Posted on

Struggling Faith: Hopelessness

Digital artist journal page created by Connla Freyjason for Iaconagraphy, featuring digital assets from our Imramma Page Kit, available by clicking this image. (Note: link opens in new tab.)

In my last blog post, I talked about “faith ruts”, how people fall into them, and laid the foundation of a pathway out of them, kicking off this seven part blog series on Struggling Faith.  My own struggle with faith began in December 2015, with the death of the family dog.  As I said in the last post, that may seem like a small thing to cause someone to completely lose their faith, but when you are already hopeless, even the smallest of things can be enough to send you reeling into a faith chasm, because faith is the simple, pervading presence of hope.

Let’s take a deeper look at the modern definition of that word, hopeless, courtesy of Merriam-Webster:

Hopeless:  having no expectation of good or success; not susceptible to remedy or cure; incapable of redemption or improvement; desperate; despairing; incapable of solution, management, or accomplishment; impossible.

Now, you would think, if I had reached a point where my outlook was that level of bleak, I would have realized it, right? You would think that as that downward spiral began, I would have noticed the signs, and begun to take steps to turn things around.  Given all the blog posts I have written here about looking on the bright side and positive living, you would think that I, of all people, would never have allowed myself to reach such a state.  Yes, you would think so, yet, there I was. I was hopeless, and I didn’t even realize it, until the bottom dropped out from under me.

At that point in time, I was operating this business in more of a “behind the scenes” capacity: Michelle was decidedly the “face” of the business, while I sat behind the screen every day, designing graphics, handling the web design, and making sure our marketing schedule was on par with the rest of the industry.  Our primary focus at that point in time was her then-newly-published book, Dragonfly Theology, and attempting to establish her Tarot-reading business.  The art was more or less a sideline: I was constantly churning things out, but with a focus on listing the art at RedBubble and CafePress, and under her name, not my own.  We had not begun the digi-scrap business yet and I was, for the most part, still “in the coffin” to the outside world. I was the dude there, in Michelle’s shadow. At that point, we were operating from a primarily Christian-influenced Pagan base; I considered myself a practicing Druid.

And I honestly thought I was happy and, more importantly, hopeful.  Turns out, I was wrong.

Looking back now, of course, I can see it. Hindsight is, after all, 20/20.  

Through the fault of no one, our business was tanking.  No one was buying Michelle’s book, which kept her perpetually depressed.  I felt really bad for her.  Her Tarot business wasn’t exactly sky-rocketing, either, and I felt bad about that, too, because it had been a lifelong dream for her.  I was doing fairly well in the art-sales department, but everything was listed with her signature, so it wasn’t exactly like I was experiencing a “moment in the sun”.  I woke up every morning and worked my ass off, yet never received any credit, because we had been taught for twenty years that our “situation” is one you “just don’t talk about”.

I was a “weekend Druid”, in the same sense that some people are “weekend Christians”: I “showed up” when there was a holiday, but beyond that, it wasn’t exactly a part of my daily life.  Prayer was a thing reserved for when things got desperate.  Candleburning was what one did when the dog farted.  I’m not exaggerating, I swear. I dove a bit more deeply into my Buddhist/Taoist upbringing around that point in time, and I was publishing a Daily Kuan Yin meditation on our Facebook Page, but, once again, posing as Michelle, rather than taking any credit myself.

I could “be me” with a handful of people, including my Beloved, and with the dogs and the cat.  I had already lost Elvis the previous Spring, and then I lost Boo.  The number of “living entities” who actually knew me for me was slowly dwindling….

No wonder I was hopeless.

Let’s take some time now to talk about what hopelessness looks like:

  • An inability to see that tomorrow might actually be a better day.

Hopeful expectancy becomes a pie-in-the-sky notion, when compared with empirical data.  In other words, yesterday sucked, and the day before that, and the day before that, so why in the heck should tomorrow be any different?

  • An unwillingness to believe anything or anyone can fix how sucktastic your life has become.

“Higher Powers” are viewed as “well and good”, but not profoundly helpful. In fact, They may be on the receiving end of the blame-game by this point.  I mean, They let shit get this level of bad, right?

  • An intrinsic belief that clearly you are the problem.

The Gods aren’t the only ones on the receiving end of the blame-game: clearly, there’s also something deeply wrong with your self.  You’ve come to believe that you are incompetent, incapable, and unworthy.

  • A constant, underlying need to simply sit somewhere and cry.

Even when everything seems rosey, you just can’t seem to shake it.  It’s not exactly clinical depression, but a part of you wishes that it were, because at least there are medications for that….

  • A conviction that there is nowhere to go from here but down.

No matter how much you try to see a way to change course or otherwise somehow reorganize your plans, you see no way that this situation could be better managed.  Accomplishments become hurdles you must cross, instead of accolades you can celebrate.  Solutions become dragons you must slay, instead of actual repairs of the problem.

So how did I climb back up, after going through all of this? Is there hope for you as well, if you’re going through this right now?

Trust me, it didn’t happen overnight, and chances are, it won’t for you, either.  As the kids say nowadays, the struggle is real, but it is a struggle that it is definitely worth enduring.

For three long months, that mantra with which I ended the last post kept running through my head, particularly in my darker moments:

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!

So I began to try to unlock it, as if it were some riddle that somehow held the key to my very existence, because, clearly, it did!

Who was the God of green hope?  Where might I find Him/Her/It?  And would They really fill me up with joy and peace when I found Them?

Posted on

Struggling Faith

Digital artist journal page created by Connla Freyjason for Iaconagraphy using our Imramma page kit, available by clicking this image. (Link opens in new tab)

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.

Posted on

Hanging On The Tree

All elements from Iaconagraphy’s upcoming Imramma, by Connla and Duncan.

Do you ever feel like you’re just “hanging out”? I don’t mean in the good sense of those words; I mean in the sense of that desperate kitty cat on the poster, just clawing his way to hold on so that he doesn’t fall off the rope!  Saint John of the Cross (Catholic/Christian) described such periods in our lives as The Dark Night of the Soul.  The Christian Bible tells us of Christ crucified, just “hanging out” on the cross, between murderers and thieves, to save the whole world from its sins.  And in the Norse Tradition, we have the tale of Odin hanging himself upon Yggdrasil: the ultimate shaman’s death experience.

For those unfamiliar with the story of Odin (or Norse Mythology at all, for that matter), the All-Father (roughly cognate to Yahweh/Jehovah in Judeo-Christian tradition) went to Yggdrasil, the World Tree, to seek the power of Knowledge and Wisdom.  He climbed that great tree, cut himself with his own spear to feed its hungry bark with his blood, and hung himself upon the tree for nine days and nine nights.  Much like Christ on the cross, Odin’s self-sacrifice is believed to have torn open the fabric of Creation (remember that part in the New Testament where it says that the curtain in the Temple was torn in two? Same thing.) and allowed the Rune Spirits to appear to him, and teach him the runes (written language, as well as a divination and magickal tool).    The end result of Odin “hanging out” was the beginning of True Wisdom for All.

“Hanging out” wasn’t pleasant for either Odin or Christ, yet for some reason, we humans have the gall to think that it should be pleasant for us.  That it should be easy somehow; that instead of desperately clawing our way up the proverbial rope, like the little kitten in that popular poster, we should be joyfully swinging from said rope while we “hang out”.  What gives us the audacity to think such a thing? If “hanging out” was that difficult for gods, why in the hell should it be a joyride for us?

In The Dark Night of the Soul, Saint John of the Cross writes:

“Spiritual persons suffer considerable affliction in this night, owing not so much to the aridities they undergo, as to their fear of having gone astray.”

From an early age in our society, we are unfortunately taught that if something is difficult or unpleasant, it means that “whatever it is” is likely punishment for something that we’ve done.  Some of that, I think, can be pinned on how pervasive the assumed Christian worldview has become in our society, but not all of it.  Let me be clear on what I mean by “assumed Christian worldview” before I move on to what other factors make us think this way:  that whole “eye for an eye” thing in Christianity?  The whole “if you go astray you will be punished in equal portion” thing? Yeah, that went out with the Old Testament!  Too many Christians seem to be missing the entire point of Christ “hanging out” on the cross in the first place!  Okay, so what do I mean when I say that not all of our “if something is unpleasant, clearly I did something wrong, and it’s punishment” worldview comes from that assumed Christian perspective?  The concept of karma and karmic repayment in Hinduism, Buddhism, and even modern Neo-Paganism is also responsible; we can’t pin this one solely on the Christians. Now, please don’t take that as me saying “there’s no such thing as karma”;  karma is, as they say “a right bitch”, and definitely exists, but it’s a slippery slope at best, when it comes to the idea that if something is difficult or unpleasant, then obviously we’re being punished for something else we’ve done previously.

No, Saint John of the Cross got it right: the difficulty and unpleasantness we experience when going through the Dark Night of the Soul are patently not punishment, they’re tempering to make us stronger and wiser, in exactly the same way as one tempers steel in fire, but it is our fear that they are somehow punishment for our having gone astray that makes us believe that “hanging out” should be easy for us, when it wasn’t even easy for gods.  Being tempered isn’t pleasant, anymore than harsh instruction from a parent–designed to help a child grow and learn–is pleasant.  Priscilla, an early female leader in the Christian faith, puts it this way in the Epistle to the Hebrews (yes, that was written by a woman!):

Others have suffered far worse than you, to say nothing of what Jesus went through–all that bloodshed!  So don’t feel sorry for yourselves.  Or have you forgotten how good parents treat children, and that God regards you as His children?

My dear child, don’t shrug off God’s discipline,
    but don’t be crushed by it either.
It’s the child he loves that he disciplines;
    the child he embraces, he also corrects.

God is educating you; that’s why you must never drop out.  He’s treating you as dear children.  This trouble you’re in isn’t punishment; it’s training, the normal experience of children.  Only irresponsible parents leave children to fend for themselves.  Would you prefer an irresponsible God?  We respect our own parents for training and not spoiling us, so why not embrace God’s training so we can truly live? …At the time, discipline isn’t much fun.  It always feels like it’s going against the grain.  Later, of course, it pays off handsomely, for it’s the well-trained who find themselves mature in their relationship with God.  –Hebrews 12:4-11, The Message

Sometimes when things are difficult and unpleasant–when we’re forced to “hang out”–it’s because we did something right enough to deserve deeper wisdom and greater maturity, instead of because we’ve done something wrong.  “Hanging out” makes us grow–that’s what Priscilla means when she speaks of a mature relationship with God.  It deepens us as humans; brings us closer to the gods (whichever ones we favor).  While it may be hard to see such dark times as an actual reward, exercising such discernment can make all the difference between whether we put our head in our hands, cry buckets, and shout to the Universe “I freaking give up!”, or not.

I am, admittedly, “having a day” today. Today, I feel like I’m “hanging out”: like my whole life just ground to a halt in some sort of unasked for pregnant pause.  

All elements from Iaconagraphy’s upcoming Imramma, by Connla and Duncan.

My usual response to a day like this one would be to honestly either sit around and cry about it (yes, I’m that guy!), or sit and stare at the walls and feel sorry for myself, or stomp around the house like an angry spoiled child, but not today.  Why is today different from all the other days in the past just like this one? Because today I realize that “hanging out” isn’t punishment for something I’ve done wrong, but instead a reward for everything I’m doing right.  Now, I’ll grant you, in and of itself, it’s a pretty sucky reward, but I have faith that what I’ll gain on the other side of it is worth this feeling.  “Hanging out” has forced me to “take a break”, and review what I’m doing, as well as what I’m not doing, and look around from this height at which I presently find myself hanging at all of the other possible directions I could be doing in.  This “pregnant pause” has reminded me that ultimately, all that I do, am doing, and will do is not solely my own, nor is it solely up to me: ultimately, I am just the messenger, and I need to “get out of the way” of Those who would speak through me. At risk of potentially offending any of my more “hardcore” Heathen or Pagan readers, there is definitely great Truth in this passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, so please humor my “Paganizing” of it:

Now the Gods have us right where They want us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us.  This instruction is all Their idea, and all Their work.  All we do is trust Them enough to let Them do it.  It’s Gods’ gift from start to finish!  We don’t play the major role.  If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing!  No, we neither make nor instruct ourselves.  The Gods do both the making and the instructing.  They create each of us to join Them in the work They do, the good work They have gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing. –“Paganized” from Ephesians 2:7-10, The Message

I am ready to join Them in the work They have gotten ready for me to do. In the meantime, I’ll just be here, “hanging out”…..