“This I Believe”

Among the things that I do is attend a UU church. Last week, the ministerial intern asked if anyone would be interested in volunteering to give a little speech on the topic of “This I Believe”, based on NPR’s ‘This I believe’ series, and I said I would be.

This is the thing I did.


It has always sort of seemed to me that things fall apart in the summer. All of the ideas and energies of spring encounter the blistering heat and fade away into nothing. Perhaps when I was younger I felt crises didn’t have enough space to fit into my schedule during the school year, so they would wait until there was time to properly consume me.

Some years ago, I started work with a spiritual mentor, and one of the first things she asked was “What is your year like? When do you tend to get ideas? When do you tend to fall in love? When are your good times? When are your bad times?” And, dutifully, I went and wrote it down, and said, “Oh. No wonder,” because there were these gaps in the summer and the winter where I just had a hard time doing anything. It was impossible to build up any momentum.

Then I learned that I have an autoimmune disease. That the pain in my joints was not a normal thing that everyone has to deal with. That the mental fog isn’t universal. That a whole bunch of things.

That I am abnormally and particularly sensitive to extremes in temperature.

**

It was like being reborn. Like a sudden cool drink in the desert. Not that it made everything better, but it made everything make more sense. This was something I could get a handle on. And I started rebuilding my year, with these two tools – my mentor’s questions, my understanding of the failings of my body – using my own religious background as a tool.

So, yes. Things fall apart in the summer.

And then come the waters, and they wash it all away, everything that’s come apart, and in that clean new place, things grow again. And eventually – inevitably – it will work its way around to summer once more, and sure, it will all go to pieces.

But the waters, eventually, will come, and they will destroy everything that is there to be destroyed, but also, they will bring relief. They will bring a fresh start.

**

Happy new year!

I know it’s probably not any of yours, but it’s mine.

To be precise, Thursday was my liturgical new year. I celebrated yesterday with a number of people, and it wasn’t their new year either, but that doesn’t matter. Community is what matters, that thing that makes people flow together like water, that makes them find each other and support each other and develop that interdependence that means that when our worlds fall apart, someone is there to bring the flood again, to wash away the debris, and to say “We will make something grow.”

I’ve told any number of people this over the summer, so I will say it again: I was here five years ago or so, when my family lived in Billerica, when my oldest child was a toddler, and I kept telling people every time I came to Bedford, I knew that the sermon would be about a particular form of justice that is about relationship with and among people, about community, about the values in the particular affirmationt we recite. I don’t expect anyone to think of it in the terms of my specific religious background, but it kept calling me back; and when my family moved, I would say, occasionally, “I really mean to get back to Bedford”, but never managed it, not before that oldest child started asking me all these questions. And I said, “I know where to go for questions.” And so we’ve been back.

Last week, Joshua read a bit of the Book of Amos, saying, “Let justice roll down like the waters.” And it has been quite a summer, looking at the world, things falling apart in so many ways, but we can look for the waters to come. We can look, and we can dig the channels to get it flowing to our fields and grow good things, and we can do the work to find them and help them flow.

Because this I believe: that the world is made good. That every summer’s falling apart, that every plunge into darkness, has in it the chance to find the waters, to clear away the debris, and to be reborn. That dawn will come again, and so will the chance for things to grow. And that it is our responsibility, as human beings, as a community of people, to make space for the waters to flow, to drink deep, and to make certain that nobody goes thirsty.

Happy new year. May the promise of the waters coming sustain you through the summers in your life, and the certainty of dawn carry you through the dark nights of the soul. Drink deep.

Continuing in “grab a handy book”

For if the universe is animated, it is best understood in terms of human life. We have seen that the Egyptians explained the daily appearance of the sun as its birth; the moon waned because it was the ailing eye of Horus. When barley was made into beer and bread, it was Osiris – manifest in any grain – who died. We shall meet with such images at every turn, and we must not interpret them as allegories, for we cannot abstract a meaning form them without falsifying the beliefs which they express. Images are not ornaments or adjuncts of ancient thought. They are inseparable from it because the ancients reached their insight in a manner which was intuitive and imaginative as much as intellectual.

– Henri Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion

Next in a series of bits of “I grab whatever book seems handy and flip around to find something interesting because my actual reading at the moment is a new translation of the Pyramid Texts and things with that many lacunae are not good for quotes for thought”. ;)

Not a Quote of the Week

Today, I am listening to this sermon and thinking about the night battle against the Uncreated One.

That’s the thing about it, you see, that there is no escaping this struggle, its inevitability; there is so much to do, and the great serpent is overwhelming. If its jaws are capable of unhinging wide enough to swallow the sun, what can we do? If it has the capacity to drink the river of heaven, what can we do?

But like I quoted last week, the ancients saw that there was no moment that could not be improved, could not be brought into better alignment with the first moment, nothing that could not be made purer and better. They did not say “I had no part in making that serpent,” but made their wax images and trampled them underfoot, and measured their time, in part, in widows and orphans fed, clothing given, boatless emboatened.

It is not about putting down the serpent once and for all; there is no space in this cosmology for final cataclysmic battles of that sort, after which there is only the celebration of triumph for all eternity. There is putting down the serpent in his time, so that there will be tomorrow – knowing, again, that the battle will be rejoined tomorrow as well, so there can be the day after. It is a long-term commitment, not to attaining some perfection and laying our burdens down afterwards, but to acknowledging the burden – the responsibility – the glory that is our reciprocal duty to creation.

We are building the world, we and the Powers; what are we building, right now, by our choices?

Give the sermon a listen. It’s a bit more of a commitment than the quote of the week, but hey. I like going to church every so often, to listen to other people talking about ma’at.

And it’s this brave honesty that gives us at least a chance. It reminds us that part of how we face the enormity of the work is together; we help each other to see the truth, and to bear the pain of really feeling it. We help each other to speak the truth. We protect each other when we are punished for it. We feed each other’s hopes.

– Elena Rose Vera, preaching at The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples on 15 November, 2015

(There’s your quote, if you must have one.)

Spiritual Convection

Doing a bit of reading has me pondering basic cosmological structures. Which I touched on, briefly, when I posted the map that was published in the Guide, but I’m looking from a different angle at the moment.

There is a gradient of formlessness and form to be seen in that image of the cosmos: we, resident primarily in the world of that which is knowable and known, visible and seen, bounded and contained, and having a distinct shape, have our residence primarily in the top half of the world, where potential has, for the most part, been realised – or is in the process of becoming so.

But if we enter the akhet and the realms of dream, the residences of the blessed and mighty dead, the personal homes of the gods, we have crossed a gate to a realm in which shapeshifting – a subject of a huge number of spells – is common, though one must take care not to adopt a form that falls too close to formlessness (such as a fish), where the rules of the seen world risk becoming inverted, and the powers can be seen more readily wearing their own faces.

And if we go deeper, the perils are sharper – the nightmare forms dwelling in Rosetjau, the lair of the enemy.

And if we go deeper still, back into the depths of the past and the bottom of the bottomless, the very edge of being where it melts into the Nun, we find the Mysteries, through which possibility and growth are released into the world of the existent, to bubble upwards, conveyed by the Boat of Millions towards the surface, carrying life by which forms may be animated.

It is true that the ancestors are guardians of the flow of life into and out of the Duat, that their blessings come with the turnings of the year: the ancestors are the mirror into which we look, seeking our origins. The flow of that which the gods bring up from the Nun passes through their hands as it reaches the gates of morning.

And of that we make worlds. We choose how we conduct our lives, we eat and offer and live, and we pass back the forms that we have created into the akhet in the evening, in the shapes of our dreams, the passage of our travelling souls, our own selves when we come to our mooring day.

Problems of Evil, Problems of War

I read a moderate assortment of blogs of various sorts, including some more mainstream religious ones. In one of those, I’ve been moderately interested in a series of posts titled “On Warfare and Weakness”, attempting to construct a progressive Christian understanding of a war against evil.

It was the eighth post, On Warfare and Weakness: Part 8, the Quotidian, that made me realise that Kemetic theologies already have this model for approaching the universe. (I suspect it was this post that tipped me off because of my personal constant harping on the theologies of a sustainable daily life.)

Most forms of polytheism do not suffer from the commonly framed concerns about how, if a god is benevolent and powerful, there is evil in the world; our gods rather tend to have limits to their benevolence and to their power and knowledge as well. We don’t have to go through the work of “limiting” our gods that Richard Beck was talking about in earlier posts in this series, as our gods are already limited in scope. (Not all polytheisms get around this problem; certain forms of emanationist polytheism, henotheism, and other theologies have a perceived all-good creative force acting ex nihilo, and thus wind up with the question of whether all-good creative forces acting ex nihilo had a bad hair day or something in order to invent suffering.)

And it struck me while reading that post that Kemetic theology is fundamentally rooted in what Beck calls a warfare model and which is at the same time fundamentally quotidian. The forces that would stall regeneration and regrowth rise up every day, in literally read mythology; in easy extrapolation their presence is mundane and persistent, and to be opposed diligently in more than the mystical experience of the midnight sun.

“You see a wile, and you thwart, am I right?”

Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

This upwelling of the enemies of life cannot be put off into a posited mythologically compelled disaster area of the future; like Beck is arguing for in his warfare model, this is not a theology of apocalypse. This is a theology of struggle against that which opposes being, as part of the daily circuit of the sun, as part of the daily conduct of a life.

This struggle against the enemies of life is on my mind lately, because of ritual combat – ritual struggle – ritual naming and destruction of those enemies that I did in a recent gathering of my circle. The framework of the work I did there was largely not Kemetic, though I snagged a bit of Kemetic ritual magic for some of what I was doing, so I didn’t post about it here, but I keep coming back to it, coming back to: these are the enemies of life. Now what?

I sometimes feel that taking up the blade, taking up the wax figurine, preparing to bite, is a model that a lot of people, not just in modern paganism, are very uncomfortable with. The knife that comes to ritual has dull edges. The act of cursing and execration is eyed sidelong as something that surely we don’t need in these more civilised times. Spiritual warfare is for those people who cause problems, the one who divide humanity into the saved and the damned.

But the outer walls of ancient temple complexes were decorated with illustrations of hunting and illustrations of war.

House of Life

A while back, henadology mentioned a book titled Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance, by David Frankfurter, and I had to admit that it was Relevant To My Interests (even though I don’t do a lot of reading outside the Pharaonic period). But given that my generalised thoughts about the development of religion outside the temples, a study of how religion in Egypt was constructed during the decline and destruction of active temple cult is, well, a thing.

I didn’t get fifty pages into the thing before finding this:

This kind of rite was hardly unique to Esna and demonstrates that, alongside a ritual cycle exclusive to the priesthood and to the temples’ inner courts, temples would actively serve the needs of farmers, infusing the fields with the very sacred power that “lived” in the temples. Temples would thus be popularly regarded as repositories of such power for the sake of the landscape and fields, much as Libanius described: “In them, the farming communities rest their hopes for husbands, wives, children, for their oxen and the soil they sow and plant.” In actively penetrating the countryside with the images of gods the temples involved themselves intimately with a basic concern of popular culture, according to a calendar of festivals and processions. The fact that such processions adhered to calendrical cycles does not so much set up some sort of “temple hegemony” as integrate the natural cycles of the Nile Valley with the temple, the local “center” of sacred power, and with the worldview that the temple epitomized.

By the Roman period such traditional forms of administering the fertilizing power of the temple-gods were often supplemented locally with more “open” shrines. Thus in Thebes, outside the main temple of Luxor, stands a small mud-brick shrine dedicated in the early second century to Serapis and his accompanying images and holding a large statue of Isis-Thermouthis. Although other temples were still being built or refurbished in the more traditional manner that excluded the sacred images from the eyes of devotees, the structure of the Luxor shrine allowed for devotees to be separated from this central icon of popular agricultural fertility only by front doors, which were ritually opened by a priest at certain times; and offerings might be made immediately in front of the shrine.

This is from the section of the book headed “The Distribution of Powers: Fertility”; subsequent headers include “The Cult of the Nile as a Popular and an Institutional Phenomenon”, “Healing Cults as a Nexus of Temple and Popular Piety”, and “Temple Festivals in Egyptian Life”, which one might note are also primarily concerned with the basic same force as one might be invoking when dealing with fertility: the flow of life-energy and its channeling into proper channels.

In other words, from a perspective situated outside of state ritual and the formal cult which was almost entirely invisible to the general population, the function of the temple might be best summed up by the term for the temple library: House of Life.

The basic architecture of the temple supports this perspective of the temple as a sort of source or bank for life energy which can be accessed for the benefit of the people. Each temple, after all, was organised such that someone entering the pure precincts thereof would climb the gently sloping corridor through the hypostyle hall – full of the decorations of first fruits of the creative surge, the marsh plants and the wealth of life – into the holy of holies, which was Zep Tepi itself, the creative mound, from which the entire cosmos flows in the perpetual act of coming into being.

So this raises the fundamental question: what does it mean to have a House of Life? What does it take to create such a place, to live within a world in which the House of Life exists? What does this mean, in practical terms of what Life is, what qualities it has, what its substance may become.

The gods so frequently were shown holding the ankh, each one carrying life as they go about the world, sweeping the holiness of life in their wake as they walk. The divine carries life; the house of the god keeps it safe.

Lifting the Boat

I pray for the dead.

People throw out random prayer requests all the times in pagan circles, and whether or not I respond varies widely. But I pray for the dead. Always.

I forget who said it – if it was Somé or an Ifa priest or someone else – but our tears make the water that lifts the boats of those crossing to the other side. The dead need the love and support of the community to reach the far shore. Our emotions offer power, offer guidance, offer strength.

And here is a thing: this is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the first moral obligations that a Kemetic has. Pray for the dead. For all of the dead. Especially in those first seventy days, the time of transition between living and the imperishable stars.

The spirits in transition exist in a place of confusion. The systematic ordering of souls and members has been snapped and the unifying force unravelled. Without help, those parts will drift away and be lost, a breath on the wind and a fading memory – or, perhaps worse, be trapped in fragmented ruins, a clutching wreck trying to seize wholeness from the living. Grief provides a structure, a system, a format around which the one who has been separated from the familiar can start to re-forge the connections between souls. We, the living, are the light that holds steady so that the Westerners can find the West.

When we give that gift, our tears, our wails, the candles we light, our murmured prayers, we breathe a little unity back into the system. We reach across the rift, we affirm that the dead are whole and the dead are with us, and that we are with them, in mutual support. We address the breach in our community, even as we see them on their way and acknowledge that this is a change of address for which mail forwarding gets a little complicated.

It is the nature of the energy of life to flow. We know this – trivially – from the cycles of ecosystems, of eating and being eaten. This holds true in broader terms; we know this mystically from the dance between the Beautiful Festival and the Mysteries, or – if more neo in our paganism – Beltaine and Samhain. We bring this knowledge when we pray for the dead, giving life, life, life, offering up life and love to the dead that they may be filled with life (for millions of years, a matter so many times true) and that we, being givers of life, may be filled with life.

It is sometimes tempting to hold back the prayers for the dead, when the dead are not our own, or when they have crossed some moral line of which we do not approve. In fact, one of my first experiences in Kemetic community was with such a person – difficult at best, widely hated – whose mooring day came by his own hand, and who many people declared should not be mourned. (I will note: a suicide almost certainly has major dissention among their souls, and needs our help to find integration far more than the peaceful dead.) But the unmourned dead, the unprayed-for, they do not find peace, they do not make the transformation, they do not go away, and that, if nothing else, should be good for a mumbled thousand of bread and thousand of beer.

Ancient tombs would have stelae set out before them, with demands of the traveller and passerby: read out this stone. If you cannot read, pour out water over the glyphs, that they might be fed and thereby activated. Speak the name of the dead, remember the dead, give life to the dead. A thousand of every good thing.

Pray for the dead.

(Temporal note…. I was writing this before I heard the news.)