Good-bye to all that

I’ve decided I am not going to finish the 30 Days of Polytheism meme. There are only nine more days, but the topics are progressively irrelevant to my practice. There are questions about other paths, faiths, practices I’ve explored, a topic I’ve already covered, and about how “my conversion” has affected my relationships with friends, family, lovers, co-workers. The short answer there is that it wasn’t a conversion, and it hasn’t affected those relationships, except insofar as it has broadened my connections with other polytheists, mostly online.

The notion of conversion implies that you were doing something wrong, and now you’re doing something right. I came to the decision that Christianity was the wrong religion for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s inherently wrong, for everyone, or that it wasn’t right for me at other times in my life. Deciding to worship Antinous did not and does not mean excluding Jesus from reverence, or trading one set of practices for another as you might trade an old uniform for a new one. The inherent nature of polytheism is that no exclusion is necessary. I’ve written Christian religious poetry and druidic religious poetry and now I write devotional religious poetry. I can perform a Green Tara sadhana in Tibetan Buddhist style, pray the Stations of the Cross in Holy Week, and still pray to Antinous and celebrate his holy days with full loyalty and devotion.

What the meme has hightlighted for me, above all, is something I’ve never really understood before: The difference between paganism as a subculture and polytheism as a religion. Please don’t take this to mean that I think anyone who identifies as pagan is not truly religious! I am certain there are many deeply religious people who identify as pagan, not polytheist, or as both. I barely know what’s going on in my own heart and mind, some days, without being able to see into the hearts and minds of others.

But there is a certain aesthetic, a certain ethos, a certain lifestyle which is Pagan, with or without a religious aspect. It’s photos of Glastonbury Tor, not the Parthenon. It’s gauzily clad maidens dancing through lush green forests, not boats gliding along the Nile. It’s Horned Lord and Green Man art, outdoor festivals, folky tunes on the guitar, and crystals, crystals everywhere.

Those things are all lovely, and they can be deeply meaningful. But those things did not help me when I came close to being suicidal. My friends helped me, and my gods helped me–Antinous, and the Tetrad++, and Glykon, the serpent god of prophecy and healing. They saw me through a very difficult time, and for that I am forever grateful.

If there is one misconception about polytheism I would like to clear up, it’s that it must involve having a lifestyle rather than being part of one’s life. I make offerings to my gods and pray to them, and I also hold down a 9-5 job, watch Marvel movies, write fanfic, read about disasters, listen to Baroque music. And if there’s one piece of advice I would give a seeker, it is simply to take the first step. If there is a god or goddess or deity who attracts you, do a bit of research, just so you know who you’re talking to; then wash your hands, make an offering, and introduce yourself. No one refuses clean water or a candle lit in their honor. The gods are always listening for us to speak their names. Speak, and be heard.


Confessions of a tired former chorister

When last I sang in an Episcopal church choir, I wore a black ankle-length cassock that buttoned all the way down the front. I took pride in buttoning it all the way up to my chin. Over it, I wore a surplice, a loose long-sleeved white garment with a square yoke. I always paused in front of the full-length mirror on the back of the cellar door and made sure it was hanging just so over my shoulders.

Except in the hottest weather, I usually wore that over all my clothes, top and bottom, or a dress. Toward the end of the choir season, in late May and early June, I often wore a top I could remove easily, so I could wear the cassock over just my bra. For a long time the choir had hideous orange-red cassocks made of some horrid polyester blend; the lining of mine would stick so closely to my skin in hot weather that taking it off sometimes felt like peeling away the skin with it. They were eventually replaced with a light-weight wool blend that was much more breathable as well as more dignified.

What the choristers wore was nothing, however, compared to what the celebrant wore. From the outside in, he was garbed every week in silk damask chasuble, stole around the neck, maniple around the wrist, rope cincture around the waist, alb (white robe), amice (detachable collar of white robe), cassock, clerical shirt, trousers, and whatever underthings he was accustomed to. (I make no assumptions.) I wonder that he did not simply pass out from the heat. Occasionally someone did pass out, either in the congregation, or amongst the numerous acolytes. An Anglo-Catholic Episcopal church can put on quite a show.

All of this may explain why I’m actually very informal, these days, about ritual. I’m still just a bit burned out after all those years of cassocks and chasubles, Gregorian chant and incense, more people sometimes milling about the chancel than were sitting in the pews. Except for really important feasts of Antinous, I am mostly content to make simple offerings and address the gods off the cuff, not casually, just not reading written words or reciting a memorized form. There are plenty of holy days that do have some ritual texts and I happily use them; I’m also, as my readers know, constantly writing texts for ritual and devotional use. But a bigger holy day just means more offerings, more formal prayers, more prayers overall; it doesn’t, for me, mean dressing up, doing anything special with my space, or anything involving what a friend of mine calls “high protocol”.

I admire and perhaps envy people who are doing religio Romana with all the correct ritual protocol and gestures, in Latin, and people who can cast an effective circle in a few words, and especially people who have enough physical space in their homes to have a separate room for spiritual and magical work, or even just for multiple shrines instead of one big one. That’s just not me, right now. I figure if the gods want fancier ritual from me, they can give me a bigger space to do it in.

You keep using those words…

Before I wrangle with today’s topic, let me join with others in expressing my joy that the Supreme Court of theĀ United States has struck down the last ban against same-sex marriage and ruled that it is legal throughout the land. Let me join also with PSVL and others in saying that the struggle for marriage equality is by no means over: Celebrate today (and this weekend, if there’s a Pride festival in your area), and then let’s work on extending the right to legal marriage to people who don’t identify as either male or female, and then to people who wish to make marriage bonds involving more than two partners.

That said, today is another occasion when I am brought up short by the assigned topic of the meme. I am not really sure what is meant, so let me quote the meme and try to unpack my sense of the words:
Mysticism and Philosophy – Beliefs in truths that are believed to be intuitive or above normal understanding, as well as beliefs that are rooted in rational investigation and knowledge and how they work together. (transcendental/intuitive vs scientific/historic/practical).

The first thing that occurs to me is that there are some assumptions there about religion in general that relate specifically to the status of monotheistic religion in Western societies since the so-called Enlightenment, that is, since the scientific method began effectively to challenge the exclusive truth claims of Christianity. The idea that there is a conflict or a dichotomy between science and religion would probably have baffled medieval theologians and ancient pagan philosophers alike.

The second thing that occurs to me is that “mysticism” and “philosophy” are both words and concepts that had their origin in pagan, polytheist cultures, specifically that of Greece, and that the meanings of those words have diverged greatly from their original import in the dialects of ancient Greek. Like light passing through a prism and being bent into colors, a good many religious and philosophical ideas have passed through the prism of Christian re-interpretation and cannot easily be seen except as colored by centuries of Christian usage.

I know just enough about philosophy to know that, as Lord Peter Wimsey said of himself, I have not the philosophic mind. But I can speak a little of mysticism, perhaps, and so I shall.

To most people nowadays, the word “mystic” means someone who has had a sort of experience of the Divine which is not easily talked about, if at all, and which seems or sounds a bit like a warm, bright, fuzzy feeling about the goodness and oneness of the All. In various schools and eras of Christian theology, mysticism might mean a dangerous tendency to over-emotionalism, found especially in pious women, or a level of experiencing reality, a participating in heavenly reality during earthly life, or a specific stage in a carefully laid out program of spiritual progress that was presumed to be universal. But in the ancient Mediterranean world, a mystic was simply a person who had undergone a Mystery. You could be initiated into the Mysteries of Demeter at Eleusis, or into the Mysteries of Mithras if you were a man, or into other mysteries, lesser known. The Easter liturgies of the Church in Jerusalem in the fourth century C.E. are recognizably a mystery initiation in their structure: The newbie Christians are exposed to lights, songs, symbols, tableaux that are only explained later, in the light of day, over the course of Eastertide, and they partake for the first time of the holy meal that gives communion with the Lord. Mysteries were everywhere, and like Muslims on hajj, people gained initiation and generally just went back to their ordinary lives, but changed.

In pagan and polytheist traditions, there need be no conflict between religion and science, nor between mysticism and philosophy. There were mystics among the philosophers, philosophers among the mystics. We don’t have to give up our day jobs, stop watching all our favorite tv shows, and retire to a cave in order to be devout worshippers of the gods, nor do we have to turn off our critical minds, refuse to vote or vote a certain ticket, or try to resurrect a long-dead culture. We can enter the Mysteries of the Gods and see what is shown us and then go back to our ordinary lives, just as Hadrian and Antinous were initiates at Eleusis and then went back to being Emperor and favorite, friends and lovers.

Knowing whom to ask

I’ve been fascinated by Tarot ever since I was a kid. I was doing a play at a small amateur theatre when I was about nine or ten, and I found a book on the Tarot forgotten in the lighting booth. It was a small, thin book hardbound in dull yellow cloth. The illustrations, if I remember correctly, were of the Marseilles Tarot. I may have taken the book home with me when the show was over, but I’m not sure; I think I remember the director telling me that I might. In any case, when as a teenager I started to see cheap paperback books about the Tarot in stores, I snapped them up and read them long before I ever owned a deck. If you are of a certain age, you, too, may have read those mass-market paperbacks by Eden Gray.

The first deck I owned was, I think, the Mythic Tarot, which assimilated the deck to Greco-Roman mythology. I had a workbook for it, too, but I don’t know what became of deck and book. The first really significant deck I bought, having already bought the book, was the Motherpeace Tarot. Yes, I went through my matriarchy-Goddess-peace phase just like everyone else. I remember thinking how expensive the book was: $12.95! I defended the purchase to my mother by saying it had color illustrations.

While I haven’t used it in years, I still have that deck, in a bag I hand-sewed for it, and the book, crack-spined and falling apart. If nothing else, it’s an important artifact of my personal history, and there are still some cards in it I like very much.

The next deck which stands out in my memory is the Hallowquest deck or Arthurian Tarot, created by John and Caitlin Matthews and illustrated by Miranda Gray. This has gone in and out of print several times; I think I bought one of the first printings. It, too, remains personally important to me, with its figures from Arthurian legend and its mysterious number cards, open landscapes peopled only by bird and beast. I read the accompanying full-length book multiple times. My love for Arthurian legend goes back to childhood, to a coloring book of the movie Camelot and children’s versions of Malory.

Other decks I own include the Druidcraft Tarot, the New Hermetics Tarot, the Thoth Tarot, and of course the Waite-Smith Tarot, commonly known as the Rider-Waite. I have the Universal edition, which has a handsome dark blue reverse sprinkled with dull gold stars. It was Taroist Mary Greer who pointed out in one of her excellent books that several popular Tarot decks had been designed by a man but executed by a woman, particularly the Rider and the Thoth, and that instead of honoring the publisher and the male author, we should honor the female artist, too, and call it the Waite-Smith deck. The power of those images, now the standard for many people, surely owes much more to the astonishingly creative Pamela Colman Smith than to stuffy old Arthur Waite. Likewise Crowley had the ideas, but it was Lady Frieda Harris who produced the actual paintings that were eventually published as the Thoth deck.
I’ve spent quite a lot of money on Tarot decks and their associated books, and I’m not even going to mention the divination decks I have that aren’t Tarot (well, except the Druid Animal Oracle, which is probably my favorite non-Tarot deck. The Druid Herb Oracle is very nice, too.) Here’s the thing, though: I’m a pretty crap Tarot reader.

I can mess around with the idea of Tarot and do things like tell you what Court cards I associate with my friends, or what a Harry Potter Tarot or an Avengers Tarot would look like. My husband and I used to joke about drawing a Birdie Tarot. The High Priestess would depict our finch Hildegard perched between the cuttlebone (white) and the mineral block (black), and the Devil would be that terrifying force, The Broom. But as for actually laying down a spread of cards and getting some kind of clarity out of them, I’ve never gotten past the level of looking things up in books.

When I was in the Ancient Order of Druids in America, I made a thorough study of the Ogham system used in the order and did not only daily divinations but regular meditation as well. I think I was a rather better diviner with the abstract figures of the Ogham; they were the carriers of words, not pictures, and with the words came lines of poetry and reminders of stories and links to things in the world, a bird, a tool, a color, an animal. I don’t think I’m ever going to go into business as a diviner, though; what intuition I have seems not to work very well when you prod it too hard. In fact, it sometimes seems that the more intently I study a kind of divination, the less I pay attention to cues in the outer world, and my intuition suffers. I think it’s supposed to work the other way round.

When I became involved with Antinous, I fell back on divining with another method that had never worked terribly well for me, that is, using a pendulum for yes/no questions. I soon felt that something was different this time. Rather than using the pendulum to ask my subconscious, or my inner knowing, or my guides or whatever, I was using it to contact a specific divine being. I wanted a yes or a no from someone outside myself, not just a confirmation of what I or my inner wisdom *really* thought. And I noticed that the answers were pretty trustworthy.

In the past year of consulting the gods I worship, I have slowly refined my technique. I have learned not only to adjust my questions, but to start by asking if the gods are willing to answer questions about what I have in mind. I have also begun to work with a second method of divination, the Ephesia Grammata. These are letters which are actually words which are a kind of sacred formula that might also be six or seven individual spirits… and that’s all I’m going to say about them, because I don’t really feel competent yet to say more than that. I will just refer you to PSVL’s writings on the subject, which include a small but rich and helpful book.

I’ve found that oracles can be useful if you know not only what you need to ask, but whom. Consulting the Tarot is consulting the Tarot, unless one consciously makes it otherwise, and the Tarot rarely told me anything I didn’t know. I’ve seen skilled diviners use the deck and that’s obviously not the case for them. Using my pendulum or the Ephesia Grammata to consult the gods, or one specific god, using the method as a means rather than an end, has gotten me useful and trustworthy answers; it’s also boosted my ability to catch intuitive flashes and divine nudges and pick up what my gods trying to tell me. And that, I think, is the way it’s supposed to work.

I have a confession to make

I don’t meditate.

There. I said it.

I don’t meditate. I fear that in some people’s eyes, this makes me either an unspiritual person, or a poor magic-worker, or both. Please believe me when I say that I have tried. I have sat down on a cushion and crossed my fat legs in front of me and tried to keep my cranky back straight. I have counted breaths. I have sat as upright as I could on chairs. I have tried to watch my thoughts.

And eventually, after suffering through a sore back, sore hips, sore feet, involuntary twitches and spasms, and persistent frustration, I gave up. I don’t meditate.

I write. At least 750 words, and often more than that, every day. I process things through my fingers, through my words, through writing. I watch my mind by watching what it pours onto the page. I write essays, poetry, and fiction.

Words are important to me. They are my prayer and my meditation, my holy writ and my sacred magic. The most nearly meditative practice I have ever had success with has been the use of prayer beads. I used to say the Rosary occasionally, but more often I would repeat other prayers or phrases from spiritual writing on the beads, over and over. I worked my way through the whole of Julian of Norwich’s Showings like, ruminating on the sayings that struck home for me. I did this not while sitting in a quiet, private space, but while walking to work, while waiting for and riding on buses. I would like to find some way to use that practice in relation to Antinous, but my attempts at making a set of prayer beads literally would not stay in one piece. The string kept coming untied; the beads scattered in my pocket when I reached for them.

In the shower I muse over the last story I read, the last television episode I watched. I rehearse the plots of movies and novels. If I have more than three or four blocks to walk, I often muse on things I want to write. I pray aloud under my breath. At home in bed, sometimes in the bathtub, I read poetry aloud. I have listened to an abridgment of the Iliad as an audiobook, read by Derek Jacobi, and next up is the Odyssey read by Ian McKellen.

I love to sing, also, and I love to dance, and I don’t do either of those things often enough. But I cannot take words out of my religious life, out of my mind. Maybe I am meditating after all. In any case, I offer these words to my gods and to you, my readers.

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.

You keep not using that word

I’ve been writing these posts mostly in the evening, after my workday and something approximating dinner. (This evening’s repast was catered by a couple of fellows named Ben and Jerry.) It takes me forty minutes to an hour to write one usually; I would say my writing speed, when I’m on top of my game, is about a thousand words an hour. (And I feel certain of that after four weeks of writing a prose entry a day.)

If that seems swift to some of my readers, as I think it might, then bear in mind that I’ve probably been thinking about the topic for the day since breakfast. While I’m catching up on Tumblr and Facebook over my Mini-Wheats, I also have a look at the day’s prompt, so that some part of my mind is occupied with it during work, over lunch, while walking home.

I was feeling a dearth of inspiration today, facing a topic that looked irrelevant, pointless. I sat at the computer petting my bird friend and frowning over the list wondering what to substitute for the meme. As I did so, I noticed how many synonyms there are for religion on the list: Path, practice, belief, beliefs, faith. The word “religion” itself, however, is conspicuous by its absence.

I am not unsympathetic to people who want to be “spiritual” but not “religious”. Organized religion, which in Western cultures mostly means institutionalized Christianity, has done much good but also a great deal of harm. Roman Catholic missionaries built schools and hospitals in some places, authorized slavery and genocide in others. Roman Catholic priests and nuns have taught children who might otherwise have no education but also abused children in their care. Evangelical Christians have fleeced their flocks mercilessly, demonized homosexuals while hiring rentboys on the side, and done their own fair share of child abuse of various sorts. Yeah, I’m sympathetic to anyone who wishes to disassociate from that.

On the other hand, I noticed that almost as soon as I firmly committed to a polytheist devotion centered on Antinous, I began to use the word “religion” again, confidently. I didn’t call druidry my religion. I didn’t call any of my stages of generic paganism a religion. Anglican Christianity, Episcopal style, that was a religion. So was Tibetan Buddhism; I had no hesitations in calling it my religion during the short time I identified solely as a Buddhist. And polytheism, Mediterranean style, definitely commended itself to me as a religion.

The early Christian writer Lactantius, writing in Latin, famously defined “religio” as “re-ligare”, to re-bind or re-connect, a definition which Augustine of Hippo threw his weight behind. Cicero, writing in a pagan context, connected religion with careful handling of divine things and with review and study of sacred knowledge, as well as simply giving a useful synonym: “Cultus deorum”, cultus of the gods. “Cult” has become a bad word in English; I’ve seen it usefully defined as “a religion I disapprove of”. But “cultus” is a relative of “culture”, “cultivate”, and “agriculture”; it means to care for, to tend, to pay attention to. “Cultores deorum”, as Roman polytheists today call themselves, are people who pay due attention and care to the gods.

I think perhaps what differentiates using the word religion rather than path or practice is that element of relationship. You cannot have a religion without someone to relate to, to connect or re-connect with. You can have a path that is uniquely your own, or a practice that grounds your life, without any recourse to any being outside yourself. Even in Buddhism, which is often regarded as non-theistic or atheistic, you take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha–not just in a teaching, but in the teacher and the community of students and practitioners.

Likewise remembering Cicero’s remarks on religion steers me away from calling my religion a faith or belief. I have faith in my gods; I believe in them in the sense that I believe in someone I know and trust. But unlike certain types of Christianity, my religion is not reducible to a series of propositions I have to agree with, on the word of an authority whose experience substitutes for my own. I am finally beginning to understand the statement that you don’t have to believe if you know.

Let us keep using the word religion in talking about our polytheist devotion and practice. I think it means what we need it to mean.