Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Devotional Work is the Engine

This summer has seen a number of improvements to the shrine I built last spring behind the garage belonging to my friend K. I added a statue of Mary, to help deepen my relationship with her more mysterious sides, and some lovely flowering plants. I also added a concrete bird bath, which is used by the visiting humans as a scrying pool and by the birds for its intended purpose. As you know if you’ve been following along, I take flowers and incense every Sunday morning and now have added the duty of scrubbing out the birdbath.

In reflection of the tradition of physical sacrifice, I fertilize all the plants within the canopy of the shrine with blood meal.

But why is this practice important to me? The ongoing conversation of “asking” the denizens of the invisible universe for things makes me want to talk about this. Back to that in a moment.

I engage in devotional activities to beautify and enliven my world. To create a link between myself and divinity. To fill in the abyssal hole left by my previous partnership. To help make sense out of a world where I feel not just a little bit lost. There is a strong sense that this place is my cloister.

So, let me say something may upset some people. As members of a profoundly materialistic and secular culture, we may not actually know what it is to have a relationship with the divine. In particular, I have a hunch that we don’t know how to have a relationship that would be recognizable to the ancients or a writer of a grimoire. Our world is not the same, our thinking absolutely different, and our expectations unrecognizable to our magical ancestors. Our familial ones, too, of course, but that is a larger question.

Before rational thinking became the only “approved” way of interacting with the world, before the Enlightenment, before the Scientific Revolution, before WSIWYG… people were surrounded by religious activities. It wasn’t just magical practitioners and the otherwise unhinged that maintained household shrines. Instead of seeing lightning as a plasma formed by clouds at different electrical potentials, we saw forces with names. Entities we could interact with, placate, and plead to. It’s impossible for us to imagine what that was like but let me urge you briefly to try.

And then, recognize that we’ve only been trying to think like this for a couple of hundred or so years, out of all of human history. We’re globally not good at it yet. This fact can be gleaned even from a newspaper. So-called “critical thinking” is almost impossible for most people, and for those of us who do it in our day jobs, it’s largely a game. A game with a purpose, to be sure, but it’s not our native language.

And we miss the fullness of a divinely inspired world, we long for the presence of the gods, their company. We feel alone. We feel powerless. We ache. We’re left in the Matrix’s “desert of the real.”

And so, we, as confused polytheistic seekers, try to put this god-driven reality back together, except we have no pre-existing community to help us with it. Imagine having an entire culture that recognized the gods at its core (not that there aren’t issues with this, as history teaches), imagine a more completely enlivened world and realize that human beings basically evolved within this earlier paradigm. In some senses, and not exclusively, we’re programmed for this religio-magical thinking.

This gets to my thoughts about “asking” the spirits and gods for things, for comfort, for help, and the words we use to do that. The way we “ask” for things is no longer informed by an existing cultus and community, so we fall back on other paradigms: our relationship with our parents and whatever our relationship to the gods of our fathers. Or worse, it’s a kind of mechanical “push button, get banana” thinking. It’s not bad framing so much as using a secular gloss to address religious ideas. It’s trying to use material skills for a mystical purpose.

This is bound to make us look like kids at a vending machine, trying to buy a Snickers bar. We didn’t previously have to install the vending machine or maintain it. We get mad when the candy gets hung up on the way to the delivery chute and have a complete meltdown when we don’t get what we “paid” for. If we get the wrong thing? An outrage.

In some ways, this whole system is mechanically based in cause and effect. We must have the right currency to operate the machine, we must know how to ask it for the Snickers and not the Twix. We must know when it no longer contains the things we want. In short, we have to know how to “ask” the machine for the product.

Returning to the previous description of magical thinking, though, besides needing to understand how to work the vending machine, there are some metaphysical realities. We need to know it’s there. We need to recognize that someone other than us is taking care of it, refilling it, collecting the money, keeping the area around it clean and safe. The vending machine – the gods and spirits – is an environment. As religious/magical people, we need to recognize our role in making the system work.

The mechanical analogy, though, dies wheezing because the gods and spirits are not machines, they are entities. They’re not your parents either. They are only anthropomorphic because they are easier to imagine and have a relationship with that way. This winds itself back into my description of shrine work because devotional work is the establishment of that relationship. A recognition that I don’t really know who or what they are, but that I need them for my life to feel complete.

One last musing: I do ask the gods and spirits to do things for me. I can track through my journals the fact that my requests are more often granted since I started keeping the shrine. Is this transactional? I don’t think so. We can probably map this onto simple human emotion. When a person cares deeply for another person, they express their love by giving. This is what makes them a lover, not what they get in return. When we serve the gods, we hope they take care of us, but it’s the care we bring to the table that starts the engine. It’s the thing that makes the rest of our practices possible.

Blessed be thou.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Becoming Like Fire

 It’s spring in Rochester, and I’m celebrating by planning updates to the shrine. First came the cleaning of the space. The little animals that I share the shrine with were busy last week and had distributed all of the dog bones that sit on Hekate’s plinth hither and yon. I collected them all and replaced them after cleaning the top of the pillar.

I’m planning to add more pavers to the path on the way from the breach in the bushes that serves as the door to the shrine to the concrete pad. Also, I’ll clear out the brush a bit and plant some shade-friendly ground cover on the inside of the grove.

More seriously, there is a massive forsythia bush inside that is about half dead and desperately needs trimmed.

As things green up, I’m considering a birdbath away from the statues as a relief for the animals as well as a scrying surface.

A dear friend and I were talking recently about devotional work as the engine to magical work, and he gave me a tidbit from the Desert Fathers:

Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not become fire?

In my mostly monastic existence, I find a lot of comfort in this particular quotation. My shrine work would be called by Christians “faith in action,” in that it’s something I can DO to become fire. After all, this is what we want the gods to help us do, isn’t it?

Blessed be thou.

Monday, April 3, 2023

Evolution of a God-shrine in Western NY State


On a windy day in May last year, I started to build an outdoor shrine to Hekate and Typhon behind the garage of the house where I was living in Rochester NY. Starting with a cracked concrete pad hidden within a patch of brambles and small trees, I cut a “room” out of the hanging branches and laid a sidewalk of leftover construction material, slate rectangles. I added a plinth in the center of the pad with a statue of Hekate on it and a stump with another slate piece on top with a statue of Set. Around the perimeter of the pad are hung candles. 

Every Sunday morning, I serve the gods flowers and prayers. Sometimes they receive incense, sometimes blood, sometimes tears. 

For an entire year, my devotional work has revolved around the maintenance and evolution of this shrine. I feel more connected to big forces than ever. It supports my magical work, the view I hold of myself and my place here on the Earth. It fills a hole that has been present for a very long time.

This spring, I will plant low-light ground cover inside the shrine and add a statue and a birdbath for scrying. Watch this space...

Blessed be Thou.

This photo was taken after Hekate was installed early last summer.

Last Sunday, the first sunny shrine day in months. Some little creature eats all the carnations that I leave, and only the carnations.

Hekate with the bones of dog hit by a car in MN. Doggo was an old lad or lady, canine teeth dull with use. He has a hero's welcome here.