Oracle for one

I have noted before that I have pulled back on ritual work for the moment, something which Apollon this month confirmed through divination is still appropriate by saying, “Stay, friend.”  In practice this means I stick with what’s daily and have laid down weekly and monthly work, including many of my priestly duties.

Poseidon and chariot

My oracular work remains, and during my preparations yesterday I was told, “Bring an extra index card with you.”  These are the cards on which I transcribe the questions ahead of time, and write down the responses during the session.  For this one I had no question.

When my ritual engine is running on all cylinders, my weekly time in the temple space with Poseidon nearly always results in something to be written down.  I have pages and pages of words which have come just from being in his presence.  Most often it’s just a sentence, something which might be found in a fortune cookie if one were to frequent a Chinese restaurant with an Hellenic bent.  Other times, including but not limited to during the Vigil for the Bulls, I’ve received full hymns and even insight into mysteries I’ve never seen referenced in ancient texts.

I could feel his presence more closely than ever before, and the period after each answer was delivered was quite long as I basked in his company.  When he bid me pick up the final card — the blank one — it was to give me a gift such as he is wont to in the temple.  As it happens, in the back of my mind I have been pondering if the end of my time as a pagan journalist might be better used as the beginning of a period teaching sacred journalism, a way to seek and reveal truth.  This has been nought but a notion, no more solid than the diaphanous garments I always find for sale at festivals when I am looking for something to warm my bones.  Poseidon warmed my bones by offering some ideas as to the tenets for initiating others into such a path.

What’s curious is that Poseidon isn’t personally vested in sacred journalism.  He gave me this because he misses me, and wanted me to know it.  I miss him, too, and I am grateful that even in the dark and the silence he is present.  I may not be able to bear as much of his immortal self at the moment, but he desires me whole and is patient with the process.

Soon, the temple will be open again.  Never doubt the gods are with you, friends, even when you have pulled away or they seem to have withdrawn.  The gods are undying and unfailing.  The gods make us whole when we are broken or near to breaking.  The gods complete the universe.

Review of Hearthstone’s books

When I started my formal study of Hellenismos, Hearthstone was required reading. Eir two books of interest, Devotion: Prayers to the Gods of the Greeks and In Praise of Olympus: Prayers to the Greek Gods have become some of the most well-used books in my collection. Almost daily I read a Hearthstone prayer to one deity or another. I got Devotion about six years ago, but when I bought the other recently I decided that these books deserve a review before I wear them out and have to buy new copies.

It’s with Hearthstone that I first learned to appreciate poetry. What’s otherwise stopped me is what seems like rampant pretentious behavior in and near poems and poets; these are written for the gods, which perhaps makes such ego exercises impossible. The turns of phrase make my heart flutter with their elegance. Here’s an example about Hermes:

In any land, in any age, your people prosper; in any land, in any age, you find a place; in any setting, you belong.

There’s just a flow created by the word choices which carry the reader on. That’s particularly important for reading aloud; many writers — myself included — don’t think about how long sentences challenge the voice. Yes, there’s a few really long ones among these prayers which might leave the unprepared reader gasping for breath, but Hearthstone is more than generous with commas, semi-colons, and dashes to help us through the tough times. Silently or aloud, the words drip with passion for and power from the divinities thus celebrated.

There are other things about Hearthstone’s writing to make me swoon; for one, the use of semicolons is correct. For another, the word “god” is not capitalized in any of these prayers, for Hearthstone (or her editor) knows that it never should be. It’s no wonder reading these works makes me feel faint after a day scrolling through Overcapitalized Blog Posts about Important Subjects.

At the core of Hearthstone’s work, though, is an insistent power. The reader may not feel it by browsing the book, or reading it cover to cover. It may take actually using these prayers, speaking them aloud, to sense it. It may take reading them over and over again, but the power is there, and it becomes more evident with each pass through these words. If it weren’t for my robust mustache, I’m certain I’d detect sweat on my upper lip. These are prayers that get the attention of gods in part due to their muse-inspired beauty, and in part because many English-speaking Hellenists are using them.

The author explains in the introduction to Devotion that she began writing these prayers in part because there weren’t many out there at the time. Many others — myself included — have composed and even published books of prayers to the theoi, but only rarely do these more recent offerings match the passion expressed by Hearthstone. For beginners on the path, those only passingly curious about Hellenic worship, and seasoned devotees alike, these books would only enhance a library to which they were added.

Capitalism and respect for our gods

I like the gods. When I say that, I mean that I like the gods I worship, and the gods that associated with them to whom I do not pay cultus, as well as the gods of other cultures I’m familiar with, and all the other gods I know nothing about. I like them, I respect them, and I try to behave in a way that gives them honor.

gNone of that requires capitalizing the word “god,” mind you; to do so is simply wrong.

Capital letters serve exactly two purposes in the English language: they mark the beginning of a sentence, and also flag a proper noun, otherwise known as a name. If a word is neither of those things, it’s not supposed to be capitalized. Somewhere along the line that simple rule got rather muddled by the convention to avoid writing the name Yahweh in the Bible; the (possibly apocryphal) explanation is that it makes it all the harder to take the name of one’s deity in vain if one does not know the name of one’s deity. What seems to have come next is just referring to that deity as “god” since the name was forbidden, then treating “god” as if it were a name, which as far as I’m concerned means you probably shouldn’t be using it any longer since names are forbidden in that tradition.

Capitalizing a common noun by Christians — “god” — may have led readers to assume that it’s the holy presence which gets this word a big letter, since it’s clearly not a name. Then we get into caps creep: items and events associated with Yahweh (cross and crucifixion, for example), then verbs such as love, and even pronouns, which from the standpoint of grammar is the silliest of all. Nowadays, there’s all sorts of examples of capital letters being used to convey significance, taking a clear, concise standard and rather ruining it.

The names of the gods get capitalized, but the words “god” and “goddess” do not, at least in English. I understand that capital letter are less common in Spanish, but in German they add them to every noun; the latter fact is probably also a contributing factor to this confusion, since English has some Germanic roots.

Fair is fair, one colleague said to me a few months ago: if the Christians capitalize that common noun, why shouldn’t we? I explained that I won’t capitalize “god” even when referencing the Christian one, and she applauded my consistency (although I don’t think I converted her to my line of thinking). If I’m referring to Jesus or Yahweh, I’ll use those names. Even Christians and others find it awkward; it’s pretty common to hear someone say, “god with a capital G,” because capital letters have no sound, and thus any convention which does not have an audible component is decoration, not communication.

A rule of thumb I follow is that if it’s identical to a common noun, it is a common noun, and should not be capitalized. It doesn’t matter if the writer is attempting to convey a level of esoteric significance, either: we use context to do that job in English, the words surrounding the one in question. We don’t capitalize “circle” just because we cast it for magic; if we want to make that clear, write “magical circle” instead. Even “the circle” sets this off as special; do not underestimate the power of the definite article!

Another technique is the Islamic practice of adding phrases such a “praised be his name” whenever one makes reference to the god Allah. Arabic has no capital letters, and thus no visual cues for readers (and not listeners); this praising phrasing is a much more inclusive way to express that the writer is still referring to a deity, and further, that the deity in question is pretty awesome in the writer’s mind.

Capital letters are not a shortcut to clarity, because no one can hear the difference, and because there are no shortcuts to clarity. A Heathen colleague of mine calls these “emotional caps” (or “Emotional Caps,” because my colleague has some dry wit going on), based on the belief that folks capitalize words they think have emotional significance, and thus importance. Unfortunately because it excludes anyone who is receiving the information through their ears, this technique is disrespectful to the reader, and thus (when referring to divine beings) disrespectful to the gods, as well, since the accolades are completely missed by part of the audience.

In one of the Hellenic Facebook groups I’m in this question came up; after one member researched it and agreed that capitalizing “god” is incorrect, quite a few others joined in. One pointed out that capital letters were relative newcomers to the ancient Greek language, but another, while agreeing with that point, emphasized that it’s the rules in English which hold sway in English, and common nouns don’t get capitalized in English.

This is a tough issue, one complicated by the fact that a lot of really smart, really knowledgeable people assume they know how to capitalize although it’s not their specialty. I know that folks that add capital letters are trying to do the right thing, but I believe they are instead sowing confusion and creating a false sense of respect which others might assume is sufficient. It is not, and let’s not obfuscate that issue: if we want to demonstrate respect for our gods, let’s do it in a way that is understandable to eyes and ears alike.

Rethinking immigration law

My long-held view on immigration is classically Republican, as opposed to the view held by many modern members of that political party: a republic is a nation governed by laws, and if those laws are not enforced there’s nothing left holding that republic together. The modern Republican view is classically American: we don’t like foreigners and will use laws to keep out as many of them as we can, even as our hearts swell with pride when thinking of the Statue of Liberty. I say “classically American” because while the Republican party is presently the home of most xenophobes, hating people who look or sound different is an idea that’s historically right up there with apple pie and “give me your tired.” We love the idea that people want to come here (we’re number one!), but once the neighborhood is packed with folks talking in another language, it’s a different story.

[Wikimedia Commons]

I try to avoid such hypocrisy. Sometimes, I even succeed.

Being a stick-to-my-guns sort of guy, I’ve gotten in a few online tussles with people over my “enforce the law” position, even after I started clarifying that “enforce the law, or change it to a law that you’re going to enforce” is fine by me too.

As I sat watching my local elected officials work out some kind of sanctuary law, listening to the testimony of people who live under threat — often, but not always, deserved — of detainment and deportation, it was very important that I wrap myself in my journalist’s mantle of dispassion. Otherwise, I knew that I could end up writing up my opinions, rather than actually reporting what happened. This is a mantle which often hangs loose about me, but this was one of those times when pulling it tight would be needed to make sure its work was done.

When I wrote the editorial about journalism as ministry, it wasn’t just that I see reporting news as a vital service. When I notice similarities in the way I approach my work as journalist and priest, that means I see serving the gods and speaking the truth to be closely aligned on a sacred level. It is a place from which I deeply listen to discern that truth, to the wagging of tongues and the moving of spirit. What settled over me was an understanding that I needed to let go my righteousness.

I’m surprised that no one in the room that night heard the grating, crunching sound of a paradigm shifting without a clutch. Maybe that falls short in explaining what went on in my head. It’s not that I suddenly understood reasons differently; no, I was just getting new orders and it didn’t really matter what I thought about them. Sometimes divine presence, for me, can be compared to physical sensation: floating, tingly, an emotional response. That was not the case this time; what I got was a thought dropped cleanly into the logic center of my brain.

Zeus is keeper of the law. My respect for law honors he who oversees its enforcement. It was some weeks after my experience before I realized he’d had a hand in reconsidering this question. Yes, Zeus is god of law, but not only mortal law. There are divine laws which also govern my life, and one of them, xenia, he wants me to put before immigration policy. Moreover, he shifted how I might interpret the relationship between host and guest; where I previously would have branded the alien an enemy for disregarding the law, I must evaluate em now as stranger, a person unknown who should be treated with respect and hospitality.

What’s changed? Expectations, more than attitudes. I still feel that a republic — a country governed by laws — should only have laws which are enforced, and that all others should be discarded. I still am likely to bristle a bit when I think about people ignoring the process for immigrating to this nation, rather than working to get it changed. Those thoughts, and the logical sand emotional steps I took to reach those conclusions, were not erased. However, I’m not to act on those opinions. It will take time for my worldview to shift, aligning itself with this directive, if it ever does. All I know for certain is that this particular set of laws is not one I am to defend. Perhaps, like tectonic plates settling after an earthquake, the change will be a gradual one that I scarcely notice. For now, I wait.

Finding Ares


Ares icon created by PT Helms

It is no small thing to find a god, for deities are as elusive as a reflection on water, as insubstantial as the mote which dances before the eyes, as subtle as the shift of late winter to early spring. Many religions teach of a “God” or “Goddess” who is imbued in all things, or oversees each and every working of the universe, or whose omnipresence transcends the concepts of “within” and “without” and makes those words feel meaningless; while such teachings suggest that a deity which is everywhere might be easy to find, it is remarkably difficult to focus on the everywhere. Gods, while rarely far from us, can be easily overlooked.

Indeed, the very decision to seek out a god is a difficult one to make: this is a secular world, and belief in the unseen increasingly is looked at askance. Aside from religious services, citizens of the western world are counseled to trust their eyes, to be pragmatic, to shunt aside their emotions and focus on rational experience. Any deity, from a monotheistic father to the god of a tiny spring which wells forth only once in a generation, can have its voice lost in the cacophony of marketing messages, career choices, and family dynamics of 21st century life.

So it is no small thing to find a god, especially if one is not seeking to do so. It is no small thing to find a god, particularly if the god one seeks is not the god who wishes to be found.

I was not seeking a god, nor a religion. I believed I had both: I was Pagan and I embraced the pantheistic, multi-faced One through many faces. I was not Wiccan, although some of their teachings resonated with me. I understood that all deities were simply aspects that my limited mind could best accept and relate to, with distinct personalities and histories. My beliefs were broad, inclusive, and only slightly more meaningful to me than the Catholic teachings of my youth. Intellectually, the message of love and healing was important, but it didn’t speak to my emotional self. Paganism became more of a label than a life for me.

No subtle nudge would have roused me from this torpor; no whisper at the edge of my awareness could get me to take step back and reconsider my path. I was entrenched in a life as full of activity as it was devoid of meaning, a comfortable place in which a man to find himself.

Only a roar as loud as nine thousand men could have gotten my attention, and only a god that terrified me by virtue of what he represented could utter that cry. I heard it from the bottom of the pit into which I had crawled I knew not when. I heard it even as I became aware of the maggots gently consuming my diseased self, and preparing to consume those parts which remained healthy. I heard it with my ears, my eyes, my follicles, my soul. I heard it, and I obeyed.

Get up.

Get up, and show some respect for this gift you have been given.

Do you think I, steeped in the blood of the slain and crusher of the defeated underfoot, know nothing of cowardice, nothing of failure? You are wrong. When the faithful lift their craven thoughts up to me, unable to continue without my aid, I take them up and wrap them like a cloak about my shoulders. Your failings, your weakness, your whispered words of self-defeat, your limiting beliefs; these are my mantle as I wade into battle.

You, who feel the weight of all your mistakes and missed opportunities, know nothing of the burdens I carry for you and your kind. Without me, you would have been ground to dust long ago. I shoulder it precisely because you are frail, you are mortal, you are a passing mote blowing hither and yon.

Get up, for you are strong enough to carry what is left to you. If it remains too much, than either you hold back my due or you protest too much.

Get up.

I got up. I obeyed: studying Hellenismos, discovering my patron and others among the theoi to whom I am drawn, and eventually taking up the mantle of priest after some years of preparation and instruction.

Ares has not spoken to me since. I still make offerings to him as I am led, but to him I have sworn no oaths. He was and is my gatekeeper, and I feel him near when my blood boils or runs like ice, but for the most part his work on me appears to be done. The way was opened with violence and fury, and only now am I able to do work of healing, and peace.

On not being a downer

Someday I hope to be able to afford this book.  In the meantime it’s on my wish list in case the gods of gimme choose to smile upon me, but for all its limits my life is actually pretty damned good and think actually asking for a book that expensive would be pushing it.

I suffer from depression, which makes me curious how it relates to miasma.  Since a depressive episode already has the effect of making the victim feel cut off from loved ones — both corporeal and noncorporeal — it would be a real kick in the jimmy if the gods were to turn us aside because of that situation.

What’s taught in my tradition is the the real problem with miasma is distraction, not being able to focus on and give the gods their due.  Depression can make concentration exceedingly difficult, which suggests that yes, the self-perpetuating cycle of depression cutting one off from the gods is a very real thing.

However, a wise Druid once observed that this particular kind of brain fog comes from a cycle of negative introspection, and that focusing on something outside of oneself can be a lifeline.  Carrying this into Hellenic practice makes sense to me:  there are times when I cannot sense the gods even when my mind is clear, yet I pay cultus to them.  Therefore, going through the motions during periods of depression should not be any less sincere than those times, as long as I focus on the devotion rather than on myself.

In fact, were I to stop honoring the gods when I’m depressed, I think it’s a very real possibility that I would never start again.  It is the routine that gets me up each morning, no matter how I feel.  I give offerings even when some dark part of me is convinced that it is a futile act, which means that in that moment I am in no way hoping for something in return.  Offerings cast into the void, because it’s the right thing to do, without hope of future reward.

There is an argument, it’s true, that the empty feeling is because the gods reject my offerings due to my state of miasma.  I reject that argument.  I honor the gods because it is right to honor the gods.  If they don’t wish my offerings, I won’t know, because I certainly cannot perform divination in that state.  Therefore, there is no downside that I can see, and the benefit to the gods is clear:  they retain a follower, one who will surely do their bidding when he can hear them again, and they choose to ask.

Why I need gods

There are plenty of people who turn their attention inward for their religious practice, or to the energy of the Earth or universe.  Not me; I need gods.

godsI have tried life without gods.  I’ve been the sort of Wiccan who honors archetypal forces.  I’ve communed with nature and its spirits directly, without any sort of worship.  I’ve meditated on my strengths and weaknesses, and I’ve taken responsibility through the use of magic and by acting in accordance.

For me, life without gods is life without hope.  It’s life without purpose.  Life without gods is no life at all.

What I cannot and will not claim is that worshiping gods leads to a life free of pain.  I screw up plenty, and bad things definitely happen.  I know of no god that offers me a mortal existence that is free of peaks and valleys.  My prayers are sometimes answered in ways I see as beneficial, but not always.  The purpose of giving offerings is not to obtain divine favor, and anyone who thinks otherwise is sure to be disappointed.

Gods — external, independent, immortal, inscrutable gods — provide for me a scaffold upon which I can build my life.  I’m not looking for some reward after my death for being a good worshiper; for me the gods are shining lighthouses by which I try to navigate life’s voyage.  It’s not enough to simply head towards one of those beacons, because I know I can’t actually reach them.  Maybe it’s better to describe them as the stars a helmsman uses to set a ship’s course.  They are fixed points, and so long as I keep some in front, some behind, and certain ones to each side I know I am headed in the same direction.

The periods of my life without gods — when I considered myself some amorphous sort of Pagan who didn’t actually worship — have been when I drifted without purpose.  Drifting isn’t necessarily a bad thing:  when the current is sending you in the direction you wish to go and the skies are clear, what could be better?  Without a destination or even a direction in mind, I have found that my drifting brings me through times good and bad, yet drains me all the while like someone on a raft in the sea is drained.

I respect those who don’t feel the need for the support of gods.  Yes, I get irritated by language that suggests that those paths are either superior to or in fact actually supplant my own, but when they do their thing and it works for them, who am I to judge?  I’ve tried that way, and I know I’d rather have those lighthouses, those stars above me.

Miasma can be likened to those stormy times when navigation is impossible.  Clouds blot out the sky.  No shore is close enough for a lighthouse to be visible.  I can but batten down and hold on.  Sucky things happen whether or not I worship gods.  The difference for me is that when the clouds part, I can again look to those stars and get my bearings.  When the way to the gods is restored, I can rebuild and retool.  I can resume my prior course, or set a new one as I choose.  I know I am not alone, even though I’m not expecting the stars above to hold a conversation with me.

There are many other things I need to thrive as a human being:  food, water, air, community, love, and shelter come to mind.  All of these dim when I do not have in my life gods as well.  Joy is more fleeting and pain brings more uncertainty and fear when no gods are present.  My ability to set goals and strive to be better is clarified and focused when I have the gods to steer by.

It is for this reason that I need gods.  Any questions?