Category Archives: theology
I recently read this article by a neo-Pagan talking about how pointless and horrible war and war Deities. I found it disturbing then and continue to do so, not because I think war is wonderful, (I don’t. I think it’s hellish and many of the wars that we enter into are completely unnecessary), but for reasons that I’m going to briefly discuss below.
First of all, if one feels that way about war, then what does one feel about the men and women who fight in them? It’s a thin line from incomprehension to contempt.
Secondly, some wars are necessary. Some wars are moral obligations. Peace at any cost is a terrible, terrible thing. Imagine, for instance, had the US not joined WWII what the possible outcome might have been. We have in Heathenry, a concept called frith. This is often translated as peace but I hold with Gronbech that this is absolutely ahistorical and inaccurate. It’s better translated right relationship. Sometimes to put things back into right relationship, to restore true peace and luck, one has to fight.
Thirdly and most importantly, war is one of the domains of the Gods, Gods like Odin, Freya, Freyr, Tyr, and numerous other Deities. Yes, war is part of the Vanic experience. In our cosmology the first war that we learn about is one between the Aesir and Vanir and let’s be frank: the Vanir started it. In Ragnarok, Freyr, along with Freya probably the best loved of the Vanir in our modern community, is so ravaging a fighter that He doesn’t require a weapon. He fights like a raging animal with a deer antler (or perhaps a blade of antler) in his hands. I think this is significant. Freyr’s commitment to peace and plenty does not negate the fact that He is a very capable warrior ready and willing to defend His tribe, and the Worlds at Ragnarok.
War is also the way that Odin tests and selects the best of warriors, men and women who will fight in the final battle against the foe that seeks only the destruction of the order the Gods have made. It is a testing ground, and those who pass living through its fires are much more cognizant of the precious price of the peace for which they fought. It sustains our communities, and there is no civilization that is not built on the backs of its warriors and soldiers. That is as it should be. If one is going to build something sustainable, then there needs to be those willing to fight and die to protect its borders. No field flourishes as best as that fed with the blood of a thousand fallen men. It is akin to the cycle of predator-prey and while not something to be sought, there is a time and a place for its violence just as there is a time and place for the wildfires that cleanse and clear the land readying it for new growth.
To say that war has no value is to devalue these Gods. It is spitting on those areas of being that They prescribe. It is contempt for Their Power. One cannot (and should not seek to) pluck out one part of a Deity’s power, leaving us only with those aspects of that God we deem “acceptable” in our humanity. Freya is Goddess of love and abundance, sex and beauty yes, but She is also a Goddess of war and by negotiation with Odin receives Her choice of the first half of those slain in battle. (No, She is not Queen of the Valkyries. See my article here). Imagine if we thought of Her realm of love and sex as we so blithely do about war. (Yet the way we treat sex in our culture and utter lack of any sense of continence or morality encouraged today is at least as big an issue in the destruction of culture and family as war, and far more insidious).
I think it is best to acknowledge war as a terrible thing, but sometimes a terrible necessity. It is also, because it is the domain of the Gods, a holy thing, as uncomfortable as that may be for us. Perhaps if we approached it thusly, with that mindfulness, we’d engage in it a bit less frivolously or often.
(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.
There’s a meme making its way around Facebook lately that presents us with the story of an abused child who dies and is taken to Valhalla. Everyone, especially Odin, comforts the child and in the end, that child brings comfort to another abused child who also ends up in the hall of warriors. It’s lovely. It’s emotional. It’s sentimental. It’s also utter bullshit.
Now before this piece gets spun by the tumblr crowd as “Galina hates abused children” let me encourage reading comprehension. Let me also point out that an abused child is a survivor. They are resilient and worthy of immense respect. They are not however, warriors. We are so removed from the realities of our ancestors, from the idea that a necessary and expected passage into adulthood was serving as a warrior or soldier, that we use terms like ‘warrior’ and ‘battle’ metaphorically. There is a role for this in language, yes, but not when it’s being used to elide religious ideas. Let’s also be quite clear: the child in this passage doesn’t exist. So those of you reading this and getting your panties in a twist because of what I’m saying are crying and whining about a fictional construct. The idea expressed in this meme, however is an incredible distortion of Norse ideas of the afterlife and that is what I want to address.
Valhalla is home to an elite military force. It is a place where Odin has selected the best of the best of warriors and where He is training them up daily to be a vicious fighting force in the end battle. This is the elite force being trained to prevent the dissolution of our world and the cosmic order of the Gods. They do two things: they fight and feast. They constantly train, brutally over and over and over again. There is one, maybe two ways to gain entry into Valhalla: being killed in combat (and maybe belonging to Odin, if one thinks that one goes to the hall of the God to which one is sworn). Either way, it’s no place for a child. It is a place by its very nature that would re-traumatize a wounded soul again and again. Valhalla is not a place of healing. It is a place of brutal, ongoing training.
This is not, of course to say that Odin doesn’t care about abused children. I think the Gods do care immensely but Valhalla is not the appropriate space for such a child to end up. It’s tremendously disrespectful to other Gods, Gods Who do have a specific interest in and care of abused children to foist this off on Odin. We’re polytheists. We have many, many Gods. We don’t have to copy the Christian idea of forcing one God to accommodate everything. An abused child might be better off in Mani’s hall, or Sigyn’s, both Gods that modern, shared experience have revealed to have a fierce interest in caring for and protecting abused children. Maybe such a child would find happiness in Njord’s hall or even Freya’s. Perhaps Hela’s hall would be best, where a child can meet his or her other ancestors and be given love and acceptance that has no taint of violence or pain; and there are dozens more Gods, all of Whom have places in the afterlife far more appropriate than Valhalla. I understand that the author of that meme is likely attempting to address the helplessness inherent in being abused, and making the statement that surviving abuse is like surviving war, but the reality is that they’re not the same thing. It’s not just surviving a violent situation that makes you a warrior; it’s surviving it and going back in willingly over and over again. Intimating that an abused child will go to Valhalla is one of the most horrifying things I’ve read recently. Why? So that kid can spend an afterlife in terror? Or so an elite war band can be transformed into some progressive’s idea of a babysitter? And what exactly is that child going to do when the final battle comes? This elite war band has one purpose: to fight in that battle and most likely to face their soul’s obliteration doing so. Is that child going to fight with them? Is that really the afterlife that we find appropriate for a child who suffered terrible abuse whilst alive? Think about that long and hard and exactly what that would be like for such a soul (including what it would be like to bond with these men and women and then see them all go out and die).
Moreover, why is it so difficult to allow our warriors to have their own space? Since the ancient world, cultures have realized that warriors and soldiers needed space that was their own because they endure things that only another of their kind can comprehend. It’s one thing to kill once in a fight for one’s life but quite another to go again and again into the clanging, chaotic, terrifying din of battle – willingly—knowing that even if you survive, the experiences that you endure defending and protecting the peace of your people will likely render you unable to ever truly be one of them again. You will forever be separate from that which you fought to sustain.
Our communities have real problems with elite space, with space that is not in fact inclusive of everyone. Fortunately, our Gods don’t seem to have this issue and instead realize that such spaces are necessary for any work to be done, for any tradition to grow, and that our dead deserve to each find their homes. I said to someone recently: we will not have traditions worth defending until we have people willing to take up arms and shed blood to sustain them. Why? Because tradition and civilization are both built on the backs and the blood of its warriors. You don’t get to enjoy these things without this class of people willing to give everything to sustain them.
(“Why do you want to scar me for all eternity? Haven’t I suffered enough?”)
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.
In one of my classes I’m reading quite a bit about the development of scholasticism, that is the intellectual culture of medieval Christianity, namely its schools of theology and philosophy (a simplistic definition, I grant you, but it will do for now). One of the driving impetus of scholasticism was the union of faith and reason. Theologians wrestled with how to co-opt classical learning within a Christian context and what the proper role of reason might be in theorizing about the nature of God. One of the major theologians of the time was St. Anselm, who –in an insomniac frenzy (I’ve been there, buddy, I’ve been there lol) came up with a rather obnoxious “proof” proving the existence of God. His contemporaries and pretty much every following generation of scholars, including philosophers like Hegel and Descartes spent a great deal of ink engaging with this proof, and having had to read way too much about it lately, while at the same time hearing Pagan and Polytheistic colleagues complain about the pointlessness of discourse with atheists, I began to contemplate Anselm’s task.
I’m not going to delve into his argument here. I find it mind-numbing. Those interested can read this article. I also recommend the book Scholasticism by Josef Pieper, who does a masterful job at explaining both the proof itself and its theological and philosophical impact and import.
I am, however, going to address his task. In addition to having read Anselm, much of this was prompted by this piece by John Beckett, which may be read here, and a couple of unrelated facebook conversations on devotion, polytheism, and praxis.
I often find that people will approach devout polytheists — generally in online spaces but sometimes in person too — with the expectation that we will ‘prove’ the existence of our Gods.(1) I have seen people scramble to attempt to do just that and I have to say it’s a pretty futile exercise. It’s not our job to prove the existence of our Gods to anyone. Our job is to venerate Them. If someone cannot look at the world, the universe, the complex and often stunning beauty of nature and see the hand of the Gods in it, Gods as architects of the cosmos, of all that is, then no proof we can ever offer will prove valid in their eyes. If someone cannot look to their own souls and find some sense of the Holy therein, if they cannot conceive of something beyond the limited sense of their eyes and ears, if they insist upon being unmoved by the Beauty the Gods create, then any proof offered would be, essentially, a waste of breath. We are literally neither moving in the same reality nor speaking the same language. Moreover, those who demand ‘prove it’ are not actually looking for proof. They are looking for the devout person to admit defeat. They are looking to crack the edifice of faith and devotion, to pull that person down to their level of spiritual barrenness.(2)
Sometimes this type of thing is couched in terms of spiritual seeking – “I want to believe, help me.”(3) Then of course any kind and caring person feels obligated. Unless you know for certain that the person really is struggling spiritually, don’t. In the end, belief and devotion are choices. One makes the decision to live one’s life in a certain way, to cultivate certain principles, and to behave rightly with the Powers…or one doesn’t. If someone is hostile to the very idea of the Gods then nothing you say is going to change their mind. What you will be doing is entering into space where someone is effectively pissing on your devotion while you’re being backed into an ideological corner by the type of sophistry that makes one apologize for being devout. Don’t fall into this trap. I would not expect a child who was mentally challenged to be able to do higher math. Neither do I expect someone who has categorically taken a stance in opposition to the Gods and the right order that They have ordained to suddenly transform into a devout person by virtue of my words. “Proof” in the area of faith requires a shared world view and fruitful discussion requires good faith assumption of shared good will. If, in particular, that latter is lacking, there’s no point in engaging.(4)
Where we should be engaging is with each other. It is up to polytheists to do the work of polytheistic theology. It is up to us to pick up where the polytheists of antiquity left off, in philosophy, theology, academia, in lay discussion, in developing cultus, in sharing what we do and how and why we do it.
I wonder at the need to define the nature of God, and at the need so often articulated in scholastic theology for forming some reason for God. I think for the Christians it speaks to a certain discomfort, dis-ease, and anxiety over the existence of thousands of years of polytheistic intellectual culture (which they promptly set about appropriating and twisting out of true, I might add.) (5) I think such mental gymnastics can be helpful in a developed faith (though really, Anselm could have used some Ambien) but I wonder at their role for us now. What are we trying to accomplish if we engage in mental pyrotechnics to prove what is provable only through the lens of devotion? What are we doing when we do this while at the same time eschewing devotion? When, moreover, one has the direct experience of the Gods in devotion, is it then faith or experiential knowledge? Where is that line and is it even an important one to define (6)? Do we really think that our Gods can be fully known through the interpretive filter of our minds alone? But oh, the longing to know Them fully and deeply is what drives so much of our devotion.
I’ll end with a prayer my adopted mom used to say all the time, one ironically drawn from the New Testament. (7) “Oh my Gods, I believe, help Thou my unbelief.” Maybe that longing, in the end, is enough. There’s a wonderful image, a sculpture by Bernini of St. Teresa being pierced by the fires of God. It’s unapologetically sensual, erotic, and we see Teresa writhing about to be ripped open by an angelic spear. (Take that any way you wish). It speaks to an experience of God that transcends any neatly reasoned proof. It speaks to the terrible ecstasy Divine Presence can evoke. It speaks to that longing.(8) I can’t help but think that at least some of the scholastics shared the same longing as mystics like Teresa. There was never any need to pit faith against reason. Knowledge comes best through experience, and it is the experience that should drive one’s theological inquires otherwise, what is the point? You want me to prove the existence of my Gods? Give me a decade of consistent devotion and come talk to me. Maybe then, we will be speaking the same language. Until then, your lack of belief is not my problem. Do what the rest of us do: hammer out your reality on your knees in fear and trembling before the Powers. If you’ve not that courage, I’ve not the time. I’d rather read more Anselm.
- It may be that this happens to devout monotheists too – I don’t know. I do think that in many cases it’s a passive aggressive attack on devotion, which is itself a symptom of modernity and its hostility toward religious devotion of any type. I will often engage online if people like this are coming into polytheistic spaces, or attempting to speak for polytheists, largely because they are loud and obnoxious and very good at setting themselves up as reasonable authorities and the potential for this to mislead new converts is enormous. I never, ever, however, mistake their assumed innocence for anything but what it actually is: an attack on devotion. The aforementioned article by Beckett is good, but read the comments and there’s a perfect example of the type of obnoxious behavior I’m discussing.
- No, I don’t think atheists have any business training as clergy or leaders in our traditions. I find it obscene. I have no issue with an atheist attending rituals provided they are respectful, but presuming to have a voice that will shape the future of our traditions – no. Moreover, why would they want one, as so many seem to do? Polytheists don’t generally go into atheist spaces (or any other spaces for that matter) demanding that they suddenly start worshipping the Gods. The reverse is not, however true. I think it’s time we opened our eyes to what is going on here. People, outside my community, upon learning I’m a polytheist, ask me all the time why do I not want to be called Pagan. Many of my colleagues in Classics don’t understand initially why there would be any dissonance between the two terms, until I explain that in the modern communities, Paganism doesn’t necessarily involve any Gods or cultus. Various Paganisms seem to welcome non-belief, non-devotion, lack of piety, spiritual apathy. The focus of polytheisms lies in the very etymology of the word itself: many Gods. The natural corollary to that is that it’s our honor to venerate Them, and good, right, and proper. Sometimes one can compromise, but this isn’t one of those times.
- If someone truly wants to struggle down the long, hard road of spiritual life, then I’ll go to the wall for that person and walk with them as much as I can. “Help me” can be a sincere call and one to which I think we should, if we can, respond. It’s the specific “I refuse to believe, have expressed contempt for the Gods and those devoted to them, but oh, help me see why you do this crazy thing” said smugly and with the assurance of superior reason that I am objecting to here. Of course, some people have been damaged by abusive religious upbringings, by no religious upbringing, by seeing the misery and pain we bring into the world and have a great deal of anger and hurt to work out. Sometimes people choose to do this by attacking in ways subtle and not so subtle others’ devotion. Let them do it on someone else’s dime.
- Understand however, that sometimes being polytheist and having the gross temerity (sarcasm) to not hide it away like something shameful, will naturally cause others to question their own religious decisions. This is a good and positive thing, a natural thing. Many if not most people don’t ever think about why they are whatever religion they happen to practice (or why they aren’t religious). They are whatever they were raised to varying degrees of piety and unless something happens (like a Deity outside their tradition comes calling), there’s little impetus in our culture and society at large to dwell overmuch on this. Of the many character traits young people might be expected to develop in our society, a devout and pious character sadly isn’t one of them. So, it’s natural that when confronted with a religious option they not only may never have considered but more likely have never even heard of (outside, maybe, of history books), that they will be curious and that their own internal questions may start. Be encouraging. You may be the only polytheist they’ve ever met. This is where fruitful dialogue can occur.
- Though Aristotle had the last laugh there. It was the reintroduction and rediscovery of the Aristotelian corpus by the West that spelled the end of formal scholasticism. Some polytheistic ideas just can’t be tamed to Christian appropriation. The reintroduction of Aristotle in the west was the death knell of scholastic theology.
- I think it is. I often worry that I am not a woman of faith because my devotion has been, by grace, reinforced by intense direct experience. Would I prove weak in faith were it ever put to the test? I don’t know. I hope not, but I don’t know. I think there is a particular and very holy grace in being devout and passionately loving the Gods without the reinforcement of direct theophany.
- If they can coopt our philosophers and theologians we can coopt them in return!
- I really do think that pitting faith against reason is a false dichotomy. To a devout person there is nothing more reasonable than faith and to a person of faith, reason is a gift, not something to be feared. Like the fire and ice that drove creation in the Norse creation story, the eternal tension of opposites, these two things feed and drive each other in ways that can be very, very beneficial to one’s tradition. Together, they are absolutely necessary for full, clear discernment too. Faith and reason circle around the same fire.
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.
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?