I recently received a comment that was more of a question for the next Conversations Under the Oaks (and that’s a perfectly acceptable thing to do, in case you’re wondering). But rather wait for the next round of Q&As, I want to address this one now.
The question is quite long – you may want to read it in its entirety. Here’s an excerpt, with some editing to make my condensation more readable. Jade Meeker said:
Buddhists tell ancient stories about the miracles Guan Yin performed for her devotees – if they are pushed off a mountain cliff, they will hover in air rather than fall. And yet a majority of devotees never experience a miracle even though they really need one. Even now, temples to Guan Yin are being destroyed in China and her devotees are in danger due to the anti-religion government. How do we as modern worshippers make sense of this?
I honestly feel that these stories are unhelpful. They establish expectations that are destined to not be met a majority of the time.
I understand that the Gods are not genies here to grant our wishes. But things don’t seem to be getting better on any level. And I just don’t know how to make sense of it all anymore.
These are some good questions. My guess is that they’re more common than we recognize – lots of people wonder about such things but don’t express their concerns.
There are no easy answers. Sometimes the best response to a question is not an answer, but contemplation. So let’s contemplate.
Myths aren’t intended to be read literally
We live in a society poisoned by fundamentalism and biblical literalism. Sola scriptura elevates the written word over all other forms of knowing. Enlightenment thinking – for all the good it has done – divides writing into the simplistic categories of “historical facts” and “made up stories.” It discounts the value of myths – stories meant to convey not facts but meaning.
Stories such as these are not newspaper accounts of historical events. They’re myths that tell us something about our Gods – in this case, that Guan Yin will help a follower deal with dire circumstances.
Here’s the frustrating part: we Pagans know all this. We know these stories were never meant to be taken literally. But because we live in a Protestant-dominated culture, we carry an unconscious expectation that these stories are historically true and that if we were strong enough or devout enough or spiritual enough, we could do these things too.
And then we’re disappointed when we can’t – even though we knew we couldn’t in the first place.
Their ways are not our ways
Still, the results are what they are. The worship of the Many Gods was replaced by the worship of the Christian God – often violently. In our time, Guan Yin and Buddhism are repressed to facilitate the worship of the Chinese state.
If Gods are the mightiest of spirits and if They have sovereignty and agency – and I believe They do – then why don’t They do something to stop it?
All we know is that They choose not to. Why They make that choice is a mystery.
Their ways are not our ways. Their priorities are not our priorities.
This is a place where deep contemplation and meditation are required. Give that this situation exists, why might it be that way? What does that tell us about the Gods and Their priorities?
Perhaps most importantly, what does that mean for our expectations of our relationships with Them?
Do we worship power or do we worship virtue?
Why do we worship the Gods? “Because They’re Gods and we’re not” sounds too much like Calvinism to me. “Because They’re the mightiest of spirits” (which They are) sounds too much like might makes right.
On a personal basis, I worship the Gods (or rather, I worship some Gods) because They’ve been good to me. Their presence in my life has been a good thing. Even when They haven’t made things easier, They have made things more meaningful. I want to thank Them for that and do what is necessary to make these human-divine relationships stronger, deeper, and more fulfilling.
They have brought virtues into my life: strength, courage, honesty, perseverance, and especially the two greatest Pagan virtues, reciprocity and hospitality.
These virtues can exist and thrive in any conditions. And while you can’t always control your circumstances, you can control your responses. That doesn’t excuse people who create and perpetuate injustices, but it is solid advice for those of us who have to navigate difficult situations not of our own making.
Do you need spectacle or do you need sustenance?
I honestly believe that if He chose, Zeus could appear bodily among us, throwing thunderbolts at will. But what would that accomplish? There are people who deny the reality of evolution, the moon landing, and the results of last year’s election – do you think a divine appearance would fare any better?
Those of us who have experienced Their presence need no such spectacle.
What we need is the sustenance that comes from a respectful, reciprocal relationship with divine persons.
Magic tends to be subtle
We often ask the question “how does magic work?” (I have my own theory). But there’s another question we need to ask first: “what does magic do?”
In my experience, magic doesn’t directly accomplish anything. Rather, magic increases the odds that something will happen. On its own, an event may have a 50% chance of working out the way you want. With good magic, those odds can be improved to 80%. That’s still not 100% – it’s not guaranteed to happen. But moving the odds from 5 in 10 to 8 in 10 is a significant improvement – I’ll take it.
Because magic influences the odds, its impact can be hard to spot. Magic is subtle.
And often, so are the Gods.
This is Tower Time
In their comment, Jade Meeker said “perhaps some of these things are related to Tower Time.” I agree. But Tower Time isn’t just climate change and the upheaval of empires. It’s also the return of the Old Gods, increased interactions with the Fair Folk, the intersection of this world and the Otherworld, and perhaps, the turning point in some natural and spiritual cycles that take millennia to complete.
If a hurricane is bearing down on your location, there are two different approaches you can take with your magic. You can work magic to redirect the hurricane and to protect your house. Or you can work magic to facilitate a safe and timely evacuation.
Of course you can do both – I would do both. But if you do the first without the second, you’re taking an incredible – and maybe fatal – risk. Work on your evacuation first, then worry about trying to redirect the hurricane. And remember that a hurricane is a lot more powerful than even the strongest witch.
Perhaps Guan Yin will make it possible for you to float in the air. But your odds are a lot better if She keeps you from being pushed off the cliff in the first place.
Focus on doing what you can do.
Look for deeper meaning
Jade closed by saying they’ve had “amazing spiritual experiences with the Gods in the past.”
This is a very good thing. These experiences let us know the world is bigger, deeper, and more mysterious than our mainstream world recognizes, or would admit if they did. They remind us that as valuable and precious as this life is, it’s not all there is.
And we’re a part of it all.
The stories our ancestors told about the Gods are treasures. They tell us something about how they experienced the Gods and what they learned from those experiences. They tell us something about what we are, who we are, and perhaps most importantly, whose we are.
They aren’t news reports – they weren’t told to communicate the facts of historical events. They aren’t “fake news” either – they weren’t told with the intent to deceive.
They’re myths: stories about things that never were but always are, that provide meaning, and that tell us how to live.
If you’re in a difficult situation, do what you can to improve it, or to get yourself out of it. True miracles are rarely necessary.
But if you really need a miracle?
Then pray for a miracle… and be open to it coming in ways you never imagined.