When the Gods Push Too Far…
Twisted Rope has posted a thoughtful article here. It’s an important topic and one I think should be discussed more often: is it possible for the Gods to go too far and what do you do if this happens to you? In tandem with Twisted Rope’s post going up, someone emailed me asking what I thought about it, since I belong to a God known for pushing His people very hard. I hadn’t intended to write a post about this, but then I started to feel pushed to do so. This is something that has been a constant for me for more than twenty years. It’s not something that we generally discuss openly in our communities (I don’t know why not. For me, I think I just take it as a matter of course, and being Odin’s I have a perspective on it that tends to make me come across as quite cold. Also, there are other reasons that I’ll discuss in the body of this post). There is such a thing as “spiritual trauma,” but that can be tremendously productive if it’s worked through. Even that, when there are good pastoral counseling texts available, and a corpus in numerous religions attesting to it, is largely ignored. Maybe it’s time for more voices to be heard on this topic, so here I am, writing a post I don’t want to write, when I’m sitting here with a headache, irritable and tired and wanting nothing more than a hot bath and bed. Note the irritable part, it will likely affect my tone.
I have found from the very beginning of my spiritual journey (i.e. the part of it that I was consciously participating in as a reasoning young adult onward instead of just following along with my family as we all are, at times, wont to do) that the Gods do indeed push us to be better. They push us toward becoming better, more fully engaged human beings, more fully ourselves. They push us toward authenticity. They push us to stop making excuses for ourselves and to live mindfully. They push us to own our shit and own our choices and consciously make choices: in our lives, in devotion, in who we are going to become. I think that’s a good thing. I also think it fucking sucks like nothing else at times. The Gods challenge us to grow. It hurts. Sometimes it’s agony. But, if we engage and push forward and listen amazing things can come of that. We are transformed. We become part of a process beyond anything that we could possibly have expected. It goes miles beyond self-actualization.
I started out, once I started making my spiritual choices for myself, with Sekhmet. She was the first Deity that I felt “come calling,” so to speak. I credit Her with my early breaking and yes, I think that is a crucial part of the process. I do not believe this work of spiritual growth can be done without being broken. I think we grow up in a culture and society so mired in its own shit that we drink its poison with our mother’s milk and we are raised to be automatons. Half the work of spiritual living is breaking down that mechanized conditioning. It’s the breaking that lets the Gods in. It’s the breaking that tills the soil preparing it for the seeds of devotion to flourish. It’s the breaking that is the hammering and tempering of the metal that in time may become the finest of blades. Nothing really gets done until you’ve been cracked open at least a bit. Moreover, that’s not a one time process. It’s something that occurs time and time again, over and over. We can work with this process, helping to forge ourselves, or we can fight it tooth and nail or try to turn a blind eye to it, burying our heads in the sand only to be forced to endure the mental disconnect and cognitive struggles that can follow.
When Sekhmet first came for me, She started that process by removing me from everything that both anchored me to my old life and behavior patterns, and kept me tethered. She broke my health first, because had She not, I never would have left a career that would have failed in time to nourish my soul. She took my life. I lost my job, my home, almost all of my friends, the group that had been training me in ritual work, and my sense of who I was as a human being—all the external things that defined me were stripped away and I was forced into a corner where I could give up, go crazy, die or step up, clear away the mental and emotional rubble and set about working with Her to hone myself into a person of character. I could start defining myself by Her rubric rather than my own. It fucking sucked. I have PTSD from that time in my life. There are things still that trigger nightmares and deep anxieties and I’m working through them, and each time I manage to untangle one of those vicious little psychological knots, I’m made stronger and more aware of my own humanity and that is good. I firmly believe that had there been any other way, a way to effect this process without the damage that the Gods would have taken it, but we as a people are very invested in our facades and don’t give them up easily, not even when they are sucking the life out of our very souls. So breaking it is and I thank Her for it.
Then I was taken up by Odin and things really got interesting. He made those early days with Sekhmet look like a delightful walk in the park. Twisted Rope said that it doesn’t seem that leaders in the Kemetic religion have gone through this process. I can’t speak for Kemetics, but I’ve been told that I’m a “big name pagan” and I’d be willing to bet that many have, but just don’t think to talk about it. I know that’s the case with many of my colleagues. These are not things that we share on the internet. They’re not things to which the casual reader is entitled to know. That I am choosing to talk about this at all now is more Odin hammering at my God damned head than my own wish to self-disclose. The ways in which we are broken and shaped by our Gods is some of the most painful, delicate, intimate, and personal work that one can ever undergo. It’s not generally for public consumption. This of course leaves a dearth of places to go to for models or advice or just the simple knowledge that ‘oh hey, someone else went through this too and they got through it better and stronger than before and here’s how.’ We need to be having these conversations.
Furthermore, I don’t think that the restoration of our traditions is possible without our having gone through this breaking process. A huge, huge part of that process is de-programming. It’s a process that brings liberation and that is necessary for clean, sustainable, authentic work to begin. I also think there’s an attrition rate (and here’s where you can tell I’m Odin’s) and I think there always will be. If there are not records from our polytheistic ancestors of this happening there may be many reasons for that lack. One big one is that there were established mystery cultus. Many of them. One of the things that mystery cultus do is facilitate and guide such a breaking. There was a framework both for understanding this process and for getting through it and for what happened if you didn’t. Those cultures also lacked the monotheistic conditioning that so infests ours. I do think this plays a part. (Though to be fair, I think there’s plenty of evidence for this type of breaking process if one looks hard enough. You’ll find it in allegory, in plays, in the tales told of devotees of the Gods and the consequences for their devotion). One of the things that most disturbed me in Twisted Rope’s narrative is the comment that people who are open about being broken by the Gods, broken and in a state of un-repair are shamed by the community. If this is true, SHAME ON THE FUCKING COMMUNITY. If a person is suffering in their spiritual lives it is the duty of a community to support them. That doesn’t mean coddling and cosseting. It may mean a good, swift kick in the ass at times, but it shouldn’t mean shaming and if I have ever been guilty of this (even if it was perceived by a client rather than my actual intent), than I am deeply sorry and I ask forgiveness for it. No one should be shamed or ostracized for struggling spiritually. If we can’t get that part of “community” right then we should all be deeply ashamed of our failure as human beings.
Before I get too far afield in a rant, I want to thank Twisted Rope for this very courageous post. I also want to take the questions raised one by one and do my best to answer them, from my own experience. I also want to say that not every God works this way. Some don’t do this. They may farm it out to another Deity, mind you, (Good cop/bad cop style) but They don’t do it Themselves; and even if one belongs to or venerates a God notorious for being particularly harsh in this regard (like Odin), it doesn’t mean that it will be part of one’s own spiritual process. We’re individuals and so are the Gods and each relationship has its own patterns. So I don’t’ want to scare anyone away from devotion with this. This type of thing is very individual. I remember during one of my more formal ordeals going through something that I barely got through and that seriously traumatized me at the time. The same thing would have been nothing to my adopted mom. She’d have curled up and gone to sleep happy as a clam. There is a certain subjectivity to this whole process. Don’t assume an inescapable, inflexible certainty from what I write here. Your relationship with your Gods and ancestors is your own.
That being said, I want to get on to Twisted Rope’s questions. (I’ve put the quoted questions in quotes).
What do you do when “you know, when you get tired of a god’s machinations and scheming, or the said god’s schemes push us to a point where we or our ethics can’t handle it.”
Again, that I’m an Odin’s person is showing. That, more than anything else, is going to color my answer here. I think it helps to acknowledge that hierarchy is a very natural thing (whether we want to admit that or not) and the Gods are far above us in the natural order of things. I find it generally misguided to put our ethics before our devotion. Stay with me here because I’m pretty sure I’ve just pissed off or triggered the hell out of half my readers. Stay with me even if you’re pissed. Our ethics are formed from our culture and our society and that is not a culture or society that generally encourages engaged devotion. At least in American culture, the underlying push is for a very evangelical Christianity. Instead of personal powerful devotion, what we get, if anything at all, is insane fundamentalism.
When I say “don’t put your ethics before your devotion to your Gods,” I don’t mean be a brainless son of a bitch and fly a plane into a building. I mean stop, just stop assuming that you have the whole picture, and that you yourself are in control of this relationship. You are not the top here. This is NOT a relationship of equals and it’s NOT a relationship with a human being. That the Gods may take human form, or that we may anthropomorphize them in our devotion and consciousness is a grace allowed us, but They are NOT human. Very few have ever been. Each Deity is a cosmic, sentient Power. Perhaps you are even dealing with One that formed us of its very essence, that knit connection into our very atoms, or One that ordered and organized worlds and planes and countless beings. While we may develop very informal relationships with our Gods, and may at times engage as though They’re our ‘best friends,’ (and I think to a point that’s fine and natural), in the end, particularly when They are pushing you through a process where you don’t want to go, it’s important to recognize that They’re not people. “Ethics,” such as we have, are a lovely excuse to avoid the internal work They set us. I will also say that I have found myself more thoughtful over my actions, over their impact, and more consciously ethical in my conduct as a result of engagement with my Gods. I’m not advocating amorality. I’m advocating that we stop idolizing ourselves and get out of our own ways and trust the Gods we venerate. Trust Them to be Themselves, mind you, but trust that there is a plan and process that will ultimately benefit us and that we don’t always get to know the whole picture. Sometimes it’s just not possible. Sometimes even if we were shown, we wouldn’t be able to comprehend, and that’s terrifying. I admit that this can be terrifying but at some point you have to trust the Gods you’re working with and if you don’t, then you’re just going to be spinning your wheels.
This is a difficult thing to really put into words because our culture values the human over the spiritual and when we don’t, when we see that rubric reversed it’s never healthy. We have suicide bombers, and nutcase Christians, and quiverfull families, and abuse after abuse in all the examples that are given us. We don’t have competent models for this. For me, my relationship with Odin is my relationship with Odin. That doesn’t mean that I want the whole world to venerate Odin, or conform itself to the behavioral code or morals or what have you that He may have nurtured in me. Each person is responsible for their own spiritual relationships. We can support each other and should, but that doesn’t mean we should be compelling others to behave as we do. That’s the piece we get wrong as a …world. But we never think when we’re challenged that perhaps our ethics are wrong, or incomplete, or misguided, or selfish, or naïve or a hundred other things. We assume because we are supposedly civilized westerners that we have a superior set of ethics. That assumption is ingrained in us. Putting it aside long enough to grow into a deeper awareness of the imbalance and pain of the world, and our obligation to do something about those things, is not something most of us are able to even consider. It is, however, at least insofar as I have experienced, utterly essential. What the breaking does, particularly when it challenges our ethics, is shatter the paradigm that we were taught to accept unquestioningly as right, and good, and normal. That the paradigm may be cruel, unhealthy, imbalanced, and at times inhumane never occurs to us.
And seriously, devotional relationships need to be based first and foremost in trust. There is a give and take there, even though it can never be by the very nature of the Beings/beings involved a relationship of equals. There is a reciprocity but I think for that to really be fruitful, we have to first accept that there’s a whole way of being and engaging with the world that we don’t see, that we haven’t even conceived of. We have to accept that what we call our ‘ethics’ may in fact be part and parcel of the very conditioning that keeps us bound. …at least if one wants to move past this particular mental knot. Do it or don’t, personally I don’t care. I’ve had my struggles with this one myself (and you can be damned sure I sought out competent diviners to confirm that my “signal clarity’ was accurate) and it’s a battle each person has to handle for hirself.
“What do you do when the gods push the line too far, push you too far, and you find your patience for it all dries up and disappears? Do you run away? Tell the god in question to pound sand? Do you suck it up and trudge forward?”
Do any and all of that but then come back and continue with your devotions. The Gods can take our anger and pain and rage and hurt and a thousand other things. But when it gets that bad, you can choose – and sometimes it’s a conscious, painful choice every single day—to maintain piety. Yes, I know that’s a bad word today and there are those who bitch, and whine, and moan about the “piety posse” and frankly, they can kiss off. Piety is precisely what we’re talking about. I hold to the Roman view of it: it’s the obligations we have to the Gods, ancestors, the community, our families, and ourselves. It’s how we maintain this network of relationships, how we nourish them and are nourished in turn. Early Christian writers shifted the meaning of this word to “love,” which while I do think ideally devotional relationships are grounded in love, was not part of the word’s original meaning. Piety is doing what you know to be correct with respect to all of the aforementioned relationships even when you don’t want to, don’t feel like it, or it hurts.
Moreover, instead of just trudging forward, consult a diviner, consult a priest, go on a retreat, take a break and do a different kind of devotion. Perhaps seek out another Deity. There’s nothing wrong with that. I have more than once told Odin ‘look, I’m doing my job and I love you but I need to spend some time with Deity X right now. I need a bit of a break. Please just give me a week, or a month.” I keep working on all the internal stuff that might be coming up; I maintain my obligations to Him with respect to work, but I focus my devotions on a different Deity. We’re polytheists. There are many and frankly I firmly believe this was part of the devotional architecture of the polytheistic world that we struggle with. We’re entrained by monotheism to avoid this type of multiple engagement or to feel mildly guilty about it when in reality I think this is part and parcel of the way healthy polytheism works.
“What happens when your relationship with a deity or set of deities becomes so broken that you’re not sure it’s ever going to fix? “
What would you do if it were a human relationship you wanted to maintain? You work at it. You commit to working at it. No one said devotion was easy – I wish more people would talk about how difficult it can sometimes be. All relationships take time and care and patience and I think that’s all the more so when one is engaged in devotion. It doesn’t happen overnight. This is a process, a development, and serious problems can arise. The best advice I can give is that you commit to working them out. Sometimes that means stepping back from the certainty that you won’t be able to fix it and making the conscious choice to stay the course. So much of devotion is about choice over and over again. It’s a daily, conscious choice. There are tools that we can use to help us with this, but in the end, regardless of how much support or how many devotional tools, or how supportive a community we have, it comes down to making an ongoing choice to do this. You don’t need to know how to untangle a damaged relationship but it also helps to acknowledge that this happens and it’s not a sign of spiritual failure. It’s a sign that you’re engaging and sometimes that means the soul’s detritus is going to be stirred up in an awful way. Sometimes the Gods will hurt us—not from cruelty but because we have our wants and human aspirations and we project them onto the Gods in ways that aren’t always fair to either party. It’s a learning process.
“And why hasn’t modern Kemeticism addressed this at all?”
To that I have to ask how well devotion is addressed at all in any of our polytheistic communities?
“And more importantly- should we?” – absolutely. I think this is crucial. People going through this need to know that they’re not bad or wrong or failures in their faith. They need to know that even if things seem painful and hopeless in a devotional relationship, that there are steps they can take and that it doesn’t mean it IS actually hopeless. We will never restore the structures that help guide one through this work if we avoid talking about it.
To further quote Twisted Rope: “You know, when the ripping apart of your life becomes excessive or fruitless, or when a god falls through on their end of the deal. Any physical relationship between two people has the potential to go south, or to sour. Can a relationship with a god do the same?”
As an Odin’s person, my personal belief is that it’s not for us to determine what is excessive. It’s the Gods’ prerogative to determine and act on that. I think it’s very, very easy –and Gods know I’ve been there more than once—to want to run, or to balk, or to feel that something is impossible and excessive because we cannot see to where it will ultimately lead. In the end, again, it comes down to choice. You choose devotion. You choose to stay the course even when it hurts like hell or you don’t.
“And if so, how do we address this in the future? What do we tell practitioners who have been essentially burned or broken by the gods?”
I don’t think there is any one, pat set of answers to give to a person in this condition. I think it’s part of the process and that we need to be supporting our people through this, with ritual, counseling, and communication. We need to have specialists to advise them, take those 2 am phone calls, diviners to negotiate with the Gods and spirits for them. We need to be a community for each other. One day maybe, hopefully, we’ll have restored mystery cultus that can help fill in the gaps here, and that can help us navigate this part of the process better.
I think part of the problem is that we have forgotten that the Gods are not always nice. We expect Them to be, and unconsciously even expect Them to cater to us (no blaming here. I think this is deeply ingrained in our societal expectations of religion). Our ancestors had a different wisdom, one that I think carried them through these painful times of breaking and disconnect far better. They understood that the Gods, and all that is holy comes with terror, challenge, and sacrifice. They understood that we are made better by engaging with Them, but that such engagement comes with a price too. They did not take it for granted that they would be unchanged by the contact. They did not assume that they would not be destroyed. I think sometimes that it is gravely unfair to tell new comers that it’s always a bed of roses when it isn’t. When we engage with the sacred it leaves a mark and sometimes those marks are scars. That engagement comes to redefine the topography of our souls and we in turn to define ourselves by its peaks and valleys. We all talk about “autonomy” and “safety” and so long as we cling to these things the process will always be worse than it needs to be. We cannot have both that which is holy and that which is safe. The two are, as our ancestors knew, mutually exclusive.