Category Archives: Interfaith

Idolatry 101

Idolatry Eagle

“Why are you all still sitting there?!”

A friend and I were sitting, with about fifty others, in the audience of the Birds of Prey exhibition at Scarborough Faire, a renaissance festival located just outside of Waxahachie, Texas.

I grew up just a few miles from the Faire and have attended at least one weekend for almost every year since it opened back in 1981.  I know the grounds like the back of my hand, and most of the better acts by heart, but mostly I just enjoy dressing up, and spending some relaxing time outside people-watching over a nice cool tankard of mead.

I’ve probably attended the Birds of Prey show a couple dozen times over the years.

I love watching them fly the hawks, or the occasional falcon.

They usually open with a Turkey Vulture and close the show with an American Bald Eagle, and this year was no different, right up until the end.

For some reason, as the trainer brought the Eagle up onto the stage, the love theme from Braveheart was being piped over the sound system.  She paraded around the stage holding the eagle on one gloved hand, with her other hand pressed over her heart.

When she completed her circle across the front of the stage, the head trainer spoke up from his throne at the back of the stage and said, “Let me ask you a question, why are you all still sitting there?!”

Okay, this was new.

“Why,” he continued, “didn’t you rise to your feet and place your hands over your hearts when you saw this magnificent bird, this symbol of liberty and freedom…,”.

As the scolding lecture continued, and the chastened crowd began to rise like schoolchildren who had been caught short, my irritation grew.

The very obvious answer to the gentleman’s question is that we didn’t rise because a bird, even the national bird, is not a flag!   We don’t rise for birds, we don’t place our hands over our hearts for birds.  It’s just not something that we have ever been asked to do.  Nor should we be.

Should I likewise stop along the side of the road every time I pass a field of Bluebonnets (the state flower of Texas) to show my proper respect?

As I sat there, watching the sheep around me lurching guiltily to their feet, it occurred to me that after a couple thousand years of being told that Idolatry was a horrible thing which should be avoided at all costs, people in the western world are just really REALLY out of practice.

I mean, they all still do it, but by and large they absolutely suck at it.

Maybe, I thought, there should be a class, something like a continuing education course that people could take over the course of a few weeks.  Such a class could be taught by folks from within the pagan/polytheist community, as a kind of community outreach.  Something we could do to help out all those unfortunate folks who just haven’t got a knack for it.

And once I’ve had a thought like that.., well, I know from experience that it is just going to fester in my mind until I find a way to get it out of my system and move on to other things.

And so I present to you, my pretend lesson plan for a continuing education course that will never actually exist.

Enjoy!

Idolatry 101: General Course Description

In the classic sense, we think of the idol as a statue usually secreted deep within the bounds of some ominous temple.  Surrounded by cloaked priests and clouds of incense, it is brought forth on special days, whereupon the people may fawn and bow before it, offering up sacrifice to be burned in its presence.  This is a profoundly limited view, influenced by religious propaganda and literary cliché.  This course will seek to expand upon that narrow view, by exposing the student to the many forms and functions of the Idol throughout history and into the modern era.

Week 1: When is a Door not a Door?

Synopsis of Introductory Lecture:  In the holy writings of all three of the great monotheistic religions, there are stern warnings against the practice of Idolatry.  In modern usage the word itself is, in almost all cases, used in a pejorative manner.  But what is Idolatry, really?  While there may be many related definitions, for the purposes of this course, Idolatry will be understood to mean the process by which a tangible, real-world object, is used as a point of focus for the worship or reverence of something otherwise intangible.

History shows that Idolatry is something that is second nature to the human animal, and is present in almost every facet of human activity both ancient and modern.  Furthermore, it is the foundation upon every great religion, including those which so frequently preach against it.

Witness, for example, the sacrament of the Eucharist in which bread and wine are symbolically transformed into the body and blood of Christ, whereupon it is consumed by the faithful as a means of taking the holy spirit of their god into themselves.

Now compare this modern religious tradition with that of the far more ancient cult of Dionysus, which held that the vine of the grape was the mortal embodiment of their god, and that wine was the blood of their god, fermented by his yearly passage through the underworld.  By the drinking of this specially prepared wine the spirit of the god was believed to first enter and then manifest within the devotee, in the form of holy intoxication.

The idol, as we will see, may take many forms.  It may appear to us as an emblem, a statue, a natural feature of the landscape, and even the blood of the vine.  But in whatever form it takes, the idol is a doorway to something we understand to be bigger than ourselves.  Unable to touch what lie beyond, the door itself becomes a vessel for our reverence, invested with prayer and worship, with ritual and sacrament.

It is not the business of this brief course to render judgement for or against the practice of Idolatry.  Instead, we seek only to recognize it when we see it, to understand how the practice has shaped the human condition, and to gain insight into the beliefs and motivations of those who openly engage in this practice.

Written Activity: Write a quick (1,500 words) explanation of your personal beliefs regarding the practice of Idolatry and what you hope to get out of this course.

Week 2: And Everything in its Place

Lecture and Slide Presentation:  Moving forward from the previous lecture, we will further expand the perception of what may or may not be an idol, by touching briefly upon the subject of Spiritual Geography.  The accompanying slide presentation will show multiple locations where either a man-made or natural feature of the environment has been invested with spiritual significance.  Special attention will be paid to the concept of the Axis Mundi as a point of connection and focus between the physical and spiritual worlds.

Written Activity: Briefly (6,000 words) compare or contrast any two of the following locations:  The Umbilicus Urbis Romae in Italy, The Kaaba in Saudi Arabia, Mount Kailash in Tibet, The Hill of Uisneach in Ireland, Delphi in Greece, or Teotihuacan in Mexico.

Week 3: Desecration and Empowerment

AphroditeSmallLecture and Slide Presentation: We begin with an overview of the rise of Christianity in the waning days of the Roman Empire and the rising tide of attacks upon both temples and statuary dedicated to the gods of the Roman pantheon.  The slide presentation will detail the ways in which images of the various gods were damaged, including beheadings, the gouging of eyes, and the carving of crosses into these objects.  Lecture will end with a brief catalogue of similar desecrations by various groups through history and into the present day, to include the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by Taliban forces in 2001, and the destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra ,Syria, by ISIL in 2015.

Written Activity: Write a brief paper (2,000 words) exploring one of the following questions:

1.  Is your faith empowered by the desecration of someone else’s holy icon?

2.  Is it possible to desecrate an object that is not already sacred?

3.  Does an act of violence against an object reflect the significance of that object in the heart of the believer, or in the mind of the one conducting the act of violence?

Week 4: Stars and Stripes Forever

IdolatryFlagsClass Discussion: The American Flag is often treated as an object of deep reverence.  Citizens salute it, they pledge to it, they treat the display, folding and storage of it with ceremony and ritual, and will retire a worn or damaged flag in cleansing flame.  Desecration of a flag is a crime in many locals, and people have been known to react with violence to public protests that included flag desecration.  Does this same reverence extend to all manifestations of the American flag, including the little disposable plastic ones that people often wave, en masse during parades and patriotic celebrations?  If not, then what makes those flags different?  What about flags printed on t-shirts, bumperstickers, and the like?  What, if anything, makes one flag sacred and another not?  The instructor is encouraged to keep the debate on-topic but to otherwise allow the discussion to guide itself.

Week 5: Ubiquity and the Profane

Lecture:  A brief explanation of the symbols used by various secret societies to identify members to one another, leading us into a discussion of the Christian Cross.  Once a secreted symbol revealed only to those who could be trusted, the Christian Cross has become an everyday fashion accessory for millions of people in the western world.  In recent years, a number of christian groups, in their defense of large crosses displayed on public lands, have suggested that the cross, through its ubiquitous nature, should not always been seen as a religious symbol, but may have any number of secular meanings.

Classroom Activity:  Break into groups and debate one of the following questions?

1.  Does wearing a cross have any significance in a culture where the general expectation is that any individual you may encounter in your day-to-day movements is almost certainly a Christian of some variety?

2.  Can a holy symbol be made profane though repetition and commercialization?

3.  A non-believer wears the symbol of your faith – empowering or sacrilege?

Week 6: Where does the power come from?

Final Lecture: In whatever form it takes, the Idol has the power to instill powerful emotions in those who encounter it.  For some, a particular idol may illicit feeling of deep reverence, joy, fear, or disgust, but the question remains, where do these feelings come from.  Is the power that the idol seems to possess over man a function of the object itself.  Is the physical object imbued with a special nature that brings out these feelings in those who come near it?  Does the particular arrangement of stripes and stars on a length of cloth change the nature of the fibers of which it is composed?  Does the wine become the blood of a god, or is it simply a tool which we use to feel closer to the divine?  If entirety of an idols power rests within the hearts and minds of the men and woman who react so strongly (one way or the other) to its presence, does not our reaction to Idolatry say more about ourselves than it does those we might feel compelled to judge?

Final Essay (6,000 words): Expand upon your original paper from the 1st week of class.  Have your feelings regarding Idolatry changed as you have considered the materials presented.  If so, how has your attitude changed and why?  If not, please explain how this course may have reaffirmed or strengthened your previous feelings.

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Filed under Culture, Interfaith, Modern Life, Mythology, Religion, The Gods, Traditions

Indiana Jonesing

So you’ve heard about the new law in Indiana, right?

I mean, it’s made the news here in Texas, where any news story that’s not about Texas had better be about sports, or it’ll be regarded with suspicion…, so it must be a really big and controversial story…, right?!

Okay, on the off chance that you’ve had your head buried in the sand, here’s the scoop.

A lot of people are very upset because the state of Indiana has just enacted a law which, it is claimed, allows business owners to refuse to serve homosexuals, if said business owner has a religious objection to homosexuality.

Another group of people have responded to that claim by saying, “nu uh!”

And yet a third group, is busy shouting “God Hates Fags!” at anyone who is foolish enough to wander into the comments section of any news story relating to this law, or to any news story, about almost anything.  But mother always said it was unkind to stare at those less fortunate than ourselves, so let’s turn our attention away from the ignorant hooting, and examine, instead, the actual claims about this particular bit of legislation.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Hmmm…, having read through it, I’ve got to say that, if anything, it suffers from being poorly named.

Indiana FactsWhich religious freedoms, I am forced to wonder, have been taken away, that this law is intended to restore?

Has anyone, Christian, Buddhist, Wiccan, or Jew, been denied the right to worship their god or gods as they see fit?  Have any churches been shuttered?  Have the stormtroopers of vile secularism kicked in the doors of private homes and stolen away with menorahs, prayer mats, advent calendars, and the like?

In what circumstance, has government prohibited the free exercise of religion, in the state of Indiana, (or any of the other states where similar laws hold sway), that we need legislation, specifically enacted, to restore our lost religious liberty?

I ask because, the only examples anyone seems to be able to provide, involve bakers not wanting to produce confections for gay weddings.  I’ve studied a great many religions, over the years.  More, in fact, than I could easily name.  And I have yet to encounter one where baking constituted an act of faith.

I am open to the possibility that adherents of such a faith might be prone to die off quickly, of cholesterol poisoning most likely, thus keeping their numbers dangerously low, and their overall presence off of my religious radar.  But I have serious doubts.

So, until someone can demonstrate some other, greater need for this legislation, what we do seem to have is a law that shields from legal action, a business which refuses service to anyone, on the basis of that business owners religious belief.

Realistically, we also have a law which appears to be named in the sensationalist hope, of attracting the attention (and shall I say votes) of those very same folks, the loud hooting ones, from whom we are trying diligently, to avert our gaze.

Okay, fine.  We may think it ugly, but it’s there.  And right or wrong, the state of Indiana is getting something of a black eye because of it.

So here’s another question to consider: Is it Constitutional?

I don’t know, and the learned opinions on the matter seem to differ, but sooner or later, I think we’re going to find out.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. 

JonesingI don’t understand how baking a cake for a gay wedding, as long as said cake is no different than those you usually produce in the course of your business, can be abhorrent to the religious beliefs or any reasoning person.  And maybe, this is because it hasn’t been explained to me properly yet.

But in the course of my own career, I have performed technical support, designed advertising and marketing materials, built homes for, and sold actual artwork of my own creation, to people whom I have found to be reprehensible for any number of reasons, including their particular religious beliefs.  I have done this, not because I value the dollar more than my own ideals, but because I firmly believe that everyone should be equal in the marketplace.  My ancestors once had to deal with storefront signs that read ‘No Irish’, and I will never, knowingly, demean another human being in that way.

So, pending more evidence, the ‘non-establishment clause’ would seem to be out of the picture.

So what, then, about the Freedom of Association?

I’ve often heard this touted as a constitutionally mandated right, allowing certain folks the freedom to avoid contact with other folks whom they don’t like.

And that would be fine, except that it is nothing of the kind.

The right of association is not even explicitly mentioned in the constitution, but is, rather, a modern day extension of the freedom to ‘peaceably assemble’.  My research shows that the right of association came into vogue during the civil rights movement when certain groups were putting a lot of energy into either preventing meetings of the NAACP, or forcing that group to turn over lists of its membership.

In any case, the right, as it is commonly expressed, has never been one of ‘disassociation’.  The intent, as I understand it, is to make it clear that you are free to interact with whoever you want to, for whatever reason that is not already prohibited by law.  There’s nothing there about a guarantee that you will not have to interact with people that you don’t like.

In other words the freedom of association, does not give you the right to turn people away from your business, simply because you don’t like them, or their beliefs.

Am I missing something?  Is there something in the Indiana law, or any of the others (including the federal version) that cause it to pass Constitutional muster?  If so, I welcome anyone with a reasoned argument in favor of these laws, to explain it to me.

Show me, please!  Demonstrate to me that there is a very real need for these laws.  Show me that they will be useful to members of minority religions in exactly the same way they are useful to the Christian majority that feels so threatened.  Give me reason to believe that this is more than simple discrimination couched in legal terminology.

Because the alternative…,

The alternative is that these laws are put in place in the hope that they will be challenged.  Certainly, the first group of folks I mentioned at the beginning of this post are getting worked up over the prospect of a legal fight.

And the second group?  They have to know that a challenge is coming.  And another, and another, until someone lands in front of the right court at the right time, and then…,

IndianaJonesingBut, it’s not really about the court challenges at all, is it?

And it’s certainly not about some poor beleaguered baker being forced against her will to apply frosting rosettes to a cake that will be consumed following a same-sex union she will never see.

It’s all about that third group, that rabid mob which is so blinkered by its own insecurity that they have rejected the Christ of the Bible, the one who would likely have embraced the homosexual with the same love and compassion he is said to have shown the prostitute and the adulterer, (perhaps even selling him a nice set of table and chairs from his step-dad’s workshop), and replaced him with the same kind of self-righteous ass, their own scriptures always show him preaching against.

My fear is that it’s really all about keeping them riled up and jonesing for a fight.

But what happens when that monster gets out of control?

Who will these laws protect, when there is blood in the streets?

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Filed under Culture, Interfaith, Modern Life, Politics, Religion

Small Problems

They bring me their problems.

There is a glitch in this program.  My screen looks funny.  Why is it so slow?  I can’t find the essay I was working on.  It’s never made that sound before.  Where are all of my pictures?

They bring me their problems and it’s my job to help them.

Often they are frantic, or disgusted.  They might be angry on occasion, even belligerent.

And when we are done, if I have solved their problem, some of them are genuinely thankful.  More often, however, they seem somewhat detached from the experience, almost dismissive.

I think it has to do with the fact that they believe this thing that happened to them, shouldn’t have happened.  They should not have had to come to me at all, and I am, whatever my efforts on their behalf, tainted as a result.

It’s not a big deal, people don’t like going to the doctor either.  I understand, and for the most part, I don’t even notice.  Because I’m already moving on to the next customer, and the one after that.

And then you meet someone different, like the little old lady who came to me last week.

She was smiling and pleasant, and far more patient than she had any right to be.

“Hello,” she said, with a warm light in her eyes, “My name is —–, I have a terminal brain tumor and only a few weeks left to live.  This is my computer and I’d like you to erase all of my information from it, so that my husband can use it after I’m gone.”

I spent about forty minutes with her, trying to squeeze a little more life into a computer that was, itself, not in the best of health.  As I worked, she spoke in snippets about her own life, things she thought I might be interested in, like her adventures as a young woman in the workplace, using the sort of computers which most of us have only seen in old movies, the kind that would fill an entire room.

Here I was, fighting to take up as little of her precious time as I was able, and she, in turn, was doing what she could to make those moments count, by sharing her own experiences, by forging a connection with a complete stranger.

I did what I could for her, which, I am afraid, wasn’t much, and then she was gone.

And with the passage of a few more weeks, I suppose she really will be.

Gone and gone, except for the memories she left behind, of which I am now privileged to carry a few — her knowing smile, her laugh, and a handful of nostalgic remembrances of a technology which was as remarkable in those days as moon landings and the polio vaccine.

In the days that have passed, it has been difficult to care as much about all the little technical issues which people bring me.  Their all too frequent indignation seems misplaced and misspent.  And I wonder, if they knew how much time they really had, if they would still choose to squander it the way they do, with so much energy focused on such small problems.

I mean, it’s not as if every one of them isn’t dying as well.

****

We live in a society which, for the most part, sees life, the actual business of living, as a means to an end.  For several hundred years now, the dominant belief has been that we are born, live and die as prelude to an eternal afterlife.  The shape in which we find that ever-after, is determined, or so we are taught, by our actions in this life.

If you are a bad person, you will spend eternity suffering for your misdeeds.

If you are a good person, you may look forward to a euphoric hereafter.

And we can set aside here, the question of what happens to good people who don’t believe the right way.  Because, it is the basic premise that is important here: life as proving ground for afterlife.  That idea which has come to shape the very structure of our lives.

We work throughout the day with the expectation that once the clock hits that magical hour, we head home, or out on the town, or wherever it is we think of as our due reward for the last few hours of toil.

The days run together and everybody’s working for the weekend.

Or that next spot of vacation.

Or retirement.

Work now and play later.

Suffering = Reward.

All based on a promise that no one has ever been able to actually verify.

There are, of course, competing philosophies.

Atheism, for example, does not believe in any ultimate reward, but neither does it aspire to truly reshape society in any particular way.  The atheistic world view is pretty much just the monotheistic one, subtracting the God and all of its trappings.

You’re still working for the weekend, only, without church.  So, you’ll have a little more time to relax.  The world is still the world and you’d better be willing to work and conform to everyone else’s expectations of what that looks like, if you want to get along.

I suppose, without the dogma attached, the average Atheist might be a little less tolerant toward actual suffering.  There is no greater purpose to be found in the bad things that happen.  No deity tossing Jobian hardships your way as a test of your faith.

In the other extreme, there are those Eastern philosophies which have gained a certain momentum in the West over the last century or so.  Almost the exact opposite of the Atheistic world view, the Eastern thinker, sees the material world as an illusion, cluttering our minds and blocking our way to spiritual Nirvana.

All the day to day bullshit we go through, is exactly that, bullshit.  And meaningless.

Just close your eyes and let it all go.

Which is all very cool, but I don’t really see a philosophy based on ignoring the material world, making any huge impact upon it.  Even if we were counting the nationwide rise in the volume of yoga classes, we’re still talking less about a path to enlightenment, than we are, mom’s little reward to herself that she can fit in during the afternoon, while the kids are at soccer practice.

Atheism and Eastern Philosophy are just tiny eddies in the torrent which has formed at the conflux of the rivers Monotheism and Capitalism, and most who try to swim against that current are doomed to drown.

****

So here’s another philosophy for you to consider, another way of looking at the world, just a single drop of water in the deluge.

What if there is no everlasting reward or punishment, and no good and evil vying for our souls?  What if this life is neither a proving ground nor a distraction?

Imagine for a moment, that there is no distinction between the wholly physical world of the Atheist and the wholly spiritual world of the Buddhist, because those worlds are one and the same.  No closing our eyes and ears against the mathematical without blocking out the mystical, and vice versa.

What if we were beings of flesh and spirit in equal measure, and our actions, how we treat ourselves and each other, have the power to shape our experience of this world and all those worlds which exist just beyond the borders of our sight?

In such a world, there would be no distinction between those actions which are holy, and those which are, in our culture, seen as mundane.

Once, there were many who understood the world in this way.  For a time, they ruled the world from the British Isles, through what was once Gaul, and a patchwork of shifting boundaries that stretched eastward across Europe as far as Asia Minor.

That way of thinking, for the most part, died out long ago.  Put to the sword, first by the Legions of Rome, and later, by a new hybrid religion which took root in the death throes of the old empire, and then spread far beyond its borders.

Some would say that if the Celtic way of seeing the world had been correct, it wouldn’t have been so easily forgotten.

That may be so.  But I’ve never been one to equate popularity with truth.

Life is not a test.  Life is a quest.  Everything we do, every kindness and misdeed is but a step upon a path that we can never see, except when we occasionally turn and look behind us.  There is no heaven or hell, no final reward or judgement, and no true finality, as death is simply a passage over the horizon to a realm which is just beyond our sight.  And if our ancestors spoke true, there may be more worlds beyond that.  Or perhaps the path doubles back from time to time, and we find ourselves here again.

But whatever lies beyond those horizons, we are hear now, and the time we have is precious.

There is no sin in this world, unless it is the sin of missed opportunities.  I look around and see a world of people who are just milling about, waiting for the curtain to rise on some final act that is never going to come.  The inertia is tangible, I can feel it holding me in place like some ancient insect caught in amber, and by all the gods I am terrified that I will never escape.

****

I’ve never really spoken about my job in these pages because I don’t see it as part of my spiritual life.  Maybe that is my fault.  Maybe I’ve fallen into the same trap as everyone else, and I’ve come to understand the world as a polarity that does not actually exist.  I’ve got the mortgage and the car payment, I’ve got all the little creature comforts and tribulations that are supposed to distract me from the fact that I’m being pushed downstream along with everyone else.

And it’s so hard to swim against that current, when the small problems weigh me down.

But I want more for myself, than life on a river to nowhere.

I’m that guy who makes your technology work again, who pays his bills, and votes in the elections, and donates to charities, and comes over to help you build some shelves, and writes a blog, and who can never find the time to complete his remodeling projects, and wonders what it would have been like to have had children, and wishes that he’d sacrificed more for his art, and, and, and…,

Life is a quest, and I’ve come late to that knowledge.

But how late is too late?

And how will I find my path?

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Filed under Celtic Polytheism, Culture, Death, Interfaith, Modern Life, Philosophy, Religion, Spiritual Journey

Picking up the pieces

I was pleased, earlier this week, to see a small but emphatic shout of joy ring out from certain portions of this, our internet.  This, in response to a bit of unexpected good news, as word spread that the statue of Manannán Mac Lir, recently stolen from a mountain top in Northern Ireland, had been recovered.

The image of the Irish sea god, missing for some weeks, was found where the vandals had cast it down, at the base of a ravine only a few hundred yards from where it once stood.

Until now, I think most of us believed that the fiberglass statue had been torn apart and disposed of.  Instead, it appears to have been carried a short distance and then rolled down a hill.  So, I suppose we can ad laziness to the list of crimes for which these religiously motivated thugs are guilty, should we ever chance to discover them.

And, with the statue safely returned, I seriously doubt we’ll see any great effort put toward that investigation.

Did I say, “safely returned?”  Well no, not really.

Fallen Statue Found

Even as the first stories of the statue’s recovery began to circulate, there was mention of some damage to the head.  When the first photos were finally released it was clear that the entire back of Manannán’s head had been sheared away.  Whether this was a consequence of the fall or an active attempt to further disfigure the sculpture is unclear, but the result is the same.

A community is left to pick up the pieces, both literally and figuratively.  Will the local taxpayers have the means to both restore the statue, and secure it against further attacks?  And even if Manannán is returned to that high lookout on Binn Fhoibhne, I have no doubt he will always bear the scars of defilement.

In that, at least, he is in good company.

Tour any of the great museums and you will see them.  Cracked and broken, their once graceful arms missing, they are the gods and heroes of old, the glory of civilizations past, long ago cast down in a fit of religious fervor, and more recently resurrected as simple curiosities to entertain the masses.

Here is the head of the Goddess Aphrodite, torn from her statue, her eyes gouged out and a cross chiseled into her forehead.  Carved in the 1st Century C.E., it was found in the Roman Agora in Athens.

Here is the head of the Goddess Aphrodite, torn from her statue, her eyes gouged out and a cross chiseled into her forehead. Carved in the 1st Century C.E., it was found in the Roman Agora in Athens.

There is a warning phrase which we hear, from time to time, among certain segments of the Christian faithful.  “These are the End Times,” they shout for all to hear, usually in response to some aspect of our modern world which they find irksome to their sensibilities.

Be it secularism…,

…same-sex marriage,

…stem-cell research,

…global free-trade,

…and let us not forget the rise of alternative religions,

…you can be sure that someone, somewhere is convinced that society is about to collapse in on itself and a new age is about to begin.

And therein lies the irony, because these really are the end times.

The biblical ‘tribulations’ began long before the first words of that book were set to paper, when the various tribes of mankind began to migrate across the face of the land and entire societies fell in their wake.

The end isn’t neigh.

The end was yesterday and the day before that, and the world of marvels we have built for ourselves rests upon the gutted remains of the ages that came before us.  And while some are still trying to pick up the pieces, others are determined forget it all in favor of some approaching paradise.

But what so many of them fail to understand, is that the end is a process, not a stopping point.

The worlds we know is always in a state of death…,

…and birth,

…and rebirth.

The human response to this process appears to involve clinging to those portions of the past we hold dear while simultaneously trying to pull down that which we find hostile to our world view.  In so doing we become as much the engine of the end times as we are its victims.

I don’t imagine that will ever change, but I’d like to think it possible.

In my moments of greatest optimism, I imagine the world we know in collapse, falling away to be replaced by one in which we are free to worship any god, or none, without feeling the need to pull down that which is sacred to our neighbor.

It wouldn’t be the Biblical Paradise, the Celtic Otherworld, the green fields of Iðavöllr, or the Age of freaking Aquarius, but I think it would be a nice start.

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Filed under Art, Culture, Interfaith, Ireland, Modern Life, Philosophy, Religion, The Gods

Raised to Believe

I’ve spent a lot of time, in this last week, reading back over my old posts, searching for something that I’ve been told is there.  I scan through the words, and I remember the feelings behind them.  I pause, occasionally, to wince at the occasional typo that snuck its way in, but I do not linger to make corrections, because that’s not what I’m looking for.

I’m looking for ‘hate’.

I was told recently, by someone close to me, that the point of last week’s post had been lost, buried in my hate for the dominant religions, and in particular, for Christianity.

The accusation shook me, because this blog has been, for me, a labor of love.

There is no room for hate here, and looking back over my past writing, I cannot find any.

Oh, sometimes I am angry, but anger does not equal hate.  Hate is unreasoning, born for its own sake, and feeding upon itself.  Anger, particularly that which is born from injustice or cruelty, can rise up to shake the pillars of society.  Anger gave us a free nation devoted to the prospect of liberty for all.  And when we found that the promise of that nation had faltered, anger gave us women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement.

I was raised to believe that one should be angry when presented with injustice, cruelty or bigotry.

I was also raised to believe that we should examine all those things which are claimed to be truth, with a critical eye.  I’ve turned that criticism upon the dominate faiths, upon Atheism, and upon those within the Pagan and Polytheist movement, whenever I have felt the need.  I will continue to do so.

Faith and belief need testing — otherwise they are mere trinkets we carry along with us from childhood.

I was raised to believe many things.

Some of those I have kept.

Others I have abandoned along the way because they had no value to me.

I have been told that disparaging the things that people were raised to believe is hurtful and insulting.  And maybe that’s true, but I’m far more concerned with the things we choose to believe than the things handed down to us from our parents.

Our parents are flawed creatures, just as their parents were, just as we will be in turn.

We are not some isolated tribe, holding on to a knowledge that will vanish forever, if we do not pass it on to the dwindling generations to follow.  Those days have passed, perhaps never to return, and we find ourselves in an open land where the beliefs and assumptions of the previous generations can be tested, and when found lacking, set aside in favor of new traditions.

For some, that is a sorrowful reality.  For others, it represents an opportunity to grow beyond the seemingly arbitrary limitations society would set upon them.  We can correct mistakes that were made long ago, and abandon injustices that have been built into our society over hundreds of years.

This is a time of great hope, and it is that hope that shapes my work here.

I was raised to question assumptions, to feel anger when presented with injustice.

I was also raised Catholic, but I never really fit there, I never saw the same church as everyone else.

This is the church, this is christianity, as I see it…,

Creevelea Sanctuary

A thing both beautiful and deeply flawed.

The edifice was once mighty and graceful, if a bit austere, but is now crumbling into the ivy, and all the more lovely in its decay and humility.

The specific chapel, pictured here is part of Creevelea Abbey, in County Leitrim, Ireland.  It was built by my ancestors and their graves are set into the floor, very near to that sweeping, vaulted window.  I have visited many churches in Ireland, and when I walked in that space, nearly a decade ago, I felt the deepest reverence for the history in those walls, and in my connection to it.

That connection, to the faith and traditions of my ancestors is part of what makes me who I am.  But that church is only part of the story.  The ceiling is gone, the stones are weathered with age, and the forest is calling.  The path which I walk in reverence, urges me in other directions, along some trails so old they were nearly forgotten when the first stones of Creevelea were set in place, and others so new that no one can know where they will lead.

I may question, or criticize, or thunder in anger.  But I cannot hate, lest I despise myself.

That is not what I was raised to believe.

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The Sixth Day of the Moon

I don’t want what you are about to read, to give you the wrong impression of me.

The simple fact is that I love Halloween.  I love every single waxy-candy-corn-polyester-spider-web-plastic-bat-cheap-sound-effect-paper-skeleton-fog-machine-gooey-candy-booze-soaked-thriller-zombie-great-pumpkin-watching moment of it.

And so, you’d think that it would be easy…,

Because it is common knowledge that this time of the year, more than any other, has held on to so many old traditions and associations, it should, therefore, be the easiest time of the year to be Pagan.

Which is not to say that we stop being Pagan during the rest of the year.  We are what we are, and do not change religious status as matters of convenience…, (well come to think of it, I suppose that some of us do, but that’s another topic altogether).

But as conventional wisdom would have it, it should be easy to be a Witch or a Druid in these waning days of October, because everyone is just a tad pagan come Halloween.  Tis the season of dress-up and pretend, ghosts and goblins, tales of hauntings told around a fire, and the incessant cackle of that animatronic crone which the neighbors (who look at you funny all the rest of the year) have propped up on their front porch, standing guard over a bowl of candy shaped like a cauldron with a bloody human hand thrust out of it.

It’s okay to be different from everyone else, because this is that special time of year when everyone is trying to be a little different.  And if you are lucky enough to be ‘the pagan’ in your social group, well that has its own very special benefits…,

“Hey, (‘nudge-nudge’ goes the elbow) I read an article in a magazine I bet you would have liked.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah, it was all about the REAL origins of Halloween (their head does that ‘wise nod’ thing).  I can loan it to you if you’d like?”

“Ummm, I’m good, thanks.”

And it’s not as if we can be upset about it, because we know that they love us and they just want to know us better, and to feel included in a part of our lives that they really don’t understand very well.  Society has told them that Halloween is their best opportunity to gain that deeper understanding, and to truly share something with us.

Because, for the Pagan, every day is Halloween.  Right?!

Ugh.

No.

Stop.

If you are a Christian reading this, I beg you, stop trying to understand us through the lens of Halloween.  Imagine, for a moment, trying to bring your gospel to the natives of some far away land, who’s only previous exposure to your religious tradition comes from repeated viewings of that 1969 animated Frosty the Snowman special, as narrated by Jimmy Durante.  Same difference, trust me.

And my fellow Pagans of every stripe, I beg you with equal fervor, to stop trying to educate people about our traditions by doing that same tired old compare/contrast between Samhain and Halloween.  Honestly, 99% of your audience stopped listening the moment they figured out Jack Skellington wasn’t going to make an appearance.

Halloween is not an educational opportunity – it’s a party – so just enjoy it.

And, if I may dole out one more piece of advice: don’t allow your spiritual practice to get caught up in the orange and the black.  Halloween is not an accommodation that the world makes for us, and neither should our Samhain be an accommodation for the rest of society.

So then, what am ‘I’ doing for Halloween?

Sixth Day Harvest

This year I’ll be taking a break from handing out candy to all the little ghoulies, and will instead be having a long overdue dinner with a dear friend and her new gentleman.

And what about Samhain?

This year, I’ll be participating in an ancient rite which I have studied for years and yet never experienced first hand.

“The druids…, hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak. Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon. Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree…, A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak…,

—Pliney the Elder, 1st Century CE

The Sixth day of the Moon, being the sixth day since the moon was reborn from darkness, and that point when it is entering the midpoint of its transition from New to Full, a time of balance between darkness and light, falls (to the best of my calculations) in the early evening on Thursday, October 30th.

I usually do not celebrate Samhain so early, but an opportunity like this is rare, and this year, more than most, I feel the need to make a change in my usual habits.

Oh, I will still feast, and honor the gods and the dead with the sacrifice of meat and drink.  I will build a great fire for them, and I will pass bodily through the flame that burns in two worlds.  And when I am done, I will take the mistletoe leaves I have gathered, which my ancestors called Uileiceadh – the cure all, and hang them to dry.

And when Imbolc dawns, come February, I will welcome the spring with a hot cup of Mistletoe Tea – a new tradition for a new year.

A blessed Samhain and a Happy Halloween to you all.

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A Friend in Deed

I heard you this time.

I didn’t before.

I couldn’t.

I’d closed my ears to all those who came before you.

But, now…, yes, now I understand how very wrong, how foolish I truly was.

The truth, as you must surely realize, is that I was angry.  I feel like I had been betrayed so many times before, by people who I believed to be my friends.  As I grew to know them, my natural caution fell away.  I offered them my confidence and they turned on me, one by one, exploiting that trust in an attempt to undermine my beliefs.

It seemed as if they just wanted me for their church and their god.

Wasn’t I good enough for them the way I was?

Why couldn’t they just accept me for who I was and for what I believed?

For the longest time now, I’ve felt like the failure was with them.

And so I was angry, and so I was wrong.

The failure was mine.

I know now, that I didn’t understand what friendship really meant.

Because when you truly care for someone, and when you see them engaging in self destructive behaviors, there comes a point when you either walk away, or try to guide them to a better, safer path.  Until now, I’ve always seen it as intrusive ‘proselytizing’, when in reality it is far more of an ‘intervention’.  Still intrusive – yes, but done in love, for the greater good.

I don’t doubt that you’d have done the same thing if you’d seen me drinking myself into an early grave, or wandering blindly off some curb and into traffic.

I should thank you for being such a good friend!

You waited and you watched, undoubtedly hoping that I would find my own way away from the all-consuming fires of hell.  And all this time, as I spoke and wrote about discovering the gods of my ancestors, about the spiritual connection I have felt with the world around us, and about my personal growth as a human being, all you could hear were desperate cries for help.  It must have been painful to listen for so long, and still remain silent.

Finally, you could, in good conscience, tolerate it no longer.  You spoke out because you couldn’t stand the thought of my suffering in an eternity of torment.  You spoke out in the true spirit of friendship.

And for the first time your words touched me, and I understood how very wrong I have been, how unfair.

What I have always seen as an intrusive act, was actually selfless.

Your disregard for my personal boundaries, pure heroism.

The lack of respect you hold for my intelligence, heartwarming.

How could I ever have been so foolish?

In your eyes, you see me as only a true friend could: broken, insufficient, and damned.

Friends don’t mince words, tell me what you really think!

But there’s still time.

If I give up the beliefs and experiences of a lifetime, if I reject all that I know in my heart to be true, and if I purge my faith and replace it with your own, we can be better than friends.

We can be “Brothers in Christ” — and oh what a family that must be!

No.

I heard you this time, and I understand now that the failure is mine.

While ‘I’ might try to intervene if I believed you were in immediate physical danger, I guess I don’t care enough to intercede on behalf of your soul.  Oh sure, I may try to “lead by example”, and I’m certainly willing to explain my beliefs to those who show an interest, but when have I ever taken you aside to explain how very wrong you are in your notions?  Have I ever shown you the proper disrespect?  Have I disparaged your life choices as only a true friend would?

In your need, I have failed you.  I am a poor friend, in deed.

Forgive me.

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

 

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