For one of my classes, I recently had to read Robert Orsi’s Between Heaven and Earth. In one of the chapters, Orsi discusses the impact of Vatican II on devout Catholics. Now, I personally think that Vatican II was one of the biggest mistakes the Catholic Church ever made (pandering to Protestants in the name of ecumenism, excising devotion, Marian cultus, saint cultus, and embodied devotional practices, putting the mass in the vernacular, easing up on regulations binding priests and especially nuns, devaluing the latter almost all together) and we in other traditions can learn quite a bit about what not to do from it as we engage in our respective restorations. It was a surrender to secularism and modernism and the end of the Church as a functional entity. It was also an outright attack on devotion. That being said, as part of his work, Orsi discusses several interactions with clergy on the matter of lay devotion and it’s that which I wish to discuss.
One chapter discussed a priest, post Vatican II, who was so against any aspect of devotion that he talked about the immense disgust and rage that he had whenever he saw statues of the saints or Mary, or any old school devout Catholic practice. He told Orsi that he wanted to destroy the statues and sacred images and spewed an immense amount of vitriol toward the very idea of actual devotional practices. This is a priest saying this, someone who ought to be encouraging devotion. It was striking and one of the most polluted things I’ve had to read this year. The account involves a Father Grabowski and occurs on p. 56-57 where we have a priest encouraging desecration and sacrilege — in the name, of course, of progress. “’The urge to destroy…haunts me’” Father Grabowski confesses” (57). He is talking about seeing statues of saints, and in the same paragraph, a statue of the Virgin. Time maybe to call an exorcist.
Disgust, aversion, and especially rage toward things associated with devotion or the sacred is one of the first signs at best of spiritual pollution and at worst of demonic obsession or even possession. What so many Catholics would term the demonic, I tend to see as an extension of what some of us term “the Nameless.” Evil exists, evil being that which is categorically ranked against the order that our Gods have created and that They work to maintain. It doesn’t matter what it’s called. It is insidious. It is the thing that we must ever and always guard against in our spiritual lives. It may have only the openings we give it, but it is very, very good at conniving to have us give those openings.
When holy things, devotion, and other sacred things begin to cause a reactive response of rage and disgust, an urge to destroy, that is a serious warning sign. I’ve gone through this myself, time where being in the presence of the sacred has been like razor blades down the skin of my mind, and every single time it has been an attempt to derail my work, to put a wedge between me and the Gods, to pollute. I have regular cleansing practices and this is one of the reasons. After the first time I noticed this, once I took care of it, I heightened those protocols to prevent just such a thing. With those cleansing practices in place, it’s much easier to recognize this state of spiritual emergency and deal with it as soon as possible. That’s exactly what it is too: a spiritual emergency. In better times, I might feel sorry for this Father Grabowski that he lacks appropriate spiritual direction to overcome this, but with things being as they are now, I’m just disgusted. It’s not just that one person may feel disgust, part of their poisoned state is a desire, no, a needto spread that poison as far as they possibly can, and to destroy devotion wherever it might be found.
This isn’t something that only affects specialists either. Lay people are every bit as susceptible. This is one of the many reasons why having a good prayer practice is so incredibly crucial. It realigns us every single time we choose consciously to engage, even if we do so imperfectly. Sometimes we must fight our way to the Gods inch by bloody inch, against the press of “progress” that would cast our devotion as superstition, against “modernity” that would urge us to abandon belief and practice, against evil.
We don’t talk much about evil as polytheists. Our traditions aren’t focused around it; we don’t have a figure like the Christian “Satan” driving our ideas of theodicy, and for the most part, our traditions aren’t really fixated on any violent and/or definitive eschatology. Instead we tend to be much more focused on celebrating the divine order and all the blessings our Gods bestow. That is, I think, exactly as it should be. That does not mean, however, that evil doesn’t exist. Christians weren’t the first to wrestle with this. Our philosophers engaged with the question of evil and perhaps from time immemorial men and women have been asking why bad things happen.(1)
I suppose first there’s the question of what evil actually is, a question that has been as equally vexing through the centuries as why it happens or exists at all. I think though that before we attempt to answer that, it’s important to articulate some sense of the underpinnings of our cosmological architecture. In other words, we must proceed from the baseline understanding that our Gods are inherently good. That doesn’t mean that Their nature is good according to human understanding, which is necessarily limited, but that Their nature is inherently good on a cosmic, eternal, super-human level. They are the good from which all other good things flow. They are good in a way that supports and sustains everything in our worlds and the fabric of Being itself. Whatever evil there is in the world, it does not come from our Gods.
Nor do I think that ‘misfortune’ can necessarily be equated with ‘evil.’ Life is a series of ups and downs and multiple sometimes conflicting variables that we can’t control. Sometimes something that seems like misfortune now, turns out to be a blessing later. More importantly, we each have our individual wyrd, and our ancestral wyrd.(2) Sometimes misfortune doesn’t just happen, it’s the result of ancestral debt that has travelled down to us,(3) or the result of our poor choices, or sometimes just the result of painful necessity. Sometimes, shit happens and we have to deal with it. How we deal with it can lead to the honing of a very strong character…or not. None of that is ‘evil.’
When we discuss something like wyrd, we’re discussing something that is part and parcel of the natural – and divine—order. I don’t believe that evil is part of that order. If the Gods are good, and remember that is the baseline from which we are proceeding, then evil cannot come from Them. It must, of necessity, be something external to that divinely ordained architecture. So, what is it and where does it come from, if that is the case?
I personally think there are two types of evil, that which comes from us (moral evil) and that external to us, which we allow in to influence our minds and hearts. The first is the evil that we do, that we choose to do. The second is something that I call the Nameless (of which the Filter is a manifestation). I’ll talk about that in a moment.
I was always taught that whatever evil exists external to us, it has only those openings that we choose to give to it. This is why it is so important to cultivate virtue, to train ourselves to make the morally correct choices, as much as we can determine what those might be, as a habit, and to do so again and again even when it is difficult (perhaps most especially when it’s difficult). Virtue is something that we are absolutely capable of cultivating. Of all the ways in which we have free will, the choice to cultivate good character is the most powerful. That cultivation allows us to strengthen our soul matrix, just like working out at a gym strengthens our physical muscles – a rather simplistic metaphor I grant you, but one adequate for our purposes here. And just like eating well and getting enough sleep and exercising bolsters our resistance to illness, so too developing virtue bolsters our soul’s resistance to evil. How do we know to do what is right? How do we determine what is morally and ethically correct?
It is not the Gods’ job to instill in us a sense of morality or virtue. That is the purpose of philosophy, of our families, upbringing, and education, and ideally, in a properly ordered community, of our culture.(4) The Roman author A. Gellius wrote: Dii immortales virtutem adprobare, non adhibere debent. (The immortal Gods ought to support not supply virtue. Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 1.6.8). We have our cosmologies, our sacred stories, the discipline of devotional work, and our relationships with the Gods, land, and ancestors…which, if they are properly ordered, impact everything else in our world. We have the lessons and teachings of our ancestors, our traditions, and our own sense of right and wrong.(5) We shouldn’t need our Gods to tell us not to molest children, or commit rape, or steal, or lie, or break our word. Developing virtue comes down to behaving as the kind of people we would like to best be. That is on us. That is our work to do. The Gods will guide and support us in that, but we have to do that work, learning from our mistakes as we go.(6)
A commitment toward developing a virtuous character (and I use the term ‘virtuous’ in its Greco-Roman, philosophical sense not its later Christian iteration) is that which inoculates us against moral evil. We learn to make better choices. We learn not to make choices that give openings through which evil may enter.
Then there is what I call the Nameless (there are various Native American terms for this and I once had a Kemetic elder equate it to Apep), that malignant sentience which stands against the order the Gods have decreed.(7) That is the evil external to cosmic Good. This is the malignancy that will jump at any chance to seep into our minds twisting our perceptions, whispering in the darkness, cultivating despair, indolence, apathy, and hate. Without the work of having developed character and virtue, we are sitting ducks for it. This is why I believe that the maxim at the Oracle of Delphi is vitally crucial to us all: Know Thyself. Let me explain.
Discernment is always a concern, or should be, for all of us engaged in spiritual work. This is true of the lay person engaging in devotion as much as the specialist. One necessary component of discernment is self-knowledge. We must know the pattern of our thoughts and emotions, our motivations, and above all else the lay of our inner landscape. Good, bad, beautiful, or ugly (and I suspect we are all equal parts of each), we must know our inner selves cold, with 110% clarity. Why? So that when evil comes to whisper in our minds, to plunge us into darkness, to twist our perception, and nurture ugliness in our souls, to cut us off from our Gods and the abundance of good They bring, we will recognize it as not being of us. If we can recognize it, we can resist it and cleanse ourselves of its miasma before we are changed by it for the worse.
We have free will. Even those of us bound in service to our Gods have free will to do the things that cultivate devotion and virtue, or not; to serve graciously and willingly, or not. We have freedom in this and because of that, we have the freedom to choose to let evil in, to nourish it, or not. This is why mindfulness and moral courage are so important. Because the Gods have made us free, They aren’t going to step in and stop us when we’re opening the door to evil, whether it be that which we choose to do from weakness or poor character, need, want, or a thousand other things, or the nameless itself. It is for us to choose. But our choices have consequences.
This is why regular devotional practice is also so vitally important. It creates an environment in our hearts, minds, and spirits that is not conducive to evil. It allows us a greater chance of recognizing that which would pull us out of true with our Holy Powers, and it helps us foster the moral habits that develop a character capable of resistance to the malignant. It is the same with honoring our ancestors. They are our first line of defense.
So, what does one do when evil, external evil, the nameless or one of its helpers comes calling? We might not recognize it at first. It might be that insidious whisper in the night that tells us what we’re doing is for naught. It might be the whisper that tells us there are no Gods to hear us? Why bother? It might be worse and it might be a direct attack. I have looked into the eyes of people – thankfully not many—who were riddled willingly with its influence and it was horrible to see. What do you do when confronted with something that foul? Well, you don’t run. Over the past two months, I’ve gotten multiple emails from clients, readers, acquaintances who have in some way, shape, or form had brushes with what they conceived of as evil. They encountered something that tainted them, terrified, and in some cases harmed them spiritually. The question was always the same: what should I do? What do I do? What should I have done?
I can only tell you what I was taught by a woman far more devout than I. When you are faced with evil, when you are standing in the presence of something foul and unholy, do not flinch or flee. Stand up. Look it right in the eye. Yield no space, and call upon your Gods. Surround yourself with that which is holy, articulate your acceptance and support of the divine order. Stand confidently in it. Root yourself in your devotion to the Gods and ancestors. Call upon Them and do not be afraid. Things like this have only the openings we choose to give them. Evil may be very good at tricking us into creating openings but if we remember our relationships to the Gods, if we remember that we do not stand alone ever, that always we stand with thousands upon thousands of ancestors ranked at our backs ready to protect us, then we have nothing to fear. Fear is the weapon it utilizes the most but in the end, we must recognize that our Gods are stronger. And we must be aware of when we start feeling aversion to holy things, to our Gods, and our dead. That is a sign of infection.
- For the Platonists, evil was privation of something, like good, health, substance, etc., a separation from the Good. For some philosophers like Kant, it was a matter of human nature. A more thorough discussion, rather outside the scope of my piece here, of philosophical viewpoints on evil may be found here. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/concept-evil/
- Wyrd is the warp and weft of our very existence. It is causality and consequence, the sum total of every decision we have made or chosen not to make, everything we’ve done, or not done, every aspect of our existence for good or bad. Ordered by the Nornir, it intersects with the wyrd of those with whom we engage, and is likewise impacted and by the deeds of our ancestors. It forms the scaffolding against which our lives play out.
- I like to tell people, when the subject of ancestral debt comes up, that there is no ‘away.’ The pain and suffering, joys and victories, the deeds good and bad of our ancestors don’t just go away. Like a stone thrown across a still lake, some choices have repercussions that ripple out, down the generations.
- Sadly, in a culture influenced and crafted from generations of monotheism, industrialization, secularism, pop culture, and modernity we cannot look there for examples of anything approximating virtue…unless we’re looking for negative examples.
- This should be developed by our education, upbringing, and devotional praxis and its development is an ongoing process. The problem as I see it for us, is that we’re living in a world that in no way sustains or supports any type of virtue, and the ethics and morality of modernity are not only quite different from what our traditions might teach, but in many cases destructive and diametrically opposed to traditional wisdom and devotion. We need to start the cultivation of virtue not by looking to our society’s elders and teachers, but by first addressing our own brainwashing.
- Which I don’t think should mean putting that morality over clean service to the Gods. I do think sometimes Their agendas take precedence in our lives and that begs the question of what happens when the Gods ask us to betray or put aside our most deeply held values. I’ll be addressing that in a future post. I’m still gnawing on that and all its implications and it’s not an easy piece to write.
- I firmly believe that the real battle of Ragnarok is not Gods against other Holy Powers like the Jotnar, but Gods joined across pantheons against this force which seeks only to unmake all that the gods have crafted.