When a God Turns You Upside Down

When a God Turns You Upside Down July 21, 2016

03 154 Giant's CausewayOur many polytheist religions concern themselves with many different things, but near the top of almost every list is forming and maintaining relationships. We form relationships with our communities, with our ancestors, and with the land and the spirits of the land. Most importantly, we form relationship with the Gods.

How do we form relationships with Gods?

Beginning a devotional practice is a good place to start. If you think a God is calling you, there are things you can do and people you can talk with to help you figure out Who it is and what They want. If no one is calling you, pursuing the Gods on your own is a worthy activity.

These relationships can take many forms. Some polytheists spend a lifetime honoring the Gods and doing Their work in this world and are never asked for a more intimate relationship. Some experience the presence of the Gods in ritual. Some speak with Gods in dreams, meditation, and divination. Some experience ecstatic communion with a deity, feel Their presence within themselves, and allow the deity to speak through them.

The intimate, ecstatic, personal presence of a deity can be an amazing experience. But be careful what you wish for – you may end up with something you aren’t expecting, and something you aren’t at all prepared for.

If we lived in a polytheist society, we would grow up learning the basics of polytheist belief and practice. When a God came calling, we would know the proper steps to take to discern Who we were dealing with and what that meant.

If we lived in a religiously neutral society, many of us would end up as polytheists (though far from all of us) and while we might not know how to deal with an unexpected encounter with a God, at least we wouldn’t have to unlearn a decade or five’s worth of bad religion.

We don’t live in either of those societies. We live in a society that’s dominated by Christianity and its image of an all-powerful but very remote sky God who some say hasn’t spoken to humanity in 2000 years and others say speaks only through preachers. We live in a society where many people who claim to be Christian might as well be atheists for all the attention they pay to Jesus. We live in a society where a growing number of people are shouting that there are no Gods at all.

None of which in any way prepares someone for the experience of having a God who may be limited in power but who is still far bigger and stronger than you suddenly grab you by the back of the neck and scream “you’re mine.”

Because that happens too. And it can turn your world upside down.

Why do the Gods approach us in such different ways? Why are They so gentle with some and so harsh with others? I don’t know. All I know is that They do what They do for Their own reasons. Our comfort – and at times, our sanity – doesn’t appear to be too high on Their list of priorities.

Who do the Gods call or claim or grab? They rarely pick someone who isn’t at least passingly familiar with Them. There are enough of us now They don’t have to spend time and energy trying to “convert” someone who thinks They’re demons or who thinks They’re hallucinations. They can simply respond to those who’ve called on Them.

07 110 Kirkwall ravenI’ve had polytheists I greatly respect tell me that the many Gods are in fact omnipotent and omniscient. Perhaps, but I have serious doubts about that. And if, as I suspect, the Gods can hear our thoughts but cannot read all the complicated emotions and convoluted reasoning behind them, I can imagine one of Them having Their own internal conversation that goes something like this:

“I need another priest (or warrior or organizer or Druid-on-retainer). Who can I call? Let’s see, how about that person there? They’ve called on me several times. I helped them out once, but I don’t think they noticed. But they’ve got the skills I need, they’re capable of doing it, and they seem like they’re interested – I think I’ll grab them.”

If you’re a long-time polytheist who’s been pursing a God for years, this may be a joyous day for you. If you’re a new polytheist who’s not quite sure what it’s all about, it may be an awesome day – as in “full of awe.”

But if you’ve been told the Gods are merely metaphors or archetypes, if you’ve been told the Gods are all in your head, if you’ve been told “you can change your mind any time you like” this may be a day full of confusion and terror. Or a week. Or a year. Or the rest of your life.

Yes, we have sovereignty before the Gods. Yes, we can say “no.” But what are you saying “no” to? Yourself? A metaphor? What happens when you try to reinterpret a myth and the “myth” resists reinterpretation? What happens when you insist the Morrigan is a nurturing Mother Goddess but you still keep having spears placed into your hands? What do you do when the beautiful Stag becomes a raging beast?

What do you do when a God won’t take “no” for an answer?

If you know there are people who’ve had similar experiences and come through them well, if you know there are priests who are knowledgeable and experienced in such things, you can contact someone who can help you figure out Who’s calling you, what They want, and how you can best respond. Or maybe you’re strong enough and self-possessed enough to handle the turmoil until you figure it out yourself.

Or maybe you’re not, and maybe you don’t know there are people you can call for help, and you wonder if you’re having a mental breakdown. You wonder why this is nothing like the gentle, loving Goddess you thought you were worshipping, or why this “myth” is bothering you so much. You wonder why it won’t just go away.

I’ve seen this happen numerous times. I’ve talked with other polytheists who’ve had this happen to them. I’ve had people contact me looking for help after an overwhelming religious experience they didn’t understand. On one occasion I was there when it happened. It was beautiful and terrifying at the same time… and that was for me as an observer.

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Non-polytheists can argue about what causes it, but that it happens is matter of fact. I’ve seen people come through this more or less OK. I’ve seen people suffer for months before they finally get help from a competent priest. And I’ve seen people fight it for years, insisting that it can’t be real, telling themselves it can all be explained by psychology, but it never goes completely away.

So what do you do if a God turns you upside down?

Go with it. If an experience of a deity runs counter to your worldview, to your ideas about what is and isn’t possible, just go with it. In the moment, and as you try to process it, do your best to accept that something you’ve always thought wasn’t possible really happened. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hamlet (1.5.167-8) Don’t try to force a religious experience into a materialist box. You can figure it all out later. For now, concentrate on what’s happening, not how to interpret it.

Talk to Them. Ask Them what They want. Don’t expect clear, explicit answers… unless, of course, you get a clear explicit answer. In which case saying “yes” is probably the best thing to do. It’s probably what you want to do, even if you don’t know how you’re doing to do it, and even if it scares you silly. Unless it’s something you can’t do, either literally or ethically (the Gods’ ethics are often different from our ethics… which is usually a good reason to re-examine your own ethics). In which case, say what you can do and will do. There’s no guarantee your counteroffer will be accepted, but in my case it was.

Find someone to talk to who can relate to what happened. This means a competent, experienced, polytheist priest. If you can find one in the tradition of the deity who grabbed you, so much the better. But if you can’t, find someone who at least understands this process. Your local Tarot reader, UU minister, or witch aren’t likely to be helpful (unless, of course, they’re also a polytheist priest). If you consult a mental health expert, find someone who understands the difference between mental illness and extreme religious experience.

The direct experience of the Gods can be an amazing, fulfilling, path-confirming experience. It can also be an on-going experience of sheer terror. I can’t tell you why it happens. I can’t tell you why it hasn’t happened to you. I can just tell you that it’s happened to me, it’s happened to others, and it seems to be happening more and more.

The Gods are real. Our direct experiences of Them are all the proof we need. But we often need help in interpreting our experiences, and in figuring out how to go about doing what we’ve been “asked” to do. If a God turns you upside down, find someone who understands what’s happened and talk with them.

And good luck.

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