Communicating With Deity: All the Small Things

Stovetop altar to Brighid, January 2015.
Stovetop altar to Brighid, January 2015.

(Nature’s Path welcomes DC McBride to our growing batch of writers. This is what he has to say about himself: Unitarian-Universalist since 2009, Dan McBride is a practicing Devotional Polytheist, a member of Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship, and the Coordinating Officer of UUCB-CUUPS.  His spiritual interests are in Neo-Pagan religions and Irish folklore and mythology, as well as in inter- and intra-religious dialog.  Outside of the grove, he enjoys technology, hiking, camping, skiing, history, photography, and adventuring with his wife.  A fifth-generation downstate New Yorker, Dan traces his roots back to the Italian region of Calabria and County Waterford in Ireland.  He currently resides near the confluence of the Susquehanna and Chenango rivers in Binghamton, NY, where he makes his living as a technology professional.)

Last December I completed my Masters in Computer Science after four long years of work alongside my white-collar day job. I was relieved, and was looking forward to spending more time connecting with Deity in general, with my Gods in particular, and possibly even joining ADF and starting work on its’ Dedicant Path.  But with school now packed away, my wife and I decided to take the first opportunity we could to travel to our usual vacation spot: my family’s second home in Vermont.

“The Vermont house”, as its known amongst my clan, is more than just a vacation cottage.  It was my father’s primary residence during his bachelor years, and has since been been the scene of many happy childhood memories as well as two generations of bacchanals.  Being a good Brigidine Pagan, of particular importance to me is the stone fireplace that serves as its primary source of heat.  Having been constructed out of the quartz stones excavated during the building’s construction, it is a giant energetic battery and amplifierthat has spent almost forty years absorbing some of the best energies my family can produce.  My father’s hearth is a very sacred place for me, and the idea of curling up in front of it sounded like the perfect way to spend several days’ well-deserved rest.

The author at his family hearth in Southern Vermont
The author at his family hearth in Southern Vermont

And so my wife and I found ourselves spending a brutally cold January evening in front of our beloved hearth.  The fire was roaring in the fireplace as my wife slept soundly on the couch.  I sat facing the crackling fire, preparing for an “Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions” class that I would soon begin teaching at my UU Congregation.

As I worked, my thoughts turned to the student I had recently taken on. This was my first “official student”, a strong-willed Buffalo native named Ava who had been contacted by Brighid and a second as-yet-unidentified Deity.  Having no experience in Paganism or with Devotional Polytheism, Ava had been directed to me by a mutual friend that felt that I could give them the guidance they needed.  Contemplating Ava’s situation, I took a break from my lesson planning and looked up to the fire.

“Brighid, is Ava one of yours?”

The fire responded with a resounding pop!

I took that to mean a yes. [1]


In my brief experience as a Devotional Polytheist, the fabric of my communication with the Divine has been made up of experiences like this far more than it has been made up of full-blown UPG.  And while I’m unaware of any formal study of UPG among Neo-Pagans, I’m willing to bet that for most of us communication with Deity sounds a lot more like my fire’s “pop!” than it does Gus diZerega’s vivid first encounter with The Goddess.  This is a fact that I have to remind myself of constantly, as my new involvement in ADF and the Morrigan’s Call Retreat has me increasingly connecting with talented practitioners.

Sometimes I find myself feeling envious of my friends who have a much more “direct” connection to their Gods than I do with mine.  Some people have Loki living in their head and no thought is ever truly their own, while there are others who get a concrete response from Morrígan just by praying (you haven’t lived until you’ve heard the cawing of spectral crows visiting a 5 year old girl). But these experiences are not the norm, no matter how loath we may be to admit it to ourselves. As I told Ava, most of us Devotional Polytheists will just have to settle for that occasional thought out of nowhere, that serendipitous series of events that work toward a common goal, or the random scent of whatever spice that Brighid thinks your Pasta e Fagioli could really use.

It is incredibly important when starting out on a Devotional path to set realistic expectations for Divine communication. Failure to do so could result in the devotee going out of their mind with despair that they’re “not doing it right”, that they “lack the ability to do it right”, or even worse, that the Gods they’re reaching out to “just don’t really care” about them.

So what kinds of expectations should we set?  What would we call a “realistic” expectation for Divine communication?  Here are a few examples I’ve heard from Pagans over the years:

  • General Sense of Connectivity – Feelings of connection, communion, or spiritual fulfillment that come as the result of an activity.  Shawn, an earth-centered atheist, described to me how she feels this kind of connection when tending her garden:

…the feeling I get when working in my garden, particularly when prep’ing it in the early spring, I would think of as connection. I find that the activity helps me work through problems. There is something about the sense of being grounded and connected to the earth that feels like communing.

For those of us who work with particular Deities, this can also manifest when doing work that is sacred to or associated with Them.  Matt, a devotee of Goibniu, talks about connecting to Him through metalworking:

Sometimes metal work is almost a shamanistic endeavor for me… I can just be working on normal stuff and by the end of it I am out of breath and feeling that ritual high. The work is not strenuous, but the magic just seems to flow out of me when I am completely focused. I can feel Goibniu’s presence and energy as well. Also, looking for scrap and pieces to work with I am drawn to the parts I need or could use. Like a sixth sense. So that’s something.

  • “Pandora Jacking” – In Ava’s case, Deity’s preferred method of communication has been to “hijack” their Pandora playlist. Instead of their usual songs, Ava will instead get 40-60 minutes worth of music that follow along a similar theme:

There are times I won’t even catch it at first. It’s usually not until a few songs in when I’m realizing that there’s a theme. The first time it happened, it almost felt like there were two different beings talking to me. Sometimes it’s just a quick “Hey, we’re listening” thing as when a particular song comes up at the right time, sometimes it’s an entire playlist.

It’s always been a comforting thing. It’s nice to get feedback when I feel like I’m just screaming into the void.
  • Found Objects – Sometimes an object will just appear in your path, or you will feel moved to pick up or to buy something.  This can be a message as much as a charm or a tool.  Kaela, a Devotional Polytheist and Priestess of Loki describes a bracelet that came her way in a time of need:

There are points where I second-guess myself. I’m not sure if I’m experiencing a nudge from the gods or serendipity. But here’s a story about picking something up.

I almost didn’t go to Florida this year. The past few have been hard on me, and I struggled with money after a job layoff. At the same time, I have wanderlust and if I don’t travel I feel more down than usual. Needless to say, it had been a while since I’d been on a proper trip.

In the end, things worked out and I was able to go. I was still conflicted about the trip, as I worried that I had budgeted wrong and made a terrible mistake. Surrounded by friends, I still struggled with that depression at the start of the trip.

The second day, we wandered to a market and I found a bracelet that said “Follow Your Arrow”. I was drawn to it instantly, as it echoed messages I had been receiving from my gods. I was compelled to pick it up, but I still did math to ensure I could afford it. It was only $10, but that felt like a lot to me for frivolity. In the end, I brought the bracelet home.

That trip, I wrote my first story since graduate school, which was a huge milestone for me. When I returned from Florida, a confluence of events caused some chaos in my life but I rode the wave and find myself in a much better place.

I still wear the bracelet every day to remind myself to keep striving to better myself. Though there have been a couple close calls, I haven’t managed to lose it yet.

  • Emotions – A Deity could cause you to be overcome by an emotion for seemingly no reason.  I’ve experienced Freyja using this technique, where I’ve felt Her in the pit of my stomach and then my eyes well up with tears.  I asked blogger and freyjaswoman Laine DeLaney to talk to me more about her experiences with Freyja communicating through emotion:

Freyja reaches out to me in a lot of different ways. She has guided me through lust (and I am certainly not the only Vanic person to relate this) instilling an attraction to a person that She wants me to interact with. Sometimes it happens both ways. In any case, the maddening urge to be intimate with the person generally subsides after we’ve had the interaction or made the connection that She wanted. Sometimes we’re still attracted to each other, more often we end up just being good friends.

Sometimes the Lady does guide me through emotion. However, the emotions that I know that I receive from Her are accompanied by a sense of Her presence. At this point I’m fairly well-attuned to Her presence. It may be possible that She and other deities guide and communicate with people through their emotions without them being aware of their presence. In fact, I’m fairly certain of it.

  • Thoughts and Images – This is a very popular method that Deities use to communicate with their devotees.  Often a random thought will appear in the devotee’s head, seemingly out of nowhere.  Or they might have a strong feeling that they had been discussing a topic, but nobody can recall them doing so.  Laine also broached this topic in our conversation:

Having spent years developing a connection to [Freyja] and finding ways of clearing my mind to determine what is coming from within versus what is coming from without, I most often receive communication from Her in thoughts and images. They can influence our minds, and a trained mind can become increasingly skilled at discerning when that influence is external rather than internal. When people speak of the ‘Godphone’ that is what I think of – Her ability to put thoughts and images and convey emotions to me, and my ability to recognize which ones are from Her. Divination is a vital tool for checking these impressions; learn a system or two, make sure that the Power is comfortable communicating with you through that system, and use that to check against your mental and emotional impressions.

  • Sensory Perception – A Deity uses your sight, sound, smell, or touch to communicate with you.  While this could include full auditory or visual hallucinations, it can also be much smaller.  For example, take one of my experiences cooking:

Because I make an effort to connect with Brighid when I’m in the kitchen, I sometimes get little “hints” from Her on what I should add to a meal.  On one occasion, I reached out in my mind to Her, and in response I began to smell butter.  I presumed that She thought my recipe could use some butter.

  • Synchronicity – Also known as “crazy random happenstance“.  This will manifest as one or more curiously-timed events that seem to work toward a common goal.  My Vermont fire story would fall into this category.  A more extreme example occurred to Kaela when she was first contemplating whether to pursue a devotional practice with Loki:

At first, I was looking for confirmation that I was actually working with Loki so another local pagan suggested that I ask for a sign. It came, in the form of my customary dreams with the individual that I thought might be Loki. Of course, my rational mind reasoned that I could have had that dream because I wanted it badly. So I thought it clever to ask for a bigger sign.

The whole next day, books kept falling on my head, especially if I pondered this question. My roommate watched as I pushed the books as far back as I could on the shelf, and we had a laugh when that did nothing to help my predicament.

As you can see, communication with Deity need not be big, earth-shattering UPG.  More often it is experienced as a series of small, sometimes interconnected events that let us know that Deity is listening or has something to say.  But what if you aren’t experiencing anything?  What if you’ve tried and tried and still nothing gets back to you?  Unfortunately, I’m no expert on Divine communication, but I can share a few tips that have helped me.

  1. Don’t Give Up Hope! – This is the most important thing to remember.  Most spiritualist practitioners I’ve met have gone through one or more periods of heart-aching disconnect from the Divine.  Tipping my hat to Douglas Adams, I tend to call such spiritual dry spells “The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul”.
  2. Are Your Prayers and Offerings Appropriate? – Perhaps you’re praying to a specific Deity in a way that doesn’t jive with Them.  While Freyja would be honored if you performed tantric sex in Her name, it probably wouldn’t be the best way to get Brighid’s attention.  Do a bit of research on your Deities if you haven’t done so already, and see what kinds of offerings and worship styles they might prefer.  For instance, Brighid or the Morrígan would probably love a carefully crafted and well-structured poem in Their honor, Freyja would appreciate acts of grace and beauty or of carnal pleasure, Áine would dig interpretive or ecstatic dance, Agni would probably appreciate a candlemaking exercise, etc.
  3. Are Your Meditations Appropriate? – And not just for the Deities you’re trying to connect to.  If you have AD/HD like myself, its likely that you’re going to have a difficult time if you’re using a “clear your mind”-style of meditation.  In the words of Jeff, a practicing Neo-Shaman:

    I think that everybody has the capacity to channel the Divine, but what often gets in the way is that we’re not a clear channel — and that can be worked on.

    The Gods can’t talk to minds that can’t receive, so why not look into alternative ways to meditate.  Trance (chanting litanies until you’re in a trance state), walking meditation, dynamic meditation, and mindfulness are four great alternatives to what we in the West consider to be “traditional” meditation.

  4. Are You Trying to Connect to the Right Deities? – This may be a hard pill to swallow, but I’ve found that there are people who cannot connect with certain Deities no matter how hard they try.  The upside is that there are likely other Deities that they can connect with, and who in all likelihood would be more compatible.  For instance, while Brighid has an easy time hearing me, She has a very hard time communicating back through my subconscious; it takes concentrated work on my part to build a relationship and maintain a connection with Her.  Meanwhile, the first time I’d even heard of Áine I saw a vision of Her face.  Freyja initiated contact with me, and I generally have a very easy time connecting back to Her.  If you cannot connect to a certain Deity, then perhaps you should be asking yourself if they’re right for you.
  5. Are You Looking and Listening? – Are you keeping your eyes open for signs?  As we discussed above, there are a number of “small” ways that the Gods can get your attention and try to communicate with you.  As an exercise, try keeping a notebook on you.  Mention when and where it occurred, and what you were doing at the time.  If anything pops out at you, make a note.  Don’t try to worry about whether it makes any sense or whether you’re reading into it too much!  If that red car that just passed you stuck out like a sore thumb, make a note of it.

"Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen" by Johann Heinrich Füssli. From WikiMedia
“Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen” by Johann Heinrich Füssli. From WikiMedia

And there you have it, the joys and frustrations of connecting with Deity.  It is a wonderful experience to have, but there will be challenges along the way.  Expect to go through long periods where you feel disconnected and adrift, and other periods where you feel as close to your Gods are you are to your own family.  I’ve found that the trick is to not get discouraged, and to keep on trying… because no matter how bleak it may seem, the Gods are listening.

FOOTNOTES

1. Ava later determined that it was Brighid reaching out in Her warrior aspect, commonly known as Brigantia.

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