"We gaze up at the same stars, the sky covers us all, the same universe encompasses us. What does it matter what practical system we adopt in our search for the truth? Not by one avenue only can we arrive at so tremendous a secret."-Symmachus, 384 C.E.
Faith and religion are two separate things they tell us. I have faith in my friends, but I don't worship them or pray to them (for them is a different matter). I call myself a NeoPagan but I have only ever attended one ritual. I'm a lapse NeoPagan at best, and an extremely heretical Catholic or Episcopalian at worst.
Freedom of religion is something that our country is founded on. My sixth grade teacher used the example, when we were studying the Constitution, that you could worship rocks and mushrooms if you wanted to. Despite the fact that that became a long running joke in our class, he was right. I could go out and bow down before a rock and start praying to it. Or say "Hail Mushroom" to the mushrooms on my pizza. But do I? No.
So then who or what do I pray to?
I'm not quite sure yet. I'm just a girl, trying to make her way in the world. Deities don't pop out randomly to say hi. Or at least, if they do, they don't identify themselves.
It's rather an interesting situation, in fact. The music I've downloaded off of Napster includes a lot of rock and folk, but also some songs from "Godspell," a great musical that tells the story of the Book of Luke. I have a few Jars of Clay songs, and they're a Christian rock group. But the music I love more than that happens to be more Pagan in nature-like the few Spiral Dance songs I've been able to find and the Loreena McKennitt music that I love so dearly and even one chant. Of course, my CDs include Jethro Tull's "Songs from the Wood" too. If my musical tastes are any indication, I'm one confused person.
The thing is, though, that I'm not. I know I'm not Christian, and I know other neoPagans that greatly enjoy "Godspell" and a Deist that loves Jars of Clay. My best friend, a strongly practicing Catholic who attends Mass weekly, even at college, adores Loreena McKennitt, whose music shows both influences from folklore/mythology/paganism and some Christianity. I've identified myself as a neoPagan for almost three years now. I understand that I say that and probably have no idea what I'm saying. But then again, does a Catholic really understand what they are? A Lutheran? A Buddhist? A Satanist? A Republican? Sorry, I need to jab at the Republicans. I'm extremely disappointed that we now will have one in the White House.
Back to the topic at hand. What does it mean to be a Pagan? I am honestly not exactly sure. I've read a lot, prayed a lot. Talked to the few other Pagans I know. After something like two and a half years, I still don't know what names to use when in prayer. But I went to a Pagan (more specifically some type of Wiccan) ritual the other week. The first Pagan ritual I had ever attended. At UMass there is a class about witches and witchcraft. As I understand it, it's more of a historical survey, the Burning Times in the Middle Ages and the Salem Witch Trials, along those lines. But towards the end they must survey modern Wicca. And I have a few friends in the campus Pagan group, because they're also in the campus GLBT group. I arrived a bit late (long story, involving class and papers and Teaching Assistants), so I wasn't able to arrive in time to actually join the circle, but I was able to watch, with a few others who opted not to participate. I watched as friends and the rest of the people there participated in a ritual. I participated as best I could being outside the circle. And the feeling I used to get from church, the one from when I was very very little, the positive one that stopped years ago, returned, full force, more beautiful and peaceful than I remembered it being. That feeling of being utterly content. Of knowing that whatever is out there loves you.
I used to get that feeling, but much less powerfully, more diluted, inside of a Christian church. There, it was tinged with all those negative emotions I associated with Christianity-and the feelings of being damned, no matter what, for reasons I couldn't comprehend, ever. I would go into a Christian church, whether it was Catholic or Anglican, and feel so unworthy. I would feel sad, and pained, even with the feelings of love I sometimes picked up on. But the love came more from the friends around me than it did from the god whose house I was supposedly in.
When I took a walk outside, I felt loved. I used to stare, in my old church, outside at the old gnarled oak tree. And I would wonder why I couldn't be with that tree instead of in a stuffy building. At the age of fifteen, when I finally broke my ties with my church, resigned as a member of the Christian Education Commission, stopped running a children's club, all that, I finally heaved a sigh of relief, put up a picture of a pentagram in my room, and felt at home with my faith for the first time in years. I came home to paganism, like so many others have. I resumed the childhood closeness with nature-how I used to sit beneath a butternut tree in my old yard, just watching time pass, grounding myself instinctively, finding that inner peace that comes oh so rarely in the fast paced life of a teenager. Like Margot Adler, "I simply accepted, reaffirmed, and extended a very old experience. I allowed certain kinds of feelings and ways of being back into my life." A year later when I realized I was gay, I knew my deities loved me, regardless. (Just trying to remain vaguely on topic for a queer publication.)
For a long time, that simple belief, that love of nature, was enough for me. On vacation once I found a pentacle, and bought it, hanging it around my neck and I still only rarely take it off, even hiding it under my shirt over at my grandparents' house to avoid removing it. My friends back home referred to me affectionately as 'the class pagan' especially when I gave the grace at our National Honor Society dinner. I surfed Pagan websites constantly for a period of a few months, trying to learn as much as I could, and I've bought a few books.
But I couldn't bring myself to consider the ritual side of Paganism, the equivalent, roughly, of Mass or the Eucharist or whatever. I associated rituals with Christianity, and didn't want any of that. I worried about offending deities by my inexperience. Mid-December, when a friend invited me to the ritual he was helping with, I accepted. It was curiosity, partly, and also an old need, to worship, publicly, even though I often think that public worship is dangerous. I didn't want to pray and have it feel useless, unneeded, like Hail Mary's and Our Father's did as a child.  Something, however, drove me to go, to skip my very favorite class and attend another, essentially. In the Campus Center Auditorium, for the first time in three years, I worshipped with others. For the first time ever, I worshipped publicly as a Pagan. After the first few dozen times, I chanted along silently. I followed the directions of the priestess. I felt... I don't know what it was, I guess I'm not supposed to at this point. Yet I know I'll go to another ritual, sometime soon, I think. A door has been opened to me, and I think I have to walk through it.
I don't know... I hope these ramblings have been of use to someone. It's the beginning of finals as I write this, and so I'm noticeably scatterbrained. A simple wish, for everyone. I hope your Solstice, Yule, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, Hanukah, Saturnalia, or whatever was joyous and happy. I hope your New Years was excellent. Welcome to the New Millennium. And may you find peace with whatever deities or lack thereof you turn to.
 From her book, "Drawing Down the Moon", an excellent book you can find at most Barnes & Noble stores, I believe.
 As I wrote once, "I find little comfort in a prayer that has been said a zillion times by millions of people. This is an old disillusionment to me. I remember my first Confession in the Catholic Church. After confessing to a man, I was told that God would forgive me after a few Hail Mary's. The old prayers have never been the same to me since."
Bethany-Faith Kimball is an ex-Catholic, ex-Episcopalian, rather lapse Pagan always searching for Truth. She's also a college freshman at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, eighteen years old, and a hopeless romantic forever unsuccessful in even meeting girls. You can contact her at email@example.com and she'll gladly talk to you.