Absolute attention is prayer

•August 3, 2016 • 4 Comments

“I suppose that the only prayer – reached only after all pleas for grace or for some specific gift have been uttered and laid aside – is, ‘Give me to be in your presence.’…. Simone Weil says, ‘Absolute attention is prayer.’ And the more I have thought about this over the years, the truer it is for me. I have used the sentence often in talking about poetry to students, to suggest that if one looks long enough at almost anything, looks with absolute attention at a flower, a stone, the bark of a tree, grass, snow, a cloud, something like revelation takes place. Something is “given,” and perhaps that something is always a reality outside the self. We are aware of God only when we cease to be aware of ourselves, not in the negative sense of denying the self, but in the sense of losing self in admiration and joy.” (May Sarton)

Just a passage I wanted to share with you all, from Sarton’s wonderful Journal of Solitude. This is in many ways the heart of devotional polytheism (and perhaps mysticism too) as I see it, and something that it seems hard for many people to grasp. I have said over and over “it is not about us” but this shows why – only in fully devoting our attention to the Other can we truly apprehend it.

Gods Before Humans

•July 20, 2016 • 21 Comments

Alright, I need to jump into the fray here, because I’m really sick of the perspective of the solitary mystic being the ONLY perspective that isn’t validated or honored by the so-called Social Justice Warriors. I could identify as a non-binary-gendered, multi-racial, differently-abled, neuro-divergent, polyamorous asexual and be lauded and supported, but I cannot simply say: My priorities lie with the gods rather than with other humans and the social constructs they have created – without being told I must accept someone else’s definition of my actions.

Let’s deconstruct this recent post about privilege (oh noooooo, privilege, we must disown our privilege, distance ourselves from it, beat ourselves up over it, gods forbid we actually utilize it, recognize and appreciate the fact that we are privileged enough – through no doing of our own – to be able to turn our attention largely to the spiritual over the mundane world). And let’s set aside the extreme irony of a white cis hetero male telling the rest of us that “there is no such thing as a non-political space” for us, as if he has any idea what it’s like to be me, as if he can dictate my experience of the world. As if my various culturally-recognized labels define who I am, how I see the world, and how I must act in relation to it.

Now, to a degree, I get what he’s saying here – if you define “political” very broadly, then pretty much anything that involves other humans can be labeled as political. But here’s the thing – MY SPIRITUALITY DOESN’T INHERENTLY INVOLVE OTHER HUMANS. My relationship with the gods is between me and Them, and it would exist, pretty much unchanged, even if I spent the rest of my life completely alone on the top of a mountain without ever seeing another human being (and don’t arguments like these make me long for that life even more).

I get it – that’s not the experience of most pagans or polytheists, and from what I’ve seen, most people see “religion” as a social thing, with a little spirituality thrown in (after all, I’ve seen people leave a religion due to lack of community, which to me seems ridiculous – the gods are still there, and that’s what matters). But in every religion, there have always been mystics, individuals entirely consumed by their religious practice, often operating in total isolation, but considered to be important if not essential to the functioning of the religion at large even by the average worshipper. They have the “luxury” (some might say, privilege) of focusing entirely on the spiritual entities and practices of that tradition, so that those forces are being properly honored and attended to and the rest of the population can have a lesser degree of participation and still benefit from that right relationship being maintained.

So I’m not going to speak for anyone else, but for me, as one of these solitary mystics, my religion is not political. Here’s how that plays out in response to some of the points in that post:

“Politics is about power: who gets to use it and when and how.  Politics is how we decide who has power … and who doesn’t.” See, this is about people, and human society. Take that out of the equation, and the only issue of power between myself and the gods is that They have immense power, and I ultimately only have power over my own actions and thoughts. And I’m fine with that. I trust Them. I am even happy to give some of my power over myself into Their hands. I honor and stand in awe of Their power, the power of birth and death and liberation and pain and growth and love. I don’t have to struggle against that power or resent it (an extremely childish approach to the gods I see often from the very political crowd), because it’s not a question of some other, equally limited human trying to assert their will over mine for selfish reasons, it’s just the nature of existence – no more political than the reality that I can’t lift a mountain or turn back time.

“When politics is understood in this way, then it’s easier to see that there is really no place or zone that is free of politics.” Yes there is – any place that is free of humans is free of politics. And that is, primarily, where I encounter my gods.

“Both inner work and external activism are political.  Being political isn’t just about working to change the world; it’s also about working to change ourselves too.” Plenty of inner work has nothing to do with other people, or at least not social groups of them. If I work on, say, being in the present moment more (a key practice of one of the major world religions, by the way, this doesn’t just apply to polytheism), what does that have to do with politics, or privilege, or labels of self-identification, or any of that? I can be present just as well in the middle of a forest (actually, much more easily, because other humans are constantly trying to remind me of the past or the future, which are primary concerns of politics).

“But if you think you’re not being political when your praying to your gods, then you’re deluding yourself.  Think about it … What are you praying for?  Are you asking for help to make the world a more just and peaceful place?  Or are you only praying for more divine favors for yourself, to keep what you have, and get more for yourself?” Well first of all, I don’t pray FOR things every time I pray. Prayer is not just gimme, gimme, gimme. Prayer is exaltation, and gratitude, and love. That is something that devotional polytheists take to heart, and everyone else seems to keep misunderstanding.

But okay, sometimes I do ask my gods for things. And yes, they are mostly for myself and my close loved ones. Because honestly, I don’t think prayers for world peace make a bit of difference. It’s too broad a concept, too many variables involved outside the direct control of even the gods. (And if I do ask for help to do my part in making a social change I want to see happen….well, isn’t that for my own benefit too? It’s hardly altruistic.) But if it’s political to pray for the larger culture, and it’s political to ignore the larger culture in one’s prayers because one has different priorities or doesn’t think it’s practical, then you’ve just defined all of human existence and every possible choice or action as political and it becomes entirely meaningless.

As a mystic, my biggest, most deeply felt prayer is usually “Let me know You better.” How the fuck is that political?

“And what about our gods?  Do yours gods bear an uncanny resemblance to you?” I am so sick of hearing this. THE GODS ARE NOT PEOPLE. They do not “look” like anything, actually. They do not have corporeal form. They can appear as anything They want. So yeah, sometimes Dionysos – as experienced by His worshippers – is a dark-haired, bearded, Mediterranean man, who looks vaguely like me because I also have Mediterranean heritage. But He is perfectly capable of coming as a dark-skinned child or a trans woman or any other race, gender, age, etc. And sometimes, maybe much more often, He is a bull. He is a panther. He is cool green ivy. He is blood, or wine. He is fire. He is a heart-rending ecstatic FORCE with no physical appearance whatsoever. None of these things look like me, none of them look human, HE IS NOT HUMAN.

I did not decide what my god looks like, and outside of the spiritual meaning His guises can convey, I don’t care what He looks like. I was not drawn to Dionysos, or any of my gods, because They do, or do not, resemble my personal characteristics or those of my social group (hell, most of my spirits are known only to me, so that really takes other people out of the equation). I didn’t make a political choice. It has nothing to do with the power structures between humans. I would have the exact same religion were the rest of society to completely change, or completely disappear. THAT is what I mean when I say that my religion is not political, and that for me, gods come before humans. Now, what privileged, socially-oriented so-called radical is going to come tell me I’m wrong about my own self-identification and my own priorities?

Types of Offerings

•July 19, 2016 • 1 Comment

So the other day I was thinking about the types of offerings we make to the gods and spirits – not the specific things themselves, but more the general categories, and why we select what we do. Here are the themes I came up with – I figure it’s kind of a handy reference when one is trying to come up with an appropriate offering, and I’d also like to hear if anyone has additions. These are not discrete categories – an offering might easily overlap several of these.

TANGIBLE OFFERINGS (actual, physical items)

  • something you love and want, and don’t want to let go of (given not only because of the preciousness of the item, but because the loss to yourself is significant)
  • something that is expensive or difficult to procure (given because of the effort involved)
  • things They like in general or are traditionally held to be sacred to Them (roses for Aphrodite, wine for almost any Greek deity, etc.)
  • things that have significance between you and Them specifically (i.e., due to personal UPG and experience, not necessarily applicable to any other worshipper)
  • things They request specially on a certain occasion (via divination, oracle, omen or other communication)
  • things that have inherent power, at least within your tradition (blood, water, fire)
  • a piece of whatever you have (sharing your meal, tithing a portion of your income)
  • something you make or create just for Them (a poem, a cake, a painting)

INTANGIBLE OFFERINGS (actions, energy, etc.)

  • something you do because it’s Their area of interest (performing magic with Hermes, forging a tool with Hephaistos, caring for animals for Artemis)
  • something you do to help Their other devotees (either collectively, such as putting up an online resource to share information, or individually, such as counseling a fellow devotee in need)
  • something you do because it’s difficult (fasting, elaborate ritual, certain taboos)
  • something you do to learn more about Them (reading, research, learning more about Their field of interest)
  • something you do because it keeps Them in your mind (wearing devotional jewelry, saying prayers at certain times, etc.)

Garbage In, Garbage Out

•July 7, 2016 • 8 Comments

“This is why purity is so important. This is why it’s so vitally crucial that we carefully choose what we read, what we watch, to what we expose ourselves (and it’s a choice we each have to make for ourselves, not one that should be dictated by any external authority). When we feed ourselves with words and art saturated with the Gods, it builds worlds in our minds. If we’re not careful, we can let in anything at all indiscriminately and that also builds worlds within our minds, polluted ones, rather than the worlds hospitable to our Gods and dead. These things matter and it’s an area that we alone control. What are we going to nourish in ourselves? What kind of landscape are we going to create within ourselves – one that nourishes the holy or one diametrically opposed to it? That is what religious purity is: creating worlds within ourselves hospitable to our Gods and spirits, and it’s important.” (Galina Krasskova)

This is definitely important for everyone who honors the gods, but it is especially vital for religious specialists, and unfortunately requires a lot of careful discernment and vigilance in our modern society. There are so many potential distractions, 24/7, most of which are not conducive to a holy state of mind. And if you’ve got a religious vocation, you know that it’s not enough just to have your mind and body pure during ritual – even if you do a lot of ritual – not only because ideally you want to be doing the Work all the time, but also because everything you do and are on a daily basis feeds into the Work and what you can give to the gods and spirits. Garbage in, garbage out. It’s really that simple.

Around the time I first got called to be a spirit-worker (after many years as a devotee and pursuing less all-encompassing Work), I would typically relax by watching, reading and doing the most soulless, meaningless, mundane things. I figured that everyone needs a break, especially after Work this demanding, and it didn’t do me any real harm to occasionally indulge in some guilty pleasures. But I was wrong. Over time, the spirits urged me to give up more and more of those things – not to give up relaxation (in fact, They are generally more likely to insist on me getting some down time than I am), but to change the ways I enjoyed that relaxation. To disengage from the mundane world of modern, materialistic, spiritually bereft human society (note that is not the same as the physical, tangible, natural world, which is important to stay connected to). To resist the appeal of distraction, and to find ways to make everything part of my path, even how I take a break.

As I began to cull things from my life that did not support this mindset, I found that I was attracted to them less and less. In fact, I became rather repelled by them and could start easily seeing them as the miasma they are. I no longer even wanted to get near them. It’s hard to see a speck of dirt on a filthy window – much more noticeable once the glass is clean and clear.

Even so, I find it’s a good practice to check in with myself regularly and examine all the influences in my life, all the noise and images I let into my mind, and see what builds up my spiritual core, and what might be depleting it. This doesn’t have to lead to a monkish existence or totally eschewing modern life. I still watch some television shows, and go grocery shopping, and surf the internet. I still chill out with a few drinks and snack food and watch kids’ movies to unwind. But there is, underneath the surface at all times, an awareness, an evaluating eye, a mindfulness – exactly the opposite of the headspace that our culture promotes. It has made me a better spirit-worker, brought me closer to my gods and spirits, and given me a certain amount of clarity that is desperately hard to come by these days.

I realize I have discussed this topic before, but I think it’s an important one to revisit periodically and remind ourselves of.

A Different Kind of Closeness

•June 22, 2016 • 13 Comments

The following is something that came up again for me during the aforementioned Bacchic retreat, and I decided I should probably talk about it here (even though it’s difficult, being a very personal matter) in case it resonates with anyone else who is struggling with something similar.

When we think of communion with a deity, many of us tend to think of it in the same terms as we would intimacy with a person. We want to feel that connection with another individual. We want to know Them on a deeper level, and have Them know us, our true hearts. We want to experience, for even a moment, that sense of being together in the same place, face to face.

And this is where we can let our expectations prevent us from an actual closeness with the gods. Because what if the god doesn’t come with a human face, or any face at all? What if the god comes as a rhythm, or a holy name, or the scent of the woods at night, or the pure force of desire, or any number of things we might not recognize if we’re looking for something familiar? And what if, when the god comes, you don’t feel Them near you at all, the way you would a person, but only experience the effects of Their divine presence?

Because here is the thing about me and Dionysos: He is the great Loosener, the Liberator, and as attested by ancient epithet (θυρεπανοίκτης), the Opener of the Door. And I am, above all other things, a door for the spirits (well, my spirits in particular). So what happens when I am taken up by Dionysos, when He gets inside my very heart and soul and opens me up, in a way more intimate than any other contact I could imagine? Well, others make good use of that opening up. I find myself suddenly much closer to my Husband, to my other spirits. I can see and hear Them more clearly, I may even have rapturous communion with Them. But, almost never with Dionysos Himself.

For many years, this frustrated and even devastated me. Where was Dionysos? Where was the wine-soaked, ivy-wrapped, bull-headed man-like Person I was invoking and inviting with my prayers and dancing and offerings? Why didn’t He ever appear when I called out to Him with my usual refrains of “Hail, Opener of the Door!” and “Lusios, release me!” Clearly something was happening, because each time, either immediately or soon thereafter, I would have a direct experience with my spirits or receive inspiration related to Them. But Dionysos, it seemed, never came.

And then I realized I was an idiot. (Not the first time.) That I had, in fact, been failing to recognize the very real communion with the god that had been happening all along. Because what could create more closeness than the full Force of this awesome god of liberation entering into me and pushing aside all my blocks, everything that prevents me from being a clear conduit and clutters up the doorway? How could I ask for a greater intimacy than to have Him lay bare all my vulnerability and make it into something beautiful and meaningful? What greater union than to have Him see me for what I truly am, to recognize that door for the spirits and help strengthen it, and in return… well, it took much too long, but finally I recognized, in return, His true self as well. And it wasn’t bull-headed or dark-eyed or drunken or any of the masks that reveal only those parts we can easily conceive of and put shape and name to. The opening – even though it was an opening meant to let in others, and not Him – the act of opening was the communion. It was the revelation of the god. It was what I had been looking for all along.

And it had been happening for pretty much my whole life. Dionysos first came to me just before my spirits did, back when I was 13 years old. And looking back over the years of devotional practice and spirit-work since, a clear pattern emerged – every time I did a major ritual for or had a significant experience with Dionysos, a breakthrough with my spirits would immediately follow.

That’s not to say I never have the kinds of more familiar or recognizable experiences of divine union with my god. But those seem to come unexpectedly, often outside of a formal ritual context, and entirely on His schedule, not mine.

So when, after the intense and beautiful and ecstatic Dionysian ritual at the retreat, I found myself surrounded not by a sense of Dionysos but by my spirits (so strongly They could be felt tangibly at times, and bearing difficult but powerful messages that I needed to hear), I didn’t waste time being disappointed. His presence had undeniably saturated everything, for all of us, the entire weekend, which was truly lovely – but when I called to the god that night, at the edge of the thundering waves, He came the way I really wanted. The way that gets into the deepest part of me. The way that challenges me and breaks me, and makes me what I am. And that makes me His.

“I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” (C.S. Lewis)


•June 15, 2016 • 11 Comments

I just spent a long weekend at a coastal retreat with seven other devotees of Dionysos (amongst many other gods). It was an incredible experience and there is much to process, but one thing that stood out for me was how amazing it felt to be surrounded by people making offerings to their gods. Building up shrines of found materials for Hermes. Pouring entire bottles of wine into the waves for Dionysos. Giving thanks to the spirits of place with stones and flowers and, yes, more wine. And not only our collective offerings, but those that were done by individuals quietly, privately, off to the side, just glimpsed on the way to something else I was doing.

When I came back home, I found myself energized by this and wanting to make even *more* offerings. Pouring out the last of my wine for Dionysos instead of drinking it all. Picking some tiny wildflowers and setting them before His shrine. Thanking Hermes for the smooth and safe journey with some coins.

Sure, I make offerings fairly often, but I hadn’t noticed that a bit of lethargy had seeped into my practice in this one area, and it felt so amazing to be revitalized in my desire to give more and more to my gods. It’s not just that the gods are deserving, are awe-inspiring, which of course They are… and it’s not just that I want to keep up my end of the kharis built between us, though of course I do. This is just pure unadulterated giving, giving because I need to express my devotion and love.

And I noticed, too, not for the first time, how much more present the gods feel when we give to Them tangibly, visibly. When we surround ourselves with offerings to Them. Part of that may be the very real effect of Them drawing closer to receive the gifts. Another aspect, I suspect, is the psychological one – by laying out physical items for Them, we reaffirm to our subconscious that They are real, just as real as the objects we are giving to Them.

So, give.
Give to your gods.
Give Them everything you can.
Give Them tangible offerings.
Give when you are feeling enraptured by Their presence.
Give when you are not feeling Their presence at all.
Give when you need, and give to show gratitude, and give for no reason at all.
Give big, as big as you can, as often as you can.
Give together with others who know your gods, and be inspired by the gifts of others.
Give alone, just you and Them, where no one else will see.

Io Dionysos!

Super-Local Polytheism

•June 1, 2016 • 10 Comments

I have been glad to see in recent years a greater awareness of the concept of local-focus polytheism – that we should be orienting our religious practice to the place in which we live. This can take the form of getting to know the nearby landwights, researching historical figures and events that might warrant spiritual recognition (such as hero cultus, commemorative festivals, etc.), melding religious observances with community celebrations, identifying local aspects of European gods (e.g., several American devotees have met a Buffalo Dionysos), even simply caring for the holy or numinous places in one’s region (cleaning up the riverbank, planting trees, etc.).

I have lived in my current city for 10 years now. I have done all of these things and more here – ironically it was only when I moved across the country that I really started paying attention to my environment, having been more oblivious to it and focused on a romanticized idea of Greece in my earlier years as a Hellenic polytheist. I have applied my polytheistic outlook to my bioregion of Cascadia – with focal points including the Oregon coast, the McKenzie River, the Lava Lands, and as far north as the beaches and rainforests of Washington – and more narrowly to my part of the southern Willamette Valley, and the city of Eugene with its many numinous parks and wooded areas, the river, the buttes, and the magical streets and alleys of downtown.

But recently, the gods and spirits have been nudging me toward what I might call a super-local form of practice. And it’s been somewhat of a revelation for me. After all, a person in ancient times – or even 100 or 200 years ago – would rarely if ever have travelled through their entire bioregion, or even as far as we might go just on a day trip by car. And even today, if I were living in a rural area with my own house and land, I would likely pay much more attention to my property and its immediate vicinity, and the spirits living there, than I would to land several miles away. So I started to apply this principle to my current home in an apartment in the city.

Instead of making longer treks out to the wetlands or the buttes (at least two miles away) whenever I want to connect with local nature spirits, I have been spending more time in the ash wood just down the street from me. Within a very small area, there is a wide variety of wildlife, natural features, and surprisingly vibrant spirits (considering it is bound on all sides by human activity). Each time I visit, and leave offerings, and perform small bits of magic, I bind myself more to that place, and further open the veil between the worlds there, making an already numinous spot even more powerful.

Instead of walking all the way downtown or beyond to seek out the wonderful urban treasures of this city in honor of Hermes, I have been exploring my neighborhood, the parts I never went to, off the beaten path. There is so much history here, and so much of it appropriate to Hermes in some way – the unearthed trolley tracks, the marker for our city’s first college – as well as tons of little hidden gems, like the backyard facing an alley where someone accumulated several antique phone booths all together, or the Little Free Libraries scattered along the streets. And each time, again, that I leave offerings for the god in one of these places, I strengthen that spot as holy.

One interesting experiment They guided me to involved printing out two maps. The first shows the entire city, with a circle drawn about a mile in diameter around my house, then ever-widening concentric circles beyond that. The second enlarges that smallest circle around my house so that more detail is shown, with further circles inserted within, down to the smallest with a diameter representing a few blocks. Then I thought about every place I have felt a strong numinous presence in, every place I have visited multiple times to interact with the spirits, and I marked these places on the maps. It was very interesting to see where they fell, how many were actually miles away from me, and likewise how many were clustered more closely to my home. It also helped me visualize which ones were at the same relative distance.

While I haven’t entirely abandoned those places and spirits that are located in the outer circles, I have been paying much more attention to the ones in that smallest inner circle, and it’s really changing my whole experience of where I live, even when I’m just sitting in my apartment – I can feel the web of connections spreading out in all directions. I have a better sense of my most immediate spiritual landscape. When I walk to work, or to the store, or to the flea market (I walk everywhere, having no car), I note the spiritual significance of all the places I’m passing, think about the rituals I have done there, and I seem to be generally just more aware of the spirits everywhere than I was before.

I encourage others to try out this approach, especially those of you living in urban environments where it can sometimes be challenging to connect with the spirits. Resist the urge to spend all your spiritual energy in the most beautiful, obvious natural places and see what you can discover within just a few blocks of your home. You may be surprised, and whatever spirits you encounter may be quite pleased to be acknowledged. It will also help root you more in the place you actually are, and in the present moment as well, both of which are essential to a strong spiritual foundation.