Getting to Carnegie Hall
I’ve tried on a lot of costumes, nametags, hats, over the past three decades. I wore the Anglican nametag proudly; I always felt a deep sense of rightness when I buttoned my cassock all the way up, pulled the billowy white surplice over my head and tugged it down just so, and took my place in the choir stalls, ready to sing. I wore a druid robe of good sturdy white cotton, but I never felt entirely comfortable in it. I don’t call myself a Tibetan Buddhist, but I still carry the Dharma in my heart and often carry a mala in my pocket. I’ve tried on and put off the witch label more than once; I have a lot of respect for the Craft, a lot of interest in its history, but I’m not a witch.
I wish that “magician” were not a default masculine word, besides denoting a stage performer, an illusionist, along with a practitioner of magic. I make a pretty good magician. But despite leaving the Church and giving my primary devotion to a god of beauty, athleticism, poetry, communication, sensual enjoyment, I still feel like the monastic or solitary nametag suits me best. If I’d lived in medieval England, I’d have been one of the many anchorites who studded its cities (Julian was far from unique in 14th-century Norwich). If I had grown up in Buddhist China or Japan, I might well have been a hermit like Han Shan or Ryokan. My studio apartment is not so unlike a hermit cell or anchorhold, with the advantages of indoor plumbing and climate control. I might even keep a pet bird in one of these alternate lives.
All of which is to say that it’s unthinkable to me not to have a daily spiritual practice. It’s just what you do. Anglican Christianity has a strong orthopractic streak; it’s not important that we all understand or explain things in the exact same way, but rather that we pray together, sing together, and partake of communion together. You don’t have to pass a test on the catechism. It also has a strong streak of lay people having regular daily prayers, just as priests and monastics did in the Roman tradition. For years the Prayerbook Daily Office was my staple, psalms, canticles, readings from the Bible and classic Christian writers, and an orderly cycle of prayers. If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you can see that to some extent, I’m trying to recreate that in a polytheist context.
But as a polytheist, my daily practice goes beyond saying prayers. It includes the making of offerings. The prayers and hymns I write are themselves an offering, as are all the entries in this blog, but I also dedicate actual material substances to the powers that be.
When I’m doing what I think of as my normal devotions, I make a small offering every day. The house spirits get a small dish of milk, which seems to be traditional. Likewise the ancestors, the honored dead, get a glass of cool water, and sometimes a cup of tea (that’s especially for my grandmother). The gods get lights and incense, maybe just a tea light and one stick of something.
I envy people who cook large feasts for their pantheons. I’m not much of a cook, but if I make something that’s more or less from scratch and required some actual time and energy to prepare, I will put a portion on my shrine. I also frequently share ice cream and food I have delivered, though I don’t order Chinese as often as I used to because there isn’t a good source for it near me.
Arguments about offerings and sacrifice are unpleasantly frequent in the online pagan and polytheist world. The best explanation I can give for my own practice is not so much the famous Roman dictum “do ut des”, I give that you may give, but “I give because you have given”. What we have is from the gods; the gods give us nature and we make art of it. Making offerings keeps the cycle flowing, like planting the seeds of the fruit you ate, using horse and cow manure as fertilizer, using the profit of a sale to help someone in need. My offerings give back to the gods and celebrate their presence in my life. I share pretty lights, pleasing scents, and delicious food with them because I enjoy their company and wish for them to enjoy my company, too.
Devotion is a practice like meditation, like practicing scales on your musical instrument, like learning to dance. You can start from zero and cultivate it, like a tiny seedling. You can water it with offerings and feed it with prayers by other devotees. Feeling follows form; you have to learn the notes of a song, the steps of a dance, the lines in a play, before you can find meaning in them or give meaning to them. And so day after day, you practice. What you worship, you become.