Pagan Blog Project: Journeys and Jet Planes

I will do your work, my Goddess, throughout the cycles of the day; I will mark you in my mind and on my hands; I will teach you to my children; I will remember you in my home and on my journeys.

Image description: a Venus of Willendorf totem on a Holiday Inn notepad.

My Goddess totem on my nightstand at the Holiday Inn.

This week I’m away from home, presenting at a professional conference. At these conferences, you live and breathe your profession. You go to the breakfast buffets, you go to the after-parties. You collapse in your hotel room and do it all again. It’s so easy to lose sight of your personal life, your spiritual life, your deepest self, your gods.

So I brought my little Goddess totem with me. I also brought two decks of Tarot cards. Two? I thought, putting the bag into my carryon. This is ridiculous. Even one is extra weight. But I couldn’t bring my baby daughter. I couldn’t bring my garden. I couldn’t bring my pentacle jewelry, not to a professional event. I couldn’t bring the Jacaranda tree I admire from my patio. So I brought what I could carry.

* * *

Tonight and last night I skyped with my husband and daughter. My daughter is going on two, and doesn’t really understand that sometimes the image on the screen is a living person who can see you. Last night she didn’t talk to me, but kept pointing to the front door and saying, “Mama!” Tonight she cried in distress and kept trying to close my husband’s computer screen.

Paradoxically, I read it as a sign of love. Seeing Mama reduced to a moving picture was upsetting. Where was the real Mama? What was going on with this doppelgänger? Two more days, I kept saying. You’ll see Mama on Sunday. But she has no idea what that means.

In my hotel room I watched a Johnson and Johnson Mother’s Day commercial and cried.

* * *

Before I came, I obeyed a whim and looked up Pagan stores in the city hosting the conference. I found one a couple of miles away from my hotel. I don’t have a rental car, though, so I dismissed the idea of stopping in.

Yet the idea kept nagging at me. Go to this store. Go to this store. But there are Pagan stores in my home city. And this one doesn’t even look very good. They have a whole section devoted to mugs with inspirational quotes on them! Yet–Go to this store, something keeps telling me. I don’t know why, and I feel embarrassed, but I actually looked up bus routes to get there. I may go tomorrow after the conference ends and not buy anything. As far as bizarre compulsions go, this one is pretty tame–the bus ride is only about 10 minutes–but whenever I obey inexplicable impulses like this, I fear that I’m slipping into lunacy. I really hope no one finds out I’m doing this.

On the other hand, to date, I’ve never regretted following my instincts. Not when it feels this important.

Maybe I want to go to this place to touch a little bit of community. Just a few minutes with kindred spirits in this faraway place, while I’m inhabiting a life that takes up most of my time, yet is only the tiniest fraction of who I truly am.

* * *

Today, on the way back to the hotel, I saw my very first red-winged blackbird. I never knew about red-winged blackbirds. The sight of this new creature nearly knocked me over.

To think–you can live 33 years, in three different states and four different countries, and never know a bird exists until you see it!

Afterwards, I flopped down on my bed, opened up Patheos, and read Rhyd Wildermuth’s “What I Know of a Creek,” which includes a brief thought on red-winged blackbirds. It was one of those subtle numinous moments–the ones that don’t feel momentous, but don’t feel like a coincidence, either.

I miss my baby girl so much.

* * *

The first line of this post is from my Pagan version of the Jewish Sh’ma. I don’t include it in my devotionals every single day, but I do find that the frequent repetition allows me to discover deeper layers of it.

I will remember you on my journeys. But remembering is more than just remembering. It’s feeling something in your body. It’s having it even when you’re not thinking about it.

I’ll go to the damn store tomorrow. Who knows, maybe some incredible mystical experience will happen and I’ll be changed forever. More likely, though, I’ll scratch the itch, walk out empty-handed, and never know exactly what was calling me there. As they say, regrets come from what you didn’t do, not from what you did. Still–wouldn’t it be nice if we Witches and Pagans had temples and groves to visit and not just stores? I’m really tired of stores.

May you recognize your gods in all of your journeys.

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Pagan Blog Project: Dear Isis

Dear Isis,

I’m one of those devotees. You know the ones. You do them a favor once and then they think you’re their best friend. They become your groupie, follow you around, give you things you didn’t ask for and don’t really need.

Last year I needed something important, so I started drafting a spell. I’d been planning to work with Inanna but she directed me to you: “You’ll want Isis for this,” she said. “What you need isn’t really my specialty.” I hadn’t really thought about you for years and years–not since our Egyptology segment in sixth grade, I think–so the dream I had, with instructions on the work I needed to do, came out of left field. You know you’re doing your witchcraft right when you encounter surprises. Spells that shoot off in an unexpected direction. Dreams where you wake up and think, “that didn’t come from me.”

So I began my work with you. It was absolutely the right work to be doing, much better than the work I thought I’d do with Inanna. I’d just come back to witchcraft after many years away–oh, it felt so incredible to be back!–and you were the first deity to ever show up to one of my rituals. I knew I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.

But it took me awhile to realize that you only intended to work with me that one time.

See, I’d absorbed this idea that everyone has to have a matron goddess. Rationally I knew that wasn’t true at all, but somehow I couldn’t shake the idea. So I decided that my matron goddess must be you, since, well, you helped me with that thing I had to do that one time.

I read books. I did devotionals. I found primary sources, hymns and artwork. But I couldn’t figure out why nothing felt right, why my devotion to you seemed to clash with my devotion to my practice.

In hindsight, I think it was because you were pretty well-stocked on priestesses and dedicants. You had the Fellowship of Isis. You had the Kemetists. You’re one of the biggest, strongest, most beloved goddesses in human history. Your practices were well-established.

And the practices of your followers just weren’t right for me. I finally learned what the call of a goddess feels like when I heard the call of the Morrigan–a call that instantly integrated itself into the work I was doing, a partnership that, as surprising as it was (me? dedicated to a battle goddess?) clicked. There was no jealousy on your part. Just a gentle parting. With love and reverence, I took your image off my altar and placed it in my book of shadows.

I’m absolutely certain you and I will cross paths again, and I look forward to that day. Isis, you are so beautiful. You have my love, my admiration, and my gratitude.

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Mirrors

When I look in the mirror, I can sometimes glimpse the Goddess.

When the Morrigan looks in the mirror, she can sometimes glimpse the Goddess.

The Goddess doesn’t exist. The Goddess is so, so real.

Pagan Blog Project: Horned God–To Cernunnos, With Love

Beloved God, Ancient Hunter, Quiet Shaman:

The first time you came to me was when I was in college, long before I ever learned who you were. I had a dream in which all people naturally grew antlers, but we all shaved them off. One of my friends–a very spiritual, mildly odd character–left his on, though, and in the dream I admired them and thought that I really should grow out my own. Back then, the only version of you I knew about was the Horned God of Wicca–but he was anonymous, described in only the vaguest terms in my Llewellyn books, and I thought (rightly, I think) that he was adapted from Pan. When I woke up the morning after the dream, I had no clue where all the antlers had come from or what they meant. All I knew was that I’d had a numinous experience. I knew something special had reached out to me.

(What does it mean that the person in my dream has since stagnated spiritually? What does it mean that he was the one with the antlers, and yet later lost his faith and became odd in an unpleasant way? Probably that spirituality isn’t a fixed quality, the way it’s depicted in stories; as one person’s spirituality waxes, another’s can wane.)

Sometimes it feels fine to call you the “Horned God.” Other times it feels distracting. Antlers aren’t horns; don’t Wiccans watch The Brain Scoop? Horns are permanent fixtures, but antlers grow and fall off, grow and fall off, every single year: a powerful meditation on impermanence. A mature stag spends as much energy growing his antlers as a doe spends growing a fetus. Then the antlers fall off. All that work for just one season of mating–and then, the next year, the stag does it all again. The Celts crafted beautiful artifacts and then threw them into bogs. They knew your mystery, Cernunnos: that you work, you pour love and effort into a thing, you craft it to perfection, and then…you let it go.

On the Gundestrup Cauldron, sweet Cernunnos, you’re seated like the Buddha. Even if the Celts never encountered Buddhism, the parallel is as apparent to me as a rune. You teach us about embracing cycles. You show us Friend Snake, symbol of rebirth. Hoof and horn, hoof and horn, all that dies shall be reborn.

My teacher once told us that when practitioners encounter a deity, that encounter is like the parable of the blind men feeling the elephant. One person feels the tail, another the trunk, and each walks away with a significantly different perception of the animal. Other Pagans write and sing about your aspects as hunter and sun god, and while I don’t doubt for a second that their perceptions are valid, those aren’t the aspects you’ve ever presented to me. When I experience you, Cernunnos, I see you in the forest, so silent and gentle that the animals come up to sniff. Oh, they say. You’re one of us.

After a fashion, you reply.

Remember the time, my beloved god, when I closed my eyes in the garden and you told me that the first thing I saw when I opened them would be your symbol? But I was looking at my nasturtiums when I closed my eyes, I thought. I already know what I’ll see when I open them. I tried it anyway. My eyes had moved while closed and I saw a pipe sticking out of the roof of the house next door. I’d never noticed that pipe. It was a perfect phallus.

I thought of the jacaranda tree a few yards away, preparing to burst into riotous blossom for spring.

Together, you and I praise the Goddess. You wander her surface, you fertilize her soil, you make love to her through the bees. You die and come back, die and come back. You, god of death, hold a plump, jingling purse. From the corpses of the dead come seedlings; from the pelts of the slain comes wealth. Corn and grain, corn and grain, all that falls shall rise again.

On my altar, your image is nestled between Isis and the Morrígan: Goddess of Life, Goddess of Death, and He Who Straddles the Two. (I know, that’s an astounding oversimplification, but Isis and the Morrígan will get their own love notes.)

You don the costume of the animals, wise shaman, and make them love you enough to give you their lives.

Same with witches like me.

May you be happy, dear deity. May you be well. May you be praised and remembered always.

Naming the Goddess

I’m both a hard and soft polytheist. That is, when I’m not in ritual, I have a hard time believing that the gods are distinct entities–and I don’t feel any particular need to believe it. The gods can be avatars of one presence, they can be archetypes, they can be characters in myth. But when I’m in ritual, I believe in them absolutely. My Younger Self takes over.

But I’ve always had a tendency to over-analyze things, and I find that lately I’ve been falling prey to this perception that not only do I have to decide whether the gods are distinct beings or avatars, but I have to choose which ones I’m going to dedicate myself to exclusively. Now, this is 100% the product of my own anxious mind, but it’s fueled by two common perceptions in the Witchcraft community:

1. One should develop some sort of relationship with a deity before asking them for something.

2. One can have a matron/patron deity if one wishes.

My anxiety distorts these beliefs into the following:

1. No god is going to want to even speak to you, let alone help you in your magic, until you’ve thrown yourself into devotionals for them for years and years.

2. You have to dedicate yourself to one deity (or a male/female pair), otherwise you’re just a dilettante.

Partly I have trouble with these two beliefs because Paganism doesn’t have the wealth of theology of organized religions to draw on. When I feel confused, there aren’t that many sources I can turn to for guidance. The ancient texts often don’t have the benefit of modern interpretations, and the modern texts are crowded out by Wicca 101 books. Another reason I have trouble is that the anonymity of “the Goddess and the God” or “the Lord and Lady” is what turned me off to Wicca. I needed deities with personalities, stories, characteristics. And while I found that in Cernunnos (to me, his imagery tells his story: his animals, his antlers, his torcs and coins), the Goddess has remained frustratingly elusive.

At the core, though, a lot of my trouble has to do with the fact that I secretly have very low self-esteem. Deep down, I don’t believe I’m worth the gods’ time. The idea that they would actually want to help me is something I can’t wrap my head around.

(But when my toddler asks me for help, aren’t I delighted to offer it? When she wants to put her socks on her stuffed bunny, don’t I jump at the chance to do it for her, even though from my perspective it’s ridiculous?)

I think another reason I feel a need to name the Goddess, or worship her as a particular avatar, is that the Whole of Creation just feels too big and abstract to connect with. I have no problem thinking of it as feminine–that’s a huge part of what drew me to Witchcraft–but asking it to join my little circle, inhabit my wee altar? Other people might be fine with that, but it just doesn’t click for me.

And yet no Goddess avatar I investigate feels right. Isis has helped me a lot, and she has been described as “all that is, that has been, and that will be”…but when I think of her, I think of the mother by the Nile, searching for her husband’s body. Inanna and Artemis have their own distinct histories, their own unique adventures. They’re worshipped as mother goddesses, but they’re not all-encompassing. It doesn’t make sense to me to worship any one of them exclusively.

And yet, for some unfathomable reason, I feel like I have to.

When I do my daily devotionals–which, by the way, have changed since I wrote about them, so I plan to write a followup–I start by re-dedicating myself to the Goddess, and follow that by praising specific deities. I have to work through my fear that the deities are unhappy about coming second. Isis, in her original form, never claimed to have created the universe. Every goddess with a name is the daughter of an older deity, whether by bloodline or evolution.

When I get tangled up in this pantheon or that pantheon or this or that reconstructionist practice, I have to remind myself of why I’m doing this. I’m doing it to feel the Earth more deeply. I’m doing it to celebrate the divine feminine. I’m doing it because I crave the sensuality of magic.

What if all the goddesses are worshiping the Goddess just as I am?

I’m curious–has any other witch out there worked through problems like these? How has your practice evolved to temper them? How do you come back to center when you feel yourself getting lost?

May you feel your practice deeply and with certainty, in whatever form it takes.

My daily devotionals

I know the subject of this post is full of Ds, and this is D week in the Pagan Blog Project, but this isn’t my official D post. I want to stick to the biweekly prompts rather than use posts I would have written anyway, because the prompts help me crack open subjects that might not otherwise occur to me. So, devotionals today, and another D post on Friday!

One thing that really works about Judaism and Buddhism, and is often unemphasized or absent in Witchcraft, is a daily devotional practice. I know plenty of Pagans have daily practices–John Beckett prays four times a day and T. Thorn Coyle wrote a book on it–but overall I haven’t seen many templates or ideas for crafting morning and evening devotionals. So, I took some Jewish and Buddhist ideas and tech and used them to form my own prayer practice.

I found that my spontaneous prayers could be roughly divided into five broad categories: praise to the Goddess in the form of the Sh’ma (the Jewish declaration of faith), praise to named deities, praise to the natural world, lovingkindness meditation, and silent mindfulness meditation. Once I made those divisions, I realized that my prayers could be mapped onto a pentacle. I experimented with assigning each prayer to an element and came up with the following basic structure. Like my invocations, it looks long when it’s written out, but takes only a few minutes to recite. (The parts in bold aren’t included in the prayers.)

Earth: the body of the Goddess
Sh’ma Yisrael, Shekhina Eloteinu, Shekhina Achat.
Hear, O my people, we are the body of the Goddess, the many are one.*
I will do your work, O Goddess, throughout the cycles of the day; I will mark you on my mind and on my hands; I will teach you to my children; I will remember you in my home and on my journeys.

Air: the invisible but present deities; humankind’s creative partnership with the Divine
Hail Inanna, queen of Heaven; Hail Isis, lady of the thousand names and mistress of magic; Hail Cernunnos, ancient antlered God, lord of death and rebirth; Hail Odin, who gave us the runes. (I add deities depending on whom I’m drawn to or working with that day. In ritual, it feels offensive to mix different pantheons together and I’ll probably never do it, but in a personal devotional, it feels okay.)

Fire: an explosion of love for the natural world
Hail earth and sea and sky! Hail moon and stars and sun! Hail trees and grass and desert and animals and birds and fish and insects! (I add anything that calls to me that day–a flock of birds flying by, the bacteria in my gut, some kids walking to school.)

Water: dissolving anger and hate; nurturing compassion
May my loved ones be happy; may my loved ones be well; may my loved ones be free from harm.
May my adversaries be happy; may my adversaries be well; may my adversaries be free from harm.
May I be happy; may I be well; may I be free from harm.
May all beings be happy; may all beings be well; may all beings be free from harm.

Spirit: silence
Silent mindfulness meditation. I focus my attention on the sensations of being within my body: my breath, my pulse, the feel of my clothes against my skin. Or, I focus on my environment: the feeling of being in my garden, the sound of my husband and daughter’s voices downstairs. In any case, I clear my mind of words as best I can and focus solely on experience. When my attention wanders, I gently bring it back. I do this for three to ten breaths.

According to the Kohenet Siddur, Jewish daily prayers can be thought of as a labyrinth, with the deepest part of the prayer in the center. I really liked that idea and decided that, since the Spirit portion is the deepest part of my prayers, I’d recite them in the above order in the morning, and the reverse order at night. That way, I live my day in the center of the labyrinth.

As with every practice, it’s a work in progress. I hardly ever recite my prayers exactly as they’re written above; in the mornings they’re usually shorter. I also find that I sometimes want to switch the elements around and assign them to different prayers. But I like the order of my prayers, and I like my prayers to go deosil and widdershins around the cardinal directions, so that’s the way they’re structured for now.

It took me a long time to figure out why, although I was telling the Goddess I’d do her work twice a day, I was constantly forgetting myself and getting caught up in anger, anxiety, or the lure of the computer screen. It finally hit me just the other day: for all that I talked about her “work,” I never actually articulated what that work was! So I rewrote the Sh’ma as follows:

Sh’ma Yisrael, Shekhina Eloteinu, Shekhina Achat.
Hear, O my people, we are the body of the Goddess, the many are one.
Hear, O Goddess, I will do these things: I will serve the Earth your body; I will practice mindfulness and compassion; I will adore you through acts of love and pleasure. I will sharpen you in my heart throughout the cycles of the day; I will mark you in my mind and on my hands; I will teach you to my children; I will remember you in my home and on my journeys.

It’s a bit long, and still a work in progress. Syncretizing practice is one thing; syncretizing ethics is another. It’s hard to avoid feeling like you’re skimming off the top.

If you’re interested in crafting your own daily practice, I’d suggest the following: lay out a schema that you like–the pentacle, the witch’s pyramid, the hero’s journey, prayer beads, whatever–and see how each part speaks to you. See if you can map prayers you’re already doing onto the schema. I find that a clear structure not only prevents me from forgetting a prayer, but adds layers of meaning that make my prayers more powerful.

As Ruby Sara would say, pray without ceasing!

____________

* I yoinked this wording from Marcia Falks’ Book of Blessings.