I have a friend who has lived in the neighborhood where I now live for most of the past thirty years. She relocated for three years to the West Coast, and I thought I would never see her again; then one evening I was walking home from a casual dinner out and there she was, waiting at the bus stop.
I met her around thirty years ago when she joined the church I went to, the little Episcopal church where I was confirmed at the tender age of nine. She quickly became a friend of the rector and a friend of mine, someone I looked up to an aspired to be like. She was in her late thirties then and I was in my late teens; now I’m almost fifty and she’s almost seventy. She still dresses much the same way that she did when we met, in frilly, frothy layers of patterned fabric, shiny shoes, tiers of necklaces, rings on every finger. Her hair is still a wild mass of dark curls. She writes, dances, is interested in theatre and music, keeps cats, and goes to a little Presbyterian church, the same one where my ex-husband started his career as a church organist when he was only sixteen.
I’m happy my old friend is back in town and still doing well. The church rector who was our friend has suffered greatly from mental illness over the years. Another mutual friend of ours died unexpectedly last year; he was only four years older than I am. Yet I find it difficult to talk to her, and it’s not simply the many years we went without regular contact. It’s that I’d like to tell her that I’m no longer an Episcopalian, but I have no idea how to do it.
I don’t think there is actually any way in which I could make sense of my experience as a polytheist to my old friend. She is far from being a fundamentalist; she is a liberal mainstream Christian who would no doubt say that she believes in God, and Jesus, and the articles of the Creed, but who mostly, I think, thrives on the aesthetic experience of the Church, on its music, its literature, its liturgy, and its community. I say that entirely without judgment; I was much the same until recently, and it took me decades to realize that what I missed in my religion, what kept me looking elsewhere, was a true devotional relationship and a real connection with a deity.
Having a true devotion for Antinous and paying cultus to a lot of deities doesn’t mean that I can no longer enjoy English cathedral music, or the Chronicles of Narnia, or the poetry of John Donne and George Herbert. It does mean that I have sacrificed a language I can share with my old friend to talk about religion and religious experiences. “God” and “a God” mean very different things, and I am at a loss to use her language to describe why I worship the latter rather than the former. It’s possible that I cannot talk about my religion if I must use her language, but she doesn’t know my language and has no reason to learn it. I might well be the only polytheist she knows.
English has borrowed terms from a number of languages for concepts that English speakers recognize but have no name for: “schadenfreude” from the German, for example, and “l’esprit de l’escalier” from the French. I wish there were some way I could do that to talk to my friend about polytheism. It would make conversation over brunch far easier and more interesting.