Well, firstly, the Gods are always there. The question really should be, what do I do when I can’t sense or hear Them anymore?
This is an important question and a painful one. Those times will happen in the midst of the deepest devotion. Christian writers would call times like this a ‘dark night of the soul’, but it’s part and parcel of spiritual life that there are fallow times. If handled properly, which I’ll talk about in a bit, those times can be some of the most fruitful. Weird, right? (Also weird, or at least a nice bit of synchronicity, that I was in the middle of writing this, about halfway done, when it came up in a comments thread on one of my posts).
The first thing I would say right away is that with few exceptions (and those exceptions can be teased out via divination, since that is a sacred tool that we have at our disposal. Respect your diviners, people.) this is not punishment. It doesn’t happen because the Gods are angry. It doesn’t happen because you’ve done something wrong. Like anything else, there is a rhythm to our spiritual lives and that includes certain plateaus.
Secondly, fallow times can be extremely productive. They build our spiritual muscles, so to speak. It’s easy, after all, to engage devotionally when you’re getting feedback, even the feedback of just having a palpable sense that the Gods are *there*. It’s not so easy when that’s not happening. Here’s the thing though, we need to be able to do our devotion even when we’re not feeling the feedback partly because it’s not about us – we’re not owed constant pats on the head (and I know this looks harsh in print even to me, but I really don’t mean it that way. It’s perfectly natural to want to have that reciprocal sense of the Gods to Whom we’re devoted. There’s nothing at all wrong with that. Most people can’t sense Them as a general rule. When we can, every single time we can, it’s a grace and a blessing). Anything can disrupt that on our end. Maybe we’re tired, stressed, getting sick. Maybe we’re distracted. Maybe it’s a plateau that presages a time of deep spiritual growth. We’re never going to know unless we stay the course.
That’s the most important advice I can possibly give when one stumbles into one’s dark night of the soul: stay the course. Continue with your devotions. Make your offerings. Pray. Understand that just because at this moment, for whatever reason, you’re not sensing the divine Presence, well, that doesn’t mean the Gods are absent. It just means that, again, for whatever reason, you’re not able to sense Them at this time. I might increase my ritual cleansing regimen…miasma/spiritual pollution can gunk up our ability to sense the Holy, so I might make sure I’ve got everything under control there, but otherwise, I would not worry (1).
Longing is a powerful means by which to find one’s way to the Gods. Longing renews us and it renews our devotional connections. I think there is a mystery there to be untangled. There’s a powerful grace in coming to Them in utter longing for Their presence. Maybe that’s what these fallow times are meant, in part, to show us.
Regardless, if this happens to you, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad polytheist. Make sure you haven’t been neglecting your devotional work and prayer (I find the spiritual senses, much like physical muscles can become blunted through lack of use), but if all is in order there, continue as you have begun and trust your Gods. There is wisdom in the dark nights. We learn to cleave to Them in faith and surety if we persevere and that is a powerful thing. After all, when you can sense the divine Presence, it’s not really faith; it’s a special type of knowledge. The faith is a discipline that we need to develop too.
- While sometimes it is the result of one’s negative actions, miasma can be a purely neutral thing, simple consequence of one’s surroundings. For instance, it is right and proper to visit the graves of your ancestors and leave offerings. That’s a holy thing. When you do that, you’re exposing yourself to a particular type of miasma, of spiritual pollution. It’s not bad or evil. It just is. It’s a different state of being. Therefore, it’s necessary to cleanse that away when you get home (and in that case, I’d do it by ablution with khernips). One of the consequences of miasma is that it can interfere with our spiritual clarity. That’s why it’s so important to [spiritually] cleanse oneself regularly.
This is not a topic I expected to write about but it came up in conversation today and this gave me a chance to organize and articulate my thoughts on the topic. A couple of days, a colleague sent me this article about a Catholic woman who has formally taken vows as a sworn, consecrated virgin. This is the second woman this year that I’ve read about making this commitment and while I have my own thoughts on being so public about such a personal devotional act, it did make me think.(1)
Now this isn’t something that the average Pagan or Polytheist has to worry about. For the most part, we don’t have requirements of celibacy for our priests, shamans, holy people, and certainly not for laity; in fact, I’d say the opposite was almost expected.(2) Still, it’s an interesting topic and one that provides a jumping off point for a meditation on the discipline of devotion.
I say this because the Gods can ask all sorts of things of us to deepen our devotion, and for mystics, spiritworkers, et al, it can be more grueling still. Celibacy can be one of those things. So how does one do that? It’s a horrible thing to demand of a person. It really is. I have several academic colleagues who are Catholic seminarians and they have a hard and possibly lonely road ahead of them. It is a very demanding thing to give over the pleasures of sex, eroticism, intimacy (no, one doesn’t have to sacrifice intimacy but sadly in our culture, we all too often tend to reserve intimacy for sexual situations). I’ve known my share of spiritworkers who had this particular taboo as well and it’s painful, not because one is forbidden for whatever period of time from having sex, but because if one isn’t having sex or behaving in an outwardly sexualized manner in our culture, one may be treated as strange, backward, or other. It can be very alienating and unless one is living in a monastic community (which none of us in our communities are) where everyone is fighting the same battle, it can be very, very isolating. I have heard people of all genders complain that after a certain time it’s damned hard to be single in this culture without being looked at like a ‘freak,’ but celibate? That’s beyond the pale for most. In many respects, the same can be said of many taboos and religious restrictions. Many of them set one apart or they’re inconvenient or, in the case of something like fasting, impact one’s energy levels.
I think that it is a powerful thing when we give ourselves over to reverence in this way: by doing what the Gods ask of us in demarcating our lives as being in devotional service to Them. It can open us up, draw us deeper into communion with the Holy, and elevate us spiritually. It can also be damned hard and confusing and sometimes that which brings us to the point of despair. As someone who carries numerous religious taboos, (not celibacy these days, thank the Gods! – though that was not always the case) I want to share something I’ve found helpful when it becomes really, really difficult and that how one’s mindset toward these restrictions (often willingly promised restrictions) can dramatically help in dealing with the bad times. Recontextualize the problem.
Think of it this way: maintaining one’s taboos each and every day gives one the chance to reconsecrate oneself to one’s Gods every day. Every single day again and again. It’s a process of making an ongoing offering, of giving something difficult and valuable every single day of your devotional life. That’s pretty cool.
The first article to which I link above actually talks about that a little bit:
“Sometimes people think of consecrated life as saying no to something – saying no to sex – but actually it’s saying a huge yes to a much richer life,”
I agree with that, and it’s something to remember when the dark times come. And they will come because no matter how willing we are to give our best to the Gods, to commit fully each and every day, we’re human and we have needs, wants, and desires that sometimes conflict with our best attempts at devotion. So it begs the ongoing question: why are we doing this? What do we hope to gain from it? What is this all about? The answers to those questions are one of the things that enables the devotee to stay the course, hopefully joyfully but if not joyfully then at least fiercely.
Of course, to bring this back to the article that prompted this train of thought, celibacy is a particularly difficult path to walk. For someone bound to celibacy whether permanently or for a specific period of time I’d offer the following thoughts. It’s ok to fall in love. It’s ok to love. This is normal and human and you will be the better for it. Closing yourself off to the possibility of love will harden your heart and I don’t think that’s what the practice of celibacy is about. Allow yourself the joy of natural human feelings. The caveat is that if you’re sworn in this way, you have to choose very carefully how to act upon that love and if, like the Vestal Virgins of old, or Catholic priests today, you’re sworn to celibacy then sexual activity is not within the scope of possible choices.
Also, find ways to get human touch. Even if it is a massage once a month, find an outlet because this is a human need without which we aren’t healthy. There have been studies that show that babies die if they don’t get enough human touch. Why should adults be any different? We may not die, but I think lack of intimacy can warp us in very problematic ways. It’s ok to be bound to celibacy and to be affectionate, in fact it might even be healthy and necessary.
I don’t know what promises my readers have made to their Gods, or what the Gods Themselves have asked of Their devotees. I do know something of the ferocity with which taboos can descend upon shamans, spiritworkers, mystics, and godspouses, so if any of this is a help to those you reading, then I am very, very glad.
- My colleague had sent it to me because I’m a godspouse, but I’ll be the first to admit that celibacy is not required for every godspouse, nor even always permanently for those who do walk that road. The first article that I read about Catholic consecrated virgins may be found here. The article, linked in the body of my post, actually points out that consecrating one’s sexuality in service to the Gods did not originate with Christianity. It was found in polytheistic cultures too.
- Save in particular cases of individual godspouses, spiritworkers, et al.