I have a strange relationship with Christianity.
In short: I was raised Roman Catholic, was pretty devout despite my parents not being devout. I began getting molested at puberty (not by priests) and when I turned to prayer and God and got no response, I left Catholicism and Christianity.
I was angry at the Christian God for a very long time about that. Then we moved to Florida in 1989. Instead of Catholics, I was surrounded with fundamentalists. I’d never been told that I was going to Hell before. But apparently most of the things I loved (Dungeons and Dragons, heavy metal, fantasy novels) meant I was going to Hell. I saw my gay friends and acquaintances get harassed by religious bigots. My dentist used to wait until his hands were in my mouth to tell me about Jesus Christ saved him and how I, too, can be saved by the Lord.
Then, when I found Paganism (and converted in 1993), it was more of the same. Christians interrupting our public rituals, telling us that we were going to Hell.
It left me with a very negative impression of Christianity. One that took me a long time to get over. I still have issues with evangelical Christianity that I’m working on.
I wasn’t exposed to the good Christians. Because the people who were obviously Christian were the ones doing it by beating people over the head with the Bible (figuratively).
As years went past and I moved away from the South back to the Northeast of the country (back to “Catholic Country” as opposed to the Bible Belt), I began having experiences that softened my heart towards Catholicism…and later, Christianity.
As a radical leftist, I read about people like the Berrigan brothers and Dorothy Day who were inspired to their great works by their faith. I began to read Catholic mysticism like Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating and St. John of the Cross and went on a retreat at an abbey of badass nuns in rural Connecticut (who were not so progressive but still wonderful).
I had a strong desire to worship the Divine with devotion. I flirted with the idea of becoming a monk. When I got gravely ill in 2010, I made Confession and sincerely tried to reconcile myself with Catholicism. I wanted to retire away to a monastery and make cheese or beer or bake bread. (Monks and nuns are known for their excellent products made by hand in old-fashioned techniques.)
After serious prayer, I realized that I could not be Christian. I simply did not have the faith. I tried. So I immersed myself in devotional polytheism, which was then fairly new. Instead of a monastery, I moved into a Quaker-based intentional community with 20 other people for four years. I met some of the most amazingly generous and kind people there, people who were inspired by their faith. They were progressive. Many of them LGBT and all LGBT-friendly. They volunteered in soup kitchens. They fed the homeless. They were really good people working to make this world a better place for others.
I struggle with not being Christian sometimes. Not because I believe in Hell and feel like I’m damned. But because I have seen how some Christians have become changed due to their faith. They’ve become better people. Kinder, more generous, more patient, willing to welcome the outcast. They weren’t perfect or saints. They had flaws just like all of us do, but they were trying to emulate the Jesus they believed in.
I don’t believe in Jesus, personally. Not as the Son of God. I think we’re all the sons and daughters of the gods. But often…and now is one of those times… I wish that I was in a religion that was a community like some churches are. Where the broken, the outcast, the starving, the sinners…are welcomed. I wish that our religion inspired us to make the world a better place.
And I know that even most Christians aren’t like this. But I cannot help but admire the people who do these excellent works not to get into Heaven but because they believe it’s the right and just thing to do. Because their Lord has said it in their scriptures and they’re actually fucking doing it (as opposed to sitting in a church every week and judging others like many other Christians).
I’ve been reading books by Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor in Colorado (USA) and she fully admits to being a jerk or selfish or angry or stressed because that’s what life does to us. But her God inspires her to be a better person and listen to others, help someone struggling, be present for others, and more. Her church welcomes the outcasts, the outsiders, the ‘freaks’ that other churches didn’t want like LGBT people, alcoholics in recovery, etc.
I don’t want to be a Christian. I’ve tried. But I wish I had this in my Paganism. I wish my Goddess was speaking to me and telling me to get out and make this world a better place and inspiring me to be a better person. I wish I had a community of people that found Goddess together in our brokenness and inspired us to make a better world.
I wonder sometimes if I’m in the wrong religion.
A month ago, I was very active and devout in my worship, but I’ve reached a point, as I am prone to do…where whenever I make progress, there’s a roadblock.
I came down with first, a cold…now, possibly bronchitis. (I’m especially prone to bronchitis or pneumonia whenever I come down with something minor like a cold or flu.) I never know the rules around these things. I read somewhere that it’s not appropriate to approach the shrine while ill. So I’ve stopped all worship currently.
This is probably setting me back. I slip into more mundane thought-patterns, away from the gods and devotion.
Here’s the weird thing and I feel funny sharing it: I felt a sense of relief about it. I think that’s just because my ‘demons’ or kleshas or whatever is propping up my ego abhors anything remotely close to responsibility or spiritual/mental/physical health. They want me to stop because worship keeps them at bay.
Fortunately, I worship a god who is the Lord who removes obstacles. Once I’m physically better, which will hopefully be soon, worship will re-commence.
I’ve slowly been developing my shrine and working on my daily sadhana.
Recently, I listened to a podcast by Irish spirituality author Lora O’Brien who was interviewing Morpheus Ravenna.
They discussed many things but what really resonated with me was Lora’s emphasis on people interested in Irish spirituality actually learning the Irish language. It was a concept I’d read before and appreciated in Alexei Kondratiev’s “The Apple Branch”.
She said (and I’m paraphrasing here) how even though the gods surely know English, it leads to a deeper understanding of the Gaelic thought process and rhythm to learn the language.
I recommend checking out the interview on YouTube, especially if you have devotions to the Morrigan.
This made me think about how I would benefit by at least making the effort to incorporate more Sanskrit into my daily worship routine with Sri Ganapati. So I’ve been doing it. I stumble frequently but I’m getting better. I feel a positive response from Sri Ganesha but I don’t get direct messages or anything like that.
Also, I’ve ordered some cotton wicks from India very cheaply to use in my ghee lamps (dipa). I had been using wicks meant for olive oil lamps by Orthodox Christians. I’m sure they’re similarly effective.
Additionally, I picked up a beautiful canvas version of the Sri Yantra for my shrine to Devi. I’ve been using Her sixteen-letter mantra in japa. It was a bit clunky at first but I think I’ve found the rhythm to it.
When I first started learning about the path of devotion, there was no devotional polytheism. Polytheism as an understanding of taking the gods as if they are real was not yet something discussed among many Pagans.
I came to the concept of bhakti through learning about Hinduism and interacting with Hare Krishnas.
I was a very insecure young Pagan. I was shy and did not have much success with women. I lacked confidence in myself. I obsessed over the few women who showed me the slightest bit of friendship and called it “love”.
So, my first take on bhakti was viewing the Goddess as a sort of invisible girlfriend. “Divine Lover”, I probably would have said then, but essentially, “invisible girlfriend”. Some lofty ideal of femininity that I could use to fluff up my ego.
To be honest, I didn’t have much success. But also, I didn’t really know what I was doing.
I’m thankful that I took time away from the path of devotion in order to grow as a person. I regularly gave offerings to Ganesh but I didn’t quite view it in the same way. Much as I love the Lord, it’s certainly not romantic.
I have a great life, a job I like, a place to live in that I love, an amazing girlfriend whom I love very much, and…most importantly…I love who I am. Sure there are things I want to change, but it’s out of love.
When I had hints of Aphrodite calling to me earlier this year, it brought a lot of those old issues to the forefront. I did honor Her and did devotions regularly. But after it was over, I didn’t feel the need to continue. I don’t want a Divine Lover. I don’t need an “invisible girlfriend”. I already have someone that loves me whom I love. That space in my heart is, y’know, occupied.
But yet there’s something about Devi (Lalita Tripurasundari) that’s different. I always viewed Goddess as Divine Lover but Devi, beautiful as She is, I associate more with being Divine Mother. Maa.
Since I lost my mother to cancer back in 1999, I do still feel the need for that maternal presence sometimes. (Not that Maa can ever replace my mother in my heart, nor would I want Her to, but I do miss that sense of unconditional maternal love that a mother can provide.)
I feel as if I’ve had great success with this shift in approach, from Lover to Mother. Aphrodite never felt maternal to me. Maa does. Maa is. According to some Shakta scriptures, Maa created everything and everyone.
That said, I’ve been struggling a little in incorporating Lalita sadhana into my daily practice.
So there’s a particular piece of Shakta literature (mentioned previously in my post on Lalita), the Lalita Pancharatnam (which means the Five Gems of Lalita, referring to its five stanzas). It’s meant to be chanted in the morning and involves a description of Lalita Devi.
It just so happens that most mornings, I wake up around 4 or 5 am to use the bathroom and take medicine with some water. When I couldn’t get back to sleep, I’ve been using that time to worship. Usually about 30-45 minutes. Sometimes as long as an hour.
I light my ghee lamps, offer a little incense, and there in the warm glow of the lights, chant the Pancharatnam, and then do some japa (OM AIM HRIM SAUH).
I really enjoy this time with Maa.
The problem is that I then have difficulty getting back to sleep, which screws up my day. Especially on a workday. Then I drink more coffee or tea in order to compensate for the tiredness which makes it harder for me to sleep at night. It’s a vicious circle.
It gets to the point that I’ll often choose to abandon worship on a few nights a week just to get some sleep. Which leaves me feeling like a bad devotee. It’s a work-in-progress. Just need to find that sweet spot. Good thing I’m close to a certain Remover of Obstacles…
Today is Ganesh Chaturthi, the holiday in which Hindus around the world celebrate our Lord Ganesha, Lord of the Ganas, Remover of Obstacles!
Since I have to work today, I did my major celebration yesterday.
Last year, after feeling like my daily sadhana (spiritual practice) wasn’t traditional enough, I bought a puja kit for Sri Ganesha. However, it was specifically for Ganesh Chaturthi, so I kept until Ganesh Chaturthi came around and celebrated “traditionally” yesterday.
Hindu pujas can be a delight for the senses: The flowery smell of incense, the buttery scent of ghee from lamps, brightly colored powder like vermilion-colored kumkum or the familiar yellow of turmeric, the tall phenolic camphor flame for arati, and the sweetness of the treats offered as prasadam that He takes the essence of and bestows his blessings upon.
Out of devotion, I fumbled over and mangled Sanskrit mantras. I tossed turmeric-colored rice at the decorated clay image of the Lord. I anointed my temple bell with sandalwood paste.
When the celebration is over, I will immerse the clay image in water until it becomes one with the river. Just as I hope to one day become one with the Divine.
OM SHANTI SHANTI SHANTI!
Over at A Forest Door, Dver writes:
“What if we made September a month of polytheists blogging about their actual practices? No talking about what other people do or should do, no politics unless it’s an integral part of the religious practice described, no controversies, no denouncing, no complaining about how other bloggers make us feel. Just sharing our religious lives, the things we are doing in this month to honor the gods, spirits, ancestors, nature, or whatever.”
I think this is an awesome idea!
My daily practice is probably going to be very different from most other Pagans/polytheists due to the majority of practice being based on worshipping Hindu deities.
Basically, in the morning after showering (washing myself with sandalwood soap), I start my morning worship. I go to my shrine for Sri Ganapati (Ganesha). I purify the space with a little benzoin. I light some sandalwood incense. I put on a saffron-colored prayer shawl that has images of the Holy Family (Devi, Shiva, Ganesha). I ring a small bell to signify my presence and sit silently for a moment. I open the door to the shrine and chant some Sanskrit. I list His attributes and praise Him.
I offer a cup of water, light from a ghee lamp (fire), incense (air), and a food, generally laddoo, a sweet Indian baked good that Ganesha famously loves (earth). I’ll recite a mantra or a few in Sanskrit.
Then I talk to Him about my life and ask for what I need that day or pray for others.
If I have time, I’ll repeat His 108 names or His mantra 108 times. (108 being a sacred number in Hinduism.)
At night, before going to bed, I do the same except without the offering of water/incense/food/light.
That’s just for one deity (the focus of my practice).
For Devi, I don’t have a regular practice yet. I’m working on it. I also offer Her light and incense but do not do the food/sweet that I do for Sri Ganesha. I like to chant the Lalita Pancharatnam to Her in the morning, one or more of Her mantras 108 times and sections of the Saundarya Lahari to Her (See my recent post on Lalita for more information). I have been looking through a Sri Vidya worship of Lalita that takes about 30 minutes to perform. There’s also the Lalita Sahasranama (Her 1000 Names) that also takes over 30 minutes to perform. I might post more about the Sri Vidya piece in the next week or so.
When I worship Aphrodite, I will offer resinous incenses over burning charcoal like frankincense and myrrh and offer mead or apple cider. In the past, for a set period of time, I gave Aphrodite Limenia flowers and wine at the harbor near my work.
I also will offer apple cider or mead to Brigid.
I’ve also offered mead to Devi. Though it’s not traditional in conventional Hinduism to offer alcohol, Lalita is said to be fond of mead.
My practice is still changing, still evolving.