Paths Between the Pillars

prayer1-277x300I’m about to let you in on one of my dirty little secrets.

Back in high school, and even college, I was “blessed” with the ability to be good in just about any area I chose. I became very used to success: being concert master of not one but two high school orchestras, getting into the college of my choice, getting grants to fund my studies, graduating from said college (one of the Seven Sisters) magna cum laude with departmental honors. Chalk it up to my double Capricorn nature, but I love titles. If I believed in sin, this would probably be one of mine. I’m driven by a (often unhealthy) need to be the best, running at the front of the pack.

Now, at the ripe ol’ age of 32, I’ve been forced to confront that this is not the reality of my life. I do many things well, but I’m not a leader. Not any more.

I’m an awesome beta.

You need a ritual written? Let me get out my pen. You need some props for a ceremony? Hold on, I’ve got some papier mache, duct tape, and extra fabric around here somewhere. You need a divination about your job? I have my cards right here. A protection charm? Let me get my origami paper. How about an editor? I can do that, too. Let me support you in your vision, let me help you create something magical, wonderful, grand. Hel, I can even delegate on good days.

Sometimes, I’d like to think I could be a priest, maybe when I’ve grown up a little more–maybe even clergy. The question is, how much of this comes from a desire to help and serve others, and how much is because “clergy” is seen as the “terminal degree” in the land of Paganistan. (See? There’s that darned Capricorn tendency again.)  It’s a rough and ugly question to ask, but if you’re not asking it of yourself, and you’re on a cleric’s path…well, frankly, you’re not a person I’d want mediating between me and my gods. Nornoriel Lokason wrote a great piece on boundaries and belonging. The following quote particularly struck me:

It is unrealistic to expect and *demand* that everybody immolate their entire beings and become some robot-priest/ess where their entire life is about the gods. This is why there are too many people who feel inadequate as laypeople, by the way, because some folks pontificating from on high are calling for standards that would be taxing even for full-time dedicated priests, never mind Average Jane or Joe.  There’s something to be said about having a work/life balance, and the sort of devotionalism in others that inspired me some years ago now admittedly squicks me the fuck out, because it looks extremely unbalanced, unhealthily so.

That sort of fanatical, “look at meeee!” devotionalism is hurtful, not only to the attention seekers themselves, but to those who would draw inspiration from their experiences. Public displays of piety polarize Pagans and Polytheists into those who would be king, I mean, clergy, and the rest of us hoi polloi. These are not leaders elected out of love by their communities. These are self-proclaimed hierophants, whose One True Way smacks of the worst qualities of paternalistic Evangelical  Protestantism.  It’s a crying shame, because the devotional path could have been viable for the lay person, a way to be close to the gods without having to serve anyone other than oneself and maybe one’s family. That’s not the tenor of the most recent conversations, though, and it’s the reason why I break out in spots at the phrase “devotional Polytheist.” Devotion is quickly becoming the purview of so-called priests, leaving the rest of us where, precisely?

I don’t know that I can truly offer any solutions to the disease of devotion. Perhaps it’s all just semantics, but more and more “devotion” has come to mean an all-consuming obsession with the gods, to the exclusion of a balanced and healthy lifestyle. For my own practice, I use the term “veneration” or “adoration” to describe what I do. When I venerate my ancestors of blood and soul, I invite them into my life to participate in my world as it is, complete with children, pets, housemates, and neighbors. I adore my gods, experience ecstasy with my spirits, all within the container of this very real, very mundane existence.

Blogging and social media create difficulties for the ego. “Likes” and comments and followers create a subconscious popularity contest.  Self-worth becomes attached to the approval of strangers sitting on the other side of the webs of light that connect our keyboards and screens to one another. Maybe inherent nature of the blogosphere itself is one reason why again and again issues are couched in terms of either/or, black/white, chicken/fish. I’ve got to believe there’s another road between the two pillars of “priest” and “lay.”  Maybe there’s a whole highway system in there, just waiting to be discovered. We’re Pagans. We’re Polytheists. We can break the binary patterns of our mother culture and create a true plurality of belief and praxis.

There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground; there are a thousand ways to go home again. ~Rumi

Practicing Together #12

Brewer Brook Overflows

Seed thought taken from Leaning into Mystery’s “Practicing Together” weekly series.

I noticed a Cheri Huber quote that is going to be very relevant to my life over the next few months: what you practice is what you have.

This week, I invite in compassion—for myself, for my family, for my community.

Ways this could happen: I’m going to start by being kind and gentle with myself, and let things flow from there.

What went well: It’s been a while since I posted more than pictures. Several things have gone very well, including a couple of sigil commissions, some pro bono sorcery work, and figuring out what I want to do next in my career. Small stuff, really. 😉

Updates: I’m having trouble finding joy, though I am finding strength and determination. Maybe this isn’t the right season for joy right now, but I’ll keep the door open in case it wants to visit.

Words of Wisdom

This whole piece is very satisfying, but the following really hit home:

System Hubris.

SO fucking tired about hearing about how X is the real deal because it is 1) written in a renaissance grimoire 2) an African Diasporic Tradition  3) uses proper herbs and ingredients 4) doesnt use any herbs or ingredients 5) makes the best use of energetics 6) has no use for “energy” in magic … You get the idea. Pick one or make your own.

Basically if you can do something really fucking amazing repeatedly, please teleport your wizardly ass over here and shit your alchemical gold brick on my coffee table. I will accept that you really have done something well beyond what other systems are doing. Until then, I dont want to hear about how Crowley and GD are lame and get no results, but you do.

If you have to piss in someone else’s cup to make me think your water is sweet, I am not even gonna taste it.

—Jason Miller, “Things We Need to Escape the Gravity of

Fail Faster

Due to a very energetic toddler and various other life happenings, this week’s regular post is a short one.

Gordon over at Rune Soup (probably my favorite magic blog) posted this fantastic TED Talk about the benefits of trial and error—of failing faster, as Robert Kiyosaki put it. It’s something I plan on watching several more times, at least.

Enjoy!

—A.V.

 

The Cosmic Compost Heap Theory

To search for perfection is all very well, but to look for heaven is to live here in hell.

—Sting, “Consider Me Gone”

Half of the enormous compost pile in the community garden has been turned, and a good portion of it is ready for use—luscious, brown-black rotting matter, ripe for distribution. I can’t walk over to the pile without thinking, just for a moment, about the role of decay in the cycle of growth, and how this might very well be applicable to my understanding of spirituality as well.

I really like my metaphysical theories to be reflected in principles from the natural world. This is one place where I can get myself in trouble sometimes, particularly as regards common notions of reincarnation. I don’t abide by the idea that our souls are moving up and down some sort of cosmic ladder in a search for perfection. I suppose on the most basic level it violates my American values of equality for all, no matter how insignificant. Hierarchical reincarnation from what I’ve seen also tends to stem from a desire to escape the wheel, to end suffering, or something similar. I don’t believe life is pain, so this version of reincarnation really doesn’t fit my practice.

Still, I don’t think there’s an infinite supply of souls in the universe. At least in this world, there is always a finite amount of material. To borrow a bit from physics and chemistry, things are neither created or destroyed, but they do change forms. The same is true, I believe, of souls. Whatever that elusive substance that makes up the spirit (I’ll call it soul-stuff), I see no reason for it not to follow a cycle like everything else in nature, even if we do not exactly understand how that cycle itself works. I’ve dubbed this the Cosmic Compost Heap Theory, and while it is constantly being adapted as I learn and grow, its basic premise has been serving me quite well for some time.

The workings of the Great Heap can be broken down as follows. When a being dies, just as its corporeal form decomposes, so does its soul. However, just like the body’s various bits break down at different rates, so too does the soul-stuff. Think of it like a compost pile: the leafy greens break down first, but sometimes you’ll come across a banana peel or eggs shells even years later. This is how I account for past life memories, which tend to be moments of strong emotion. The soul-stuff is imprinted with the experience, and because it was so powerful it does not break down readily when re-entered into the Great Heap. Instead, such “marked” soul-stuff is passed on to the next life.

As I mentioned above, I don’t believe that reincarnation is linear, or that we’re working towards and end goal or Nirvana or the Summerlands or Halls of the Ancestors. Perhaps certain parts of our souls may be able to take a vacation there between lives, but that staying there indefinitely is unnatural. I also believe that humans are not the only ones to enjoy this rest, but is applicable to all beings.

What I love about this paradigm is that is turns the common Western “humans are at the top of the spiritual/evolutional food chain” on its head. Now there is room for the lives of grasshoppers and birches to be as sacred as those of mankind. Hopefully by the time our journey is over, we will have made heaven for ourselves and our loved ones through our words and deeds in this life.

Why wait for joy? In the end, we all return to the same basic building blocks.

—A.V.

Beltaine

The east is bright with morning light,
And darkness it is fled;
And the merry horn wakes up the morn
To leave his idle bed.

Behold the skies with golden dyes
Are glowing all around;
The grass is green, and so are the treen,
All laughing with the sound.

The sun is glad to see us clad
All in our lusty green,
And smiles in the sky as he riseth high
To see and to be seen.
William Gray

Oddly enough, I would say Beltaine is right about on time this year in New England—perhaps even a bit early!  All the signs are in place, from flora to fauna to meteorological. It’s a clear day here in central Massachusetts, after some heavy spring rains yesterday. The sun was practically begging for us to come out and play, so I packed up the Boy on my back this morning and we went for a long tour of the conservation land surrounding our community. Everything smelled wet and fresh in the woods, with the acidic tang of decomposing leaves. We had sightings of:

  • a great blue heron
  • a salamander
  • two garter snakes
  • several chipmunks
  • fresh deer droppings (although no deer)
  • first dandelion flowers
  • first skunk cabbage
  • a pair of hooded mergansers
  • peas and spinach are sprouting in the raised beds

Between the activity of the animals and the wide variety of plants popping up, I’d say that high Spring is definitely here!

Beltaine was one of the holidays that I have a harder time wrapping my head around.  In addition to the fact that I wasn’t really into the whole fertility thing back when I started working the Eight-Spoked Wheel, the hotter days are when I begin to have trouble connecting to the Otherworlds.  Beltaine marks the last time when that sort of journey work flows easily—and the last ride of the Wild Hunt as well.  This isn’t to say Otherworldly travel is now impossible, however I rely much more heavily on my guides and allies during the warmer months.

But after having struggled and trod around in circles trying to get excited for May Day, I think I’m finally starting to get it.  I started “getting it” back in college, since my school held a huge May day celebration each year, complete with a Maypole (and a Mayhole, for the feminists), hoop races, plays, music and song.  It was, in fact, the last hurrah before finals.

Now, living in co-housing, I manage to take joy in others’ bustling actives within our community, and I’m able to start losing myself in the work of tending the garden.  There’s compost to be turned and trellises to be repaired.  Beltaine marks the end of the inward times, and welcomes community activity and interaction.

So really it’s time to shed some clothes, put on some sunshine and sink our hands into the soil.

The hunt is up!

—A.V.