I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately; in fact it’s something that I keep coming back to again and again. I’ve avoided writing about it because I don’t think I have the right words. What I mean by that is I fear that the words we should be using (the accurate, correct ones) are so charged by having been filtered through Christianity (with their meanings often adapted) that anything I write wherein I use one of these words (like piety for instance), will trigger so much in the reader (bad memories, perhaps hurt) that my points will be lost.(1) Still, I think it’s important for us to reclaim these words and really, maybe I need to just be giving you, my Readers, more credit. So here goes.
The problem with our communities is that no one fears the Gods.
Breathe and hear me out. When we know that our Gods are real, when we know They have the power to affect our world, when we know They pay attention, and likewise when we have our sacred rites (protocols for engagement) and sacred technicians (shamans, vitki, spiritworkers, seidhr workers, diviners, priests) who can help navigate problems, gaps in extant protocol, insecurities, and tangled fate, we can move into our devotional lives securely, supported with a community of mindfulness, of those who all work together to ensure that the Gods are given proper respect and due. The result brings abundance, luck, success, and happiness to the community itself. It’s the tribal model.
I decided to write this after seeing one of the comments on John Halstead’s latest piece (the comment unfortunately is on fb not the Patheos, so I’m not sure how to link it here) where Mark Green says, “This is why I believe garbling up your mind with gods is a profound, disconnecting mistake.”
I thought, this is the pollution that’s garbling up our communities. This attitude is precisely the problem. Nothing we do for the restoration of our traditions will be of any lasting significance unless and until we “garble up our minds with Gods.” That is precisely the piece that is so often lacking. The problem is that we are disconnected from the way our ancestors, ancestors born, raised, and who died in a polytheistic world, engaged. That’s the piece we most need to reclaim, an awareness of the world that is deeply rooted in reverence for the Holy Powers, and reverence not only begins with recognition of Being, but goes hand in hand with a healthy fear.(2)
In fact, the word reverence itself, etymologically, contains precisely that. The ancient Greek word for reverence, εὐσέβεια, for instance means “good” or “healthy fear.” The English word descends from the Latin and likewise implies both respect and fear.(3) Nor does this healthy fear mean that we are nothing groveling pathetically before our Gods. It means we are mindful that They are Holy Powers and that logically has an effect on our behavior and hopefully on the way we live our lives.
Because I am reverent I don’t want to do those things that might offend or sadden my Gods. I don’t want to watch or read those things that spit on Them. I don’t want to expose myself to pollution that puts one more layer of disconnect between me and Them.
Because I am reverent, I will avoid encouraging in myself those thoughts and attitudes that might nurture irreverence. Because I am reverent, I will avoid engaging in company or pursuits that do encourage (and in some cases actively discourage) attitudes of mindfulness and respect for the Gods. Because I am reverent I make certain choices with how I live my life and sometimes those choices will rule out certain things. In the end, it comes down to exactly that: a choice and wanting to make choices that best benefit us and our relationships with our Gods.
We don’t live in a culture or society that in any way whatsoever encourages making those choices well. In fact, we live in a world that encourages and sometimes flagrantly demands the exact opposite. We’ve been raised in this world and in many respects we’ve been shaped by its poison. That’s a hard thing to overcome and it means that we have to consciously think about things like reverence in a self-conscious way that our ancestors didn’t have to employ. To step into the presence of our Gods is a privilege, one that should awe us to the core. To forget that, or worse to start thinking of it as a right we can then dismiss in order to get on with socializing is not just incredibly sad, but incredibly short sighted too.
Now I don’t necessarily think that if I say or do something impious or irreverent that the Gods are going to smite me. They have better things to do, though such irreverence might affect my personal luck. What I do think is that it will diminish me as a human being and it will make it that much more difficult for me to engage cleanly and well with my Gods and ancestors. It will likewise and slowly but surely poison my engagement with the restoration of our traditions and cut me off from the blessings of my Gods.
The core foundation of our traditions isn’t its rituals, its theology, its lore, its art, or even its devotional practices. The absolute core foundation is reverence, that sense that there are Gods and They pay attention and They are terrifying and vast and we can choose how we engage with Them (and for each choice there are consequences). That’s the core. Everything else then flows from that awareness.
I’ve often complained to colleagues that it seems like it’s always two steps forward, one step back with our restorative progress, that no matter at how basic a level we’re working, it seems like people just aren’t getting it. It’s like all of us start not at the starting line but a thousand plus paces behind it. The most baseline understanding that our ancestors had, we lack. That’s why I think we need to help each other here. It’s why each of us today have such an important role to play in the defense and restoration of our traditions, each in our own way. We need our specialists and our mystics, and we need our committed laity and everything in between. But it starts with reverence and all the ways we can cultivate that within ourselves.
- The word ‘piety’ for instance, which I very much think we need to actively reclaim, originally meant one’s duty to one’s gods, ancestors, land, community, and family. Early Christians shifted the meaning (despite there being perfectly good words for what they wanted) to ‘love’, specifically ‘love of God’, which A) disconnects one’s spiritual life from every other part of one’s world, and B) is remarkably limiting in actual practice.
- Fear is not an unnatural or bad thing necessarily. I’m afraid of dying of hypothermia, for instance, so when I am winter camping I take all necessary precautions to ensure that doesn’t happen. Sometimes fear is the natural side effect of recognizing the true nature of a thing, and our own position relative to that thing. It reminds us that those protocols of engagement are there for a reason.
- See the entry for reverence at the online etymology dictionary.