I’ve been reading C.S. Lewis again and Lewis, in his novel The Screwtape Letters wrote that “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality. ” Contextually, he was specifically discussing what we might call more specifically moral courage. I’ve always thought that courage was crucial to becoming a proper and worthy adult but over the past few years, I’ve come to agree 110% with Lewis. I think it is beyond fundamental. I would go so far as to call it the mater virtutium, the mother of all virtues. It’s in sadly short supply today. Maybe it always was.
Virtue (1) doesn’t just happen. We’re not born knowing what it is or how to live virtuously. We have to take the time to cultivate that which we wish to become. This takes work and may involve failure as we learn how to make correct choices, as we learn to do that which makes us better people, and most importantly, makes us better polytheists. Everything we do, everything we choose in our world, most especially our behavior, should make us better servants of our Gods. That is, after all, why we are here. Yet, where do we learn virtue?
Ideally, we would be learning these things from our mothers’ laps, our fathers’ tutelage. The values and virtues of a functional community, of people of worth and honor, would be reinforced in our educational system, and we would be able to seek out philosophical schools as adults to help us continue learning how to best live. None of that exists today, or rather the first may exist in small pockets, the second is completely lacking, and the third is as non-existent in our communities as to warrant little to no mention. Instead of these things we are given social media and media in general that is hostile to anything approximating good, devout living, and largely absent of virtue — unless mutilating children is now suddenly virtuous. The proof, as the old saying goes, is in the pudding and look at our communities. So, what do we do?
More than anything else, I think this is one of the major issues infecting our communities, and keeping us from building communities that will last. You cannot work with someone lacking in virtue, specifically the virtue of moral courage. It does not matter if someone claims to be an ally or a friend. If he or she is unwilling to stand with you in public, to speak in your defense, to eschew collaboration with those who public attack not only you but healthy devotion and polytheism in general, and to stand fast in the face of the opprobrium of others, then that person is a coward. You cannot reform, train, or transform a coward. They will destroy everything they touch.
That is what lack of virtue does: it destroys goodness. It pulls it down to the lowest common denominator. It spits on devotion and instead inserts the shallowest of platitudes where true courage ought to stand. We have a generation of people who have been taught by public discourse that emotion equals rational discourse, that political partisanship equals devotion, that prayer is useless, that when someone calls you a bad word you should allow that to overwhelm your true identity and slink away in shame, and that words are dangerous. Well, maybe on that last point they’re right: words are dangerous. They allow one to recognize cowardice and lack of virtue and call it what it is without euphemism.
We won’t have functional communities until people learn to stand with each other, support each other, and prioritize the Gods and Their respective cultus first and foremost. We won’t have functional communities until loyalty and faith are recognized as important things to cultivate; until courage is the watchword of the day, hand in hand with piety and devotion. It’s easy to feign courage when there’s nothing to lose. I want to see what one does when one’s reputation is on the line, when one has the potential to suffer real world loss. That is when you know the measure of a man.
Moral courage isn’t the only virtue worth cultivating. While their origin may be problematic, for Heathens, the Nine Noble Virtues aren’t a bad place to start, though I’d add a few. Most importantly, I’d ask: what kind of human being do my Gods want me to be? What are the cardinal virtues, the unchanging moral guideposts by which I can become that person? Then slowly start making the hard choices – and it may involve loss of friends, loss of things that one enjoys, change of seemingly innocuous habits –and stand by them. There’s no easy way to do this. One cannot wave a magic wand *poof* and suddenly become a man or woman of virtue. It’s hard work; and it’s work that never ends.
Failure is going to happen and it’s not the end either. We pick ourselves up. We examine our faults. We make amends. We do better in the future. There’s an old Heathen saying: “We are our deeds.” It’s the deeds I watch. Not the words coming out of someone’s mouth, or inbox. I have a lot of people in my world who say they stand behind my work, who say they support, as I, do the founding of functional polytheistic communities, who even are my friends. Yet I watch as publicly they cultivate those who have dedicated in some cases decades to attacking my work, slandering my name, and attempting to create a community that has no place for devotion and the Gods. Or I watch as some of these people stay silent when I am publicly attacked. You’re not friends. You’re cowards. I see you. I see your true nature. All the rhetoric, philosophy, and pretty words in the world won’t change it. You cannot trust a coward to stand, and you cannot trust them to have any loyalty whatsoever. These are people who would sell their own Gods while pretending to be devout. But you know, if they’re on the right political side of the equation who cares, right? (Yes, I’m being sarcastic).
I think it’s time for our communities to grow up a little bit, to remember that we are first and foremost religious communities and with our religions – if we want them to last, if we want them to matter – come values and virtues that also must be cultivated and sustained. If that latter process doesn’t start with courage it won’t happen at all.
- What is virtue? The term comes from the Latin word for “courage” or “valor” (virtus) and Merriam-Webster defines it now as “a particular moral excellence,” a definition with which I agree. These are the qualities that lead to excellence of character, conduct, and personhood.
Affiliate Advertising Disclosure (because of my link to C.S. Lewis’ book).
My housemate was watching the new series “The Stand” this afternoon on her lunch break, and I sat down to watch with her. Without giving away plot points for people who may not have read the book but are watching the series, the story is about a confrontation between good and evil, the latter embodied in a terrible being that wears the shape of a man. At one point, four characters aligned with good are journeying to make their stand against this creature and there is a moment where they have to decide whether to continue as a divinely inspired prophet told them to do, or whether to stay with an injured comrade. The fallen comrade invokes the 23rd Psalm and watching this scene, I had a moment of such intense clarity that it was painful.
There is evil and pollution out there, everywhere we walk in this world. Sometimes it is small but sometimes it is massive and terrifying. Sometimes we are called to step up and come face to face with that evil. Do not fear. Wherever we go, our Gods are with us. Our ancestors walk at our backs sustaining us. The land itself reflects the power of the Holy. Why the hell should I fear anything when my God stands at my back, surrounds me with His protection, when He fills me with His glory as I stand encircled by enemies. None of the evil which rises against us matters. It is nothing in comparison to the Power of our Gods and when we choose, really choose to align ourselves with the Holy, we no longer have any need to fear. What is there in this world, what force, what wickedness that is as great as those Gods that we love and serve?
So yes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death – places polluted and filled with wickedness, places of foulness and danger, and though I am forced to sometimes engage with people who are also filled with pollution, I will never fear. I will not give evil that to feed upon. I am surrounded by my Gods. They have poured Themselves out around me, through me, through every pore, every molecule of my being. They stand between me and every unholy thing that I must face down. They are with me, filling me with Their protection and Their glory. What is the banality of wickedness in the face of such might? What is evil in the face of such power? I will be a conduit for my Gods until my soul itself is dust glittering in Their hands. Why the hell should I EVER fear that which stands against Them?
I was also thinking about what actors do when they tell these stories of evil. Those stories are important. They aren’t just stories of evil, but stories of human courage and virtue and valor in the most unexpected of places. Just as those that are the most evil are often boring and banal, the man or woman next door, so too are those who might rise up against that evil. We need those stories. We need to see that we too can have courage. At the same time, actors are vessels for forces far greater than they themselves. I was a performer for the first part of my life, granted a ballet dancer not an actor but the same thing holds: those who take up that work empty themselves out and take on the mask of other beings. That is dangerous. I know if I were playing a role now that was supposed to be the embodiment of evil, I would be bracketing every actual performance with offerings and prayers, cleansings and there would be a shrine to my Gods and probably also to Dionysos especially – even if I weren’t devoted to Him, because is the patron of the theatre, in my dressing room. This is why, I firmly believe, that in the ancient world, theatre wasn’t just a good time. It was bracketed by days of rituals and prayers and offerings to Dionysos. The stage is a liminal place and those who work upon it open themselves up in ways that can be very dangerous to the self. The stories told on the stage are important. They have the power to make us better, to elevate us to virtue and help us cultivate the best parts of ourselves. They give us a language to understand what is happening when evil comes calling. Evil feeds on fear. The power of Story, a Power in and of itself, shows us how to move beyond that fear.
May those who do this sacred work remain clean. May they be protected as they open themselves up on stage, before a camera, to forces beyond themselves. May they feel the grace of Dionysos and their own Gods too. May they be safe and nourished in their work. May we ourselves rest secure in the knowledge that the Gods are with us always, That we need not fear. That we are Theirs and They are ours, and in the alchemy of that equation evil is nothing at all.
I tell my students to avoid tumblr. I tell those who come to me to learn about the gods or for initiation and/or spiritual training to avoid people who don’t take their Gods seriously. I tell them to take care with whom they spend their time. I tell them to take care with what they pollute their eyes and hearts and minds. This is important. We inevitably become like that with which we associate. The choice of course, whether or not to take my advice is always left with the student, but I lay out my case early on.
Pollution is an actual thing and I don’t think that there’s enough discussion of it in our communities. As human beings, we are affected by those things with which we associate, by what we watch, by the character and conversation of our friends. If a person is serious about developing good devotional habits (and good devotional character), then early on, one learns to avoid those situations that diminish our spiritual worth.
Instead, it’s important to learn to cultivate the people, hobbies, habits, and things that encourage and nourish right relationship with the Gods. If you’re surrounding yourself by people steeped in piety, it will rub off! You’ll be influenced to likewise treat the Gods with respect. You’ll observe good habits and absorb them almost by osmosis. When everyone around you is modeling right behavior it’s a thousand times easier to cultivate that in yourself. The opposite is also true. Peer pressure, as it were, can work both ways.
Now I’m not trying to rain on anybody’s parade. If you like a particular pop culture TV show, for instance, go ahead and watch it, but be aware of the message it sends. Understand that you’re doing yourself no favors. You’ll have to take extra care to ensure that you don’t unconsciously (subliminally?) start copying the behavior and attitudes you’re seeing. That’s the problem with so much of this. It’s not that any person or thing is bad in and of itself (usually), but that we pick up unconscious messages from what we’re around. We imitate and often do so unthinkingly. We do things on auto-pilot, unmindfully and it’s mindfulness that is called for here. We cannot afford to assume that the structures of our lives automatically support devotion. Generally they don’t and very little in our immediate environments do.
I’ll admit that I find this sobering. It has, however, made me very selective about how I spend my time. We each have a great deal of power over our spiritual lives. We have the power to carefully choose that which will nourish our relationship with our Holy Powers or to choose that which does not. We can choose our companions. We can choose our associations, our hobbies, how much and what we allow in. We should choose—even if one takes away the spiritual imperative, we should always be selective about those influences that enter our personal orbits. I always encourage my students to ask: “What attitudes does this thing or person encourage? What is its/their message? Is this making me better as a human being? How does this further my spiritual goals? What does this contribute to my overall life? My character? What is it telling me about devotion? What does it cultivate in psyche and soul?”
It takes a great deal of personal integrity to do this work. It takes a great deal of personal integrity and commitment and yes, courage to resist the pressure to confirm and to water down our devotions to the silliest common denominator imaginable. We are charged, I very firmly believe, with being better.
Before our traditions were destroyed, we’d have all grown up in polytheistic households and communities. We’d have had ample opportunity to see right behavior modeled and we’d have been surrounded by numerous people and factors that would likewise reinforce it. We’d have had plenty of people to go to if we had questions and plenty of good models not just for how to do devotion well but how to become mature, engaged, mindful human beings. We don’t live in that world. Unfortunately, most of us are not surrounded by a community or family that models and reinforces right behavior. We have to learn to do it for ourselves.
So if you find yourself suddenly become flippant about the Gods when you generally know better, look around and see what might be influencing you. Take stock of your company and surroundings. Likewise, if you find yourself needing to cut jokes about the sacred, when normally you would quietly go about the business of devotion, as yourself why? Take a good, long look at the people with whom you’re surrounding yourself. Take a good long estimate of the media influences in which you are willingly steeped and ask yourself if it’s doing your devotion any good. Ask yourself if it’s beneficial or worth it. Then make your choice.
That’s what all solid devotion comes down to: learning to make the right choices, the most beneficial ones day after day, and that is something within all our reach.
In 1994 there was a landmark ruling: the City of Hialeah vs. Ernesto Pichardo and the Church of Lukumi Babaluaye. As a result of this ruling, religious groups in the US had on the books a precedent guaranteeing the right to animal sacrifice. In 2009 (in Texas!) there was another, similar case: Jose Merced, President Templo Yoruba Omo Orisha Texas, Inc., v. City of Euless. Again, the religious right to sacrifice was upheld. Many of us owe a debt to those men and religious groups who fought this fight all the way up to the Supreme Court so they could honor their Holy Powers properly. Those of us in various polytheistic religions like Heathenry, Hellenic Polytheism, etc. look to these rulings to protect our right to offer properly to our Gods as well and so far, so good.
Today, however, a friend posted something about animals being given personhood status in Canada, and I’ve been seeing more and more anti-cruelty laws being discussed. (I didn’t read the article and it’s since been taken down so i don’t have any details about whether our neighbors to the north have actually done this). This worries me greatly. I am against cruelty to animals. This goes without saying. Sacrifice and cruelty to animals, however, are two very different things. Sacrifices are performed cleanly, quickly, and only by experienced, trained professionals. Cruelty would negate the offering, an offering grounded in deep respect. That being said, i can’t help but wonder how long until the government, or some well meaning group of do-gooders crawls up our collective ass about this aspect of our restoration. There are those of us working very hard to restore our traditions who flat out believe that sacrifice is essential. I personally would go so far as to say that without sacrifice there is no piety. It is foundational. This is not an area of negotiation. More than almost any other ritual practice, I would say this is crucial.
This is also apparently controversial. Today when I mentioned just this question in response to my friend’s post : are exceptions to these laws being made for religious sacrifice? I received a response from a woman I assume was Pagan: “If i can’t sacrifice babies why should you be allowed to sacrifice animals.?”. Because, bitch, it’s my religious right. It is what the rites of my Gods and ancestors occasionally require. and because your white-bred comfort with my religion means less than nothing to me. fuck off. I have very little patience when someone outside of my religious community attempts to compel me or any other polytheist to denude our religious practices for their personal sensitivities. We fought this battle so many times that we’re bloody well sick and tired of having to repeat ourselves. (And if i seem perhaps overly peppery, consider that this was the response received to my question of whether my right to practice my religion freely might be impinged).
I could talk about how the knee-jerk reaction from some Pagans about the question of sacrifice stems from the same type of ingrained self-contempt for the ways of our ancestors that I mentioned here. I could talk about contemporary sensibilities being rooted in disconnection, impiety, and a deep hostility toward devotion. I could talk about the very classist, very Western, post-modern bias that riddles contemporary Paganism. I’m not going to do that though. I’m not going to dwell on any of those things. I’ve written about the importance of sacrifice here and here and many other places as well. Go and read at your leisure.
What I am going to do is to ask you to consider the slippery slope of religious erasure. This is about more than just sacrifice. When I received the above response (babies vs. animals) to my question, I realized that what we’re really dealing with is something that many of us have seen dozens and dozens of times before in the greater Pagan community: the push to cull from our traditions anything that might make the mainstream uncomfortable. So where exactly is that supposed to end? When our traditions are watered down to Pagan standard? After we get rid of sacrifice to make the animal rights people happy, what’s next? ecstasy? ordeal? intense religious ritual? shrines? body art for our Gods? veiling for our Gods? what? Exactly when will people unrooted in any ancestral tradition, unbound by loyalty to any set of Gods, taken up in affection and affectation for the Self be satisfied? When our traditions are nothing more than empty simulacra of their own?
If we’re going to restore our traditions then we need to do so with integrity. We need to stand up and stop being so afraid of making people uncomfortable or, (and this is what i think is really at the crux of it) of being seen as backward or primitive, or savage. There’s a world of racism, cultural appropriation, and religious oppression behind those ingrained feelings that needs to be called into the light — no matter how messy it is—and challenged. When we invoke this restoration, we are remaking the modern world, our part of it anyway. We are dragging, inch by painful, bloody inch, ancestral power into the 21st century. We will be challenged. We will be misunderstood. We will be attacked. But you know what that means? It means we’re making progress. It means that we are a threat to the established order of things and that is good, even if that which we threaten is only the conditioning of a dozen generations of Christian oppression and indoctrination within our own psyches.
I get dozens of emails every month from people telling me that they are nervous and afraid of setting out on the path of devotion: to the Gods, to the ancestors, to restoration. They want desperately to do it, but they have swallowed fear with their mother’s milk. What will it mean to do this thing? What will it mean to poke at the mental filter with which we’ve been raised? What will it mean to root oneself instead in the wisdom of two millennia past? How will one deal with the cognitive disconnect and most of all how will one cope with being ‘othered’ from family, community, and the world. In the end, I think these are questions that each person doing this polytheistic restoration has to answer for him or herself but I know for me, keeping my eye on the goal and staying devotionally connected to my Gods and as free of miasma as possible helps tremendously.
I know that I will never see the end result that we all seek with our work. I know that. This work of restoration will devour my life and I will never experience what it is like to be a polytheist in my own tradition with an unbroken, restored lineage, with our sacred sites and established cultus, restored Mysteries, and unquestioned place of devotion and praxis. I will never know what it is to not have to fight this fight. BUT for each step I take, someone behind me doesn’t have to fight for that piece of ground. For each step another polytheist takes, that’s ground I don’t have to contest. We are growing in numbers. We are growing in commitment and for all those out there reading this, it’s ok to be afraid and confused but don’t for one minute think you are alone. The greatest gift you can give yourself is learning how to hold the line against compromise of our inherent practices. …because as any bitch in a prison cell will tell you, the moment you yield once, it’s all downhill from there.