowledge. It is a deeply personal and courageous journey, and it is so worth it.