Just Do It (and other thoughts on worship)

I saw a question on Reddit over the weekend that I think merits further comment — what do you do if a God isn’t calling you? how can you still worship the Gods or know what to do when you don’t know whom you should worship? — and started thinking a bit more about it last night. It was late, and I was formatting tables and figures for an article that was due at the journal today. The article now done (YAYYYYYY!!!!!), I can relax a bit.

The Valley

It is perfectly acceptable — and important — to know that you do not need to be “called” by a God to have a polytheistic religious practice.

Fundamentally — and I have said this before, and often — I restarted my blog several years ago because a middle voice was missing, and at that time, my biggest concerns in life were related to adjusting to life as a working professional and learning how to adult. In a polytheistic sense, learning how to adult means developing a sensible ritual routine and realistic shrine space that can fit into a busy life.

A simple shrine
This is really all someone needs, and even this is a bit maximalist.

For several years in my 20s, I struggled to do daily offerings because doing that in a way that worked with my routine instead of against it without supportive, nonjudgmental guidance is not a common topic online in Neopaganism or polytheism (although it can be in books — for all of the flaws in Silver RavenWolf’s teen Wicca series, at least she gave practical advice on how to fit tiny moments of devotion into a cramped morning routine), and many of my devotional practices took a back seat. It got easier over time through trial and error.

If we were living in a polytheistic culture, the majority of us would do daily ritual, venerate a profession-related God, and celebrate holidays at most, and we would have many examples and people to go to when we wanted to know how.

The best way forward for people whose hearts are not drawing them to a specific God is to establish a solid household ritual practice that takes under 10 minutes, with a professional patron who is clearly related to whatever job that person does. Such things are enough. No guilt. Just routines. Whichever pantheon of Gods one worships, it is (usually) prudent to start household ritual by venerating the hearth or household God(s) and perhaps a professional patron who corresponds to the type of field one is in.

Some Comments on “Calling”

A major challenge in the community writ large — among recons, Neopagans, et cetera — that makes even starting to do baseline religious ritual is the idea of being chosen by a God.

John Beckett wrote a blog post that made me cringe a while ago in which he compared people who are not devotees or clergy to plumbers. That metaphor still makes my stomach tighten. I don’t dislike Beckett, but the plumber thing is a more noteworthy example of the general challenge of how to explain specialized religious work and/or devotee things without sounding condescending or overly puffed up.

What we’re actually talking about is time availability, values, priorities, and goal-setting. Even a baseline shared polytheistic value like honoring, revering, and worshipping the Gods looks different depending on how a person interprets it, the tradition le is in, and what ler life allows lim to do to revere the Gods. A medical doctor might have a small shrine to healing Gods at home where le makes offerings whenever le’s home, and le may do libations with a few other polytheist doctors at conferences. That may be fulfilling enough. It doesn’t have to be what it isn’t.

People with a lot of experience in devotional worship, ritual liturgy, and the like have made sacrifices of time and effort to become specialists in these things, and what may seem effortless from the outside certainly wasn’t in the beginning and may not even be now. Despite going “yikes” at that aforementioned plumber analogy, I acknowledge that there is some level of hierarchy in spiritual training; I’ve said before that you cannot go to a gym and bench press 400 pounds without working your way up to it, and in a religious sense, that training tends to impact future incarnations. The amount of effort and time we spend on something makes us value it more and more.

(While I would consider myself a devotee, I am not a mystic — I view myself as an applied scientist, but in a religious sense. The research protocols need to be learned and understood, the lab needs to be set up, and so on.)

In the “You Are New!” realm, new people who feel strong impulses to worship a specific God or group of Gods are highly motivated to ask many basic questions about those Gods online, to write in praise of these Gods, and/or to pursue something like clergy status. Devotees will talk — and often loudly — about extremely intimate religious experiences in a highly casual, yet reverent, way: experiences of Gods, ecstatic ritual, and so on. It can be intimidating and weird. On the other end of the spectrum, we have spiritual atheists who just like pre-Christian cultures/aesthetics and who push back against theism even in religions that are baseline theistic like ours are. (I don’t ever encounter humanistic pagans, but I’m sure one might in a Google search?) I see a lot of “yeah, okay, la dee dah, fuck you” directed at both of these groups when people in the middle feel stressed and unseen.

This can be aggravating to navigate when a person just wants a ritual template and to learn a few basic purity rules. It can create the assumption that one has to have these things and that they are statistically normal.

And then, there’s a misconception that someone is chosen by a God in the first place. My counter-position is that, generally speaking, we are the ones making the choice, even if it’s the choice to ask which God we should run after in divination or for dreams/signs. I think it’s better to assume full responsibility and agency in one’s interactions, and people who feel drawn to a God can’t just rely on UPG. Assuming one’s own agency means checking UPG against sources and preexisting knowledge and having the self-knowledge to know one’s psychological vulnerabilities. The human mind can receive the Gods or fall into delusions and deceptions like Slender Man.

“Apollôn wants/chose me” could definitely puff someone up; the critique that people just want a way to justify what they’re doing exists for a reason. It is more honest to say, “I am worshipping Apollôn because every time I engage with his myths and worship him, or when I write poetry or listen to string music, my heart swells with boundless love and happiness.” It simultaneously places control within the devotee because the devotee is the one acting and eliminates control because the focus is on erôs. People can mistake their own feelings of love for a God for the God choosing them. Love travels up ↑, not down ↓. I mean, in Iamblichus, placing oneself in the true hierarchy of beings is liberating because it clarifies expectations, enables one to learn the proper protocols, and teaches one how to distinguish between real and false experiences. There is freedom only by surrendering to the finger trap.

The real challenge is that everyone wants to feel valid in their choices.

We Are So Small

It is easy to see the sacrifices that we have made — for anything, really — and to assign an oversized importance to them, or to decontextualize them. It is easy to say, “I have done this for my God, which is more than anyone else,” and very hard to take careless words like that back.

Hubble Deep Field
Hubble Deep Field. Credit: NASA, ESA, and many fabulous scientists. Each of these specks of light is a galaxy, and you are peering back in time in layers cast in two dimensions. Just stare at it, and then hold the image of it in your mind when you close your eyes …

While writing up the citation analysis paper, I started thinking about reincarnation, the choices that we must all have made coming into our own lives, the multitude of worlds, the things Plato has Socrates say about the Gods we catch glimpses of, and so on. I visualized something that looked like the Hubble Deep Field, with life, death, and polity happening on numerous worlds. It became a grid, a pockmarked field littered with wellsprings of life — conscious, self-reflective living things easy depths that one could fall into. I thought about what would happen if one made a choice of lives in this context, the sheer number of possibilities, like a constellation of rays of possibilities for a single being radiating out, each choice refining the future choices even further, the whole pattern of them like a fingerprint unique to lim.

Later, on thinking about what I had visualized, it seems that definitions would begin at the first life when the first choices are made. It would proceed on from there like a melody or the radii of a spider’s web. Holding the cosmos in one’s mind is like witnessing a star that shines antilight.

And, following from Plato, the soul has a yearning for the God(s), and such a yearning would influence the pattern. Limiting how it moves over time to a specific planet in a specific galaxy in the Virgo Supercluster (I could go on 😁) does not make sense. Path of least resistance, am I right? A flowering of melody in a garden that is limitless. I could be a poet on a world orbiting a red dwarf in the Andromeda Galaxy or a mythographer on an ocean super-Earth.

We are insignificant in the face of that larger whole, a motion of fragmentation, possibility, reunion, and bliss. How could we trap ourselves in comparison games when confronted with something like this? We are all doing what we can in a vast sea that stretches beyond the farthest horizon we can see.

To circle back to the beginning, just start with simple offerings — incense, long-steeped tisane, wine, rhythmic words — and embrace the steadiness of prayer in small shifts.

⭕️

6 thoughts on “Just Do It (and other thoughts on worship)

  1. KISS is what i suggest to anyone asking (usually in Hellenion) about how to begin or further their practice. being quiet enough to accept guidance is really the only necessary thing, and, ironically, the thing i struggle most with lo these decades in.
    my reading, which may not be accurate, of beckett’s plumber comment was that plumbers are just as vital and integral to the community and have equal or higher standing than mantikoi or theoroi.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, KISS is so important!

      With the plumber comment, contextually, it seemed dismissive — my midsis, for example, works in HR, is taking care of two small daughters, and has to do second-shift housework because she’s married and doesn’t have a great division of labor with her husband right now. Beckett is using that analogy to refer to everyone from people whose lives are just really full like my midsis to those who choose professional careers that are not religious specializations. (She’s doing what she can to study the Eddas right now despite having all of those obligations, and she’s making small offerings to some of the Gods, which is very impressive.) That’s why I think it’s more useful to emphasize time availability, interest/goal-setting, and training.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very good point on being “chosen”- it was never the norm and it isn’t now. I’ve never felt “chosen” by the Gods I venerate. I feel like I’ve had occasional brushes with Their presence, some epiphanies that arrived out of the blue, and some serendipitous events that I credit to Them. That doesn’t mean anything beyond “I live in a world full of Gods and spiritlife”.

    Obviously, I don’t know any of that with scientific certainty. But to my mind, part of being a better polytheist is learning to accept and acknowledge that such things are happening all around us. Slipping on ice and not falling down is a miraculous blessing and gratitude should be given, but that’s not the same as being “chosen”.

    Most of the Gods, many of the spirits, and legions of the ancestors are helping humans (collectively and as individuals) all over the place at any given time. Their reasons are Their own and it falls to us to NOTICE when they’ve helped us and to give thanks without assuming that it indicates a relationship beyond Their awesomeness.

    As much as it’s important for persons who do get a serious CALL to have information to turn to, I do sometimes wish the whole “chosen by X” thing had never gotten the wide exposure it has.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, but again, people who have such experiences are louder online. There’s a selection effect towards polarization in religion just as there is in stuff like politics.

      And yup. The day I prayed to my dead maternal grandfather about a family issue, things happened that started to resolve it. I remember praying and then thinking, “Wow, he would be really pissed off by all of this,” and then the next day, I learned that things had happened to jostle the situation (and hopefully lead to a good outcome). When he was dying, I prayed to Hermês to release him easily because he was taken off of food and I didn’t want him to starve and suffer, and Hermês released him from life swiftly. It doesn’t indicate anything about chosenness, but I am grateful for the answers to such prayers. With Apollôn, things are extremely different because coming into alignment with him is like being a train that has been set back onto its rails. Still not chosenness.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “Love travels up ↑, not down ↓.”

    Yes! This!

    This is why Proclus can pray so movingly, in his hymn to Athene: “Breathe into my love a power so great and of such a kind, that it pulls me up back again from the vaults of matter to Olympos, into the abode of your Father.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes! That is a powerful hymn, very moving.

      I also like the lines “And if some grievous error in my life overpowers me / — for I know how I am buffeted by many and various unholy actions / from different sides, offences which I committed with a foolish spirit —, / be gracious, mild-counselling goddess, preserver of mortals / do not let me become prey and spoil for the horrible Punishments / lying on the ground, since I profess to belong to you” (ln. 37-42, trans. van den Berg).

      The poem is especially raw and beautiful as the love escalates into petition, especially when he says that he believes he is in her series and thus he is hers. It brings up another good point, which is that a person is technically in the series of a God or Goddess, even if le doesn’t know which one, and that there are non-weird ways of describing this natural possessive relationship. Like, if Greek or English differentiated between ownership possessives (my book) and inherent possessives (my hand), this would be much easier to tease out. 🥰

      Liked by 1 person

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