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Struggling Faith

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Faith.  It’s a word that often gets looked down upon in traditional Heathen circles, yet it is something with which we all struggle, regardless of our chosen spiritual path in life.  Many modern Heathens sneer down their noses at it, saying that as a concept it smacks of someone’s “Christian upbringing”, yet it can be found scattered throughout the Eddas and Sagas, and when we do not feel it coloring our daily lives, we tend to become listless beings; we suddenly feel lost. In fact, one of the most frequently posed conundrums that I encounter is this one:

How does one get out of a “faith rut”?

I personally believe that the number one reason that we fall into “faith ruts” in the first place is due to how we have come to define the concept of faith.  That overriding definition of the concept is also intrinsically bound up with that tendency for people to sneer down their noses at it in certain circles, because the primary word we find linked with faith is belief.  This leads us down the garden path to that ages-old issue of the dreaded blind faith: adhering to something without any true understanding, perception, or discrimination.  But faith is not belief: it’s more than that.

In Pagan and Catholic circles, faith also tends to become bound up with action or doing: when one is not routinely performing the actions of one’s chosen spiritual path, one feels that they have somehow lost faith, and fallen into a “faith rut”.  Such actions might include attending Mass regularly or saying the rosary, if one is Catholic, or attending rituals and doing workings, if one is Pagan.  For those of us on a Norse Path, these actions include offering blot, working with the runes, or perhaps performing galdr.  But faith is not action or doing: it’s more than that, too.

Faith is the simple, pervading presence of hope.

Unfortunately, hope is another word that we tend to misdefine in our society:

Hope:  to want something to happen or be true; to desire with expectation of fulfillment

Basically, we confuse the concept of hope with wishing.  There are deeper definitions of the word, however, which ring closer to the truth of it, as a concept:

Hope:  to cherish with anticipation; to expect with confidence; trustreliance

I find it quite telling that those last two words–trust and reliance–are listed as the archaic definition of hope.  No wonder so many people are out here falling into “faith ruts”, when we’ve lost the very meaning, not only of the word faith, but of that which is at its core: hope!

The five keys to hope are italicized in that last definition:

  • cherish
  • anticipation
  • confidence
  • trust
  • reliance

We tend to think of the word cherish when thinking of loved ones and pets: it has become, not unlike faith and hope, a somewhat sappy thing, drained of its original meaning.  What it ultimately means, however, is to hold something constantly in your mind and heart with esteem.  Things which are cherished are not only loved, they are also respected.  They become ultimate to us.  What does that mean, to “become ultimate”? It means that those things become fundamental to the basis of our very existence:  they are of central importance, defining and supporting our total concept of how the world and the universe actually work to a degree that we would feel lost without them.  Which is why, when we lose the concept of the word cherish and at the same time have nothing in life that we actively do cherish, we begin to fall into a “faith rut”.

But according to that definition of hope back there, we not only cherish, we do so with anticipation.  Anticipation is the act of looking forward with pleasurable expectation: it looks for the best in things, rather than the worst.  Looking forward which focuses on the worst outlook is the antithesis of anticipation. We have a word for that, too. We call it dread!  Cherishing with anticipation is how we can look out the window today, and see trees covered in ice, and think “My Gods, that’s beautiful”, instead of “holy crap, we’re gonna lose power and I’m gonna freeze to death”.  The first thought is cherishing with anticipation–it focuses on the best, rather than the worst–while the latter thought is cherishing with dread.  Cherishing with dread instead of anticipation is another way in which we begin to fall into a “faith rut”.

“Expecting with confidence” is part of how the concept of hope gets confused with wishing: we tend to focus on the expecting part of that sentence, and ignore the confidence that comes after it wholesale.  We all go through life expecting things: I expect to be successful with my business, for example.  You might expect to win the lottery.  But when we add confidence into that equation, our feeble wishes get elevated into something far greater: they become hopes.  Now, confidence is defined as the feeling or belief that one can rely on something or someone–firm trust–and also as the feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.  When speaking about spirituality, somehow we tend to divorce those definitions from each other: too often, people arrive at a worldview wherein you have to choose whether to believe in a Higher Power (that first bit, that we can firmly trust and, therefore, rely on someone or something greater than ourselves), or to believe in one’s self.  But the definition is not an or statement, it’s an and statement!  True confidence, as a key to hope, requires that we do bothrely, and, therefore, firmly trust in a Higher Power while at the same time feeling self-assured, thanks to an appreciation of our own abilities and qualities.  When we treat the definition of confidence as an or statement, losing our appreciation of ourselves, and thereby coming to doubt ourselves, while focusing solely on that Higher Power part of the equation, once again, we begin to fall into a “faith rut”.

Which brings us finally to trust and reliance.  When we speak of that first word, we tend to think of it in an either/or fashion, because once again, we bind it to the concept of belief.  Trusting is what we do when we know something can be believed; when we know something is true.  As with every other bolded word in this blog post, the actual meaning of the word trust goes way, way deeper than that, however.  The deepest meaning of the word trust is to live without fear.  But how in the heck can we do that when the world is such a scary place?  Newsflash: the world has always been a scary place!  Our Ancestors unlocked the way to live without fear when they “discovered” something larger than solely themselves to rely upon.  Yes, I’m talking about a Higher Power!  What you choose to call that really makes zero difference to me; It all boils down to the same thing anyway.  That reliance, shockingly, also has zero to do with belief: whether you believe in Them or not matters not in the slightest; what matters is that you believe in you enough to be worthy of Them believing in you, too!  When we lose these definitions of trust and reliance, once again, we fall into the dreaded “faith rut”.

I didn’t figure all of this out just today, in an attempt to write a pithy blog post that might get all of you thinking and feeling and perhaps shopping while you’re here.  No, I figured all of this out quite slowly and painfully over the course of the past year, and I was forced to figure it all out because I did not simply stumble into a “faith rut”, I was pushed, ass over teakettle, into a faith chasm.  On December 23, 2015, our family dog died.  Two days before Christmas–her presents already bought and waiting to be put into her stocking–she succumbed to convulsions, and our family was shattered.  That may seem like a very small and insignificant thing: the death of the family dog.  Even to a dog-lover, that may seem like quite a tiny thing to qualify as the gateway to a faith chasm.  Yet, that’s what it was, for me.

You see, I prayed to practically every God I could think of to save her, not because I was going to miss the family dog, but because of what this was going to do to our family as a whole.  There is, after all, no pain in the world quite like grief at Christmas. And then I was expected to go sit in a pew and celebrate the birthday of one of those Gods, as if nothing had happened; as if my prayers had not been heard and yet gone unanswered.  The whole thing smacked of the most vile hypocrisy, and I wanted no further part in it, if that’s what religion entailed. Bingo: faith chasm.

I have come, over the course of the past year, to realize, however, that my plummet into the faith chasm had far less to do with the surface issue of losing our dog coupled with unanswered prayers than to do with my own misdefinition of what faith actually is, and, within that misdefinition, my mistranslation and utter lack of hope.  Hope was actually something I had lacked for a very long time at that point, it just took the death of the family dog to bring that sharply into focus.  The Gods were doing me a favor, but as is often the case, it certainly didn’t feel that way, at the time.

I found myself returning, again and again, to the most inexplicable of all sources for comfort: a passage from the Christian Bible.  I would sit, head in hands, when no one was looking, and cry my eyes out, and there would be those words, over and over, echoing like a broken record:

May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope! –Romans 15:13, The Message

Let me take the liberty of making that a bit more Pagan/Heidhrinn for those of you who are currently squirming in your seats:

May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your spiritual life, filled with the life-giving energy of inspiration, will brim over with hope!

I have spent the last year unlocking the secrets of that mantra and climbing out of my personal faith chasm.  The next six blog posts will follow me along on that journey, in an effort to help you climb out of your own.

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Advent Event: First Day of Advent: Vigilance Renews Hope

We ask you–urge is more like it–that you keep on [bringing light to the world], not in a dogged religious plod, but in a living, spirited dance.

–1 Thessalonians 4:1, The Message

(Paraphrase of [bringing light to the world] added by me.)

You don’t have to be Catholic, or even a Christian, to celebrate Advent, but isn’t it interesting to see that these words are in one of the traditional Bible verses used in Churches on the First Sunday of Advent? How many Christians do you know who actually do that–who go through the world bringing light, living their whole lives as a spirited dance, instead of getting bogged down in a religious plod?  You might find it even more interesting to know that the Gospel traditionally read on this day says this:

But be on your guard.  Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping.  Otherwise, that Day [when goodness finally comes to overshadow negativity throughout the entire world] is going to take you by complete surprise, spring on you suddenly like a trap, for it’s going to come on everyone, everywhere, at once.  So, whatever you do, don’t go to sleep at the switch.  Pray constantly that you will have the strength and the wits to make it through everything that’s coming and end up on your feet [when that Day comes].

–Luke 21:34-36, The Message

(Paraphrases within [] added by me.)

Isn’t it just too easy to get caught up in all of that, at this time of year–the drinking, the parties, the shopping–and lose sight of who we really are and who we are truly meant to be?  We get so obsessed with finding the perfect material gift for that special someone, that it’s all too easy to lose sight of the very real non-material gifts we’re giving them on a regular basis, and that they are also giving to us.  What’s more important? Buying that person the super-rare comic book that costs a gazillion dollars, that they’ve been wanting to get for months, or thanking them for being such a light in your life that you’d be willing to pay that crazy amount of money to buy them something in the first place?

We live in the mundane world, so we have a pretty nasty tendency to become of it. That’s not some pseudo-Christian psychobabble; that’s the damn truth!  It is a simple fact of our human existence that we tend to get so caught up in the material–because, let’s face it, sometimes the material is a matter of survival–that we often completely ignore the spiritual.  What is the spiritual, in the first place? In my new e-book, Dragonfly Theology, I define the spiritual as that force within each person that gives them life, energy, and power; it appeals to their true nature, who they really are.  Therefore, to be truly spiritual may be accurately defined as “the quality or state of being in touch with one’s true nature; with who you really are; an ability to recognize what actually gives you life, energy, and power.” Becoming of the material, mundane world, instead of just living in it, can make you lose sight of who you really are, and if you lose sight of that, you’re lost; you’re doomed to a hopeless life full of constant sadness and disappointment.  If you don’t know who you really are, nobody else is going to know it for you, and ultimately that is going to lead to a lot of people making assumptions about you that lead to constant disagreements, arguments, and backbiting. That’s a pretty miserable existence.

So, then, what exactly is hope, and what can it do for us?  Essentially, hope is to want something to happen or be true.  We hope our lives don’t turn out to be miserable messes; we hope that we can leave a positive impact on the world around us and on the people we love.  It’s a very small word for a really huge concept.  It can also seem like a namby-pamby granola pipedream, if we aren’t careful about how we treat it.  In today’s world, we tend to define hope as what we’d like to see happen or be true, but that usually doesn’t pan out. We have no belief in the things we hope for; they’re just fairytales we weave to keep ourselves marginally happy.  But that isn’t what hope really is or really means, at all.

We’ve got to “check ourselves before we wreck ourselves”, and that’s where the theme of vigilance comes in.  To be vigilant is to “carefully notice problems or signs of danger”.  In order to look for those problems and signs that might let us know danger is coming, we’ve got to know what the dangerous thing is, in the first place.  So, what’s the danger here?  What’s looming out there, just on the horizon, poised to pounce and totally screw up our lives?  The negativity of the mundane, and all the crap that comes along with it! I’m talking about things like an inability to form loyal and true commitments (which is totally gonna screw your relationship prospects!); things like constantly living in fear of judgment, all the while judging everybody else (which is also gonna really screw up how you interact with other human beings); things like addiction and greed; things like negative entities that come creeping into your home to make things go bump in the night and scare the bejeesus out of you (because yes, those things are real; you don’t have to believe in them, but they sure as hell believe in you!).

In order to avoid the negativity of the mundane and all the crap that comes along with it, you’ve got to come to understand yourself as a spiritual being that dwells in the mundane, but is not of it. In the words of Jedi Master Yoda:

Luminous beings we are, not this crude matter.

You are not the body you’re up walking around in (that shell that the world sees; “this crude matter”), nor are you the world that it’s walking around in. You are the individual that is walking around in that shell; something bigger, greater, and deeper than most people could ever perceive on the surface.  That’s the real you, and that true you is a being composed of energy, that cannot be destroyed, only transformed.  Because we are beings of energy, we are also connected to all the other energy that’s out there–good and bad, but hopefully, mostly good–in the trees, the sky, the rocks, the rivers, and, most importantly, in other people.  And it’s your job, because you are a luminous being, to shine, because that’s what luminous things do:  they spread light.  Got that? That’s who you really are, and that’s who I really am, and that’s also who that person who just cut you off in the check-out line while Christmas shopping is meant to be, they just haven’t figured it out yet.  Until you realize this, and own it, you’re “asleep at the switch”, the way we’re cautioned not to be, back in that passage from the Gospel of Luke.  Just because that Gospel is from the Christian Bible doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to it if we don’t identify ourselves as Christians: often when words have been considered wise for thousands of years, they gained that reputation for a reason!

Now we know who we really are, and we know what the danger really is; it’s time to get vigilant.  Look at your life.  What are the problem areas that might lead you down the path to the danger we have defined, or that might lead that danger to your doorstep?  How often do you focus on the worst aspects of a situation or a person, instead of the best ones?  How often do you do as we say in the South and “act ugly”–being mean, vengeful, or vile-tempered towards other people–instead of trying to beautify a situation by making it nice and pleasant?  How often do you curse things and people–saying bad or negative things, whether it’s about the state of the weather or about someone’s chosen lifestyle–instead of praising those same things and people–spreading compliments and gratitude?  How often do you just chalk your hopes and dreams up to pleasant fairytales you’re weaving to keep some modicum of happiness in your life, instead of actually believing and achieving?  If you’re doing more of the former than the latter with any of those things, then you need some serious work!  You in danger, chile! (said in the voice of Whoopi Goldberg in the movie Ghost.)

It’s time to renew your commitment to being who you really are: to being a creature of hope, instead of a creature of empty fantasy; to being a luminous being. Empty fantasies are never going to get you anywhere good in life; they just build us up so we can keep getting let down.  You’ve got to start lighting up your own life, before you can spread light into anybody else’s.  What is the best thing about you? I don’t mean shallow things like “wow, I’ve got great hair”, I mean deep things like “I treat people with genuine kindness” or “when I love, I love deeply”.  What is the most beautiful thing about how you behave towards others and yourself?  How often and in what ways are you really and truly thankful for things, and how often does your Self-talk include compliments to you, from you?  What is the one thing you hope for the most, and how can you achieve it? Believe it! When we come to focus on all of those things–what is true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, and gracious–we move ourselves out of the shadows, and into the light, and then we can start spreading light.

And then we’ve got to live all that: we’ve got to go through life like it’s a spirited dance, spreading our light from one person to the next. We don’t plod; we dance.  There’s a great old story from France about an acrobatic monk that illustrates not only what happens when we go through life accepting who we really are and spreading light, but also what can happen if we decide to plod (or be held back by “plodders”) instead:

A long time ago in France, probably in the Middle Ages, there was a monk in a monastery who grew quite sad when he realized that, unlike the other monks, he really didn’t have any great talents to offer Christ as a gift at Christmas. All the other monks could do the “really cool stuff”, like make gorgeous, illuminated manuscripts, and write music, and sing songs, and compose prayers, but he possessed none of these talents, and so was left feeling quite unworthy. All of the other monks were bustling about doing all of these fantastic things, as gifts for Mary and Her newborn Son, while he sat around, feeling less and less worthy as a Christian. So he made his way down to the crypt beneath the abbey, and prostrated himself before the statue of the Holy Virgin, and confessed that he was sorry, but he wasn’t talented enough to have a suitable gift to bring for Christmas.

And that’s when the Holy Spirit gave him an epiphany: before he had become a monk, he had been an acrobat, a tumbler, and a juggler, in a travelling show; something like the circus clowns we have nowadays. It occurred to him that at the time of our Savior’s birth, Mary had been, in fact, a young girl–a teenager of about fourteen. Surely she had enjoyed laughing, and clapping her hands, and surely she had passed these gifts of joy on to her Son, the Christ-child? So he resolved that this would be his gift to the Queen of Heaven and her Blessed Son: he would tumble for them, and juggle; he would entertain them, and perhaps make them laugh and clap their hands.

He stripped down, removing his habit so that only the bare tunic beneath remained, and he began to dance. Dancing was followed shortly thereafter by spectacular feats of tumbling and juggling which belied his age and his monkish stature–because we all know that French monks in the Middle Ages were portly little gents, right? Picture for a moment that fat little monk tumbling and juggling, as the Holy Mother and Christ looked on there in that quiet crypt that day! He tumbled and he juggled and he danced, until he fell in a swoon at the feet of the statue of the Holy Mother.

And then a truly wondrous thing happened: Mary herself stepped down from the pedestal, and wiped the sweat from that monk‘s brow with the hem of her glorious white mantle. And not only that, but she was joined by angels and archangels.

This happened every day.

Now, there was another monk in that monastery who quickly became gravely suspicious of the tumbling monk, because our tumbler stopped showing up for the Matins service every morning. So this other monk–we’ll call him Friar Suspicion–decided to follow our tumbler one morning down to the crypt. There, shadowed in jealous secrecy, Friar Suspicion stood and watched the tumbler’s entire performance, and then, as the tumbler collapsed at the feet of the Holy Mother, he watched in awe as Mary stepped down, and ministered graciously to the faithful performer, recognizing the love which filled every action this monk had just performed both for Herself and Her Child.

Immediately, Friar Suspicion hurried to their abbot, and told him everything he had seen. The abbot summoned the tumbler, who fell down at the feet of his Father Superior and begged mercy, fearing that his actions would be seen as uncouth, and that he might, in fact be ejected from the monastery. Quite the contrary happened: the abbot, recognizing the true meaning of what the tumbling monk was doing, and the fact that the tumbling monk‘s actions did, in fact, please both the Queen of Heaven and Christ, instead made it known to all of the other monks in the monastery that the tumbling monk should be held in the highest esteem. And he was, right up until the day he died, when all of the other monks witnessed the Holy Virgin by his bedside, personally receiving his soul into Heaven.

For the tumbling monk gave neither gold nor silver, nor are gold and silver what are demanded by God; instead, he gave love–true love–freely of his own heart, the one gift which God loves the most. The one gift which each and everyone of us can also give.

The tumbling monk realized who he really was, and then worked hard to spread light with that knowledge, and he did it, not in a plodding, dogged, sad-sack way, but through a spirited dance. That’s what we’re all called to do, so get to it!