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.