I was reading a novel a few days ago and came across a line from Seneca “deo parere libertas est” – to serve/devote oneself to a God is freedom. I was so intensely struck by the sentiment that I’ve been mulling it over since I first read it. Certainly, it is a sentiment that I agree with wholeheartedly. I’d just never quite heard it phrased so succinctly.
Devotional living can be hard. Coming into alignment with our Gods and ancestors and nourishing those relationships (which is part and parcel of restoring the ancient covenants with Gods, ancestors, and land) carries with it the challenge of reorienting our priorities, changing the way we look at the world, at everything, and it often involves a certain degree of loss. Actually, I think sometimes it involves a huge degree of loss. It’s difficult, really, really difficult because it changes everything in our world. Doing devotional work well changes the way we are in our world, the way we position ourselves in relation to everything. Yes, I strongly believe that the Gods more than meet us half way, walk with us as we struggle, but that doesn’t make devotional work any less grueling.
I remember once my adopted mom was discussing ‘love.’ She was very much against any abstract, grand, or romantic definitions. She said, “you know what love is? It’s rolling up your sleeves and getting to work.” She compared it to a parent changing a baby’s dirty diaper when completely exhausted and I rather agree with her. St. Augustine (I’m not a fan, but he was right on this particular point) said that “my love is my weight,” meaning that his love for his God motivated him to make changes to who he was and to whom he wanted to become. If we look at devotion as the cultivation of a deep hunger and longing for God, the cultivation and its fruition, then it’s the work of tending that fire of longing, while at the same time of seeking endlessly to sate that hunger. St. Benedict (I’m taking a class in early Christianity so we’re reading Benedict now) gave us the famous dictum: “Ora et Labora” (pray and work). Until recently I’ve always interpreted the ‘labora’ part of that saying to refer to manual labor (which monks would routinely engage in not only to support themselves but as a spiritual discipline) but more and more I am beginning think that it may be a bit more metaphysical, that Benedict was referring to the intense and painful spiritual labor of opening ourselves up to our Gods. Devotional work takes humility and vulnerability, a level of radical honesty not only with our Holy Powers but with ourselves too, most especially with ourselves and well, it can be pretty awful at times. There are reasons why Christian writers wrote that it was a “terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Well, it can be, because afterwards nothing is ever the same again.
Sometimes it’s the very longing for connection to the Gods that hurts the most. It’s fire in the soul, a goad to the heart. It’s a thing that gives no peace. I once quipped that I hadn’t had a single comfortable day since I became a devout woman (I’m exaggerating, because there is deep joy and satisfaction in the devotional life as well, but not by much). That longing is so crucial. We can numb ourselves to it. So much in our world encourages us to numb ourselves to it but if we do that, then getting through the really difficult times, the proverbial dark nights of the soul is that much harder. In the nadir of our spiritual world, it’s sometimes longing that carries us through. It’s certainly longing that encourages us to do the work that helps ensure good spiritual discernment. If we are longing for our Gods after all, why would we settle for anything less? Someone recently posted in a comment to one of my previous blog posts that the Latin word cultus, referring to all the rites and rituals and devotional practices of tending to a particular Deity, is directly related to the word meaning ‘to cultivate, or to tend’ and that is linguistically correct. To pay cultus to a God is to be in a state of having tended to that God and one’s relationship with Him or Her properly. The word itself calls to mind the work of tending a field, the hard, manual labor of a farmer minding his crops – work that paid off with the means to nourish a family or community. It implies a great deal of consistent labor. It’s the same with devotional work, that likewise pays off in the micro-verse of our souls, of our character, of the formation of our hearts and minds.
Getting back to Seneca though, I agree with him. There is immense freedom in consciously, passionately serving a God. It’s not just the satisfaction of being in right relationship with the Holy Powers, but also of acknowledging that when we are in that relationship, so much falls into place on every possible level. When we are given over consciously and mindfully to the Powers that shaped our world, that wove our fate, that nurtured our ancestors, that breathed life into our beings, with that comes a soul deep purpose. It elevates us as human beings. Likewise, we have tremendous free will within our devotional worlds. All things being equal we have the choice of doing this work gracefully. We can cultivate in ourselves those things that cultivate our connection to our Gods, or we can behave like petulant little bitches (and believe me, we all go down this route occasionally). The work of devotion is ultimately that which allows us to experience our Gods directly. It allows us to align our priorities and wills with Theirs. It allows us joy. It places the world in order and us in order within that world, and if we are in alignment with our Gods, then all else is commentary. If we are in alignment with our Gods then They are in alignment with us, and we have the benefit of Their blessing and protection as active, moving forces in our lives.
All of this leads me to the question of what makes one a good person. What does it mean to be an adult and a polytheist and what are the virtues that we should be attempting to cultivate? It’s not as easy a question as one might think given that the answer will vary mightily depending on the Gods we venerate. What Odin wishes cultivated in His devotees is very different in many respects from what Dionysos or Inanna might wish. It leads me to the conflict I see playing out in our communities every day, namely whether humanity or the Gods should take priority in our consciousness. But if we are not serving the Gods well, if we are not in right relationship with Them, then how can we possibly hope to be so with the people in our lives, or with humanity in general? If we cannot order this, the most essential of relationships rightly, then how can we hope to do so with the smaller, yet also important ones?