Faith and Mystery

A few years ago, I picked up a fascinating (and often frustrating) book called The Shark God, by Charles Montgomery- a man who discovered that his great-grandfather had been a missionary in the South Pacific, and who decided to go there to retrace some of the stories he’d heard, and seek out the magic that might remain there.  Fascinating, because of the sympathetic depiction of a pre-Christian culture struggling (sometimes more successfully than not) with Christianization and Westernization, and also because of the real spiritual mystery that Montgomery sometimes found there (including an enigmatic encounter with the titular being).  Frustrating because of the narrator’s bumptiousness and occasional insensitivity, and because of the sense of so much lost to time and missionarial depredation.

But the author also was forced to do some deep thinking about the nature of myth, faith and mystery, and (although his brain was being periodically boiled by malaria… he never once mentions taking antimalarial drugs either, the twit), he comes up with some points well worth considering:

As soon as you stand apart from myths, divorce them from faith, pick apart their function and their origins, you become like an anthropologist, like Frazer peering through his ancient texts.  You may be fascinated and amused, but you will never see ghosts, or magic, or the hand of God, because you have stepped outside the realm of faith.  People say that religious fanatics are blinded by their faith.  Evans-Pritchard asserted that there is something just as blinding in rationalism.  You must make room for mystery before you can reach for it. [p100]

He sighed.  “Look, our knowledge of truth, the truth about that which is life-giving and eternal, it exists beyond the bounds of rationalism.  Faith carries us closer, but in the end we can’t describe it.  We just don’t have words for it.  At the end of the day, we are reduced to telling stories about that mystery.  That’s what I know.”[p305]

Faith, mystery, the Gods- we must be humble if we are to approach them successfully.

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Outside Time

I reread Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising every year, starting on the solstice and ending on Twelfth Night (the duration of the book).  It’s an important book to me, full of magic and wonder, and I count it as one of the influences that set me on the path to Paganism.

There’s some things in it that are even more relevant to me now than when I discovered it.  An example is this quote, from the chapter titled (of all things ) “Christmas Day”:

“Everything that matters is outside Time.  And comes from there and can go to there… the part of all of us, and of all the things we think and believe, that has nothing to do with yesterday or today or tomorrow because it belongs at a different kind of level… all Gods are there, and all the things they have ever stood for.”

This rings true for me, and not in just a metaphorical or archetypal sense, either.  Although we incarnate into bodies that experience time, we have an eternal part.  And the Powers exist mainly in the eternal, although they can reach into time to interact with us and the world.

Myths and the gods

The Shakespeare Theater is doing an adaption of the Oresteia (compressing it to one play of three acts) this season, and reading the notes on it in the season guide got me to musing about the nature of myth, especially in regards to the mythic portrayal of the gods. It’s fashionable these days to comb through (for example) the Greek myths and point out (with an odd combination of salacious humor and prim outrage) the “awful behavior” of Zeus.  And too much of the urban fantasy these days portrays the gods and spirits as just people with powers (if not spoiled superchildren or divine vending machines), and treats them flippantly or disrespectfully.

I think a lot of modern Western humanity’s arch snarking about the subject (and an underlying discomfort that causes it) comes from a number of modern, Western ideas:  1) that the gods and their motivations and plans are entirely knowable by and comprehensible to humanity; 2) that every situation allows us to make the right choice that leads to a good outcome or the wrong choice that leads to a bad outcome; 3) that we are capable of judging the gods and their actions as much as if not more so than vice versa; 4) that humanity is the crown of creation, the apex of evolution, and the master of its own fate…

All of these ideas are false from the polytheistic point of view.  Yes, myths can be re-interpreted (with respect), and the gods change the way they work with us as we change and are changed.  One real change about the modern era- it seems to be possible (though not for everyone) to ignore the gods… but if you choose to interact with them, and also try to hold onto any of those ideas, you’re in for a rude surprise.

W&P #32 – Polytheism

I just finished reading the Polytheism issue of Witches and Pagans, and it’s a winner.*  As well as a mind-expanding essay by Edward Butler and good solid pieces by Gus DiZerega, Galina Krasskovka, Niki Whiting and Silence Maestas, there was an excellent letter from John Beckett on what makes religion work.

* Of course, I’m also happy that there’s a review and a poem by yours truly in it… 😉

Many or One

Many or One

Her hand turns, the wheel (Her cross) spins,
And Mystery revolves into view.  Many Faces
Of one Power?  Many Voices in one Choir?
I do not, cannot know.  All I can say is:
Each Name- Healer, Warrior, Muse, Midwife,
Smith, Hearthkeeper; Exalted and Keening,
Flame and Well, on and on into mist and flicker-
Is unique, yet each is also Brigid.  No
Choice of mine which way the chance falls,
But Hers to decide; the road of approach,
The easy and the hard paths all are
Hers in this; and if after I pass from Time
To Her embrace I am indulged by Her and
She chooses to whisper the riddle’s
Answer to me, that’s enough- I will wait.

Word sonnet for Simbi Andezo

Galina Krasskovka recently introduced the concept of word sonnets on her blog.  So I decided to do one for Simbi Andezo:

Simbi Andezo

Waters
swirl,
salt
and
sweet.

The
serpent
waits
between.

Sometimes,
His
eyes
meet
mine.

Poem

[Something I wrote a couple of months ago…]

We cannot do this: see the world as They do-
Somewhat removed from time, suspended in
A suffusing, after-storm light, wet gold
In the west; a renewal even at sunset,
A promise more freighted with subtle awe
Than a rainbow; a pregnant peace, cloud-
Formed magic on high meeting the damp below.

Or as She sees it, as all Muses do-
All things as words to a poem, parts
To the greater work, fuel or tool or
Metal ready for the forge; gems to set
Just so, refracting; the shape emerging
Under patient hands, carved or pulled
Or picked out by paint, shaded into life.

But They cannot (choose not?) to touch direct
The world of hours; upswing, downfall,
Chrysalis-change; our senses are the ones
To take in this dust and delight, our hands
The only to mold the mortal; They may guide, order,
Even drive our actions, but our blood, brains,
Will and thews are the means of making.

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