Every week, Alexandra Henderson practices her religion by walking outside to deepen her appreciation for the planet and to become one with nature. She also meditates to calm her mind from the stress of everyday life.
Henderson, a senior art history major, is a solitary practitioner of Hellenic Wicca, a Pagan religion. She grew up in a culturally Christian environment, but her parents let her explore different religions. Before converting to Paganism as a senior in high school, she also explored agnosticism for a while.
“Just listening to nature, seeing it, sensing it, and trying to protect it is a big part of my faith,” she said. “Even my yoga practice is an exercise of my personal beliefs.”
All Pagans don’t practice their faith the same way. Henderson chooses to appreciate nature and meditate because it helps her feel connected with the gods and goddesses she believes in, the Greek pantheon of gods.
Dr. Gloria Thurmond, a CORE professor and senior faculty associate of music, who has counseled Wiccan students in the past, said that the Hellenic Pagan gods include Zeus, Hera, Ares, Poseidon, Apollo, Dionysus and others.
“They were very much like human beings,” Thurmond said. “They were capable of fits of passion, including jealousy, anger, whimsical and unpredictable behavior and irrationality. They could be beneficent or destructive. Therefore, it should not be surprising that the society was a reflection of the many gods it worshiped – that is, one characterized by conflict, instability and fear.”
Paganism, the overarching term for Henderson’s beliefs, includes many other branches such as Shamanism, Wicca, Witchcraft and Druidism.
“Most Pagan beliefs are gut reaction based,” Henderson said. “If it feels right and harms none then it is good. If it feels bad and harms anyone, including yourself, then it is bad. I internalize what I feel is good and right and discard the things that feel wrong and bad.”
Henderson said that today it is more acceptable in the Pagan religion to be a solitary practitioner than before when you had to have known someone, be educated and inducted to a coven.
Although there is no specific place for her to practice her religion on campus, Henderson is able to walk through campus and appreciate nature. She has met a few other Pagans while at Seton Hall, but her faith is mostly solitary.
“One day I would love to join a group coven in the future,” she added.
The fact that Seton Hall is a Catholic school was a positive factor in her decision to attend.
“I loved the community and welcoming feeling that is because of the Catholic environment,” she said. “I have never felt like the Catholic faith was pushed on me or that I must become Catholic. But the option for a person to become so involved with their Catholic faith is wonderful.”
Before she attended SHU, she said she was slightly worried she wouldn’t be accepted, but instantly found that she was.
“During the first week I was here as a freshman I was a bit uncomfortable, but that was due to my own worries more than reception from other students,” Henderson said. “Since then, I haven’t felt uncomfortable because it doesn’t matter to me anymore what others think of my faith and I surround myself with friends who accept me.”
While Catholicism and Paganism are different, Henderson said it was the Catholics who absorbed the Paleo-Pagans, so the attention to detail in rituals is similar between the two faiths.
The Rev. Msgr. C. Anthony Ziccardi, vice president for Mission and Ministry, agreed that Wicca and Catholicism differ in many ways.
“Wicca is usually polytheistic, whereas Catholicism is monotheistic,” he said. “Wicca believes and practices magic, whereas Catholicism denies and opposes it. A moral code is not inherent in Wicca per se, whereas ethics are integral to Catholicism.”
Yet Ziccardi mentioned that both faiths believe in a transcendent or spiritual realm, make use of symbolism in their teachings and artistic expression, recur to traditions and have ritual practices.
Dr. Peter Ahr, an associate professor of religion who was on the Faculty Senate committee that devised the CORE, said that many values of Greek religious tradition have flowed into Christian thinking and into Catholicism.
“Their attempts to understand the divine, to come to grips with how to live with others, and to see purpose in life, have many points in common with each other,” Ahr said.
Thurmond said that Catholicism recognizes and binds human beings, natural life, biological life and social systems into one community whose origin and destiny is God.
“The practice of Wicca, on the other hand, appears to require an intense focus on the individual who, by fostering positive energy in his/her own life, allows the world to move toward a more balanced reality of goodness,” Thurmond added.
As Henderson began taking the CORE classes and learning more about the Catholic faith, she began to have a better understanding of where people were coming from and how their beliefs are a part of their personal lives, culture and government.
“I treat everything as a lesson in history and as a lesson in the way people believe,” she said. “I can’t just sweep aside the teachings or the impact of monotheistic religions, like Catholicism, has had on the Western world just because I don’t believe that way.”
Ziccardi said that Catholicism is presented in the CORE courses and is compared with other major religious traditions.
Similarly, Ahr said that the point of the CORE is to acquaint students with the Catholic intellectual tradition and the kind of questions that the CORE raises are issues that every educated person ought to have thoughts about.
“As Socrates, a Greek Pagan, said, ‘The unexamined life is not a worthy one for a human being to live,’” Ahr said. “I think every student should be challenged by the CORE course material, but no one should feel attacked by it.”
Thurmond said she has had Wiccan students in previous semesters and she challenged them to address the principles and practice of Wicca through the lens of the Catholic intellectual tradition.
“I discovered that the Wiccan students found it difficult to approach the questions which inquire into life’s meaning, purpose, moral responsibility and service to others from a Wiccan canon,” Thurmond said. “I was left with the impression that the practice of Wicca is one that places a concentration on the individual and his/her preoccupation with maintaining the balance between positive and negative psychic energy.”
Ziccardi said that Seton Hall welcomes students of all religious beliefs and those who have no religious beliefs at all while promoting interfaith understanding.
“At the same time, Seton Hall only affirms and promotes Catholicism,” Ziccardi said. “Some students have disagreed and I always permit them to disagree in the realm of their own convictions.
But before they can disagree, they must learn and understand how Catholic scholars understand the Bible. The objective is understanding.”
Ahr also thinks that Seton Hall is accepting of other religions and beliefs.
“As a Catholic educator, I think it’s my obligation to help my Muslim students become better and more informed Muslims, my Jewish students become better and more informed Jews, and my Protestant students become better and more informed Protestants,” Ahr said.
Rebecca White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.