Owlet asks: “How do you make right after participating in a ritual or group that is disrespectful?”
This is a really good question and I’m glad you asked it here. It’s something that I’ve had to learn through a lot of trial and error, especially when I was much more open to participating in rituals outside my House, and when I was working in the interfaith world. My answer is two- fold.
Firstly, what you describe (which I quote further below) is the real danger of community involvement and I am so very sorry to learn that this happened to you. It hurts my heart to know that your own devotion was impacted by this. It can be very, very hard to come back from such a thing but I will say this: as we learn better, we do better. You’ve had a valuable experience about what is NOT proper community. That will serve as an incredibly useful lens through which to evaluate every other group with which you consider becoming involved in the future. That can be a great blessing. Hopefully, also, others can learn from your story as well.
Now, you ask what one can do. Firstly, ideally, don’t participate in those groups. It is far, far better to remain solitary than to pollute yourself. I think that the desperation to communicate and share with like-minded individuals sometimes pushes us into these situations and it’s so important, early on, to commit to not compromising where piety and respect for the Gods, ancestors, and land are concerned. In this, compromise is nota virtue. Evaluate their theology, their politics, their values, their lifestyles, the choices they make large and small. Separate your personal feelings from these things, because a person can be nice and friendly but in the end, poison ideology leads to poisoning of the tradition and our lives. Do the choices they’re making serve the Gods and the tradition or do they seek to elevate the people and ego-stroking, etc. etc. Is it all about the human condition?
It is absolutely lovely to find like-minded polytheists, and to build communities – and in truth, I don’t think our restoration can endure intergenerationally without lived community. The thing is, it’s important that those communities prioritize the Gods qua Gods and if they don’t, shun them like poison. I would add that we’re never really alone. We have our Gods, we have our ancestors and we can learn from Them and hopefully when we’re ready, They will guide us to working, solid traditions that will augment our relationships with the Gods, not shit on them.
So first and foremost, I would say, avoid these senseless or impious groups. That means making conscious devotional choices about what to prioritize, and about your religious life, and with whom you share that. It means doing some research, asking uncomfortable questions before participating. It means being willing to walk away from groups and people that do not nourish one’s piety. That means weighing everything and most of all being absolutely unwilling to compromise on the key fundamentals of polytheistic practice. I think with the influence of pseudo-progressivism in our communities, we’ve been indoctrinated to think of ‘compromise’ as a virtue across the board. It’s not. If I’m in a ship and the hull is compromised, that’s not a good thing. That is in fact, life threatening. It’s the same with the type of pollution that we can all too often find in certain places.
Owlet’s post continued: “I spent many years as a solitary pagan and polytheist, because I lived in an area where the culture was unusually hostile to such things. When I moved to a large urban center and university town, I immediately got involved in pagan events and groups. I was desperate to be a part of a community. To one group , in particular, I donated hundreds (or more) volunteer hours, a great deal of money, handcrafted ritual items…everything I could give. As I learned over the years, the people running and organizing these events and rituals often did not believe in the gods as anything more than thoughtforms or maybe archetypes, or were at the core monotheists or Christians with a thin overlay of pagan dress. Their disrespect spread from their relationship with the gods, to their relationship with the land, to the ancestors, and to other people, and I played along and became complicit. Now that I’ve left and can stand back, I feel heartsick at the compromises I made to please these groups. The service I gave to these communities distracted from and damaged my relationships with the holy powers instead of strengthening them.”
Again, it hurts to read this and my heart goes out to you, but look at it as a learning experience. It’s often difficult, especially when we’re all hungry for community and companionship, to recognize when something or someone is problematic. We learn, often from harsh experience. I would encourage you to not carry guilt over this. Go before your Gods and ask Their forgiveness if you feel the need, and do a ritual cleansing and then commit to doing better. Sometimes, it’s really, really important to have these bad experiences so we have a baseline from which to clearly and accurately evaluate practices. The most important thing in what you’ve sadly experienced is that now you can look on these things clearly and make better, informed choices. There’s no need for shame about any of that. You contributed to a community that you thought shared your piety. That’s a good thing to do. It’s not your fault that the community was not what you thought. Please don’t carry the guilt from this. Sometimes we appreciate devotion and piety and right relationship all the more when we’ve had an experience of its opposite and the effects of that.
What I would suggest is prayer – we cannot pray too much—and regular cleansings. Whenever I find that I’ve been exposed or have inadvertently exposed myself (and sometimes my spiritual Work requires this) to pollution, I will pray and cleanse myself, sometimes using divination to figure out what type of cleansing is needed. I always suggest going to the Gods, going to the ancestors, going to the land and reconnecting. Ask Them for help and cleansing, ask Them for guidance and don’t be afraid to set boundaries with would-be communities.
It’s easy to love the Gods when things are going well in our lives. It’s not so easy when every day is a struggle. It’s not so easy when mired in depression or pain or when one’s life is shattering. It’s when we need the Gods the most that it’s the hardest to reach out to Them. It’s so hard then not to become like churlish children, blaming Them, spewing vitriol at Them, pushing Them away in a myriad of ways. I think They understand when we do this (and no matter how devoted we are, I think we all do this sooner or later). I don’t think They blame us for our humanity but I have, in my own moments where I clutched at whatever shards of grace were allowed me, had glimpses of how deeply They ache for us when we suffer. Loki told me once that the Gods number every tear and I believe that to this day, though it’s damned hard to remember when all you want to do is smash your shrines and screech to the heavens, “why?”. (No, this is not a reflection on my own personal life, though there have been times; rather it’s something that hit me strongly when I was watching the tail end of a random tv show that dealt with pain and finding faith despite it). One would think loving the Gods would make things all better – and I think it does, but it doesn’t remove challenges and obstacles and the pain of living, of navigating a sad and twisted world. We are shaped by that world after all and we are human. There is fragility and magnificence, cruelty and kindness in that state of being. It’s up to us what we choose to nourish. One of the most courageous things we can do is choose, consciously choose (and it is a choice) to nourish devotion in the midst of crises.
One of the biggest graces that we’re given though is that the Gods will wait for us. As much pain as I think we cause Them, They are there even when we deny or try to push Them away. I think one of the most important things we can do for ourselves spiritually is not allow jealousy or bitterness or pain or anything else twist our devotional relationships with Them out of true. I pray about this all the time. I pray for lay people and specialists, for those struggling and those momentarily secure in their purpose. Prayer is a powerful, potent tool in this struggle and I think one of the things it does is remind and restore us in relationship to our Gods. It opens us up to Their grace. That’s no small things. The times we want to pray the least are the times we desperately need to reach out. It should be our go-to when things become difficult. (I learned this recently the hard way from Sigyn). This is why it’s so important to develop good devotional habits when things are going well, consistencies that we hold to as a matter of course, a base line that can sustain us when our world falls apart because no matter how devout we are, we move in a fractured world, a mortal world, an imperfect world and those earthquakes will come. How we choose to respond can bring us so much deeper into devotion and faith, can provide us with the most potent of all lifelines or…we can mire ourselves in our own sense of isolation. The Gods don’t do that, we in our pain do it to ourselves. Those times that hurt the most are opportunities to renew ourselves in the presence of our Gods and when we commit to that, we can indeed endure.
I recently had a question sent to me by a reader: how do I set up a shrine. I’ve written about this in at least two of my books, “Honoring the Ancestors,” and “Devotional Polytheism” but, it is significant enough as a devotional act that I will touch on it briefly here and now.
Firstly, it’s important to understand exactly what one is doing when one commits to setting up and maintaining (that’s the corollary, the oh so important corollary: it’s not enough to set one up and be done with it. A shrine must be regularly maintained.) a shrine. Understanding this will then dictate the how and what and where. Likewise, the nature of the God or Goddess being honored on the shrine will dictate its composition and the offerings made.
In setting up a shrine, we are giving our Gods a concrete place in our homes, hearts, and lives. It becomes Their space, a conduit for Them, and a place where we can go to make offerings, pray (though of course one can and should pray anywhere and everywhere), and contemplate Them. It is a visible reminder but also, more importantly, an invitation and welcome to the Holy Powers. It’s also a sign of a life ordered around devotion and piety. So there’s a lot going on when one sets up a shrine. Most importantly, it is space for the Gods we are honoring.
Proper shrine maintenance is a beautiful thing. It can transform one’s devotional life. We are, as I’ve said before in numerous places, creatures of the sensorium. We experience our world, including our devotional world, through sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Platonic philosophers often wrote about beauty being a thing that had the power to elevate the soul, to bring one into a greater awareness of the Good and that is true. It also helps prepare the soil of our hearts and minds in a way that creates a fertile environment for devotion. Prepping a shrine is an act of love. We bring those things that speak to us of beauty, that speak to us of the relationship we’re building with the Deity in question to the shrine and I’ve often found that one’s shrines will reflect the state of one’s devotional and spiritual life.
Of course, if one is starting out in devotion, then one may not have a sense of the relationship yet – like any relationship, those with our Gods require careful tending. They require time to grow and strengthen, to flower. They require our time, attention, and consistency. In the Havamal,we’re counseled to travel often to our friends’ homes and exchange gifts regularly because doing so strengthens and nourishes the friendship. (verses 41, 44). This is good advice in building a relationship with the Gods too. So if you are new to this, where does one begin?
Firstly, understand that this is a commitment. While I consider it one of the essentials of devotional life, (or close to it) it’s not something to do without consideration. Better not to begin a shrine than to have one and allow it to become dusty and ill-cared for. Once you’ve decided to take this step, however, the first thing you want to do is fine a good spot in your home. This can be a special table, a window sill, a box (I have one shrine that is in a box. It’s elaborately decorated inside and has little compartments and I open it when I honor those particular spirits – it’s part of my ancestor shrine, not a Deity shrine), a shelf. What is important is that it be consciously dedicated space that will not otherwise be disturbed. I will give one warning: shrines grow. Partly this is a natural outgrowth of the relationship with the Gods deepening over time and partly I find that when one honors the Gods, as that relationship develops, one might be “introduced” or pushed to begin honoring other members of that God’s divine family. So, looking at my own experience years and years ago, I began keeping shrine to Loki and a year or so later, was suddenly moved to begin honoring Sigyn. They now share a shrine. Common sense, and where that fails, divination can sort out whether or not a second or third shrine is required or whether the Deities in question may share.
Once you’ve figured out the where, then comes the process of figuring out the what and how. I usually suggest that one begin with an image of the Deity in question, a prayer card, a statue, an icon for instance. Some people prefer aniconic work though, and if this resonates more then it’s perfectly ok. Make the shrine beautiful. This space will change and evolve as your relationship with the Powers changes and grows. This is good, natural, and necessary. I always feel sad when I see shrines that are bare and sterile. This is space set aside for the Gods. We should make it lush, welcoming, and lovely and how one does that is completely dependent on one’s creativity. I usually try to have a selection of shrine cloths, candles, things that remind me of the Gods, images (I don’t particularly care for aniconic work for myself. I like my icons and statues and such. I feel they help me grow closer in my mind and heart to the Gods). When I make offerings (be it incense, flowers, or anything else), they usually go on the shrine (I may dispose of them later by burying, throwing into the river behind my home, or burning depending on divination and/or the Deity in question). Anything that reminds me of that Deity and brings Their presence to mind is good and useful. One is limited only by the breadth of one’s creative vision.
As an aside, a Catholic friend of mine told me recently about his own home shrine and said this raises eyebrows amongst many of his friends because it’s not the norm and I thought, ‘buddy, I have upwards of forty shrines in my home. It’s perfectly common for polytheists.” Lol.
The most important thing with building a shrine is to begin. There are a thousand and one reasons not to do a thing but in the end, we simply have to take ourselves in hand and do what is correct, not just in our devotional lives, but in life in general. It’s healthy to worry about not doing this right, but it is more important that one begin. Some things are best learned by doing.
Finally, there is always the question of offerings. The most common offerings are flowers, incense, water, alcohol, food, candles, and lots and lots of prayer. As with the structure of the shrine itself, one is limited here only by one’s imagination. Offerings don’t have to be financially lavish. It is possible to give according to one’s means and everyone can at least give water. What is most important is consistent attention. Go to the shrine often, pray, sit and meditate on the Gods. Build the relationship by investing oneself in it. Everything else is a corollary to that.
There was a moment today where I was filled with awe and gratitude for what it means to belong to a God. The path of Odin that I follow is that of Gangleri. This is how He comes to me most of the time, and when it comes to ordeals and challenges that define the boundaries of my spiritual life, they tend to be dictated by this aspect of Odin’s nature. I had a moment today where I realized what that truly means and how deeply and significantly it can impact one’s life.
There are things I want or want to force into a specific shape so badly that I would rip my own entrails out in order to be able to do so. There are things for which I ache, actions I wish to take driven by raw emotion, desires, life paths I want desperately to follow, even the indulgence of certain emotions and I cannot – no matter how much it feels like not reaching for these things will tear me apart – I cannot because of obligations I have to the Gods, because of my reason for being, because of whom They have made me, and whom I’ve agreed to be with Them. I cannot do and be in some ways that I want (healthy or no, good or no) because to do so would be to abandon everything I have promised my Gods; and sometimes I hate it (such a mild word – hate—for the cyclone of emotions embedded in all of this) and I rage and it takes me to a point of almost suicidal despair. If I have also neglected my devotions, if I am unable to slide my heart and mind and spirit into a place of receptivity, humility, and deep love for the Gods, if I am unable to sense or touch Their reassuring Presence than it is very easy to go to that darkest of places, to feel oneself being drawn to within a hair’s breadth of that precipice. But if I am able to reach out, and if I’m given the grace of the touch, barest touch of Their presence, of Odin’s presence, everything changes and I am restored.
It happened ever so briefly today and I realized that in carrying my own pain and rage and disappointments, I carry His. Perhaps this is a small bit of what He goes through, over and over, this most passionate of Gods Who must sublimate everything – even His own desires– to His own higher purpose, His own question for power and knowledge and that which will enable the Gods to maintain cosmic order. Perhaps this is what it means to be devoted to a God, to belong to a God. If I can re-position my own struggles thusly, it allows me to connect so intimately and so directly with Him. It changes everything. Then these things are a glory to bear, and they carry sweetness because they lead to Him. Then, bearing them lightly becomes part of my spiritual work and a joy.
I wish to Gods I could stay in this head space always. I can’t do that though and so I have to bring myself consciously back via prayer and meditation. Still, the mark of that initial grace remains and I am grateful. I wish gratitude to always be the motivating force in my relationships with Them. It resets the soul. It cleanses and restores. It brings a joy so deep that the soul laughs. It lightens and sustains. It restores focus and with Gangleri, it’s all about that ultimate focus. I praise Him, now and always.
I’ve been doing quite a bit of devotional work, more intently than usual, for Sigyn lately. She is such an under-estimated Goddess and I don’t think She gets anywhere nearly the attention and veneration She deserves within modern Heathenry and for a number of reasons (1). She is one of two Goddesses for Whom I have deep devotion and I’m afraid I’d been ignoring Her myself the past few months. Suddenly, though, when I reach out to Her in my struggles, She is there and I am reminded once again of how powerful Her blessings can be. One of the things that I’ve been meditating on with Her guidance is fidelity.
Now I know it’s one of the nine noble virtues, but that actually isn’t what brought it to my mind and contemplation. Sigyn is prompting me to clear my heart and head, to re-center, refocus, rebalance and to reconsider everything that forms a part of my character. We began with what for me is fairly easy: fidelity. This isn’t something on the surface that I’ve ever struggled with…on the surface, not with my Gods and not with my husband. I consider myself blessed in that surface fidelity has never been an issue, but I want to parse that out here a bit more. A friend had asked me recently to write something on marriage so take this as the first post on the topic (though to be fair, my own reasons for writing about it have to do not with marriage but with my devotional relationships. I think I realized some time ago, however, that the same practices and behaviors can help or hinder both).
Fidelity can best be defined as remaining faithful to one’s commitments. One of the things that Sigyn has gently pointed out to me the past few days is that it’s not enough to remain faithful. There are ways to do that poorly, grudgingly, carelessly or mindfully and well. To embrace fidelity in the best of ways is to do so consciously, as an ongoing practice. That means accepting and embracing [self-directed] curbs on one’s behavior in some cases (perhaps not all) and acting consciously from love and a desire for the other’s happiness and health. How do we embody this practice in our devotional relationships and in our human ones too? Do we even give it a second thought beyond the most obvious?
What got me on the fidelity bandwagon was a book I read recently: “If Nuns Were Wives: A Handbook on Marriage from the Perspective of a Nun.” The nun in question is a Buddhist woman who trained in a very traditional convent in Taiwan for many years before her elders and teachers realized that convent life was not for her and sent her back out into the world. She talks about all the lessons she learned during her spiritual training and how they have helped her nurture her marriage. It came up in my feed on Goodreads, and I was curious (thinking, I’ll admit, that it was from the perspective of a Catholic nun – I was bored and didn’t read the description well). I wanted a quick read after some of the academic reading I’ve been doing lately and so downloaded it and dashed through it. Boy, did I get more than I bargained for! While I don’t agree with everything in the book (her willingness to cry seems a bit manipulative to me, for instance, rather than ‘showing softness’), there are beautiful passages and suggestions and meditations on various virtues. Her focus on the daily mundane, (of cleansing oneself, mind and heart and soul, with every act of physical cleansing of one’s dwelling), the grace of maintaining a home, of keeping balanced and loving space, reminded me so strongly of Sigyn that it brought me back to Her shrine on my knees (2).
In one very brief chapter, the author writes about fidelity and this is what struck me so about this virtue, and this is why I referred to “surface” fidelity above. The author says that “being faithful is a state of mind” (kindle loc. 1443), that it goes far beyond (remember she’s talking about marriage) not “lusting after another person” and “reserving your love and affection for the” one you choose to spend your life with. The way she describes it, fidelity becomes an ongoing [spiritual] process of choosing to engage in those behaviors that nourish one’s relationship, and choosing to avoid situations that might not, to curb one’s behaviors where it could lead to the opposite. She makes it clear that it’s something that she herself chooses to do, no one forcing her, and that it enhances the quality of her marriage. This made me question where I’d fallen short not just in my marriage but more pointedly with my devotional relationships as well (because I’ll be honest, since my adopted mom died in 2010 it’s been rough, hence why Sigyn is spurring a much needed re-evaluation and cleansing).
Early on in the book, the author describes marriage thusly:
Marriage is not the easiest of institutions. It requires mindfulness, heart, compassion, unconditional acceptance and often the kind of wisdom that comes with true maturity. It also requires something even bigger and more spiritual than what most people have to offer their mate – reverence.(kindle loc. 152. Italics in the original).
To be blunt, no shit! If people realized how difficult, they’d never do either! Marriage is fucking hard and let me tell you, so is devotion. We come to both with so many unconscious expectations and unacknowledged needs, with baggage: hurts, scars, damage and the space of the relationship becomes the arena in which those things are dredged up and worked on or out. For me, fidelity becomes a commitment to stay the course through the barren times, through the difficult times, through the struggles.
It’s more than that though, it’s a committed willingness to tend the relationship as though it were a living, fragile thing requiring constant care – because it is (and again, this holds true in marriage AND devotional relationships). We’re all self-centered in our hurts, in our needs, in our moments of vulnerability and it’s easy to forget to step away from ourselves and prioritize our partners (or Gods) but I think the practice of fidelity is what allows for that perspective, what allows for one to approach the other in gratitude, in love, with deep compassion, with an awareness of the love the other bears for us. In one section of the book (which I did not mark, so this is my paraphrase), the author talks about a terrible fight she had with her husband. She went to cool off and while she was, she began to consciously think about all the small things he did out of love for her, little things that might otherwise pass unremarked. She found that by calling up the kindnesses, the moments of him tending their relationship, of him expressing love in small ways and acts, she was able to move from anger to appreciation and a more open head and heart space in which to talk. I think it works that way with devotion too.
If we continue with the metaphor of tending a relationship like one would tend a garden (which I like because the word for cultus in Latin also means to tend or till a field), then that also means weeding that garden, not letting things build up, not bottling up needs and vexations but being willing to talk them though with your other to reach accord. Tending a garden means not hiding, not allowing weeds to sprout and grow, strangling the good. That means attentiveness, hard work, consistency, and a willingness to be uncomfortable.
Fidelity also means loving someone just the way they are. We don’t (or shouldn’t) enter into relationships to change the Other/other. We love those people in our lives just the way they are, and hopefully they love us the same. Fidelity grants the amazing gift of being able to be oneself, and allowing one’s partner likewise to be the same. I don’t think two people in a relationship set out to hurt each other, but hurt happens and it’s the same in devotional relationships. Cultivating a practice of fidelity, I think, means consciously returning to a place of love and kindness before acting, before speaking, space in which each party can breathe. I particularly liked the section where the author noted (for her, with respect to her husband, but this is something I want to carry with me in my devotional relationships with my Gods too):
In my marriage, I thought about all those times I resented my husband for not saying or doing something I wanted: for not demonstrating love as I wished. “Why don’t you care about me?” I would silently ask myself. “Why don’t you come talk to me? Love me?” But rarely had I asked, “What more can I do for you?” or “How do I show you I care?” My mentality had been so wrapped up around myself. But compassion is a sentiment that requires one to let go of selfish thinking and to ask, “How can others’pain be alleviated? Are they lonely or sad? How can others be happy?” (loc. 2217)
And that is damned difficult. We’re selfish creatures and our hurts all too often define us. It’s really, really hard to see beyond the sting (or punch in the gut) of pain. But a relationship is like a dance and for it to flow smoothly, both people must be committed to doing just that. I wish, oh dear Gods I wish that I’d realized this when I started building my devotional relationships. I am ashamed to think of the times that I have been (and probably will be again, let’s be honest) peevish, selfish, and just spiteful and mean with my Gods (and probably with my husband too!). Taking those times of failure though, when we are less than what we know we should be, can help us hone our practice of fidelity, can help us to re-evaluate and make it better. (No wonder both atheism and divorce are up – who the hell wants to go through the constant trouble! Lol). Acting with love is exhausting! Except that it’s not, it keeps a relationship vital and charged and constantly renewing itself.
A commitment to fidelity is a commitment to constant renewal. It means that one doesn’t allow oneself to become comfortable within a relationship, to take it for granted, to become dismissive, to rest on any laurels, as the saying goes. And yes, it’s being faithful and choosing not to do that which would compromise one’s faithfulness. There was a prayer offered in the book that screams to me of Sigyn-wisdom: I pray that my heart be as vast as the sky. (loc. 229). So here is my prayer lifted from that:
I pray that my heart be as vast as the sky,
that I may always remember to ground myself
in a place of love, of gratitude,
in a willingness to see, to hear, to care.
May I never fear the vulnerability these things bring,
but embrace the ever-changing, ever-renewing maelstrom
that is devotion…
with my Gods, in my marriage, with my friends.
May my heart open
and may it be as vast as the sky.
I place myself at the feet of my Goddess,
Sigyn, Lady of the Staying Power.
May I learn, oh Sweet Goddess. May I learn.
Hail to You, Sigyn, Goddess of constancy,
Hail to You, Goddess of Devotion.(3)
- I think there are a couple of reasons that Sigyn gets short shrift in our community (not across the board. She has significant cultus in some denominations, but in the more mainstream denominations She’s too often overlooked); partly She is Loki’s wife and remains with Him when He is bound in the cave. Loki is incredibly controversial in the continuum of communities that make up the modern Northern Tradition. Some love Him, some hate Him, some fear Him. He polarizes and this is themajor denominational fault line within our traditions. Because Sigyn doesn’t repudiate Him, She’s often dismissed as a doormat, an abused wife—all because She made a conscious choice to honor Her commitments to a Husband Who loved and cherished Her, a choice that many in our community might not like. I suspect, She’s also often looked at as a ‘doormat’ because Her locus is the home. She tends the home and creates sacred, nourishing space. Her world is the domestic sphere and for all that Heathenry honors the traditional roles of women, I think because Sigyn is not flashy, not overly sexualized in modern narrative, not given a role as a warrior or queen, because She is a hausfrau, She’s often sadly dismissed as weak (which is foolish to anyone who knows the respect with which wives were held in ON homes).
- “A nun told me that when they sweep, they imagine they are sweeping away the negativity of their minds: impatience, irritability, greed, anger and the like. Cleaning the floor becomes a process of inner purification.” (kindle loc. 279).
- In addition to Sigyn as a Goddess of devotion and constancy, we have the also overlooked Goddess Nanna, wife of Baldr. If there is ever a Goddess of fidelity it is Nanna, who chose to follow Her husband into Helheim rather than remain without Him.
I’ve been thinking about love a great deal the past few days. I’ll keep this brief and to the point, mostly as a reminder to myself. Love needs to be tended. It needs to be mindfully cherished and nurtured and if it isn’t, if we take it for granted, grow complaisant, grow comfortable, it can be damaged and then it is so very hard (not impossible but so painfully hard) to restore and rebuild. Love isn’t an emotion (or rather not just an emotion), it is conscious, decisive, willed action. It is choosing to invest attention and emotion, time and above all else, care into the relationship. It is hard, bloody hard work. I think maybe this holds true for human-human relationships too. It’s not that absence can’t be fruitful, but I think there must be a longing for the sweetness of return, not a closing off, a turning away. It’s so damned easy to grow complaisant too and to take this precious thing for granted, to forget that it is something very sacred given into our care to tend. This is the true meaning of paying cultus, of maintaining good cultus: to tend and nourish. It comes from the Latin colo, colere, colui, cultus and the word is used both for tending the Gods and Their rites, and for tending a field, preparing it for seed and harvest. It’s hard, hard work but oh the reward is great.
Whenever we think about spiritual attack, I think it’s pretty common to assume that it’s something only the most devout endure, that it’s big, bombastic – demons attacking St. Anthony style madness, for instance (see picture below). Too often our minds default to assuming it’s out and out ranged battle, or that we’ll even recognize the attack, and see the enemy, and the lines of discord will be equally and clearly drawn. I wish it were that simple. I really do. I don’t think that’s the norm at all though.
I think- and this holds true for specialists and laity– that when we start committing ourselves to our spiritual work, that when we become increasingly more devout, that as we learn and grow in piety and respect there is often deep resistance, from both within and without. The internal resistance can simply be a matter of our unlearning bad habits and reconditioning ourselves to the habits of devotion, but the external resistance, that’s something quite different. I consider it the Filter or Nameless at work. It’s often subtle – the whisper in the darkness of our minds that urges us toward despair, the niggling thought that snickers impieties in our head, or maybe the push to do…nothing at all. It’s the echoing void of doubt that beckons ever so logically to us, that mocks our efforts in the unguarded corners of our hearts.
The Christian monastic Fathers understood this all too well. I suppose monastic solitude is a terrible and strict teacher. The benefit of their work is that they discussed this seriously and developed various means of countering its effect. Evagrius of Pontus, (345-399 C.E.) for instance wrote about the ‘noon-day demon,’ the personification of acedia. Psalm 91.6 calls it the ‘pestilence that stalks the darkness’ though of course, modern translations tend to elide the personhood of such a thing, preferring, with all the comfort modernity offers, to think of it as a metaphor for a spiritual state, rather than a pernicious being that might cause such a state. I tend to think the Church Fathers had this one right though. And when we expect bombast, when we expect something out of a horror movie, we are left completely unprepared for the reality of what the spiritual life entails.
In the Prologue to Antirrheticus, Evagrius writes:
“I write of the reasoning nature that fights beneath heaven: first, what it battles against; second; what assists it in the battle; and finally, what the fighter keeping valiant watch must confront. Those who fight are human beings; those assisting them are the angels of God; and those opposing them are the evil demons.
Failure results not from the enemy’s formidable strength, nor because the protectors are careless: rather, it is because the fighter is unprepared that the knowledge of God vanishes and fails.”
This is as true for us as it was for these antique Christian monks. When we go toward our Gods there is resistance. To restore our traditions is to reorder our world in ways large and small and just as when we cast a stone across a pond, there are ripples and we cannot know the ultimate significance of the smallest acts of devotion which we now do. Personally, I tend to think that the more resistance one faces, the more surety one has that one is on the right track spiritually. That, however, does not make the imposition of acedia any less devastating. It’s not that our Gods and spirits don’t protect us, it’s that we often are moved into such a despairing state spiritually that we cannot sense or hear Them, or trust that They are there. We can become wrapped up in the darkness of our own despair lacking even the motivation to call out to Them for help. (I know that sometimes we must make that first call for aid. We must make that choice to range ourselves on the side of our Gods, to claim for ourselves the order and architecture of Being that They have created and sometimes that seems damned near impossible).
This is also why I struggle with the idea of being a woman of faith. How is it faith when you experience the Gods? What happens when the noonday demon, as the Christians called it, clouds that perception and there is a despair and loneliness deeper than any human being could ever inflict? That is where faith must come in and that is where we are dependent on the grace of our Gods, that we might summon the strength to trust They have our backs.
What is acedia? What is it that this noon-day demon does? It fills us with malaise, with exhaustion, and worse of all with an aversion to the holy, with an aversion toward devotional practices that in the end are the very things that will sustain us. (Later writers such as Bernard of Clairveaux wrote of a sterility of the spirit that renders every spiritual practice barren – that is a powerful description of acedia).
In his Praktikos –(and John Cassian later drew heavily upon this in his own work) Evagrius described the effects of this demon on monks trying to live the monastic life:
“The demon of acedia—also called the noonday demon—is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour, to look now this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren appears from his cell]. Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life’s necessities, more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life. He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind’s eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. No other demon follows close upon the heels of this one (when he is defeated) but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle.”
Evagrius offered techniques for combatting acedia, including reading and meditation upon specific Biblical passages. This is less useful for us, but the core of what he was advising is absolutely relevant: maintain your practices. This is also why purification is so incredibly important. Accumulated miasma makes it that much more difficult to maintain any sense of spiritual discernment or clarity and much more likely that we can be infected by this pestilence.
We have tools to fight this: prayer, purification, the rites and rituals of devotion, powerful invocations like the Oration of Aristides. We have, or should, the support of each other, all of us working together to do this thing called devotion. We have the cultivation of art and beauty and those things that ennoble the soul and draw them closer to the Gods. We have our sacred stories of those Gods to inspire us. Most of all, we have the Gods Themselves Who will absolutely guard and gird our spirits against this type of desolation if we are mindful enough and brave enough to turn toward Them when it comes calling.
Finally, I’m reminded of an anecdote I read once about Teresa of Avila, who when the noon-day demon came calling to torment her again, shrugged, laughed with the words ‘you again.’ And went back to work; because in the end, that which we do for our Gods is so much more important than anything that would pull us away.
“Saint Antony Tormented by Demons” by O. Dix
I was doing divination last night and the line came up “He who desires and does not act breeds pestilence” and immediately I was struck with a powerful corollary, namely, that we must then train ourselves to desire the correct things.(1) This is part of the discipline of devotional practice and I don’t think we talk about it enough. Devotion doesn’t just happen. We have to take the time to cultivate experience and praxis. Part of doing that is striving to make ourselves into the type of people willing and capable of engaging with the deep vulnerability piety so often requires. It demands a cultivation not just of particular practices, but of our character as well.
I think there is a tendency as moderns to compartmentalize our devotional world into what we do before our shrines, out of sight. I’ve often encountered the attitude that one’s practices are a small part of one’s life and the rest of their world is untouched by the tradition they practice or the Gods to Whom they pray.(2) All too often we unconsciously treat our spiritual lives as a hobby. This not only cripples our spiritual lives but opens us up to the despair that is so much a part of the modern world. Doing devotion well, really tending those relationships means making one’s internal landscape a place where gods and spirits might dwell. This in turn means being careful about what we expose ourselves too, and choosing carefully those things we put into our heads.
It also means learning to cultivate and desire the right things, things that augment our devotional consciousness, that make us more receptive to the Gods and spirits rather than those things that further entrain us to dismiss Them.
It’s not enough to do occasional devotional work if one’s devotion stops at the boundaries of one’s shrine. Living devoutly means living by the values of one’s tradition and carrying our Gods and spirits with us into the human world with every step we take. It means allowing that devotion to transform us from the inside out.
From farther back than even Plato and Aristotle, polytheists understood that virtue and character were things that must be consciously cultivated. The terminology may not have been developed until the philosophical flowering in fifth and sixth century Greece but the understanding was there. This absolutely applies to our religious work as well. This cultivation must become the core around which everything else in our worlds revolves.(3) If it doesn’t, we’re never really rooted in our devotion. It will always remain something outside of our hearts and souls, something that doesn’t touch or transform us, something at which we play.
There is nothing in our world that teaches us how to cultivate devotion well. In fact, what we too often see is the commodification of spirituality, its rendering down to its most shallow components, cultural mores that teach a subtle suspicion of religion and disrespect for devotion. Because there is nothing in our world that teaches this any longer, nothing that reinforces it, it’s up to us to do this for ourselves.
I’ve written before about learning to make good choices with respect to our devotional lives, but that starts right here, with learning to desire the right things. What those things are may vary from person to person, God to God, but it starts with curbing and cultivating desire. Because it is our desires, when they are unexamined and uncultivated, that will pull us away from our Gods, often before we realize it.
1. I have permission from the person for whom the divination was done to share this particular part.
2. This is true not just of polytheisms but pretty much across the board in the modern world with all religions to some degree or another.
3. It is significant that the word ‘cultus’ and ‘cultivation’ share the same root. In Latin, it’s actually the same word: colo, colere, colui, cultus, -a, -um.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been seeing a growing noise on Facebook and other social media platforms that is staunchly anti-prayer. Generally, this occurs most strongly after some horror or disaster wherein people will post “my prayers are with you.” Immediately the social justice crowd pushes back, questioning both the relevance and efficacy of this sentiment. Let’s be honest; most people post such platitudes because they are moved, they care, but are (or feel) otherwise helpless to impact the situation. It is an expression of care, goodwill, and perhaps even solidarity. Take that for what it’s worth; I personally, don’t see anything wrong with it. I see a great wrong with dismissing prayer, however, and of course, those dismissals never stop with the aforementioned social situations but ever and always leech into our communities, which already struggle with understanding, prioritizing, or practicing devotion well (It’s not, after all, as though we are surrounded in our everyday lives and communities with good devotional models. I think we all struggle with this at times one way or another).
To dismiss prayer as a powerful and effective practice is to cripple our devotional lives and our relationship with our Gods. Over the years, I’ve seen many Pagans and even Polytheists dismiss prayer as something Christian. Well, it’s not. The earliest recorded prayers date from Sumer, written to the God Nanna and the Goddess Inanna. We have surviving prayers from Greece, Rome, Egypt, to name but a few polytheistic cultures. Polytheists prayed. It’s one of the fundamentals of practical religion.
Why are we so eager to render ourselves mute before our Gods?
To hold someone in prayer does not mean that one does nothing else. If there is more that one is able to do on a practical level, then it goes without saying that one should do that. I’m reminded of the Benedictine motto: ora et labora (pray and work). It’s not an either/or situation.
Furthermore, having a consistent prayer practice to the Gods and ancestors is one of the best ways to maintain devotional clarity, to keep the lines of communication open, to strengthen those devotional relationships, and to grow in faith, devotion, and grace. Cultivating hostility or contempt toward what is in fact one of the most powerful tools we have in maintaining our spiritual worlds is short sighted and frankly stupid. To pray is to open a line of ongoing communication with our Gods. It is to approach Them as petitioners, it is to give thanks, it is to express our love and adoration and a thousand other things. It provides Them with an opportunity to act in our lives and in our world. It provides us with an opportunity to accept, again and again, Their grace.
What we are instead tasked with is learning how to pray effectively. While set, formulaic prayers can be enormously powerful, it’s not enough to just say any words. Proper prayer is a matter of preparing our minds and hearts. Our hearts need to be receptive to our Gods. Our minds need to be committed and focused on this process. It’s one of the key devotional disciplines that no one seems to talk about anymore.
Ironically, as we pray, we learn how to pray and to do so more effectively. It is not in the capacity of any human being to compel the Gods. But we can reach out to Them, we can ask, and most of all we can trust that we have been heard. Prayer is powerful in part because it allows us to stand in perfect, active alignment with our Holy Powers. The more we do that consciously, the more we are changed and perhaps even elevated by the process.
Because it allows us to stand consciously in that alignment, it is a potent protection against all that is inimical to our Gods and Their ways. It reminds us, purifies us, re-aligns us again and again into our devotion. Every time we pray, we recommit ourselves to our traditions and our Gods and to living in ways that cultivate piety.
Remove purification, sacrifice, devotion, and prayer and what do you have? Certainly, not a religion.
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.