Antinous for Everybody

I worship a dead gay teenager and you can too

Archive for the tag “memoir”

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.

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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.

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