Space ships, hobbits, and church

I’ve always said that I didn’t want to write memoir. “Write what you know” is a common bit of advice tossed at new writers, but I prefer the adage, “Write what you love,” and from an early age, what I loved was space ships, robots, dinosaurs, elves and fairies (and dwarves and hobbits), and church. So my fiction has revolved around the things I love, which haven’t changed a great deal since I first learned to write the alphabet, and so has my poetry. I am not planning on writing any novels about, say, tortured mother-daughter relationships, or child prodigies growing up in white blue-collar families in the 1970s and ’80s, or any poetry about my father’s work-roughened hands and the big symbolic trucks he drove while my mother sat on the couch and watched soap operas. Other writers are tending those acres, I’m sure.

But I turned fifty this year, and turning fifty tends to inspire a certain amount of looking back as well as looking forward (and seeing what, if anything, one has to look forward to). What does interest me as I look back, what seems worth sharing, is the meandering path of my involvement with religion. From the first time I was let loose in the neighborhood library, say, around eight years old, to the present day, religion has been one of the things I find most interesting. Not just my own religion, but all religion, all religions. So this is the first of an occasional, unscheduled post looking back at me and religion.

My mother sent me to church when I was about six years old. What one can deduce from this is that she did not go to church herself, and take her daughters with her; she sent me, in the company of my older sister, already a teenager and chafing to get out of the Sunday church requirement. She thought that a religious education was in some way important, but she did not herself have any religious practice. Over the years my mother supported the church I went to in many ways, including financially, but one thing she never did was go to a service. To this day, I’m not entirely sure why that was the case.

My sister, eleven years my senior, had gone to a Lutheran church and been confirmed there. I went with her for a year or two, until she rebelled and stopped going. In that time, I spent most of my time in the Sunday school and very little of it in the actual Sunday service, but the important thing is that I wanted to join the choir and was permitted to do so. I was actually at least a year younger than the minimum age; I think they must have accepted me because I could not only carry a tune, but read the words of the hymns proficiently. I was a very precocious reader, years ahead of grade level.

When my sister stopped going to church (and concentrated on dating, and then got married), I think there was a year or two when I didn’t attend. Then my mother made the acquaintance of a neighbor, an elderly single woman named Miss Johnson, who went to the nearby Episcopal church. When I say “nearby”, I mean half a block away, across our street, up to the corner, across that street, and there you go, but my mother insisted that someone walk me there. So for I don’t know how many years, I met Miss Johnson at our front door every Sunday and walked that short distance in her company.

Miss Johnson’s church, the Church of the Advent, was the little high-church parish that was going to form my notions of religion, of Christianity, of what Episcopalians are and do, pretty much permanently. Unlike a lot of pagans, my childhood exposure to religion didn’t leave me with baggage I was eager to drop. I had my share of emotional drama at church over the years, but 99% of it had to do with being an oddball who found it hard to fit in socially and was often unsure that people liked me. Looking back, I’m pretty sure they did like me, even if they didn’t necessarily understand me. They were my peeps, though, and they cared.

It was not a church where I heard a lot of messages about women, or sexuality, or homosexuality being evil. Our rector rarely preached, and I’m quite certain that he was himself homosexual, in a quiet and reclusive sort of way. It was not a church where the pastor told you who to vote for, or shamed women for how they dressed. Except for the actual Sunday liturgy, which we called Mass as Catholics do, everything in the parish was done or organized by women. Father and some men and boys as acolytes celebrated Mass; women and girls sang in the choir, ran the Sunday school, organized bazaars and suppers as fundraisers, typed up and copied the weekly service leaflet, not to mention maintaining the cleanliness and order of the altar and its furnishings and all the vestments. It was an environment in which women had real power and the men mostly showed up and did what their wives told them to do. We had a rule that boys could not sing in the choir and girls could not be acolytes–a strange rule for an Episcopal church, but as a child, I was not unhappy with this division of labor. I joined the choir as soon as I could prevail on my mother to let me and remained active in it for over ten years.

It was a church in which singing was deeply important, choir was deeply important, and I was exposed to a hymnal which was a compendium of Western musical tradition from plainsong up to the early 20th century. It was a church in which the language of the prayers and the Bible was sixteenth-century English, the language of Shakespeare, of King James I, of intimacy through extreme formality. It was a church with silk vestments, with clouds of incense, with stained-glass windows, with chanting. It was a church where I learned that music, poetry, and stories are important parts of religion, and so are theatre and dressing up. It went hand in hand with the actual theatre in my life, as amateur theatre was my mother’s hobby. I was singing and dancing in musical reviews at the same age that I was singing the Great Litany in procession at church, high on clouds of frankincense.

Deep down, my criterion for religion has always been, can you do it better than my childhood church? Can you do it better than the Book of Common Prayer and C.S. Lewis, better than frankincense and plainsong, better than damask chasubles and cassocks and surplices? Can you do better than a tradition that gave us Donne and Herbert, Tallis and Byrd, Charles Williams and Dorothy L. Sayers? It hasn’t been easy to find a religious identity where the answer to that was yes, but I’ll keep you apprised.


The purple umbrella

I made it to church this morning for the first time in a few weeks. The opening hymn was Our Great Denominational Fight Song: “The Church’s One Foundation”. (That’s the Episcopalian fight song. If you’re Lutheran, it is, of course, “Ein’ Feste Burg”; if you’re Roman Catholic, I believe it is “Tantum Ergo”.) The closing hymn was its close cousin, “Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation,” sung to the great tune by Henry Purcell known as “Westminster Abbey”.

In between, the interim rector preached well on the readings, touching on the shooting at the Pulse nightclub and the responses to it that she saw online. The Old Testament reading, which struck me most, was the mystical and almost spooky story of Elijah being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, accompanied by horses and chariots made of flame. Elisha picks up his mentor’s fallen mantle and lashes the water of the Jordan, saying, “Where is the God of Elijah?” The water parts for him and he crosses the river dry-shod.

However, when the rector, who happens to be a woman, began talking about living in such a way that we put others first instead of ourselves, I stopped thinking about the mysticism of the Chariot or the determination of Jesus, in Luke’s Gospel, “setting his face toward Jerusalem” and letting nothing stop on his journey to confront the powers that be and started thinking, “No.” Because honestly, calls to put others before myself are *not* what I need. Calls to prioritize God, our neighbor, our family, our spouses, our children, the telemarketer, the boss–everyone and anyone before ourselves are not what many women need. As far as I can see, putting others first is something men in our culture may need to practice, but not women.

After communion, we sang a hymn of unknown provenance that had a tune somewhat like a Broadway ballad and a text that was, shall we say, a little too on the nose. ” Will you come and follow me, if I but call your name?” Will you do all these self-sacrificing things for other people, in my name, if I call on you to do so? The truth is that my answer is No. I honor Jesus as a wisdom teacher, a healer, a deified mortal, and a savior who provides a place in the afterlife for those who follow him, but I realized at some point that I could not be his disciple. I could not live by the values he proposed, nor did I want to. If I use up my energies putting others first by service or volunteering or political action or whatever, in Christ’s name, by all the good works the Church has proposed over the centuries, I won’t have any energy left to do what I have always believed to be my actual work, my calling: Writing, singing, creating liturgy.

That said, I will continue to attend this Episcopal church, because I feel a real sense of community with the people there. I am probably going to train as a chalicist once again, authorized to administer the cup of wine at the Eucharist, and I’d like very much to have a full-time position with the choir come fall. I’m a good singer; the repertoire that I sing best happens to be church music, go figure. I also had a strong sense this morning that Antinous had come to church with me; that it was not inappropriate for a god, especially one who is also a hero and a daimon, to worship another god. I don’t have to leave Antinous behind in order to participate in this community.

On my way out of church, I snagged a couple of cookies and looked over the bins that had been set out with items from the church’s lost and found. To my amazement, I spotted a purple folding umbrella that I recognized. It’s been missing for two or three years. Now I have my purple umbrella again.

Looking for religion in all the wrong places

Lately I’ve found myself looking at my Christian background a lot. I’ve been re-reading the Rule of St. Benedict, the foundation document of Western Christian monasticism; I’ve been thinking about Hildegard of Bingen, whose feast day was in mid-September, and about Therese of Liseux, who is commemorated today, and her big sister Teresa of Avila, whose feast comes up in mid-October. And I’ve never really stopped missing the Daily Office, which probably explains my penchant for writing prayers to be said every day, on a schedule.

In the past, being interested in Christian texts and Christian saints again would have got me thinking that I was in the wrong religion; that Christianity is obviously my True Path and I should go back to it. But I’m not thinking that right now. I’m not neglecting my daily offerings to Antinous, the Tetrad++, and the gods, ancestors, and spirits generally. I’m still slowly reading anthologies about Demeter and Persephone; these two books are great collections of material, but an anthology doesn’t sweep you away the way that a good novel or even a tightly-structured work of nonfiction will.

So I ask myself, why am I not panicking and thinking I should change religions, the way I would have five years ago? I think the answer to that question is: Polytheism.

There are many things about Anglican Christianity that I love and miss: the Daily Office, Anglican choral music, the many poets and writers whom it shaped. I miss having a regular time of worship with a local community. But taken all together, it was the system I loved, not Jesus or his Father. To be honest, there are quite a few saints I love far more than I ever loved Jesus; Julian of Norwich would head that list.

Being an Episcopalian was about inhabiting a comfortable and beautiful system that provided me with a lot of resources of wisdom. But being a polytheist, it turns out, is about having direct, enlivening relationships with deities. And my deities, at least, seem not to mind where I seek for wisdom, as long as I maintain relationships with them.

*holds breath and waits ten seconds in case of divine smiting*

I am worshipping Antinous and a lot of associated gods in a particular modern tradition that draws from Greek, Roman, and Egyptian sources. I am technically a member of the Ekklesia Antinoou, “a queer, Graeco-Roman-Egyptian syncretist reconstructionist polytheist group dedicated to Antinous, the deified lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and related deities and divine figures”–to quote the official description. But the Ekklesia doesn’t feel to me like a system. A system, perhaps I should say an institution, requires you to sign on the dotted line, stay within the grounds, make your bed a certain way. The Ekklesia is more like a bunch of houses and workshops built around the remains of a temple that is slowly being rebuilt; the goal is to make the temple look like its ancient self but also contain indoor plumbing, accessible entrances, and internet access.

I don’t feel like any source of wisdom is off-limits as long as I maintain my primary relationships with the holy powers. And those relationships have been so satisfying that I don’t want to abandon them to return to a system. All this time I thought I was looking for the right religion, the right system, when actually, I was waiting to meet the right god.

A world full of gods

I first read John Michael Greer’s A World Full of Gods ten years ago, when it was new. I took away two things from Greer’s defense of polytheism, one an abstract idea and the other a metaphor. The idea was that there need not be a single afterlife to which all human beings are bound. Perhaps some people reincarnate and some don’t. Perhaps those who worship Jesus have an afterlife with Jesus, and those who worship the gods of Greece get an afterlife with Persephone. Hell, Hel, Valhalla, the Elysian Fields, Tartaros, Amida’s Pure Land, and any other post-mortem destination you can name may all be equally real.

The metaphor was a deliberate counter to the familiar metaphor of spiritual reality as a mountain. There are many paths to the top, yet we all find the same reality in the end. You thought you were climbing El Capitan, but it turned out to be Everest. No matter what mountain you climb, you get Everest. Greer suggests that we think of reality as a valley instead, ringed by hills and mountains that represent the different religious paths we can take. Each ascent will give us a different but equally valid perspective on the valley below.

I think I have said before that I’m not sure I was ever really a monotheist. The Church and the Bible were present and important in my life from very early on, but so were Grimm’s fairy tales, Anderson’s stories, the legends of King Arthur, and the gods and stories of Egypt, Greece, and the North. Being a precocious reader, I graduated pretty quickly from children’s retellings of myths to Bulfinch, then to books on archaeology and world religions. I grew up with the knowledge that not only were there different kinds of Christians than the Lutherans and Episcopalians I knew, there were non-Christian religions out there, some of which worshipped many gods instead of just one. I can still visualize fairly clearly the two-page painting in that Time-Life book of the Hindu pantheon in all its complexity, blue skin and gold skin, red skin and white, four or six or eight arms, serpents and bulls and monkeys and rats and a god with an elephant’s head. It was hard to forget.

I started veering toward paganism and polytheism pretty much as soon as it looked like a viable option. I didn’t live in India or China or Japan, but The Spiral Dance showed me there were people who took the old gods seriously who lived in my country, my culture. I’ve spent a good deal of my life since the age of thirteen zig-zagging between the Episcopal Church and various kinds of paganism, with a fruitful side trip into studying hermetic magic that led to my becoming interested in Buddhism and taking refuge and bodhisattva vows with a Tibetan lineage. Tibetan Buddhism is still my model for a complete religion, one that has all its technologies in place. I think most religions in the West have lost pieces of the toolkit, not excluding Christianity.

I’ve considered or tried out various kinds of witchcraft and druidry, but while they remain of interest to me, they just didn’t stick as spiritual practices. Studying Tibetan Buddhism has been incredibly enriching, but I still suck at plain sitting meditation. I’m very interested in magic, too, but I confess I don’t regularly practice the system I learned.

If it weren’t for P. Sufenas Virius Lupus and eir blog, the Aedicula Antinoi, I wouldn’t have discovered Antinous. That, of course, is why PSVL keeps the Aedicula–to inform people about Antinous and model a way of worshipping him. That’s why e founded the Ekklesia Antinoou, “a queer, Graeco-Roman-Egyptian syncretist reconstructionist polytheist group dedicated to Antinous, the deified lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and related deities and divine figures”, to quote the official description. If you want a name for my current path or practice, I say my religion is polytheism, or I’m a devotee of Antinous, or I’m a member of the Ekklesia Antinoou. Sometimes I just say I’m a Mediterranean polytheist and I worship Antinous as my primary deity.

I first began to experiment with devotion to Antinous back in 2012. I had been reading the Aedicula pretty much since its inception, I think; I believe it was in October of that year, right around the major holy days of the Sacred Nights, that I began to offer a candle and incense to Antinous daily, with prayers, and to try to observe his festivals. Then, just at the start of 2013, I simultaneously lost my marriage and found an Episcopal church that suited me better than any church I’d been to for a long time. I became an active member of that parish, but I didn’t get rid of PSVL’s big book on Antinous or the handmade triptych I had created in the god’s honor.

A year and a half later, I had a huge role in one of the most important liturgies of the year: I was the narrator for the Gospel of the Passion on Palm Sunday. With another reader as Jesus and a third as all the other characters, both men, I dramatised the events of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution for the congregation. I’d been an active churchgoer and a member of the choir for so much of my life, but I’d never done anything so important before. And that might have been the last time I went to my church.

Something came up in my life, I don’t remember what exactly, and I had the desire to pray to Antinous for help. Not Jesus, not God the Father, not the Blessed Mother or Julian of Norwich, but Antinous, a teenaged Greco-diasporic boy who was the lover of a Roman emperor and became a god because he drowned in the Nile, under unknown circumstances. At that point I realized I definitely wasn’t a monotheist and wasn’t a Christian, either. I became a devotee of Antinous and really haven’t looked back.

Sun gods and pious polytheism

Yesterday I went with my ex-husband and his wife to the Episcopal church where he is presently the organist. They have a Christmas morning service in which the sermon is replaced by a carol-sing (a thing which ought to happen more often, if you ask me). The church is a fairly typical Episcopal parish of the Mid-Atlantic/Northeast: Contemporary language in liturgy, progressive theology and politics, a decent balance between good ritual and social outreach. I enjoyed singing the familiar carols, even though my voice is woefully rusty and I stumble over the changes made to texts for the sake of current theology (“pleased as man with man to dwell”, please, not “pleased as man with us to dwell”).

PSVL said to me a while back, before I had made the decision to go polytheist, or realized I already was, that Jesus and Antinous have been friends for a long time. Lately, after more than six months away from any Christian liturgy or devotion, I have been looking at my relationships to Jesus and to the Anglican tradition and coming to see that while I have respect but no devotion for Jesus, I have an aesthetic love for the tradition and genuine devotion to my ancestors within it–a lineage of saints, poets, preachers, musicians, and mystics mostly congregated within the British isles. And so I put an icon of the Virgin and Child on my shrine, went to church with my family, said the prayers, sang the hymns, and received Communion, with a clear conscience.

One thing I did not do, however, was to recite the Creed. That is where I draw the line. From a Christian perspective, I do not believe the propositions of the Nicene Creed, and I will no longer recite it and commit myself to it. On the other hand, from a polytheist perspective, it doesn’t matter what I believe. I was in the sanctuary of a god, one whom I used to worship exclusively, and therefore I did the things one does in the presence of that god, as I was taught to do as a child, and without offending the customs of that congregation. Then, like a good Episcopalian, I went to brunch after the service, to which I was treated as a Christmas gift.

This evening my shrine is alight with candles, fragrant with incense, and laden with offerings of drink and sweets. The icons of Mother and Child and of Julian of Norwich remain enshrined; the former will probably stay out for the twelve days, while Julian is always with me. I feel at peace and a little bit hungry. I wish a joyous celebration of the feasts of midwinter to all.