Worship and the Punishment Mindset

Recently, while checking to make sure that my scheduled posts were working properly on the account that spews out (slightly modified for length in some cases) passages from The Soul’s Inner Statues with a few sleek quotations from (mostly) Platonists, I saw a TweetDeck notification that someone had quote-tweeted one of the tweets, which comes from Chapter 4: Gods (in the front text before the sections):

It is not necessary to worship every single God every day (that would be impossible), just as one cannot be friends with every human being in the world or every sentient being in the cosmos. Most people only have the bandwidth for worshipping a few, and that’s okay.

The full passage is this:

It is not necessary to worship every single God every day (that would be impossible), just as one cannot be friends with every human being in the world or every sentient being in the cosmos. Beyond worshipping the household Gods and divinities, and perhaps doing ancestor worship on auspicious days for such activities, most people only have the bandwidth for a handful of Gods and divinities before their attention is too scattered to have a deep and meaningful practice. The Soul’s Inner Statues is focused on breaking down the steps to work towards a manageable, meaningful practice, so this chapter approaches embarking on that in chunks through steady, sustained habit change.

Keeping the number of Gods limited at first helps you settle into a concise prayer routine, and it allows for mindful expansion of your practice if you judge that expanding it is important to you. Billions of people around the world pray for only a few minutes a day. The most important thing, and the hardest, is showing up.

This passage has a very concrete goal because one of the biggest things I have noticed over the years — beginning in college, actually — is that many people just don’t worship at all. They think of it as an activity that requires enormous amounts of activation energy or are overwhelmed by the choices that they could be making … or see worshipping Gods as something tied to their current zeitgeist involvement when this is ideally a lifelong-and-beyond practice that will weather every change in their outlook.

It’s better to get started than to not do anything at all. Recently, I’ve seen the same “start now, whatever that means for you” mindset in some YouTube video lectures I’m watching from Buddhist monks (in this case, reminiscent of the Stoic reflections on death) while cleaning or resting/recovering in my apartment — we don’t know how much time in life we have. You could die tomorrow. If our spiritual development is to be a priority, start now. When giving spiritual guidance to others, putting up artificial barriers does not help others get started or even to figure out what type of practice is sustainable as a daily effort for them. If the goal is to get people worshipping for life, through all of its ups and downs, we need to have realistic expectations about what a person or family can do with all of the demands of work, household maintenance, health changes, and so on. Even if someone shifts stuff around to make spirituality a higher priority, life happens.

The one who quote-tweeted it had an issue with that guidance. For a bit, I was like, “yeah, sure, whatever, weird misread” and could easily dismiss that with a bit of at-the-ready theology. I do have some empathy, though, and I know that this is a concern (read everything above!) for a variety of people, both newcomers to worshipping Gods and those who have been at it for a while. It can also be tricky to puzzle through from a theological standpoint. Some (including past-me, for a while) have an instinct that they need to be the pillar lifting up the worship of all Gods, every God, due to hegemonic destructions of many-Gods worship. A person may even come to identify themselves (overmuch) with a specific historical people and situation despite not having any tangible connection to it other than loving the same Gods and then feel as if they’re the sole thing that can “save” the worship of said Gods for the present.

This is only going to lead to spiritual burnout. Spiritual burnout does not help you in the long run. Be open to worshipping Gods, yes, but the ones who make up the core part of your practice are not likely to be numerous unless you come into an enormous inheritance and can afford to spend every moment of your life actively in ritual.

This was not the reason the person was aghast at the advice. Rather, my original tweet was dangerous because there are documented moments in myth in which someone is punished for not worshipping a deity. Someone being punished in a myth by Artemis for not worshipping her was cited. This is, admittedly, common in Greek dramas. The opposite of what they mentioned, the story of Hippolytus, involves a guy who is extremely attached to Artemis wanting to avoid marriage and worshipping Aphrodite because he wants to protect his purity — he is worried about a loss of contact with the deity he adores and about an oath he made. In the myth’s temporal location, marriage was an expectation and an obligation for (almost) everyone, especially the upper classes that needed to ensure a lineage in their social structures. Things are different in our culture — plenty of people don’t want to have sex and/or get married. The same oath today, at least in most US cultures, would not be an issue.

This type of worship anxiety is an anxiety about timing — whether or not worshipping x God is situationally appropriate — and a fear of making omissions that leave the ritual incomplete, lacking. People worry about consequences. (I sometimes wonder if this is because so many are converting from retributive religions, like some Christian sects.) Sometimes, people even fall into a trap in which historical sources, plays, and other content (and their view of religion in general) become like an out-of-date TTRPG rulebook or AI decision tree. It stops being a living, breathing conversation between us as practitioners and the Gods we worship. Even people in polytheistic survivals and old revivals dating back to the (pre-?)Renaissance acknowledge that praxis and theology have changed over time in response to both the Gods and social changes in their communities.

In other words, pulling that we must actively worship every deity at all times out of a myth like that is not the lesson. Rather, it’s something similar to what Proclus discusses in his commentary on the Timaeus (Book I) during his adorable launch into a praise of Athene that goes on for pages and pages. Places, life stages, culturally-significant milestones, and so on are sacred to the Gods. They are the lot of a particular God or other according to timing (145.25), with “manifestations of [the Gods] in time, different in different places” (141.22, trans. Tarrant). It is not possible to honor every God every day, except in aggregate — as in invocations/libations for “All of the Gods” (which happens in my backup routine for when I’m sick or low-energy, alongside a brief prayer to household Gods, to a deity I’m focusing on, this year Eir, and to Apollon). So many Gods are unknown to us that we must balance our commitments.

As I said, what I’m getting at by emphasizing the limit is also sustainability. Caring for the soul’s well-being is not just about carving time out for prayer. Most of us need to work to earn money to support ourselves. We must have adequate nutrition to support our energy levels and our health and avoid excesses so we are not stopped by preventable diseases. We must manage our stress (which I am personally bad at, something I have been facing starkly over the past week) because it causes a whole range of issues when we ineffectively handle it. We must be humans with other humans, especially our families and friends. (All of these activities “have” Gods because everything is full of Gods, btw.) It’s a lot for any of us! Doing what we can sustain, even when we decide to stretch ourselves because we have a specific goal related to worship (like understanding Platonism, which requires a ton of reading and reflection, or becoming a spiritual technique specialist, which requires identifying a teacher and studying for years), is vital.

What is important? Paying attention. In The Soul’s Inner Statues, I wrote in several places that who we worship most closely can change over time. We likely have a few anchors, but otherwise, we naturally shift to Gods who preside over the stages of our lives and of the seasons (natural or social) we are entering. Someone dating may be really close to Aphrodite because they’re really hoping for that connection and spark. Happily married, they might turn more to Hera unless they have a special sense of affinity with Aphrodite, in which case their worship will likely continue in a similar intensity to what it was when they were single. Anyone managing a house will suddenly have to deal with a home and its logistics. Household Gods like Hestia, Frigg and her Handmaidens, Vesta, and so on may suddenly be very important. I didn’t worship household Gods until I was renting my own apartment and had to adult. If we don’t shift naturally, and if we aren’t in a place where we’re paying attention — yes, we may experience friction, and we may come to learn who we were missing through serendipity. Hippolytus had reached a life-stage moment in his culture when Aphrodite was supposed to become more important. The myth is over-the-top, as many myths by poets are, because they’re both instructional pieces communicating divinely-inspired seeds of truth and scandalous entertainment pieces.

The best way to handle this is the same way we handle any kind of etiquette. For people, we send thank-you cards. We make sure that the guest lists for weddings don’t overlook someone who should be there. We make an effort to be thoughtful towards others — even when not prompted — in community, keeping in mind our boundaries and where we fall on the introvert-ambivert-extrovert scale. In the context of Gods, if this bothers a worshipper, the person can add something to all of their prayers: “and to all Gods known and unknown to me who should be acknowledged, I honor you” — or something similar. Let your worship vary slightly from season to season. Figure out (as I say in The Soul’s Inner Statues!) if there are milestones, circumstances, and/or shifts in your life that necessitate modifying your rituals, including who might receive regular prayers. Actually do the exercises about finding your back-up rituals. You’ll be surprised at what you find.

This is all about applying where you are in your life through acceptance — non-grasping, non-attachment, to the world of coming-to-be that is always changing, that never is. Your practice is iterative. Don’t fall into a fixed mindset like Hippolytus, unable to integrate new life stages into your worship and steeling yourself against change with oaths that may not be sustainable. Yes, how he worshipped Artemis might have changed had he honored Aphrodite … but he’d still have honored her. I am absolutely, 100% sure that we all make time for the God(s) closest to our hearts no matter where and when we are on life’s journey.

4 thoughts on “Worship and the Punishment Mindset

  1. There’s a reason specific times are associated with specific Gods. If the Gods demanded to be worshipped all at once somehow then They wouldn’t have sacred days. I think that’s something our young folk ought to remember. The answers are built into the tradition! The Gods and our ancestors already put the groundwork down on how this works!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Oooooooo, I was JUST discussing this with my brilliant young protegee yesterday, who has a staggering list of Gods whom she feels she’s ‘neglecting’ if she doesn’t pay daily cultus to all of ’em!

    Just forwarded this whole post to her. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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