Of Religion And The Spirit

(Rumination and navel-gazing.)

There are times when it seems it comes down to the question “But what do you mean when you say ‘religion’?” Which is a thing I poke at occasionally.

And it’s a bit of a muddle. At its best.

Most of what I post here is intended to be focused on the most general, exoteric, and accessible forms of religion. Religion of the ordinary, the mainstream, the straightforward; this is why I keep going back to the onion-hoers as a touchstone. It’s why I post about ways of causing religion to function within a family unit and performing formal execration rituals with the enthusiastic assistance of a nearly three-year-old. In many ways this is an attempt to return to an understanding of ancient – or at least tribal – modes of religion: “religion” is not something that needs a word, religion is what we do in the context of the holy, and the holy is not hidden away and separated by axiom from all things.

(Malidoma Somé wrote in one of his books about the women of the village gathering to make pots, a prosaic activity perhaps, but there were rituals to begin the process, songs to initiate it, and thus the crafting of new vessels is a thing made holy by the chosen, deliberate action of the community.)

I happen to think that this is really important. And I also think that its comparative rarity is one of the most profound failures of what might laughably be called “the pagan movement” (at least in the US), which remains, in so many ways, so very Protestant, and where it’s not Protestant, so often isolationist. (But back to knowing your mortar.) “Kemeticism for the Solitary Practitioner” is laughable – but it is also what a lot of people seem to want. Either sign up with a temple, or do it alone, right?

(Because the only real community is one built up of co-religionists, because teaching religion to children is some form of abuse, because because because. I don’t care about the reasons for the nonsense: I just wish people would notice that it’s nonsense. My close religious community includes, among others, a UU seminarian, a Celtic demi-recon, and an esoteric troubleshooter. With a mythology that starts out with “Before there were two things” and the recognition of diversification into millions being a part of the basic creative nature of the universe, we are damned fond of monocultural enclaves even though there is no practical way of living in a world where that’s functional. Not just Kemetics, either; I run into hippie-dippy happy pagans who totally want to Found Paganville And Bring Together All The Earth-Centred People In Peace And Harmony every so often.)

So there’s that framework of religion. The broadest, most available, and really most fundamental one: not just in “how do I mark this festival”, but the more important and more neglected questions of “how do I live”.

Within that context, there are more esoteric threads. Personalised devotions to one or more of the Powers, for example, can shape and guide a life. I’m working on building some kind of mystery school, gods help me, and maybe I’ll have it done enough to think of as substantial before I’m fifty. But those have to have a context, a shared set of understandings, and a population to draw from, I tend to think, or they can start to curdle a bit, or other things happen. (I tend to ascribe a large chunk of the growth of Wiccish exoteric religion as being an obvious thing that happens if one tries to do a mystery path without an extended community.)

And there are different kinds of stuff within this category. Building a mystery path is a very different thing from studying, training, or initiating within a mystery path that exists, for example. Dedicating service to a Power as a priest is a different road from a lay mystic, from a person who recognises the will of a patron within their work, or any of a number of other pathways of devotion.

The difference between this and the exoteric category is fundamentally that it is not entirely open. These roads are not available to everyone, for a variety of reasons: not everyone wants to put in the work to train those skills; not everyone is dedicated to that particular and specific Power; not everyone is willing to commit to doing shrine ritual every day. These things are genuinely okay, and it’s a good thing that we are all called to different things or there would be no onions. (Think of the oatmeal shortage!)

But I write some about that sort of thing here, too, though rarely directly. These things are more oblique, and when spoken of in public tend to get wound up in code so that only those people who know enough to Get It will be in a position to think that they Got It. They, too, are things of communities: the community of devotees of this Power, the community of keepers of this mystery, the community of people who do the work of the priest, and so on. Just smaller communities, ones where you don’t get welcomed simply for showing up and saying you want in.

The stuff that’s been occupying me, personally, of late, goes in a third category: the intimate. The personal. Which is a category that is not hidden from the other two – I have written about heka I did to support the conception of a child, in my published book even; I talk about personal interactions with Powers with those who have similar interactions. But there is no group entitled to sharing in these things. In the end, it is between me and the cosmos.

There are ways in which that is a lonely place. And ways in which it is amazing seeing the way a community can make something so intimate, so personal, and so secret possible. Because if I were truly alone, I could not do it.

I am very tired, though.


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