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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.

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Romantic Heathenry: You’re Probably NOT Doing It Wrong!

Digital background paper, most masks, skull mala, and mandala rub-ons: Samsara (currently available; click image to shop). Horned god, spiral rub-ons, and journaler: Imramma (coming soon). Layout by Connla Freyjason.

Tired of being told “you’re doing it wrong”? You’re not alone! By some Heathens’ standards, I’m still relatively “new” at this, having only arrived at the Northern Tradition in my own spiritual practice roughly a year ago. Before that, I was raised Buddhist/Taoist with a minimalist Christian backbeat, before becoming a Druid (from a Welsh Historical Reconstructionist background) roughly twenty years ago. I dabbled in Kemeticism (Egyptian Reconstruction) for about a year in 2001, but that only really spoke to me on the surface, so I pitched my hat back into the Druidic ring, until Spring of 2016, when (what seemed like an endless stream of) historical research to “validate” my Welsh Druidic Path led me to my first brush with Heathenry. I’ve been working with the Norse Gods ever since. For the record: They aren’t the ones who keep chanting “you’re doing it wrong”!

 
No, I didn’t run up against the “you’re doing it wrong” mantra until I started spending a lot of time writing and creating art for other Heathens. Those who follow the Norse Tradition are an interesting mix of straight Historical Reconstructionists (“screencap of where it says that in the Eddas, or it didn’t happen, dude!”), Pagans with a Norse base (“I’m surprisingly okay with Unconfirmed Personal Gnosis”), Ceremonial Magickians who “dress up” their practice in strictly Norse trappings (“A little bit of Chaos Magick applied to 13th century Runic sigils is perfectly apropos”), and Brosatru Tagalongs (“Look at me, I’m a Viking!”), to say nothing of the Aryan Poster Children (“If your ancestors were not of white/Scandinavian descent, you shouldn’t be here. No, I don’t just mean in this group; I mean, like, on Earth…at all…”). Pardon me for the over-generalization there, but if you’ve ever even stuck your toe into an online Heathen group, you likely recognize all of the above. You probably have also had arguments with parties from at least one or more of these over-generalized groups in which they’ve patently told you “you’re doing it wrong”.

 
Face it: “you’re doing it wrong” is why most of us became Pagans in the first place! One too many hits with the “you’re doing it wrong, and will be eternally punished for having done so” schtick is the number one reason why most of us decided to divorce ourselves from mainstream Religion in the first place, whether that religion was of the Judeo-Christian variety, or something else. So why in the heck would that attitude be suddenly “okeydokey fine” and perfectly acceptable, simply because it’s all dressed up prettily in Pagan/Heathen clothing? World’s simplest answer: It’s not!

 
Unless you’re one of the aforementioned Aryan Poster Children, chances are grand that you are not, in fact, “doing it wrong”. You’re just doing it your way, and if you cannot be a true individual in relationship to your Deity/ies, then whatever religion you’re practicing isn’t a true one. What do I mean by that? In the immortal words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

God enters by a private door into every individual.

Whether you choose to define your personal faith-practice as a religion, or whether you prefer the term spirituality, at the end of the day, when it is all said and done, your personal faith-practice is precisely that: personal. Ultimately, you chose to walk this particular path, out of all the myriad paths available, because of who you are, as an individual. So the only “wrong” way to “do it” is if it requires you to act contrary to that–contrary to who you are, as an individual—or if it requires you to crush the individuality of others. In the end, if you’re “not doing you”, and allowing others to “do them” wholeheartedly and completely on the daily, then, yes, you’re “doing it wrong”.

 
There are, of course, certain linchpins that set what you and I are practicing apart as specifically Norse. These are things or themes which define what we are doing in our daily practice as something specifically not other faiths, such as Christianity, or Buddhism, or Islam. In March of 2015, the California Court of Appeal established three objective guidelines of what actually constitutes a religion:

  • It must address fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters;
  • It is comprehensive in nature, consisting of a belief system as opposed to an isolated teaching;
  • It often can be recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs.

 
Addressing fundamental and ultimate questions includes providing answers to the “Six Big Questions” of human existence:

  • Who am I? (What defines me? Is there anything unique and special about me?)
  • Where do I belong? (Why do I feel so alone in this world? Where can I find acceptance? How do I form deep and meaningful relationships?)
  • What should I do with my life? (To what should I devote my life? What is my calling?)
  • How do I make the right choices? (How do I tell right from wrong? Ethical questions)
  • How can I be happy? (Is this all there is to life?)
  • What is the point of striving when life is so short? (What is the point of building something only to have it swallowed up by death?)

 

 

 

Obviously (I hope), different religions answer these Six Big Questions in ways specific to that religion. For example: the Christian answer to Who am I could be either “a child of God”, or a “brother of Christ”, or even “an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven”, whereas a Norse Traditional answer to that same question might be “I am a spouse/lover/child of Freyja (or other Norse Deity)”, or a “brother of Thor (or other Norse Deity)”, or even “an agent on Earth working to the benefit of the Aesir/Vanir/Rokkr”. In other words, how these questions are answered from a Norse Traditional perspective is part of what makes your path specifically Norse/Heathen.

 
The second part of those three guidelines, that what you believe in is “comprehensive in nature, consisting of a belief system as opposed to an isolated teaching”, means that your faith-practice includes more than “edicts of behavior” or even an “edict of behavior”, but also includes a cosmological framework that includes an afterlife, deities, etc. Part of how we arrive at this “comprehensive nature” lies in how we answer questions five and six of the Six Big Questions. Again, this will be distinct from religion to religion. For example: Christianity is composed of far more than “an isolated teaching”, regardless of how many picket lines you see full of signs emblazoned with quotes from Leviticus. There’s more to it, as a faith, than the Ten Commandments, or even the Great Commandment of the New Testament; there is also a distinct cosmology (whether one considers the “spiritual landscape” of Heaven/Earth/Hell, or even the numerous hierarchies of angels), a defined Deity (or, as most Christians would likely not appreciate me pointing out: Deities, including God The Father, Jesus Christ, and Sophia, aka the Holy Spirit). By the same token, Norse Tradition/Heathenry consists of far more than simply the edicts of the Aesirian Code of Nine or even the Havamal from which it is (in part) based. There is, likewise, also a cosmology (the Nine Worlds), and a series of numerous defined deities and “spirits” (such as the Alfar, the Disir, and the Landvaettir).

 
Finally, a specific religion can be recognized by its own distinct formal and external signs, such as defined places of worship, specific religious texts, and the rituals it enacts. Christianity has the Catholic Mass, its churches (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, all of which generally possess architecture unique to the Christian faith), The Bible, and the common practices of tithing, praying, and performing acts of charity (when they aren’t “doing it wrong”!), while Islam has mosques, The Koran, and the common practices of praying, fasting, making pilgrimage, and almsgiving (again, when they aren’t “doing it wrong”!). Likewise, in the Northern Tradition we have the Ve and the Hof, the Eddas and Sagas, and the common practices of blot, sumbel, sacrifice, and prayer.

 
You may or may not be doing your Norse Faith the same way as the other Historical Reconstructionists, Norse Pagans, Runic Ceremonial Magickians, or even the Brosatru, but if you are answering the Six Big Questions with distinctly “Norse-motivated” answers; if you believe in the Nine Worlds, and in the Aesir, Vanir, Rokkr, Alfar, Disir, And Landvaettir; if you worship at a Ve, a Hogr, or a Hof via blot, sumbel, sacrifice, and prayer and use the Eddas and Sagas as your sacred texts, then your faith is distinctly Norse. It just happens to also be distinctly your own interpretation of the Norse Tradition, and if it is effectively answering those Six Big Questions, while in the process making your life and the lives of others better, then you’re definitely not “doing it wrong”!

 
In my own personal practice, I employ my own brand of soft polytheism, which is a sort of “polytheistic monotheism”, combined with “light reconstruction” and a heavy Druidic backbeat, with strong shamanic overtones. Lots of card-carrying Heathens would likely not only tell me I’m “doing it wrong”, but positively scream it! In fact, some might even disparage me even claiming the titles “Heathen” or “Norse Traditional Paganism” at all for what I personally practice, even though it definitely shares all of the aforementioned features of what would make a faith system distinctly Norse (or Norse-driven, Norse-derived, or even Norse-inspired). That being the case, I’ve recently begun referring to myself as a “Wanderer”, and to what I practice as “Wandering”–or, at least, I’ve begun doing so in private and with those closest to me. More accurately, a lot of what I practice might be termed “Heathen Revivalism” or “Romantic Heathenry”, in the same manner and tone as Celtic Revivalism: an attempt to practice a Norse religion or spirituality within the context of the modern world, while drawing from the historical reservoir of Norse Tradition and sometimes merging it with traditions and practices that are not necessarily strictly Norse in an effort to embrace the spirit of ancient Norse religion. This is my official invitation to you: come and walk alongside me, down this winding road together, for a mile or two or three. I will not tell you that “you’re doing it wrong”, if you’ll pay me the same courtesy. Nor will I try to tell you that my way is the right way for you, for it may not be. Ultimately, I do not own this road; only the feet that carry the heart that walks it. Some parts of this map may work for you; others may not. They all work for me, but your mileage may vary….

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Zombies, Queens, and “Christians”, Oh My!

Saturday, October 10, 2015, was the date of Zombiewalk in Salem, Massachusetts, and Suzanne and I had been planning this for literally months!  I was so excited to get all “zombified” and go walk (or shuffle, as the case may be) with all the other zombies, and so was she. We went last year, but it was rainy, so we just watched, but this year, we were going for it!  We came up with a motif: I would be a Thriller-inspired-Michael-Jackson-like zombie, and she would be my 1950’s-ish-inspired-zombie girlfriend. But Salem has a way of surprising you, every time you go there: what you expect to be a simple day of shopping, quickly turns into a life-changing experience where you meet a new friend, or what you thought was going to be a spectacular class on Tarot turns out to be so much more than you could ever have imagined.  When you put Salem together with zombies, a drag queen/transsexual (not trying to be disrespectful, so covering both bases here), a “Christian” zealot, and a wall of complete strangers united in a cause: well, then even bigger surprises can happen. And that’s what we experienced on Saturday.

Me and Suzanne, "zombified" for Zombiewalk 2015 in Salem, MA
Me and Suzanne, “zombified” for Zombiewalk 2015 in Salem, MA

The energy in Salem in October is completely different than at any other time of the year.  What is usually a peaceful, almost-sleepy seaside town turns into a hustling, bustling place, full of street vendors, and performance artists, and tourists–lots, and lots, and lots of tourists.  Suddenly, it costs $20 to park where it usually only costs $3, but somehow, it’s worth it, because that energy pulls you in, and it’s fantastic!  Suzanne and I were getting caught up in that energy, doing a bit of shopping before we started shuffling along with the other zombies, when coming up Essex street, amidst the throng of other shoppers and costumed performers, we spotted the witch hat to end all witch hats, perfectly perched upon the agile head and neck of a drag queen/transsexual in a spectactular pumpkin orange dress. So, naturally, we followed her. I mean, wouldn’t you?

However, when we arrived at “Miss Fabulous'” destination, what should we find awaiting us but a “Christian” zealot with a megaphone, spouting nothing but hatred–and using Scripture to run his point home!  This guy was blasting the fantastic lady in the pumpkin orange with all his Old Testament might, making sure everybody knew “that’s not a woman! That’s a man in a dress! And he’s going to hell, and so are you, if you support that!”  Lo and behold, the gathered crowd formed what I can only describe as a human wall around this spectacular human being–no, not the zealot with the megaphone; the “man in a dress”!  The gathered crowd–from all walks of life, persuasions, religious backgrounds (one assumes), colors, shapes, sizes, and ages–started shouting and cheering, completely drowning out Megaphone Man with their support of the lady-herself, who turned out to be none other than The Duchess of Salem, Ms. Gigi Gill.

And I leaned over to that man with the megaphone–all five foot nothing of me–and shouted, very loudly: “Newsflash, dude: Jesus loves EVERYBODY!”

And then rushed right over for a photo with the divine Ms. Gigi!

The divine Ms. Gigi Gill, the Duchess of Salem, with some "witchy" compatriots, and me (zombified), Essex Street, Salem, MA, October 2015
The divine Ms. Gigi Gill, the Duchess of Salem, with some “witchy” compatriots, and me (zombified), Essex Street, Salem, MA, October 2015

Even after the Zombiewalk, and the fantastic dinner we had at The Witch’s Brew Café, my mind just kept coming back to Megaphone Man, and everything he represents in the “Christian Church” as it stands today.  I have personally sat back and watched what spouting that kind of venom does for people’s faith: it kills it!  Hatred does not attract people, because, let’s face it: hatred is not attractive!  If Megaphone Man were advertising for anything else in the world–whether trying to sell used cars or tacos–chances are somebody would’ve informed him by now that his is the dumbest advertising campaign in history, and yet, nobody has seen fit to inform the “Church” of that! (Which isn’t to say that there aren’t some elements of the Church and many Christians out there who don’t act or think like this–that’s why I keep putting the words “Christian”  and “Church” in quotation marks in the context of this discussion.)  I mean, if you were driving down the highway, and you passed a used car lot, for example, and some dude was standing outside with a megaphone shouting “come buy your car here, or you’re going to hell” or “my boss hates you, why don’t you buy a car from us”, you’d just keep driving, wouldn’t you? (Possibly while also flipping said dude the bird….)  And yet these people expect their rhetoric, on behalf of Christ and God, to have different results? *blink blink blink…crickets…blink*

If Jesus had been on Essex Street on Saturday, He would’ve been cheering with that crowd. He would’ve walked right up to the divine Ms. Gigi and given her a hug and said “thank you for celebrating who you are, because that’s the gift I gave My life for.”  Would that more of His so-called “followers” had actually listened to His words….

But, you see, that’s the trouble with religion today: it no longer serves its original function. Hear me out before you navigate elsewhere, please.  The roots of the word religion are re, ligio (from ligare), and ion.  Now, most of us with at least a fifth grade education know that re as a prefix means “to do something again”, or “again and again”–that’s why it’s the first two letters in the word repeat, right? Ligare (or, in this case, ligio) means “to bind”. You can see it in the word ligament–you know, those things in the body that bind your muscles and bones together.  Finally, ion: a Latin suffix meaning an action or condition. Therefore, religion means “the condition of binding again”.  But what does religion–specifically the “Christian” faith, as it pertains to Megaphone Man and those like him, but you encounter this in all organized religions today; take a look at Islam if you don’t believe me–actually bind us to anymore, and even when it does bind people together, what is their condition, once thusly bound?  Spewing hatred and divisiveness doesn’t bind anybody to anything; it only binds together the people who are doing the hating and the dividing, leaving everybody–including them–in miserable condition!

That’s not religion, y’all. Religion is supposed to bring people together–not just the people who consider themselves a part of one specific faith or another, but all people, everywhere.  It’s supposed to bind them back to something bigger and greater than they are, and remind them that there’s still wonder in this universe, and that every single person and every single thing is a gift.  And it’s supposed to do that again and again.  Yet, nowadays, it doesn’t: it just breeds hate.

On Saturday, I saw a group of completely disparate people from myriad walks of life, in a vast array of age ranges bound together out of the clear blue sky: not by a zealot with a megaphone, but by a drag queen/transsexual in a pumpkin orange dress and the most amazing witch hat on record.  They were bound together, and, at the same time, they were bound back to something bigger and greater than they were: LOVE.  That, my friends and readers, is real religion!  And I hope and pray that Ms. Gigi is able to continue to inspire that in people again and again, because that wouldn’t make Jesus angry: it would make Him proud.

You never know what’s going to happen in Salem in October.  If you ever get a chance to go there, definitely do, but be prepared to pay $20 to park, even if it’s in the lot of the local funeral home.  You won’t regret that you did!