Ask Me Anything, Religion

What do you think about the teachings of Jesus?

Leah asked:

Simply curious: what do you think about the teachings of Jesus?

This is where I’m supposed to say that even though I don’t believe he’s the son of a god, I do think he was highly enlightened and was one of the great spiritual teachers of history.

But that’s not exactly what I think.

First off, I should disclose my bias. For a long time I felt that Christianity as a whole was fundamentally flawed, and that Jesus’ teachings did more harm than good. I no longer believe that, and I’ve tried to distance myself from that former hostility toward Christianity.

However, for many people the damage that’s been done by Christianity as an institution outweighs the good that Jesus did. Obviously, there’s a difference between Jesus Christ the individual and Christianity the religion, and he didn’t directly found any of the churches. Even so, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for people to be gun shy. When a person creates a movement that goes on to do awful things they have to bear at least part of the responsibility. And if you’ve been on the receiving end of a church’s bile and rhetoric, it’s not much consolation to know that their founding father was a swell guy.

So, to anyone out there who has a very bad taste in their mouth about Christianity: I understand.

I personally however have warmed up on Jesus. I’m intrigued by alternative readings of his teachings. For example, in this amazing podcast theologian Don Cupitt argues that Jesus was a radical humanist. He bases his argument entirely on Jesus’ actual sayings in the Gospels rather than any of the rest of the Bible. If that’s accurate then Jesus and I agree on a lot of things.

Rarely, I’ve also seen people truly live by his example and it really is a marvelous thing to behold.

(For a delightful, irreverent book that combines both of these things—Jesus as radical humanist and people daring to actually follow his example—I highly recommend A Very Minor Prophet by James Bernard Frost.)

A Very Minor Prophet by James Bernard Frost

Anyway, on to my thoughts.

I’m a polytheist. That means I believe the divine appears with many faces, and that there’s value in relating to them as a plurality. Likewise, as a polytheist I believe we need a plurality of beliefs and doctrines as well. We need them because no one religious structure will reach everybody. So I’m in favor of embracing multiple gods, multiple doctrines and multiple religious organizations—as all polytheists should be.

In my view then there’s no reason to exclude Jesus. I realize that many polytheists will hiss to hear me say that—monotheism! forced conversion! universalism! But as a committed polytheist, if the teachings of Jesus speak to people, I don’t see why they aren’t just as good an addition to the pantheon as the teachings of Apollo or Dionysus.

And his teachings are valuable. As far as I can tell, Jesus’ main message promotes a sort of deep and committed selflessness, not just love and forgiveness but a commitment to love and forgiveness so deep that they can stop the cycle of violence and revenge. Jesus, like Socrates, challenged an eye-for-eye moral system and taught people to put each other first, to be the first ones to put down their swords.

That teaching was, I think, fairly novel in ancient Europe. (Socrates taught something similar, and was also killed for it.) I admit I get rankled when people pretend that Classical religion was all brutish and awful before Christianity. The ancient Greeks and Romans had a concept of charity, they valued generosity and kindness, and they had a beautiful moral system based on striving for virtue. But did they have a sense of selfless mercy, or forgiveness for the sake of peace? If they did, it wasn’t prominent.

Other polytheist systems, like Hinduism, already have a concept of this kind of compassion; no outside messiah is needed. (Jesus is neatly folded into Hinduism as an avatar of Vishnu, the god who incarnates as a mortal to guide and help humankind.) But I don’t see that kind of selfless compassion in Classical ethics—nor Celtic or Germanic ethics. Compassion and kindness were reserved for one’s friends or countrymen, never for one’s enemies.

A lot of other ideas got mixed into early Christianity—Heaven and Hell, meekness, the resurrection—that are terrible whether they came from Jesus or not. But to the extent that we can separate Jesus’ teaching of compassion from all the rest of it, I believe he made a much needed addition to Western religion.

Happy Christmas, all of you who celebrate it. I hope it’s a wonderful, magical day and a time for reflection on how to be the people we imagine we are.

Tomorrow, if you can pull yourself away from the festivities, I’ll be unveiling a major new development in my quest for the heroic life. I hope you’ll take the time to read it and offer critique.

Happy holidays!

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Religion

Doing My Job as a Priest

Image by Justin Ornellas

A friend of mine has been facing repeated heartbreak as he tries to get a fledgling relationship off the ground. We talked recently and he asked me, “Why do I have to keep paying in tears and pain for the sin of desiring romantic human companionship? Sometimes I feel cursed.”

This led to a conversation:

Me: Do you ever talk to your spirits?

Friend: Other than an aimless “why?” screamed towards the Heavens, no.

Me: Might not be a bad idea.

Friend: Why? You think I’m cursed?

Me: No, I don’t. If I’d felt that I would have done a ceremony for you already.

Friend: I don’t think I’m cursed either.
Just unhinged.

Me: The spirit world has a way of unblocking things that are blocked and pointing out things that aren’t easy to see. That’s the reason I suggest it. Gently, of course, with with total respect for your own freedom to do as you see fit spiritually :)

Friend: How should I begin? I need answers with this thing. I’m losing it.

Me: I would begin by just going to a quiet place and talking to them. Bring a gift, even if it’s just water or a few coins. Ask them for their guidance and listen with an open heart.

They may ask you to make changes or to do something. If you feel comfortable with what they say then do it. If you make the changes they tell you to make you will see the ripples of it across your life.

That is my experience.

Friend: Did you sense something? Hear something? Like how did you recognize the guidance?

Me: I think it’s different for every person. I wouldn’t expect a voice to whisper in your ear (might be a bad sign if it does). I feel it in my heart.

Friend: LOL
I’m going to the Beach this afternoon. What kind of offering do you think I should take? Pennies to throw into the water? I’m honestly clueless about these things.

Me: I think pennies are a great idea.

I may no longer run a temple, lead many public ceremonies, or even have a clear sense of whether the gods exist outside our heads… but I’d like to think I’m still doing my job as a priest for those who need it.

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Personal Development, Philosophy, Religion, The Great Adventure

A Report from the Journey to Meet the Gods

Aztec gods. Art by Mostro.

In 2012 I began a journey across the Americas on a bicycle. I had several reasons for going: to become a writer, to fulfill a lifelong dream, and to learn something about heroism and adventure. But if I had one goal, one purpose for the whole trip, it was to meet the gods.

I’ve now covered 2,000 miles, and in that time I’ve said almost nothing about meeting the gods. That’s not because I’ve given up, it’s because the gods are elusive. I’ve sought them for two years and for two years I haven’t met them—not even a glimpse.

But I believe I have learned a few basic truths about what we call gods, and today I’m breaking my silence.

What Does It Mean to Meet the Gods?

When I began training in Vodou, one of the many phenomena I got to witness was possession. Possession is the central event of most Vodou ceremonies, as common in the temple as taking Communion is at church. Possession is a chance for the lwa, the spirits, to speak and move through a person and deliver messages to the people at the ceremony. It’s also a chance for all of us there to have direct contact with the divine. While the person being possessed may seem to be at the center of attention, they rarely remember anything that happens. They lose themselves in the moment and allow the spirit to come through for our sake. It is the community, not the person possessed, who benefits.

These possessions are poignant. Before I left New Orleans to bicycle to Texas, we held a ceremony for Papa Legba. Papa Legba is an old man who sits at the crossroads between the worlds. He walks slowly, with a limp, because he has supported his human children for so long. Now he leans on a cane, but he is still strong, and he will never leave our side.

During the ceremony Papa possessed one of our priests. He—Papa Legba, not the priest, who was for all intents and purposes checked out—lit a cigar. Cigars are common offerings in Vodou. Papa sat on his chair, like he does, and puffed. We kept dancing (Vodou ceremonies are mostly dancing, which makes them way more fun than other kinds of services). But as I passed by him, Papa stopped me.

He looked in my eyes, took a long draw of the cigar, and blew smoke on both my feet. Before I could thank him or ask him any questions, he gave me a firm push back toward the dancing. Papa doesn’t coddle.

Art by Brocoli.

Despite the gruffness of the act, there was no way I could miss its significance. I was about to set off for a 700-mile ride, not knowing where I would sleep or exactly what route I would take. And on practically the eve of my departure, this spirit—who had never talked to me at any other ceremony for him—blessed both my feet. The feet that would power me the whole way.

Or at least, that’s one way to read it. I think this is where many people would declare they have spoken to the divine, or that the divine spoke to them. Certainly I was overcome with a sense of awe. Being in the presence of the possessed, and having them single you out and touch you, is intense. In that moment, the priest looked and acted nothing like the man I know. He was Papa Legba.

But this is where I ask questions. It wasn’t the first spiritual experience I’ve had. When I pray, I get sense of a presence, a sense of guidance. That is “meeting the gods,” but I never took it on faith. And when I go into trance during meditation, I have vivid inner experiences, visions if you wish to call them that. I meet and talk to the gods there too, but I never took it on faith. Why would possession be any different?

I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting fraud. There is no denying that a tremendous psychological transformation overcomes those who are possessed. I believe fully that this priest was unconscious of what was happening, that his actions as Legba were out of his conscious control. But did a divine agent move through him? Or did this personality come entirely from his own unconscious mind?

Some people might answer, what does it matter? But let’s not let it go so easily. This is a really important difference, one that has a huge impact on what religion means: if a supernatural, independent being named Papa Legba moved through my friend, that means we are not alone; it means there is far more to the universe than we can see empirically; it means that maybe prayers can be answered, maybe faith has a power greater than the atom bomb.

And if Papa Legba is simply a state of mind, not a spirit at all, what does that mean? It doesn’t mean that religion is pointless, or that Vodou is canceled. The experiences are just as vivid. Even if I knew for a fact that it was all in our heads, I would still want to dance at the temple and Papa’s blessing would still make me soar. But some things would be different: I wouldn’t expect prayers to be answered. The human brain can’t stop hurricanes, or heal cancer with a word, or protect Rogue Priests on bicycles from speeding trucks. That’s the provenance of spirit beings. So if those beings don’t exist, it makes a real difference.

You’re starting to see the problem. I can’t just declare I’ve met the gods whenever I get a vivid spiritual experience. I haven’t seen anything yet that couldn’t be explained by psychology alone. So I can’t be sure whether the gods are spirits, or in our heads.

Past Mistakes

I wasn’t always so cautious. I used to be really sure the gods are real. I was “sure” because I had felt them myself. I felt their presence when I made offerings.

But that sureness was a mistake.

More and more, I’ve come to feel that the greatest sin a religious person can commit is to act as if they know the answer. We don’t know anything about the gods. All we have are experiences—highly subjective personal experiences. A lot of those experiences don’t even look alike. So when no two religious experiences are the same, what does that mean? It could mean the divine is a big ol’ mess of noodles. Or it could just mean we’re all imagining things.

There are some safe conclusions you can draw from a spiritual experience. You can say, “I know spirituality is meaningful to me.” Or you can say, “I know that I have powerful experiences, and I know I’d like to keep having them.” That’s fair. But I used to go a step further. I used to say I knew the gods were real. And I was wrong. No one knows that.

This realization isn’t something that set in during my Journey. To the contrary, I started to realize this before my Journey even began. In fact, if I hadn’t admitted this uncertainty to myself there might be no Journey at all—I’d still be sitting at home saying I knew everything, instead of out in the world looking for answers.

So when I started out I had no road map. I really have no idea what it would mean to “meet the gods” (that’s part of why I rarely bring it up; how would I explain it to anyone?). I suppose it would be a good sign if I saw something that non-gods can’t do, like if that possessed priest had lifted right up in the air and levitated. But really, if I saw something like that I’d just worry I was schizophrenic.

So maybe I hope I’ll find the entrance to the other world, or that I’ll get some cosmic revelation. Or maybe I just hope to get some peace on the issue, to decide once and for all that the gods aren’t real or that it’s something we can’t know. But how heroic is that?

I plan to keep questioning and questioning, and experimenting and experimenting, until I have some kind of breakthrough. I can’t imagine what it would take, but one way or another I want an answer: are there gods or aren’t there? And if there are, I’m going to need to see them.

Goddess of the moon & queen of the stars. Art by Mostro.

Revelations

I have had some revelations along the way. While I haven’t met the gods, I’ve learned a few things that seem important to tracking them down.

1. Acceptance

The first thing I learned is that even the religions you don’t like have an awful lot of good people in them. We can all find a religion we just don’t like. Even if you’re the most open minded person in the world you’ve probably made fun of some fringe sect or another. But for me, for a long time it was Christianity.

Many polytheists have hard feelings toward Christianity, and I won’t go into more detail than that. Suffice it to say that in the past my feelings toward Christianity have ranged from uncomfortable to hostile. I was aware that lots of individual Christians are good people, but that didn’t offset the problems I had with Christianity as an institution.

A few things changed this. For one, a brave friend explicitly told me I was bigoted. It didn’t even sting when she told me that, because the second the word left her mouth I felt it. She was right. The breath kind of went out of me, and I stopped whatever I was saying, and had to reflect on it for a long time.

Then, as I bicycled down the Mississippi, I had some extraordinarily warm experiences with Christians. It’s hard to be so judgmental when you’re personally on the receiving end of the generosity, kindness and love that Christians are taught to practice. Not all my interactions were this warm—sometimes the kindness came with a conversion hook, which ruined it, and once I was even turned away by a monastery. But in the experiences that were positive, I could see that Christianity done properly really does improve the world.

(I continue to have reservations because even the most warm, friendly Christian churches support missionary work that undermines other beautiful religions. The difference is that I’m better able to separate these two issues.)

And the last thing that helped open me up was Vodou. Despite many claims to the contrary, Vodou is not a branch of Catholicism. But the first year I formally practiced Vodou was also the last year I could say, “I don’t celebrate Christmas.” Christmas, Easter, and other bits of Christianity have been absorbed into Vodou and they’re there to stay. They may be primarily window dressings on a pre-Christian faith, but those dressings have forced me to confront my relationship with Christianity. Vodou, that ever-changing gumbo of a religion, has made me accept new flavors I never meant to try.

All of this has informed my view of polytheism generally. To many practitioners, polytheism just means “believing in many gods.” But it’s more than that. Historically, polytheism not only had multiple gods; it had multiple doctrines and clergy and belief systems. It is a truly pluralistic system in which there is a belief for everyone—in which you decide for yourself what you believe. That is polytheism’s great strength.

In such a view, there is no room for bigotry. Yes, we should discourage aggressive proselytizing, and we should fight forced conversion wherever it’s practiced. But when we embark ourselves on polytheism, we cannot close the door on anyone.

2. Amazing Things are Possible

My sister is also on a spiritual journey. In her case, she decided to commit herself to a Buddhist monastery. She has been there for five years now and, other than a few weeks one summer, we haven’t seen her since she went in.

I respect my sister’s path, but mine has always been in-the-world. I’m not interested in a spirituality that locks me away, that separates me from the love and the shit and the joys and the pain. So although I perform intensive spiritual practices, I balance them against a career, an art form, drinking, napping, and dating.

It’s not always easy. I think most of us are in a constant crisis of self worth. Why aren’t I a famous writer yet? What did I do wrong in that relationship? What if I lose all my clients? Is this journey a bad idea? Will I get hurt? And even if I make it, will I one day think this was all a waste of time?

Really, none of us are sure what we should be doing, or whether we’re doing it right. And we make that problem a lot worse by constantly doubting ourselves. We measure ourselves against others. We have so many wishes and regrets that we can’t even see what we really need to be happy.

When I underwent my Vodou initiation, I got to experience a life without that self-doubt. For a week after the ceremony my patron spirit stayed in my head. During that time I never second guessed myself. I was more charming and charismatic than I normally am. I moved with a grace I don’t normally possess. And most importantly, I understood what others really wanted or needed, even if they had a hard time saying it. It was all because I turned off the doubt.

Eventually the presence of that spirit passed and, with it, that glorious freedom from self-worth. Sometimes the spirit comes back into me, when I really need it. And sometimes, if I quiet myself, I can conjure a little of that mind state on my own.

But the weight of that experience is much more than whether it makes my days easier. It proved to me that we are capable of this change. The promises of mystic texts are not untrue. You really can transcend doubt and fear, you really reach a state that is almost superhuman in its grace. That switch was already in me, and my initiation proved to me that I could flip it. I believe we all have that capability.

We all can do amazing things.

Art by Brocoli.

3. We Carry the Gods With Us

Despite all my questions and doubting up above, I’m not in a crisis of faith about the gods. Oh, it’s true, I don’t have much faith. But the third and final thing my journey has taught me is how little that matters.

Earlier in this article, I asked whether the gods are “real” or if we’re “imagining things.” But I don’t truly think those are the right words. We know the gods are real: they are real experiences people have everyday. Whether they are real subjectively, and come from our psyche, or objectively as independent beings, the thing we call “gods” is a real force that humans live with.

As I came to understand that, it took away the terror of losing these deities. Once, the idea that the gods weren’t “real” was like a personal affront to me. I actually felt angry when other polytheists entertained this idea. Like they had betrayed our gods.

But if the gods are purely psychological—which they might be—that doesn’t make them meaningless. Lots of things are in our heads: love, memories, warm feelings of friendship. The brain creates those things. We wouldn’t say they don’t matter.

Whether atheists like it or not, our species has carried the gods for the entirety of our existence. They may not be out there, but they are certainly in here, in our heads, where it counts. We find them when we perform ceremony, whatever they are; and their guidance is useful to us, wherever it may come from. Psychological gods can’t perform miracles, but they can do almost everything else.

Despite my skepticism, I’m not 100% sure there are no objectively real gods. But thanks to my Journey, I am completely certain there are subjectively real ones, and they are powerful. We carry our gods with us, wherever we go, passed from generation to generation; and when one generation forgets them the next one finds them again, by different names perhaps, but finds them every time.

The Journey Continues

I may not have found the gods yet, but I have found their tracks. I know they are inside us, and I know that contact with them can be life altering. My hope is to deepen my search by practicing more spiritual traditions hands-on as I continue on my way, and to broaden it by speaking more openly to people about their beliefs wherever I go.

Most of all I hope to reach deeper into myself, to continue working toward that state of no self doubt, of being totally at home with who I am. And I hope to share this journey with others.

What are your doubts and questions about the gods? Sometimes the journey seems hard to me, like I’ve picked up a weight I don’t need to carry. Does a spiritual search like this ever have a meaningful conclusion, or does it just lead to more questions?

It’s possible that with my skepticism, no experience will ever prove to me that I’ve met the gods. But I hold out hope that eventually I’ll get an answer. Please leave a comment and let me know: what do you think it means to meet the gods?

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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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Lúnasa Days is a tale of finding yourself. It has been called “like Paulo Coelho only darker.”

Available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

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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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