Thoughts and Prayers

One of the things I’ve noticed over the past year (possibly brought to the fore by the large number of natural disasters in the U.S. and elsewhere, as well as the horrible world-wide refugee situation and the proliferation of mass shootings and terrorist attacks) is the amount of scorn being heaped on the frequently-repeated statement of “our thoughts and prayers are with them” (or its equivalent).

I think a lot of this is due to the knee-jerk atheism that seems to be hip these days.  Even in those who aren’t atheist, there seems to be a lack of belief in the effectiveness of prayer, in the idea that the divine can and will affect the material world.  And a lot of Pagans (and other people who believe in magic) seem to shy away from the idea of prayer in general because it’s “too Christian”.

There also seems to be a false dichotomy being set up- that anyone who offers “thoughts and prayers” in response to a horrible situation is just being lazy, that they’re automatically not actually helping in other ways.  That may be the case in some folks, but it isn’t in all.  Any good magician knows you need to act in the material and the spiritual world at the same time; every Pagan should take that principle to heart as well.

Also, sometimes, there is simply nothing else we can do.  Someone we know is in trouble- a messy divorce, a fatal illness, serious mental illness.  But they are far away, or their material needs are provided for, or we have no way to help them… or perhaps, our own stock of spoons is so low that we can’t be of material aid.  All we can do is tell them that our thoughts are with them.  It could be that just knowing we hear them and we’re aware of their pain will help them.

Finally:  I’m a polytheist.  I have, to use the Anomalous Thracian’s elegant phrase, “a religious regard for many real Gods”.  That means They can hear my prayers, and choose to act on them if They so choose.  When I tell someone, “you are in my prayers”, it is not trivial to me- or to the Gods.   It is a real and meaningful offer of aid, one that takes time, effort, and sometimes cost.

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Hospitality and my tradition

One of the centers of my devotional practice is an eclectic trance possession group called the Universal Temple of Spirits.  Not going to go into detail here, but please feel free to explore the website and ask respectful questions in the comments.

Anyway, one of our central tenets and paths of service is Hospitality.  The way I see it working in our devotional ceremonies is that we create a space of hospitality, a warm and safe “feast hall” as it were, and we send out “invitations” to the Spirits that the mortal attendees want/need/have been told/etc. to invite.

The Spirits we invite are our Guests; it is their choice whether to show up or not, and to help or counsel or chastise or comfort; or to indulge in the song and dance, the food and drink; or to send Their “regrets” as energy or goodwill; or to not respond at all.  We are the Hosts;  it is our duty to make Them welcome and to provide for Them, to honor and praise Them, to heed Their words and respect Their wishes, and to be aware of how They want to interact with us.

It’s a delicate balance, though.  Just like in the ancient tales and myths that touch on hospitality, the Guests have duties, even though They are greater than us- noblesse oblige, perhaps, and definitely remembering not to abuse Their welcome.  And we as Hosts have rights as well- as John Beckett has said many times, we retain our sovereignty, even with the Gods.

LARP and Ministry (part 2)

So, in an earlier post I started musing about what benefit came from my playing a priest for over ten years in a live action roleplaying game (aka LARP).  It certainly honed my spiritual counseling skills, but that wasn’t the only thing.  It also gave me some useful experience with theological exegesis.

Let me give a little background here, without (hopefully) getting too deep into the nerdy details.  My character was a priest of a functionally henotheistic religion dedicated to the worship of the goddess who had created humanity.  The prime tenet of the faith was “Harm None”.  Sound familiar?  This made being an adherent of the faith somewhat… challenging, especially since the LARP setting was a dangerous, D&D like world full of monsters, evil cultists, lunatic wizards, demons, etc.  Obviously, a “turn the other cheek” or complete pacifist approach to this commandment would be ludicrous (and suicidal).

But one of the head writers for the LARP worked with me, and we turned this problem into an opportunity.  One obvious thing that I could say as my character was that the prime tenet applied only to fellow humans- monsters and other sentient races were not the concern of the goddess, so it was all right to fight them (and in fact encouraged in the case of those who were inimical to humanity).

But of course there were also brigands, thieves, and just generally nasty folk.  For this, the head writer and I resorted to a a more cunning plan- we created a series of letters that the human founder of the faith had written, explaining important matters to the first priests he had ordained.  And the very first one was about the “Harm None” commandment.

The founder wrote that the goddess preferred her folk to be peaceful, and to stop wrongdoers without violence, but when that failed, then she did not forbid violence.  It was incumbent upon people of faith to act in order to prevent harm- even if that meant causing smaller harm in order to prevent greater harm.  To fight bandits to stop them from murdering, to fight invaders to stop them from raping and plundering, to fight thieves to stop them from stealing from the weak- this was allowable.

But the goddess’s folk also had to judge- were they acting to cause the least harm?  Were they keeping violence as a last resort and not a ready tool?  And did they always remember that even a justifiable use of violence was in some way a failure, one that the user would have to explain during their post-death judgment?

The letter went on from there to explore topics such as reparations, forgiveness (both divine and human), even suicide. I did most of the heavy theological lifting on this, with the head writer providing important guidance, historical context, and suggestions.  It was challenging and fascinating, and it worked– I know for a fact that it restored the faith of one of the other characters who was a follower of the goddess- and blew the mind of the player as well.

The head writer and I went on to write (by current count) six more letters, dealing with matters such as free will, love and marriage, birth and death, etc.  Just to make things a bit meta, I got to read theses letters in character and do a further level of exegesis on them in explaining them to other characters.  The whole experience worked to greatly improve my theological thinking.  It was also a lot of fun.

The so-called “Maxims of the Fianna” (pt. 2)

As promised in my last post on the subject (long ago and far away though it is now), I’m finally getting around to the so-called “Maxims” themselves.  It’s Samhain night, a good night for tales of Fionn and the Fianna… As I mentioned before, they’re not identified in that way in the text (Rolleston appears to have inserted that subtitle himself, since it doesn’t appear in the translations… or in Lady Gregory’s version, FWIW).

They are, instead, a set of guidelines for a young warrior in service in a noble household. One could argue that this is not a situation that is likely to happen in the modern world, but they are instructions from Fionn himself, and so I feel they should be taken seriously. So, let’s see what we have here (using the Dooley and Roe translation); all of the comments are my own thoughts for modern application- I’m thinking out my own virtue system, so the ones mentioned are my thoughts (and perhaps some UPG), not meant to correspond to any existing set:

“Be peaceable in a great man’s house” If you’ve been given hospitality, don’t get rowdy or start fights with other guests. Virtue: Hospitality.

“Be hardy in the wilderness” Have some basic survival knowledge. Virtue: Resourcefulness

“Do not beat your hound without cause, nor libel your wife without proof” Virtue: Temperance.

“Avoid the fool in battle, though he be frenzied.” Choose your fights. Virtue: Temperance

“Do not mock the holy man” Virtue: Piety

“Nor be involved in quarrels” This may seem like an impossible task in this day and age, but perhaps it could be applied this kind of situation. Virtue: Temperance

“Keep well away from these two, the witch and the evil man” In context, I take “witch” to mean “worker of bad magic”… ‘ all apologies to modern-day Pagans… So, basically, “you’re known by the company you keep”. Virtue: Integrity

“Two thirds of your courtesy to women and the household servants” In the context of the text, this seems to be noblesse oblige; I can interpret this as being good to those who might be taken for granted. Virtue: Kindness

“Be kind to poets, the makers of art, and the common soldiery” You could make a triad of these, naming them as supports of freedom. Also, more practically, three groups of people you don’t want to have mad at you… Virtues: Kindness, Piety (especially towards the first two)

“Do not take the best seat away from friends and advisers” Be good to those close to you. Virtue: Loyalty

“Avoid false and crooked oaths” Virtue: Honesty

“Do not welcome everybody” This may seem to go against hospitality, but if you know someone is bad… Virtue: Integrity

“Do not boast overmuch, nor offer what you cannot rightly give;
For grand words are shameful if nothing result.” Virtue: Temperance

“Do not forsake your overlord for as long as you live,
For gold, silver, or wealth do not betray your guarantor.” Virtue: Loyalty

“Avoid blustering complaint to a lord about his household;
A good man has no business libelling retainers to their lord.” Nobody likes a complainer and a tale-teller. Virtue: Integrity

“Keep from constant gossip and lies, and from impetuous speech;
Though you be generous, deride none in public.” Nobody likes a gossip, either. Virtue: Integrity

“Do not frequent ale-houses” Virtue: Temperance

“Nor be unkind to an old man” Virtue: Kindness

“Listen to words of good counsel” This will be what you get from the friends and advisors mentioned above, if you treat them well. Virtue: Resourcefulness

“Have no truck with the rabble” Choose your company and your inputs well (e.g. don’t read forum comments on YouTube 😉 ) Virtue: Temperance

“Be a listener in the forest, a watcher on the plain;
For you do not know – this matters – if your enemy lies in wait for you.” Always be on the look-out for good intel; it’s worth its weight in gold. Virtue: Resourcefulness

“Do not be mean with provisions, or be a miser’s friend” Virtues: Generosity, Hospitality

“Do not impose yourself on a great lord” Don’t be a suck-up or a parasite. Virtue: Integrity

“Do not speak ill of great men” If they’re truly great, that is… Virtue: Integrity

“Have your armor and weapons ready for the outbreak of sudden battle” Virtue: Resourcefulness

“Do not be mean with your wealth” Virtue: Generosity

“Be constant with your courtliness” It never hurts to be polite. Virtue: Kindness

So, even taking into account my disclaimers at the beginning of this post, you can extract the following virtues from the “Maxims”: Hospitality, Temperance, Resourcefulness, Piety, Honesty, Loyalty, Kindness, Generosity. Not bad…

 

LARP and Minstry (part 1)

So, one of my hobbies is live action roleplaying (or LARP).  I used to do it a lot more, but I still have a significant interest in it.  Most of my LARP time these days is taken up by a live-combat medieval fantasy game called Xanodria.  I’ve been playing various roles since 1995, and I recently retired a priest character who I’d played for over ten years.

Yes, there is a point to this (other than proving that I’m a huge nerd).  I learned a lot from this experience, about being a minister in particular.  As well as spending a lot of time just being this character- holding weddings and funerals, counseling the faithful, etc.- I got to get deeply involved in the theology of his fictional religion, fleshing out details and working on some knotty problems.

It’s the counseling I want to touch on first.  My character did a lot of it- he was spiritual advisor to an order of warriors dedicated to protect the light and fight the shadow (think the Rangers from LOTR with even more weapons training) as well as to members of his faith.  He spent so much time talking to troubled adventurers that he joked that he should have regular office hours.

This was a great gift for me in my real life.  It helped me hone my skills in the same way that class simulations do, and allowed me to experiment and fine-tune my methods without worrying about real-world consequences… no matter how badly I screwed up, the game session would be over at the end of the weekend and everyone would go back home.  Sure, mistakes could impact the player’s happiness as well as the character’s well-being, but it still wasn’t critical.

In some ways, it was better than a classroom simulation.  The games run for a whole weekend, so my character could have repeated sessions with another, including time for both to reflect and adjust.  And the players of these games tend to invest in their characters, putting a lot of time and emotion into them, giving them detailed backstories and spending hours or days simply being them.

I was enrolled at Cherry Hill Seminary for much of the time I played this character, and what I learned there informed how I acted in the game as well.  It created a beneficial feedback loop that I’m still reaping benefits from.

Simple Devotions

As a follow-up to my prior post, I had some thoughts about simple solo devotions.  Most of my practice is solitary, so I’ve come up with a few over the years.

Example 1:  Fionn MacCumhaill is (amongst other things) patron Power for divination.  So when I’m working with Tarot or shagai bones (my two major divination modalities), I call on Him as part of it.  Specifically, I put my thumb in my mouth and bite down hard enough to cause pain, in honor of the way Fionn gained knowledge from the Salmon of Wisdom.

Example 2:  Last night I celebrated Imbolc (yes, I do it on Groundhog Day- there are reasons).  First, I cleaned all of Brigid‘s shrines (surprise!  I have several!).  Then I cleaned myself up and put on some jewelry dedicated to Her.  Then I lit candles and made whiskey offerings at all of Her shrines, reciting several prayers and singing some songs.  I ended up the evening reciting a story which is sacred to Her in front of Her image.

I also started a batch of short mead dedicated to Her, but that wasn’t a simple process. 😉

Small Things

I read a number of blogs of people who have deep, developed, and intricate devotional practices, ones that are important and powerful.  Also, they can be intimidating.  Sometimes, the writers have such an ecstatic immersion in their practice that they seem to be presenting their own path as an all-or-nothing mandate, a goal that another seeker may not even want, even if they can attain it.

It’s important to remember that your own path may not be like anyone else’s.  It may end up being deep and intense and overwhelming, it may be constant yet unobtrusive, it may be somewhere in between.  All of these paths can have equal value, and it’s really between you and the Powers to decide what path to take.  And yes, you have some input in this decision.  The Powers value our free will and our sovereignty; it makes our devotion that much more valuable to Them.

And if you don’t know where to start, start small.  Start each day with a short devotion- I use a slightly modified version of Sigdrifa’s Prayer.  End each day with another short prayer, something to thank the Powers and put the day away.  Get into that routine and build from there.

 

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