Today, I posted this picture on Instagram and twitter of part of my preparation for our equinox ritual today (which we will be doing in about an hour). I noted that I have pulled out the mineral oil and have happily been oiling the wooden statues, the wooden blót bowl, and my ritual horn. Someone pinged me back on Instagram and asked about using oil on one’s horn, and also wanted to know whether olive oil could be used. Care for one’s ritual tools is part of good practice and this is an important question if one wants to keep one’s tools in good working order.
Firstly, do not use olive oil. It can go rancid – at least that’s what I was taught. Use mineral oil and preferably food-grade mineral oil. The bottle will list whether it’s food grade or not. On statues it doesn’t really matter, but for bowls and horns, food-grade is definitely the way to go.
Wooden statues and bowls need a little loving care every now and again. Wood can dry out and become brittle. The natural oils of one’s hands will help condition the wood, but usually, something of any significant size like a statue needs more. If wood dries out it can crack and even break. I recommend food-grade mineral oil applied every couple of months to statues. Just take a clean cloth, put a bit of the oil on the cloth, and apply it to the statue. Usually, the wood will soak it right up.
With ritual bowls, it’s even more important to keep them conditioned. Never, ever let a wooden bowl (or any wooden implement) soak in water. Wash them properly of course, but don’t leave them soaking in water. It can completely ruin them. I once had a friend take two of my ritual knives and, completely well meaning, leave them soaking overnight in soapy water. The handles were hand carved wood. They were ruined. There was no coming back from that damage. It was a hard lesson to learn but one I never forgot. (I couldn’t even be angry with my friend – she was just being helpful and doing the dishes). Wash and dry your wooden bowls right away. With wood, I don’t even suggest leaving it air dry. I manually dry even wooden cooking implements. Then, spread a thin layer of mineral oil on, again, working it in with a clean cloth.
The same goes for one’s drinking horn. Horn can become dry and brittle too. I usually wash my drinking horns right after ritual (never let them sit overnight without first cleaning them), dry them thoroughly and then, before putting them away, I will give them a rub down with mineral oil (always food-grade oil). This time, I washed and oiled the horn first because I had taken it to show a group of students a couple of weeks ago. I figured a little extra loving care wouldn’t hurt.
Mineral oil can be used to oil knives too. So, that’s my practicum post for the day. Have a lovely equinox everyone and a good rest of the weekend.
For those who don’t know what I mean, here is a little bit about the spoon metaphor.
Disclaimer: this topic did not come to me out of the ether. I saw a post on twitter about someone who was doing a podcast on the subject which made me think about it myself. I’ve been hunting twitter for that post and my response but I can’t find it. My apologies to the lovely person who first gave me the idea for this topic. If you know who you are and see this, please let me know and I’ll update my post to give you credit. (edit: I think it was this video. Thank you, E. for sending it my way. There are good suggestions in the video. This does not mean I support the channel or the creator – I don’t know this person at all. This video, however, offers good pointers).
I have severe chronic pain issues. Having worked as a ballet dancer for the first part of my working life, I was sidelined by injury and retired in my early twenties. While I loved my work, it left me with spinal damage, torn ligaments that never properly healed, tendonitis, arthritis, and chronic pain. Later, I developed fibromyalgia and severe migraines. Ballet taught me many things that I have carried over into my spiritual work and devotional world. I can work through a great deal of pain (whether that is healthy or not is a totally different question! Often I’ll be so focused on a task that I won’t realize my pain levels are creeping into seriously dangerous territory until I stop working. Once my concentration is broken, suddenly I’m hit with massive pain and it can lay me out for a long while. I do not advocate this for anyone, but, it’s a habit that I picked up as a dancer). I can use pain productively, as in ordeal where pain is one of the catalysts for going deeply into an altered state. I can force myself through pain if something needs to be done. I can function until I can’t, or rather I can function but then I pay a high price for it.
Learning to admit when I have to stop, and to take better care of myself before I get to that point has been one of the most difficult things I have ever had to learn. I have an aversion to laziness that only someone raised with dictums like “idle hands are the devil’s playthings” could have. It took me a long time to really accept that self-care was not laziness. I’m still somewhat dubious about where self-care ends and self-indulgence begins but I find it helps to think about self-care as a marathon. What is going to help us stay the course long-term? I bring myself back to this in my academic work, where I am all too often struggling with pain, and I bring myself back to it with my devotional practices too, especially as I get older. So, this is not an easy topic for me to approach in a way that I think will be valuable to you, my readers – even though I’m going to try to do just that here. All of this is complicated for me in that I think it is terribly easy to use one’s pain or circumstances as an excuse to do less, as an excuse to forego devotion all together and I have a knee jerk reaction to that, or to fostering that in myself or anyone else. It’s not always easy for me to balance these two things. Couple that with being an Odin’s person and very work-oriented.
I want to love my Gods better so much it hurts. That being said, devotion should not be torture. It should be something that is as natural and easy to us as breathing. There are going to be those times where we’ll struggle, or where we might have to slog through resistance but devotion should be the thing that sustains us and lifts us up. It’s important to build good devotional habits from the beginning and I think it’s so incredibly perverse that it can be so easy to build bad habits and so damned hard to build sustainable good ones. What is with that? Then chronic pain or some other physical or neurological condition comes along and complicates things. Like it’s not hard enough already? Argh. So, I have found that it’s perfectly ok to bitch, whine, and moan about this. Frustration with our limitations is natural. If you need to vent, allow yourself to do so. It doesn’t make you a bad polytheist to want to pound a wall sometimes in sheer frustration!
More importantly, I like to say that we are as we have been made and the Gods are not going to fault us for the peculiarities of our corporeal forms. If you’re having a bad day physically or a bad brain day and just can’t do the type of devotion you usually do, that’s ok. There is zero reason to be ashamed. Don’t beat yourself up. There are enough people in this world who are ready to do that for no reason at all. Just pick yourself up and do what you can do. If it’s just a whispered prayer that’s enough. The Gods know your heart. The best you can do is the best you can do at any given time. It’s ok if that varies considerably from day to day. Do what you can do and know that the Gods see you and it is enough.
I think it’s natural for us to plan for our good days. I would suggest having a series of plans for your bad days, and then those days that are worse. When XYZ happens (when I wake up with a migraine so bad I’m screaming for instance, or with my joints so inflamed I can’t get out of bed) what is the devotional game plan? It may not be much. It may be a single prayer, like Sigdrifa’s prayer that I have committed to memory. Usually we can always pray – maybe not too coherently – but at least there is some kind of reaching out. If that’s the best one can do, then it is enough.
I think it’s really important to establish a base line for the very worst days. Prep for that. Know that they will happen and that’s ok. That’s not going to be the new normal. It’s temporary and there’s no shame in it. Do what you can do – and you yourself are the best judge of that. When you are feeling better and are able to do more, then do more. It’s that simple for me. I have the goal of giving 110% but when I fall short, provided I’m doing the best I can, I don’t beat myself up. I just regroup on the days I feel better.
Self-care is part of the work. We can’t do devotion without at least a modicum of self care. For those like me with chronic pain, that may mean getting enough sleep, eating regularly, staying hydrated, doing what exercise one can…I know if I disrupt my sleeping patterns for more than a night or two, I’m going to get hit with a migraine. It’s almost certain. Learning how my chronic pain works and what triggers it and doing my best to avoid those triggers (not always a possibility, I might add) has been an important part of my own self-care.
A friend of mine, when we were discussing this said, “Proper self-care is the first service you can offer your Gods because you are Their instrument and if you aren’t keeping that instrument in proper care, you’re neglecting your first duty to Them. You’re breaking something beautiful that They have created.” She’s right. “Always ask yourself how your behavior is benefiting Them.” If you’ve crossed from self-care into non-productive self-indulgence (1) (because feeding the soul with beauty is not a bad thing) then step back and see how you can get back on track within your limits. My friend continued, “always ask: is this behavior on course with what my Gods intend for me? Am I still on the same road with Them? If you feel you’ve deviated then perhaps it’s time for a reset, perhaps you’ve crossed from necessary self-care into behavior that is damaging to your development.”
You know best when you’ve crossed those lines, just like you know what your body best needs to function. Don’t be afraid to prioritize self-care when those bad days come. It’s not just making sure you aren’t in physical pain, but making sure that internally – mentally, emotionally – you’re in a good place. Do what you need to do to feed yourself on all levels. Feed your eyes with art. Feed your mind with poetry, with books, with things that inspire us to live better, to live fully, to live joyously. Listen to music that echoes the voices of the Gods in every note. That’s self-care too.
- This is such a terrible term. Luxury isn’t bad. Beauty isn’t bad. We need to feed our eyes and ears and tastebuds, and our entire sensorium with beauty to be healthy. Beauty lifts us up to the holy. Beauty is sacred. We should enjoy life and enjoy our work at least some of the time. I don’t have a word other than “self-indulgence” though for when one falls out of right alignment with the Powers and with oneself. I will say this: that line is going to be different for everyone anyway.
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One of the key mysteries of our tradition is that of the runes. The word itself, rún, rúnar (1) means just that: ‘secret’ or ‘mystery.’ Our high God Odin (Oðinn) hung on Yggdrasil for nine nights and nine days in agony, pierced by His own spear, a sacrifice to Himself. The result of this ordeal was acquisition of the runes and the knowledge and ability to wield them. There is much the story doesn’t tell us, starting with where the runes originate, what they are, and what their connection to the fabric of creation might be.
I talk about all of these things in my book Living Runes, so I won’t focus on that too much in this post. In short, I think they originate in the Ginnungagap, are a family of living, sentient spirits, and are worked into the architecture of existence in numerous ways, creating loopholes through which the holy can seep (or work) again and again. When I think about this, they’re so often in motion, coursing through creation the way platelets, plasma, and blood cells course through our veins. They may rivet the more liminal parts of creation in place, or they may whirl and dance through the world working His will and their own. I think it varies and it’s something I’m still exploring in my own practice.
What I wanted to discuss today is one of the techniques that I employed when I was first learning how to really engage with the runes. This is also something that I give to my apprentices when they are learning the runes for themselves. Usually, this is done after one has initially met the runes through offerings and galdr – a round 1 of ‘getting to know you,’ shall we say. Once a student has passing familiarity with the runes, knows what they are, has maybe galdred a bit, or meditated with them, once he or she has his or her own devotional relationships to Gods and ancestors securely established (2), when that student is ready for the second round of in-depth engagement, this is what I have each of my apprentices do (and no, this isn’t in my book). I do this myself every now and again myself. One never stop learning after all!
Before I describe this, I want to offer one caveat. If you are going to do this, begin with Odin. He is Master of the Runes (Rúnatýr – God of the runes) and they are first and foremost His mysteries. Afterwards, next approach the Deity or Deities in turn to whom you are dedicated, Whom you would consider your fulltrui, Who hold the most significant place in your personal devotions. This is simply a matter of both protocol, and courtesy and respect.
Now, onto the exercise.
A). Make a list of the various Deities that you venerate or Whose insight you might be interested in gaining with respect to the runes. For instance, Odin, Frigga, Freya, Loki, Sigyn, Thor, Sif, Heimdall, Mani, Sunna, Sinthgunt, Eir. (Make your own list, starting with Odin. This is just an example, though it’s close to the list one of my apprentices recently employed).
B). Each night, meditate upon and galdr the same rune, first making offerings to one of these Deities, and then to the rune itself. So, start with Fehu. Set up a working altar or shrine, some place where you can make offerings to the rune of the night and to whatever Deity you’re approaching. If you have a personal household shrine (and if you’re doing this, you should (3)), you can go ahead and use that. The first night, make an offering to Odin. Offer prayers to Him and ask Him if He would be willing to teach you something about fehu. Make an offering to fehu itself, asking it if it would work with Odin and teach you something about itself. Then galdr the rune, meditate on it, write down your insights. Thank the two powers, Deity and rune invoked, and you are done for the night. Work through your list of Deities meditating on the *same* rune. When you’re done, move on to the next rune and go through the list again in the same order.
What you’re essentially doing is building your own book of correspondences as you engage in this process. I would also repeat this, either approaching the same Deities or perhaps with a new list (though always begin with Odin. He is the doorway to the runes in many respects), every few months. Be polite when you approach both Powers. You are not after all, entitled to Their wisdom. As with anything, the more polite you are, the more productive this is likely to be. Even having worked with the runes for close to thirty years, I still keep this in mind every time I approach them. At the end of your list, or even somewhere in the middle of it, do one night where you do NOT approach a Deity, but work only through the rune itself.
I stumbled on this process of approaching various Deities like this accidentally. I was having a bit of trouble with something and struggling to figure out how to work the rune I had decided to call upon. Completely unexpectedly, Sigyn sorted it out giving me an unexpected bit of insight. I thought, ‘wait. You know runes?’ Now, I shouldn’t have been surprised – She is a Deity after all –but when we have deeply personal devotional relationships with our individual Gods, it can be easy to forget that They are well, Gods. It can be easy to think that we know Them as we might know a friend down the way. We may indeed know a little given that relationships are mutual processes, but no matter how much experience we have in devotion to a Deity, THEY are always so much more.
One of the things that I really like about this particular exercise also, is that it allows the one doing it the opportunity to approach Deities he or she may not have previously considered approaching. It allows for a potential devotional relationship to bloom. It gets one out of one’s comfort zone, away from the regular way of doing things and allows room for unexpected insights to occur.
There are things to consider when you are engaging in this process: how does the rune feel? When you galdr, do you get any images running through your mind, any words popping up wanting to be worked into the galdr, any other sensory expressions of its presence (and that may include taste and smell too)? How do you feel before, during, and after? Has your impression of the rune changed at all? Do your best to keep a good record of this. It is helpful when you’re going back to check your progress. Be sure to stay hydrated and maybe eat a little protein after your nightly sessions. I would also be sure to center and ground well afterwards.
Finally, the futhark tells a story. Each Aett (4) contains its own mysteries. It is normal that some runes will prove harder and more difficult to access than others. That’s ok, and the reverse is also true. Most will have one or two runes stepping forward as a guide through the futhark and through one’s work therein. When you encounter a rune that just won’t open, that’s ok. Be respectful, do your best, make your offerings and come back to it later. There are runes (for me, mostly in the third aett) that have taken years before they allowed me to so much as dip a toe into their mysteries. Again, as with so much spirit-work, you’re building a relationship. Part of the process of learning to work with runes is that they are learning your mental patterns, internal language, internal symbol set and you are learning something of theirs and the two of you are building this pidgin (is that the correct linguistic term?) by which you can communicate. You’re learning each other’s language and building a shared syllabary through which you can productively communicate. That’s going to take time. Some things cannot be rushed.
Before I close, I want to take a moment’s focus on the first aett. As with our sacred texts, there are numerous ways that one can approach and interpret the narratives that we’re given. Since there are numerous patterns in the way the runes relate to each other, one can tell many stories. While these stories are not direct engagement with the runic powers, they are a means of conceptualizing and learning from them. They are doorways into each rune’s power. Here is a very brief way of reading through the first aett connectively. Fehu is the luck that flows through our blood (ancestral luck, hamingja), vitality, wealth, abundance, power. Like a sap through a tree or chlorophyll through a leaf, it flows through our veins and the veins of our soul body giving it life – just like Loður gave us sense-awareness and color, and the roaring pulse of our heart’s blood when the Gods created humanity. Uruz is raw power, maegen, the ability to tap into, access, and use one’s luck. It is initiation that awakens us to the Powers, challenge by which we earn the right to use what we have been given. Thurisaz is a challenge to focus, to discipline, to hone and temper our power. It’s the hard work we do to strengthen our spiritual and ethical muscles. It is the force that shatters our illusions, clears us out, devours what no longer serves, frees one – sometimes violently – from constraints, burns like napalm in the soul until we order ourselves rightly and leave our bullshit behind. (Edited 3/7 to include ansuz, as I was writing with a migraine and accidentally left one of my favorite runes out). Ansuz is divine inspiration, ecstasy (in the classical religious sense), surety and confidence in the Work. It is the touch of the Gods, grace that allows us to persevere in our spiritual becoming even when it is hard. It is the opener of the way, that, if we are working to become rightly ordered, will show us the way forward. Raido is movement, momentum, overcoming of obstacles, the progress made when we accomplish the first three runic lessons and are rightly ordered with the Powers, and the power by which we may find our way through any obstacles in the way of that. Kenaz is the torch, the hearth fire, the offering fire, a candle on a shrine, the light of knowledge, piety, and devotion. It is that which we have been given to tend, to keep fed and bright and warm (our devotion, our traditions). Gebo is the process of exchange between us and the Holy powers, the law by which we are called to live our lives, the pious sensibility underlying every positively ordered engagement with the Powers, and with each other. Wunjo is the fulfillment of fehu, pleasure and ecstatic awareness of the powers, perfection and glory, joy and transformative power. It is the sum total of the other seven runes in this aett. One cannot access the fullness of wunjo, without first accessing and understanding these preceding runes. Wunjo is also the mead of inspiration, of frenzy, of magic, of inspiration on every possible level. How will you drink of it, how will it shape itself to your mind and talents? It will enliven you for the work to come with the next aett, which takes us down immediately into the place of the dead. This is the foundational work one must do in order to access the Mysteries, in order to be of use to our Gods, in order to become functionally realized human beings. It is ongoing work, and the runes can reflect that, though they are also so much more (5). I would also stress that this is only one way of lightly tapping into their insights.
I’ll wrap this up for now. As all rune work begins with Odin, so too should it end with praises to this God Who had the will to win them.
Hail to the God of the gallows,
Terrible and unrelenting.
Hail to the Wyrd-riven Wonder-worker,
Who leaves ecstasy in His wake.
Hail to the Bale-eyed Beguiler,
with His whispered charms
and savage conjurings.
Hail to the Lord of Asgard,
Architect of the Worlds
Who breathed us into Being,
Eternally let us praise Him.
- These are the nominative and genitive singular forms respectively.
- It goes without saying that the runes are a specialty, as well as being a Mystery all their own, and not only does one not have to work with the runes to be a good Heathen, but those who don’t already have their spiritual houses, i.e. their devotional world, in some semblance of order, should not work with them. They are tools of magic and divination and it becomes very complicated, very quickly.
- Really, if you don’t have the most basic devotional space set up and active in your home, you’re not ready to work with the runes no matter how far along you think you are.
- This word just refers to a set of eight. There are three sets of eight that make up the elder futhark.
- They are sentient, amoral, non-human spirits. They have their own agendas and are allied to the All-Father Who also has His agenda. It’s healthy to never forget that.
As a result of this conversation here, several people have made suggestions or emailed me asking what I keep for aftercare in my spiritwork “kit.” Everything, people. Everything Lol. I’m a friggin’ spiritworking boy scout. Seriously, I’m only half joking.
I keep a full first aid kit, with bandaids, bandages, antiseptic cream, etc. I keep burn cream (I do fire work so it makes sense to have prescription Silvadene cream. There’s nothing better and while I am very competent at my work, accidents can always happen).
I keep protein bars and chocolate, Excedrin, and rehydration salts. I also tend to carry a caffeine drink of some sort, and also charged water (you’ll need water of some sort for the rehydration salts). I carry bug spray because sometimes I’m working outside. Sometimes I throw in (chewable) pepto bismal, Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, Vitamin C, Airborne chewables, a good multi-vitamin, and chewable Magnesium. I tend to take these as a matter of course, so I don’t always carry the vitamins with me, but rather keep them on my kitchen counter (except for the Airborne. That I carry in my kit always and take regularly). I also make sure that there is a dosage of all my prescription meds in my kit, just in case I need them. I’ve known some spirit-workers who like to carry Rescue Remedy, a homeopathic medicine, but, I myself do not use it.
Finally, I will carry a spray bottle of holy water or khernips. I buy the biggest spray bottle I can and fill it up before any job.
I carry more than this in my kit, but this is specifically what I carry for aftercare. As far as rehydration salts go, there is a very good brand called Liquid IV, that was recommended to me last year and I’ve had very good results with it.
Finally, I want to note that spirit-work and spiritual work are two different things. Spiritual work is what we do in our lives to cultivate devotion, to deal with our own BS, to heal ourselves, to make ourselves useful in our lives and to our gods. Spirit-work is what we do professionally. It’s a specialty, and it’s usually done on behalf of our Gods and spirits, our traditions, our community, and/or individual clients.
There is a system of divination extant in the Northern Tradition called the soul map. It’s a system of reading, usually done once a year (generally no more than twice a year) that opens up the various soul parts and allows the diviner to examine the state of each individually. Given that within our tradition the soul is divided into seventeen parts, this can be extremely useful. It provides one really good information on where one needs to work spiritually to better their lives and their devotional world. It helps one become spiritually healthy. It’s also one of the mysteries of the tradition. Because of that, there are some caveats, namely that it isn’t something one should practice unless A) one has been taught (and I really think this is something that needs to be taught face to face) and B) one is Heathen or Northern Tradition, and C) one is an experienced, very experienced diviner. I’m going to elaborate on C in just a moment. Before I do, I want to emphasize that this, even more than the runes (which will protect themselves if they’re not getting what they want) is a Mystery. This is not something to which outsiders are entitled, and it’s not something with which one should dabble. The danger in this system is one of the things you won’t know unless someone sits you down and shows you but oh boy, is it something one really needs to know.
This is a dangerous system, and it’s dangerous precisely because it takes one down hard and really, really fast into the wyrd. So the diviner will swim there for a while not realizing how deeply he or she has gone – because while one is reading, one feels fine. It’s only after one closes the reading and returns to mundane headspace that one will then realize how deeply one was plumbing the threads. If one is doing a single reading, this isn’t so bad. But, it’s easy to forget how rough this can be – because again, it doesn’t *feel* rough while one is reading – and then the diviner decides, “oh hey, sure. I can do three or four readings in one go” and then that diviner wakes up the next morning wishing he or she were dead. To be clear, nausea, massive headache, and feeling like one has been hit upside the back of the head (where there is a particular energy port) with a crowbar. Immediately after, because ancestors can come strongly during the reading, one can have chills, or fever, in addition to the blooming headache. It can lay a person out faster than any system I know.
I say this having gotten into a mood last night and done seven in one sitting. We do them every January and I’d been putting them off but I already had a minor headache and I was sort of nauseous from it so I thought, ‘what the hell? I feel like shit now, why not just go with it?’ Ironically, because I was aware of this and I’ve been a diviner for thirty years so I know how to pace myself, and most importantly, because my husband was horrified and gave me really good after care, I feel ok this morning. I should also say, I got more than 12 hours of solid sleep before sitting down to divine and I suspect it’s that which made up the difference.
My assistant, however, had not been so lucky. While I had warned her how dangerous soul map could be, she was taking notes for the readings and just peeking after I finished each reading (she’s learning how to do soul map, so this was a good opportunity to give her a chance to try her wings without the stress of being the primary diviner). She’s not doing so well right now. She thought because she wasn’t sitting directly at the mat she was safe from reaction sickness. She was wrong. To be fair, I thought the same thing. I was wrong too. The only reason she’s not praying for death right now, is that Sannion made us drink rehydration salts and eat protein immediately after the readings. We also took drugs and by drugs I mean aspirin, a lot of aspirin. I woke up very early this morning with the beginning of a migraine but managed to escape by taking the proper migraine medication (which my doctor prescribed because I get bad migraines) and hydrating again. I feel better than I have any right to after the amount of work we did last night. My assistant just described it as “someone put a pile of lead inside my head and I couldn’t get up this morning even when I really needed to and oh I hurt so bad.”
I would suggest being very well rested before starting this type of reading. As with any potential reaction headache (and I suspect part of this is that it screws up the electrolyte balance too. I always treat it as such and that helps so I’m going with it), drink hydration salts or Gatorade (hydration salts don’t have the sugar) immediately. Even if you don’t want to, do it. Same with food. I had eaten a huge plate of sushi before I did my seven readings and the protein probably helped me almost as much as the sleep. Eat afterwards, even if you don’t want to (one will generally crave sugar or protein, the latter is better). If you can stand it, have a little caffeine. Then do no other spiritual or energetic work. REST. I do this as a matter of course whenever I’m doing a lot of divination or spirit work, even if soul map isn’t involved.
Reaction headaches suck. They’re what happens when you go too deep, too quickly, when you take in more energy than your energetic channels can process, when you do too much at a given time, when you overwork your psychic channels. They can be worse than the worst migraine you can imagine.
It’s important that we have these practicum conversations. This is the real nuts and bolts of a practice, beyond the 101 stuff. So hit me with your questions. What do you, readers, want to know?
And oh how I wish I’d remembered that tonight!
It has been a very, very fruitful Yule season. As part of that, there is an ongoing cycle of gift exchange and my family gifted me with several ongon, spirit infused ritual pieces. They are beautiful and the first two were welcomed into the house with all the decorum new spirit allies should receive. The second two …um…not so much. There is a lesson here and one I am both grateful for but should really know by now.
Two of them sat in a box for a week, maybe a little more. They’d arrived right before our solstice ritual proper, and we were only expecting one. They were big spirits and I knew that it would be very important to place them properly but we don’t really do divination during the ember days, at least not from Modranacht till the New Year, and we all knew that div would be required to determine the proper place for them to live. All of that would have been fine, but we didn’t properly explain it when we packed them away, and then new problems arose tonight when we did our first divination of the year.
We got it sorted out, but at first it was really aggravating. They wouldn’t respond to any of the divination systems we use. I kept getting “go to divination” but they weren’t familiar with our systems and we didn’t know theirs. It took much, much longer than it should have done and it wasn’t until the whole thing was over and done with, and I was placing one of the spirits that he explained to me what we should have done. I’m sharing that here for any of you who might find yourself in the same boat. Let me just say, I’m grateful for the patience of these two new spirits, tremendously so.
Firstly, we should have greeted them and made small offerings right away. It was fine not to divine for a week or so, but rather than keep them in a box, we should have welcomed them and incorporated them into the household rituals. That way, they would learn about us, we about them, the household spirits would get to know them and vice versa, and it would be easier to figure out how to forge a functional relationship. They’re not things. These are living spirits. It was like I kept a super genius cat locked in a box for a week because I wasn’t sure where to put his food! Or like grandma came to visit and you kept her locked in the bathroom for a week! Both working with spirits and divination involving spirits is a matter of learning each other’s languages, symbol systems, mental metaphor and image maps, of figuring out how to most efficiently communicate with each other. We lost out on an opportunity to do that early on and we were unintentionally rude too. What’s more, had we let our house spirits get to know the new spirits and vice versa, our own spirits could have better facilitated this whole process.
Secondly, when we sat down to divine tonight, we should have started by inviting the new spirits in, welcoming them again, making offerings and most importantly of all, explaining the systems we use, how they work, etc. THAT is what made the whole thing so aggravating. They had to figure that out on their own because it never in a million years occurred to us to make that explanation before we started.
Everything worked out well in the end, there were apologies and offerings made and the situation was properly sorted but we made it a lot harder on ourselves by not having a set protocol instituted as a matter of course when welcoming new spirits into the cadre. I have a set protocol for divination from which I never deviate and I instituted that after a horrible experience where I was tricked by an unhappy and sick spirit, a recently deceased ancestor of the client who was jealous and angry that my client had a life while the spirit, who had died of a drug overdose, no longer did. It was nasty, messy, and never would have been so had we stuck to our protocols. That time, I was convinced to skip them. Never again. Now, I have learned another valuable lesson about first contact protocol (lol) and it’s not one that anyone in my house will neglect from here on out.
One caveat: because we are so familiar with the Gods and spirits that form such a strong and beloved part of our Household cadre, we tend to forget to be properly formal (and hospitable, because that is what these protocols are, in part) with new spirits.
I hope this is helpful to those of you reading this who likewise have spiritwork concerns. I receive a lot of questions about how to engage properly with Gods and spirits, about my own protocols, and I find that sometimes pointing out where one falls short, and the lessons learned from that can be tremendously valuable. We learn, by Gods we learn. It sure as hell isn’t always pretty though.
Yesterday, my friend Elise asked me if I prayed in the mornings and if so, whether I used formal, set prayers, or prayed extempore, in a more conversational format. I thought it a very good question and asked her permission to recap her question and my response here, which she generously gave.
I am not, in any sense of the word, a morning person. My natural bio-rhythms ideally have me waking at about ten am, working till two am or so, and then going to bed. I can make some adjustments for work, but it tends to have an immediate and largely negative effect on my health and mood (1). I’ve learned to accommodate diurnal scheduling to a degree over the years but I hate it. Years ago when I lived in Queens, the majority of my kindred all lived within walking distance and for about six months we met every
bloody morning at six am (we all worked in the city mind you, so we had to catch the train in) to do a morning liturgy. It was lovely, nourishing, and damn near killed me. So, while I would like to keep monastic hours, treating my day as an interlocking circle of prayer in which I exist constantly praising my Gods, it is a goal and hasn’t happened yet. I do pray when I awaken, but it tends to vacillate between a garbled “arrrrrrgggghhh, gah, consciousness, grrrr…hail to the Gods and my dead” or a formal prayer like “Sigdrifa’s Prayer.” My more intensely focused prayer happens later in the day, and then before bed I usually pray for an hour or sometimes two (2). I feel bad about that though, and more and more, I’ve been trying to at least make a prayer the first thing out of my mouth when I wake, if not “Sigdrifa’s Prayer,” than this one that I wrote:
Hail to the Gods and Goddesses!
Your grace illumines all things.
Your gifts shine forth
making fruitful nine mighty worlds.
Blessed are those that serve You.
Blessed are those that seek You out
Holy Powers, Makers of all things,
bless and protect us in Your mercy.
Lead us along the twisting pathways of our wyrd,
and when it is time, guide us safely along the Helroad (3).
I really would like to develop the discipline of greeting the day with more fully formed prayers and even a ritual though – it’s a life goal. That being said, when I told all this to Elise, it led to a discussion of what is better: formal or informal prayer. She did not grow up in a religious family (nor in fact, in this country where we are exposed to religion somewhat simply by virtue of the nature of American culture) and formal prayers (set prayers, like the one above, or in Catholicism, the “hail Mary” or “our Father” prayers), she said, felt stilted and awkward. For her, praying was sitting in front of her shrine and immersing herself in the Presence of the Deity in question and …talking. That is lovely. That is what many people who practice prayer aspire to achieve. But, the two forms of prayer (formal and extempore) are not mutually exclusive. They reinforce each other, the formal prayers providing a scaffolding around which one weaves conversation, meditation, contemplating, and direct experience (4). Eventually, they should both lead to the same place: immersion in the presence of the Gods.
Each type of prayer has its pros and its cons. With formal prayers, the pros involve having this baseline that is easy to drop into regardless of what’s going on with one’s life. You know what to say and that it is going to be appropriate and respectful. This type of prayer often re-articulates and reifies our cosmology and the divine order undergirding it, so it is a word-act, a volitional articulation of and alliance with the Gods and the order They have created and that They sustain. It’s a means for us to participate in sustaining it too. Because one isn’t having to think about what to say, it allows the mind to focus on the Gods and Their mysteries, and from there, it is possible to have a powerful contemplative experience. Formal prayers also serve to remind us that there is an implicit hierarchy here, no matter how friendly a relationship with the Gods we may have in our devotional lives: this is not a relationship of equals and that’s a good thing. What a wondrous thing that we can have a devotional relationship with one of the Holy Powers, what a transformative thing!
Finally, for newcomers, particularly those who don’t know how to pray, formal prayers are excellent teaching tools, both for conveying some level of doctrine, but also for teaching one how to do this thing called prayer. I often find that those just learning to pray are often afraid they’ll say the wrong thing, or they feel awkward, or they don’t know how to pray and just stall themselves not knowing where to go or what to do. That’s all normal. Even people raised in religious households may experience this and all of us can use a refresher on how to pray well. With formal prayers, one can hit a groove that in the best case scenarios, represents a prayer prayed by generations of the devout. (We’ll get there, never fear).
The cons to formal prayer is that it can seem boringly repetitive and it’s easy for it to just become rote verbal repetition. The key is to train the mind to look at each word, each sentence as a word-knot to be untangled by the mind, to look at the prayers as a rhythm aligning us with the will and architecture of the Gods, carrying us into direct contemplation. It takes discipline and practice and there are days where it’s more of a struggle than others. Like working any other muscle, one will become better at praying over time, but learning to enter into a receptive headspace, to use the prayers as an opportunity to contemplate the Gods and Their mysteries, and to allow that to open one up more fully to those Gods takes time and ongoing practice. Try not to be discouraged if it doesn’t happen all at once. Devotion is an art form, a craft and like any craft, it’s something we’ll be honing and developing our entire lives.
The pros to informal, extempore prayer are that they allow a freer expression of one’s inner mind, heart, and soul to the Gods. It often feels more natural, and it allows for one to express oneself without the constraints of any external scaffolding. The cons are that it can elide the protocols and respect or even an awareness of the extant hierarchy between us and the Gods and this can lead to disrespect. Also, for those unformed in prayer, informal prayer may seem as awkward as its more formal brother. The important thing is to understand that these two types of engaging devotionally with the Gods are not opposites. They are not in opposition to each other. Both types of prayer are important, even necessary for the devotee, and each one complements the other. I often advice my students – as I did with Elise when she asked me about this – to continue with the extempore prayer (Because that is a good and lovely thing, something to which, at its best, we can all aspire) but perhaps end the prayer session with a set prayer like the one I offer above. She liked that because then the prayer becomes like a knot tying off a string of pearls, or a door carefully and respectfully closing. I often begin and end my times of extempore prayer with a set prayer myself.
I also think that it’s important to think about ways that we can pray throughout our day. Most of us are not monastics. We don’t have the benefit of living a life centered around ongoing prayer hour by hour. Even so, it is possible to move throughout one’s day consciously centered, mentally and spiritually, in an awareness of our devotion to the Gods, and of Their grace and glory. I look for ways throughout my day that I can slip in a prayer, or turn my mind, for however brief a time toward the Gods. Working from home due to Covid (my university moved most of its classes online this term), it’s been particularly easy. I walk past a shrine, I take a second or two, to thank that Deity or group of Deities for Their blessings. Sometimes I will quickly recite a prayer. Sometimes I’ll make an offering (yesterday I was passing Sigyn’s shrine with a couple of scones in hand that I’d just bought while out on errands, so I stopped and gave Her one). It doesn’t have to be a big, huge, formal ritual, nor even a formal prayer. Sometimes a ‘thank you’ is enough (5).
So, what questions do you have about prayer? What prayers do you particularly like, and what inspires you throughout your day to turn your attention to the Gods?
- A colleague told me in passing a couple weeks ago that he read an anthropology article (I don’t have it – didn’t think to ask him for it) postulating that different sleep cycles evolved when we still lived in caves: so someone would always be awake to protect the tribe. Maybe. It’s as good a reason as anything else, I suppose.
- This is not including feast days or ritual days when there is some type of religious service.
- Helheim is not a land of punishment in Heathenry. “hel” means “light” and refers to the Goddess Hela as well. It’s a land of comfort and peace for the dead, a place where our ancestors dwell. There may be parts of Helheim where the wicked and foul are punished, but Helheim itself is not a land of punishment like the Christian Hell.
- I think formal prayers also form a solid base line, the low bar that at the very least, even when we’re struggling to get in the right headspace, distracted, sick, sad, etc., we can do. If nothing else, we can do this. It’s always better to be in appropriate and receptive headspace when one prays, but sometimes we’re just not going to be able to do that.
- My adopted mom used to say that the single most important prayer one could ever utter to one’s Gods is “thank you.”
One of my students is slowly learning to lead rituals on her own – an intimidating prospect for most people (of any faith tradition, I’d warrant). I remember how nervous I was the first time I was tasked with this, during my clergy training. It took a very long time for that nervousness to go away (of course the opposite, doing it all on autopilot isn’t good either – a little nervousness can be helpful!). I was very blessed to have received extraordinarily rich and really, really good ritual training through Fellowship of Isis and the Iseum of the Nine Muses/Lyceum Urania Celeste. Throughout my entire working life as a priest and spirit worker, even well after I became Heathen, I have remained tremendously grateful to the gifted women who set my feet rightly on the path of ritual. It was years before I realized that this isn’t something everyone is taught, and boy does it sometimes show! So, as I work with my student, as she learns more and more about ritual, edging toward taking her vows as a priest of Freya, I’ll share tidbits here too, for those who may find them helpful.
A ritual is a formalized series of actions done with sacral intent. It’s a ceremony, a performance of actions, prayers, etc. by which one is able not only to reverence the Powers, but to enter into a more receptive headspace vis-à-vis the Holy. A priest may lead a ritual because there are certain ceremonies the Gods request, he or she may lead rituals as part of his or her obligation to a community (however large or small) to help them maintain right relationship with the Powers, or it may be more personal, a devotional rite to honor a Deity, or performed in a desire to establish a devotional relationship with a Power, or a thousand other reasons.
A good ritual is like a well written essay (as an aside to students, please dispense with the five paragraph essay you were taught in high school. It is the bane, the absolute bane of college professors everywhere! This has been your public service announcement. Read academic articles. Read essays you like. READ. That is all, but no five-paragraph essay. They suck.): it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is organized. No matter how free flowing it may seem, a good ritual is organized with a clearly defined scaffolding. Within that scaffolding, one may include many different things – the toolbox of useful techniques and practices available to a ritual facilitator is huge and often crosses religious traditions (chant, meditation, prayer for instance are used by numerous religious traditions the world over and always have been) but the supportive architecture is still there, creating continuity and holding it all together. A ritual need not be complicated either. It can be incredibly simple, but there is still structure.
The purpose of the ritual leader, usually a priest, sometimes a spiritworker but not always, is to A. create sacred space. For those worshippers, this is the point where the priest performs actions that create a palpable change in the cognition of those attending, perhaps from a performance perspective, an ontological change in the space in which they are all gathered itself. You’re almost pathwalking: moving into a different time, a different space, a different headspace. It’s what I’ve heard ritual specialists call Kairos – ritual time, the righttime, as opposed to Kronos chronological time (and I never spell these right * sigh *. My apologies if they’re wrong here. I can’t spell in any of the languages I read). The space becomes its own world in which the process of the ritual is allowed to cleanly unfold. Then, B. the ritual facilitator is there to guide those attending into that sacred space, hold that space while the ritual happens so that those attending can have the possibility of experience, and then bring them back to mundane headspace again. There are transitions into and out of that must occur for which the ritual specialist is responsible.
After the actual act of creating sacred space, I might go so far as to say that facilitating those transitions smoothly is the number one responsibility of the ritual leader. How one goes about that will change, depending on whether one is leading ritual for a small group (2-6 people), a middling size group (7-20), or more. For instance, I might hold a ritual where I pass a horn around to the participants, allowing each person to individually pray and honor the Deity or Deities of their choice. This is a standard part of a Heathen rite. I would only do this however, if I had less than ten people present. To utilize this type of practice with more people than say ten would slow down the TEMPO of the rite far too much, which in turn would negatively impact those points of transition. In ritual, tempo and rhythm are everything. This is how the facilitator manages those transitions and, essentially, manages to create an altered state in those present (the purpose of which is experience of the Holy in some way), finally, it’s how the facilitator will bring everyone back to grounded, mundane headspace again when the ritual is concluded.
This is also something that is very, very difficult for someone just learning to lead rituals to pick up on intuitively. When one prays or performs a ritual alone, tempo and rhythm don’t matter so much; or rather, a conscious awareness of tempo and rhythm don’t matter. The devotee is able to work at his or her own pace and doesn’t need worry about anyone else. That’s not the case for a ritual facilitator. When one is leading the ritual it’s no longer about one’s own experience of the Holy. In fact, the ritual facilitator’s personal experience of the Holy during the ritual is THE least important part of the entire process.
What this means in practice is that the ritual leader cannot go into as deep an altered state as he or she facilitates in the others attending the rite. (This also means, that if a person is planning on carrying a Deity via possession, there really should be a second priest present to facilitate the ritual, at least from the point of Deity possession onward). This was a huge surprise to my student, and she reminded me as I was writing this to be sure to include it here. I’m grateful for that reminder, because it isn’t something I would have thought to point out otherwise. The ritual leader must be observant and keyed into the headspace of every single attendee: that’s a matter of paying attention to energy levels, rhythm, and tempo. There are also physical cues when someone is struggling to get into a receptive headspace, when they’re deeply attuned to the Gods in ritual, and when they are coming back up out of an altered experience. A good ritual facilitator learns to observe all of this and learning to recognize and track all of that just takes time and experience.
Sometimes I think the hardest thing is just not rushing. Because one is on the outside of the experience of the attendees, it’s easy to think one is taking too long in establishing the groundwork for the ritual experience, or in guiding the attendees down into ritual space. Err on the side of more, not less. Ideally, the ritual facilitator will have training and more experience than the laity in attendance, and he or she may find it very, very easy to drop into an altered state (which is really what ritual headspace is) quickly. I know this is the case for me because I’ve just been doing this for so long. It’s a professional competency developed over a couple of decades. That’s not the case for the average lay person. Don’t assume those in attendance will move through those transitional states as quickly as you yourself might. This is where an established protocol really comes in handy and I’ll write more about this in the future as I continue these practicum posts.
Of course, learning to speak up, to project one’s voice, to chant or sing without shyness or hesitation is a sizeable learning curve for many. The only advice there is that one has to grab that bull by the horns and just do it. It gets easier eventually but even after all these years, I still get a tad nervous before leading a ritual and I think that’s good. One shouldn’t ever be complacent about the Gods.
Finally, make sure that the rite has a clear purpose. For most polytheistic services, that purpose is first and foremost honoring the Gods, or a specific Deity or group of Deities. Everything in the rite in some way, shape, or form refers back to that purpose. Nothing is extraneous. Keep the dilly dallying and chatter to a minimum (not just out of simple respect, but again, because such things will negatively affect tempo and rhythm, which in turn will negatively impact those transitions into and out of ritual headspace). What happens then in the body of the ritual should, if at all possible, appeal to the entire sensorium: taste, sound, sight, smell, and feeling. We’re corporeal creatures and the more that something engages our sensorium, the greater the impact it is likely to have on us, and the easier it will be to engage.
For those of you who are just starting out learning how to lead rituals, or who have fumbled and wonder why, what questions do you have about this process? Hit the comments section and let me know.
One of my readers, Coastal Pagan asked a very good question about Ancestor Elevation. It wasn’t one that I’d thought to discuss initially but it’s actually a very good question. Also, when we understand the rituals that we do more fully, we can put more into them, perform them more effectively and that is all to the good.
So, Coastal Pagan asked:
“I’m probably drastically overthinking this, but is there a specific reason why you and others suggest using books for the physical raising parts of Ancestor elevations? I’ve never been thrilled with the idea for a variety of reasons. It’s probably either OCD or scrupulosity on my part, but I worry about the books picking up miasma if the elevation goes poorly or even good contagion if it goes well. I use my books regularly, so either of those things could cause problems. I also have visual processing problems galore, so admittedly the idea of having to figure out if several books are approximately the same size stresses me out a bit, lol. I’ve been thinking of buying several bricks and using them exclusively for Ancestor Work, especially specifically for elevations. I have several Ancestors who were bricklayers or related jobs, and one who was a stonemason but switched to bricklaying when he came to America because there wasn’t much call for stonework here. I have no experience with brickwork myself, but it struck me as way to help my Ancestors be more closely involved in the process by using a medium some of them are familiar with, and struck me as similar to the practice of giving the Ancestors tools or other items to help and work with. I also like the idea of the symbolism of bricks being used to build things, including strong foundations. But then, a lot of the nuts and bolts of religious practices seem innocuous, but in reality, aren’t at all. Is there a reason why books are best?”
I was really thrilled to get this question because while it may seem simple, it’s actually touching on a significant part of the elevation process. So, here is my answer:
Hi Coastal Pagan, Ok. for those not familiar with what you’re asking about, ancestor elevations are an open rite that comes originally from spiritualism, one that has been adopted wholesale by the Afro-Caribbean religious community – a testimony to how effective a ritual it is— but also by ancestor workers in general. l learned it at two separate times from Lukumi practitioners. It is a sequence of prayers done nine nights in a row while working a special type of shrine. You can learn more about the ritual itself here. A caveat about the whole process may be found here. While seemingly straightforward and even simple, this ritual has the capacity to heal, strengthen, and “elevate” an ancestor, helping them to do the work they need to do to become better human beings, better keepers of their line, as well as personally healthy and whole and work like this can actually transform an ancestral line, not just extending that healing forward, but allowing it to flow back in the line as well. That is a very, very powerful process.
Now, as part of the elevation, a shrine to a particular ancestor, the focus of the elevation, is set up on the floor. This shrine should include an picture of the ancestor in question, or names written out on paper if you don’t have photos, or something representing him or her. Prayers are given for nine nights and each night, the picture, name, or token of the ancestor being elevated is physically raised up a little bit more, usually by putting a book or brick under it, adding one more each day.
I firmly believe that the raising up of the picture is there as a visual representation for both the dead and for us of what is happening in the elevation. It sends a powerful psychological message to us, our ancestral house, and most importantly of all the ancestor for whom the ritual is being done, one that really drives home the prayer and devotional process being put into play.
Your question about miasma is also an important one. I cover the books with a white cloth so there is a barrier. Furthermore, I handle that by ritually cleansing everything afterwards. Because I usually use books, I will rekan them with mugwort (smoke them by lighting some mugwort or other cleansing incense and let the smoke run over the books). When I elevate, I use one book each night, usually one that’s about an inch thick. I think using bricks would be absolutely brilliant, not only because that solves the problem of variant sizes, but most especially I think it would be potent for you personally Coastal Pagan, because you had ancestors who were bricklayers, so that’s a nice bit of continuity and connection. Also, it is a perfect representation of a foundation that supports.
I use books because I learned this from two urban Lukumi practitioners and for years I lived in a small NYC apartment. ^_^ I had books. I actually really like the idea of using bricks. It doesn’t matter what you use, so long as the image is visually being elevated daily. Don’t stress if they’re not all exactly the same width and size. The important thing is the actual act of raising up the image or token of your dead. Good question and I’m really glad you asked it!
There was a very good discussion happening last week over at The House of Vines and the subject of holy terror came up. I think this was fundamental to ancient experience of the Gods. The Holy was recognized as being terrifying, even as it was ecstatic and transformative. Contact with the Holy Powers was acknowledged as dangerous, something one needed to prepare for, and something to be treated with utmost reverence and respect. This sense of the Gods qua Gods, as Powers, as possessing the volition and capability to interact with our world, is, I believe, the defining aspect of pre-modern religious experience.
That sensibility changed dramatically with the Enlightenment and that change was cemented culturally with industrialization. As a result, we are all entrained – by secularism, humanism, modernity, etc.– to position ourselves as central to our spiritualties. The prevailing narrative across modern spiritual traditions is that the Gods are there to help us evolve. It’s all about us reaching our potential, healing, etc. We’ve forgotten what constitutes right relationship. This is further complicated by the fact that for many of us, our first steps in our devotional lives were with Gods Who chose to show Themselves in ways that were very comforting and even healing. Gods can do that, of course, and often do (and it’s a good thing. It does, however, complicate our comprehension of holy terror). I know for myself, having venerated Odin for many years never giving a thought to hierarchy, protocol, or the potential terror of the Holy, it was a huge shock for me when I first experienced it (and I asked to experience it). It threw my entire spiritual world off kilter for a long time because nothing I had experienced was that terrifying, that overwhelming. It’s one thing to read or have some intellectual sense that yes, the Holy can be terrifying, Gods can be terrifying; to experience that first hand is a totally different animal. I think further cognitive dissonance occurs because while the Gods can be terrifying, They are also positive Powers, “good” if such a small word can encompass Their creative power.
Over at House of Vines, commenter IHJ accurately notes:
“Secular Humanism is their actual religion from which they derive their values. You brought up the subject of “Holy Terror” in your post, and I think this is a key concept missing from the theology of most modern polytheists. They don’t view the Gods as objects of awe. Many of them are obsessed with gaining mainstream social acceptance seemingly blind to the fact that no form of religion that retains its integrity will be allowed a seat at the table in the modern west. Why should we give a fuck about meeting to the moral and cultural expectations of a post-monotheist open air shopping mall which is openly hostile to us? I don’t think that we should be approved by the mainstream, in fact we should go out of our way to radically separate ourselves from it, both to weed out the impious and uncommitted, and to draw the attention of those looking for something real.”
I think this is the source of so many of the divisions that plague our communities (certainly it was behind the 2012 schism over identifiers “Pagan” vs. “Polytheist”). It all comes down to the ontological nature of the Gods and how we position ourselves in relationship to that. I think too often we see Them either as commodities, or (and I’m not sure which is worse) as tangential to our spiritual worlds. A couple of weeks ago as part of my practicum series, a reader asked me about the process of conversion. I think this right here is a key facet of that transformation. It’s not enough to replace one set of divinities with another, to shift to a different liturgical style. We need also to look precisely at this: the terror of the numinous and how we relate to that, or if we’re capable of even conceiving of it in terms that rightly humble us before the Powers.
I don’t have any answers here. I put this out there for contemplation. Our communities, I firmly believe, are riddled with a rejection of the Gods’ nature qua Gods, a nature that eschews any subordination to human limitations. I think that eventually direct experience has the potential to move one past this, but without that direct experience, without the willingness to put oneself in the vulnerable and receptive headspace where such a thing is possible in the first place, and most of all, without the willingness to allow such theophanies to change one’s orientation vis-à-vis the holy, I don’t have any solutions. I just know that this, right here, is something we need to be addressing. It’s one of those defining things for a tradition, and for each and every devotee.