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Piety and Being Poor

December 24, 2013 8 comments

I have always been working poor.

When I was growing up I lived next to meth labs. Addicts walked around where we lived; I got to watch one around age 7 or 8 go through DTs on the street.  We had drug dealers with child drug mules as neighbors, one that was kiddie corner from where we lived. The police and the administration for where I lived was on the take. The cops used to watch the local would-be gangers beat the living shit out me. They would watch the local kids pile around a car, and get high as kites before getting on the bus.

During this time I was a young Catholic.  We still made time for prayer. We still went to Church. We didn’t leave our religion at the door because the neighborhood was tough; we clung to it because it helped us live.

Some years later, I was starving at one point so my son and my fiancee could eat. Our food stamps had been cut, and I was at the end of my rope trying to float enough money to make rent.  We still gave offerings. If we could not give food, we gave a cup of water. If we could not give that, either due to time or energy, we gave prayers. Always, we gave prayers. Sometimes it has been only water, sometimes it has been food we made for our family, and sometimes it has been something special I bought just for Them. Sometimes it was just a prayer at Their altar in our little apartment, sometimes it was prayers whispered while I worked a deadend job struggling in vain to make ends meet.  In every challenge in my life the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits have been there whether I recognized it or not.  The least I can do is offer my end of Gebo.

I can understand the crippling worry about money, the worry around “How will I afford this food”, “this thing”, “this sudden needed car repair”, “Will I make rent?” etc. When I starved was when our food money got cut. I have been achingly poor.  The only reason I am not there right now is because I am lucky enough to have supportive parents who are here for me regardless of disagreements we have on religion, and a job that helps to pay for the needs we have. I am lucky, damned lucky, and I get that.  My Gods’ altar was a gift, as are most of what are on the shrines and altars I have shown on this blog.  What are not gifts, are almost all bought from thrift stores.  All else was found, and when we had a little money to splurge, sometimes we bought something nice for our Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits.  The latest addition to our Watervaettir shrine, three small branches shaped to look like a tie-down for a dock with a little plastic seagull hot glued to it, cost us $0.50 while we were looking for winter clothes.  The offering glass that sits on that altar was $1 at a local garage sale we hit up while on an errand.  An altar, a shrine, or an offering need not break the bank to be a good one.

A slice of bread, a thimble of alcohol, a palm of water, a slice of apple, a small chunk of meat, puffs of smoke, a pinch of tobacco.  These are all good offerings, all given in the tightest of times.  The Gods understand suffering, They understand when we have given what we can.  So why the resistance?

We can give offerings inside our own home, or wherever we happen to be in a given moment. I have poured water onto a city street to thank the spirit of that city for helping me find my way, and alcohol onto my family tree for thanks to the landvaettir for a good home and food in my belly. If you aren’t absolutely starving and actively looking for food, and even then you can at least give a prayer, then you can give an offering.

If you can breathe well, offer breath.  Offer breath whether it is song, dance, words, your poetry or someone else’s, or a hummed tuned if nothing else.  I suffered from asthma as a child and it flares up when I get sick, so I understand very well how precious breath can be!

Offer breath, even a hummed tune if you’re a completely hopeless cause at any of the aforementioned.  If you can you walk, walk and pray, especially is sitting still is hard/impossible for you to do.  There are countless ways of thanking the Gods for what you have.  Can you get down on your hands and knees without hurting yourself?  Then, if you have nothing else besides yourself to offer, prostrate, kneel, or bow.  Make a prayer.  Kiss a tree or a stone, or simply touch it with your hand, and whisper a prayer if you are worried about being seen or discovered.  There are a million and more ways to make an offering, to show your Gods, Ancestors, and spirits you care for Them, that They have blessed your life, many of which may be far more precious to Them than a cup of water or slice of bread.

Yet, that bread, that water, is still a precious offering, even more so when you are poor.  At that point a food and water (or other liquid) offering is a personal sacrifice with more weight on oneself than someone who has a good deal of resources.  In times of struggle, I believe, is when we need to make these sacrifices most.  That physical offering is still a precious thing, one which still needs to be given.  There is no substitute for it, any more than there is a substitute for food for you to eat or water to drink.  Say to a person who is a guest in your home who wants water “but I danced for you, is that not enough?” and the answer will be a definite no, even if they may be too gentle with you to say so.  They may still crave the water, especially if it is something to be expected between one another as guest and host.  Now, with the Egyptian Gods this can be a bit different, as the offering formulas for Egyptian Gods (which is the one case I can think of where this applies and even here, the Gods may have Their own preferences) have carvings of food, water, and so on that are allowed to be there in place of offerings.  However, I would think that this is probably a more expensive, roundabout way of fulfilling an offering to the Gods: either you have to have the tools to carve the offering yourself, or have an artisan who will make it for you.

There is no reason that I can fathom that a polytheist would have, regardless of their circumstances, where they had nothing to offer the Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits.  There is no good reason that I can fathom why a polytheist would willingly deny their share of Gebo, reciprocity, with their Gods.

Devotion is not just important; devotion is VITAL. It is how a living, breathing religion continues. Acts of devotion keep that bridge between us and the Gods alive in our everyday life, whether it is a glass of water and a prayer, prayers made on prayer beads, food made in their honor, a pinch of mugwort or a small glass of mead offered at a tree, or an act of kindness for a human being.  Offerings, in and of themselves, are vital, and have always been vital regardless of which tradition one comes out of.

I put the Gods first because that is where They go in my life. The Gods are first; it is from Them that all good things in my life have come. My everyday (well, night) job is about helping a human being. The reason I can serve this person and meet some of the basics for my family is because the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits gave me life, a good family, a wonderful son, and so many blessings were I to count them all I would be dead and buried long before I finished. So my first attention, my first devotion, is to my Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. It must be, in good Gebo for all They have done, and continue to do for me, with me, to me.

Hail to the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.  May Gebo be kept.

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What Constitutes Pagan Fundamentalism?

May 27, 2013 8 comments

I have written about the value of words and meaning here and I think that the recent posts by P. Sufenas Lupus and Sannion hit the nail on the head.

Why am I so invested in the pop culture debate currently raging in Paganism?

Well, some of it has to do with the fact that I think conflating worship of fictional characters with my Gods is downright blasphemous.  I’ll admit that straight out.  You don’t have to agree with my position; it is what it is.

Rather than keep the conversation talking past each other, or spinning our wheels, let’s get to the point of this post.  Anomalous Thracian talks here that words are losing their meaning because they’re being stripped of them.  To quote Anomalous Thracian:

I want to address the bigger issue here, which is the overall misuse of words, the lack of “common ground” in conversations, and the entanglement of a thousand different topics as one “meta-topic” which is what fuels 100% of all fights and arguments in Paganism because these practices attack the very core of linguistic communion and expression: MEANING. A fundamental part of all communication must be an attempt to convey, achieve and establish greater collectivemeaning, otherwise it is purely about getting oneself off while looking longingly in the mirror that you’ve turned the internet into, striking all kinds of super-hero poses as you hammer out the dribble you call theology, debate, or “religion”. Religion itself, outside of the discussion of religion – which, by the way, is a real thing: religion outside of talking about religion does exist, if you shut up long enough to practice it! – is a thing that must orbit around the pursuit and exploration of meaning, which is a thing completely undone and undermined by using language and words that actually attack meaning. Directly.

Seriously, people. “I don’t think that word means what you think it means…”

I could not agree more, and it is why I push for concrete definitions and understanding where and when possible.  I am not trying to dilute the numinous experience or cage a wild bird, so much as asking that we delineate the bird we’re watching from the sky it flies in from the tree upon which it lands.  There are relationships, and each thing has an underlying connection to one another, but the bird, the sky, and the tree are definitively separate things.  Words need to mean things or words like ‘God’, ‘Ancestors’, or ‘spirit’ lose all meaning.  To quote V for Vendetta:

Words offer the means to meaning…

The Gods exist without our leave, understanding, worship, or influence.  I do not know a polytheist for whom this is an untrue statement.    It is a concrete article of believing in the Gods, in interacting with Them, and worshiping Them.  This basic understanding is part of the foundation of polytheist understanding.  It places the Gods, Ancestors, the spirits, and us humans in cosmology, in the Web of Life, and gives us meaning for our place in the Worlds and in relationship with all things.  Without this notion of where we sit the cosmology essentially falls apart and all of the understanding of the Gods disappears in confusion.  Think about it.  If I was to claim I am a co-creator with my Gods, i.e. Odin, why would Ask or Embla need His breath to come to life?  Why would my Ancestors matter at all?  The very meaning of the Gods falls apart if for us in denying Their cosmological and mythic place, and Their fundamental relationships to us.  The Gods will keep on being, will keep on doing what They will, even if we deny the meaning of the word ‘God’ or ‘Goddess’ and my Ancestors will still be my Ancestors even if I use another term wholly for Them.

In destroying meaning, in reducing words to whatever we want to be rather than what we are, we dilute the understanding we gain from words, and in so doing, reduce our ability to communicate effectively within our human communities and with our Gods.  How?  Try speaking another language.  In German there are very rigid sentence structures, and some words in German can go on for a damned long time because of the convention of sentence and word formation.  American English has seemingly dispensed with rigidity and in so doing words are harder to pin down, and accordingly, communication is more difficult.  German is, for all its complexities (from my perspective as a non-native German speaker) more accurate in its speech and use of words than our American English.  Factor this in with ‘words mean what I want them to’ kind of attitude, coupled with an open-source use of foreign words, sometimes without proper translation of the culture/subject matter, and you have a hodgepodge language that is hard to parse from the get-go and gets harder with actual use.  Dig into theological concepts with this unwieldy shovel and the hole you dig may well be far wider and deeper (or haphazardly dug) than your original intent.

So when someone uses the word ‘fundamentalist’ to describe Pagans such as myself, polytheists who believe in the literal existence of the Gods, you have pretty visceral reactions from people.  The word fundamentalism has a historical meaning according to Merriam-Webster: ‘a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching’ and a fundamentalist is a follower of these beliefs.  With the plasticity of words the meaning has moved from this to any belief structure that is ‘a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles’ (ibid).  In both cases applying the word to Pagans such as myself this word, fundamentalist, loses meaning.

When someone says “I worship Batman” and the response is “I do not believe that” even in rough terms, or an angry tone (or just outright venomous rage) that does not mean they are fundamentalist.  It means that you do not like their tone or reacting negatively to their anger, both of which are understandable, but taking in the words of another in that direction, even if accurate, is not fundamentalism.  Even when someone says “I worship Batman” and the response is “That is blasphemy in my religion, tradition, etc.” that is still not fundamentalism, but a statement of belief.  Having baseline standards for a religious community is not fundamentalist.  Those standards include standards of belief, praxis, relationship, roles for clergy/specialists, etc.  Those standard differentiate a polytheist Pagan from a monotheist Catholic Christian.  Heck, those baseline standards delineate one polytheist community from another, and Christian denominations from one another.

If I am a Wiccan, I believe v and x.  If I am a Northern Tradition Pagan I believe y and z.  If I am a Catholic Christian I believe j and k.  These baseline beliefs can be added onto with other letters, but take out v and x for a Wiccan and the religion is no longer Wicca.  Can a Wiccan be a polytheist and not a duotheist?  Sure, so long as the religious belief system is accommodating to that with and left intact.  Can a person be an atheist and a follower of the Northern Tradition?  Absolutely not because the y is taken out.  Again, this is not fundamentalist.  Without y, a person cannot be a Northern Tradition.  The may be that you must be a polytheist in order to be a follower of the Northern Tradition.  If you are an atheist you simply do not fit the criteria.

The ongoing debate between Pagan communities are part of figuring out where our boundaries lie.  It is part and parcel of figuring out theology.  It is part and parcel of figuring out who and what we are.  We do not have to agree, and I count that as a blessing.  I’m not interested in converting Wiccans, nor am I interested in converting Pagans who worship Pop Culture icons.  Both are a waste of my time, an insult to them, and a waste of their time as well.  What I am interested in is where my religious boundaries lie, where we are similar in thought, and where we definitely disagree on, and why.  Our answers probably won’t be comfortable with one another; we are talking about our personal relationships with our Gods, Ancestors, spirits, and the stories that have unfolded in our coming to these Beings and understanding.  In some cases there is no translating between our varying beliefs because we either don’t have the existent structure, it does not translate due to theological differences, or we have not developed enough in one way or another to speak to another’s beliefs and experiences on a given topic.

I do not see this parsing as snobbery, but an unfolding of religious communities.  That unfolding can be a damned raw experience.  I know that some people will balk at my belief that the Gods are literally real, and they hold the idea that the Gods as archetypes makes the most sense.  Yet no one has called a Council of Nicea to figure out just what is acceptable in Paganism as a whole, and that plurality is a good thing.  I do not need to agree that atheists belong in Paganism if someone accepts them freely.  That is your right as a follower, priest, etc. of that religious tradition.  It is my right to say such a thing dilute the meaning of the word Pagan, and you in kind can disagree.

Saying something as a statement of belief does not mean snobbery or fundamentalism, but just that: a statement of belief.  When I say something definitive, but for all the power, or lack there is in my ability to say something I will exercise that right to say it.  You can disagree with me; that is your right.  Just as it is the right of a tradition to determine beliefs, ritual behavior, praxis, and a whole host of other things that their religion considers sacred, impious, acceptable, and unacceptable.  That is far afield from fundamentalism.

Credentials

July 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Since the trial for James Arthur Ray has ended in his conviction for negligent homicide, something that has really popped up in my mind a lot is the idea of credentials.  They can keep people safe, establish who has proper training in a discipline, art, science, etc., and who does not, and can communicate professionalism in an instant.  When I think of credentials I think of licensing, such as what happens with counseling, or with medical disciplines.  Having an M.D. or some other recognized credentials communicates a certain trust between the community and you, that you have had the training and experience necessary to qualify in the field you’re practicing.  How do we establish such a thing in Paganism or modern shamanism?

Some places, such as Cherry Hill Seminary for Pagan ministry, and the Foundation for Shamanic Studies for neo-shamans, are trying to fill this requirement by giving classes, workshops, and a variety of training in disciplines and techniques for their path.  I have many criticisms of core shamanism, as well as misgivings regarding the practice of shamanism without a core cosmogony or cosmology.  That said, I find it laudable that someone is helping to set a standard of expectations, that neo-shamans to be answerable to some standard of expertise and training.  Still, there is something that bothers me about the setting of standards regarding shamanism.  I think it is something I was reminded of in this post by Kenaz Filan, that I worry regarding “the desire to reduce everything to one happy nebulous one-size-fits-all Truth.”  I’m not about to say that people should not have standards regarding their spiritual workers; quite the opposite, in fact.  The worry I have, is that we reduce the role of a Pagan priest or a modern shaman to a “one-size-fits-all-Truth”.  Community standards, and standards of practice are one thing.  Expecting the same thing out of every priest or shaman is quite another.  That, perhaps, is my main point of contention with core shamanism itself: that it reduces a good deal of practices, techniques, and so on, down into a distilled form of core shamanism that is billed as shamanism without culture, when it merely replaces a mishmash of cultures’ spiritual tools and practices with its own culture.

This is why I worry about, but am not completely opposed, to credentialed spiritual leaders, mentors, and the like.  That said, I have none.  I am not certified by any body, religious or otherwise, to conduct the rituals I do, or to deliver the services I offer.  I have only the blessings of my Gods, spirits, Ancestors, and those who believe in what I do.  I have only the experiences I have had as a shaman, and priest of Odin and Anubis as my spiritual background.  In a very real sense, it is a leap of faith for people who come to me for spiritual help or advice to trust me.  I have no training from an accredited seminary, nor do I have a certificate from the modern neo-shamanic organizations.  Am I still a priest and a shaman?  I emphatically say “Yes”.

I am of the mind that, while you can go through all the varied and well-made training workshops and classes, the Gods and/or spirits are what designate you as a priest and/or shaman.  Without the Gods and/or spirits, while you may have all the earthly credentials in the world, what does that matter if, when the time comes, you are called on to be a Divine mouthpiece and you cannot perform your function?  When someone needs to hear the guidance of their God/dess, and you cannot communicate it, what did the seminary lessons matter?  When a person is being bothered by spirits or Ancestors, if you cannot intervene and/or guide effectively, what good are all the workshops?  Anyone can screw things up as a matter of simply being human, and no spirit-worker, priest, shaman, or oracle I know of does what they do without screwing up.  I certainly have not.  That, however, is not my point here.  What is, is that the Gods and spirits with whom you work, in my view, are the ones that bestow the meaning, the core, of what it is to be a priest or a shaman.  If you don’t have Them behind you in your function, while you may be a great facilitator or organizer, you are not a priest or shaman.

There is also, to me, a large difference between being a priest or shaman of a community, and being a priest or shaman of specific Gods or spirits.  While the two need not be exclusive, they can be very different in their roles.  Having been a priest for a community for a small time, the role required me to fill a lot of shoes, and do a lot of working with others’ Gods, successes, failures, and times of trial, as well as times of joy.  There was a lot of work on communication, answering questions, writing lessons, and training that was done as part of that work.  A lot of my daily work during this time was community-based, from daily work with people on their relationships with Gods, to working on rituals, classes and presentations.  Being a priest of Odin and a shaman apart from a dedicated community, a lot of my work for the larger Pagan community consists of giving messages from Gods, spirits, and Ancestors, intervening when needed in spiritual crises, and being a go-to for people looking to contact Odin and other Northern Tradition Gods, spirits, and Ancestors.  A lot of my work is individual-based, and I do a lot of more self-focused work, such as taking more time out for relaxation and meditation, and give more personal attention to the Gods and spirits I work with, whether it is working with my Ancestors, or working on deepening my relationships with my Gods.

Are credentials necessary?  In some cases, yes.  If you want to legally marry people, for instance, you need to have credentials that back up your ability to sign the marriage license.  However, I and a very good friend of mine, performed a wedding for a wonderful couple, and though it is not legally recognized due to the laws in my state, it is a strong marriage blessed by the Gods.  Are credentials beyond those for legal reasons a necessity?  I’m still out on this.  As someone who has dedicated his life to serving my Gods, I would say no.  Yet, at the same time, I see how credentials provide comfort, a sense of security, and communicate professionalism.  After all, I’m getting my degree in counseling for that reason, and when I’ve finished with that, I will go for licensing so I can practice what I’ve learned.

At this point I’m taking a middle road because Pagan priesthood and modern shamanism do not, by and large, have the background that professional counseling does, and beyond the two resources I’ve mentioned above, anything resembling professional training in either field is scant, or is specific to certain pathways, i.e. the Aquarian Tabernacle Church’s seminary.  If we want more professionally-trained priests and shamans, whether for the wider Pagan or shamanic communities, or our own little branches in their trees, we will largely have to either a) support what is already there and increase its ability to be used effectively by its adherents, or b) invent these courses and methods of accreditation ourselves.  I find that accreditation can be a powerful, stabilizing force, but it can also be one that can strangle peoples’ ability or willingness to explore, find new ways, be touched by the Gods or spirits, or respond in ways that establishments may find chaotic, destabilizing, or unwelcome.  Here is hoping that as we move forward we can develop courses and accreditation that encourage individual and group responsibility, personal and transcendent experiences of our Gods, spirits, and Ancestors, while also providing a solid structure to build our faiths, roles, and communities on.  Here is hoping that if credentialing gets in the way that we have the bravery and wherewithal to help it evolve with our communities’ growing needs, or if it will not, then to discard it.

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