On Being and Becoming in Devotion
(reposted from last year…stumbled on this again today and thought it relevant).
I was talking to one of my professors recently and we were lamenting the sad state of education in this country. We see it specifically with our Latin classes, since so many of the skills that once would have been basic to any young scholar’s education from day one are now sorely missing. One of those, perhaps the most crucial, is the art of memory. (I’m going somewhere with this, I promise!). Students don’t memorize anymore. It’s become a dirty word. I once got into a rather heated argument with a high school teacher when I quoted a Latin aphorism, one that turns up in quite a few cultures (I first learned it in Russian): “repetition is the mother of learning.” Oh no, she opined, that is awful. It stifles creativity. It doesn’t teach critical thinking wah wah wah. I, having come from a ballet background, where you can be as creative as you want once you have disciplined yourself to high technique by daily, ongoing repetition, laughed in her face. It explains so much about our educational culture. There’s so little understanding that careful, thoughtful, thorough repetition is one of the keys to both learning and excellence. By the time students get to me, while they are ready and willing, most have never had to exercise their faculties of memory and they struggle, unable to master the paradigms and morphology of Latin grammar without a great deal of pain. It’s not that they don’t want to commit to memory, it’s that they don’t know how. Lately, I’ve been pondering the effect these attitudes may have on our devotional lives.
Rather than excluding critical thinking and creativity, the ability to hold knowledge in the depths of one’s memory, is a pre-requisite for excellence in both. Memory, after all, is the Mother of the Muses, the progenitor of artistry, creativity, culture, and knowledge. Memory is the most blessed and valuable of treasures. In the Grimnismal, there’s a passage wherein Odin comments that Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory) fly across the earth each day and while He fears lest Huginn not return, He fears most of all the loss of memory. It is crucial to our being, to who we are, to the very substance of our identities. Memory is the container of everything we are, the seed-bed of everything we have the potentiality to become. At the same time, like anything of value, it has to be nurtured and nourished, developed and honed. It’s an ineffable muscle of mind and spirit, by some of us, considered an essential piece of the soul.
I’m thinking of this now, less due to that conversation with one of my professors and more so because in one of my classes, I’ve been reading about the connection of memory to the soul. We’ve been reading, among other things, the Cistercian fathers, a lot of medieval commentary, and painfully parsing out Aquinas’ commentary on Aristotle’s treatise on the nature of the soul. Not being a philosopher, I’ve had some masterful help in understanding the background as well as the philosophical concepts from a good and brilliant friend (thank you, E.!!). I’ll spare you the ins and outs of that process, but share some of the insights that I got via the most recent readings.
To the medieval mind, if i understand their construct correctly, the physical senses had the capacity to impact the spiritual senses, and hence ultimately the soul. Sight was particularly privileged, though all the senses functioned in more or less a similar fashion with regard to memory and that’s the part that I want to talk about here. Basically when you engage with something via the senses, a simulacrum, or “phantasm” to use the medieval terminology of that thing is created in the memory. That image may be stored in the memory and later recalled to mind. Because it is stored there however, accessible to both the physical and spiritual senses, those things we see and hear and touch (and to a lesser degree taste and smell) have the potential to leak into the soul’s memory, corrupting it. (Now mind you, I’m simplifying a great deal here, of what was a very, very complicated and complex theology of the senses). Memory was key to this whole process.
It occurred to me reading all of the articles and treatises that we’d been assigned that the logical spiritual corollary to all of that, was that one must guard against contagion and corruption through the senses. Of course a devaluation of the physical senses isn’t part of most polytheisms (nor am I suggesting that it should be), however the idea of miasma is. Miasma is a form of spiritual contamination. It is not ‘sin’, and often has no moral shading (attending a wedding puts one in a state of miasma, for instance). Of course one can enter into miasma by means of a crime (murder for instance), but there are lots and lots of gradations and levels. Sometimes even good and necessary work will put one in a state of miasma (tending the dead creates miasma, that must then we cleansed away). In many instances, miasma is the result of encountering something unclean — just as when you step in mud, your pants and shoes get dirty. It’s a natural side effect. In most cases, it’s easily cleansed away.
The ideas that I’m playing with here edge into the territory of miasma, but I honestly don’t know if I’d classify them as miasma…let me unpack this. If we can be contaminated spiritually by what we see and hear, by what we experience, then the logical curative is to be vigilant with regard to our senses. I cringe as i”m writing this because it immediately conjures to mind Christian disgust with the senses, and avoidance of sensual experience and that’s not what I mean at all. I do think however, that there is some merit in vigilance. How much are we shaped by our experiences? How much might our center be shifted by what we watch, or what we hear, or the settings to which we expose ourselves? How much reciprocity exists in the area of experience?
I know as a shaman I eat poison from my clients all the time. I wade in it every time I go out into the world and engage. I eat it or unmake it. I’ve seen the effects of that physically and spiritually and it’s part of my *job*. How might someone be affected by the spiritual poison in our world — and make no mistake, it’s enormous—when it’s not their job, when they just want to love and honor their Gods and live a good life? How might it affect those who are unaware of the danger? So I think about that and then I think about something my adopted mom told me once.
She was what in German is called a “Putzteufel”… a cleaning devil. She once told me that she never bothered to esoterically and magically shield her home. One, she wasn’t a magician and two, she kept it so clean that nothing malignant could find purchase there. She kept it so clean that nothing harmful could get in. Think about that for a minute. I am a vitki and I do shield my home and I can vouch for the fact that hers was the cleanest energetic (and physical!) space that I have ever in four plus decades seen. This was her ‘medicine,’ her way of engaging with the space in which she lived and moved.
Immediately I thought about how that might be applied to devotional life. Is it possible to fill the mind and heart so with praises and prayers and devotion to our Gods, fill to overflowing so that every moment of every day as we move throughout our worlds there is no room for corruption or contamination to exist? Is it possible to have a devotional life so integrated into every moment of one’s waking existence that those things that might impinge upon it, damage it, turn it away from true center simply have no means of gaining purchase? What would it mean for a person spiritually to do this? What would this look like?
I have read of using the names of one’s Gods as mantras to fill the mind during times of trouble. I know that it is possible to be engaging in the world quite effectively and still be almost always praying in the recesses of one’s mind, or to still have one’s mind and heart centered on devotion to the Gods. How can we make it more? How can we go deeper?
In ancestor work, i have learned to cherish my memories of my beloved dead— and by extension my memories of all I hold loved and precious—and to guard them carefully, even from those who think they mean well but who would pry and try to take these memories and the blessings of that experience for themselves. I still share these memories, but I have learned to be selective with whom I share these things. Perhaps this is part of discernment?
The other thing I ask myself all the time is whether or not I maintain just the basic practices of piety toward my Gods or whether I gladly and willingly do more than is otherwise “required,” or requested. Do I do more than I must? If not, why not? (Because let’s be honest, for me sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes no and sometimes I do more but not with any grace).
What does it mean to want to grow in devotion and how can one do that well?
Back to the question of vigilance of the senses, I certainly don’t advocate limiting the mind in any way. I have to admit though that I am careful of what I expose myself to, especially in terms of media. I try to make good, reasoned choices. I’ve walked out of movies because I felt that personally by staying, i was subjecting myself to miasma. There was something grossly impious about what I was seeing (the case I am thinking of involved the remake of ‘Clash of the Titans” wherein the humans are encouraged to show disrespect for the Gods). I’ve read and watched things where I felt that I was unclean afterwards and had to actually go through a cleansing process. I wonder sometimes at the effect that all has on my devotional life.
For me, my one hard line is simply not permitting people in my life who do not respect my religion. If someone is going to constantly try to sow seeds of dissension and doubt, or worse, express contempt toward my Gods, my ancestral practices, my religious choices then they are simply not welcome to be part of my life in any way (and that includes family). Early on, as I began to prioritize my devotional work, I made this decision and it has served me well. I surround myself only with people who make me better as a human being, and who nourish me spiritually. But is that enough? We live in a world that calls itself modern and that is diametrically opposed in so many ways not only to the restoration of our traditions, but to any deeply rooted devotional experience. We cannot remove ourselves physically from the world — nor, I think, should we. So given that every day we wade out into the fray, how can we carry our devotional consciousness with us? Is it enough to carry the names of our Gods in our hearts and minds, letting it resound throughout our being as we ride the subway, or walk to work, or get our coffee at Starbucks, or…whatever? Is it enough to consciously offer a silent prayer with each step we take? Is it enough to know that our hearts are full of the awareness of the Gods? What would be enough?