Stepping Back Is Important

Our communities are groups that exist in silos of vocabulary, norms and expectations, theology, doctrine(s), and practice(s).

Often, when someone describes ler practice from a framework I don’t quite recognize or understand, I try to separate my feelings of bafflement from what is actually in front of me. When we don’t do that, simple misunderstandings can quickly devolve into bitter things that help no one.

An example might be the idea of brides or spouses of a God. Many people are envious or angry or offput that someone might use a term like that because it brings up a lot of baggage in others’ minds — first among them being that someone may be claiming exclusive worth, privilege, and access. This, in my opinion, is usually not the case — ritual and religious experience are a lot like poetry, a genre I have been writing in for decades. In all of them, one is working with — and sometimes committing to — symbols within a specific frame of reference that is neither too constrained nor too broad, and the context matters a lot.

Recognizing that others’ minds are different, I think, is the important bit that leads to civility. Barring (very occasional) critical mental health emergencies or someone who is actually trying to build a cult, most people who decide to formalize a devotional relationship of any kind are just doing a thing for themselves that they might occasionally mention in public or network with other people about, especially if religious activities take up a larger chunk of their lives than average.

I know (because I’m a librarian and we know the most random things) that practices like this are found around the world. Human relationship analogies and metaphors are also a mainstay of devotional poetry dating back quite far across many cultures, often accompanying other markers like artwork that is designed to pull one into a devotional gaze and the like. It is unsurprising that something like it is developing in pockets within [the place commonly called] the West today — admittedly among very decentralized practitioners who are (often) still working out and debating the framework.

When I first learned about that kind of devotional commitment, I had to take a step back. A long step back. “This sounds edgy,” I remember thinking, in the same way I said the word edgy when my middle sister decided to pierce her eyebrows with safety pins even though she has a metal allergy. (Yes, she was also wearing Hot Topic pants with the chains. Yes, her eyes swelled shut. It was edgy. It was 2005.) I read a bit more and calmed down because I started to read behind the words to see what the conceptual space was like. It was still strange to me, but I noted it all as an extant thing and moved on, no further inquiry required.

A commitment to a God like that is something that, to be honest, I would never do — not because I’m afraid of an oath, but because the ways I relate to Gods with whom I do above-baseline devotional activity is not charged with any romantic analogies. Sometimes with Apollôn, I call him my chorister because I like the imagery, and I’m a poet who has done some music (flute/voice) in my life. I am one of many poets who is very committed. With Hermês, I often write poems that include things related to linguistics, language, information science, and conlangs — with Athênê, I often focus on her role in academia, in philosophy, her strategic prowess, and how she relates to women’s activities.

You can see this in the word choice in 99.9% of my poems — I jump straight from chastely affectionate vocabulary/context to describing a God’s offices to physics and cosmology without anything in between. My devotional poetry for Apollôn is even intimate, but I still don’t bring in some kinds of imagery. Here are three lines from a 35-line poem I wrote that is not on the Internet:

I am pulled back into the heart of myself like strings
shocking expanses of air into note and overtone
this body like a focal point of pitted glass while still

The above, by contrast, is organic — I know the feel of the words, imagery, and concepts, and I know what to do with them when describing things that cannot be stated directly. Organic is different for each of us — someone without my background would not necessarily have images like this woven into ler mind.

Over the past month, after reading a lot of Late Neoplatonism, I came wonder if intense devotion for a specific deity may not need any formalized approach at all — if that just gets in the way of the rawer thing that is beyond words. There are certain things that just are about relating to [a specific God] whether I consciously acknowledge them or not. Words can become problems even as uttered, even if a term is correct. Proclus, for example, says he belongs to Athênê in one of his hymns. He means what he says. Words of ownership, especially when translated into English and read by someone in America, contain centuries of violence when they’re uttered or written. These layers of baggage, usage, and otherness can hide the essence of what one is trying to communicate or even what one is trying to understand.

Then again, arguably all ritual involves consciously enacting/participating in an image of divine principles using the theology, ritual, myth, and other resources that come from the wellsprings that the Gods have given us. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if others do not see the essence of them as long as the people who worship the Gods do.

Ultimately, in theory, I suppose I could get defensive about people who choose to use different language from me, just as others might about the language I use (when I say anything at all — there are 32 other lines of that poem, after all). It just doesn’t seem that productive.

Finally, I’ll just note that I chose the example intentionally. I got to thinking about this entire situation after reading Columbine’s excellent post, “Community ≠ Competition,” over at the Treasury of Apollôn. Essentially, competitive feelings — especially when they turn into devotional comparison fights — are harmful, both to the person at the source of them and the bystanders around lim. I value and enjoy everything the Treasury posts, even if we have some doctrinal, vocabulary, and outlook differences — they’re a great follow.

What she said got me thinking about this “controversy” that I saw years ago — something I assume is still ongoing (because is there ever an Internet argument or feud that ends — Gods, I’m tired)? — and the aftermath online.

We’re all in this together, even if we choose not to see it.


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