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
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