Category Archives: Lived Polytheism
So I was recently reading “Amazing Grace” by Kathleen Norris and while overall I found the book rather simplistic and at times naive, every so often I found a gem. One such was a brief discussion (p. 72) on something she terms “idolatry of the self.” I was struck by this passage because I think it nails so much about current threads in Paganism. We bring the poison of our over-culture with us, after all, even as we convert and it can be a damned difficult thing to root out. Here’s the passage that gripped me so:
“The profound skepticism of our age, the mistrust of all that has been handed to us by our grandfathers and grandmothers as tradition, has led to a curious failure of imagination, manifested in language that is thoroughly comfortable, and satisfyingly unchallenging. A hymn whose name I have forgotten cheerfully asks God to “make our goals your own.” A so-called prayer of confession confesses nothing but whines to God “that we have hindered your will and way for us by keeping portions of our lives apart from your influence.” to my ear, such language reflects an idolatry of ourselves, that is, the notion that the measure of what we can understand, what is readily comprehensible and acceptable to us, is also the measure of God. It leads too many clerics to simply trounce on mystery …”.
While she is referring to her own Christian experience, I think that the same trend is found in large part in contemporary Paganism and even Polytheism. We work so hard to make ourselves the limits of our Gods. Our comfort becomes the highest good, and we doggedly flee anything that challenges our fiercely held comfort zones. It’s not religion many of us are seeking but self-validation. Mystery challenges all of that.
Mystery is not about comfort. I think many of us talk blithely about “mystery traditions” without ever realizing what that truly entails. It’s a fancy word for experiences of the sacred that have the potential to tear one’s life to shreds. Mystery renders. It distills. It is an atomic explosion, Rumi’s knife in the dark. It is not the experience of a Deity in the bright, clarifying light of day, but rather the terror in the night that throws us down into the piss and shit of our own ugliness, that then rips us open and leaves us arched and bleeding on the dark empty floor of our souls. Then all of that is stripped away too, and we are brought into the heart of the Powers and spat forth again in dizzying ecstasy, mad dervishes whirling forth vomiting up color and poetry and song into a world rich only in its emptiness.
It always seems to come as a surprise when the focus of the spiritual experience is not on us. I think this is *the* point of tension within contemporary Pagan and Polytheist religions. Is it about us, our feelings, our morality, our wants or is it about something greater than we, something ancient, elder, and Holy? We whine to the Gods to reinforce the boundaries of the narrow worlds we’ve created for ourselves and condemn those Gods when They do anything but. We are self-absorbed children resentfully, petulantly working through mommy and daddy issues and wondering why our traditions aren’t’ sustainable at all. But then we shouldn’t wonder when we reject tradition in favor of feel-good exceptionalism and the illusion that we are courting ancient Mysteries. But when Mystery comes calling we piss ourselves trying to escape it.
This isn’t just a Pagan or Polytheist problem. I think it is the influence of modernity on all aspects of devotion. We have a culture in equal parts hungry for and disdainful of mystery. Norris noted in her book something that I’ve seen other Christian authors comment upon as well: the attempted erasure of mystery within Catholicism and other forms of Christianity. In many respects it was the protestant agenda. It certainly does make all aspects of religion accessible to everyone when Mystery is removed, accessible to everyone and truly meaningful to none.
In my opinion, a huge part of the problem is the ingrained arrogant belief that we are “evolved,” and superior to our ancestors. We want what we want on our terms, without any inconvenience rather than with the raw integrity and humility of actual engagement. Instead of looking at what our ancestors were doing right when polytheism was the world, we claim superiority and hold fast to the imprint of two thousand years of monotheism on our spiritual psyches. Throw in a little bit of contemporary self-absorption and one wonders why we bother at all. Polytheistic religions do not offer instant salvation. They offer a chance to right the breach of ancient contracts, to restore and renew and transform our world, to regain right relationship with Powers we can only begin to imagine. That is terrifyingly hard work, challenging work, rewarding work. It is work that reminds us that we are not at the center of it all, but merely one part of the problem and hopefully one part of its solution. It is work that reminds us there is indeed a hierarchy out there and it is good and natural. It’s work that begins with the first prayer uttered and the first offering made and ends in reverence for Mystery, Mysteries to which we may never be given entry; and in between is an awareness of our own pollution.
I don’t have any solutions to this. I only know that our traditions are worth fighting for, they are worth plumbing the depths of our cultural and spiritual pollution and fighting our way back to the right relationship our people once had with their Powers. It’s worth the attempt. It’s worth seeing clearly the abyss of emptiness that our culture terms ‘normal,’ and primes us to want with all our being. It’s worth rejecting that and seeking instead a path of integrity. The Gods are worth the fight. They are worth confronting ourselves for. They are worth fighting step by painful and wrenching step to be worthy of what Mysteries They bestow. Somewhere along the way, for the promise of salvation, for the lure of ‘progress’ we sacrificed ourselves and the wisdom and sacred rites of our ancestors. It’s worth the long hard battle to get them back. Perhaps that is what faith is: a long term belief that restoration is possible. In the end I have faith. I have faith that, though it may take generations, we can restore all that was lost. When it seems the most hopeless, I have faith because the ancestors are at our backs and the Gods above and below are there, waiting only for us to cross the chasm of our own self-absorption and fear. I have faith that we can do this uphill though the battle may seem. I have faith that when we fall at last into Mystery, should our Gods grant that it be so, we will have the courage to throw ourselves forward and carry those Mysteries back to transform the world and faith is stubborn, stubborn thing. Sometimes, it is enough.
(originally posted in 2014)
Last week I had a FB discussion with a former Heathen, who has since left Heathenry to become agnostic. We were arguing over the death of that missionary who tried to pollute the Sentinalese. I considered his death well deserved and my interlocutor disagreed. I had assumed that I was arguing with a co-religionist but it was almost immediately apparent that our worldviews were drastically different and finally it came out that he was agnostic. He had left Heathenry because the community was mean (whine whine), and there were white supremacists, and blah blah SJW talk blah. Dealing with Heathens of all different approaches and opinions apparently proved too much of a challenge to his “progressive” values. Ok fine. Bye and don’t let the door hit you on the way out. I wish you well. But I also said that our disagreement, in light of this, made perfect sense. At which point, he first starts trying to explain why he’s become agnostic (I do not care. In fact, I could not possibly care less why you chose to abandon your Gods and I certainly don’t want to hear your life story unless you’re paying me to provide pastoral counseling and probably not even then) (1) and when that wasn’t well received, opined “don’t you think my path is as valid as yours?” um, no, I don’t.
Firstly, it’s a mistake to fetishize community. Yes, we all want it. Yes, it’s important. It is not, however, equal to the Gods. Religion is all about being in right relationship with the Gods. That a community is not, should not impact the faith of the individual. That’s a hard thing, I know that but I don’t think anyone should belong to a particular religion solely because of the community. People are fallible and it’s inevitable that at times they will disappoint, sometimes deeply. One’s faith should not rest on the infallibility of any human creation. One’s faith should instead rest on experience of the Gods and ancestors, devotion to Them, and a commitment to veneration.
Secondly, why on earth would I consider an agnostic (or atheist, or anything else, including other religious positions) point of view as valid as that of polytheism? From the perspective of devotion, it’s simply not. One either believes in one’s tradition and Gods and values those things as the highest good or one doesn’t. If one does, then that is obviously the healthiest and best position one might hold; and while I may not condemn someone for making a different choice, neither do I have space for them in my emotional or spiritual world (and we’re not even talking potential miasma). From the perspective of faith, all religions and choices are not actually equal and what’s more, they don’t have to be. We are not, after all, attempting to build one overarching religion. Everyone does not have to agree. I think we’ve all been brain washed by a society that elevates “tolerance” over everything, including moral courage. I prefer “respect.” I respect your right to follow a different tradition. I will even fight for your right to do so. I do not, however, have any need of your company and I may think you are very misguided, foolish, and possibly deluded in my heart of hearts.
Finally, as a person of faith – at least on my good days ;)—I don’t see the point of allowing those who do not share my worldview to take up cognitive space. I’d rather expend my rather limited energies on building up a devout community, on engaging with co-religionists, and on doing what I can to honor my Gods and ancestors. I remain astounded that someone would think that I would consider any other faith or lack thereof to be equal to polytheism. Our traditions are not interchangeable after all. Our Gods actually matter.
- Inevitably those who have chosen lack of devotion and impiety insist on explaining themselves, but this is usually merely a means of gaining our support and approbation. There’s really no reason to care. I’m not in the business of proselytizing. Nor am I in the business of encouraging atheists and agnostics to proselytize in my presence. I kind of side with the Sentinalese on this one.
For one of my classes, I recently had to read Robert Orsi’s Between Heaven and Earth. In one of the chapters, Orsi discusses the impact of Vatican II on devout Catholics. Now, I personally think that Vatican II was one of the biggest mistakes the Catholic Church ever made (pandering to Protestants in the name of ecumenism, excising devotion, Marian cultus, saint cultus, and embodied devotional practices, putting the mass in the vernacular, easing up on regulations binding priests and especially nuns, devaluing the latter almost all together) and we in other traditions can learn quite a bit about what not to do from it as we engage in our respective restorations. It was a surrender to secularism and modernism and the end of the Church as a functional entity. It was also an outright attack on devotion. That being said, as part of his work, Orsi discusses several interactions with clergy on the matter of lay devotion and it’s that which I wish to discuss.
One chapter discussed a priest, post Vatican II, who was so against any aspect of devotion that he talked about the immense disgust and rage that he had whenever he saw statues of the saints or Mary, or any old school devout Catholic practice. He told Orsi that he wanted to destroy the statues and sacred images and spewed an immense amount of vitriol toward the very idea of actual devotional practices. This is a priest saying this, someone who ought to be encouraging devotion. It was striking and one of the most polluted things I’ve had to read this year. The account involves a Father Grabowski and occurs on p. 56-57 where we have a priest encouraging desecration and sacrilege — in the name, of course, of progress. “’The urge to destroy…haunts me’” Father Grabowski confesses” (57). He is talking about seeing statues of saints, and in the same paragraph, a statue of the Virgin. Time maybe to call an exorcist.
Disgust, aversion, and especially rage toward things associated with devotion or the sacred is one of the first signs at best of spiritual pollution and at worst of demonic obsession or even possession. What so many Catholics would term the demonic, I tend to see as an extension of what some of us term “the Nameless.” Evil exists, evil being that which is categorically ranked against the order that our Gods have created and that They work to maintain. It doesn’t matter what it’s called. It is insidious. It is the thing that we must ever and always guard against in our spiritual lives. It may have only the openings we give it, but it is very, very good at conniving to have us give those openings.
When holy things, devotion, and other sacred things begin to cause a reactive response of rage and disgust, an urge to destroy, that is a serious warning sign. I’ve gone through this myself, time where being in the presence of the sacred has been like razor blades down the skin of my mind, and every single time it has been an attempt to derail my work, to put a wedge between me and the Gods, to pollute. I have regular cleansing practices and this is one of the reasons. After the first time I noticed this, once I took care of it, I heightened those protocols to prevent just such a thing. With those cleansing practices in place, it’s much easier to recognize this state of spiritual emergency and deal with it as soon as possible. That’s exactly what it is too: a spiritual emergency. In better times, I might feel sorry for this Father Grabowski that he lacks appropriate spiritual direction to overcome this, but with things being as they are now, I’m just disgusted. It’s not just that one person may feel disgust, part of their poisoned state is a desire, no, a needto spread that poison as far as they possibly can, and to destroy devotion wherever it might be found.
This isn’t something that only affects specialists either. Lay people are every bit as susceptible. This is one of the many reasons why having a good prayer practice is so incredibly crucial. It realigns us every single time we choose consciously to engage, even if we do so imperfectly. Sometimes we must fight our way to the Gods inch by bloody inch, against the press of “progress” that would cast our devotion as superstition, against “modernity” that would urge us to abandon belief and practice, against evil.
Today I was checking my Facebook and I came across this gem:
“Notice to my friends-I will not be taking part in or hosting or organizing any [Pagan denomination name’s] rituals or [name of Heathen denomination]’s rituals until I start getting the things I have coming from the Gods and Goddesses. I have grown weary of communing with them, giving them offerings etc to have nothing in return for my connection to them. In my world there is suppose (sic) to be reward or at least confirmation that what I do for them is being put on the balance sheet. So until the scales get balanced in my favor I am withdrawing from all ritual work to honor the Gods until they start to fucking recognize and reward what I have done for them over the years. I will honor my class obligations but beyond that I will be ignoring the Gods.” [I am omitting the name of the author as well as his denoms.]
I’m sure the Gods can hardly contain Their upset at this guy’s decision. SarcasmI sincerely hope this person gets the things he “has coming” from the Gods. Oh, I sincerely do. The level of obtuseness here irritates me but also makes me very sad. Someone hasn’t had very good spiritual direction, at the very least. Now I’m not posting this to shame the poster (If I were, I would have included his name) but because I think this attitude permeates, to varying and lesser degrees, large swaths of our community (especially Heathenry). I rarely see it as clearly articulated as the above, but it’s there coloring, all too often, our devotional lives. I probably should have more compassion but I’ll be honest, I don’t. We should be well beyond this by now and one of the biggest issues with Heathenry today is that we have zero structures in place to provide proper spiritual guidance, to provide good, devout models of how one should engage with the Gods, and most of all, we have zero infrastructures that challenge this outlook. We allow atheists to claim community privilege, we shit on the very idea of proper clergy and specialists, we reify the lore as though we were bible thumping Protestants, mock and spit at devotion, and at every turn we give our Gods nothing. While it’s marginally better than when I first became Heathen thirty years ago, there’s still a terribly long way to go and there shouldn’t be.
We all have our peevish moments before our Gods. Those momentary lapses are not a bad thing. We’re human and our Gods’ awareness and understanding must encompass that, given that They made us. The problems arise when this is a default spiritual setting. WHO THE FUCK ARE WE TO ASSUME THAT THE GODS OWE US ANYTHING? This guy whines about all the things he’s done for the Gods. What? What have you done that possibly abrogates your responsibility as an adult for venerating Them? We do not honor the Gods and ancestors because we want things in return – not unless we’re shallow, selfish, underdeveloped, pathetic human beings. We honor them because it is the right thing to do, because it is our privilege to do so, because establishing and maintaining right relationship with the Powers transforms everything. It elevates us and brings us into balance with the cosmological order that the Gods Themselves established. The Gods OWE us? No, on the contrary: we owe Them EVERYTHING.
Attitudes like those expressed in the quote above are poison. They corrode the health of any spiritual relationship. Devotion shouldn’t happen only when it’s convenient to us. It shouldn’t be predicated on getting our way or getting rewarded in some way – it is not our place to dictate to the Gods. I can hardly believe that I’m having to write this. It is not our place to dictate anything to the Holy Powers. We can ask. We can beg. We can even have our occasional temper tantrums but in the end as adults we must realize that They do not operate according to our whims and whining. I can only imagine what this person’s life is like if this is the attitude he takes with those in it. Our Gods are patient and wait for us to come to Them properly. They wait and encourage us to order our minds and hearts in healthy ways and if we allow ourselves to recognize it, often provide us with everything we possibly might need in order to do so.
The Gods do not require our devotion. We, however, are the better for it. Attitudes like the above, even when one is going through the outward motions of ritual and respect automatically close the door to any blessings They might bestow. And really? Why should They bother? That They so often do is one of the most profound graces of our lives. The least we can do in return it learn to center ourselves rightly before Them. Let us know, now and always, our proper place before the Gods. We’re only hurting ourselves otherwise.
I suppose all examples are valuable, even the negative ones and here we most certainly have a perfect example of how NOT to engage with the Gods, how not to position ourselves vis-à-vis our devotional work, and the attitudes and behaviors not to encourage …if we give a shit that is about our Gods, our traditions, our ancestors, our communities, and our faith.
This is, I’m sure, no surprise to any cat owner. Lol. But I’ve been realizing the last few months, exactly how magical these little furry murderers can be. Lately, I’ve become fascinated by folktales and fairy tales where cats are, in some way, the heroes. This all started as my ancestor practices with my paternal, Lithuanian line deepened. Gabija, the Lithuanian Goddess of the hearth and fire, can take the form of a cat and many of my ancestors really seemed to like them. I started getting pushed to get a cat of my own, so my husband and I adopted a little old lady cat from a local shelter. That was eye opening.
I’ve noticed that she wards the house. Whenever there are jagged, miasmic, or negative energies about, she will be our first warning. Even before we pick up on anything, Elena (our cat) is alert and through her behavior gives us warning. When we are divining, she will come from wherever she’s at in the house, sit and watch without interfering with the mat, and when we’re done, she’ll wander off again. She also seems to help at managing the energy of the house. As I’ve been reading about the role of cats in folklore, Lithuanian and otherwise, my respect for the little creatures has skyrocketed. This is an animal I’ve always liked, but never really considered in terms of a working ally. So, I’m kind of shocked to find myself, as a vitki and spirit worker, thinking “cats are cool.” Lol. I’ve even seen friends’ felines engaging in behavior that to my eyes and senses looks an awful lot like prayer.
Cats are of course, associated with magic in much of the folklore I’ve been reading. They are clever and dangerous; they are also often protective. In ancient Egypt, they were sacred. In Japan, they are believed to bring luck and wealth into a dwelling. I think they do. Also, I firmly believe they bring out the best in people. I said recently, only half joking, that all diplomatic negotiations should take place in a room full of cats! When we respond to them, they make us better humans.
Finally, there are two movies about cats that I’d highly recommend. The first is a Turkish film called “Kedi” that traces five stray cats throughout their meanderings around Istanbul. It also shows the sweet and caring way random people respond to them. The second is “Cat Nation,” a documentary about the popularity of cats in Japan. It’s a beautiful example of animism in action at times.
I also recommend “The Cats of San Martino,” a short story by Ellen Steiber in the anthology “Black Heart, Ivory Bones.” It’s a re-imagining of an Italian folk-tale about the King of the Cats. I love this tale. There’s also the book “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles” by Kij Johnson, a beautiful book that makes me wonder about the stories cats tell about themselves.
I’m still pondering this. In the meantime, those of you who have cats, tell me your magical tales. ^__^. And if you have any books or stories to recommend, feel free to post here.
The other day, I posted this documentary on facebook with the comment that I wish our communities were as committed to intergenerational longevity and growth as the Jewish communities depicted in this documentary seem to be. Part of that, I noted, indeed one of the most crucial parts, is firmly being unwilling to marry outside one’s faith and being absolutely committed to raising one’s children within one’s faith. The inevitable pushback to these ideas never ceases to amaze me. Yet, it’s the only way that any type of sustainable restoration is going to happen. This is one of the reasons I think it’s so important that we establish in-person, geographically distinct communities where we can practice our traditions and raise our children in ways that reinforce our religious and cultural values. Religion doesn’t happen without culture and right now, we’re all living and working in a post-modern culture deeply antagonistic toward the very idea of Gods and devotion and especially toward challenging the status quo in the way that true restoration would do.
One of the biggest push-backs I get on the subject of marrying within one’s faith is that the pool of viable mate-material is sadly very small and scattered. This is true. See my point above. In the facebook conversation about this documentary, someone also mentioned the sad fact that finding a “Pagan” man/woman who isn’t an “utter loon” can seem a downright impossibility. (Maybe it’s time good, devout polytheists reclaimed the word ‘Pagan,’ away from non-theists, new agers, atheists, and the terminally confused). That it is difficult does not change the fact that it is essential. It’s less of a problem when one is not planning to have children, though even there being what some Christians term ‘unequally yoked’ can be problematic; but when one plans on having children, issues of religion and religious upbringing that may not have seemed a problem when it was just the couple, quite often become a divisive issue. I’d go so far as to say that if one must marry a non-polytheist, have a pre-nup that specifically states the children will be raised polytheist. I’m a big fan of marriage contracts. So many issues can be countered by a well thought out marriage contract.
I think it also challenges us to re-evaluate what we think the purpose of marriage might be. In a tribe, a unified community with a shared tradition of piety and faith, it’s not just about the happiness of the two people involved (though that is an important factor to consider). Marriage is the building block of a healthy civilization and it ensures uninterrupted transfer of one’s tradition to the next generation. It’s there to unify houses and strengthen the community, to provide for the next generation, and to be a stabilizing force within the community. In a healthy community, I’d actually support arranged marriages (provided no one was forced. That arrangement would, of course, involve consultation with elders, diviners, senior family members, careful evaluation of compatibility, goals, working out of the dowry, etc. and the marriage contract). This is not to say that everyone must have children – far from it. Those who choose to remain happily child free have important roles to play within the community as well. I would think that even if one was not planning to have children, one would not wish to be unequally yoked to a non-polytheist if one could help it. Our generation may have no choice but I’m thinking ahead to future generations, to fully functioning communities, to the restoration of tribes and traditions and what it will be like then. Furthermore, the non-polytheist (in polytheist-monotheistic marriages) must submit to polytheism. After all, unlike monotheism, there’s nothing in polytheism that says they can’t worship their Gods but to reject the Gods wholesale is to challenge the very foundations of a community and that community is more important than individual needs and happiness.
The other issue brought up was that there are different polytheisms and then the question arises of which one gets elided. This is easy to answer: neither. There are more parallels between the various polytheisms than there are between that and secularists or monotheists. I think that within polytheism, if we look at how it was practiced in the ancient world, there was zero conflict in honoring the Gods of two different *polytheistic* traditions. Neither would have to be diluted. but there’s a huge breech between polytheism and monotheism in outlook and an even bigger one between that and secularism. It’s a question of shared worldview rather than specifically shared Gods, one of shared worldview and religious values.
That being said, when it comes to polytheism vs monotheism, all religions are not the same and frankly, we should consider our own to be the best and most necessary. They’re not interchangeable. If we are devoted to our Gods and committed to practicing our traditions for those Gods then it should, in a rightly ordered mind, be absolutely unthinkable to raise one’s children any other way.
I think the push back against these two ideas really shows us how far we still have to go in building communities and restoring our traditions. There is a necessary shift in worldview that happens when one is rooted fully within one’s polytheism. That polytheism becomes the lens through which everything else is viewed and the thing that delineates our priorities. It’s a very different way of living than what we’ve been raised with in monotheisms within a secular state. We will never have proper restoration and reconstruction until this is no longer an issue, until it will be unthinkable to either marry outside polytheism or raise our children outside of it. We struggle now because we lack intergenerational transmission of tradition, well, this is precisely how that intergenerational transmission happens: by marrying within the religions and by raising children within them. There is no other way, short of conquest and forced conversion, and I don’t think anyone wants to do that.
It’s easy to love the Gods when things are going well in our lives. It’s not so easy when every day is a struggle. It’s not so easy when mired in depression or pain or when one’s life is shattering. It’s when we need the Gods the most that it’s the hardest to reach out to Them. It’s so hard then not to become like churlish children, blaming Them, spewing vitriol at Them, pushing Them away in a myriad of ways. I think They understand when we do this (and no matter how devoted we are, I think we all do this sooner or later). I don’t think They blame us for our humanity but I have, in my own moments where I clutched at whatever shards of grace were allowed me, had glimpses of how deeply They ache for us when we suffer. Loki told me once that the Gods number every tear and I believe that to this day, though it’s damned hard to remember when all you want to do is smash your shrines and screech to the heavens, “why?”. (No, this is not a reflection on my own personal life, though there have been times; rather it’s something that hit me strongly when I was watching the tail end of a random tv show that dealt with pain and finding faith despite it). One would think loving the Gods would make things all better – and I think it does, but it doesn’t remove challenges and obstacles and the pain of living, of navigating a sad and twisted world. We are shaped by that world after all and we are human. There is fragility and magnificence, cruelty and kindness in that state of being. It’s up to us what we choose to nourish. One of the most courageous things we can do is choose, consciously choose (and it is a choice) to nourish devotion in the midst of crises.
One of the biggest graces that we’re given though is that the Gods will wait for us. As much pain as I think we cause Them, They are there even when we deny or try to push Them away. I think one of the most important things we can do for ourselves spiritually is not allow jealousy or bitterness or pain or anything else twist our devotional relationships with Them out of true. I pray about this all the time. I pray for lay people and specialists, for those struggling and those momentarily secure in their purpose. Prayer is a powerful, potent tool in this struggle and I think one of the things it does is remind and restore us in relationship to our Gods. It opens us up to Their grace. That’s no small things. The times we want to pray the least are the times we desperately need to reach out. It should be our go-to when things become difficult. (I learned this recently the hard way from Sigyn). This is why it’s so important to develop good devotional habits when things are going well, consistencies that we hold to as a matter of course, a base line that can sustain us when our world falls apart because no matter how devout we are, we move in a fractured world, a mortal world, an imperfect world and those earthquakes will come. How we choose to respond can bring us so much deeper into devotion and faith, can provide us with the most potent of all lifelines or…we can mire ourselves in our own sense of isolation. The Gods don’t do that, we in our pain do it to ourselves. Those times that hurt the most are opportunities to renew ourselves in the presence of our Gods and when we commit to that, we can indeed endure.
A friend of mine told me about a meme that’s going around, people doing 100 days of something consecutively for 15 minutes a day. She had chosen to do an hundred days of devotion to her patron Deity and I decided to do the same for Apollo, starting in the new year.
I specifically chose Apollo because of an unfortunate incident that happened when I was studying (with a study group) for my ‘History of Christianity’ final. We had been given a whole list of names, about which we had to write a few sentences (the professor gave us a “syllabus” for the final exam, so we knew exactly what to study). One of those names was Apollinaris the younger, who in the wake of Julian’s proscription that Christians could not teach (sensible. He said that one could not teach what one did not believe and the Homeric corpus was a huge part of education at the time), rewrote the Old Testament in the style of Homer and Pindar, and the New Testament as a pseudo-Platonic dialogue.
We were sharing mnemonics for persons and dates and one of the students said that she remembers Apollinaris because “Apollo doesn’t exist…” and I was just floored. I think I sat there with my mouth hanging open, so taken aback that I didn’t know what to say. We were little more than a half hour away from an exam and she comes up with something so impious that I was physically nauseous. I made a comment to the effect that Apollonaris may not have been intelligent enough to think otherwise, but many Pagans of the time loved and honored Him. In the course of the ensuing conversation I also made it clear that I venerate Apollo but I still walked away feeling unclean and deeply ashamed that it had taken me so long (out of shock) to formulate an appropriate response. I’ve done div on the matter and know that everything is more than fine between me and Apollo and I have no logical reason to feel ashamed, but I do. This, therefore, is my small way of honoring Him, and making amends.
So, I decided that starting Jan. 1 for the next hundred days, I’ll be making a small offering at His shrine and studying Greek. Each day I will read something and translate it for fifteen minutes and then go to His shrine and make the appropriate offerings. (I just finished day one, reading and translating a story about a contest between Boreas and Helios as to Which was stronger. I’ve likewise made offerings to both Apollo and Asklepios, because Asklepios is also awesome).
I wanted to post about this here because I think this is a great challenge. I read somewhere that it takes about thirty days of consistent work to break or build a habit. I can think of no better habit that I might want to build than one of daily devotion to a God I love. Hail Apollo.
For Your protection,
I thank You.
For Your grace and blessings,
I am grateful.
Teach me to honor You fully and well,
Teach me to love You
Until there is nothing else extant
In those spaces of my heart
Parceled out to You.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been seeing a growing noise on Facebook and other social media platforms that is staunchly anti-prayer. Generally, this occurs most strongly after some horror or disaster wherein people will post “my prayers are with you.” Immediately the social justice crowd pushes back, questioning both the relevance and efficacy of this sentiment. Let’s be honest; most people post such platitudes because they are moved, they care, but are (or feel) otherwise helpless to impact the situation. It is an expression of care, goodwill, and perhaps even solidarity. Take that for what it’s worth; I personally, don’t see anything wrong with it. I see a great wrong with dismissing prayer, however, and of course, those dismissals never stop with the aforementioned social situations but ever and always leech into our communities, which already struggle with understanding, prioritizing, or practicing devotion well (It’s not, after all, as though we are surrounded in our everyday lives and communities with good devotional models. I think we all struggle with this at times one way or another).
To dismiss prayer as a powerful and effective practice is to cripple our devotional lives and our relationship with our Gods. Over the years, I’ve seen many Pagans and even Polytheists dismiss prayer as something Christian. Well, it’s not. The earliest recorded prayers date from Sumer, written to the God Nanna and the Goddess Inanna. We have surviving prayers from Greece, Rome, Egypt, to name but a few polytheistic cultures. Polytheists prayed. It’s one of the fundamentals of practical religion.
Why are we so eager to render ourselves mute before our Gods?
To hold someone in prayer does not mean that one does nothing else. If there is more that one is able to do on a practical level, then it goes without saying that one should do that. I’m reminded of the Benedictine motto: ora et labora (pray and work). It’s not an either/or situation.
Furthermore, having a consistent prayer practice to the Gods and ancestors is one of the best ways to maintain devotional clarity, to keep the lines of communication open, to strengthen those devotional relationships, and to grow in faith, devotion, and grace. Cultivating hostility or contempt toward what is in fact one of the most powerful tools we have in maintaining our spiritual worlds is short sighted and frankly stupid. To pray is to open a line of ongoing communication with our Gods. It is to approach Them as petitioners, it is to give thanks, it is to express our love and adoration and a thousand other things. It provides Them with an opportunity to act in our lives and in our world. It provides us with an opportunity to accept, again and again, Their grace.
What we are instead tasked with is learning how to pray effectively. While set, formulaic prayers can be enormously powerful, it’s not enough to just say any words. Proper prayer is a matter of preparing our minds and hearts. Our hearts need to be receptive to our Gods. Our minds need to be committed and focused on this process. It’s one of the key devotional disciplines that no one seems to talk about anymore.
Ironically, as we pray, we learn how to pray and to do so more effectively. It is not in the capacity of any human being to compel the Gods. But we can reach out to Them, we can ask, and most of all we can trust that we have been heard. Prayer is powerful in part because it allows us to stand in perfect, active alignment with our Holy Powers. The more we do that consciously, the more we are changed and perhaps even elevated by the process.
Because it allows us to stand consciously in that alignment, it is a potent protection against all that is inimical to our Gods and Their ways. It reminds us, purifies us, re-aligns us again and again into our devotion. Every time we pray, we recommit ourselves to our traditions and our Gods and to living in ways that cultivate piety.
Remove purification, sacrifice, devotion, and prayer and what do you have? Certainly, not a religion.
Today I started my day with a mini conversation on Facebook about keeping one’s word to the Gods and direct expressions of Their grace and power. It made me think of two stories, two examples from my own devotional life and I’m moved to share them here.
The first (chronologically too) involves a blot I was planning to make to Odin. I had prepped for it, bought a small goat from an acquaintance, gone to the appropriate land where the blot was to be held, gotten ready and about ten minutes before we were due to head down to Odin’s godpole, this acquaintance comes to me and tells me he just can’t bear to part with the goat, he’s grown attached. He didn’t have the money to return my purchase costs ,etc. etc. I was vexed, because this meant Odin would not get the goat that I promised Him and was trying to work out possible alternatives when my acquaintance comes back in ashen. He’d gone out to the goat pen to find his favorite goat, the one I’d bought for Odin, dead. It had been struck down in the time it took for him to come in to tell me I couldn’t have it as promised. We did the blot putting the goat’s body (after divination of course) on the fire as Odin likes. Moral of this story: don’t steal from the Gods.
The second is a story I find delightful and still can’t quite believe it happened to me. A couple of years ago I had, for some reason I no longer recall, promised Hermes a steak. On the day upon which I was supposed to deliver there was a blizzard. I went to my Hermes shrine and explained that I couldn’t drive safely now but would go get His steak as soon as the roads were clear the next day and in the meantime, I offered Him some alcohol. I felt really bad about it but it really wasn’t all that safe for me to drive. About five minutes later my doorbell rings. There was a man and a truck that I’d never seen before and haven’t since selling …steak. My jaw must have been hanging on the floor as he told me he was on his way home and was hoping to make one more sale. I bought three boxes. Hermes got His steak. Moral of this story: Hermes really wanted that steak.
If we meet the Gods half way, even when we fall short of what we should be doing (by means of circumstances outside of our control), if we’re honest and upfront, They will more than pick up the slack.