Audio length: 29:06 minutes
Transcript published: February 22, 2012
Meet Sara Hillis, musician and English literature scholar who became a witch priestess before encountering Christ and finding the Orthodox Church!
Kevin: Today I am speaking with a young lady who discovered modern paganism when she was 21 years of age, entered the path of the Wicca, a.k.a. witchcraft, at age 23, left it when she was 27, came to the Eastern Orthodox Church as an inquirer, and was received by baptism and Chrism in 2006 at 28 years of age. She has covered a lot of ground. Sarah Hillis is a resident of Southwest Ontaria, Canada, about an hour west of Toronto. She has a Master’s degree in English Literature. She is a classically trained musician, as well as a Celtic musician and composer. She attends All Saints of North America Orthodox Church in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
Sara Hillis, Christ is Risen, and welcome.
Sara Hillis: Indeed, he is risen. Thanks for having me.
Kevin Allen: You are welcome. I have been looking so much forward to talking with you. Your journey is so interesting. It is going to be so inspiring.
Let’s start. I understand that while you were not raised in a very strong and defined Christian home, you did accept Christ at a Seventh Day Adventist camp when you were a youngster?
Sara: Yes. I was at this camp because a friend had asked me if I wanted to go so that she could have someone to go with, and it sounded like a nice camp to go to. While I wasn’t really interested in the religious aspect of it, I knew it was a Christian camp, and while I was there I started thinking that my parents had been United Protestants, and I wanted to discover my Christian roots, I suppose, because it was pretty much a secular home that I was in. I was about 13. The pastor asked us on Saturday, which is their Sabbath day, if we wanted to say yes to Christ, or accept Christ. I said, yes I did, but for me, it was that I wanted to accept Christ, not the Seventh Day Adventist church or philosophy.
Kevin: You moved along as a teenager, and you were drawn to the Roman Catholic Church, and you even considered being a nun. Is that right?
Sara: Yes, I had seen a movie that was about nuns and a convent in Australia, and I wanted to know about the Catholic Church. There was Latin that was spoken, there was very beautiful music that was sung, and I knew that just reading the Bible on my own really wasn’t what I wanted. I also knew that Protestant evangelism on the TV and on the radio wasn’t what I wanted.
It was the Catholic ritual that kind of drew me, so I started to attend the church as a choir member, though I was not converted. And I did feel this strange feeling like being a nun might be a good thing because I was a bit of a loaner in school. I had a few friends, but I really didn’t engage in all the teenager stuff like who was dating who, and all that, so I thought maybe this made some sense for me.
Kevin: Interestingly, though, you were also exposed around that time, when you were about 16, to the Eastern Orthodox Church, and even Eastern monaticism, as a teen.
Sara: Yes, I was. I had told a teacher of mine that I felt a calling to the convent, to use a Catholic term. She was Catholic, so I guess that is why I told her. I said I wanted to look into being a nun, and she told me there was a woman who was volunteering at our school then, who used to go to our school, who had spent some time as a nun.
I thought that didn’t make any sense. Why would there be nuns in our school? It didn’t make any sense. So I talked to this woman who has since become a very good friend of mine, and she told me that she had been in an Orthodox monastery for a while. For me, what drew me more than her having been a monastic, was the Orthodox faith, itself. I asked her, “What’s this Orthodox thing?”
So I started looking it up in the encyclopedia, and found out about the Nicene Creed. She went on a retreat just before Lent that year, and I went with her, to Holy Dormition Monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan.
Kevin: Oh yes, Mother Gabriella.
Sara: Yes, Mother Gabriella. I will always treasure going there. There was beautiful singing, a beautiful service. And just meeting Mother Gabriella was very inspiring, too. I knew there was something there.
Kevin: But you didn’t consider becoming Orthodox at that point.
Sara: No, because I felt that to do that just because this woman who I really looked up to, I didn’t really want to do it just because she was doing it. So I felt I should just keep on my original path and see where it led.
Kevin: You finally went on to college. Where did you go to college?
Sara: I went to Wilfrid Laurier University, which is in Waterloo, Ontario.
Kevin: And you were studying Liberal Arts, English Literature?
Sara: Yes, Liberal Arts. English Literature was my major, it is what I got my degree in.
Kevin: And kind of a turning point, then, you mentioned you read a book. Tell us what the book was and a little bit about it, and why it was so appealing.
Sara: I read a bunch of books. English Literature is all about people’s different ideas, and you can’t help but get sucked up in them. One book which I will not credit with totally affecting my life fully, but it may have planted a seed, was called The Mists of Avalon, which is a novel.
Kevin: The Mists of Avalon?
Sara: It is a novel. It’s a King Arthur story. It is based on Le Morte d/Arthur by Thomas Malory, but it is told from a very different perspective. It was written in 1982 by Marion Zimmer Bradley. It is a fantasy novel, but it rewrites the myth in pagan terms, specifically, the paganism of the 1970s and 1980s, really, except it was cast in an ancient time period, so women were very highly influential in this King Arthur story.
There was talk of a goddess in it. I thought, “A goddess? What are you talking about?” I had read Greek stories before, but the idea of a mother goddess was very alluring, I suppose, and it did make me think. The Christians in it were very much touted as being authoritarian and appropriating an ancient culture and wiping it off the face of the earth.
Kevin: It’s funny, I was a Hindu as a teenager, and my mom, as well. One of the things that I have found, and maybe you could comment on your thoughts on this, is that a lot of the non-Christian faiths have a lot of fantasy about them. There is an allure of fantasy that draws you in.
Sara: Yes. There are heroes, and the gods defeat other gods in epic battles, and it is very compelling, as you know, if you studied the Hindu Upanishad, and all these things that are just amazing.
Kevin: Yes, it may not be truth, but it certainly is a draw.
Sara: To the human mind it is, which says, “Whoa, yeah, I want to know about this. My life is boring.”
Kevin: Yes, exactly. “I want to be in this world of drama, and wonder, and mystery.” All that sort of stuff.
Were you losing your faith in Christ and in Christianity during this period? You told me you formally left Christianity after you had a relationship that soured, but what factors and questions, Sara Hillis, ex-witch priestess, and now Orthodox Christian, were you struggling with, that ultimately led you to reject Christianity for this paganism?
Sara: I had left the Catholic church that I had attended. I had attended it for about a year until I was about 17, and then my parents moved to another part of the city, and because the parish structure was so rigid in our diocese, if you moved to another part of the city you had to change your church.
Kevin: Oh really?
Sara: Yes, you had to change your church, because that was the parish church.
Kevin: I see.
Sara: I didn’t really want to have to make a new start. I liked my choir members, and I liked that church, but I didn’t feel like I could buck the system, so from the time I was 17 until the time I started to leave Christianity I was without a church, which, in retrospect, contributed to my eventual failure to keep my faith, I suppose. I was never baptized in any form, so I did not have a lot of tradition to draw on. All I had were my own thoughts and the Bible, and you know how that can go sometimes.
Kevin: Yes, I do. Yes, I do.
Sara: At university I had taken a religious studies course called Ancient Western Christianity until 1500. It talked about the apostles, and some of the ecumenical councils. I am not sure it covered all of them, really, in detail. It went on to the schism, and it went on to various political things that happened in the Catholic Church, and then the Protestant Reformation, and I just thought, “How can this be true, that people messed it all up?” Have we lost Christ’s true teachings?” I didn’t know. I was really banging my head against the wall. I thought, “Are women really just treated horribly? Should women be hated or trampled down because of Christ?” A lot of these questions came up in the course.
And there was the whole allure of the pagan world, which I was coming into contact with in funny ways. For about three months things would just crop up that were definitely pagan, and I had never really seen it before, but I was questioning if I was supposed to go this direction. I kept hearing someone in the class mention Wicca. There was no reason why they had to, it just came out. And I went to jump circle with some women and someone did a pagan chant there, and I just wondered if I was missing something, and I wondered what was going on.
I finally just felt, not that God had abandoned me, but I felt that I had abandoned God, and I felt that you shouldn’t deny God if you believe in Him. If you can’t believe in Him wholeheartedly, then why are you trying to do it? I really didn’t get the notion that you can repent a thousand million times in your life, and try it again, and again, and again, and keep running the race.
So I said, “All right, God I’m sorry, but I have to go my own way for a while, and I don’t know if I am going to come back or not, but I just need to try something different here.” So I thought I would look at paganism, and I had some friends who were also looking at it, not connected to my search at all, but they were close friends that I had known forever, and they somehow found it at a similar time that I did. I don’t know if 1999-2000 was a banner year for that sort of change or not.
Kevin: I am curious. You were a classically trained musician, played different musical instruments. You had discovered and had become very much a Celtic musician. I am wondering about the Celtic music and ethos, which seems to me to have sort of an ethereal, fantasy element, and we were talking about that before. Did that overtly, or even subliminally, do you think, influence your interest in paganism?
Sara: I think it had a bearing on it, yes. Celtic music can be just as Christian as anything, if you want it to, but because I got into Celtic music, I heard folk songs which were about Celtic legends, and I’d ask myself, “What are these legends?” So then I read the legends, and I thought, “Wow, that’s interesting, and where did this culture go, and I want it to come back.” I was sort of mourning it and I didn’t really understand that there was a beautiful Celtic Christian culture. Even that, when I was in the chorus I did projects on the Celtic church, and I said, “If I could find a church like that, that’s where I would be.” Little did I know, it was Orthodoxy, but I just didn’t put the connections together.
Kevin: Well, we haven’t done the job we should in terms of communicating who we are, the Orthodox Church in North America.
Moving to Wicca, a.k.a. witchcraft, which is also called “the old religion,” is it an organized thing, and if so, what form of the Wicca path, as you called it, did you adopt?
Sara: Well, gosh, this is a tough question, but I’ll try to answer it. There are organized groups of witches. They are usually small groups which are called covens. But there is another strand, which is the more prominent strand, I must say. It is in every bookstore. It’s in Barnes and Noble, Borders, Chapters here in Canada, any main bookstore.
Most of the books on the Wicca shelf, or paganism shelf, are what I call popular Wicca, which is basically a bunch of people got together, who either have been ex-traditional priests or priestesses, or just kind of wanted to jump on the bandwagon, as in the 1980s this movement grew very much, and wrote books like, Wicca for the Solitary Practitioner, which means, you can be a witch and not have to conform to any specific guidelines, or Teen Witch, which says, “Hey, you’re a teen who doesn’t really know what you’re about, you feel like the world isn’t quite what it should be, so here’s a path that will help you find your answer, and it might freak out your parents, too.”
Sara: The path that I chose, because I went through a bit of that pop Wicca stuff and I felt that was just not doing it for me, it wasn’t right, it was just a bunch of books. I didn’t think there was anything to it. But because of the internet, I was on an email list that dealt with witches. It was a place for traditional witches to speak to people who were seeking and just wanting to know.
There are various traditions of witchcraft, and all that tradition means is a specific set of teachings and rituals passed down lineally from person to person, or teacher to student. I chose what was called the Gardnerian tradition, after Gerald Gardner, who was the major purveyor of it. He wasn’t the one called it that, he didn’t say that he was the chief guy and it should be called his tradition. It’s just that some other people in another group referred to them as “those Gardnerians,” and it was actually sort of a derogatory term, but because there was more than one tradition, especially in the states, Gardnerians and various others, they had to name it to differentiate.
Kevin: As I was doing research, Sara Hillis, I noted that I had not heard of Gerald Gardner, born 1884, died 1964. He was called Britain’s chief witch, and also known as the reviver of witchcraft in the modern western world, and whose legacy was brought to America by his British disciple, but an ex-patriot Brit, Raymond Buckland.
Sara: Raymond is a descendant of the teaching, lineal-wise. The name, Wicca, is looked on as a kind of a family relationship. It is like a tribe, almost, you would say. Disciple is good word, but Gardner would have been a kind of grandfather, as it were, in the tradition. That is kind of how you look at it. Yes, he brought it to America.
I don’t think Gardner set himself up to be Britain’s chief witch, a lot of people just started calling him that. I think the story goes that he encountered some form of British witchcraft that had been in a family, an actual blood family, and he felt that it was dying out, and he felt that was a shame, so he wanted to keep it going somehow, so that is the result.
Kevin: And interestingly, I discovered this, too, witchcraft was actually banned, it was illegal in Britain until the 1950s.
Sara: Yes, that’s true.
Kevin: And of course throughout the western world people died for being witches.
Sara, I have to credit Orthodox journalist Glen Chancy for some of these observations, because I want to get your views on some of the attractions of Wicca, and this journalist mentioned that some of what witchcraft or Wicca satisfies in the modern world are things that, in his view, seem to be missing in modern western, especially evangelical, Protestant forms of Christianity, things like tradition, ritual, the idea of sanctified matter, the embrace of the sacred, and mystery, especially. And lastly, and you kind of pointed toward this previously today, feminine power and mystique. Are these some of the attractions of Wicca, generally speaking, do you think?
Sara: Yes, I think so. For me, I think, everything you just said is true. I wasn’t looking to be a woman who could change the world, or that sort of thing, but I did wonder if Christianity was just basically saying that women can’t do anything. I didn’t really see why a woman couldn’t be a priest, I didn’t understand, or didn’t see. So I thought perhaps women can do more in this path, maybe the feminine has a real power on earth, and maybe we aren’t tapping into that as a race, as humanity, that much. So I felt that I liked the tradition, because I can’t deal with something that is not structured. I couldn’t do something on my own and call it my faith, I knew that. I finally knew that. It took the pop Wicca stuff to really get that into my head.
Kevin: So that was the draw of the Gardnerian tradition of witchcraft versus just being a witch on your own, so to speak?
Sara: Yes, a traditionalist would say that they, the pop Wiccans, are not witches. Some people say that they are, and you have to respect that.
Kevin: Were there any other attractions of Wicca? Did we cover them all, or are we missing any of them that might be of appeal, maybe, to people listening, so that we understand what draws people to witchcraft?
Sara: Yes, one other thing would be the magical aspect.
Sara: Magic says that humanity, by either saying some words, or doing some actions, can change the way that life works, by their will. So if you wanted to find a mate, you could light a certain colored candle, you could chant a certain rhyming chant or something, and you will attract a mate.
Sara: Yes. I didn’t really know what prayer was supposed to be for in Christianity, I didn’t have a lot of grounding in that, so maybe this makes more sense. Maybe magic can really help me out here. It is like you are working in partnership with the gods, right? When I was a solitary Christian, shall we say, I kind of felt God was up there, and I was down here, and there wasn’t really a way to be personally involved in changing my own life, according to His will. So, yes, the magical aspect was definitely an attraction to me, I think.
Kevin: You are talking about something that Father Stephen Freeman, who is a podcaster on Ancient Faith radio, and also a blogger, has spoken about. He has referred to it as the second-story versus the one-story universe. It is really an interesting analogy, a paradigm, whatever you want to call it, in that Western Christendom tends to see the spiritual aspect of life as, “God lives in the second story, and I live on the first story.” It is a separation, a duality. It is in the head, it is in the reason, but it is not in the heart. It is not in the material. So I think what you are describing is this draw to bring from the second story down to the first story, where we live.
Moving to what a Gardnerian tradition Wicca coven is comprised of, talk to us a little bit about that, Sara Hillis. Are there priest leaders? You mentioned being a first-degree priestess. What is that? Is it a secret group? Is there an initiation process? What happens? What do witches do? That sort of thing. That’s a lot, I know that’s a big order there.
Sara: (laughter) In a Gardnerian coven, which just means a group, every coven is its own boss. There is no upper structure. There are elders. Whoever initiated the leaders of the group are their elders, so in a certain way, you are beholden to your elders, but the elders can’t tell you what to do, though you could go to them for advice. Say you were in a group and your high priest or high priestess did something that you didn’t think was really proper, you could have every right to talk to your upline, as it is called, and say to them, “I think these people aren’t doing what they should. What do you think?” Sometimes the elders can say, “Hey, you guys, straighten yourselves up.” Everyone is responsible for everyone else, but there isn’t a partriarchate or that kind of thing. This has, typically, about 13 members. They would have a high priest and a high priestess, who are the leaders.
Kevin: Always a high priest, and a high priestess?
Sara: Yes, there has to be a male and female.
Kevin: Has to be a male and a female. Okay.
Sara: Yes, it’s part of the cosmology, which I will get into later. The high priestess is the ultimate authority, but really what tends to happen is that they do kind of work together and the high priest sometimes is the one who is actually called to actually put stuff into action as far as determining if the group is behaving well, or if it is not behaving well, that kind of thing.
There is a structure, which is different degrees. Everyone in the group is a priest or priestess. It is a priesthood. There is no flock involved. You don’t lead anybody. There is no laity. You are all just priests serving the gods, basically. That’s what you do. There are degrees: First, second, and third, which just means how far you have gone in the teachings.
Kevin: Who determines the rank?
Sara: You start out as a first-degree, and then the high priest and high priestess watch everybody in the group to see who had inculcated the necessary teachings and who is mature enough in the faith to move on, because once you get into the third degree you can then start your own group.
Kevin: A coven.
Sara: There is a very big responsibility for the people that initiate you to make sure that you aren’t going to go off half-cocked and go down the wrong path.
Kevin: Unless the whole thing is the wrong path. We’ll get to that later, though. (laughter) But yes, within their context.
Sara: For human decency, and laws of the land, and all that stuff, right.
Kevin: Is it secret? Do you go out and tell people, “Hey, I’m a witch?”
Sara: It’s not generally done. It kind of depends on who you are, but generally you don’t broadcast it. It’s not a good deal, because there is great fear. Witchcraft is a very loaded word, obviously.
Kevin: Well, they were killing them in the states in the 17th century.
Sara: Yes. Whether or not they were witches I have no idea. The Salem thing was very strange. I’ve done very little research on that.
Kevin: Well, they thought they were witches, anyway, and they were killing them.
Sara: Yes, the idea was, “Let’s kill them, we have to kill them.” It’s basically to keep your brothers and sisters out of harm’s way, too. If you out yourself, you might out them in the process. In Gardner’s book, Witchcraft Today, he does say that witches were told in ancient times if they were tortured to just say, “I forgot, I don’t remember anything.” If someone asked them anything they were just to say they don’t know anything. Even if they did, they would have to try to say that as much as they could under torture, because, again, if you are in a group, you are responsible for your family, your spiritual family.