Veils of darkness and of light

The veil is thin this time of year, they say.

What veil? I wonder.

Between this world and the otherworld. Between the living and the dead.

The wall between this world and the other has been hard and thick for a long time, like the wall some people want between two countries, one “white”, one “brown”. But it is crumbling now, thin in places, broken in others, wholly absent where there is water, just as it has always been. Whether immigrants or Gentry, welcome or unwelcome, strangers are coming over the border more than ever now. That’s what I hear.

Is there a veil between the living and the dead? Have we not just been ignoring them, as we ignore the Other Kind?

People talk of the dead, the ancestors, the thinning veil, at the same time that they decorate with skeletons, bats, and spiders, frighten themselves with horror movies, make lanterns with terrifying faces that slowly rot and crumple just like human flesh. Is that what is on the other side of the veil? Horror and decay? Are people afraid of the dead, or only pretending to be? Do we fear the dark?

When I fear the darkness, I fear the things of this world: the mugger, the rapist, the distracted driver, the bomb dropped by night. The serial killer who looks just like every other harmless, trustworthy man by day. Men are harmless, right? I fear the boys who march by night with torches and chant their right to dominate the rest of us. I don’t fear dreams of my grandmother, my great-aunt, or even my unwelcome ex-husband.

In my mind I nudge aside the curtain, and what I see on the other side is light, tremendous light. A light so powerful I am blinded; a light not affected by the shortening of the days. Whether it is the light at the heart of the earth or a light beyond the stars, or both, or neither, the mystery of this season for me is a transcendent light. It is the light of Christ’s saints in the heavenly Jerusalem; it is the light of love found in the terror of the underworld and the realization that one loves and is loved by the god at his most terrifying; it is the light of the jack o’ lantern and the Christmas decorations that go up too early and the new candles of Candlemas, the light that shines in the darkness and loves the darkness and is loved by it.

POEM: To Issan Dorsey Roshi, on the occasion of his paranirvana

Tommy Issan Dorsey Roshi

One moment of perfect practice, says Dogen
one moment of perfect enlightenment
One moment of perfect prayer
a Rosary recited with pure attention
loving the Blessed Virgin
wanting to be like her
One moment of perfect obedience
sailor on the deck
performer cheering your comrades at sea
One moment of perfect performance
the wig, the makeup, the bra, the heels
singing on the stage
the boy who looks like the girl next door
One moment of perfect openness
available to the next customer
becoming their need like a bodhisattva
One moment of perfect transcendance
the high the low the trip the ecstasy
One moment of perfect sitting
listening to Suzuki Roshi
a glimpse of the truly real
One moment of perfect maitri
founding a hospice to serve the dying
men like you dying in droves
of a disease without cure,
without compassion
One moment of perfect honor
Issan Dorsey Roshi
Dharma heir
abbot of Hartford Street Zen Center
One moment of perfect humanity
One moment of perfect buddhahood

POEM: For Pixie

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All the world’s a stage, and all the Tarot merely scenery,
a painted backdrop for an amateur display.
All the world’s a stage, and all our comedies and dramas
re-enactment of the myths, rehearsal of a few enduring plots.
All the world’s a journey, and Pixie’s Fool goes tripping through it,
feet light as feathers, eyes raised to the sky.
Only the Fool’s dog knows what’s in that bag of tricks,
the wanderer’s bindlestaff over one shoulder,
its humble length an axis round which all the worlds revolve.

(For Pamela Colman Smith, Pixie to her friends, born on this date in 1878, illustrator of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot)

(Image by Daniel Albany from Pixabay)

One of many, really, just a particular one

This Sunday I had the pleasure of entertaining a friend in my new apartment for a couple of hours. In the course of our conversation, my friend, who is a polytheist like myself and, in addition, a former Catholic, asked me how I was handling returning to regular (Episcopal) church attendance, as a polytheist devoted to Antinous. Was it strange or difficult, she wondered, getting involved with Jesus again?

The question proved surprisingly easy to answer, or maybe not surprisingly, given that I had been thinking about it anyway. And given that I know of more than one pagan or polytheist who is a member of an Episcopal or Unitarian church, I thought my answers would be worth sharing.

First of all, being in church does not necessarily involve a devotional relationship with Jesus, if by “devotional” you mean having a lot of feelings. I have a lot of feelings for Antinous, and I pay him cultus every day; I don’t have the same feelings for, say, Mars or Minerva, but I still pay them respectful cultus at certain times. Sunday is a day when I pay cultus to Jesus, his Father, and the Holy Spirit, in a gathering with other people.

Second, being in church is mostly about the other people. It’s about community and communion with the people sitting in the pews with me, and with the people who came before us in the tradition. It’s about pre-Reformation saints like Benedict, the father of Western Christian monasticism, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich; it’s about specifically Anglican forebears like John Donne, George Herbert, Dorothy Sayers, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle. And it’s about my childhood, the Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal, a body of literature that includes but is far from exclusive to the Bible. The luminaries of the Anglican spiritual tradition are also leading lights of English literature. Being in church, thus, is as much ancestor worship as anything else.

It’s true that the Christian liturgy, no matter how progressive or in what denomination, assumes a theology of monotheism and, ultimately, the superiority of Christianity over other religions. However, there is a lot of ancient religious literature, including a good chunk of the Hebrew Scriptures, that assumes polytheism, but still addresses a particular deity as The Greatest of All Time. Many of the deities of Egypt were hymned as creator, all-giver, supreme on earth and in heaven, all-wise, all-powerful, and so forth–while twenty miles away, another deity entirely was praised in the same way. The fancy word for this is henotheism, which Wikipedia defines as “the worship of a single god while not denying the existence or possible existence of other deities.” In ancient Thebes, you called Amun the supreme god; in Rome, Jupiter was the all-ruler; in Athens, it was Zeus, but the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians did not argue woh was *really* the supreme deity. While I’m in church, the Christian Trinity is the One God (even if I think they are actually three).

Antinoan scholar P. Sufenas Virius Lupus once said to me, “Jesus and Antinous have been friends for a long time.” This seemed self-evidently true to me at the time, and still does. PSVL also once wrote about looking at the gods as individuals who hold certain values, rather than as bureaucrats with certain functions. For example, Antinous is not really The Gay God (a lot of the gods are pretty gay by our standards) or a god of gayness, sitting behind a lavender desk in a celestial bureaucracy and signing forms pertaining to gay people with a purple pen. Rather, he is a god who values gay and lesbian, bisexual, queer, and trans people, along with prophecy, healing, poetry, hunting, theatre, and introducing mortals and immortals to one another at parties. Jesus is a god who values the poor, the marginalized, the excluded, the Othered, which means that in our culture right now, he and Antinous are concerned about a lot of the same people. And Jesus also likes parties with plenty of wine.

From a Christian point of view, I suppose, I am a contumacious heretic, but from a polytheist point of view, Jesus is one of many gods and it’s up to me, or any individual, whether I want to worship him. Ask me about my heresies, and I’ll gladly explain them to you.