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.

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Pagan Blog Project: Commentary on the Charge of the Goddess

The Charge of the Goddess, originally by Doreen Valiente,* as adapted by Starhawk:

Listen to the words of the Great Mother, Who of old was called Artemis, Astarte, Dione, Melusine, Aphrodite, Cerridwen, Diana, Arionrhod, Brigid, and by many other names:

Whenever you have need of anything, once a month, and better it be when the moon is full, you shall assemble in some secret place and adore the spirit of Me Who is Queen of all the Wise.

You shall be free from slavery, and as a sign that you be free you shall be naked in your rites.

Sing, feast, dance, make music and love, all in My Presence, for Mine is the ecstasy of the spirit and Mine also is joy on earth.

For My law is love is unto all beings. Mine is the secret that opens the door of youth, and Mine is the cup of wine of life that is the cauldron of Cerridwen, that is the holy grail of immortality.

I give the knowledge of the spirit eternal, and beyond death I give peace and freedom and reunion with those that have gone before.

Nor do I demand aught of sacrifice, for behold, I am the Mother of all things and My love is poured out upon the earth.

Hear the words of the Star Goddess, the dust of Whose feet are the hosts of Heaven, whose body encircles the universe:

I Who am the beauty of the green earth and the white moon among the stars and the mysteries of the waters,

I call upon your soul to arise and come unto me.

For I am the soul of nature that gives life to the universe.

From Me all things proceed and unto Me they must return.

Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices, for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.

Let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you.

And you who seek to know Me, know that the seeking and yearning will avail you not, unless you know the Mystery: for if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without.

For behold, I have been with you from the beginning, and I am That which is attained at the end of desire.

Mmm. That’s some big magic.

For this fortnight’s Pagan Blog Project prompt, I’ve decided to write down some commentary on the Charge that I’ve had rattling around for awhile. Commentary on sacred texts is, I think, one of the practices that makes religious practice pop. Unpacking myths, debating laws–I love it. It’s the English major in me.

A quick word on the Jewish influence in my textual practice. What I’m doing here might be loosely classified as Pilpul, or the practice of closely examining a text in order to understand apparent contradictions. (That itself is a very loose definition of Pilpul.) I’m really excited about putting this technique and others, especially Midrash, to use in a Pagan context. I ask that readers refrain from accusing me of “over-thinking” or “over-analyzing” Pagan texts–for one thing,  text study is fun and you are in no way obligated to read it; and for another, thinking and analyzing are two incredible tools that we human-people have at our disposal, and stuffing them in a mental drawer is a loss, not a gain. Text study can and certainly has been used to suck the life out of spiritual practice, but as long as one approaches it lightly, in a playful spirit, with the knowledge that the mysteries of religious experience will never be explained through text, then it can enrich one’s relationship to Deity.

The two pieces of the Charge that I want to focus on in particular are line 2:

You shall be free from slavery, and as a sign that you be free you shall be naked in your rites.

And line 13:

Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices, for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.

The most common interpretation of line 2 is that witches are to work skyclad, or literally nude. It’s a completely valid interpretation, and indeed, it’s what Valiente meant when she wrote it. But we commentators don’t care about authorial intent! We care about the text itself! So I propose alternate meanings of the word “naked.”

The word begs some questions: what if it’s cold out? Snowing? Raining? What if people feel more comfortable in ritual garb? What if people just don’t like being naked? The answer I see most frequently to these questions is, “Well, the Charge is more of a set of guidelines than hard and fast rules. If you don’t want to be naked, you don’t have to be.”

But that reading potentially sets up a hierarchy within Witchcraft: the hardcore witches who follow the Charge to the letter, and the dilettante witches who’d rather ignore the parts they don’t like.

The way I like to read the line, though–and I’m sure I’m not the first one to read it this way–is to see the word “naked” as figurative. Slavery, physical or mental, necessitates a guarding of one’s emotions and worldview. How many witches feel like they have the luxury to be mentally naked in the pews of a fundamentalist church? Or to address a form of real slavery (because I don’t like equating the broom closet with atrocities throughout history), how many victims of human trafficking feel they have the power to express what they really feel?

Nakedness can also mean resisting against the pull of groupthink among other Pagans. Once, at a ritual, someone plopped a football-sized crystal in my hand and said, “Feel how warm it is! Feel all that energy!” I felt neither warmth nor energy. But I cloaked myself in a quietly deadening lie: “Yeah, I feel it! Wow, man, yeah!” And my Paganism withered for years afterward. If I’d followed the Charge, I might have been able to hand the crystal back and say, “Nope, just feels like a rock to me. And I think that’s okay.”

So, if we were to read an adaptation of the line, using this understanding of the word:

You shall be free from slavery both physical and mental, and as a sign that you are free, you shall abandon your defenses, your lies, your boasts, and your self-deceptions in your rites. You shall appear as you truly are, no more and no less.

On to line 13.

What I want to focus on in this line is the phrase “all acts of love and pleasure.” Now, I’m going to get really nitpicky here–again, in a spirit of playful curiosity–so if you’re starting to suspect that you don’t like Pagan Pilpul, you’re really not going to like the rest of this post.

My concern is this: do love and pleasure have to go together in order to be a ritual, or do they count if they’re separate? In order words, does the line mean “all acts that are infused with both love and pleasure,” or does it mean “all acts of love, and also all acts of pleasure?”

Whoa!

Let’s consider the implications of the first reading. If I do an act of love, but not pleasure–changing my baby’s diarrhea-filled diaper, let’s say–does that not count as sacred? This reading of the line, with its two criteria for a ritual, implies a mindful carving out of sacred space and time. It also embeds self-care into worship. If I know my practice discourages martyrdom, then I’ll take turns changing that poopy diaper instead of saddling myself with it because I think it’s holy.

But what about acts of love that aren’t pleasurable, but are divinely mandated? If I get arrested blockading the destruction of a community garden and spend a horrible night in jail, is that extremely unpleasant act not a sacred act? Perhaps the charge is instructing me to change my reality within the act to find some pleasure in it. I’m thinking, here, of Starhawk’s stories of singing and chanting with other women while jailed.

Let’s take the second reading. Let’s say I do two acts: I give my mother a gift, and I eat a bag of Cheetos. The first act is an act of love; the second is an act of pleasure. Is eating Cheetos a ritual of the Goddess? Junk food kills people.

Are acts of pleasure that derive from hatred and estrangement–getting the last word in a fight, slicing someone to ribbons with the perfect comeback–rituals of the Goddess? I think we’d all say no to that. I think we’d argue about the meaning of the word “pleasure.” Is something honestly pleasurable when it gives you the subtle bad feels inside? Well…if we define pleasure simply as “a good feeling,” I’d argue that yes, it often is. Many people are so caught up in misguided habits that they can no longer tell the difference.

Truth be told, I would have rather Valiente simply wrote “acts of love.” But she wrote “and pleasure” for a reason, and it’s much more interesting to honor that and see where it leads us. Notice I haven’t even gotten into the question of what the Charge means by the word “ritual,” or the word “rejoice.” I could write about this all night!

So which is the “correct” reading? I think it depends on how honest you are with yourself. If you can recognize the difference between wholesome pleasure and unwholesome pleasure–true, nourishing, love-based pleasure and false, enervating, hate-based pleasure–then all acts of love, even if unpleasant, and all acts of genuine pleasure are your rituals.

If you feel like you’re not there yet–and that’s okay!–then perhaps the first reading provides you with a way to gauge the sacredness of your pleasure. “This feels good! But is it an act of love, for myself or for others? No. It’s not a ritual, then.”

I hope this exercise was fun! Let me reiterate by saying that there’s a time and place for text study as a playful experiment, and a time and place for ecstatic worship. Please, let your Younger Self forget everything I wrote here while you’re engaged in ritual. Your Talking Self can come back to it later.

May you have the freedom to be naked! May you have the freedom to perform deep acts of love and pleasure!

_____

*ETA: Witch’s Cat at Vještičji ormar/The Broom Closet has written a fantastic history and analysis of the Charge, filled with lots of things I maybe read once and forgot, and lots more that I didn’t know at all. I’m eternally a beginner.

Two water invocations

This past week I had the good fortune of invoking West in two separate rituals! Here are the invocations I wrote. A lot of what’s written here is only an approximation of what I said in ritual, since I was caught up in the moment and ad-libbed a bit. Enjoy!

Invocation 1 (all-purpose)

Hail, Water!
Hail vast ocean, deep seething cauldron, big belly, ancient home!
Hail cloud and rain and snow!
Hail mist and fog and sleet!
Hail water in the soil, bulging in the humus, pulsing in the roots, dripping from the leaves!
Hail still pools and hot springs, rivers and lakes and ponds, smelly pond and thick mud!
Hail water in my body, blood and muscle and tooth and brain!
Hail intuition, knowing without knowing, the drip-drip-drip of secret sense!
Hail anger and sadness and hurt and rage and joy and gratitude and love!
O Water, you are my body and I am you!
Water, come join our circle!
Hail and welcome, Water!
Hail and welcome, West!

Invocation 2 (Imbolc, with an emphasis on using Brigid’s Well to set intentions and make pledges for Spring)

West, Spirit of Water!
Hail, guardians of the threshold of the West!
Hail, place of sunset and evening star!
Hail, place of twilight and vast ocean!
Hail, place of deep coiled serpent!
Water, tonight we honor you!
Water, tonight we build our well and gather round!
Water, tonight we seek to make magic with you!
See our well, waiting!
See our offerings, eager!
Water, will you join us?
O Spirits of the West, will you come make magic with us?
Water, you are the ink with which we inscribe our hopes!
Water, you are the rain that nourishes our courage!
O West, will you join our circle?
O Spirits of Water, will you help us make magic?
O guardians of the threshold of the West, I call to you with love in my heart!
Come join our circle!
Come help us make magic!
Hail and welcome, Water!
Hail and welcome, West!

Both of them seem awfully long when they’re written out, but when I timed them, they each fell short of my tradition’s recommended 2-4 minutes. I like shorter invocations–less chance of people getting distracted or bored.

What do you think, reader, of my substitution of the word “threshold” for “watchtowers?” I can’t remember what inspired me to do that, only that I’ve never been certain what exactly the watchtowers are watching. I do like the watchtower imagery, but decided to give “threshold” a try.