Candles and incense

The Episcopal church I went to as a child was a small building with a small congregation, but it was irrepressibly High Church. We had the Eucharist every week, long before that became standard practice for Episcopalians, and we called it “Mass”, which is still a Roman Catholic designation. Our rector wore damask chasubles in green or purple, red or white with gold; we had a tiny chapel dedicated to Our Lady; we included a good deal of Gregorian chant in our services. As a child, I was fascinated and awed by the space inside the communion rail, where Father celebrated the Mass. We had the consecrated Bread, the Blessed Sacrament, kept in a tabernacle on the altar, which required everyone to genuflect when we passed in front of it. I attribute the crap condition of my knees today at least partially to a devout High Anglican childhood.

It wasn’t lost on me even as a kid that while only Father went into that special sacred space right in front of the altar and its tabernacle and celebrated the Mass, the altar guild ladies routinely went there every Saturday to clean and prepare for the Sunday liturgy. I saw them on Saturdays in Lent when I went round to church for Stations of the Cross. I think those Saturday morning Stations were held mainly for the benefit of the elderly ladies who didn’t want to be out late on Wednesday evenings, when our main Lenten services were held, but they attracted a small group of kids, too. Except for me, most of those kids had grandmothers in the altar guild, but it was actually a social thing for us, and a religious thing, too. We liked our Stations of the Cross.

Nowadays you couldn’t get me to sit through a service of Stations, let alone stand or walk in procession and genuflect when you’re supposed to. But I have never lost my feeling for having sacred space. What a sacred space looks and feels like, for me, has a lot more to do with my childhood church than with casting a circle. You must light candles. You must burn incense. You must have images of sacred things and prayers that you say regularly before those images.

Having a shrine to the holy powers in my home was not an idea I learned from paganism. I did it spontaneously as a teenager, without any particular example of it in my tradition. I had a statue of Kuan Yin doubling as the Virgin Mary, a plain cross, a candle to light. I sat in bed and said the Daily Office morning and evening facing that very simple shrine. It was not a hard transition from icons of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints to print-outs of pictures of Antinoan statues, and images of gods and ancestors.

My shrine occupies the mantel of the fireplace in my apartment and the far end of my dining table, which is lined up underneath the mantel. It includes, among other things, a thangka of the Medicine Buddha, holy cards of Jesus and Julian of Norwich, several buddha statues, the six-pointed star symbol of the Tetrad++, and a triptych of Antinous that I made myself with my dormant art skills, such as they are. On the lower level are pictures of my grandmother and great-aunt, rocks, feathers, and seashells, my lararium plaque, a blue scarab from the museum store. Here I light candles, burn incense, say prayers, and make offerings of milk, water, wine, hot tea, and food. Sometimes I light a candle before Antinous and let it burn through the night, so that if I wake up, I see his face illuminated and remember his presence.

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Aromatherapy, or something

It’s amazing how the smell of Morningstar Lotus incense lifts my mood. When I first began to use it, I didn’t really like the scent; I found it soapy yet cloying. Now, two years later, it makes me feel happy. It’s not so much that the scent has changed in my perception as that the associations have: I burn it as an offering to Antinous. Its floral odor reminds me of the red lotus that belongs to the god, of prayers recited, of moments when I have felt his presence and care.

I have a triptych with three images of Antinous that I made with my own hands, using pictures printed out from the internet. I have photographs of my grandmother, my great-aunt, my grandfather. I have quite a few greeting cards with images by Robert Lentz, iconographer and Franciscan brother; there are usually one or two on my altar, as there are now. I also have a series of greeting cards with collages of the Earth Astrology calendar months; I forget now where the Earth Astrology system comes from, but the images of North American birds, plants, beasts, and reptiles remind me to pay attention to my environment, the land and the sky and the weather right here.

I have a few little statues of deities and a plaque that looks like terra cotta which is based on a famous Roman lararium. Bring it all together with some candles and crystals, oh, and the symbol of the Tetrad++ mounted on pink construction paper, and I have a shrine, a little space of sacredness in my tiny, crowded apartment. I eat, sleep, dress and undress, watch movies, play Angry Birds, and get online in the presence of my shrine.

I do spend a lot of time online. Before I discovered pagans and polytheists online, I discovered fanfic and fandom. I’ve made many friends at the other end of an internet connection. I’ve shared hundreds of short stories with online readers. I’ve blogged about some of the best and worst things in my life. (High on the best list: My birds, past and present. High on the worst list: The stomach flu that laid me flat for a full week around this time last year.) I joined two druid organizations I first discovered online. I undertook nine months of magical training that I wouldn’t have known were available had I not been willing to join a particular mailing list on Yahoo. I wouldn’t be a devotee of Antinous if I hadn’t discovered his cultus online.

But if hanging out online were all there is to my religion, I don’t think the smell of that lotus incense would mean so much to me. My online life is part of my social life; it’s part of my devotional life; it’s an important outlet for my creative life. But it’s not the whole. Prayers are said, offerings are made, rituals are carried out on feast days, and the god is present to me. Likewise I do have local friends that I see face to face, though not as often as I would like to–but I work two jobs, and so do some of them.

Online friendships with people of common interests, online fiction I can read free because it’s fanfic, online pictures of cute birds have all enriched my life enormously. So I don’t quite know what to think when I see people apparently get online expressly in order to make blog posts or comments on other blogs to the effect that the online pagan/polytheistic/blogging network is meaningless to them. It feels a bit like those posts on Tumblr where people just have to tell the world why they don’t like a particular ship. No one’s forcing anyone to read Sherlock/Molly or Steve/Darcy. And no one’s forcing anyone to participate in blogging, commenting, Facebooking, or what have you. No one *can* force anyone. Perhaps those people should shut down the computer and go light some incense that makes them feel good because it connects them to their gods.