Honoring one’s ancestors isn’t just a metaphor. It isn’t about chanting their names and pouring out libations (though these things are good in and of themselves as a place from which to begin). At its core it means shouldering their debt, digging into it, eating their pain and spitting up their bitterness and finding a way out and through—for them and for yourself—to healing, reparation, and wholeness once again.
We have no humanity without our ancestors and we carry their sufferings in our flesh, in the scarred skin of our minds, in every strand of our DNA, in the rough deep well of our memories collective and unconscious. It marks our bones, twists our marrow and in the end it lifts us up. Through it all, they elevate us just as we through our rites and prayer and the grace of remembrance seek to elevate them. We carry our dead with us always and they too bear us upon their backs. It begins and ends with our dead and they can carry us to our Gods as well. They have sacrificed themselves for our enfleshment. We can shoulder the weight of their lives.
(This rambles…a lot lol. You have been warned).
So, I’ve been in New York City the last couple of days attending a theology conference. The title of the conference is “Faith, Reason, Theosis” and so far, it’s been pretty amazing. The scholastic currents being discussed (at least in day one) are well outside of my wheelhouse so I won’t discuss them here save to say that the entire idea of theosis makes me deeply uncomfortable. I did have an interesting talk with a Jesuit professor of philosophy (I took his course on Augustine a few years ago and it blew my mind) who agreed that, at least in part, ideas of theosis for Christians were influenced by pre-Christian concepts of deification. Still, it makes me deeply uncomfortable when it’s applied as a goal of faith, especially when post-modernists remove the sacramental scaffolding and even at times “God” from the equation. Thank you, no. If I want that, I can listen to a ceremonialist drone on and on. Lol. (Granted, this isn’t my area, so I may be grossly minimalizing the issues here and I’m drawing the questions and comments below largely from only a single day of speakers – there’s still two more to go. At any rate, the focus of the conference is discussion of Orthodox and Catholic responses to the idea of theosis). I was tired when I arrived at the conference, and at first, despite excellent presentations, I was a little bored (Thomas Aquinas—not my thing) but then the Q&A started and that was absolutely fascinating. It was almost enough, almost, to make me want to hold another polytheist conference. Hah. Don’t hold your breath.
Anyway, during the opening talks, I was scribbling notes and several questions arose from the speakers. Ignoring the pages of my journal where I kept noting that “Modernity=Nihilism”, (I also made crazy little sketches of presenters – idle hands after all and all that) the relevant things I want to discuss here are as follows (I will reframe from the singularity of the Divine articulated by the speakers to a more natural and appropriate plurality in my responses):
• How can a conscious spirit be anything other than a desire for God?
• God owes His creatures grace within the terms of creation (the grace to achieve theosis) but it’s a debt owed only to His own goodness.
• How can there be “excess” in loving one’s God? Many modern philosophers/theologians seem to speak of the “excessive qualities of the cross” in ways that seem to imply that they want to erase their God from the process and goal of theosis and replace the sacramental scaffolding with the human ego.
The first question, I believe, comes from Neo-Platonic influences on religious (in the case of the conference, Christian) thought. I don’t argue that our souls and the fullness of our being should be comprised, materia prima, of longing and love for the Gods. I think it is the only part of us that truly matters. When we peel away the dross and pollution of modern living (hell, just of living because let’s face it, the ancients wrestled with these issues too), at our core I firmly believe that (when we are rightly ordered), our spirits are expressed longing for the Gods. I also think that every single thing in our current world teaches us to obscure, deny, and annihilate that longing.
I will admit, listening to this particular speaker, I did think “well, aren’t you a bit of an optimist about the human condition” lol but it’s important to remind ourselves not to mistake external ephemera for the true, essential nature of our beings. I also suspect that this statement: that at the core of a soul is longing for the Gods may make some readers angry. If so, consider why. Why would you not long for the Gods with every fibre of your being? I think the real challenge of our various spiritualities is not only the discovery of that longing, recognizing it as our essential state of being, but also cultivating it, tending that fire, stripping away the dross, feeding it, and allowing it to burn away everything else.
A day or so before I came into the city for the conference, I was watching a movie with my husband and a friend and the lead female reminded me strongly in appearance of a student – call her H.– I had over twenty years ago. This student was three or four days away from her initiation and bailed. She became pissy about it too, justifying her decision by trashing the idea of the experiential devotion inherent in the initiatory process (as being only relevant to specialists. “Not everyone needs to be a mystic” blah blah blah. No, not everyone does, but baseline devotion does not a mystic make). A friend of mine who was hanging out with us asked me why this woman would do such a thing. I said “at the eleventh hour she realized initiation would change everything.” My friend agreed but didn’t see the problem (unlike H. my friend is not a spiritual coward). I explained that “H. didn’t want to make the Gods a priority in her life. She was afraid it might interfere with her secular, job-related priorities of climbing the corporate ladder and making money. She didn’t want to become the kind of person she thought could live a devoted life and she didn’t want to have to reprioritize her life.” My friend asked the most salient question of the night, “Didn’t she realize that putting the Gods first makes everything better? On the basest most crass level, They help us in our work in the world. They fill our lives with bounty and blessings.” And that is the question. My only response was a poem by the Islamic poet Rabi’a:
O my Lord,
if I worship you
from fear of hell, burn me in hell.
If I worship you
from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates.
But if I worship you
for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face.
(Rabi’a, “[O my Lord]” translated by Jane Hirshfield, from Women in Praise of the Sacred (New York: Harper Collins, 1994).)
I will let this stand for now and move on to the second question or comment really, since I wrote it down because I have very strong feelings that the Gods owe us nothing. They may give us everything but They don’t owe us. We ought not give sacrifices and offerings just to get things, but because it is the right thing to do, because it honors Them, because those relationships are the most essential we will ever have and it is right and proper to make windows into the world through which the Gods may walk. It isn’t and shouldn’t be about us. Yes, at times offerings and devotion may follow a do ut des model – if I need something from a Deity, I won’t approach with empty hands. It’s rude. But that is not the only nor the most essential model of veneration. To imply that it is cheapens our traditions and frankly spits in the faces of our ancestors. It shouldn’t be “I give in order to receive” but “I give because I have received” or maybe better still, “I give because I love.”
Returning to the bullet points I noted, I was struck by the idea articulated in bullet point #2 that God owes humanity His grace by virtue of the contract of creation but the debt is NOT one owed to humanity itself but rather to His own goodness. In other words, God owes Himself. It’s a nice reframing and re-articulation of an issue that plagues the Heathen community: the entitlement we all too often feel before our Gods. We are not owed a god damned thing for the paltry devotion we deign to show. We have been given everything and it is a debt we cannot hope to replay. The devotional relationships that we ought to cultivate with our Gods aren’t for the purpose of getting things, or even with any hope of repayment of a contract. It is our natural, good, and rightly ordered state of being. It is our purpose, the highest and most natural expression of our souls.
Finally, one of the issues that kept coming up in post-modernist pushback against scholastic and pre-scholastic ideas of theosis was this language of “excess” in devotion. One source talked about the “excess of the crucifixion” rather the excess of devotional response to it. I see this in some modern Catholics. Case in point: I recently gave a Catholic relative L. Montfort’s classic devotional text on Mary and while she is very devout she really struggled with it, because it wasn’t Jesus focused in the way that many Protestant “devotionals” might be. The idea of giving reverence and specifically heart-felt devotion to the Mother of God—in the way that was traditional, licit, and universal within her tradition for generations– was uncomfortable (and I blame Vatican II and its bullshit for a lot of this but, not my circus, not my monkeys. I do find it complicated though. Gods know that the weakening of the organizational Catholic Church is not a bad thing for growing polytheisms, but then on the other side of that, I think that any weakening of devotional fervor is a win for evil and doesn’t serve us in our devotions either so …my response to that all is rather complicated). It seemed “excessive” to her. Post-moderns would, I believe, cast any devotion as excessive. This is problematic.
Personally, I do not believe it is possible to be too excessive in one’s fervor and love for one’s Gods. That is exactly what ought to fuel our soul’s longing, feed it, nourish it, encourage it. Whenever I hear Pagans or Polytheists (and especially Heathens) talk about how one is too excessive in one’s devotions (and it happens, less now than a decade ago but it still happens) I really just want to laugh in their faces and tell them they are theologically unschooled. Not today, Heathen child, not today. This is a bullshit free zone. Still, I think it’s important to think about what it is in our culture (that has seeped into our traditions) that would teach us that devotion, any devotion particularly the messy, emotional, embodied kind is ‘excessive.’ What does that mean? When loving the Gods is our souls’ reason for being, how can there be any excess?
This last question I’m going to explore more fully and hopefully will have time to do so over the next couple of days. Right now, I’m going to bring this to a close since it’s running rather long and I actually need to get my butt up and get out the door for day two of this amazing conference. Enjoy your day, folks.
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.
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.
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.
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.