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.

Hierarchy

Soo, apparently there’s this article on Radicals with Gods (John Beckett’s apposite name for Gods and Radicals) about “confronting the New Right”.  In general, there’s a lot to agree with about the dangers of the New Right… but the author goes too far in giving a whole list of Pagan and Polytheist traditions that are “vulnerable” to its cryptofascist insinuations.  It’s a classic piece of trolling, complete with deniability, and is especially insidious when you know that RWG has its own leftist/anarchist touchstones and “if you aren’t with us, you’re against us” stance.  A lot of others have already called them out on this in detail, so I don’t need to here.

However, I want to go into one point they made:  apparently, Devotional Polytheism is vulnerable to the New Right because it “emphasizes hierarchical relationships” (gasp!) “between human and god, priest and devotee”.  Beckett (in his article linked above) ably explains how hierarchy within human relationships is necessary and important in some cases, but I want to go a step further.

The Gods are not human.  The Gods are greater than humans- in power, in knowledge, in vision, in perspective, in so many things.  Of course we’re in a hierarchical relationship with them!  I firmly believe that we retain our agency and sovereignty in dealings with them (and I for one believe that if we didn’t, They wouldn’t want to have relationships with us), but still… They are greater than us.  Does recognition of that make us somehow more vulnerable to hijacking by the New Right?  No.

Ezili Freda

Disclaimer: I’m not a vodouisant. My experiences with the lwa have been primarily in the context of Global Spirits ceremonies. Anything I say in this post is based on those experiences and on UPG, and is only tangentially relevant at most to Haitian Vodou practice or belief.

Ezili Freda is a lwa concerned with love, beauty, abundance, the feminine, and many other things. She has been part of my spiritual life for some years now (how this happened is a subject for another post), and when she shows up at UToS services, she almost always interacts with me.

Anyone who knows me should not be surprised that I wrote a poem for her:

Freda

Surrounded by a thousand splendors, she weeps
(Heart stabbed with a jeweled dagger),
And all the riches we heap at her feet
Cannot hold back the storm. Not so much
For what we offer (or how we fall short)
But for what is not- all the lost gems,
Sparkling teardrops, moments and hours,
Caresses and words that never manifest;
Beauty or truth or love withered or unspoken,
The wonder that could be, if only, if only…
That is enough reason to fill each hot salt drop,
Yet her heart breaks, too, for us-
Our turned backs, closed eyes, shuttered hearts.
She sees, in vivid, almost painful glow,
The true wonder we mostly miss. Her tears fall
For herself, for the world- and for us.

9/30/2009

A common aspect of a Freda possession, if it goes on long enough, is that she begins to weep, to sob inconsolably, as if her heart is breaking. I’ve seen it, and it is truly affecting… It’s that sort of crying that makes you want to do anything to make it better, to make her feel better. But you can’t. Nothing can stop the tears, and she sobs until the possession ends.

One meaning of this is that nothing is ever good enough for her, that she wants a perfection we can’t achieve. The goalposts keep moving. The last time this happened at a ceremony, I had a sudden realization: this is similar to the way I feel when dealing with my beloved’s depression- I can’t fix it, I can’t help. We had been going through a particularly bad patch around that time, and the revelation broke me for a bit. Freda saw this, and immediately shifted gears; she held me and comforted me while I cried, and somehow it was better. I have learned now that I can call on her to help me when I’m backed into that sort of corner.

For me, there’s also what I was trying to say in the poem- that she is weeping for all the love and beauty that never makes it, or that we miss because “the world is too much with us”. And there is another important lesson here:

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

If we get bound up with making every last detail exactly right before we do something, we may never do anything. If we get hung up on everything being photo-realistically the way we planned it, we will not be ready when the inevitable randomness of the world intrudes. If we try to control all our experience, we will distort it. And in the end, we will end up weeping in the midst of riches that we can’t see through our tears.

The secret is to do. Get everything as lined up and prepared as you can, certainly; do the best that you are capable of doing, absolutely. Push outside your comfort zone- “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp — or what’s a heaven for?” But at some point you need to say “Enough”- to go ahead, and trust in the spirits and in your path, and accept the downpour and the falling petals as part of the whole. And always, always, remember why you are doing what you do.

And because we, the lwa (and all the Powers), and spiritual truth itself are all multiple and multifaceted, all three of the above interpretations (and many more) are all real and right at the same time. Isn’t that beautiful?

Aye Ezili Freda! Ayibobo!

Guest post – good questions about cultural appropriation

My lovely spouse, Monster Alice, came across this thought-provoking article:

Cornrows, Kwanzaa and Confusion: The Dilemma of Cultural Racism and Misappropriation

– and asked a number of even more thought-provoking questions.  I got her permission to cobble all of this together and post it here:

More

Helping the victims

http://blog.dianarajchel.com/2014/04/24/how-perfectly-nice-people-contribute-to-rape-and-molestation-triggerpalooza-kids/

(as noted in the URL itself, kinda triggery)

Some wise words*, especially good advice on helping the victims.  Good collection of links at the end, too.

(found this on Facing the Fires Within)

*although I agree with Ember’s comment about non-professionals staying out of investigations…

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