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A Tribute to Neopagan Visionary Isaac Bonewits (1949-2010)

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True spiritual leaders never wish to be known as such, often preferring to downplay their contributions or laugh them off. This certainly seems to be the case with Isaac Bonewits, Neopagan priest and author who passed away last week of colon cancer at age 60. One memorial says Isaac, displaying what appears to have been a characteristic sense of humor, wished only to be known as one of the Neopagan movement's "better-known, unindicted co-conspirators."

Who was Bonewits and why should you care? If you're not a practitioner of modern Druidry, Wicca or various other spiritual paths that take their inspiration from pre-Christian times, it's unlikely you've heard of him. But it's even possible, I believe, to be a practicing Witch, Druid or some other adventurous spirit and never have heard the name Isaac Bonewits. I don't know if he would've taken delight in that notion or if his ego would've taken a hit, but what I do know is that for those of us who fall into the Neopagan camp, we all owe Bonewits a great deal of gratitude whether we've heard of him or not.

I never met Isaac, and I confess I haven't even read any of his various books, articles or essays on ritual and modern magick. Hopefully, I'll get around to reading those one day. But it's clear that his pioneering work and influence in Neopagan practice has rippled out across the spiritual landscape and will continue to do so. Many of the rituals or phrasings Neopagans use today were researched or established by Bonewits. We may have found it online or in a book, but if we trace it back even further, it probably has his fingerprint somewhere in there. Certainly, if you're a member of Ár nDraíocht Féin or various other Druid groups of which he was involved, you owe Bonewits a thanks for his commitment to Neopagan organization and scholarship. He even created a tool to help Federal law enforcement tell the difference between emerging or minority religions and actual cults, and worked to protect the rights of Neopagans to practice their faiths openly.

All that's fine and well, but what impresses me most about Bonewits was his lack of fear. Remember, he began his Neopagan exploration back in the 1960s and '70s, before many of us were even born, a time when the funky New Age shop on the corner didn't exist. There was still enormous social pressure throughout most of the U.S. to attend church on Sundays, and about the best pop culture could offer was "Bewitched." Yet Bonewits heard a different spiritual call and jumped in feet first, joining his first Druid group in 1966 and writing Real Magic in 1971 -- and he was barely in his 20s. I can't help but look at my own circuitous and tentative route to Neopagan spiritual practice and marvel. Bonewits had an insatiable spiritual curiosity, and he allowed himself to drink deeply, whereas I've been more concerned about the Gladys Kravitzes of the world peeking through their blinds and asking nosy questions. Thankfully, I've learned my lesson, and I've learned to follow my own calling. And I'm convinced that somewhere along the way Bonewits made it easier for me to do so.

True spiritual leaders also aren't perfect, and Bonewits had his detractors, personality conflicts and a string of marriages. But if you look at any great spiritual leader regardless of the religion, you'll find scandals and enemies. I think that's partly what disillusioned me about mainstream religion, that pressure to be perfect, especially for pastors, priests or other leaders. And you know that even when they tell you perfection isn't necessary, well, they're lying. So I see something refreshing in Bonewits' unconventional and daring life, a life that helped redefine what it means to be a spiritual person in this modern world. Thank you, Isaac.