Holy Work and Two Lies of Religion

head in the cloudsThere are two pernicious lies in popular religion that frequently bleed over into Paganism. The first says that if you follow the right religion in the right way then nothing bad will ever happen to you. And conversely, if bad things do happen, it’s because you sinned or because you’re insufficiently devout and pious. The second says that if you practice the right religion in the right way, then even if bad things do happen they won’t really matter because you live on a higher plane and you’ll transcend it all. And conversely, if the problems of life bother you it’s because you’re not sufficiently dedicated to the right path.

These are lies because they are demonstrably false. Bad things happen to good people and they always have. The Book of Job is generally considered to be the oldest book of the Hebrew Bible, and whether you find its answer satisfying or not (I don’t) it speaks to the universality of suffering.

Complete transcendence is an illusion. Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, said: “My students think I don’t lose my center. That is not so; I simply recognize it sooner, and get back faster.” (as quoted by Thorn Coyle in Kissing the Limitless).

These lies are pernicious because they lead us to believe that the purpose of religion is to make us happy, or worse, comfortable. They ignore the goal of forming and strengthening relationships between individuals and communities, and between humans and the Gods, ancestors, and spirits of Nature. They ignore the goal of inspiring and equipping us to live according to our highest values and to embody the highest virtues. Doing that may make us happy (especially when we experience the benefits it brings), but it is unlikely to make us comfortable.

When we decide to follow a religious path or to undertake a religious quest, hopefully we are doing so fully aware we are signing up to do holy work, not to receive holy bliss.

And that brings us to last night’s blog post by Morpheus Ravenna titled “Theurgic binding: or, S#!t just got real.” Morpheus hasn’t been blogging much lately. She’s been tied up writing The Book of the Great Queen, a book exploring the mysteries of the Morrígan that will combine historical depth with devotional practice. Three months ago Morpheus suffered a severe ankle sprain that has kept her from walking, but that was expected to heal on its own. Now she finds there’s more damage that will require surgery and keep her off her feet till the end of December. Coincidentally, that’s when her book is due to be delivered to the publisher.

In the words of Isaac Bonewits, “coincidence is seldom mere.”

Here’s a key quote from Morpheus:

I feel like I should maybe say that again. The Gods are not f*ing around. When you hand yourself over to Them, They can break your bones, end your life or alter it completely, send you down pathways that foreclose other avenues of choice and ability, and perhaps what should be most sobering of all, transform and sculpt you from the person you were into the person They feel would be most useful to Them.

Now, there is a place in Paganism for people who just want to honor the Gods, celebrate the seasons, and support the community. Not everyone is interested in this level of commitment, not everyone is capable of it, and not everyone is called to it.

But some of us are.

I’ve had some great experiences in 2014, but to call this a challenging year would be a gross understatement. I’ve had health issues that while not as debilitating as Morpheus’ have impacted my ability to do normal things, including some exercise. That in turn has further reduced my overall health. My paying job has gone from easy to busy to stressful. I’ve had unexpected house repairs, car repairs, and health care expenses that have drained my savings.

For the first time I’ve lost friends because of my religion. Ironically, they weren’t family or Christian friends (which says something about the quality of my family and Christian friends), they were Pagan friends who thought I was “doing it wrong.” The history of modern Paganism is a history of splits and schisms so I suppose this was inevitable, but it’s still sad.

Last week the stress reached a critical level. In prayer I screamed “what do You want?!” It was an honest question as much as it was an expression of frustration, but the only answer I got was “keep working.”

What does that mean? I’m not working hard enough? I’m working on the wrong things? Is this all some kind of punishment for inadequately fulfilling my oaths?

No – see pernicious lie number one.

I’m occasionally accused of arrogance and those accusations occasionally have merit. Maybe more than occasionally. And if I’ve been arrogant about anything recently it’s my feeling that I finally had a roadmap for the future and everything was lining up to be productive, fulfilling, and easy.

But I’m pledged to a certain Forest God and easy isn’t very important to Him. I’ve made commitments to other deities and while They aren’t unreasonable, They want what They want.

Doing it smooth and easy and fun isn’t important. Getting it done no matter what is.

The holy bliss is nice (it’s more than nice – it’s amazing and awesome), but I signed up to do the holy work. I took my oaths freely, not because I thought it would get me anything but because I genuinely wanted to do the holy work.

And I still do.

All of a sudden that response of “keep working” is as clear as can be.

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About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.