Ask Me Anything, Primitivism, Religion

Does Outdoors Time Improve Priests?

Photo by Asaf Antman

 

Andrew asked me:

Thanks for your post on returning to the outdoors [here]… Do you think that contemporary priesthood should be more directly rooted to the outdoors? I think we often consider churches as the ‘house of God,’ but I also think that it would be more apt to say the whole planet is the house of God.

This is a good question.

Just to clear the air, I’m not Christian. From the way you phrase your question, with an emphasis capital-G God, I have to assume you’re coming from an Abrahamic background.

I’m a polytheist. We believe there are many faces of the divine—in other words, many deities. These deities did not create the universe nor do they rule over it. They live in it, just like you and me. They are the personalities of forces of nature (the wind, the sea, the sun, love, etc.). Relating to them is not necessary; they are not jealous gods. They were here long before us and they often watch us in silence. But if we choose to listen, we can hear them whisper their guidance.

I’m starting with that because it colors everything I believe about the role of religion and priesthood. Ultimately, priests are people who spend a lot of time building a close relationship with these beings. We learn about them and, hopefully, how to be like them.

For me, it’s easiest to find them in nature. But this isn’t true for everyone. All the natural forces are present in our cities and suburbs. Ultimately, we carry the gods inside ourselves, so we can hear them anywhere there is silence.

In my particular tradition, ceremonies are often held outdoors. Offerings are put outside. We sing to the sun when she rises and the moon when she first peeks out. There is poetry for the sea and the stars. Relating to nature is a powerful practice.

But I don’t think more outdoors time will improve a priesthood. A priest needs to serve a community. More than that, a priest needs to serve individuals, helping them discover their inner selves and pursue lives they’ll find meaningful.

To that end, I think the way to improve any ministry or priesthood is:

  • Don’t try to convert anyone or sell them on a doctrine. Doctrine isn’t as important as practice.
  • Teach practices that anyone can do and that create healthy changes over time. This includes things like meditation, contemplation and exercise.
  • Adapt to new ideas, new technology, and science—even when it conflicts with old beliefs.
  • Refuse to give empty reassurance. Most people go to their church or temple and receive a message that everything will be okay in the end. Then they go home and make no changes in their life, even if they’re unhappy.
  • Instead, show people how to make positive changes, especially when it’s hard and frightening to do so.

I haven’t succeeded at all of this as a priest. I did teach many people to meditate, and helped a smaller number of people find themselves and their purpose in life. But I also found that it’s very, very hard to get people to make changes in their lives. There’s a lot of fear there.

I think that spending time in the wilderness is ultimately for a priest’s own enlightenment and well-being. The question is: when they learn whatever they’re going to learn from that, what are they bringing back to people who live a normal life? That’s what a priest needs to answer. We need to come out of retreat and get our hands in the soil.

Have a question? Ask me anything

 

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Religion, Vodou

A Realistic Prayer About Hurricanes

Photo by Matt Hendrick

Every year our Vodou temple holds a public ceremony for Hurricane season. This is considered a community service, a “turning” ceremony asking Ezili Danto to protect our city from storms. As you can imagine, in New Orleans this is a big deal.

This year I was away in Texas. I held my own version, singing Danto’s songs for the benefit of the city around me. But the words I said are, I’m sure, very different than the prayers of my compatriots.

I’m a priest of many gods, but not a priest in Vodou. It’s not my place to lead the Hurricane Turning, but below you’ll find the words I would say if it was. Many Vodouisants would disagree with my take. But I spend much of my time on the road thinking about faith, and this, I think, is the most honest prayer I could give.

“Danto! Protective mother. You take care of your baby, and today we ask you to take care of us. Enter into our heads, so that may we protect others as you protect your child.

“Danto, the storms are coming. The storms could destroy our lives and our homes and our city. We are scared, Danto, but we are not going to ask you to save us.

“We won’t ask you to save us, because the hurricanes must come for a reason. They are a part of the world just like we are, just like sunny days and warm summers and full moon nights. The living world needs its storms, and we need our living world.

“The storms may be worse this year. They’re bigger these days and they’re fiercer these days and they kill more people than ever before. And if the storms are worse this year, we know it’s because of our own industry, because of oil and gas and power, because we use so much and we give so little. Each of us accepts the oil and the gas and the power, so we have to accept the storms, too.

“But we do pray to you, Danto. We pray because you are older than us, older than oil and gas and power, older than the storms. In your old age you are wise, and we have one simple request for you.

“If the storm comes this way, then be here with us. Be in our heads. Help us to act with courage and compassion. Help us to share our supplies, even when we have little. Help us to look at those beside us and help them, even when they’re strangers. And help us to help the children and the elderly before we help ourselves.

“Remind us, Danto, that however different we may be, we must work together. Because it’s only by caring for each other that we will best survive the storm.

“Danto, we know that prayer will not save us. But we know, also, that in you we find strength and calmness in the storm. It is the calmness that will help us survive. Lend us that calm, that we may lend it to others.

“In the storm, Danto, let us not be the baby, waiting for you to save us. Let us be the mother, saving everyone else.

Ayibobo!

Did you know that you can now ask me anything?

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Religion

It is not so easy to hear the gods

Photo by Felix E. Guerrero

Photo by Felix E. Guerrero

It’s hard to hear the gods.

It’s easy to hear the whispers of our own wants and fears. These are the first voices when we turn inward, and the second, and the third. We’ll gladly give them the masks of gods because we are in love with them. We love our wants because they tell us we’ll get everything we wish for with just a little time, just a little faith, maybe a dash of determination. Our fears tell us that nothing could be different than it is, that it would be too dangerous to change anything—and we love that too. So we live our lives passively, reassured, and if we remain unhappy we whisper, “everything has a purpose.”

What do the gods truly say? Often they are silent. They know that if they spoke we would not listen, and gods do not do pointless things.

They are silent, because they see that we prefer the company of wants and fears, wants and fears, and who goes to a house uninvited?

They are silent, simply because they have seen so much. They know that, irrespective of our individual pains, the world remains a glorious place.

When I was younger I went for esoteric practices. I sought visions and prophesies and messages from the gods. This is the most dangerous of all sciences because it is the most enchanting. To pursue myth means to open up to an endless field of imagination, where every tree talks and every rock has an ancient spirit—each of them ready to tell you the grand significance of your daydreams. The more extravagant a vision is, the more we like it. But extravagant visions are the ones that mean the least.

I learned to read cards, and spoke with startling clarity (because I spoke of wants and fears). I learned to sense spirits, and choose the right offering for each one, and hear them speak softly in my ear, always of wants and fears. I did the most demanding and far fetched meditations from the Himalayas and from the Middle Ages, and I got the vision I sought, a vision of my wants triumphing my fears.

Today I rarely practice the esoteric arts. When I do it’s more for the simple joy of it. It’s the way you read an old, favorite book: you aren’t surprised by the ending, but there’s a certain pleasure in hearing the words again.

Sometimes I seem very unreligious. What good is a priest who doesn’t hear voices? Why listen to someone who doesn’t read the stars, the cards, the numbers, the smoke, the crystals or even dreams?

Even here, on the journal of my spiritual search, I rarely write about religion. It gets showy all too easily. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a pastor breathing the Holy Spirit or a Sybil breathing Apollo’s breath. The gods don’t whisper of fears and wants, they only speak of truths; and most of us, when we seek religion, are there to get away from truths.

There are useful spiritual practices, and those are the ones aimed at the self. The self is the one tool the gods gave each and every one of us, the only tool that is with us all our days and must suffer whenever we suffer. So the self has a level of trustworthiness that visions, mentors, priests and even parents cannot match. It’s dangerous to get to know yourself because there is no room to secretly doubt the things you find, even when you dislike them. You can always find another guru or chase another vision, but you cannot beg another self.

To know yourself is only half of the practice. It may even be the least important part. But whatever little bits you find, you can shine them everyday. Everyday you can polish your true self until it gleams and serves as a light, a beacon past your wants and fears.

If the gods ever speak, that might be when you’ll hear them.

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Adventure, Andre Sólo, Heroism, Religion

Good and Evil When You’re Just Too Tired

Image by Alba Soler.

Image by Alba Soler.

Crossing Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi I encountered a great deal of trouble. Sometimes it was nature (heatstroke, exhaustion, headwinds) and other times it was the work of my fellow human beings. Always, my own stubbornness in pursuing the Adventure played a part. The suffering would have ended if I had just gone home. Unlike many wanderers, I had a choice.

But had I quit, I also would not have seen so clearly just what humanity is made of. I don’t mean the humanity we’re proud of, the humanity we show friends and loved ones and coworkers and, sometimes, the cause du jour. I mean the humanity we like to forget: the humanity we show strangers.

It’s not that we’re bad to strangers. Not always. But there is a deep, deep divide in the hearts of men over what a stranger is and how we should treat him.

About half of us look at a stranger as someone we’re not sure about, but who is basically friendly unless proven otherwise.

The other half of us view strangers as inherently untrustworthy, as guilty until proven innocent. This is the attitude that prisoners take toward other prisoners, that tramps take toward fellow tramps, that gang members take toward outsiders. And yet it’s also the attitude that many normal, friendly, law abiding citizens take toward anyone they haven’t been introduced to, especially when that person is in their town, on their sidewalk, or approaching them with a friendly wave.

I’m convinced that this particular trait is more than just potentially gruff or off-putting: it’s dangerous. This is the attitude that allows us to treat a stranger as an invader and shoot them or drive them away before we ask any questions.

But even though I was astonished just how many people have this default attitude, I also learned on my trip that humans are essentially good at heart. We are not a sinful species, and for all our wars and crimes we are, in our genes, basically nurturing. We evolved to be social and social is what we are. Whenever we start to see the person next to us as the same as us we begin to care about them. What convinced me of this was not all the spontaneous generosity on my journey, but all the non-spontaneous generosity, the people who were cold at first but then warmed up, the turnarounds.

The truth is that most of us withhold kindness not because we’re selfish but because we’re absorbed in our own worlds. We don’t see the person suffering next to us. Or we see them, but can’t imagine how we could help.

On the road I saw that a small act of kindness has a much bigger impact for the recipient than it does for the person doing it. You may think that you’re doing something inconsequential, but that smile/helpful attitude/dollar bill can completely make someone’s day. And, conversely, there’s the awful truth: you may think the favor they’re asking isn’t worth the effort, but turning them down can leave them in a miserable, even life-threatening way.

It’s that last one that sits at the heart of good and evil. Evil doesn’t come from the devil or a bad upbringing. It comes from a small amount of understandable laziness. It’s when you see the car with the flat tire and you drive right past not because you’re selfish or they scare you, but because you’re in a hurry. Because you’re not sure you know how to change a flat. Because the idea of stopping to help sounds like too much effort.

Almost always, when we turn down a chance to help another person it’s because we’re tired more than scared. We easily come up with stories to make our laziness excusable (“I’m sure they have a cell phone” “I wanted to stop but I couldn’t afford to be late” “I don’t know, they looked a little weird”). But as we weave those stories, we overestimate how much inconvenience a basic good deed would cost us, while underestimating how devastating our lack of help can be.

That’s what I’ve learned living in the wild, making my own way, being both a giver and a person in need of giving—and, all too often, being a person who wouldn’t give.

Ultimately, good isn’t about love or enlightenment. You don’t have to love people you don’t know, you don’t have to forgive those who wrong you, you don’t have to overcome craving and attachment. That stuff might help make you saintly but we don’t need a lot of saints. We just need people who are basically good, who improve the world around them a little bit at a time. And from what I’ve seen on the road, that comes from being giving.

It’s just paying attention to what other people need and going 10% out of your way to help them.

Please share this post with others, and tell me your thoughts below.

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Mexico, Photographs, Religion, Travel

Procesión del Silencio (A Photo Tale)

For once in my travels my timing is perfect, as I happened to be here in San Luis Potosí for their renowned Holy Week celebration, the Procession of Silence. (Actually my timing is doubly good, as I’ll also get to experience 5 de Mayo in two weeks.)

Holy Week is the week leading up to Easter and it’s a big deal everywhere in Mexico (and throughout the Catholic world). But the Procession of Silence is definitely an SLP specialty. Have you ever seen a parade that’s totally silent? How about one where the parade-goers are barefoot and bound in chains?

I never had either until last week on Good Friday.

There are other Processions in Silence in Mexico, but SLP’s is the biggest and most well known. Literally thousands of penitents march in it, wearing hoods to cover their sinful faces and carrying out the hours-long march to expiate their sins.

Be warned, fellow Americans, the hooded figures in this parade are not part of the organization you think they are:

Photo by André.

Penitents in the Procession of Silence. Photo by André.

The hoods are called capirotes and are a longstanding part of Catholic tradition. The entire Procession is modeled on one from Seville, Spain. Not everyone wears the hoods—and even less have chains on them—but everyone in the procession observes total silence. The only sound is the beating of drums and occasional fanfare of horns.

Well, that and all the spectators saying how cool it is.

Photo by André.

Women in the Procession. Photo by André.

Each group in the procession has its own take on the uniform. Some men wear red hoods, some wear black, some wear white. Some women dangle a rosary from one hand, others clutch a Bible to their breast. But while each group is different, the people within the group have practiced to military perfection. Every woman dangles the rosary exactly the same way. Everyone marches in step.

Some groups have a large corps of children preceding them. They, too, have drilled to lockstep precision. I can’t imagine how unpleasant the months of rehearsals must have been.

Each of the floats is carried by hand:

Float in the Procession of Silence. Photo by André.

Float in the Procession of Silence. Photo by André.

Coming from New Orleans, I have a lot of experience with parades. We take a lot of pride in our floats and costumes in the Big Easy. I was struck, however, by how much better (gasp) the Potosinos’ were. New Orleans floats can be complex and artistic, but they look like what they are: cheap decorative materials assembled by inebriated volunteers in their off hours. For the penitents in the Procession, these floats are their religion. No half measures. Every inch of every float is carefully handcrafted work of artisanship, without exception.

The costumes are also higher caliber, perfectly uniform across all members of a particular group and clearly meant for careful re-use year after year. It really was more like a uniformed army than a costume party.

Stations of the Cross. Photo by André.

Stations of the Cross. Photo by André.

I will say, however, all that religious fervor fails to beat out New Orleans in one crucial regard: the horns. After every two or three groups go by there’s a brass band in formation, trying to play solemn fanfares to echo across the march. They were terrible.

I don’t just mean “doesn’t live up to New Orleans standards.” That’s a pretty tough hill to climb. I mean, “Out of tune and out of sync.” There’s nothing like a dozen tinny trumpets hitting a flat note and stumbling over each other to do it, to really drive home that Jesus suffered for your sins.

I’m not really sure what went wrong with the horn section. It wasn’t just me; most spectators suppressed snarky comments while my local host gave me a look. Somehow, the Procession planners mananged to get 4,000 people to march in perfect lockstep for three hours, in flawless hand sewn medieval garb with gilded and rose-covered treasures lifted on their backs. But nobody drilled the brass sections in an actual march.

Anyway, it was still an amazing event and a breathtaking thing to behold. Our Temple used to organize large-scale public ceremonies and processions, which is rare in the highly individualistic polytheist community. I find something magical and powerful about people wearing the same uniform and doing the same thing together. Sometimes it means more to give up the sense of self and contribute to a group celebration.

Every so many drum beats the procession would halt. I got a chance to see many of the women’s faces (why is it the male sinners get to hide their faces but the women have to show theirs?). Not everyone looked happy. It must be hard doing what they were doing. But ultimately, the long hours over many months of rehearsal—and even the act itself—isn’t for them. You don’t join for your own gratification. You’re doing it for everybody else.

That’s how you beat your sins in Catholicism. Polytheists don’t have “sin” but I think we could learn from that.

Photo of the Week:

Jesus. Photo by André.

Jesus. Photo by André.

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Mexico, Photographs, Religion, Travel

Easter is a Big Deal in Mexico (Photo of the Week)

This week is Holy Week, and yesterday (Holy Thursday) I walked downtown… to find the Central Historic District completely transformed. There’s a small grassy park in front of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, which is normally an empty, lazy place for teenagers to sit and chat and a few old men to read their newspapers. Instead, I could barely get into the square—food stands lined every pathway and paved area while crowds of people made their way toward church. Standing on a stone block, I managed to get above the crowd and capture this image:

Templo de San Francis de Asisi. Photo by André.

Yes, that is a Nacho stand in front of a church! Which is a brilliant idea that every church should implement. Also Hot Cakes, but who chooses hot cakes over nachos? Anyway, in Catholic doctrine I believe there’s a rule against eating anything just before or after taking the Host at Communion, so I’m not sure how Holy these Holy Thursday vendors are. Sort of the like the meat sellers outside that Thai Buddhist temple. My favorite picture is from behind the Church, in a little walled courtyard. This one officially gets the “Photo of the Week” title:

Families sitting on a fountain. Photo by André.

The alley alongside the church had become a sort of open air bazaar:

There are always some vendors here, but never like this. Photo by André.

I also met a smiling woman selling pan de nata, “cream bread,” a traditional treat for Easter:

Pan de Nata. Photo by André.

Each pan is decorated with candied fruit slices forming either lilies or a cross:

Close up. Photo by André.

The doña opened up a bag so I could smell it. It has a rich, almost fermented smell plus the scent of the sesame seeds. I bought one for 25 pesos, or about US $2 and had some later that night. It’s incredibly sweet, definitely fresh baked and the fruit is the best part. And Mamá, if you’re reading this… Happy Easter!

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Religion

Snakes Have Nothing to Do With It

On Monday I offered my usual quiet, respectful protest to Saint Patrick’s Day by wearing black instead of green, and daring to point out that the good saint is famous mostly for smashing Irish temples and traditions. One reader pointed me to an interesting defense of Patrick, which makes a line of argument I haven’t seen before.

The article, written in 2012 by Pagan journalist Jason Pitzl-Waters, essentially makes two points:

  1. Patrick’s fame for “casting out the snakes of Ireland” is often misunderstood;
  2. And therefore Patrick is a totally swell guy, and worthy of our reverence.

If you’re not familiar, the story of Patrick driving out the snakes is a fairly late piece of folklore, often interpreted as a metaphor for driving out the druids. Neopagans have seized on this mini legend, and those few who dare to abstain from Ireland’s anointed holiday often make reference to snakes.

Some of these references are kind of clever. (I’ll always be fond of a friend’s “The snakes are back” T-shirt showing a Celtic knotwork snake burping up a miter). Others are just ludicrous, like this one Pitzl-Waters chooses to quote:

“The “snakes” that Patrick drove out of Ireland were the Druidic priests, who had serpents tattooed on their forearms. Celebrating him is like celebrating Stalin or Hitler.”

(That’s both historically inaccurate, and preposterous.)

Most snake-centric approaches are somewhere in the middle. Some Pagans celebrate March 17 as “All Snakes Day,” essentially trying to reclaim the holiday while still getting drunk and wearing green. I’ve never been much for All Snakes Day, and I generally avoid reference to the snake story at all because it’s one of the weakest lines against Patrick.

But it is a fair approach. Even though the “snakes” story is over a thousand years more recent than Patrick himself, it’s pretty much always been interpreted as a reference to the conversion. And regardless of snakes, Patrick’s earliest and friendliest biography is very clear that he destroyed Irish sanctuaries and festivals. So the snake issue is kind of irrelevant to the (very reasonable) decision of some polytheists and Pagans not to celebrate a conversion saint.

But those interviewed for the article consider it an oddly strong case. Quoting two Celtic reconstructionists, Pitzl-Waters frames Patrick’s hostility as “debunked” by discrediting the snake myth. But one of the quotes directly contradicts that:

“…the rest of Patrick’s hagiography has him dueling Druids right and left, killing those who oppose him with callous righteousnes [sic], so why would the story suddenly get cryptic about him driving the Druids out?”

Why indeed. And how does a killer of druids “right and left” now seem any more druid-friendly? That may undermine the snake myth, but it doesn’t make me think druids should start toasting the Green Bishop.

As a good reason to celebrate St. Patrick’s day, the article fails. It touches on some of the many good reasons to dislike St. Patrick, but then tells us to ignore those reasons and celebrate him because (shock) Neopagans got their history wrong. Of course, the article closes with my personal favorite chastisement: that there is no other way to stay in touch with modern Irish heritage than celebrating this one holiday. If you don’t like Patrick, you aren’t Irish enough.

Why I don't celebrate St. Patrick's Day

Someone who’s in touch with Irish heritage.

It used to baffle me why, of all people, Pagans and polytheists would find such strange reasons to be pro-Patrick. I understand when Irish Christians put peer pressure on me to celebrate the holiday, but why polytheists? Why get so attached to the celebration of a man who actively worked against our religion—and why use such ridiculous arguments for doing so?

Nowadays, however, it doesn’t surprise me. The Patrick apologists never present serious arguments, because they don’t really care about the hagiographic picture of Patrick at all. They don’t care if he was a good guy or a bad guy. They’re only pro-Patrick because they grew up enjoying his holiday, and they’re going to keep enjoying it even if doing so requires intellectual gymnastics. Accuracy or integrity isn’t the issue here, and neither is cultural pride.

The issue is rationalization.

It’s just easier to go with the crowd than it is to abstain from a minor holiday. Even a holiday that’s essentially about a bigot—in legend and, likely, in reality—against your own religion.

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