We find our faith in the depths of darkness and fear. We find it when evil comes for us, when suffering is there, when there is only one choice: to raise our hearts and hands up to the Gods or to bow down to desolation. We find it when we must, in the depths of battle, the battle fought within every human soul.
(I”m reposting this piece, which originally posted some time ago, upon request from a reader).
I counseled someone recently who came to me distraught (and I am sharing this now with permission from that person). “There are days when I don’t believe.” She said. “Days when I question. Days when the Gods seem so far away.” She was sure that she had offended her Gods greatly because of those moments where the reality of Their presence was the farthest thing from her mind in the world. I just shrugged and said “me too.” And watched the girl almost fall off her chair.
Belief is a funny thing and while it’s important to cultivate I think it’s equally important not to fetishize it. I know the Gods exist like I know gravity exists. I don’t have to beat myself over the head thinking about it every single day. If for a span of days I don’t feel Them palpably in my world, so what? I don’t consciously feel the presence of gravity either, thinking every time I drop something: behold its power. The most devout person I ever knew, a woman I considered a living sancta told me once that there were times she didn’t believe; but she continued, “whether Loki exists at those times or doesn’t exist, I love Him anyway.” And that was all that mattered. It was that commitment, dedication, and love that guided her devotional life, not abstract musings on the state of her belief. She didn’t let it bother her when it was less than she would have liked; rather, she worked to cultivate it regularly to be more than she could ever hope and in between allowed love and devotion to guide her.
I think it is normal given that we are fighting for restoration, rather than living it organically, that we are picking up and reweaving sundered threads rather than inheriting the full tapestry of tradition passed down in an unbroken ancestral inheritance that sometimes we will be self conscious about our internal processes around belief. Nor am I saying that non-belief is ok. I think, however, that part of building a devotional relationship is learning how to cultivate belief every single day. It’s difficult not to fetishize belief when we are working at a nexus of communities wherein we must fight for space for our Gods to exist but I’ll share with you what I was once taught about it, by the sancta I mention above:
Belief is a choice. You make it over and over every day, throughout the day. You make it every time you choose to engage in devotional work, every time you choose to do something that deepens your relationship with the Gods, that prioritizes Them in your world and like working a muscle, the more you do that, the easier it becomes. Belief moves from the realm of the abstract into a bone and soul deep certainty that sustains.
It is less than about any right belief than understanding that because the Gods exist it has consequences in our lives. Because we are seeking to cultivate devotional relationships with Them, to prioritize Them in our lives, our behavior with respect to things sacred will be impacted. Things have consequences. When one is likewise working to rebuild a tradition, well, that has consequences and requirements too. Getting back to belief however, it’s counter productive to beat oneself up when it falters. It’ll happen. If we think that we contemplate our belief only at those times when it is physically and emotionally palpable, then we must realize that what we are dealing with is an emotion and emotions are questionable guides to any truth. Just because we do not feel belief at a given point in time does not mean that our belief is shit. What it means is that feelings are vague – at best—indicators of ontological truth. Feelings are fragile. They can be affected by anything from lack of sleep to indigestion! We’re all going to have times where we’re just not where we want to be in terms of actively feeling belief. That’s when you make the choice to carry on with devotion anyway, to act in right relationship with the Gods anyway because emotions are variable things but the Gods are not.
I think people often get too caught up in the “feeling” of belief instead of action. In reality it’s not about right belief or feeling, it’s about hospitality and being respectful. One can be respectful regardless of the state of one’s belief. One can treat Them well, as proper guests, respectfully even if one is struggling spiritually. One can likewise struggle toward organic belief and doing so is one of the things that helps to build a strong spiritual life.
I don’t think any Deity expects perfection of practice, not now, not ever. I think that it is the struggles and sometimes even our failures that add color and texture to the fabric of our spiritual lives. I think struggles can be immensely productive and working toward belief can bring us more deeply and closely to our Gods than simply moving through devotion by unthinking rote. The corollary of course would be to embrace those fallow times as deeply nutritive, at least in potential, to our faith but I’m not quite there yet! I dread them, even knowing their worth. Still, and here is the heart of what I’m saying in this post, it’s not productive to beat oneself up for those times belief seems very far away. Just get on with devotion and know that when you can do nothing else, you can still make the choice to be kind, hospitable, and respectful to the Powers.
I woke today with a vicious migraine, from dreams in which the Gods visited and protected me from harm. I praise Them and I am grateful for Their care. Today is a day when I traditionally honor my dead, both my own dead and all the spirits I love, but also a day when I lay out offerings to the lonely and forgotten dead. They’re not forgotten by me. I rose, took migraine medication and Excedrin, and staggered about my day.
I dealt with administrative hassles and the joys (yes, I’m being sarcastic) of being mobility impaired while visibly appearing fine. A few emails later, I realized I was hardly the only one at my school for whom this is an issue. I made offerings to Asklepios and Eir and gave thanks to the Gods Who love and protect me. May Their mercy and kindness move into those barren spaces and the hearts of those who will not to see.
A former student sent me an article about the Catholic Church. They’ve apparently translated their rite of exorcism into English and changed significant portions of it. The article, by a traditional clergyman notes that the changes were made by those with no experience in exorcism. I just shake my head. I pray to those Gods of strength and valor to protect us from evil. Whether we feel it or no, there is nowhere we can possibly go that our Gods cannot follow. The darkness is never empty, no matter how terrible it may be. It is a fruitful place.
I think we find our faith sometimes in the darkest of places. I think we often find our faith in the midst of pain and loss and terror. I think there are moments, precipices upon which all the rest of our spiritual lives depend where our souls must make terrible choices and when we do, we fall into the Gods and They into us in ways that alter forever the course of our being.
We do not have to understand. We do not have to be strong. We do not have to do anything but hold space, but be the doorway through which our Gods may come. We carry Them always with us, most especially into those dark places when we think we don’t.
There’s an old prayer (I was told it was an ancient Egyptian prayer, but I don’t know the truth or untruth of that) that I once learned: may the Gods stand between you and darkness in all the terrible places you must walk. They will. If we but cry out and hold the line of our souls.
That I think is where faith is made. Even for priests and spirit workers, for those who can sense the Gods in various ways, there are times that can be horribly barren. It’s the moments though when we decide to have faith that matter, not the ones where we struggle with doubt. I think those moments – or days, or weeks, or months, or years—where we struggle, make that moment where we leap off that precipice into the arms of our Gods all the sweeter.