Impossible Standards of Devotion?

I hear this a lot, and see it percolating every so often through elements of both the Pagan and Polytheist communities, this idea that some of us are advocating impossible standards of devotion. I always wonder what that means. Devotion after all is such a personal thing that even within the most structured and rigid of traditions, there’s usually room for individual exploration and balance there. Still, this idea, insidious and unhelpful continues, that there are somehow impossible standards in this area.

I’ve come to the conclusion that this idea usually arises from one of the following:

1. Sometimes a person is intimidated, thinking that he or she must live up to the work of another. (I had the daughter of a good friend say to me once, “the amount of work you do intimidates the hell out of me!” I was surprised, because it’s my work, not hers — her skills are in very different areas and the Gods to Whom she is devoted are very different too. Shortly after, I heard the same thing from another tremendously talented colleague. Before that, i’d never thought about it. I am often inspired by people’s work, but not intimidated. I didn’t realize this might be a “thing,” but it is). At any rate, there’s no need for it — I tell people all the time: do the work that presents itself to you. Maintain your devotions, prioritize the Gods and ancestors, and take advantage of the opportunities for deepening your devotion that come your way. That’s all. There’s a Baltic proverb that says “the work will teach you how to do it,” and that is so very true, and it’s a very individual thing. Nothing is more destructive to spiritual work and devotional life than trying to force yourself into someone else’s spiritual mold. The Gods and ancestors will guide you. You’ll find the work that is yours to do and it may be quiet, domestic work, or loud public work, or both or neither, or something in between. The important part, the really important part that anyone can do, is showing up and being present consistently and there are thousands of ways to do that.

2 Someone objects to the idea that one’s devotional practices might be inconvenient. This often goes hand in hand with the idea that a tradition may have standards, in fact must, of necessity, have them in order to be sustainable. This is often tied up in the question of whether a tradition serves the Gods or the people (which i think is a false dichotomy. As my colleague Anomalous Thracian pointed out recently in an article, polytheism is relational. Prioritizing the Gods does not in any way mean neglecting the human world. It means considering the imprint one leaves and working to make that world better in ways large and small, without making excuses). When this is the case, anxieties and ambivalences about the Gods seem to come bubbling up into dogged resistance toward both the discipline of devotion and the requirements of a tradition. I think some of this is to be expected. We’re still religions of converts and even if we weren’t, growing up in a culture obsessed with a very skewed idea of “progress” at all costs, and also infested with Protestant values as a matter of course takes its toll on us: mentally, emotionally, and most of all spiritually. It can be damned hard to untangle all of that. Also, I find that unless you have experienced a tradition with intergenerational lineage, customs, boundaries, standards, and initiatory mysteries, it can seem utterly and terrifyingly alien. There’s a huge learning curve there for all of us.

3. In some cases, I think the difficulties of building a tradition and restoring lineage and Mysteries can seem overwhelming (and they are! — no argument from me on that point). There is a challenge to our supposedly modern sensibilities and way of looking at the world that can be difficult to surmount and it can seem very lonely, without much (if any) support. It’s normal to look to others doing the work who might have been at it a bit longer and to want to use their work as a guide. This can be helpful, but it’s important to use it only as a preliminary map, as inspiration, not as a rigid, unyielding, demanding structure. When I was first snapped up by the Old Man, it was a whirlwind. There wasn’t really anyone else in my life that truly understood what that was like or what was happening, quite the opposite actually. I found great support through reading certain of the Christian Rhine mystics as well as a couple of Hindu mystics. The way they spoke about and related to their God (or Gods in the case of Hinduism) shared certain commonalities of experience with what I was going through with Odin. It helped me find a vocabulary to begin processing and integrating my own experience into the fabric of my daily life and my devotional life. We didn’t share the same Deity, but we shared a language and way of looking at all one’s relationship with the Holy Powers could be that readily primed me for the work that was to come. It was a conversation that crossed centuries and traditions. Had I human teachers at the time, I would have looked to them and their work in much the same way. I can well see how easily one could slip into the chasm of unconsciously thinking that one must be an exact duplicate of one’s teachers. That’s not the case at all. The strength and beauty of polytheism is its diversity, and that carries right over into the devotional life of each devotee. We develop in this work individually, even when we’re collaborating or working side by side and that’s a *good* thing.

4. Of course, in many cases, sadly, it’s simple jealousy. Someone has done something, achieved something, produced something that makes another, due to their own lack of achievement, focus, or competence feel small. Boo fucking hoo. I’ve little sympathy for this point of view. I find it often in professional victims. If that seems overly harsh, so be it, but more and more as we work toward this restoration process, I’m coming to adopt a triage mentality. There are thousands of excuses why one can’t do the work presented to one (whatever that may be), or have a deeply rewarding devotional life, or do x, y, z in both the spiritual and the quotidian worlds. In the end it comes down to commitment, motivation, and perseverance and it’s sometimes easier to sit on one’s ass and whine about how one is being put upon than to pick oneself up and enter back into the flow of devotion. When the community pats on the head don’t come quickly enough, I suppose for some it does sour the milk. It’s helpful to bring oneself back, I find, to the knowledge that it’s not a contest, and we’re not doing this for accolades but to *get shit done* that our Gods need to see accomplished. We’re process servers, middle management, foot soldiers, cogs in the wheel and sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of that. Our communities can be very toxic places.

In the end, I’ll admit that personally I don’t think it’s possible to have excessively high standards of devotion. No matter where we are or how deeply we’re working, we can always go deeper. We can always do more. There’s a prayer a friend of mine shared with me once, and I find myself returning to it again and again when I am struggling with my devotion, or when I feel worn down, or conversely when I feel particularly keyed in and inspired: “Make me a hollow bone.” Make me a hollow bone so that the grace and beauty, power and numen of the Gods, Gods to Whom my every action and breath is devoted, may flow unimpeded through me. Make me a hollow bone so that with that inspiration, my connection to Them may be as strong as it possibly can be. Make me a hollow bone so that nothing of me, my humanity, my smallness, my wants, my pain, my emotions, my laziness, nothing of me at all may impede that flow. Make me a hollow bone so that I may be at once emptied out of all impediments and filled to overflowing and more by that Presence and power of my Gods. There is no end to this work, no end to that prayer, no end to its necessity. We can always go more deeply into the flow and fire of devotion. Impossible standards of devotion? To those who love the Gods there is no such thing.

About ganglerisgrove

Galina Krasskova has been a Heathen priest since 1995. She holds a Masters in Religious Studies (2009), a Masters in Medieval Studies (2019), has done extensive graduate work in Classics including teaching Latin, Roman History, and Greek and Roman Literature for the better part of a decade, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Theology. She is the managing editor of Walking the Worlds journal and has written over thirty books on Heathenry and Polytheism including "A Modern Guide to Heathenry" and "He is Frenzy: Collected Writings about Odin." In addition to her religious work, she is an accomplished artist who has shown all over the world and she currently runs a prayer card project available at wyrdcuriosities.etsy.com.

Posted on January 29, 2015, in devotional work and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Beautifully written! Thank you for sharing! Inspiring.

    Like

  2. “Make me a hollow bone.” I need to remember this prayer; it’s lovely and potent.

    Like

  3. Make me a hollow bone, so that I may become a flute and the music of the gods’ creation may flow through me, as water flows through a hose, from the faucet to those who need that water to quench their fiercest thirst.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Your comparison of being a flute & that the music of the Gods/Goddesses creation flow through me, as water flows through a hose, is the prayer of a humble but mystical soul who knows what we learn after years of prayer & deep contemplation.

    Like

  5. Something of this very nature is going on in my tradition now–some people are mad that there are actual expectations and obligations to the tradition and to participation in it, and they’ve had the audacity to actually brag to me about how they’ve “done more” than everyone else, when in fact what they’ve done amounts to almost nothing (and has not been the sacrifice–in every sense of the word–of what has been involved with most others who have done other things, and what others have done has generally been orders of magnitude more and more important stuff than the ones complaining). The sense of entitlement, that they can turn up, take part in the Mysteries, and that there is nothing then expected of them, boggles my mind…all of the people who have been giving more and doing more have never needed to be asked to do so, they’ve understood it deeply; but, not these folks.

    One of them has already flounced away; I expect the other one to do so relatively soon, too. If they want to, that’s fine; those who are more dedicated are about to get down to some much more serious work, and we don’t need the dead weight.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. In the context of the culture at large, I’ve noticed that if you do something different from the norm, or express an opinion about a common way of doing things, people often react as though you are morally judging them for doing differently than you. I’ve had people upbraid me for telling them I was trying out vegetarianism at the time(one of whom was diabetic, and assumed that meant I was virulently against all animal testing and therefore against the drugs/technology that were saving his life, which was quite a leap, and not remotely true), and people get defensive if I make comments about articles I’ve read on health and nutrition(because I’m judging you sooooo hard for eating that bagel you didn’t even mention having this morning!!). And try telling certain people that you aren’t necessarily interested in having children for yourself and see how worked up they get. It could be that people are assuming that if they don’t do things exactly the way the person who is talking does, the talking person is implicitly condemning them for it. Not a healthy perspective.

    I think the key is being honest with your limitations and what your “best” is at the moment, with an effort toward improving over time. Your “best” for your situation and life is often not anywhere NEAR that of an elder or experienced practitioner who has been practicing hard for years, and it doesn’t have to be, as long as you are being real and not deluding yourself. But that takes integrity, and developing(and maintaining) a good sense of self-awareness.

    Like

  7. the timing of your post is impeccable. thank you for sharing this. i think i might not have sufficient words to express my gratitude and the reassurance that this has given me. thank you, again.

    Like

  8. Are you advocating, or simply describing your own path? I’ve never felt I must be like you to be near you. Perhaps those who feel threatened should look inward for the reason why.

    Like

  9. My knowledge of the various texts of my path(s) are nowhere near as encyclopedic as that of, say, Sannion or others, and occasionally, I feel a bit lacking in that area. Then I remind myself that I could have plenty of time to read up if I just gave up all the time I spent writing poetry at Their behest, and that feeling goes away.

    Like you said…each of us carries out our devotions in our own way. I wouldn’t give up being Their skald for anything.

    Liked by 1 person

%d bloggers like this: