When I was young, my mother owned a girls’ camp on the shores of a string of small lakes in Northern Wisconsin. From the age of 2 until I was 16, I spent every summer surrounded by silver birch trees and strong women. We lived in Army surplus tents and learned to ride horses and paddle canoes, build campfires and treasure the female spirit. Sunday evenings we would walk two by two singing through the forest down to the lake, where we would sit on pine logs on a little point of land between two shores and listen to the waves lap against sand as my mother read to us from Gilbran and her favorite poets. Those were our “Sunday vespers services.”
So I was raised on a Goddess path, although neither my mother nor I knew it then.
I had no interest in religion, which to me was Big Daddy in the Sky. It never occurred to me that what I felt in the forest had anything to do with religion, and I thought being spiritual meant that one prayed a lot and didn’t have any fun. When I left home at 18 and moved to Greenwich Village, I left the feelings I had those summers, what I know now was the spiritual part of me, behind. The world seemed full of wonderful adventures, and I wanted to have my share.
Almost 30 years and many adventures later, I found myself in a dark living room doing Goddess ritual with a coven of feminist Witches. It started out as a year-long research project, but as soon as the coven held a summer retreat camped in the mountains of Los Angeles, I knew I was home. It may have been hot and dry on the Los Angeles Crest during that retreat, but my spirit felt the same connection it did in the fern-filed forest in Northern Wisconsin. It was that weekend when I knew I was on the Goddess’ path. I threw myself into helping to organize public rituals, festivals, doing Goddess performance pieces, mixing in bits of my path with my academic teaching and publishing scholarly work on contemporary Goddess Spirituality.
I saw it as joyfully Pagan. I know not all Goddess practitioners identify with that word, but my Goddess Path is definitely Pagan. So my academic service became linked to my spiritual service, and I began to work toward helping to establish Pagan Studies as an academic discipline. When it came time to retire, I made the choice to use my professional experience to strengthen my commitment to spiritual service. Rather, I should say I was chosen.
Because, in the Ladies room in a major airport hub, as I was on my way to a conference of the American Academy of Religion, I ran into Macha Nightmare, Witch, activist, and co-founder of Reclaiming. She also serves on the Board of Directors of Cherry Hill Seminary, the only seminary in the world that offers a Master of Divinity focused in Paganism and Earth-Based Spiritualites. She told me that Cherry Hill was looking for an Academic Dean and convinced me to apply for the position.
I no longer spend my summers among the silver birches, but I am still surrounded by strong women. I find Goddess in the loving support, laughter and creativity of the women in my Dianic coven. I find Her in the work at Cherry Hill helping to train Pagans of differing traditions to minister to those who know and revere Her. I find Her working in my garden as it responds to the changing year. It is in the doing, the actual work, that I find Her. To me, it isn’t the belief that is meaningful, it is the feeling I get in those magical moments when I am connected to spirit. I am not a believer. I am a practitioner.
Wendy Griffin is Professor Emerita from California State University, Long Beach, and currently serves as Academic Dean at Cherry Hill Seminary. She was the founding co-chair of the Pagan Studies group at the American Academy of Religion and the co-editor of the first academic series in Pagan Studies. She has published both academic and popular books and articles and an occasional blog posting that can be found at www.wendygriffinonline.com