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.