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How a ‘teen witch’ found the Church

In her teens Elizabeth Dodd delved into the world of Wicca, casting spells and conjuring ‘spirits’. Then one day she went to Mass in secret

By on Wednesday, 16 February 2011

A witch performs a ‘cleansing ceremony’ in Catemaco, Mexico   (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

A witch performs a ‘cleansing ceremony’ in Catemaco, Mexico (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

My parents bought me a cauldron for my 16th birthday. Providing no explanation, I had asked for that and a chalice. At a loss, mum suggested it would look nice outside with the geraniums.

My interest in Wicca began as I entered my teens. Wicca and Witchcraft: Understanding the Danger, the booklet I wrote recently as part of the Catholic Truth Society’s Explanations series, condenses – after some factual basics about the philosophy and practice of “white” witchcraft – the conversations I had with a Catholic friend and her family that eventually led to my conversion to the Catholic faith. The booklet has caused controversy on the blogosphere: it sold out on Amazon.com and cropped up on the websites of the Telegraph and Daily Mail. What began as a small document to inform Catholics about the realities of Wicca – eg that it isn’t Satanism – appears to have re-ignited the persecution complex among Wiccans that I was hoping to diffuse.

I am concerned that as a culture, perhaps as a Church, we can too easily dismiss the spiritual needs of young people. In my family, religion was something to explore and debate. Both my parents are Oxford graduates and historians, my father a Doctor of Maths and Philosophy. His atheism prevailed over my mother’s Anglicanism, and neither I nor my sister were baptised.

One day I came across the Teen Witch Kit by Wiccan author Silver Ravenwolf. It comprised a thin introduction to witchcraft, a pop-up cardboard altar, charms (from a small bell to a pentacle necklace, the five-pointed emblem for Wicca). The book laid out the basic tenets of witchcraft and, crucially, the practice of “magick”. Wiccan spell casting is governed by two ethics: karma (that what you send out will return threefold) and “an’ it harm none, do what you will”. I cast my first spell, for protection, when my mother travelled abroad for a work trip: it was the first time she’d been in an aeroplane. As a teenager, with only a limited amount of say in what I’d have for dinner, for example, the idea of unmitigated supernatural power, coupled with such a self-governed morality, was very appealing.

My interest in Wicca increased, even in the face of frequent magickal failure. In the booklet I suggest that Wicca can be an important stage in spiritual growth for a young person. Like many of my generation, I was looking for a religious home. Wicca is far removed from mainstream western religion; it has no hierarchy or clergy, no central texts or commandments. It is a framework upon which young, spiritually hungry people can construct a religious identity independent of their parents. Wicca suited me because it was, quite literally, an unorthodox religious choice. I embraced the Wiccan “holy days” and the duotheism – belief in a goddess and god – that underpinned them. I lobbied my school to include “Wicca” as an option on their registration database; I gave presentations in Religious Studies classes about the heroines of modern witchcraft.

But within a year I had exhausted the canon of literature marketed to teenage Wiccans. An innate respect for history, if not tradition, led to an uncomfortable awareness that the religion as I knew it had existed for little over 20 years, and had manifestly been created by people. I began to study Wicca’s older literature: books written by Gerald Gardner, the witch who ostensibly re-introduced Britain to witchcraft and others of his circle (literally and figuratively), including the notorious Victorian occultist Aleister Crowley. I learned about ceremonial magic, branched out into the Jewish Kabbalah and familiarised myself with H P Blavatsky’s works on Theosophy. I bought a book about self-initiation into the Golden Dawn tradition – a quasi-Masonic occult order – and began to follow the steps toward its first grade. But my interest in politics, environmentalism and feminism had expanded beyond the questions Wicca could address. If the earth was a deity, did earthquakes suggest she was malicious? Worse, despite some feminist trappings, the occult witchcraft I was studying was at core misogynistic. Crowley wrote some unpleasant things about women; in the works of Anton LaVey, the self-appointed Satanist and a friend of Crowley’s, I encountered rants about women’s intellectual inferiority.

Finally, inevitably, about three years into my study of witchcraft – like any teenager who has ever played with a Ouija board – I became convinced I had communicated with a “spirit” whom I had failed to banish. The accompanying sense of dread lasted for weeks. A Catholic schoolfriend wrote out the Hail Mary for me – I’d never heard it before – and suggested I say it when I felt spiritually threatened. I stopped practising witchcraft soon afterwards.

My subsequent conversion to Catholicism was gradual. I had been exposed for years to the best means of evangelisation in the Church: the example of a generous, loving Catholic family (the parents and siblings of my schoolfriend) who were ready to argue philosophy over the dinner table. I had always known my friend was a better Catholic than I was a Wiccan. She took my foray into witchcraft with a seriousness that I didn’t, challenging me intellectually and morally. She lent me books to explain her Christianity; out of loyalty, I fought her side in the RS lessons in which she was the only vocal Christian. I went to Mass with her family on the eve of a school trip we were taking together. Finally, I sent her a faltering, confused email about where I was, spiritually. Her discretion and her patience were inspiring: it took another three years until I was received into the Catholic Church.

By then I was a fiercely Left-wing, politically active Buddhist vegan: rumours of my conversion would have startled most of my schoolmates. Recognising this, we kept the process low-key. I would accompany her family to the Easter Vigil, amazed by the beauty of the liturgy. I began attending Mass after school, in secret. My life was turbulent. I’d sit in the peace of the Church until the last person was leaving. I realised that the spiritual core of the Buddhism I was trying to practise was Catholicism. I believed in God. From the example of the Catholic family I had grown up around, I believed that Catholicism made you a better person, that it increased your capacity to love.

Soon after leaving school, in my gap year before university, my schoolfriend put me in touch with a wonderful priest. We met almost every week; I studied the Catechism and he, somehow, managed to handle the demands of an intellectually stubborn teenager about to leave to study Theology at Cambridge. After a year’s catechesis I realised that nothing intellectual or spiritual separated me from a faith to which I had never imagined I would subscribe. I was baptised and received into the Church at the Easter Vigil – my schoolfriend was my sponsor and “fairy godmother”.

My experience of neo-pagans had in fact been largely positive: many Wiccans are intelligent, kind, sincere people. Wicca attempts to meet the needs of a generation terrified of hypocrisy: if even our coffee is Fairtrade, a faith needs to be outstanding to convince us. I was now surrounded by outstanding Catholics; as a Catholic, I know the example I should be setting.

Wicca was an important step in a spiritual journey that led me to Catholicism, but when I was asked to write about it in a booklet, written by a Catholic for Catholics, I felt it would be irresponsible not to mention its inherent dangers – not least the lack of a real support structure. Wicca may be adaptable and relevant; but ultimately I found it intellectually and spiritually unfulfilling.

I still struggle with and face challenges in my faith; I know there are areas I need to better understand. But you can love a work of art without translating every reference. If it is beautiful enough, you can accept that there are elements you won’t understand until you meet the artist. The values that brought me into Wicca – ecological, feminist, pacifist – are addressed more deeply by the Catholic Church. It is our responsibility as Catholics to let young people know that these are issues we care about, questions which are posed and answered throughout salvation history.

I passed the cauldron on to my sister: she stores magazines in it.

Wicca and Witchcraft: Understanding the Danger by Elizabeth Dodd is available from the CTS, priced £1.95

  • Marie

    Who is this God that “has cruel intentions toward the human race”? It certainly isn’t the one true God who created us in love, has given us everything we have, and humbly suffered unimaginable abasement, torture and death to enable all of us, you included, and particularly all who hated Him to have eternal happiness.

  • Marie

    If Hitler has gone to Hell, no one needed to wish it upon him because he has chosen it for himself. Is anyone forced from his heart to do evil? God does not “send” people to eternal torture, you CHOOSE whether you go to Heaven or to Hell. God in His goodness and respect for our dignity to choose what we want our eternal lives to be, does not force us to be with Him (love by its very nature can never be forced), but lets us have what we want. Besides, what sort of loving God would force us to be with Him forever?
    Heaven is eternal union and therefore happiness with God and Hell is eternal separation from God. Each person is gifted with free will and he chooses which one he wants in his earthly life. The key point is that Heaven (which is NOT a place, but a state) is not happiness if you do not want to be in that state. For him who chose to delight in evil on earth and disobey God, why would he even want to have an eternity with that same God who is the source of all Goodness, where all evil and sin is utterly absent? God never stops loving us even though we sin but for someone who hates God and refuses to reconcile with Him, the sheer immensity, eternity and purity of that love for them despite their rejection of Him is UNIMAGINABLE torture. This is Hell. Think of a toddler who is in an angry, tearful tantrum because his dad disagrees with what he wants to do. In that state the hugs and kisses of his dad, though loving, are nevertheless terrible torture for him because he is not in the loving state to accept them.

    Yes we do have to agree with God, eternal Creator who is Truth itself and that means agreeing with Selfless Love and Mercy which is what God embodies. If you do not want to agree and live out these things then you choose Hell of your own free will. Hell is so terrifying and seemingly unjust to us precisely because God never created us to experience Hell. God will not create something for it to be eternally away from Him. Part of the torture of hell, the “gnashing of teeth” is the galling frustration and unnaturalness of being somewhere where we should not be.

  • Marie

    Without a doubt you are right: horrendous damage has been done by priests who have sinned against God and their fellow neighbours by sexually abusing those who God had ordained them to love and protect. One thing I would say to you though, is it only Catholic priests who abuse children? What about other Christians, other religions, agnostics, athiests, and dare i say it…Wiccans? This in no way defends what they have done which could not be further from the Church’s teachings but often I question myself; why are the media and some sections of the public completely pre-occupied with Catholic sexual abusers? The vast majority of priests and religious do not sexually abuse and live lives according to God’s will with many sacrificing their lives to seving others around the world. The paedophilia rate among Catholic priests would be the same as the rest of the population, or if anything even less, after all there is nothing about being baptised that pre-disposes you to paedophilia. Sadly, out of everyone they come in contact with, whether a priest. member of another religion, a teacher or a friend, it is relatives of the child who are the most likely by far to sexual abuse but this fact is relatively unknown.
    The Church, though instituted, sustained and directed by Divine influence it is nevertheless made up of sinners and it never pretended otherwise. This is why we have the sacrament of reconcilation after all and uphold the truth that virtue is a grace from God and we cannot attain holiness without God. Only God Himself and the Word He has made known through the Church is infallible.

    The “inherited ugliness” that you speak of is called original sin. If you feel guilty about it then you have been grossly misinformed. The sin of the first humans has an effect on us, which is why humans have a natural tendency to sin. It is an important fact to recognise but far from God making us feel guilty about it, He chose to suffer, die and rise on earth on our behalf with the very purpose of destroying original sin for all people forever – so we can actually rejoice! :) Baptism cleanses original sin so I’m not sure what you have to feel guilty about?

    God ‘can never be pleased’ couldn’t be further from the truth, otherwise why would so many people be in Heaven? Pleasing God is simple: love your Creator and love and forgive all people, even your enemies. God has sent His Holy Spirit to help you if you want Him, and the sacrament of reconcilation is there for you as much as you need it.

    It seems that you’ve had a bad experience with Christianity. Please feel free to ask me any questions :)

  • Julia Nutwood

    Great article. What an interesting and inspiring story. As a catholic I would normally dismiss Wicca out of hand as just devil worship but will certainly consider the points you made since you know much more about this than I do.

  • Cavelizard

    I take it that Saint Catherine did not read Timothy 2:11
    Let a woman learn in silence with full submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach, or to exercise authority over a man, but to be in silence.

  • scott.a.s

    erm im sorry did you just say that joseph was jesus’s father surly god is his father no?

  • scott.a.s

    how can you say god doesnt like magic is prayer not magic if you pray to god to give you confidence for what ever reason is it not by magic you find confidence and the fact of necromancy did jesus rise from the grave did Lazarus rise from the grave if god did not want us to explore into why it happens whouldnt he keep us blinded and shut off from the things he deems evil? 

  • scott.a.s

    im really sorry but where does inner strength come from us and if you think we cannot change ourself on our own then you need a lesson in self motivation and will power you truly a a week woman if you honestly pray to god every time you get a craving to splash out on an extravagant item or stop yourself from drinking another glass of wine