POEM: In a cold spring

What god can I pray to, in this
wet and chilly spring? What goddess
will answer if I ask for sun, not rain?
Vertumnus turns the wheel and Flora
brings the flowers; Silvanus touches
the trees and they drop pollen, catkins,
odors. Yet still the skies are cloudy
and days pass beneath a grey veil.

O Jupiter Pluvius, we have had enough
of your gift. The grasses are lush, the
leaves are shimmering, the earth has
drunk her fill. Yield the sky to Phoebus
Apollo so that he may gladden our faces.
Hot beverages with caffeine are not
enough to replace his blessing, the feel
of light and warmth. Juno, restrain
your consort! Maia’s month has been
cold and wet. Mercury, will you not
intervene, in honor of your mother?
Gracious gods, give us sunshine tomorrow!


Three Hail Marys to Our Lady of Mercy

A couple of days ago, I had my annual physical. Everything we checked in the office looked good–blood pressure, pulse, heart, lungs–and my doctor ordered a slate of bloodwork for me, to be done fasting. So this morning, I got up early-ish and caught the bus down to the Catholic hospital that houses both my doctor’s office and the blood lab and rolled into a very empty lab at nine a.m. I was out again ten minutes later, with the usual cotton ball taped to my arm over the needle puncture.

On my way down to the lab, however, I stopped before a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s a tall, slim, simple statue of golden-brown unpainted wood, dating from the late twentieth century. It stood in the lobby of this Mercy Hospital in my teens, several renovations ago, when I had family members in and out of cardiac arrest for several years together. I knew that statue and it knew me, and I stopped there today to pray. I noticed on the dedication plaque that it was commissioned to have perpetual flowers before it; it doesn’t any more, alas. Nevertheless, I said three Hail Marys and followed them up with a prayer for my ex-husband. He’s just been diagnosed with stage four cancer.

It’s been a very hard week. My ex and his wife moved out of state this year when he took an exciting new job; his mother, who just turned eighty-nine, followed them in October, not to live with them, but into a new house of her own. Everything had been going extremely well for them; my ex’s Facebook posts were mostly pictures of the house, the garden, the cats. I was especially charmed by a picture of their fireplace lighted for the first time this year; Nadia the tortoise, whom I have fed and petted, had settled by the fire to enjoy the warmth.

Now a man I spent over twenty years with, who is still my friend in spite of everything, is sick unto death, a few hundred miles away, and I can’t do anything for him. In the first rush of concern, I started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to take the train to visit them. I met my goal, but then his condition and prognosis improved, and it makes more sense for me to wait and visit in December, perhaps. Nevertheless, this disease is not curable, not survivable. This is the beginning of the end.

I was participating in the Trans Rite of Ancestor Elevation. I carried on with that, taking for my motto what one of my favorite college instructors used to say: “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” I feel like I participated badly, half-heartedly, but participating badly is far superior to not participating at all. I was given to understand that this is part of my job, to pray for the dead, so I did it. I am also understanding that it’s part of my job to pray for the living: For transgender folk who are alive and well; for my ex-husband, my friend, and for his wife; for my friends who suffer from chronic illness and are often in pain, and for my friends who are mentally ill and struggle with depression, anxiety, and other difficulties. Even if I do it badly, I should do it.

I would ask you to pray for me, dear readers, as I shall be praying for you.

A prayer to Salus on her feast day

Salus, giver of health, guardian of the people,
on this the Nones of August we hail you once again.
Feed your holy serpent, Salus, that giver of
health and wisdom, predator of pests,
deity of surging energy. O Salus, bless us
with all things that are salutary, with medicines
of prevention and medicines of cure, with
cleanliness and carefulness, with concern
for our neighbors, whose health affects our own.
O Salus, may our offerings to you be
accepted, for our well-being, O guardian
of the people, giver of good health.

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.

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.