I was at the physical therapy rehabilitation center today visiting my husband, who is recovering from sepsis. It’s a dismal place. The staff is overworked. They’re ok and do their best but with pain and illness comes miasma and left untreated it erodes hope and depresses the spirit. Hospitals and healing centers, rehabilitation centers and such are not clean spaces. They should be, but we have a long way to go. It’s not the fault of our medical teams, who are working under stressful circumstances, often with little time to rest, and always it seems understaffed. I pray for them often from the janitors who clean the trash, to maintenance men who fix the windows, to the nursing assistants, nurses, and all the various doctors and medical professionals as well as the administrators who are tasked with keeping such places up and running. I pray all the time for them and when I am there, in my husband’s room, I do small rites of purification and ask for blessings throughout the space.
These places are dangerous spiritually. We have forgotten that with illness comes that which would feed upon illness and make it worse. I will speak as a spirit worker now and those who can hear and understand, let them. Those who cannot, well, I hope you will pray for our health care workers, and for those in their care that each receive what he or she needs to emerge whole and hale. I say as a spirit worker that in these places there are bottom feeding spirits-evil spirits, nasty wicked things that feed on the vulnerable and there are those who are even beset by such things, twisted evil entities who torment those suffering, adding to their misery and pain (1). I did chaplaincy work in my twenties (I was terrible at it – what does a twenty-year-old know about life and counseling those in pain? There is the will but not yet the experience. I look at medical residents who seem so painfully young and see the same terror at confronting patients in pain that I myself experienced when I was first sent up to the cancer ward as a volunteer chaplain) but hospitals and medical centers are so much worse now. The walls reek with misery, despair, loss, confusion, pain, anger, and exhaustion. It is a breeding ground for anything but healing. I cleanse before I walk in. I ward myself while I’m there including wearing the best piece of spiritual technology I was ever taught: the white headwrap. I cleanse and make offerings when I leave. Hell, sometimes I carry a spritzer bottle of khernips and cleanse everything I can. I bring cookies to the nurses and tell them how much I appreciate their work—it lifts their spirits and I do appreciate how hard they work. I do what I can to better the space.
One of my allied spirits was a healer in life, long, long ago. He accompanies me sometimes and becomes furious when he sees what passes for Houses of healing. In the hospital, he looked around when we came in and hissed that this should be a House of Life and he blessed it all in fury at how dehumanizing to staff and residents alike the hospital was. One of the things that horrifies him is the lack of prayers, blessings, and purifications done on the space throughout the day. Then there is also the endless noise. How does one heal in such an environment? Only by the grace of the Gods. Even the staff are beaten down. It infuriates him to see men and women who don’t realize (or if they do realize it, are blocked from acting upon it by the demands of the modern medical apparatus) that they are there to restore and bring life and healing when they can, and a respectful holy space for death when they cannot.
The rehabilitation space is better – the hospital was a trauma center so there was death and terrible injury, people being brought in by helicopter and that was a much more intense level of spiritual miasma than the hospital at which I once worked. Still, the nursing home/rehabilitation space is still not clean space. It is filled with suffering and despair. When I walk in to visit my husband, each day, I walk past a room where an elderly woman lies, screaming, face distorted in a rictus of pain. She is tormented both by the decay of her body, the confusion of her mind, but also by an attack upon her being by a wicked spirit. It roared as I passed, and the noise never abated. I wanted to go in and lay hands on her in blessing, to pray, to purify, to do whatever I could to bring her back to herself and free her of her torment. It is one thing to have dementia or whatever is bringing her confusion and another to have atop that a beast that feeds on and augments that. One of the nurses said she keeps a journal where she records the weird, “supernatural” things that she has seen since starting her job. Some of them have frightened her. Going in to engage with that patient, however, was not my warrant, and I did not do it, but it physically hurt to do nothing, to see her in such anguish (and she was not the only one)(2). The spirit tormenting her writhed at the presence of a spirit worker and orpheotelest and shrieked taunts to me and my husband, yelling out things the woman herself could not know. Such is the way of these lowly, debased creatures (and by this, I mean the spirits not the women, who deserve compassion and care).
So, when I left, I walked down the hall praying to all the healing Gods I could. “Apollo, please bless these people.” “Jesus” – after all most patients are probably nominally Christian, “please keep them safe.” “Eir, please watch over those in need of healing.” “Hermes, please protect the staff.” “Asclepius, please bless each and every resident here.” And I lingered on my prayers to Asclepius because it seemed right to do so and He seemed particularly present.
Just as I was approaching the doors to the ward, which were closed, a man appeared. He had not been there before. He was a tall, late middle aged, very distinguished black man, with the kindest eyes and the most elegant manner. He was carrying medical equipment and I just remember his eyes. He radiated peace and such a tremendous sense of well-being it took my breath away. I believe this man was Asclepius, that I met a God upon Whom I had called in my need. We exchanged a few words and with those words He blessed me. As I walked to the elevator, having thanked him for his kindness, so much of the weight and miasma I’d been carrying disappeared and I felt that He had cleansed me of all the long term, never-ending miasma that seeps into one’s very skin in such places. His smile was like the warmth of a parent’s hug, a cool drink of water, the warmth of a wink of sun on a cold, overcast day. My words and poetry fail me. My prayers were heard, and I was given the gift of seeing a God take flesh. Later, my husband told me that where things were usually a battle with constant delays and problems, today was different. Things got done, and we had a particularly special nurse come in to tend him who really saw and understood one of his medical issues. I am so intensely grateful. When I got home, I immediately made an offering to all the Gods to which I had prayed and most especially to Asclepius in thanks (3).
The Gods hear us. They hear our prayers and those prayers matter. I wish that I could share with all of you, the sense that is so deeply ingrained in my bones and heart and mind and spirit, born of experiences like this, born of the gift of theophany given unexpectedly and certainly without any merit of my own. I wish I could ingrain in all of you how deeply, deeply loved we are by our Gods, how They listen and hold our pain as Their own. They hear us and we matter so deeply to Them and it is good. If nothing else, I wish that I could share that heart to heart, mind to mind, soul to soul with each of you, my readers.
I met a God today and other Gods protected me on my journey to and from the center. I was reminded again how very important our prayers are and I was reminded again that our Gods always walk with us because we are Theirs, carefully crafted by Their will and hands and our prayers matter more than I can express. So, pray for those you love. Pray in thanks to your Gods. Pray that those who work in healing remember that they are healers and that they be sustained in that knowledge. Pray for our health care workers, for those sick and injured in their care. Pray and say thank you and know that our capacity to reach out for our Gods is one of the greatest privileges and joys in our lives.
I said to my husband when we spoke of this on the phone later (texted really, I not being much of a phone person). We are so very lucky. We are so blessed. We are living in a terrible time, and we have to sometimes face terrible things, but nonetheless we are so incredibly blessed. I pray myself, that I never forget to give thanks.
- I wonder if being trapped in the body of someone already suffering isn’t a type of punishment for the evil spirit too. I heard one howl and cry out in utter anguish and what must it be like for a creature of spirit to be trapped in wounded flesh? I understand after this experience, so much better Origen’s idea of apokatastasis and wonder at the free will of such beings.
- I am not saying every sick person or person with dementia is tormented by evil spirits. That is not the case at all. I am saying instead that there are bottom feeding spirits that take advantage sometimes, in some cases. I wonder if this old woman and a second one who was also tormented, had particularly rich and creative lives that attracted the attention of something hungry to augment pain, or if it was just being sick and fragile and having no one to protect them, and being vulnerable. What does it do to the staff to be in that environment all the time – because some of them sense it too? As we treat body and mind, I think there is a need to address the spiritual too and that starts with blessing and purification so that we may serve our Gods in peace and liberty, without interference, so that healing may occur without this other, unseen fight.
- I don’t generally see this God as a man of color, but I think Gods can show Themselves however They wish and I am so grateful to Asclepius for today. I pray to all of our Healing Gods, especially Asclepius, Eir, and Apollo regularly yet I feel as though my heart has been turned open and inside out with a gratitude toward them so enormous it is painful.
Yes, it happens. Colloquially since about 2004, the community has termed this having “a God phone”. I tend to dislike this tongue-in-cheek term for what is often an intense spiritual experience. There’s been a lot of push back from some of the more polluted corners of tumblr specifically (but other areas of the internet too) against this (despite the fact that it is the heart and soul of religious experience, and something that is perfect natural for some people, and also something that has defined the development of traditions since antiquity.
For the people in general pushing back, I think it’s largely sour grapes that they don’t actually have this capacity. It takes humility, ongoing devotional work, and I am coming to suspect, inborn wiring. Not everyone is going to have the mystical experiences. That’s fine. Sufi poet Rumi wrote that there are thousands of ways to kneel and kiss the ground and that is absolutely true. Some people will experience the Gods most strongly through art, or maybe through how they care for their families, or in some other way. There’s a deep, deep grace to doing devotional work without ever receiving a direct theophany, or doing devotional work when one doesn’t have a “God phone”, much more so than getting the easy feedback of always or quite often having sense of the Gods. Generally, if one has the capacity to hear or sense the Gods directly in some way, that person is probably a specialist of some sort (priest, diviner, spirit worker, shaman)—not always, but quite, quite often.
Now, here’s the problem. Way too many people have the capacity to see or hear Gods and spirit but in tandem with that completely lack spiritual direction and any sense of discernment whatsoever. Then there’s the question of those who might be mentally ill. How do you tell if something is a hallucination or an actual theophany? This goes back partly to discernment and partly to having good spiritual direction. This is also to some degree, where lore can be very helpful: is the God behaving in a way that accords with what others have experienced. I will point out that this can be tricky because Gods are not subject to our limitations and Gods may present Themselves however They choose; however, there do seem to be certain common threads so I would look to the tradition itself for confirmation or not. I would look to elders and teachers. I would pray on it. I would also make sure that if one is mentally ill, that one is taking one’s psych meds. Just because someone has a mental imbalance does not mean that one cannot also have a theophany and I feel very deeply for those who have to figure out the difference. One spirit worker I know, who does a good bit of pastoral counseling with those suffering from various mental considerations, offers this: does it make your life better or not? What is the result? That’s a bit too nebulous for me because both in dealing with the Holy Powers and dealing with our mental health, we need to be sure of precisely *what* we’re dealing with. Still, for some, it may be a starting point. For simpler interactions, one can also use divination to confirm whether or not a true engagement occurred.
This is part of the reason why I start my students off for at least a year with basic exercises to train the mind in the ways of discernment: centering, grounding, shielding, cleansing, prayer (a lot of prayer), and shrine work. I try to instill that there should not be the expectation of direct theophany – if it occurs it’s a grace and blessing. We can develop the capacity through ongoing devotion to sense the Gods in various ways. If it doesn’t, it does not mean that you are less of a devotee. It means you have other ways by which the Gods will fill your life. To rule out theophany though, as I have seen many (usually Hellenic these days, which is just sad) do, is frankly fucking stupid. It rules out that which has guided the development of powerful traditions, that which is at the heart and soul of devotional work, that which we all seek in some way. It also says that the Gods cannot do this thing, which is putting our limitations above Their majesty and is, in effect, impiety.
The question of mental illness must be considered, but to dismiss direct engagement with the Gods AS mental illness is the height of modern immorality, impiety, and foolishness. It defines the modern mindset and is the greatest poison infecting our traditions today. Rule number 1: avoid the impious. In other words, just ignore these people. They have little love for the Gods and even less for the traditions they purport to practice. In fact, they are consciously attempting to destroy them.
Now, if one has a mental condition in which hallucinations are possible, one must take responsibility for oneself. Work with your therapist and a pastoral counselor, teacher, or elder, stay on your meds, learn the ways of discernment and don’t assume everything you see or hear is true engagement. But no one should dismiss the possibility.
There’s also a push back against God spouses. This has existed across polytheistic cultures also since antiquity. While this notion has been greatly abused on tumblr, particularly in the Lokean community, that does not mean that godpouses do not exist. They do. It is a calling, a vocation, one that involves carrying the energy of a God in a very direct way. It is not having a divine boyfriend. That some people are again foolish and impious in handling sacred things, does not negate those sacred things and experiences themselves. I will say that I don’t think godspousing is something that should be discussed online overmuch. It is a Mystery, something very sacred and the uninitiated frankly have no business prying into it.
So, to recap, there is common devotional sense aka discernment, doctrinal guideposts within the traditions, and clear counsel from one’s elders. We also have divination. Should we normalize direct engagement with the Gods? Yes. I think we should otherwise why are we here? This is a religion after all, not a cultural center, not larping. Is that potentially uncomfortable and challenging, also yes. It’s our job as devotionally oriented people to deal with that.
I would note that having a theophany doesn’t mean that one is “special” (Gods forbid. Let us all be good socialists without any excellence or individuality in anything. *sarcasm*). The Gods are capable of granting this grace to anyone. Some people are just more wired for it as a matter of course, a matter of nature, who knows why? Some people are more comfortable moving in the vulnerable spiritual and emotional state that this creates (or perhaps that is necessary for it to occur). Some have had better devotional training and guidance. There are numerous reasons why it happens to some and not others. What is important is that we realize the agency here rests with the Gods. I also think that more people are capable of recognizing or experiencing this than we might realize, but for a number of reasons (including the conditioning of modernity, fears of being “crazy”, insecurity, stress, illness, etc) don’t allow themselves to hit the right headspace. Basically, we don’t see what’s right in front of us.
Do we need to challenge ourselves when these experiences occur? Yes, I think examination of oneself and one’s experiences is healthy and absolutely necessary to clean practice. Examination does not mean dismissal of the possibility however, and if one wants a religion where such direct engagement of the Gods does not occur, why not just become an atheist and call it a day, because THAT is what these naysayers are preaching. What we should be discussing instead, is how to do good, clean, ongoing spiritual discernment.
A reader asked me recently asking whether or not it was really possible to experience the Gods through our senses, to have some type of direct engagement, where we sense, hear, or see the Holy Powers, what is called theophany (from two Greek words: φαίνω “to see” and θεοί “Gods” and meaning essentially to see or perceive the Gods). It was a very good question and forms, I think, one of the most difficult chasms to cross from 20th century post-modernism into actual devotion, and certainly to the type of devotion that informed the world of our ancestors. For our ancestors, including our medieval Christian ones, it was acknowledged that one might experience the Gods via the senses (how else would one experience Them? Our sensorium is the way that we experience every aspect of our world, after all) (1). They set up temples where one could go to pray for dreams, developed mystery cultus to allow for cathartic experience of the Powers, and worked this awareness into their philosophies and literature (2).
I will preface this by saying that I think everyone who experiences the Gods directly does so a little differently and that’s because our brains are not wired to take in something that inhuman and immense. The experience, the Being, the Presence gets filtered through our consciousness, so if person x sees but person y feels or hears that’s a matter of their own inborn facilities/predilections (some people learn better visually, some by hearing, etc.) and how their brain is processing the stimuli. One modality isn’t better than the other. Now onto the actual question!
One thing that I realized with this question is that I didn’t come to Heathenry or even to polytheism unprepared. I had a very good devotional upbringing. I was encouraged to pray, to do novenas, the idea of “God” being able and willing to engage with devotees was not a foreign one so I never self-censored there. I didn’t close that off, the idea that engagement was possible, but I think like a muscle one might work at the gym, the facility to sense the Gods was actively developed through years of prayer and meditation and later shrine work, devotional work, study, etc. Also putting myself in space where it was more likely such contact might occur didn’t hurt, and a couple of years of ritual work further developed that awareness.
I think many times the Gods show Themselves not through the raw impact of visions or direct theophany but through small graces, gifts given through the natural world or one’s daily life and that is potent and powerful too. Learning to see all things as sharing in that connection, that capacity for engagement is important because if we are always looking for the big explosion of Presence that overwhelms, we may miss the small whisper of grace that opens. Both are important and maybe, just maybe it’s the latter that prepares one for the former.
I’ve argued with other spirit workers about whether or not the capacity to experience theophany is part of one’s inborn psychic or spiritual wiring or whether it is something that can be developed through consistent prayer, meditation, and devotional work. I default to the latter and perhaps that is because I was a priest long before I became a spirit worker. It’s also though that I have seen ecstatic ritual move people away from the tightly locked down headspace of their daily lives and into receptivity toward the Gods. I also think that saying one can only experience the Gods directly if one has the inborn talent for it negates the agency of the Gods in this equation, and without that agency no one is going to be experiencing anything!
As a spiritworker I have to say, don’t be upset or discouraged if you don’t immediately receive the feedback of direct experience. You are having experience just by engaging in devotional work and there is far, far more merit in doing that work without the bold and obvious interaction/theophany/etc. than in doing it solely to receive that. Pray without expectation without preconception and you will be opening all the doors of your heart and senses to the glory of our Gods. Besides, theophanies usually come with work. The Gods are there and will usually meet us more than half way if we but start in whatever fumbling capacity we can down the road of devotion. In the end, that’s all that matters.
- Even in omens, prodigies and κληδόνες, the person receiving such a gift is experiencing that through their sensorium: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch.
- One of my favorite passages in the latter is found in the Virgil works in a powerful description of a priestess of Apollo being possessed by Her God:
“But the prophetess, not yet able to endure Apollo, raves in the cavern,
swollen in stature, striving to throw off the God from her breast;
he all the more exercises her frenzied mouth, quelling her wild heart,
and fashions her by pressure.”
At, Phoebi nondum patiens, immanis in antro
bacchatur vates, magnum si pectore possit
excussisse deum; tanto magis ille fatigat
rabidum, fera corda domans, fingitque premendo.
Virgil’s Aeneid, 6 77-83.
I love this description of possession because it so aptly depicts the partnership required and, while it’s been awhile since I’ve read the Aeneid in Latin, I believe in at least one other place, it’s actually described with vocabulary that conjures up the horse and rider paradigm that is used in modern Afro-Caribbean religions to describe the process of Deity possession, a metaphor that many polytheistic traditions use as well.
Note that the word that is here translated as ‘raves’ is ‘bacchatur’ and means to ‘behave in a bacchic manner,’ i.e. to be taken over completely in divinely inspired ecstasy, possibly violent ecstasy. It may also be translated accurately as ‘rave’ or ‘rant’.
I could have translated ‘fingit’ more as ‘tames’ rather than ‘fashions’ though either is an accurate translation. (this isn’t my translation — I’m not sure whose translation this is, but I liked it. I would probably translate it this way: “But, not yet fully opening to Apollo (or enduring Apollo, or allowing Him in, but the sense is that Apollo has not yet seated Himself fully on the prophetess because she is instinctively resisting), immense (vast) in the cave she raves, trying to drive out the great God from her breast; He exhausts her mad fury, taming her wild heart, instructing her by seating Himself fully (this is one of the possible poetic meanings of premendo).
So, just looking at this quickly before I hit ‘post’, I could make several choices in the translation and I’d probably have a half page of footnotes lol.
One of the projects dear to me is in re-building a devotional practice to our Gods. Devotions are the very backbone of religious praxis and experience. There was a meme circulating a while ago stating: “What they won’t teach you about the founders of western science, math, medicine and philosophy is that they believed in the ancient Gods.” This is sadly in most cases very true.
I’ve decided to start a new project, pulling authentic quotes and prayers to share across social media as a reminder that these great minds were Polytheists, that they themselves would have engaged in devotional practices. They weren’t afraid of theophany, direct experience with the Gods. They recognized it for the blessing it is. If you care to contribute your own favorite quotes feel free to share them in the comments below. These graphics are meant to be shared, so please do share them.
The images will be housed and updated over in a photo album on my official Facebook author page. This album will be added to as time and opportunity permits.
The first couple are below.
Αἰσχύλο (also known as Aiskhylos, or Aeschylus) was born circa 525/524, and passed away circa 456/455 BC. He was an ancient Greek playwright, sometimes colloquially called the father of tragedies. Only a few of his estimated 70 plus plays have survived, among them is his trilogy of plays in The Oresteia (comprised of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides) represents the only complete trilogy of Greek plays by any playwright still extant, and it has been theorized that he was the first playwright to create stories told in trilogies. He also seems to have introduced to the theater more complex character interactions and more characters into his works then what had been standard before then. His plays won him first prize in the coveted Great Dionysia (a great festival dedicated to Dionysos) on more than one occasion.
In this direct quote from Aiskhylos, we see an understanding in why we engage in devotional practices and veneration to the Gods.