Years and years ago, over 20 now, I went through a period where Odin completely cut His presence off from me. Everyone I dealt with could sense Him around me. I still did His work effectively; but I myself had zero sense of His presence, something that until that moment, from the time I felt claimed by Him, had been a constant in my life. This devasted me. I had no idea what was happening and no conceptual spiritual framework in which to place it. I got through it, because I tend to be duty-motivated, stubborn, and I know that feeling or not feeling His presence was no reason to stop honoring the Gods, honoring Him and doing what I knew to be my spiritual work, but it broke something in me that took a very long time to heal. In time, I was grateful for that period, sort of, the way you know that something terrible made you stronger in the long run, and after about a year or so, it was like a flood gate opened and His presence was back as strong as ever.
Now, yes, I know that the majority of people, especially lay people never experience their Gods like this. I realize that having this experience even once in my life has been a privilege. At that time, however, this was my normal and I didn’t realize it wasn’t like that for most people. The sudden absence was the worst internal pain I have ever experienced. I had read all the works of mystic literature (especially the Rhine mystics like Mechthild of Magdeburg) and I had a framework for what it was like when a God swept one up, for what a theologian of medieval Christianity might term raptus and a polytheistic theologian ekstasis. I didn’t have any model at all for what happens when that stops until last night.
While doing some reading for class prep, I stumbled across a couple of texts, one of which ironically I’d read before, a long time ago for a class (but sometimes it’s a matter of reading the right thing at the right time, which last night apparently was): Guigo the Carthusian’s Ladder of Monks. (The other texts were more relevant in putting into place things I’d been recognizing about my prayer practice and I’ll save that for a separate post later. In his exploration, which is in fact a lovely letter to a fellow monk, Guigo breaks his spiritual practice into four parts: reading, meditation (on what one has read), prayer, and direct experience of the divine or contemplation. Part of what he discusses is what happens when one is suffused with the sense of the presence of one’s God and then that presence goes away. It hit me so incredibly hard. THIS was the text I’d needed so very many years ago. Here are a few passages, (keeping in mind Western Christian mystics often conceived of Christ as the Bridegroom and the soul – whether the mystic was male or female—as the Bride after the language of the Song of Songs):
“Do not fear, oh Bride, nor despair, and do not think that you’re despised if, from time to time, the Bridegroom veils His face. All of this is for your good; His leaving is just as beneficial as His coming…He comes to console you and leaves to guard… (p. 27).
The Bridegroom comes, bringing consolation and leaving desolation. He lets us taste a bit of His ineffable sweetness; but before it can penetrate us, He hides and leaves. Now, He does this in order to teach us to fly toward the Lord. Like an eagle He extends His wings and pushes us to rise” (p. 28).
Years after this particular ordeal, this absolutely accords with what I experienced with Odin and I wish that I had been aware that this framework existed, was understood and explored somewhere. Had I read just these two passages, I would have found myself better able to more productively endure. As it was, I still feel like that time left scar tissue and now my job is to break that tissue down, excise it from my soul so that evil cannot use it, cannot cement it causing me to grow around it in a shape contrary to what my God, Odin, would have for me.
Last night, having stumbled over these passages, I was sharing them with my husband and all of this came up in a rushing flood and I realized how much deep, and deeply rooted pain I carry from that time. He put on some music and we talked for a time. I respond extremely strongly to music and it’s one of the things that can put me in an altered state pretty quickly. I chalk this up to my having been a ballet dancer. I went down hard to the feet of my God and for the first time in maybe a decade, I was able to turn to mild ordeal to open myself up. It was nothing excessive. I had first asked my husband if he could do it but he honestly told me he didn’t trust his hand (and I so respect his honesty). My housemate was asleep and I wasn’t about to wake her up so I just did the ordeal on myself and then sat with Him.
I called Him, galdred to Him, received insight and runes in return and HIM the feel of His presence moving through me and highlighting the scars, cleansing some, showing me how to tend the others but most of all there was that direct engagement, furious and open and raw and joyous and a thousand other things and it was delicious, restorative and I woke today tired, scarred, but feeling so much better than I have in months. Let evil come to test and try us. It is insignificant. Only the Gods remain and that is a union which I for one will never yield.
So many thoughts on prayer and hunting for power, spiritual power, the power to clean out blockages, to obliterate all those things that root inside us, causing us to grow twisted and out of true with that which our Gods wish for us. Tonight for the first time in years, I did a small ordeal, to clean myself out, open myself up to Odin, in devotion, in love, in adoration and it was wonderful.
I want to give a shout out to all those who bear sacred marks on their flesh: the ordeal masters and ordeal dancers, those who’ve scarified, tattooed, and shed their skin, undergone rights of pain and rites of passage in homage and devotion to their Gods.
It’s not something that everyone or even the majority are called to do, but for those who are, there is something tremendously powerful and profound in literally giving back to the Gods the physical territory of our skin. We undergo these rites of transformation and initiation, or tear ourselves open in order to experience the barest shadow and microcosm of our Gods’ ordeals. It is a way of paying homage in flesh to where we have been, where we’ve walked, and where our Gods have walked too. It is a way of laying ourselves out in devotion to Them, and of carrying Them literally wrought into our skin and… it is so much more.
This is something our ancestors understood too. There are mummies that have been found with tattoo marks dating back five and six thousand years. Those of us who walk the path of ordeal are part of a legacy and lineage as old as humankind itself.
So for those of you reading this who incorporate ordeal or sacred marks into your spiritual work, who praise your Gods by what is writ in your flesh, know that you’re following in the footsteps of our ancestors and know that you are touching something very, very holy. That is all.
In my medieval studies class this week, amongst other writing, we had to read through “Memorial” by 13th century Italian female mystic Angela of Foligno. I don’t particularly care for her work, for a number of reasons, many of them centering around issues of translation (as well as a certain distaste for Franciscan spirituality in general) but I gained a valuable insight nonetheless. This was the first time that reading an account of someone’s spiritual practices actually made me throw up…and I’m ok with that. Bear with me.
About half way through her narrative, which her confessor bade her to share with him (1), she is discussing charity as an ascent into divine joy. On Maundy Thursday, she suggests to her companion that they go to the hospital to “find Christ there among the poor, the suffering, and the afflicted.” (2) Her narrative continues thusly:
And after we had distributed all that we had, we washed the feet of the women and the hands of the men, and especially those of one of the lepers which were festering and in an advanced stage of decomposition. Then we drank the very water with which we had washed him. And the drink was so sweet that, all the way home, we tasted of its sweetness and it was as if we had received Holy Communion. As a small scale of the leper’s sores was stuck in my throat, I tried to swallow it. My conscience would not let me spit it out, just as if I had received Holy Communion. I really did not want to spit it out but simply to detach it from my throat. (3)
I find this utterly repugnant and disgusting. I cannot articulate the level to which this sickens me. I am so profoundly glad that my own spirituality does not involve anything quite so revolting. To me. Revolting to me. Because I also realize, that for Angela of Foligno, this was a moment of profound connection to her God, something that gave her tremendous joy, something that was a deeply powerful expression of her devotion and faith. She saw Christ in those lepers and the skin was essentially, for her, the Eucharist and there’s a deep Eucharistic piety echoing through much of her work. Moreover, she doesn’t recount this in order to exhort others to do it, she is responding to her confessor’s difficulty with the idea that connecting with Christ through sharing his cup (the metaphor the narrative uses) could be sweet. He had apparently asked for examples and she provided him with one. He chose to record it and give it a place in the finished narrative.
As we were discussing this text in class tonight it struck me powerfully that I was responding to this woman’s spiritual practices (which are, in the end, between her and her god) with the same type of narrow-minded hostility and disgust with which some people respond to any mention of ordeal work.
I’ve never understood the deeply visceral and negative response some people have toward the idea of ordeal when a) they’ve never seen or participated in one, b) they’re not being asked to participate, nor are they being told that it’s something that everyone must do and c) it’s only one part of my and other ordeal worker’s spiritual practice, in some cases not even a particularly large part. I mean, if you aren’t called to it, don’t do it. It seems a pretty simple rubric (and it is, but our senses are not so simple or always accommodating). I can sympathize a bit better now with the cognitive struggle that some people must go through when faced with something so alien to their own approach to their Gods.
Here’s the thing though, my gut-clenching response to Angela and her lepers was my response. It had nothing at all to do with her, her expression of her devotion to Christ, the work that she did, the act she performed that so revolted me, or the integrity of her practice. My response had to do with me and my own personal aesthetics. I think it’s important when something affects us that instantaneously, that viscerally (and when we’re talking about consenting adults) that we step back and really do a little soul searching as to why. I think all too often we as a species tend to foist our own mental and emotional baggage onto others, blaming them for our own responses rather than owning up and owning our shit.
Without that honest self examination, the impulse that led me to express revulsion over a woman’s spiritual practice (not feel it—i don’t think it’s wrong to feel a particular gut response — no pun intended here—but rather it’s unwise not to examine our responses and bitterly small-minded to project them onto others), the impulse that leads Heathen John or Jane to condemn ordeal workers out of hand as perverts is the same impulse that at its very worst, has led to things like a grown woman cyber-bullying a teen-age girl until the latter committed suicide. At the very worst, ti’s the self-same impulse that leads a bigot on the street to bash a young gay or trans person to death. At its very worst it grows not just into narrow-mindedness but into an egregious lack of humanity and compassion.
I think it’s important to take care what seeds we nourish in our characters. We become that which we feed.
1. He asked her to share with him her experiences and recorded them, eventually preparing two redactions of the text.
2. Angela of Foligno. Complete Works. trans. Paul Lachance. New York, NY: Paulist Press, p. 162.
3. ibid, p. 163