Category Archives: Lived Polytheism
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.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve gained insight into the process of ancestor elevation. I used to do it because it needed to be done, but I would do it rather by rote. There’s a Baltic proverb that says the work will teach you how to do it, and I think that definitely happened with me. After over two decades of doing ancestor elevations I finally feel like I have some sense of what it takes to do one well. It finally occurred to me last night, that I should write about this. I receive an awful lot of questions about elevations and sometimes a practice gets so ingrained or even routine that one forgets that not everyone may be aware of some crucial bit.
Firstly, here is a link to both an online shrine to the ancestors and an article on elevation that I wrote some years ago. Ancestor elevation comes to us originally through 19th century spiritualism and was adapted almost immediately by the ATR, but can be done by anyone. The ritual is meant to be flexible and fluid. It is meant to be adapted to the needs of one’s specific ancestors. That is how it was designed. Ancient polytheisms had their rites and rituals for tending and healing the troubled or hurting dead, but since we no longer have access to those rites, this will do. It’s a powerful ritual when done well and it really does help the dead. It’s also quite accessible to just about anyone.
Here’s the thing though that I don’t think I’ve ever really articulated: you can’t do this type of work alone. When we decide to do an elevation – something I always confirm with divination—we are the living keystones here, in the corporeal world. We are letting our ancestor-in-need know that someone living remembers them and cares about them and is deeply concerned for their welfare. We should not be the only ones doing the elevation though.
It is crucially important that we bring our other ancestors and perhaps even our Gods into this practice. Think about it, rather than one person praying for grandma Jane, if you invoke and petition the aid of your entire ancestral house, there are thousands upon thousands (even if some of your dead choose not to participate). Grandma Jane doesn’t stand a chance! Ask your ancestors to participate in the elevation right along with you. You are not doing this ritual alone but rather it’s a group effort; and just as it is right and proper for us to elevate our dead, so too is it proper for our ancestors to participate. This is a family ritual.
In fact, other ancestors will suggest that a certain Deity be called upon. When I was praying last night, about half way through a nine-day elevation for my great grandmother, I got the strong sense whilst I was chanting the Oration, that I should petition Asklepios too, which I did. When I started, one of my dead asked that I pray to Mary. If you can, take their suggestions. It can transform an elevation).
Also, elevations can be exhausting and grueling on a deeply spiritual level. If one’s ancestor is carrying deep wounds or has committed terrible deeds (I usually elevate ancestors who were hurting badly during their lifetimes, but sometimes that led to them making damaging decisions), the process of elevation can really take the moxie out of one. There can be intense resistance on the part of the ancestor being healed, and a lot of emotions like fear, anger, desolation, despair, outright terror, shame, grief can come up in that ancestor bombarding the person doing the elevation. This is normal, but it really can have significant repercussions on the ancestor worker. It’s a heavy weight to bear and sometimes, as the ancestor is fighting for their healing, or in their damaged state, fighting healing, the person working the elevation faces moments where they are shouldering the weight of that damage. It’s a good and holy thing but it is extremely difficult. If the ancestor is actively resistant to healing (but divination and the Gods have indicated it is time to begin, or the ancestors as a group have requested the elevation for the same reason), then it can be that much more difficult to get through.
This is why it’s important to always begin this process clean and to take special care with purification during the nine days of the rite. Depending on the reasons for elevating one’s ancestor, a great deal of miasma and pollution may be released during the ritual and that will need to be dealt with or we’ll end up mired in it. When I begin each night’s prayer cycle, I usually start by taking a cleansing bath, and then I use a scent diffuser (I’m not sure what they’re called: there’s a bowl and underneath a candle. The bowl has water in it in which one may place a few drops of oil before lighting the candle—what are those things called?) in which I use Van-Van oil or Blessing oil or something similar to help prepare the space. I asperse with khernips (myself, my shrine, the space where I’m doing the elevation). Then I go through a cycle of two ancestor songs, one for fire before I kindle any candles, and one for my ancestors in general. I refresh all the offerings (usually just water at this point. Water is important in an elevation because it refreshes the dead) on my main ancestor shrine and make offerings to whatever Deities I’m going to be petitioning too. Then I prepare the elevation shrine, refresh the offerings there, talk to that ancestor a little bit, invite my other ancestors (and Gods) to participate and begin the nightly prayer cycle for the elevation. Afterwards, I cleanse myself again and throughout those nine days, I try to be more mindful of cleansing practices than perhaps I normally would. During an elevation it’s important to neglect nothing. There are times, I will admit, when we can let protocols slide a tiny bit, skirt by, cut corners. This is not one of those times.
It’s also really, really important not to start one’s ancestor practice with an elevation. Before even thinking of performing an elevation ritual, take the time to develop a working, devotional relationship with your dead. Set up an ancestor shrine, make regular offerings, pray to them and for them. Don’t just plop down one day and decide to do an elevation. This ritual is part of a healthy, ongoing ancestor practice, not the beginning of one. It’s one possible part of getting right with one’s ancestors, not generally the appropriate place to start an ancestor practice.
After you’ve spent some time building up a proper ancestor practice, then perhaps consider your first elevation, but don’t begin with the latter. Finally, to reiterate, invoke the Gods and most importantly of all, invoke your ancestors and have them doing the elevation with you. YOU alone are not doing it. It’s a group effort.
I was thinking about prayer last night and I had a couple of epiphanies. I’m in the middle of a rather intense ancestral elevation. This is a healing rite that takes nine days of regular prayers, offerings, and a very special, temporary ancestor shrine for a specific ancestor. It can be exhausting and there is a strict protocol (at least as an ancestor worker. I’m required to follow an ever-tightening noose of protocols and I’ve found it tends to be the same for anyone who works seriously, professionally with the dead). I generally balk and I’m very resistant to the protocols. Someone tells me ‘you must do this,’ and my general response is ‘fuck you’ and then the protocols grate and I get rather pissy about the whole thing. Needless to say, accommodating myself to those protocols has been an uphill battle. I think something changed for me though with that last night.
I had prepped everything, had gone through the opening protocols and prayers and I realized that once I pushed past that initial resistance, it wasn’t too bad. The energy of the thing carried me along pretty well. It’s more than that though. As I was sitting on the floor praying (the shrine for an elevation is laid on the floor purposely), I started chanting the Oration of Aristides in Greek, praying to Dionysos to help untangle the ancestral damage that I was hoping to address with this elevation. For about twenty minutes I changed the oration while silently praying to Dionysos and I felt something within myself shift and settle. I, who am so resistant to set prayer, found it difficult to stop saying the Oration and I realized something that I should have known all along. It hit me like an explosion in the brain. Submitting to the regular discipline of prayer is like pouring water into parched earth. It nourishes in a very crucial, foundational way. It’s important.
I think there’s something about regular prayers, including set prayers, that gentle the spirit, tame it, and bring it to the point of receptivity to the Gods. It hallows us inside and out, clears away the dreck and opens the way for Their Presence like nothing else. I think prayer may be most necessary when we are most resistant.
I get reminded of this again and again in my own practice, this time by Dionysos. Prayer is such a precious gift that we’ve been given. It is what builds and sustains not just the lines of communication to the Holy Powers, but our own hearts and minds in those relationships. It keeps us clean and ready and attentive. It works necessary spiritual muscles (and it’s something you can do even if you have nothing else to offer. In fact, I think it should be the long term, consistent ground on which offerings lie).
It’s important to take that time, to make that time to sit down with our Gods and pray. I don’t mean simply talking to Them, though that can be part of it too at its base. My mother once said that if the only prayer you ever say is ‘thank you,’ then that is enough. But more than conversation, which too often in our pop culture influenced world reduces the Gods to our level in our minds, (and sometimes that’s necessary I suppose), there are prayers of adoration and respect, of gratitude and acknowledgement that raise us up and make our souls fertile ground for devotion to flourish. Like anything else, it’s important to take the time, even when we don’t want to do so. It’s especially important then.
I woke today with a vicious migraine, from dreams in which the Gods visited and protected me from harm. I praise Them and I am grateful for Their care. Today is a day when I traditionally honor my dead, both my own dead and all the spirits I love, but also a day when I lay out offerings to the lonely and forgotten dead. They’re not forgotten by me. I rose, took migraine medication and Excedrin, and staggered about my day.
I dealt with administrative hassles and the joys (yes, I’m being sarcastic) of being mobility impaired while visibly appearing fine. A few emails later, I realized I was hardly the only one at my school for whom this is an issue. I made offerings to Asklepios and Eir and gave thanks to the Gods Who love and protect me. May Their mercy and kindness move into those barren spaces and the hearts of those who will not to see.
A former student sent me an article about the Catholic Church. They’ve apparently translated their rite of exorcism into English and changed significant portions of it. The article, by a traditional clergyman notes that the changes were made by those with no experience in exorcism. I just shake my head. I pray to those Gods of strength and valor to protect us from evil. Whether we feel it or no, there is nowhere we can possibly go that our Gods cannot follow. The darkness is never empty, no matter how terrible it may be. It is a fruitful place.
I think we find our faith sometimes in the darkest of places. I think we often find our faith in the midst of pain and loss and terror. I think there are moments, precipices upon which all the rest of our spiritual lives depend where our souls must make terrible choices and when we do, we fall into the Gods and They into us in ways that alter forever the course of our being.
We do not have to understand. We do not have to be strong. We do not have to do anything but hold space, but be the doorway through which our Gods may come. We carry Them always with us, most especially into those dark places when we think we don’t.
There’s an old prayer (I was told it was an ancient Egyptian prayer, but I don’t know the truth or untruth of that) that I once learned: may the Gods stand between you and darkness in all the terrible places you must walk. They will. If we but cry out and hold the line of our souls.
That I think is where faith is made. Even for priests and spirit workers, for those who can sense the Gods in various ways, there are times that can be horribly barren. It’s the moments though when we decide to have faith that matter, not the ones where we struggle with doubt. I think those moments – or days, or weeks, or months, or years—where we struggle, make that moment where we leap off that precipice into the arms of our Gods all the sweeter.
November is fast approaching and every year I spend this month specifically honoring the military dead. Being the daughter and granddaughter of Veterans, and having many, many soldiers in my line each generation as far back as I can count, I generally begin with my own personal dead and branch out from there. One of the particular groups of dead that I honor regularly is the military dead and in many ways, this is their month.
Why is it so? Partly because we’re going into the dark of winter, the season of Yule, the time when the Wild Hunt rides with Odin – God of war and warriors – at its head and partly because we celebrate Veterans (or if you’re in the UK Armistice or Remembrance) Day on November 11.(1) Originally marking the end of WWI, it very quickly became a day in the US to honor military veterans of every stripe.(2)
WWI, the Great War, the “War to End All Wars” (though now we know it so very much wasn’t) was the war that ended the world. It destroyed whatever naiveté and innocence humanity might have had left, radically and viciously destroyed the overarching structure of the pre-war world (which in turn paved the way for the depredations of communism, Nazism, and the most soulless aspects of modernity), and paved the way for WWII.(3) It destroyed a generation, leveled it, rendered and decimated its ranks of young men. Even those who came back were often broken beyond repair. It was a Ragnarok for the generation that survived it.
Each November, every day of the month, I post something relevant to honoring our military dead. This month, I would like to encourage you to also post (here or on your own blogs) stories of the veterans in your family. Tell me about your military dead, share their memories if you have been entrusted with them (it is a great gift to be so), share pictures and prayers. Each and every one of us here has soldiers and warriors in their line. We have those men and sometimes women who either through choice or through desperation took up arms to defend their traditions, families, communities, and homes. We are here because they made brutally hard decisions. We are here because they did this knowing they might die and that even if they didn’t die, they’d never, ever be quite the same again. We are here because some of our ancestors walked into hell for us. It is worth remembering, worth telling their stories, worth reminding ourselves what valor is and what sacrifice looks like. It’s worth reminding ourselves so we don’t continue throwing way our men and women pointlessly. It’s worth remembering so that we have the opportunity to wake ourselves up out of our apathetic stupor and gather into the halls of heart and memory these men and women who gave so much for those they would never see and never know, who mostly just wanted to get home to their families, and who so often did not do that.
Honoring the military dead, or any of our dead for that matter, is welcoming them again into the community of living memory. It is restoring them to life and restoring us as well. It renews, again and again – every time we pour out an offering, chant a prayer, or call their names with reverence—that vital, visceral connection with those who have preceded us. It restores that ancient contract. It renews the best part of our humanity.
So this November, as I begin this month of remembrance, please share the stories of your military dead too, that more may know them, honor them, and remember.
- To be totally accurate, Memorial Day in May is the day when we in the US honor those who have died in our wars. Veterans Day is traditionally when we honor those living who have made it home. That being said, November is a powerful month for the military dead so I try to balance remembrance of those long past with active work for those living.
- Instituted by Woodrow Wilson in 1919 as a federal holiday, I’m just waiting for social justice agitators to take a run at it, Wilson as with every other historical figure, being problematic in their rather narrow and historically anachronistic world. I’m no fan of Wilson either, truth be told, but this was one good thing that he did. In the UK, I believe the focus is still very much on remembering those who died in WWI and the devastation of that terrible War. (UK friends, please correct me if I’m wrong!).
- So much so, that I’m often tempted to consider WWII a continuation of WWI rather than a separate war.
On the way to the post this morning I drove by the local Presbyterian Church. They have a sign out front that they change regularly and it usually includes some pithy saying or tagline to draw one in. Today their sign caught my eye because of what it said: ‘Making God’s priorities your priorities.’ I thought, “Yep. That about covers the most difficult part of growing in devotion.” Since I was still thinking about that as I got home, I decided to write a bit about it here.
I’ve always maintained that it’s not enough to just believe in the Gods. In the end, it’s not even enough to venerate Them. As with ancestor practice, polytheism is something that should become the lens through which every part of one’s life, every interaction is filtered. The awareness of the Gods and spirits changes everything, should change everything, most especially how we stand in relationship to Them and to our entire world. It requires re-evaluating our goals, our values, our priorities and considering whether or not these things are in proper alignment with our devotion to our Gods and with what our Gods desire. Often it involves getting ourselves out of the way (more on that in a bit). That, I think, is the place where most people balk.
It’s easy to think that devotion is all about feeling the presence of the Gods. Maybe one is particularly gifted and can hear or even see Them. I won’t deny that the capacity to experience the Gods directly is a tremendous grace but, those things are in the end unimportant and focusing on them too much can be a powerful distraction to actual devotion, especially when they are sought or embraced without even a hint of discernment. If our devotion is predicated on seeing, hearing, or feeling the Gods what happens when we can’t do that? What happens when we’re in a dark place, a dark night of the soul, or going through some type of emotional upset that has impacted our discernment? What happens when feeling or seeing or hearing is not forthcoming? Does our devotion go away? Moreover, demanding that we have that feedback every single time we make an offering or prayer is putting the Gods on our timetable, holding Them hostage, subordinating Them to our whims and our needs. It is a violation of the hierarchy of being of which the Gods are part. They are Gods after all, not our invisible friends (for all that They may care for us, nurture us, and engage in a friendly, loving manner with us at times). It prioritizes our desires over what is good and right and proper: maintaining right relationship with the Powers. It reduces the Gods to playthings and elevates us in Their place.
This is where getting ourselves out of the way comes in. I strongly believe that we are deeply loved by our Gods. I think that They want the best for us in all possible worlds. I also think that our own world is poisoned and out of balance and our wants and desires, our egos and hungers have been shaped by that lack of balance. We’ve been taught to value things that are detrimental to our spiritual life. We’ve been raised by virtue of the culture in which we live to prioritize things that are not in alignment with the goals the Gods have for us and that are certainly not in alignment with any developed and authentic spiritual expression. When the time comes to raise ourselves up, to curb the corruption or atrophy of our very souls, when the time comes to change, to move beyond the immediate reinforcement of seeing or feeling, we balk. Sometimes we run like hell. Sometimes we throw tantrums and immerse ourselves even more in those things that are spiritually detrimental.
I’m prepping a paper right now on pop culture and religion for an academic conference and anyone who reads this blog knows that I’m not a fan of combining the two. In fact, I think that absorbing pop culture uncritically can have devastating consequences on our spiritual sense. The problem isn’t, believe it or not, pop culture itself. Pop culture has existed as long as we have possessed the ability to craft and convey stories. In the ancient world, Homer might have been considered ‘pop culture.’ Certainly, later philosophers challenged the Homeric corpus (at least the Iliad and Odyssey) on the grounds that they presented the Gods and heroes impiously. The problem is less the stories we tell than the context in which they’re told. In other words, the problem is our over-culture. In the ancient world, you had a culture steeped in polytheism. Not having yet had the dubious benefit of modernity and the ‘Enlightenment,’ devotion and piety were not yet positioned culturally as primitive, foolish, or potential mental illness. The culture itself was steeped in religion in a way that allowed for the inter-generational transmission of piety and these things countered any potential harm from the pop culture of the time. Even those who may have had a paucity of actual faith were encouraged by the philosophers of their time, by their culture, by their traditions to attend to the proper rituals and otherwise behave themselves. We don’t have that.
What we have instead is a culture that encourages us to prioritize the shallowest aspects of our lives, that encourages us to treat the Gods as errant children, that encourages us to behave, in effect, with gross (though usually ignorant) impiety. We have a culture that encourages anything but deep devotion, and that certainly doesn’t respect any intergenerational transmission of tradition. This complicates the process of opening ourselves up to the Gods. It complicates our growing in faith and spiritual awareness and it complicates us growing into fully developed human beings, human beings in right relationship with our Gods and dead.
Does all of this mean we should never expose ourselves to popular culture? Maybe. If your idea of a good night’s television is the Kardashians please try to develop your tastes a little. But maybe it means that we approach the popular culture that we imbibe critically, with eyes open, aware that it carries with it seeds that could blossom into gross impiety and ugliness in our souls. It’s an opportunity to have conversations, to challenge ourselves and the culture in which we were raised to reconsider and to do better. There are times where I will leave a movie or turn off a particular television show, even if I’m enjoying it, because I don’t want to give that level of pollution space in my head. I don’t want it to take up real estate that would otherwise become fertile ground for devotion. I want the seeds of that devotion to grow in rich, clean soil. Then there are times where I’ll watch anyway, but make offerings and cleanse afterwards, and maybe discuss with whomever else was present why it was problematic, even though it might have been enjoyable as hell. It depends. I think we’re called to do this not just with pop culture but with our culture assumptions, our values, the foundation of our morality, our goals, priorities, and everything in our world. We are called to consider everything.
It is a challenge to allow ourselves to be reshaped from the inside out by our piety rather than to attempt reshaping our piety to suit our undeveloped souls. We may not know all the time what our Gods want, but we can do those things that make us receptive to finding out. We can immerse ourselves in those practices that help us develop deeper piety, deeper devotion. We can accept that this process of doing devotion well is going to have its ups and downs, its fallow periods and its periods of deep insight and communion, and that it will, if done rightly, change everything about how we view our world, how we position ourselves in it, and ultimately how we will set ourselves to changing it.
So yes, I think devotion ultimately does come down to cultivating love of the Gods, cultivating a hunger to approach Them in our hearts, to making offerings and doing rituals but above all else, to allowing ourselves to be changed by the process of devotion, to allow ourselves to be transformed, and to a willingness to critically examine every single premise with which we’ve been raised, and every single thing our world tells us most especially in relation to our Gods, but not just there. And if the idea of aligning our own priorities with those of the Gods evokes resentment or anger, then maybe the place to start is in considering why.
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?