Can you hear me now?
I used to be very, very fond of the Daily Office as an Episcopalian. The Daily Office is Morning and Evening Prayer, seven days a week, with psalms, canticles, biblical readings, sometimes extrabiblical readings from Christian tradition, and set prayers. The Protestant Reformers in England distilled the old monastic Divine Office that had eight offices a day into a mere two, short enough to be said at home on weekdays in that age of longer attention spans, combined with the Litany and Communion on Sundays. (Longer attention spans and no professional sports matches on the weekends.) The 1979 Book of Common Prayer distilled the 17th-century English-language Office into a service that could be decently read aloud in fifteen to twenty minutes, or elaborated with music and ritual into a glorious demonstration of the beauties of plainsong and English cathedral music.
I was very devoted to the Office and very nourished by it for a long time. And I was typically a very regular churchgoer, too. I showed up for the Sunday Eucharist and held out my hands for the magic cookie. In my last parish, I was a lay minister and gave people the wine at Communion. Being a High Church Episcopalian is good ritual training.
But one thing I was always lacking was private prayer, prayer that was in my own words and not the words of the Church. I read a lot of books on that kind of prayer, from the lectio divina of the Benedictines to the various methods proposed by St. Teresa of Avila to popular 20th-century writers like Evelyn Underhill and Anthony De Mello. Yet no matter how many books I read, somehow the heart-to-heart talks with Jesus or the deep meditative encounters with Scripture never happened.
I have said before that the turning point in my transition from Christian to polytheist happened when I realized I wanted to pray to Antinous. I wanted specifically to ask him something. I had spent years praying in formal ways for peace, for the health of friends and family, for an end to war, to poverty, to injustice, but I am not sure if I ever asked for something for me. Like, a sum of money, or a new job, or inspiration for a story, or whatever.
I don’t remember now what I asked of Antinous, but I felt the prayer was answered. And once I began to make regular offerings to him and other deities, prayers began to flow freely. I used words PSVL had written, but I also improvised my own. I began to write prayers to the gods that I could share with others and they could use in their own devotions. And eventually, I began to do what I had not been able to do with Jesus or God the Father: To tell Antinous, informally, colloquially, privately, what was going on with me, and what would be helpful.
PSVL, in eir book Devotio Antinoi, gave me a pro tip that I’m going to pass on to you, because I’m pretty sure it’s useful to anyone who’s a polytheist or maybe would like to be: Pray out loud. The gods are not, and do not claim to be, omniscient. A few of them are said to be all-seeing, but they don’t know what you’re thinking. They may be able to possess human bodies if they wish to, but they’re not usually poking around in your head on a daily basis. Pray out loud. Address them by name. I sometimes pray aloud while walking down the street now, figuring that passers-by will just assume I’m using a *really* tiny bluetooth device, if they notice at all.
In Christianity there have been many debates on why an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God does not just give worshippers what they want. Certainly people have asked for and received blessings; on the other hand, prayers for peace go up from churches every week, and wars do not seem to be getting fewer in number or gentler in execution. With polytheism there is less of a theological tangle to work through. The gods are *not* all-powerful, though much more powerful than mortals. They’re not all-knowing, though they know more than we do. And they are not, as a rule, all-benevolent, all-loving. Some deities are not known for being loving, beneficent, or kind at all. Most if not all are capable of favoring some people over others, even in ways that look unfair to us. (Why on earth is Athena so fond of Achilles, who has no manners and no self-restraint? I thought she had more class than that. But the Iliad is, after all, poetry about gods and mortals, not holy writ. Myth is also just fiction.)
Paradoxically, I feel more confident of being loved by the gods now than I ever did as a Christian. It’s the difference, for me, between someone who is agreeable to everyone yet aloof, never accessible in an intimate way. Julian of Norwich charmingly described Jesus as a royal lord who mingles with his guests at the banquet instead of keeping to his exalted place, but as often as I read her book, I never felt that intimacy. I feel confident of Antinous’ love partly because I’m sure there are people he doesn’t love–people who bullied transgender kids into committing suicide, politicians who are ignorant both of U.S. law and of compassion as they rail against same-sex marriage and other civil rights for the non-heterosexual, murderers of his people. He is on the side of certain people and therefore he is opposed to others who would do his people harm.
It’s also possible to pray to and worship deities you don’t have a really intimate relationship with. I celebrated a holy day for the god Mars and made the mistake of offering him beer. Imagine Tommy Lee Jones playing a general who’s also a dad and his wife and kids live on a farm. Now imagine him disapproving of you. That was the impression I got of Mars. I made a generous offering of wine the following day and nothing more was said about the matter. I will never be close to Mars, but I respect him, and hopefully next time I won’t give him a stupid offering. I think he’s actually pretty tolerant and realizes not everyone is up to his standards. (It would be better, of course, if everyone could be.)
Prayer and offerings go together… I am tempted to say like chocolate and peanut butter, but actually, more like coffee and pastries with conversation. Don’t be afraid to light a candle and some incense, say a prayer, and invite the gods over for a chat.