The other day, I posted this documentary on facebook with the comment that I wish our communities were as committed to intergenerational longevity and growth as the Jewish communities depicted in this documentary seem to be. Part of that, I noted, indeed one of the most crucial parts, is firmly being unwilling to marry outside one’s faith and being absolutely committed to raising one’s children within one’s faith. The inevitable pushback to these ideas never ceases to amaze me. Yet, it’s the only way that any type of sustainable restoration is going to happen. This is one of the reasons I think it’s so important that we establish in-person, geographically distinct communities where we can practice our traditions and raise our children in ways that reinforce our religious and cultural values. Religion doesn’t happen without culture and right now, we’re all living and working in a post-modern culture deeply antagonistic toward the very idea of Gods and devotion and especially toward challenging the status quo in the way that true restoration would do.
One of the biggest push-backs I get on the subject of marrying within one’s faith is that the pool of viable mate-material is sadly very small and scattered. This is true. See my point above. In the facebook conversation about this documentary, someone also mentioned the sad fact that finding a “Pagan” man/woman who isn’t an “utter loon” can seem a downright impossibility. (Maybe it’s time good, devout polytheists reclaimed the word ‘Pagan,’ away from non-theists, new agers, atheists, and the terminally confused). That it is difficult does not change the fact that it is essential. It’s less of a problem when one is not planning to have children, though even there being what some Christians term ‘unequally yoked’ can be problematic; but when one plans on having children, issues of religion and religious upbringing that may not have seemed a problem when it was just the couple, quite often become a divisive issue. I’d go so far as to say that if one must marry a non-polytheist, have a pre-nup that specifically states the children will be raised polytheist. I’m a big fan of marriage contracts. So many issues can be countered by a well thought out marriage contract.
I think it also challenges us to re-evaluate what we think the purpose of marriage might be. In a tribe, a unified community with a shared tradition of piety and faith, it’s not just about the happiness of the two people involved (though that is an important factor to consider). Marriage is the building block of a healthy civilization and it ensures uninterrupted transfer of one’s tradition to the next generation. It’s there to unify houses and strengthen the community, to provide for the next generation, and to be a stabilizing force within the community. In a healthy community, I’d actually support arranged marriages (provided no one was forced. That arrangement would, of course, involve consultation with elders, diviners, senior family members, careful evaluation of compatibility, goals, working out of the dowry, etc. and the marriage contract). This is not to say that everyone must have children – far from it. Those who choose to remain happily child free have important roles to play within the community as well. I would think that even if one was not planning to have children, one would not wish to be unequally yoked to a non-polytheist if one could help it. Our generation may have no choice but I’m thinking ahead to future generations, to fully functioning communities, to the restoration of tribes and traditions and what it will be like then. Furthermore, the non-polytheist (in polytheist-monotheistic marriages) must submit to polytheism. After all, unlike monotheism, there’s nothing in polytheism that says they can’t worship their Gods but to reject the Gods wholesale is to challenge the very foundations of a community and that community is more important than individual needs and happiness.
The other issue brought up was that there are different polytheisms and then the question arises of which one gets elided. This is easy to answer: neither. There are more parallels between the various polytheisms than there are between that and secularists or monotheists. I think that within polytheism, if we look at how it was practiced in the ancient world, there was zero conflict in honoring the Gods of two different *polytheistic* traditions. Neither would have to be diluted. but there’s a huge breech between polytheism and monotheism in outlook and an even bigger one between that and secularism. It’s a question of shared worldview rather than specifically shared Gods, one of shared worldview and religious values.
That being said, when it comes to polytheism vs monotheism, all religions are not the same and frankly, we should consider our own to be the best and most necessary. They’re not interchangeable. If we are devoted to our Gods and committed to practicing our traditions for those Gods then it should, in a rightly ordered mind, be absolutely unthinkable to raise one’s children any other way.
I think the push back against these two ideas really shows us how far we still have to go in building communities and restoring our traditions. There is a necessary shift in worldview that happens when one is rooted fully within one’s polytheism. That polytheism becomes the lens through which everything else is viewed and the thing that delineates our priorities. It’s a very different way of living than what we’ve been raised with in monotheisms within a secular state. We will never have proper restoration and reconstruction until this is no longer an issue, until it will be unthinkable to either marry outside polytheism or raise our children outside of it. We struggle now because we lack intergenerational transmission of tradition, well, this is precisely how that intergenerational transmission happens: by marrying within the religions and by raising children within them. There is no other way, short of conquest and forced conversion, and I don’t think anyone wants to do that.
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.
A friend of mine told me about a meme that’s going around, people doing 100 days of something consecutively for 15 minutes a day. She had chosen to do an hundred days of devotion to her patron Deity and I decided to do the same for Apollo, starting in the new year.
I specifically chose Apollo because of an unfortunate incident that happened when I was studying (with a study group) for my ‘History of Christianity’ final. We had been given a whole list of names, about which we had to write a few sentences (the professor gave us a “syllabus” for the final exam, so we knew exactly what to study). One of those names was Apollinaris the younger, who in the wake of Julian’s proscription that Christians could not teach (sensible. He said that one could not teach what one did not believe and the Homeric corpus was a huge part of education at the time), rewrote the Old Testament in the style of Homer and Pindar, and the New Testament as a pseudo-Platonic dialogue.
We were sharing mnemonics for persons and dates and one of the students said that she remembers Apollinaris because “Apollo doesn’t exist…” and I was just floored. I think I sat there with my mouth hanging open, so taken aback that I didn’t know what to say. We were little more than a half hour away from an exam and she comes up with something so impious that I was physically nauseous. I made a comment to the effect that Apollonaris may not have been intelligent enough to think otherwise, but many Pagans of the time loved and honored Him. In the course of the ensuing conversation I also made it clear that I venerate Apollo but I still walked away feeling unclean and deeply ashamed that it had taken me so long (out of shock) to formulate an appropriate response. I’ve done div on the matter and know that everything is more than fine between me and Apollo and I have no logical reason to feel ashamed, but I do. This, therefore, is my small way of honoring Him, and making amends.
So, I decided that starting Jan. 1 for the next hundred days, I’ll be making a small offering at His shrine and studying Greek. Each day I will read something and translate it for fifteen minutes and then go to His shrine and make the appropriate offerings. (I just finished day one, reading and translating a story about a contest between Boreas and Helios as to Which was stronger. I’ve likewise made offerings to both Apollo and Asklepios, because Asklepios is also awesome).
I wanted to post about this here because I think this is a great challenge. I read somewhere that it takes about thirty days of consistent work to break or build a habit. I can think of no better habit that I might want to build than one of daily devotion to a God I love. Hail Apollo.
For Your protection,
I thank You.
For Your grace and blessings,
I am grateful.
Teach me to honor You fully and well,
Teach me to love You
Until there is nothing else extant
In those spaces of my heart
Parceled out to You.
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.
(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.
Tonight, I was talking to a couple of apprentices about their upcoming work (they’re all doing well, but as ever, the reward for work well done is more work). I made the comment that “there’s our time and then the right time.” In other words, there’s when we want to do something or think we’re ready to do something, and there’s when the Gods and ancestors determine a thing should be done.(1) In between, there’s usually a hell of a lot of whining and procrastinating! Granted, during this discussion I was thinking every bit as much about my own work and its failures as anything my apprentices are doing (who by and large do not procrastinate and are in fact, very deeply devoted), in large part because it reminded me so strongly of something my adopted mom said to me once. She was doing something for the Goddess Frau Hölle (I don’t recall what) and I asked her if it could wait. She then asked me what was more important, our inconvenience or doing the relatively simple thing the Deity asked when it should be done? In other words, we’re in these committed relationships and that means prioritizing something over our own convenience or inconvenience. It is the least we can do, she said, given the tremendous honor of loving Them.
This is a difficult thing actually, because I am lazy as hell. I struggle with chronic pain; I’m usually tired, and quite often resentful when told to do something. It’s sometimes hard not to balk at what I know are my devotional obligations – even when I very much want to meet them (I think this is termed ‘cussedness’ in the south lol). But even more, and far more importantly, I like to be in the proper devotional headspace when I do things for the Gods and ancestors. To my shame, I’ve often used the excuse of not being in the right headspace to excuse my own indolence. In reality, I know full well I could have easily put aside what I was doing and gotten myself in the right headspace had I wanted to do so. Part of me just didn’t want to be bothered. Part of me was saying that whatever I was doing (watching TV, reading, some hobby) was more important than the Gods.
All ritual work large and small is a process, one that begins well before a person actually goes before his or her shrine and before the Gods and dead. It’s not that every offering or prayer needs to be a huge show, but the transition from mundane ‘me’ space to Their space, to holy space, to receptive, devotional space is worthy of conscious consideration and transition. It is certainly more fulfilling for us and perhaps for our Gods and spirits too when we enter into the simplest of devotional acts mindfully. It all comes down to the choices we make. If I want to have a nourishing and fulfilling devotional life then it’s on me to make time for it, to set aside the time to develop the appropriate headspace, to tend the shrines when they need tending (not when I want to do it), to cultivate devotion in all the various meandering pathways of my life, large and small. Our Gods, as one of my apprentices said so wisely, shouldn’t have to chase us to get our attention when we’ve already committed to honoring Them and paying proper devotional cultus. It’s the same with our ancestors.
Which brings me to καιρός. (2) This is one of several words for ‘time’ in ancient Greek. It has the particular meaning of the right, or appropriate time, the most advantageous time in which to do a thing. It is the critical moment on which the success or failure of a thing may well revolve. More and more I think developing devotional consciousness means being aware of καιρός in our lives, in our work, in the way we respond to the Gods, and the way we pay cultus. There is our time and there is the right time to do the things we all know we should be doing devotionally.(3) We should be seeking the appropriate time for our devotions, even when it’s inconvenient to our other plans. To do otherwise is a distortion of the very cultus we are seeking to pay.
- Fortunately, we have divination to determine that latter should the need arise.
- While the word is Greek, both the word and concept have been taken up in ritual studies well beyond that particular language or tradition. I first encountered it not in my training as a Classicist but when I was doing my undergrad degree in Religious Studies.
- This is why I have often said that half the battle devotionally is getting ourselves and our egos out of the way.
I really need to thank the Church that’s up the street from my house. Their message board occasionally contains interesting kledones (κληδόνες) for me and today was one of those days. I drove past the sign and read “when God is silent” and I thought hmm, that’s been a theme lately with some of my clients, in my own work, and for several spiritworkers that I know. It’s been a theme that’s been coming up in my theological reading and one to which I return regularly in my own meditations. What do we do when our Gods are silent?
Firstly, we get a grip. It’s not like They owe us constant feedback. This is a difficult, really difficult statement for me to make, but there it is. We are trained up through the course of our devotional work into a set of cultic practices: prayer, offerings, sometimes altered state work, all the various pieces that make up cohesive devotional practice. We know what is right and proper to do. It’s up to us to do it. Doing what is right shouldn’t be predicated on getting a particular response. That being said, it’s really, really hard and it hurts when we can’t sense the divine Presence. It brings up questions like ‘have I been abandoned?’ and ‘have I done something wrong?’ maybe even, ‘Is Deity X angry with me?’
Probably not. There are rhythms to devotional work just like everything else and there are even fallow times. These times provide a powerful incentive to re-evaluate how we are approaching our work, perhaps seek out divination to see if there is something we can and should be doing better, but these times are also a challenge to stay the course. This is where the hard work of deepening one’s faith is done: when we can feel our Gods the least. Because of that, I think that the times when our Gods seem so very far away, absent even, are some of the most important moments we will ever endure in our devotional lives. They are also times where we can renew and refresh our commitment to our Gods, and the way we approach Them. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a necessary thing.
I also think that our Gods need to be able to trust us not to need the constant feedback of Presence. Sometimes what blocks the Divine Presence is necessary emotional work that we are doing, sometimes “down time” is necessary to integrate the results of ongoing Presence, or sometimes our ability to sense that Presence may be impacted by something as mundane as exhaustion, or stress. A huge part of devotional work is learning to put ourselves into the head and heart space wherein receiving the sense of Presence is possible. It’s all about cultivating a habit of receptivity. And sometimes I think our Gods, Who hunt us into devotion like a predator stalking prey, withdraw Their presence to motivate us to hunt Them in return.
When there are extended periods where nothing seems to be working, by all means yes, seek out a diviner and make sure that nothing is amiss. Don’t fret overmuch, however, if the divination indicates that all is well. Stay the course and look for ways to renew the meaning and commitment of your devotional practices. How we choose to deal with fallow periods, the times when the Gods are or seem silent, are the times that most determine our spiritual character.
None of which makes those times any easier to endure. This is where having a good spiritual support network comes into play, colleagues and friends who can support you, elders and diviners who can guide you, etc. Reach out to those people, because when this happens (and inevitably it will, and it hurts the most those who are the most deeply committed to their Gods), it can shake one’s faith to its foundations, if one doesn’t understand how natural a part of the devotional process this is. When this happens, know that you’re not alone. Sometimes it’s just a matter of reframing the experiential narrative in your own mind, from something punishing and painful, to something challenging and potentially very positive and fruitful.
Part of the problem, what I find the most vexing during these times, is not knowing what to do. It’s not just the lack of Presence and what that brings up emotionally, and the questions it raises, and how it hurts, but not knowing what to do to remedy the situation. Sometimes there is nothing one can do but continue one’s practices, staying the devotional course. Sometimes though (and this is where I am grateful our traditions are traditions of diviners) it’s a good chance to evaluate why you’re doing specific practices and how and whether they’ve been working in the past or whether the Gods have just been indulgent because you were trying. This is where spiritual direction, divination and all the other spiritual tools and technologies we have at our disposal come in. The times when our Gods are silent are a call to renew and restore our devotional worlds, our commitments to the Powers, our commitment to bringing Their mysteries into ourselves (or ourselves into those mysteries as much as we are permitted) and into our world. They’re potentially powerful times. It’s all about considering the narrative.
I read somewhere that for Catholics, the greatest mortal sin is despair. I tend to agree, though I don’t see it as a sin so much as the most enormously damaging thing to invite into our hearts and minds and spirits. I think when we open the door to indulging despair we’re closing the door to our Gods. I also think that despair is insidious and maybe one of the things the fallow spiritual times do is strengthen us against its call, because we are with our Gods whether we can actively sense Them or not, and once we truly know that, it armors us against the depredations of despair. It armors us as the Gods Themselves sustain us. Silent times give us the opportunity to choose devotion to the Gods again, and there is power in such a choice. It gives us time to conquer the fear that we are not loved and cherished by our Gods, and a hollow, resonant moment to hold the opportunity to realize again and again how deeply we are. In the end, that’s a good and necessary thing. In the end, it will bring us deeper into communion with our Gods if we can but stay the course.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve gained insight into the process of ancestor elevation. I used to do it because it needed to be done, but I would do it rather by rote. There’s a Baltic proverb that says the work will teach you how to do it, and I think that definitely happened with me. After over two decades of doing ancestor elevations I finally feel like I have some sense of what it takes to do one well. It finally occurred to me last night, that I should write about this. I receive an awful lot of questions about elevations and sometimes a practice gets so ingrained or even routine that one forgets that not everyone may be aware of some crucial bit.
Firstly, here is a link to both an online shrine to the ancestors and an article on elevation that I wrote some years ago. Ancestor elevation comes to us originally through 19th century spiritualism and was adapted almost immediately by the ATR, but can be done by anyone. The ritual is meant to be flexible and fluid. It is meant to be adapted to the needs of one’s specific ancestors. That is how it was designed. Ancient polytheisms had their rites and rituals for tending and healing the troubled or hurting dead, but since we no longer have access to those rites, this will do. It’s a powerful ritual when done well and it really does help the dead. It’s also quite accessible to just about anyone.
Here’s the thing though that I don’t think I’ve ever really articulated: you can’t do this type of work alone. When we decide to do an elevation – something I always confirm with divination—we are the living keystones here, in the corporeal world. We are letting our ancestor-in-need know that someone living remembers them and cares about them and is deeply concerned for their welfare. We should not be the only ones doing the elevation though.
It is crucially important that we bring our other ancestors and perhaps even our Gods into this practice. Think about it, rather than one person praying for grandma Jane, if you invoke and petition the aid of your entire ancestral house, there are thousands upon thousands (even if some of your dead choose not to participate). Grandma Jane doesn’t stand a chance! Ask your ancestors to participate in the elevation right along with you. You are not doing this ritual alone but rather it’s a group effort; and just as it is right and proper for us to elevate our dead, so too is it proper for our ancestors to participate. This is a family ritual.
In fact, other ancestors will suggest that a certain Deity be called upon. When I was praying last night, about half way through a nine-day elevation for my great grandmother, I got the strong sense whilst I was chanting the Oration, that I should petition Asklepios too, which I did. When I started, one of my dead asked that I pray to Mary. If you can, take their suggestions. It can transform an elevation).
Also, elevations can be exhausting and grueling on a deeply spiritual level. If one’s ancestor is carrying deep wounds or has committed terrible deeds (I usually elevate ancestors who were hurting badly during their lifetimes, but sometimes that led to them making damaging decisions), the process of elevation can really take the moxie out of one. There can be intense resistance on the part of the ancestor being healed, and a lot of emotions like fear, anger, desolation, despair, outright terror, shame, grief can come up in that ancestor bombarding the person doing the elevation. This is normal, but it really can have significant repercussions on the ancestor worker. It’s a heavy weight to bear and sometimes, as the ancestor is fighting for their healing, or in their damaged state, fighting healing, the person working the elevation faces moments where they are shouldering the weight of that damage. It’s a good and holy thing but it is extremely difficult. If the ancestor is actively resistant to healing (but divination and the Gods have indicated it is time to begin, or the ancestors as a group have requested the elevation for the same reason), then it can be that much more difficult to get through.
This is why it’s important to always begin this process clean and to take special care with purification during the nine days of the rite. Depending on the reasons for elevating one’s ancestor, a great deal of miasma and pollution may be released during the ritual and that will need to be dealt with or we’ll end up mired in it. When I begin each night’s prayer cycle, I usually start by taking a cleansing bath, and then I use a scent diffuser (I’m not sure what they’re called: there’s a bowl and underneath a candle. The bowl has water in it in which one may place a few drops of oil before lighting the candle—what are those things called?) in which I use Van-Van oil or Blessing oil or something similar to help prepare the space. I asperse with khernips (myself, my shrine, the space where I’m doing the elevation). Then I go through a cycle of two ancestor songs, one for fire before I kindle any candles, and one for my ancestors in general. I refresh all the offerings (usually just water at this point. Water is important in an elevation because it refreshes the dead) on my main ancestor shrine and make offerings to whatever Deities I’m going to be petitioning too. Then I prepare the elevation shrine, refresh the offerings there, talk to that ancestor a little bit, invite my other ancestors (and Gods) to participate and begin the nightly prayer cycle for the elevation. Afterwards, I cleanse myself again and throughout those nine days, I try to be more mindful of cleansing practices than perhaps I normally would. During an elevation it’s important to neglect nothing. There are times, I will admit, when we can let protocols slide a tiny bit, skirt by, cut corners. This is not one of those times.
It’s also really, really important not to start one’s ancestor practice with an elevation. Before even thinking of performing an elevation ritual, take the time to develop a working, devotional relationship with your dead. Set up an ancestor shrine, make regular offerings, pray to them and for them. Don’t just plop down one day and decide to do an elevation. This ritual is part of a healthy, ongoing ancestor practice, not the beginning of one. It’s one possible part of getting right with one’s ancestors, not generally the appropriate place to start an ancestor practice.
After you’ve spent some time building up a proper ancestor practice, then perhaps consider your first elevation, but don’t begin with the latter. Finally, to reiterate, invoke the Gods and most importantly of all, invoke your ancestors and have them doing the elevation with you. YOU alone are not doing it. It’s a group effort.
I was thinking about prayer last night and I had a couple of epiphanies. I’m in the middle of a rather intense ancestral elevation. This is a healing rite that takes nine days of regular prayers, offerings, and a very special, temporary ancestor shrine for a specific ancestor. It can be exhausting and there is a strict protocol (at least as an ancestor worker. I’m required to follow an ever-tightening noose of protocols and I’ve found it tends to be the same for anyone who works seriously, professionally with the dead). I generally balk and I’m very resistant to the protocols. Someone tells me ‘you must do this,’ and my general response is ‘fuck you’ and then the protocols grate and I get rather pissy about the whole thing. Needless to say, accommodating myself to those protocols has been an uphill battle. I think something changed for me though with that last night.
I had prepped everything, had gone through the opening protocols and prayers and I realized that once I pushed past that initial resistance, it wasn’t too bad. The energy of the thing carried me along pretty well. It’s more than that though. As I was sitting on the floor praying (the shrine for an elevation is laid on the floor purposely), I started chanting the Oration of Aristides in Greek, praying to Dionysos to help untangle the ancestral damage that I was hoping to address with this elevation. For about twenty minutes I changed the oration while silently praying to Dionysos and I felt something within myself shift and settle. I, who am so resistant to set prayer, found it difficult to stop saying the Oration and I realized something that I should have known all along. It hit me like an explosion in the brain. Submitting to the regular discipline of prayer is like pouring water into parched earth. It nourishes in a very crucial, foundational way. It’s important.
I think there’s something about regular prayers, including set prayers, that gentle the spirit, tame it, and bring it to the point of receptivity to the Gods. It hallows us inside and out, clears away the dreck and opens the way for Their Presence like nothing else. I think prayer may be most necessary when we are most resistant.
I get reminded of this again and again in my own practice, this time by Dionysos. Prayer is such a precious gift that we’ve been given. It is what builds and sustains not just the lines of communication to the Holy Powers, but our own hearts and minds in those relationships. It keeps us clean and ready and attentive. It works necessary spiritual muscles (and it’s something you can do even if you have nothing else to offer. In fact, I think it should be the long term, consistent ground on which offerings lie).
It’s important to take that time, to make that time to sit down with our Gods and pray. I don’t mean simply talking to Them, though that can be part of it too at its base. My mother once said that if the only prayer you ever say is ‘thank you,’ then that is enough. But more than conversation, which too often in our pop culture influenced world reduces the Gods to our level in our minds, (and sometimes that’s necessary I suppose), there are prayers of adoration and respect, of gratitude and acknowledgement that raise us up and make our souls fertile ground for devotion to flourish. Like anything else, it’s important to take the time, even when we don’t want to do so. It’s especially important then.
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.