Bone Stories

Teo Bishop is leaving ADF, which is likely not a matter of great importance to the primarily-Kemetic audience of my work.

And yet.

He writes:

The things that cut deeply for me, that are real and sometimes really difficult for me — things like compassion, despair, forgiveness, hope, kindness, patience, honesty — I don’t feel like we spend any time talking about these things. I think we experience these things, but they always feel secondary to “right relationship.”

It was some years ago that I was at a gathering at PantheaCon. I don’t remember what the explicit topic of the conversation was, but we wound up talking about the response of the pagan community to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia on 11 September, 2001.

Or rather, the complete lack of any such response. The fact that, when pagans wanted to find community and support in response to tragedy, they went to ecumenical gatherings, interfaith gatherings, churches, and other places that were not pagan because there were no pagan groups able to support them, help them find context within something akin to their religious context.

Dozens of times I have seen people asking for help designing their perfect pagan wedding, but I have never seen someone ask for help designing their perfect pagan funeral.

Oh, there’s talking a good line at times about accepting that the world is not divided up into good and evil, about accepting the necessity and place of death, and so on, but in the end, we have, as the Biblical phrase goes, whited sepulchres.

A while back I developed the habit of offering a Kemetic prayer for the dead to deaths I saw mentioned in community. Sometimes I posted it: A thousand of bread, a thousand of beer, a thousand of every good thing. May they ascend!

Now I see other people – not Kemetic – doing the same thing, the same words, the same ritual offering to the mourning and the departed. Because having a prayer for the dead to offer matters in the end, and it matters in a deep and human way. To offer proper mourning is an obligation and a gift of the living, and it is a way that we become human, in community, that we acknowledge each other’s wounds and in that acknowledgement act to heal them.

Teo writes:

I can try to do well and I often fall short, but — amazingly enough — when that happens I experience a deep, profound, spiritual understanding that, in spite of what any ancient person said…

I am not at the center of the cosmos.

I cannot will things into happening exactly as I would like. My life, at times, feels really broken, and I don’t know how to proceed, and I need to own up to that.

Religion must answer grief. Religion must answer the broken places. Religion must answer pain, must answer failure, must answer inadequacy, must answer insufficiency, because even in a world so abundant and glorious as this one, these things will come, and in the end they will go.

When our religions do not hold this space for us, they will fail us in the end, and no amount of feeling obligated to them will hold that place. We may not, as polytheists, have the Problem Of Evil, in which a supposedly omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent power still allows for great and horrible suffering, but we still have suffering, and we allow for the likelihood that the gods do not have the power, the knowledge, or the desire to prevent it.

It was under a full moon in August of 2005 that I threw furious prayers out, I cried “Wesir, Wesir, I feel I have been pulled to pieces, I do not know how to survive this, but you do.” And I did the devotional work, and I survived this.

It was in a February in 2007 that I stood before the seidhkona with tears streaming down my cheeks and asked my grandfather, twenty years gone to the West, for his blessing, and asked him how to honor him; I got the answer that I must live well and strong, with courage. And the devotional work is in the living, not in the candles lit in shrines.

Sometimes I know that candles lit in shrines are cowardice, for me, and do not give him enough honor: because this is a world of doing, and I am still one with hands to do. I can say “Oh, grandfather, I love you, I pour water, I light incense”, but if I have not built anything I am hollow, all pretty words and no doing. There are reasons I make a point of doing charitable donations for Opet, of putting up a sample of bread for the domovoi when I bake which requires that sometimes I bake, of all the things that require action that moves in the world. I make a prayer, I write a poem, and these are all fine things to do, but I am not at the center of the cosmos and if I have not done more than make a devotional tie between myself and the Powers then I have done nothing.

I am not good at grand gestures and displays, at running for office or indeed anything that requires that I talk to a lot of people and encourage them to like me, at Causes and Activisms and all these things. But I will pray for your dead. I will offer people resources they need to fix their boat, or their roof, or buy lunch, or some other things, as I can, because if ma’at is the force that gathers people into communities, it is at least as present at a barn-raising as it is in solitary prayer.

There has to be an answer to the questions posed by humanness, and if that answer is not that we are all human together, each wrestling with questions of pain and reaching for glory, then the answer is not good enough to satisfy me. We are good at the glory, sometimes, but we are so very bad at pain.


7 thoughts on “Bone Stories

  1. Tana says:

    Reblogged this on Primal Witchcraft and commented:
    What does your religion say? Does it have a prayer for the Death?

  2. Tana says:

    Had to reblog this.
    This little article talks of so very important things.
    It should be read by ALL the people.

  3. […] Kiya Nicoll has posted a blog post about honoring humanity and the dead. Bone Stories […]

  4. This is a beautiful post, and I agree with everything in it. I’ve said what I needed to say to Teo to him directly, but I will say here that I am saddened that he could not find anything in ADF that spoke to the challenges of being human. I don’t, personally, think the reason was that those things are not there; but clearly they were not being expressed in a way that spoke to him, and I want us to do better.

    (And I am working on my perfect Druid funeral, as it happens, because I have seen enough family angst around funerals to think it will be a kindness to those who will one day have to try to arrange it.)

  5. […] Apparently, the Pagan Blogosphere has been abuzz with the news, for some time, for example, here, here, here, here, here, and […]

  6. Ariel says:

    Wonderful post.

    Also I want to chime in here that I am a polytheist who has asked for help planning my funeral for some day. The last thing I want is for my funeral to be in a church or to be any form of a Christian funeral set up by well meaning relatives.

    Also, I will add that as someone who has has tried to follow monotheistic Abrahamic paths twice but has identified Polytheist for most of my life, I did not find Abrahamic monotheism (including Christianity) to be any better at addressing feelings of pain and “compassion, despair, forgiveness, hope, kindness, patience, honesty” than Paganism or Polytheism — in fact, usually Christianity addressed those concerns far less so for me, personally. Maybe Teo didn’t find what he needed in ADF because there is no-one-size-fits-all religion. Maybe he didn’t have the kind of discussions he wanted and needed because he was not lucky enough to find the ADF members who share such concerns. Although I am no longer a member of ADF myself, I can and do find ADF members to talk to about these things. Maybe I just got lucky.

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