Category Archives: Lived Polytheism
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.
(I”m reposting this piece, which originally posted some time ago, upon request from a reader).
I counseled someone recently who came to me distraught (and I am sharing this now with permission from that person). “There are days when I don’t believe.” She said. “Days when I question. Days when the Gods seem so far away.” She was sure that she had offended her Gods greatly because of those moments where the reality of Their presence was the farthest thing from her mind in the world. I just shrugged and said “me too.” And watched the girl almost fall off her chair.
Belief is a funny thing and while it’s important to cultivate I think it’s equally important not to fetishize it. I know the Gods exist like I know gravity exists. I don’t have to beat myself over the head thinking about it every single day. If for a span of days I don’t feel Them palpably in my world, so what? I don’t consciously feel the presence of gravity either, thinking every time I drop something: behold its power. The most devout person I ever knew, a woman I considered a living sancta told me once that there were times she didn’t believe; but she continued, “whether Loki exists at those times or doesn’t exist, I love Him anyway.” And that was all that mattered. It was that commitment, dedication, and love that guided her devotional life, not abstract musings on the state of her belief. She didn’t let it bother her when it was less than she would have liked; rather, she worked to cultivate it regularly to be more than she could ever hope and in between allowed love and devotion to guide her.
I think it is normal given that we are fighting for restoration, rather than living it organically, that we are picking up and reweaving sundered threads rather than inheriting the full tapestry of tradition passed down in an unbroken ancestral inheritance that sometimes we will be self conscious about our internal processes around belief. Nor am I saying that non-belief is ok. I think, however, that part of building a devotional relationship is learning how to cultivate belief every single day. It’s difficult not to fetishize belief when we are working at a nexus of communities wherein we must fight for space for our Gods to exist but I’ll share with you what I was once taught about it, by the sancta I mention above:
Belief is a choice. You make it over and over every day, throughout the day. You make it every time you choose to engage in devotional work, every time you choose to do something that deepens your relationship with the Gods, that prioritizes Them in your world and like working a muscle, the more you do that, the easier it becomes. Belief moves from the realm of the abstract into a bone and soul deep certainty that sustains.
It is less than about any right belief than understanding that because the Gods exist it has consequences in our lives. Because we are seeking to cultivate devotional relationships with Them, to prioritize Them in our lives, our behavior with respect to things sacred will be impacted. Things have consequences. When one is likewise working to rebuild a tradition, well, that has consequences and requirements too. Getting back to belief however, it’s counter productive to beat oneself up when it falters. It’ll happen. If we think that we contemplate our belief only at those times when it is physically and emotionally palpable, then we must realize that what we are dealing with is an emotion and emotions are questionable guides to any truth. Just because we do not feel belief at a given point in time does not mean that our belief is shit. What it means is that feelings are vague – at best—indicators of ontological truth. Feelings are fragile. They can be affected by anything from lack of sleep to indigestion! We’re all going to have times where we’re just not where we want to be in terms of actively feeling belief. That’s when you make the choice to carry on with devotion anyway, to act in right relationship with the Gods anyway because emotions are variable things but the Gods are not.
I think people often get too caught up in the “feeling” of belief instead of action. In reality it’s not about right belief or feeling, it’s about hospitality and being respectful. One can be respectful regardless of the state of one’s belief. One can treat Them well, as proper guests, respectfully even if one is struggling spiritually. One can likewise struggle toward organic belief and doing so is one of the things that helps to build a strong spiritual life.
I don’t think any Deity expects perfection of practice, not now, not ever. I think that it is the struggles and sometimes even our failures that add color and texture to the fabric of our spiritual lives. I think struggles can be immensely productive and working toward belief can bring us more deeply and closely to our Gods than simply moving through devotion by unthinking rote. The corollary of course would be to embrace those fallow times as deeply nutritive, at least in potential, to our faith but I’m not quite there yet! I dread them, even knowing their worth. Still, and here is the heart of what I’m saying in this post, it’s not productive to beat oneself up for those times belief seems very far away. Just get on with devotion and know that when you can do nothing else, you can still make the choice to be kind, hospitable, and respectful to the Powers.
Tonight, I was talking to a couple of apprentices about their upcoming work (they’re all doing well, but as ever, the reward for work well done is more work). I made the comment that “there’s our time and then the right time.” In other words, there’s when we want to do something or think we’re ready to do something, and there’s when the Gods and ancestors determine a thing should be done.(1) In between, there’s usually a hell of a lot of whining and procrastinating! Granted, during this discussion I was thinking every bit as much about my own work and its failures as anything my apprentices are doing (who by and large do not procrastinate and are in fact, very deeply devoted), in large part because it reminded me so strongly of something my adopted mom said to me once. She was doing something for the Goddess Frau Hölle (I don’t recall what) and I asked her if it could wait. She then asked me what was more important, our inconvenience or doing the relatively simple thing the Deity asked when it should be done? In other words, we’re in these committed relationships and that means prioritizing something over our own convenience or inconvenience. It is the least we can do, she said, given the tremendous honor of loving Them.
This is a difficult thing actually, because I am lazy as hell. I struggle with chronic pain; I’m usually tired, and quite often resentful when told to do something. It’s sometimes hard not to balk at what I know are my devotional obligations – even when I very much want to meet them (I think this is termed ‘cussedness’ in the south lol). But even more, and far more importantly, I like to be in the proper devotional headspace when I do things for the Gods and ancestors. To my shame, I’ve often used the excuse of not being in the right headspace to excuse my own indolence. In reality, I know full well I could have easily put aside what I was doing and gotten myself in the right headspace had I wanted to do so. Part of me just didn’t want to be bothered. Part of me was saying that whatever I was doing (watching TV, reading, some hobby) was more important than the Gods.
All ritual work large and small is a process, one that begins well before a person actually goes before his or her shrine and before the Gods and dead. It’s not that every offering or prayer needs to be a huge show, but the transition from mundane ‘me’ space to Their space, to holy space, to receptive, devotional space is worthy of conscious consideration and transition. It is certainly more fulfilling for us and perhaps for our Gods and spirits too when we enter into the simplest of devotional acts mindfully. It all comes down to the choices we make. If I want to have a nourishing and fulfilling devotional life then it’s on me to make time for it, to set aside the time to develop the appropriate headspace, to tend the shrines when they need tending (not when I want to do it), to cultivate devotion in all the various meandering pathways of my life, large and small. Our Gods, as one of my apprentices said so wisely, shouldn’t have to chase us to get our attention when we’ve already committed to honoring Them and paying proper devotional cultus. It’s the same with our ancestors.
Which brings me to καιρός. (2) This is one of several words for ‘time’ in ancient Greek. It has the particular meaning of the right, or appropriate time, the most advantageous time in which to do a thing. It is the critical moment on which the success or failure of a thing may well revolve. More and more I think developing devotional consciousness means being aware of καιρός in our lives, in our work, in the way we respond to the Gods, and the way we pay cultus. There is our time and there is the right time to do the things we all know we should be doing devotionally.(3) We should be seeking the appropriate time for our devotions, even when it’s inconvenient to our other plans. To do otherwise is a distortion of the very cultus we are seeking to pay.
- Fortunately, we have divination to determine that latter should the need arise.
- While the word is Greek, both the word and concept have been taken up in ritual studies well beyond that particular language or tradition. I first encountered it not in my training as a Classicist but when I was doing my undergrad degree in Religious Studies.
- This is why I have often said that half the battle devotionally is getting ourselves and our egos out of the way.
I really need to thank the Church that’s up the street from my house. Their message board occasionally contains interesting kledones (κληδόνες) for me and today was one of those days. I drove past the sign and read “when God is silent” and I thought hmm, that’s been a theme lately with some of my clients, in my own work, and for several spiritworkers that I know. It’s been a theme that’s been coming up in my theological reading and one to which I return regularly in my own meditations. What do we do when our Gods are silent?
Firstly, we get a grip. It’s not like They owe us constant feedback. This is a difficult, really difficult statement for me to make, but there it is. We are trained up through the course of our devotional work into a set of cultic practices: prayer, offerings, sometimes altered state work, all the various pieces that make up cohesive devotional practice. We know what is right and proper to do. It’s up to us to do it. Doing what is right shouldn’t be predicated on getting a particular response. That being said, it’s really, really hard and it hurts when we can’t sense the divine Presence. It brings up questions like ‘have I been abandoned?’ and ‘have I done something wrong?’ maybe even, ‘Is Deity X angry with me?’
Probably not. There are rhythms to devotional work just like everything else and there are even fallow times. These times provide a powerful incentive to re-evaluate how we are approaching our work, perhaps seek out divination to see if there is something we can and should be doing better, but these times are also a challenge to stay the course. This is where the hard work of deepening one’s faith is done: when we can feel our Gods the least. Because of that, I think that the times when our Gods seem so very far away, absent even, are some of the most important moments we will ever endure in our devotional lives. They are also times where we can renew and refresh our commitment to our Gods, and the way we approach Them. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a necessary thing.
I also think that our Gods need to be able to trust us not to need the constant feedback of Presence. Sometimes what blocks the Divine Presence is necessary emotional work that we are doing, sometimes “down time” is necessary to integrate the results of ongoing Presence, or sometimes our ability to sense that Presence may be impacted by something as mundane as exhaustion, or stress. A huge part of devotional work is learning to put ourselves into the head and heart space wherein receiving the sense of Presence is possible. It’s all about cultivating a habit of receptivity. And sometimes I think our Gods, Who hunt us into devotion like a predator stalking prey, withdraw Their presence to motivate us to hunt Them in return.
When there are extended periods where nothing seems to be working, by all means yes, seek out a diviner and make sure that nothing is amiss. Don’t fret overmuch, however, if the divination indicates that all is well. Stay the course and look for ways to renew the meaning and commitment of your devotional practices. How we choose to deal with fallow periods, the times when the Gods are or seem silent, are the times that most determine our spiritual character.
None of which makes those times any easier to endure. This is where having a good spiritual support network comes into play, colleagues and friends who can support you, elders and diviners who can guide you, etc. Reach out to those people, because when this happens (and inevitably it will, and it hurts the most those who are the most deeply committed to their Gods), it can shake one’s faith to its foundations, if one doesn’t understand how natural a part of the devotional process this is. When this happens, know that you’re not alone. Sometimes it’s just a matter of reframing the experiential narrative in your own mind, from something punishing and painful, to something challenging and potentially very positive and fruitful.
Part of the problem, what I find the most vexing during these times, is not knowing what to do. It’s not just the lack of Presence and what that brings up emotionally, and the questions it raises, and how it hurts, but not knowing what to do to remedy the situation. Sometimes there is nothing one can do but continue one’s practices, staying the devotional course. Sometimes though (and this is where I am grateful our traditions are traditions of diviners) it’s a good chance to evaluate why you’re doing specific practices and how and whether they’ve been working in the past or whether the Gods have just been indulgent because you were trying. This is where spiritual direction, divination and all the other spiritual tools and technologies we have at our disposal come in. The times when our Gods are silent are a call to renew and restore our devotional worlds, our commitments to the Powers, our commitment to bringing Their mysteries into ourselves (or ourselves into those mysteries as much as we are permitted) and into our world. They’re potentially powerful times. It’s all about considering the narrative.
I read somewhere that for Catholics, the greatest mortal sin is despair. I tend to agree, though I don’t see it as a sin so much as the most enormously damaging thing to invite into our hearts and minds and spirits. I think when we open the door to indulging despair we’re closing the door to our Gods. I also think that despair is insidious and maybe one of the things the fallow spiritual times do is strengthen us against its call, because we are with our Gods whether we can actively sense Them or not, and once we truly know that, it armors us against the depredations of despair. It armors us as the Gods Themselves sustain us. Silent times give us the opportunity to choose devotion to the Gods again, and there is power in such a choice. It gives us time to conquer the fear that we are not loved and cherished by our Gods, and a hollow, resonant moment to hold the opportunity to realize again and again how deeply we are. In the end, that’s a good and necessary thing. In the end, it will bring us deeper into communion with our Gods if we can but stay the course.