Over on the Gone Witching blog, K.C. Alexander has a very good and deep post titled Godtouched: Chosen or Choice? In it, she asks some difficult questions about the importance of the first-hand experience of the Gods.
The best of intentions often lead to the concept of Club Members Only. You either can, or you can’t. You either are, or you are not. You have what it takes or you just don’t; so do what you can but you can’t come in here.
K.C. quotes several Pagan bloggers relating their ecstatic experiences (including one of mine) and says
I’ve never experienced anything like this. Nothing stands out. No yokai has crawled out of the woodwork to leer at me, no black cat has crossed my path and left a wake of shadows, no deity has wandered by to ruffle my hair or… well, you get the idea.
Later, she says
Let me be honest: I do feel that the concept of a calling by the divine is a gate. I feel that should I never experience this, I am only pretending to be a witch—hell, perhaps I can’t even do that much. Is it possible that I simply don’t deserve to be chosen by deity or entity or energy? Is it that I must spend years and years striving to be worthy of one?
This bothers me, and not because I think K.C. is wrong. She isn’t.
Gatekeeping exists in Paganism. Sometimes it’s bad, other times it’s necessary. Initiations aren’t just graduation ceremonies – they are (at least in some traditions) tests that must be passed. Do well and the gates swing open. Fail and they stay shut. The whole “mad, dead, or a poet” thing isn’t always a metaphor.
That’s OK in a mystery cult. They really aren’t for everyone. They require certain skills, a certain mindset, and a commitment to practice. Everyone may have a right to be a concert pianist or a major league baseball player, but not everyone has the ability.
That’s not OK in a religion. No decent religion is only for the cool kids.
Boundaries: no one religion is really for everyone
Now, any religion that claims to be “for everyone” is either so vague and generic as to be meaningless, or it wants to force everyone to be just like them (i.e. – your local fundamentalist megachurch). As a polytheist, I believe that different Gods call different people to worship Them in different ways. It would be silly (and presumptive, and insulting) for me to join a Hellenic group and say “I really think we should do a devotion to the Morrigan next month.” That would be like going into a steak house and complaining because there’s no tofu on the menu. There’s nothing wrong with tofu, but that’s not what steak houses do.
Religions have boundaries. You can’t be a Unitarian Universalist and believe some people are going to heaven and others are going to hell. In 2015 we spent a lot of time debating the boundaries of polytheism. Boundaries form a container that allow a particular religion to be unique and meaningful. My preference is for boundaries that are low but clear, and that are always open to negotiation. Be who you are, but always be open to change.
Religious boundaries are good and necessary. Gates and gatekeepers are not.
Magicians and mystics, accountants and auto mechanics
I’ve said it numerous times and I’ll say it again: I want my religion – my ancestral, devotional, ecstatic, oracular, magical, public, Pagan polytheism – to be as open and accessible to accountants and auto mechanics as it is to magicians and mystics. Our ancestral polytheist religions were for everyone – they were part of the fabric of society. Our contemporary religions should be just as inclusive.
Now, there were roles. If you went to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, you didn’t grab a scrying bowl and jump on a tripod. You consulted the Oracle… and her messages were relayed by attendant priests. Our modern Pagan religions have avoided specialization, mainly because there aren’t enough of us to specialize. But as we grow, there will be more and more opportunities for people to dive deeply into what they do best.
Called, not chosen
And that brings us back to K.C.’s concerns about her lack of an ecstatic experience of a God, and the implications that some are chosen and others are not.
I was not chosen by Cernunnos – I was called. To me, chosen implies fate and favor, while called implies a free will choice to accept a task and a role. His presence has always been there, but when the time came, I had to choose to accept the call and follow this path… and to continue to follow it, even when the work gets hard.
Paganism in general is an experiential religion (or more properly, it’s a collection of many experiential religions). We don’t sit in pews and listen to sermons. We cast circles, pour offerings, and dance the Spiral Dance. We pray to our Gods and ask for Their blessings, but we also work magic to manifest what we need.
And in the version of Paganism I practice, we listen for Their presence and for Their messages, and especially for Their calls to service.
But what happens if you can’t hear Them?
Learning to hear the Gods
We don’t grow up learning how to hear the Gods, or how to read signs and omens. We’re told that people who hear voices in their head are crazy… or they’re making it all up. And so we learn to rationalize our mystical experiences away. That’s not easily overcome, even if we try.
It took five years of dedicated practice – on top of eight years of dabbling – before I had an ecstatic experience of a God. Am I typical? I have no idea. And that’s not really the point.
What do we say to someone who hasn’t had that tap on the shoulder? Whether they’ve been practicing for 10 years or 10 days, they’ve heard about these amazingly powerful and sacred mystical experiences and they want to have them for themselves. They see other people having them and wonder why they don’t. And all we can tell them is “maybe tomorrow.” “Maybe next year.” “Maybe in many years.” Because I really do think most people can have these experiences, if they learn how to be receptive to them, and if they cultivate relationships with interested deities.
But “most people” isn’t everyone.
A core of virtues and values
I can tell you what the answer isn’t. The answer isn’t to eliminate ecstatic practices from our religions. Being inclusive is good. Avoiding practices that are difficult or even impossible for some doesn’t help build deep and meaningful religions. You don’t shut down the band because some kids can’t play the clarinet. You find another instrument for them to play, and if they can’t play anything, you find a support role for them.
For as powerful as my ecstatic experiences of the Gods have been and continue to be, they’re not the core of my religion. The core is embodying the virtues of the Gods and manifesting Their values in this world – doing Their work in this world. First-hand experience is a means to that end, not the end itself.
I don’t ever want to give anyone the impression that my ecstatic experiences make me “chosen” or that they give me any special authority. Mainly they give me more work to do. Occasionally they give me messages to relay… messages that are UPG – unverified personal gnosis. Which means the recipient is free to accept or reject them as they see fit. Those are, by far, the least favorite part of my work as a priest and a servant of several Gods. So far no one has shot the messenger. So far.
I have been told “go build this” where “this” requires the assistance of other people. But with that, my message to other people isn’t “the Morrigan says you must do this.” Rather, it’s “the Morrigan has told me to do this – who wants to do it with me?” And once we begin, She and Others begin speaking directly to the other people involved (sometimes without them realizing it), and now the project isn’t John’s wild dream anymore – it’s everyone’s not-so-wild dream, with plans and goals that can be discussed and debated by everyone.
Who’s the real Pagan?
Who’s the real Pagan? Who’s the real polytheist? Who’s the real devotee? The one who hears the message or the one who makes it a reality in this world?
The answer, of course, is both. We need both. We need mystics who can have a vision of something that doesn’t exist now. We need architects who can draw designs and plans. We need bricklayers and steelworkers and carpenters who can turn the plans into a tangible reality.
If they’re embodying the virtues of the Gods and if they’re manifesting the values of the Gods, that makes them all cool kids in my book.