Two weeks ago I announced that I’m walking across two continents to meet the gods. That occasioned a mixed bag of reactions, including high fives, raised eyebrows and disapproving head-shaking. But one question has come up over and over again:
“What do you mean, you’re going to meet the gods?”
Somehow I wasn’t ready for this question. You’d think I would’ve seen it coming, since “I’m going to meet the gods” is about the last thing you expect to hear from a real living person, least of all a sane one. When I set that as the purpose of my journey, I should have realized it would raise as many questions as the hike itself.
But all I could do was to stammer and try to explain something I had never put in words before.
I started out giving wishy-washy answers. Someone asked me if I meant to really, literally meet them or if it was just a metaphor. “I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe it will be a metaphor.” (What does that even mean?)
I don’t know what will happen on this quest. I don’t know if I will have a profound spiritual experience, or if it will be anything like the many experiences I’ve had before. Maybe just the thrill of the journey itself will be the takeaway. It might be that I never meet the gods, and I accept that.
But it remains my goal, and I’m starting to understand why.
No, Seriously, For Real
What I know for sure is what meeting the gods does not mean.
Meeting the gods does not mean feeling them in my heart. A lot of people have told me I can meet the gods right where I am—I don’t even have to travel. They describe beautiful experiences they have through prayer, offerings and communion. That’s not what I mean.
I have those experiences all the time. I’m a priest, and there’s a reason I became one. Periodically I take time to make sacrifice, sit quietly and commune with my deities. It’s an important experience that connects me to something far greater than my own individual perspective.
But as a philosopher, I have no reason to believe that “something” is anything other than my own unconscious mind. I don’t have faith, and ultimately it doesn’t matter too much—awesome clarity and advice from some deep part of my brain is just as good as awesome clarity and advice from a divine being, I guess.
But I’m curious. I’d like to know. Am I talking to someone when I talk to the gods? Are they really there? I want to find out. And no amount of prayer and communion will help me find the answer of whether prayer and communion is legit.
Meeting the gods does not mean taking drugs or being a shaman. A few folks have told me about the different hallucinogens used in Central and South America to aid in spiritual quests. And definitely, I’d be remiss not to meet as many shamans and priests as possible along the way. If they invite me to participate in their ceremonies, I probably will. I’d be honored.
But I do lots of “shamanic” stuff already. I know what it feels like to leave my body, to talk to spirits and to visit other worlds in my dreams. If that’s all I’m looking for I don’t need to go anywhere. Ecstatic practices present the same issue as prayer and communion: it’s a powerful, meaningful experience, but I don’t know if the spirits I’m seeing are in my head or in the world around me.
No amount of mushrooms will answer that question.
Meeting the gods does not mean humanism+. This is my favorite one. Everyone I know with a liberal arts degree thinks this goal must be some kind of big metaphor. People are awesome, I’ll meet lots of said awesome people, and the awesome stuff they do is like meeting the gods. The experience, or the value of the human spirit, will somehow be the most divine thing ever. Right?
Meh. I do firmly believe we carry our gods with us. I don’t doubt that there will be many times that I see a flash of the divine in someone’s eyes when they speak with determination, or passion, or kindness. Maybe, in the end, that will be the most divine thing I ever find.
I would chalk that up as “nope, didn’t meet the gods.”
Re-imagining human beings as the most divine thing in the universe is cool, because we are in fact pretty amazing. I don’t doubt that the strength of the human spirit will touch my life far more on a daily basis than any spiritual discovery during this trip. Over the years I’ve developed a deep love for my fellow human beings, and it moves me to be present for people’s struggles and victories. Still, that’s not what I mean by “gods.” If that’s the most divine thing I ever find, I guess I’ll become a spiritual atheist.
No, I Mean Like Gilgamesh
The sacred stories paint a picture of the world that is rich with myth and miracle, as if every action on earth carries the echo of a divine voice. Reading the Odyssey or the Táin, you get the sense that at any moment you could stumble into one of the gods, face-to-face, in the flesh.
Even more promising is the story of Gilgamesh: a tireless and lengthy journey into parts unknown in search of something that may not exist. In Gilgamesh’s case it was a cure for death; for me it’s meeting the gods. Only after years of relentless wandering did Gilgamesh find a way to cross into the gods’ world, to approach their sanctuary and find what he sought.
I like the Gilgamesh model. It refuses to believe that prayer or shamanism or metaphor are the very best access to the divine that we can ever have. It exhibits faith, not in the gods themselves, but in the spirit of heroic determination to accomplish any task, however impossible it may seem.
I don’t know if I will ever meet the gods. I don’t know if they exist beyond the fringe of the human psyche. I don’t know if they hover behind the apparent world, unseen but intimately involved in all we do.
But if they are there I’m coming to meet them. There is no force on earth that can stop me. You’ve been forewarned, gods, and if you need to challenge me along the way, then bring it. Bring it.
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