Fellow Texas Pagan Chris Godwin posted a meme recently that grabbed my attention. The first picture said “1st year of devotion” and had a drawing of a figure taking a step, then stepping on a rake and hitting themselves in the face with it.
The second picture said “10th year of devotion” and had a figure doing parkour with a rake… and then stepping on it and hitting themselves in the face with it.
I don’t know what Chris intended by that meme, but it struck me as exceptionally wise.
Before we dive into this, we need to define devotion. For the purpose of this exploration, I’ll define it as honoring a God, ancestor, or other spirit in a way that brings us into relationship with them. It also includes the kind of ecstatic practices that bring us into a direct experience of them. This type of devotion is a good and necessary thing – it’s the foundation of my polytheist practice.
But it’s not always a straightforward thing.
Many Gods, many people, many ways
I have a couple blog posts on starting a devotional practice. I cover it in both of my books. But if you’re new to it, it may seem odd to you… especially if you come from a religious background that doesn’t include devotion. You may not get it exactly right the first time.
And what does it mean to get it right anyway? What one God wants isn’t necessarily what another wants. What one tradition dictates may be very different from another tradition. There is usually a trial and error process for all involved.
Beginners are expected to make mistakes
Most Gods are understanding with beginners. They’re not looking to smite someone for offering the wrong wine, for praying too casually, or for occasional mistakes and forgetfulness. In my experience They expect us to make mistakes. They do expect us to learn from them and to not make the same mistake over and over again.
“Punishment” is rare, but cause and effect is real, and good intentions won’t save you. If you step on a rake there’s a good chance it will pivot upward and smack you in the face… or you’ll impale your foot on the tines.
But if something goes wrong in your devotion it’s not the end of the world… or the end of the relationship.
The more we practice the more we learn
The thing about hitting yourself in the face with a rake is that once you do it, you try really hard not to do it again. And conversely, we see what techniques and practices bring good results. So over time we learn how to pray, how to meditate, and how to study. We learn how to make offerings.
For me, the primary concern is that offerings are made regularly, and that I don’t offer cheap stuff and keep the good stuff for myself. Occasionally I’m told “I want that!” but most times I hear “I’ll drink what you’re drinking.”
In ecstatic devotion – and in its sibling practice, journeying – the opportunities for error are enhanced. We go to unfamiliar places using unfamiliar methods and we encounter unfamiliar persons – some of whom are not particularly friendly to humans. Sometimes we use techniques (entheogens, ecstatic dancing, etc.) that carry this-world risks.
But over time we learn where some of the rakes are and where other rakes are likely to be. We start to learn the lay of the land, and we’re able to do what we need to do with minimal risk. This is a good thing.
Is safety what you really want?
The purpose of devotion is to honor our spiritual allies, and in doing so bring ourselves into closer relationship with them. How deep, how strong, how intimate is that relationship supposed to be? That’s a question you have to answer for yourself.
The problem is that even among those of us who take such practices seriously, there’s a tendency to get to the point where we stop hitting ourselves in the face with a rake and we start to get comfortable. We can speak to our Gods and ancestors, and we can hear them responding. We can call on them in times of need, and sometimes they help us out. Surely this is what devotion is supposed to be like – we’ve made it.
If you’re happy where you are, and if your Gods aren’t pushing you for more, then maybe you are where you’re supposed to be. Deeper devotion and ecstatic practice carries risks – it’s not for everyone.
Deep practice carries risks
But maybe you need to be the figure in the second drawing. Maybe you need to be doing the spiritual equivalent of parkour. Now, perhaps parkour is a bad metaphor. My own practice – at its most intense, anyway – is best described as exploring off the map.
Whatever metaphor you use, the fact remains that deep, intense, intimate spiritual devotion and ecstatic practice carries risks: coming face to face with bad memories, getting lost on the other side, encountering a hostile spirit, or simply misinterpreting your instructions and failing to accomplish what you set out to do.
Or stepping on a rake and smacking yourself in the face.
But if we don’t risk failure, we will never go any farther than we’ve already been.
I fear stagnation more than I fear failure
I don’t like failure.
I’ve done pretty well playing the odds, minimizing risks, and maintaining optionality. I haven’t made many serious mistakes in life, and the ones I have made I’ve corrected quickly enough to avoid serious consequences (there’s more than a little grace of the Gods and pure luck in there too). Avoiding failure has worked well for me.
But if there’s one thing I fear more than failure it’s stagnation.
When I had my Pagan epiphany I couldn’t see where devoting myself to this path would take me. But I could clearly see where not following it would lead: sitting in the pews of a non-descript Mainline Protestant church, bored out of my mind and wondering about what might have been.
That’s worse than getting hit in the face with a hundred rakes.
What it is that you’re called to do? What spiritual relationships need to be strengthened? What uncharted terrain do you need to explore… and to draw maps for those who come after you?
It won’t be easy. It certainly won’t be safe. You may not hit yourself in the face with a rake, but you’re likely to make some missteps along the way.
But I can’t imagine doing anything else.