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Musings on Fidelity

I’ve been doing quite a bit of devotional work, more intently than usual, for Sigyn lately. She is such an under-estimated Goddess and I don’t think She gets anywhere nearly the attention and veneration She deserves within modern Heathenry and for a number of reasons (1). She is one of two Goddesses for Whom I have deep devotion and I’m afraid I’d been ignoring Her myself the past few months. Suddenly, though, when I reach out to Her in my struggles, She is there and I am reminded once again of how powerful Her blessings can be. One of the things that I’ve been meditating on with Her guidance is fidelity.

Now I know it’s one of the nine noble virtues, but that actually isn’t what brought it to my mind and contemplation. Sigyn is prompting me to clear my heart and head, to re-center, refocus, rebalance and to reconsider everything that forms a part of my character. We began with what for me is fairly easy: fidelity. This isn’t something on the surface that I’ve ever struggled with…on the surface, not with my Gods and not with my husband. I consider myself blessed in that surface fidelity has never been an issue, but I want to parse that out here a bit more. A friend had asked me recently to write something on marriage so take this as the first post on the topic (though to be fair, my own reasons for writing about it have to do not with marriage but with my devotional relationships. I think I realized some time ago, however, that the same practices and behaviors can help or hinder both).

Fidelity can best be defined as remaining faithful to one’s commitments. One of the things that Sigyn has gently pointed out to me the past few days is that it’s not enough to remain faithful. There are ways to do that poorly, grudgingly, carelessly or mindfully and well. To embrace fidelity in the best of ways is to do so consciously, as an ongoing practice. That means accepting and embracing [self-directed] curbs on one’s behavior in some cases (perhaps not all) and acting consciously from love and a desire for the other’s happiness and health. How do we embody this practice in our devotional relationships and in our human ones too? Do we even give it a second thought beyond the most obvious?

What got me on the fidelity bandwagon was a book I read recently: “If Nuns Were Wives: A Handbook on Marriage from the Perspective of a Nun.” The nun in question is a Buddhist woman who trained in a very traditional convent in Taiwan for many years before her elders and teachers realized that convent life was not for her and sent her back out into the world. She talks about all the lessons she learned during her spiritual training and how they have helped her nurture her marriage. It came up in my feed on Goodreads, and I was curious (thinking, I’ll admit, that it was from the perspective of a Catholic nun – I was bored and didn’t read the description well). I wanted a quick read after some of the academic reading I’ve been doing lately and so downloaded it and dashed through it. Boy, did I get more than I bargained for! While I don’t agree with everything in the book (her willingness to cry seems a bit manipulative to me, for instance, rather than ‘showing softness’), there are beautiful passages and suggestions and meditations on various virtues. Her focus on the daily mundane, (of cleansing oneself, mind and heart and soul, with every act of physical cleansing of one’s dwelling), the grace of maintaining a home, of keeping balanced and loving space, reminded me so strongly of Sigyn that it brought me back to Her shrine on my knees (2).

In one very brief chapter, the author writes about fidelity and this is what struck me so about this virtue, and this is why I referred to “surface” fidelity above. The author says that “being faithful is a state of mind” (kindle loc. 1443), that it goes far beyond (remember she’s talking about marriage) not “lusting after another person” and “reserving your love and affection for the” one you choose to spend your life with. The way she describes it, fidelity becomes an ongoing [spiritual] process of choosing to engage in those behaviors that nourish one’s relationship, and choosing to avoid situations that might not, to curb one’s behaviors where it could lead to the opposite. She makes it clear that it’s something that she herself chooses to do, no one forcing her, and that it enhances the quality of her marriage. This made me question where I’d fallen short not just in my marriage but more pointedly with my devotional relationships as well (because I’ll be honest, since my adopted mom died in 2010 it’s been rough, hence why Sigyn is spurring a much needed re-evaluation and cleansing).

Early on in the book, the author describes marriage thusly:

Marriage is not the easiest of institutions. It requires mindfulness, heart, compassion, unconditional acceptance and often the kind of wisdom that comes with true maturity. It also requires something even bigger and more spiritual than what most people have to offer their mate – reverence.(kindle loc. 152. Italics in the original).

To be blunt, no shit! If people realized how difficult, they’d never do either! Marriage is fucking hard and let me tell you, so is devotion. We come to both with so many unconscious expectations and unacknowledged needs, with baggage: hurts, scars, damage and the space of the relationship becomes the arena in which those things are dredged up and worked on or out. For me, fidelity becomes a commitment to stay the course through the barren times, through the difficult times, through the struggles.

It’s more than that though, it’s a committed willingness to tend the relationship as though it were a living, fragile thing requiring constant care – because it is (and again, this holds true in marriage AND devotional relationships). We’re all self-centered in our hurts, in our needs, in our moments of vulnerability and it’s easy to forget to step away from ourselves and prioritize our partners (or Gods) but I think the practice of fidelity is what allows for that perspective, what allows for one to approach the other in gratitude, in love, with deep compassion, with an awareness of the love the other bears for us. In one section of the book (which I did not mark, so this is my paraphrase), the author talks about a terrible fight she had with her husband. She went to cool off and while she was, she began to consciously think about all the small things he did out of love for her, little things that might otherwise pass unremarked. She found that by calling up the kindnesses, the moments of him tending their relationship, of him expressing love in small ways and acts, she was able to move from anger to appreciation and a more open head and heart space in which to talk. I think it works that way with devotion too.

If we continue with the metaphor of tending a relationship like one would tend a garden (which I like because the word for cultus in Latin also means to tend or till a field), then that also means weeding that garden, not letting things build up, not bottling up needs and vexations but being willing to talk them though with your other to reach accord. Tending a garden means not hiding, not allowing weeds to sprout and grow, strangling the good. That means attentiveness, hard work, consistency, and a willingness to be uncomfortable.

Fidelity also means loving someone just the way they are. We don’t (or shouldn’t) enter into relationships to change the Other/other. We love those people in our lives just the way they are, and hopefully they love us the same. Fidelity grants the amazing gift of being able to be oneself, and allowing one’s partner likewise to be the same. I don’t think two people in a relationship set out to hurt each other, but hurt happens and it’s the same in devotional relationships. Cultivating a practice of fidelity, I think, means consciously returning to a place of love and kindness before acting, before speaking, space in which each party can breathe. I particularly liked the section where the author noted (for her, with respect to her husband, but this is something I want to carry with me in my devotional relationships with my Gods too):

In my marriage, I thought about all those times I resented my husband for not saying or doing something I wanted: for not demonstrating love as I wished. “Why don’t you care about me?” I would silently ask myself. “Why don’t you come talk to me? Love me?” But rarely had I asked, “What more can I do for you?” or “How do I show you I care?” My mentality had been so wrapped up around myself. But compassion is a sentiment that requires one to let go of selfish thinking and to ask, “How can others’pain be alleviated? Are they lonely or sad? How can others be happy?” (loc. 2217)

And that is damned difficult. We’re selfish creatures and our hurts all too often define us. It’s really, really hard to see beyond the sting (or punch in the gut) of pain. But a relationship is like a dance and for it to flow smoothly, both people must be committed to doing just that. I wish, oh dear Gods I wish that I’d realized this when I started building my devotional relationships. I am ashamed to think of the times that I have been (and probably will be again, let’s be honest) peevish, selfish, and just spiteful and mean with my Gods (and probably with my husband too!). Taking those times of failure though, when we are less than what we know we should be, can help us hone our practice of fidelity, can help us to re-evaluate and make it better. (No wonder both atheism and divorce are up – who the hell wants to go through the constant trouble! Lol). Acting with love is exhausting! Except that it’s not, it keeps a relationship vital and charged and constantly renewing itself.

A commitment to fidelity is a commitment to constant renewal. It means that one doesn’t allow oneself to become comfortable within a relationship, to take it for granted, to become dismissive, to rest on any laurels, as the saying goes. And yes, it’s being faithful and choosing not to do that which would compromise one’s faithfulness.  There was a prayer offered in the book that screams to me of Sigyn-wisdom: I pray that my heart be as vast as the sky. (loc. 229). So here is my prayer lifted from that:

I pray that my heart be as vast as the sky,
that I may always remember to ground myself
in a place of love, of gratitude,
in a willingness to see, to hear, to care.
May I never fear the vulnerability these things bring,
but embrace the ever-changing, ever-renewing maelstrom
that is devotion…
with my Gods, in my marriage, with my friends.
May my heart open
and may it be as vast as the sky.
I place myself at the feet of my Goddess,
Sigyn, Lady of the Staying Power.
May I learn, oh Sweet Goddess. May I learn.
Hail to You, Sigyn, Goddess of constancy,
Hail to You, Goddess of Devotion.(3)

Notes

  1. I think there are a couple of reasons that Sigyn gets short shrift in our community (not across the board. She has significant cultus in some denominations, but in the more mainstream denominations She’s too often overlooked); partly She is Loki’s wife and remains with Him when He is bound in the cave. Loki is incredibly controversial in the continuum of communities that make up the modern Northern Tradition. Some love Him, some hate Him, some fear Him. He polarizes and this is themajor denominational fault line within our traditions. Because Sigyn doesn’t repudiate Him, She’s often dismissed as a doormat, an abused wife—all because She made a conscious choice to honor Her commitments to a Husband Who loved and cherished Her, a choice that many in our community might not like. I suspect, She’s also often looked at as a ‘doormat’ because Her locus is the home. She tends the home and creates sacred, nourishing space. Her world is the domestic sphere and for all that Heathenry honors the traditional roles of women, I think because Sigyn is not flashy, not overly sexualized in modern narrative, not given a role as a warrior or queen, because She is a hausfrau, She’s often sadly dismissed as weak (which is foolish to anyone who knows the respect with which wives were held in ON homes).
  2. “A nun told me that when they sweep, they imagine they are sweeping away the negativity of their minds: impatience, irritability, greed, anger and the like. Cleaning the floor becomes a process of inner purification.” (kindle loc. 279).
  3. In addition to Sigyn as a Goddess of devotion and constancy, we have the also overlooked Goddess Nanna, wife of Baldr. If there is ever a Goddess of fidelity it is Nanna, who chose to follow Her husband into Helheim rather than remain without Him.

Nine Noble Virtues

I’ve been seeing a lot of push back lately on the nine noble virtues including dismissals that they are Nazi-ish, racist, homophobic, etc. etc (insert buzzword of the year). I remain confused by the pushback. (There are blogs both pro and con here). It’s as though having any ethical guidelines at all offends some people. Note, they’re not trying to replace them with a different set of values, but rather to negate any values that might in any way constrain or shape their character.(1)

For my readers who aren’t familiar with them, here is the list of the commonly accepted NNV:

  1. Courage
  2. Truth
  3. Honor
  4. Fidelity
  5. Discipline
  6. Hospitality
  7. Self-Reliance
  8. Industriousness
  9. Perseverance

Shocking, aren’t they?

These are very Protestant virtues, but examples of them can easily be found in the Havamal and Sagas too. I think they are fitting exemplars for a society in which existence was a constant struggle. If you think that isn’t applicable today, try living below the poverty line. These guidelines are meant to develop a strong character. None of these virtues are objectionable to a reasonable person.  Do you really want to be the kind of person without honor? Without courage? Who is incapable of hospitality or personal discipline? The kind of person who lacks fidelity in relationships, or who is incapable of telling the truth or holding to his or her word? The NNV may be simplistic, but they are meant as touchstones to aid in the development of character. Note that they do not tell you how to be courageous, or how to be truthful but one is encouraged to be introspective in discovering this for oneself. I rather like that. It’s not the end of the conversation, but the very beginning. What is truth? What does it mean to me as a devotee of Deity X? How can I cultivate that in my life? Yet, those throwing out these virtues without consideration or without providing an alternative don’t want to have that conversation. To hell with the Socratic method. We don’t need no stinkin’ philosophy here. (Yes, I’m being sarcastic. Everybody needs philosophy).

Of course, given how pervasive the NNV are within Heathen traditions, it is inevitable that someone holding alt right views will subscribe to them. So do many people holding the opposite. To say that they are racist, is to say that there is something inherently racist about the concept, the abstract ideal of truth or fidelity or hospitality, etc. It also implies that people who are not white, are incapable of upholding these ideals, which is utter nonsense.

Yes, they were created by (depending on your source) the AFA or Odinic Rite. So what? We have space travel because of the work of Nazi scientists. I remember when I found out as a seventh grader, that the US imported Nazi scientists to work on its Manhattan project and later the space program and I was ashamed, horrified, and appalled. I still wrestle with the ethics involved in such a thing. Can good come from evil? Is necessity motivation and justification enough? And that opens up a whole other ethical can of worms. We still use Volkswagens though, and they were made by Nazis too. Same with Hugo Boss and Ford, who was a rampant anti-Semite. By the standards of some of these people, we should be eschewing birth control too because Margaret Sanger was pro eugenics. Strange how the same logic that allows for the dismissal of fairly common virtues doesn’t apply to our technologies. Yet I’ll bet more blood was spilled with the latter.(2) Hell, the internet was made by the US military. Are you cool with the hundreds of thousands of people who have died because of the military industrial complex? If this is a problem, why are you online? Oh wait, I guess one only objects when such things are inconvenient.  Convenience allows for a great deal of overlooking I suppose.

I’ve also often seen the NNV condemned as ablest. As someone with physical disability, let me tell you, you need a metric fuck-ton of courage to get through life. Those disabled in some way can fulfill every one of these virtues, otherwise what the detractors of the NNV are actually saying is that disabled people are disabled not only in body but in mind, heart, and character. That’s pretty foul. It’s infantilizing and really quite disrespectful to the struggle of differently abled people in our communities.

We should be encouraged to define the NNV for ourselves in our own lives, with respect to our own relationships with the powers.  Or we should be encouraged to come up with our own system and values sustainably within and coherent with our traditions. Either way, character matters and it’s often difficult for people coming from monotheisms where they’re told what to believe and how to act, to encounter a system of ethics that encourages self-reflection and independence. I’d love to see discussions of other philosophies and ethical guidelines but it’s a whole lot easier to criticize and condemn than to create something positive. The NNV are situational guidelines and principles. I would love to see discussions on what it means to have courage in the modern world, what it means with respect to each person’s individual circumstances, what it means to have hospitality, to show hospitality, especially when one is impoverished or in the midst of scarcity. How does the hospitality shown to one’s Gods differ from what one shows to one’s friends or to strangers? Where are those philosophical conversations? Maybe we should all go back to Plato.(3)

 

 Notes

  1. What amuses me the most is the people protesting the NNV often do so on the grounds (in part) that’s not ancient and yet, these are often pop culture pagans. So either antiquity is a valid criterion across the board, or this particular objection is bullshit.
  2. Not that I expect logical coherence from the pop culture crowd.
  3. Ironically, I’ve never been a fan of the NNV, because they are simplistic. One has to start somewhere though and it was only after reading The Six Questions of Socrates, that I began to look at them as more than formulaic.