Book Review: The Circle Within

“The point of Wicca, the real mystery behind it all, is to remember the Divinity within ourselves and all things; to manifest our God and Goddess all the time, every day, every moment; to love as They love, to give as They give; to serve Them in perfect trust, and thus bring Their grace more fully into the world; to understand that we are the embodiment of the Divine love and nurture, and to express that love in the world; to walk as God and Goddess.”

-Dianne Sylvan

I recently re-read Dianne Sylvan’s The Circle Within: Creating a Wiccan Spiritual Tradition. The book wound up in my possession on a whim, and I did not expect much given the outer design (an eclipse on black background) and a certain crescent moon present on the spine. Here I must admit to ignoring the age-old adage of never judging a book by its cover (or its publisher, for that matter). The first time I read The Circle Within, I finished it in a single weekend – impressive for an overworked college student who barely has time for extracurricular reading – and felt myself smiling for a full week afterwards. Read ahead to find out why I gave this book 4/5 stars.

One of the strengths The Circle Within is that it’s not, in any way, a rehashing of the same eclectic Wicca 101 information that’s absolutely saturated the market. Nor does it come off as preachy, New Age-y, more-persecuted-than-thou, or suffering from Special Snowflake Syndrome. Wicca (at least the public, eclectic sort – Sylvan makes no claims to be speaking for British Traditional Wicca/Witchcraft) is not presented as some arcane, centuries-old secret society, and nor is it so undefinable as to be whatever the practitioner wants it to be.

What the book is, though, is a wonderfully written, personal guide to incorporating Wiccan spirituality into one’s everyday life. Alternating between humorous and touching narrative that’s part memoir, part how-to guide, Sylvan paints a portrait of the kind of religion I’ve strove for my entire life. Sylvan comes off as wise not because of her ordained clergyhood or because she’s amassed degrees, but because she’s been around the block and has spent the time and effort to build up relationships with her God and Goddess outside ritual settings. Being Wiccan (or any other sort of practitioner – much of this advice works for all religions) isn’t about the trappings used for the eight sabbats and thirteen full moons a year; those holidays, in fact, should be all about celebrating the joy religion brings us in our everyday life. I personally have a hard time getting and staying connected to the spiritual feelings I sometimes uncover in ritual. I suspect this has part to do with my depression, part with massive trust issues when it comes to myself and the Divine, and part with a natural disinclination towards sensing energy. What I’ve loved so much about The Circle Within is that Sylvan points readers directly towards “mundane” spiritual acts – daily meditation and prayer, cultivating spiritual attributes in our lives, finding holiness in our bodies and immediate environments  – as more helpful in developing a Wiccan life than the most expensive props and ridiculous Craft names used only at sabbat and esbat rituals.

Much of The Circle Within emphasizes returning to the divine connection often forgotten for one reason or another. The best way to remember this connection is by practicing Wicca constantly, the way one constantly practices a new language in order to truly learn it. Like learning a language or instrument, learning to integrate Wicca into one’s daily life is not a task that can be achieved overnight. Sacrifices must be made to dedicate the time and energy required to deepen one’s faith. If you’re reading her book (or this blog, for that matter), you have at least five minutes of time today you can dedicate to your spirituality. No, you probably don’t have time to whip out all the ritual gear and do a 90-minute circle casting, element invoking, God/dess welcoming, power-raising rite every day, but who has the time or energy for that? This “all-or-nothing” mentality is what keeps many, myself included, from walking their path every day. Sylvan extensively discusses the use of prayer to commune with the divine, a subject which many other books gloss over, ignore, or worse, shove into spellwork. Rather than including an author’s Book of Shadows, The Circle Within has a Book of Moonlight featuring several daily prayers and rituals that I found very inspiring.

When it comes to morality, especially the famous/infamous Rede, Sylvan advocates a moderate approach. Instead of viewing “harm none” as an absolute (and impossible) command, she suggests interpreting it as a guide for cultivating balance in the world. We should balance the harm we do just by living – Sylvan brings up the excellent point of killing countless micro-organisms with each breath – by doing good, healing work and cultivating what she calls “Wiccan graces.” Instead of asking “Did I observe every sabbat and esbat last year without fail and in the perfectly ascribed manner?”, Sylvan wants us to ask if our lives are filled with love, compassion, humor, gratitude, and joy, among other qualities. I have to admit, I’m rather smitten with the idea of religious graces and virtues. For me, they serve as a checklist of spiritual health and are what religion’s all about. At the risk of speaking for others’ experiences, I feel that if religion hasn’t changed you on some fundamental level, if it’s not helping you be a better person or express yourself more fully or, worse, is destructive to who you are, then perhaps you need to ask why you’re practicing that religion in the first place.

Perhaps my favorite parts of The Circle Within were chapters four (“The Temple Hearth”) and five (“Building a Practice”). These are truly the heart of the “beyond the basics” information I’ve been searching for. These chapters talk about cleansing the self and the home, setting up and caring for an altar, developing a routine of daily ritual and prayer, deepening our connection with nature, and understanding the different conceptions of and needs for sacred space. Sylvan’s very adamant about treating all aspects of our lives and bodies as sacred and giving them due respect. Everything we do, expressly spiritual or not, is connected with everything else in our lives. These chapters also have my favorite quotes of the entire book: “Our fundamental, self-enforced separation from the natural world is tantamount to ripping a child from its mother’s breast and forcing it to live on Diet Coke” and “If you can’t remember the last time you touched the bark of a tree, felt grass through your fingers, or sang to the moon, you’re missing the entire point of Wicca.”

There were a few instances in The Circle Within where I disagreed with Sylvan. In particular, when discussing the nature of Wiccan Deity, Sylvan is definitely in the singular God and Goddess camp. Statements like “Giving a particular name and face to a god is essentially limited that god, penning him or her in to our own standards and making him or her smaller and less powerful” make me raise an eyebrow. Considering the only meaningful deity interaction since I left Christianity has been with named gods, rich with myths, flaws, faces, and favorites, I think I’ll have to disagree that taking a hard polytheistic route is somehow limiting the gods I work with and have come to love. While I understand Sylvan is working within a particular religious framework and is writing for a general audience, I would have preferred more inclusive language.

However, Sylvan reiterates that these are her experiences and this is one approach to Wicca, and I agree with (or at least appreciate where she’s coming from) the majority of the book’s contents. She presents a commonsense, immensely practical guide to deepening one’s spirituality that goes far beyond the deluge of introductory material in bookstores today. With wit and wisdom, Sylvan offers sound advice for those looking to bring Wicca into their everyday life. I award The Circle Within 4/5 stars as a good book you should seek out if you get the chance.

Further Reading

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Happy New Year! « Sage and Starshine

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