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.
After running about making various offerings to Hermes, I spent the rest of the morning redoing my Hermes shrine, and my Loki and Sigyn shrine.
Hermes’ place. ^
Loki and Sigyn’s place.^
The icon above is by Grace Palmer, and belonged to my mom Fuensanta.
It’s easy to forget sometimes the tremendous, heart-shattering joy that lies at the center of devotion. It’s easy to close the mind and heart to it, because there are so many things in daily life: work, relationships, stress, anxiety, exhaustion (especially exhaustion) that sap our energy and our attention. Also, devotion can be hard sometimes. It can challenge us to our core. It can hurt. There’s such a tremendous vulnerability inherent in the act of opening oneself up to the Gods, of nurturing that relationship, of adapting to the demands of the radical integrity of being that such relationships by their very nature cultivate in the soul. Devotion can be very hard and in the midst of some of the challenges it may bring, it can be difficult to remember the joy.
Let me tell you what devotion is. It’s like drinking fire. It’s a frenzy. it’s an ecstasy that fills the bones and runs in the blood like a drug. It consumes and the soul explodes into pieces of light. It is breathing in a God and being devoured, like ripe, rich fruit in turn. It is joy, a terrible, all-consuming joy that leaves no room for anything else, not even breathing. It is a dance, a wild, laughing dance. It is agony that suddenly turns, all unexpectedly, into magnificence. Devotion is a dance with the Gods that bracket and infiltrate our lives. It’s a whirling, laughing, sobbing, maddening dance that, if we’re very lucky, plunges us into the heart of our Gods, into a place beyond the worlds and from which they sprang. It’s a dissolution that liberates and at the same time compels the heart — freely, willingly, joyously–into veneration. It’s liberation, ecstasy, terror. Devotion takes courage and dancing down that ragged road will squeeze every ounce of it forth, like blood from a stone as we go.
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.
My Christian aunt puts me to shame. It’s one of those things where we were talking recently and as she talked about her own prayer practice I felt like my own Gods were smacking me upside the head with the proverbial 2×4, as in “ahem. Why aren’t you doing more of this too?” It’s odd and almost surreal when that happens, particularly when the example is so far afield from my own tradition.
My aunt prays [and joyfully too, fervently, fiercely] at least four hours a day: two in the morning and two in the evening. Out of curiosity I asked her what exactly she does and she showed me her prayer book, and talked about the set prayers she does and how she uses them as jumping off points for her own extempore prayers. She told me about all the people she prays for and I could see that this is a major way in which she engages with her religious community and also her way of powerfully contributing to it. I just sat there listening to her thinking, “damn.”
I pray, of course, but since my adopted mom died it’s been a real battle sometimes to hit the points of connection and communication that I am aiming for, a painful thing to open myself to the Gods when in the midst of so much grief (and anger). Eventually of course it all becomes an excuse and one must shut up, put up, and just pick up the reins of one’s practice again or risk withering away spiritually but oh it hurts. It hurts to realize that in some respects, I’ve forgotten how I used to pray.
I was watching something on television the other night and one of the characters had to translate something from the Latin. I read Latin so I realized what it was right away, a prayer: “de profundis clamo ad te, domine:” out of the depths I cry to you, oh Lord. I thought, “well, that’s apt.” Having taken up the reins of mindful practice again after balking at them for so long, I’ve noticed over the past few months how hard it is to reestablish the daily discipline. I always do something for my Gods and dead pretty much daily but not enough, not nearly enough. I crave the prayer to reset the connection but resent the inconvenience of the discipline…and perhaps fear not doing well what I must. I am at times in awe of my hubris. God damn.
So I look at my aunt’s prayer practice and hold that up right now as a goal to maintain daily. What a beautiful way to structure my day again – as I used to do for so many years when first I started down the road of devotion—prayer to open it and prayer to send it off to bed. It forces me to make choices with how I’m going to use my time, how I’m going to order my day, what takes precedence.
I realize that like anything else in one’s devotional life it’s about learning to make the right choices consistently, cultivating a proper venerative spirit. Maybe that’s why the word for engaging in ongoing venerative practices to a Deity in Latin, as well as the word for the body of practices containing the mysteries of a deity (cultus) both come from the word colo, colui, cultum: to cultivate, tend, care for. One could almost say ‘nourish’ but that nourishment works both ways. It’s not about the words, though the words provide purchase, it’s about opening ourselves up to direct experience with the Gods. The daily discipline readies and prepares the soul.
I want to give a shout out to the Sisterspinster Shop. I recently had the opportunity to try several of her flower essences and they are absolutely amazing. I was particularly taken by her “Devotion” essence. It’s a rather fiery essence as its description on the site shows and it is absolutely wonderful. I think I rather poo-pooed flower essences until trying these, but when I took this one, on a whim, before going out to pray, I found that it softened my hardness of heart, stilled some of the chaos inside, and helped me focus. It positioned me ever so subtly in a much more receptive headspace than I expected. I highly recommend it as an aid.
While I haven’t tried it yet, I also have it on good faith that the Flora essence opens one to a sense of Her presence in a tremendously powerful way. I only wish she’d do a Dionysos and an Odin! 🙂
Yesterday was my birthday and my husband gifted me with an iron Thor’s hammer pendant. I haven’t been wearing a lot of jewelry of late, but this feels good, a solid, comforting weight at my throat and it’s got me really thinking about what the Thor’s hammer stands for and why so many Heathens choose to wear it as a symbol of our tradition.
For those of you who may not know the story, Mjölnir (the name means ‘crusher’ or ‘grinder’) is one of the key attributes of the God Thor. It is often associated both etymologically and folklorically with the thunderbolt. Thor is the son of Odin and the earth Goddess Fjörgyn. He is a God of strength and power, thunder, lightening, and is above all else, the Protector of Midgard. Midgard is our human world. Thor, with His hammer wards the world against destruction and dissolution. He protects it from the forces of entropy and unproductive chaos. Likewise He protects the realms of the Gods against attack.
Thor received His hammer thanks to the machinations of Loki. The story is told in the Skáldskaparmál, part of the “Poetic Edda,” and involves quite a bit of back and forth between Loki and the Duergar, the best craftsmen in all the nine worlds. In many respects the hammer is the repository and symbol of Thor’s protective might and is as strongly associated with Him as Brisingamen is with Freya.
So what does all of that mean?
It is grounding power. Thor’s presence is one of a vital, fierce rootedness, massive and crackling with energy. That’s how it always seems to me at any rate. When I think on what it means to call upon the power of this God, it’s that grounded strength, the ability to remain unmoved no matter what the incoming storm. He is the God Whose presence shatters the force of an attack before it even finds its target. Not only is He fierce enough to ward off and repel harm, but His very presence wards and protects oneself and one’s space from harm, by its very nature. When He is present that which would do us harm cannot be.
The strength of Thor, for that is what the hammer symbolizes, contains the Holy. It readies the space and protects the space in which the Holy may root itself and grow. It protects the viability and integrity of our tradition. It ensures its growth just like the thunder ensures the growth of the grain*; and like that, it stands for our commitment to our tradition, to our Gods, and to the next generation. It is the emblem of perseverance regardless of difficulty or struggle. It is an emblem of vitality, the smoldering warmth of the hearth fire of devotion that, well tended, can blaze into a bonfire that nourishes us even through the most difficult of times.
Finally, it is a symbol of unity, connecting us all, regardless of our denominations and whatever infighting we may have within our tradition, to the Gods with we honor.
*thunderstorms are almost indispensible for grain to ripen—I don’t understand the alchemy but it apparently fixes the nitrogen and this is important in the growth process of grain. Yada yada yada because science. ^___^ I am not a farmer but I do think this is neat.
The mysteries are not for the unbeliever.
We destroy the paths of rivers to make room for the sea.
This dancing took many deaths.
My ecstasies changed to an ugly cry,
and the loss of things desired.
We hushed the ancient glory.
Fear is a house gone dry.
The violent space cries silently.
He led me trembling cold into the dark forest,
Taught me the secret rites—
a cautionary tale for whoever knows how
to read the clues.
What we used to be is gone.
Shadows grew in my veins.
The blackness rose before me like a wall,
Wound infected to the bone.
This is the barrenness
Of harvest or pestilence.
The scavenger crow knows.
Make them dead white and dry bone bare.
You have to fight magic with magic –
Marry a monster.
The first slaughter is for victory,
But the second slaughter is for grief.
To Him my other life.
I am broken at last,
with razorblade eyes.
This is what it means to die amongst barbarians.
I once lost track of the medicine I held so blithely,
after I died forever in the river.
The battle is there, the inevitability of it all.
Shadow of darkness over the enemy field,
This hunger bewilders me.
There are grotesques who shine a dark light that lures us,
like how the sirens tried to lure Odysseus.
Night, like dead water, sows together
The tattered contours of the past.
The dark God broke out of the earth,
A ghoulish guard of love.
I accept this covenant, this way of life as true.
I prayed under His cloak
A voice from the distant past, an evocation,
(the sweet honey of the old cadence,)
In the hour of its agony, render;
one scarlet flower is cast on the blanch-white stone.
(their ten years’ war had ended.
It was an adventure much could be made of.)
Good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.
I wasn’t myself in a kingdom of unnamed animals and totem trees
But never wished to unsay my vows.
Violence stands like a blaze at our doors.
[With respect to Euripides, Robin Robertson, Adam Clay, Daniel Schoonebeek, Siegfried Sassoon, Leah Umansky, Etheridge Knight, Anthony Madrid, Ciaran Carson, Muriel Rukeyser, Tom Sleigh, Carolyn Kizer, Louise Glück, Fiona Sampson, A.E. Stallings, Lucia Perillo, H.D., Seamus Heaney, Barbara Jane Reyes, Solmaz Sharif, `David Perry, Lia Hunter, Matthew Sweeney, Traci Brimhall, Grigori Dashevsky, Jennifer Moxley, Stephane Mallarme, Ezra Pound, James Doyle, Brian Culhane, Mark Strand, Czeslaw Milosz, Yusuf Komunyakas.]
I have no roses; all the flowers in my garden are dead;
And the public mourners come: the politic tear.
Patience flowers into death now,
Washing the mountains bare.
One slight bruise and we die,
Packed away in our crude beginnings.
I don’t want to go on being a root in the dark.
What if, after so much history, we succumb?
The dead are stronger and know
how to gobble down pieces of sky.
Each fall the graves of my grandfathers call me.
I meet my shadow in the deepening dark.
Lifted in the fading light of the hemlocks,
I arrive full of mud and death.
What goes, comes back. Come back.
Spend the spark of iron,
Sing small thing.
Much madness is divinest sense:
Avalanche sliding, white snow from rock face,
Versed in all ancient magic,
Great is the Battle God, great, and His kingdom.
I have chosen the Indestructible for my refuge,
Heaved the yoke out to Him for harnessing.
A cypress-tree gains strength, as it grows old;
And lions, when they’re old, rage all the fiercer.
Oh Love, despite your growing violence,
I cry, I burn, I waste away.
The greatest gift of the gods is honor:
To reach your hand in triumph up
Over the heads of the enemy.
Give me courage to stay.
It is the price of vision that we owe, the cost,
Frenzied but firm.
My soul was on my lips.
[With respect to Antonio Machado, Thomas McGrath, Miklós Radnóti, Robert Bly, Pablo Neruda, James Welch, César Vallejo, Federico Garcia Lorca, Etheridge Knight, Theodore Roethke, Emily Dickinson, Stephen Crane, Rumi, e.e. Cummings, W. H. Auden, Mirabai, Apollonius of Rhodes, Michelangelo, Euripides, Robin Robertson, Homer, Wendell Berry, Andreas Embeirikos, Plato.]
into the ragged meadow of my soul
eat the grasses of the cemeteries forever.
I have paid my price to live with myself on the terms that I willed.
The feelings I don’t have, I don’t have.
Grief reached across the world to get me,
something old and tyrannical burning there.
I am this one
the one who remains silent when I talk.
the real work is done outside
by someone digging in the ground.
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
Eyes and ears are bad witnesses for men with barbarous souls.
I have gone back into my hooded silence,
of shadows in lit rooms that would swallow the darkness.
I have grown weary, weary,
untouched by morning,
of what is past, or passing, or to come.
even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course.
You cannot touch these phantoms…
meanwhile this ghost goes under.
Like a knife slicing through the muscle of my heart,
and a chant unbidden, unhired
there is a wolf in me.
Of alien bloods am I.
I will rise after a thousand years.
Imagine how easily a lion crushes
a pair of fawns in his powerful jaws.
Who hasn’t been tempted by the sharp edge of a knife
Cold as time, smelling of blood-brown leaves?
They talk of short-lived pleasure — be it so—
Pain is not the fruit of pain.
The living come to mingle with the dead.
what flowers in the dark
the haunted chambers of the heart
Oh Lord, here i am.
[With respect to: e.e. cummings, h. jeremiah lewis, frederico garcia lorca, Rudyard Kipling, D.H. Lawrence, Catullus, Thomas McGrath, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Rumi, Theodore Roethke, Heraclitus, Robert Duncan, David Ignatow, Santal, Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, Carl Sandburg, W.H. Auden, Jim Morrison, Aeshylus, Douglas Young, Homer, STanley, Lombardo, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Chris Abani, April Bernard, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Natasha Trethewey, William Cullen Bryant, lloyd Schwartz, and Eduardo C. Corral].