I was pleasantly surprised at the response to last week’s post When You Shouldn’t Talk About Your Spiritual Experiences. I thought it was a minor point about a minor issue, but it resonated with a lot of people. A few were those who think all religion should be private (an idea I understand but do not share, as should be obvious after 13 years of religious blogging), but most were people who simply aren’t comfortable talking about their spiritual and religious experiences, either because such experiences are too intimate or because they fear misunderstanding and ridicule.
In general, I think the more we talk about our spiritual experiences the better, at least when we do it in a sympathetic and supportive environment. The more we talk about them the more we normalize them, and the less likely we’ll be to rationalize our own experiences away. But as we discussed last week, there are times when keeping silent is the best option.
This week I encountered another such situation, and while it’s fairly rare it’s serious enough I feel the need to write about it. This is the situation when your spiritual experiences – your UPG, your Unverified Personal Gnosis – involve someone else.
My job is to write – what readers do with that is up to them
Work with Gods and spirits long enough and eventually you’ll be drafted to be a messenger. Sometimes these are general messages: “You, Druid – write this!” And so I write a blog post that, while not exactly dictated by a deity, is strongly inspired by Them. The words are mine, but the ideas behind them belong to the Morrigan or Cernunnos or another deity who wants them written.
How readers respond to these words is up to them. Most times, I hear something from other devotees along the lines of “yeah, the Great Queen has been pushing me in this direction too.” That’s confirmation that I’m really hearing from Her and I’m not just imagining it. Occasionally someone will challenge this or that aspect of the message. I pay close attention to these challenges – getting it right is more important than insisting I was right all along. I do my best, but I’m an imperfect messenger.
What everyone else does with this is up to them. I’m a writer and writers like it when people respond positively to what we write. But at the end of the day my job is to write what I’m told to write. How others receive it is their business, not mine.
Deliver the message and then disengage
It gets more complicated – and more dangerous – when you’re asked to deliver a personal message to someone else. I wrote about this a couple years ago in Serving as an Oracle: When the Messenger is You. Here’s a key quote:
An oracle is a messenger, not a coach or a therapist … You have a very limited role: deliver a message. What the recipient does with it is between them and the God who sent it … Say what you were told to say and then leave them alone.
I’ve never had someone try to shoot the messenger. Most recipients respond with something along the lines of “yeah, I know.” That’s further confirmation that I got the message right and didn’t let my own feelings on the matter color my words.
I’m honored and humbled when I’m presented with this work. But it doesn’t give me any authority. It makes me the spiritual version of a bicycle messenger. An honorable job, to be sure. But it’s not about me.
Gods don’t pick soulmates for you
Occasionally I come across people who have a spiritual experience that involves other people. They have a dream, or a vision, or they encounter what they believe is an omen. The language they use to describe it varies – and to be fair, the lack of a robust spiritual vocabulary doesn’t invalidate their experiences.
The problem is that their experience tells them that some other person needs to do something that involves them. Often, it tells them that this one person is “right for them” – their soulmate, or whatever terms are being used for an intense romantic relationship at the time.
This is the reddest of red flags for me.
The first problem is one of discernment. I know of couples who met through their common interest in a particular deity or tradition, but I know of no cases of divine matchmaking. As for me, I tried to be a Christian in my youth, but neither the Christian God nor any Pagan God told me to marry Cathy (married for 34 years and counting). I wish Someone had told me to break off the dysfunctional relationship I had with my college girlfriend a year or three earlier, but that’s another rant for another time.
When you’re trying to interpret a spiritual experience, it’s always a challenge to separate your ideas, preferences, and desires from those of a God or spirit. Gods usually call us to focus on Them and challenge us to take on work that embodies and promotes their virtues and values. If an experience tells you what you want to hear or what you want to be true, you’re probably hearing your own desires and not the call of a deity.
Either there’s mutual interest or it’s not real
The second problem is one of communication. How do you think it’s going to sound if you tell someone “a God told me we’re supposed to be together”? That sounds like the creepiest, most stalkerish thing I can imagine. Any legitimate romantic relationship has to be grounded in mutual interest, not in some sort of supernaturally arranged marriage.
Full disclosure – I don’t believe in soulmates. Though as with everything else that starts with “I believe” I freely admit I could be wrong. But if you’re absolutely convinced your interpretation is correct – a that a God or a spirit really did tell you that someone is your “soulmate” – then remember the “P” in UPG. Personal. It’s a message for you.
If it’s real, your would-be soulmate will get one too. Or they’ll be so impressed with you that the relationship will take off and no appeals to your spiritual experience will be necessary. Because either they choose to be with you because they want to be with you, or they’re not really your soulmate.
So if they don’t respond to your ordinary, respectful, consent-based courtship, then there’s only one conclusion:
You misinterpreted the spiritual experience.
Experiences are always real – interpretations aren’t always accurate
Our religious and spiritual experiences are some of the most powerful things we’ll ever encounter – so powerful they often overwhelm us. They’re real, in that they really happened. But what they mean is a matter of interpretation.
Good interpretations require a grounding in a religious tradition, so we know which Gods and spirits we’re likely to encounter, how we’re likely to encounter them, and what they’re likely to say to us. Good interpretations require the most famous of the Maxims of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: “know thyself.” If you know what’s you, it’s a lot easier to recognize what’s not you.
And it’s a lot easier to figure out when a dream is a God talking to you, and when it’s your subconscious telling you what you want to hear.