When you really can’t go home again

“Home” is such a small word to mean so much. You can hardly say it without longing in your voice. Literature is full of statements about home that fall from people’s lips even if they haven’t read the source: “You can’t go home again,” “Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in”. Maybe Spielberg’s E.T. was so successful because everyone, anyone could recognize the little extraterrestrial’s longing for his home and feel something of the same thing.

What happens, though, when you find out you really can’t go home? When you go there, and they’re ready to take you in, and yet you realize it’s not really yours any more and you don’t want to stay?

The last year and a half has been hard for everyone, except perhaps the culpably rich. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has hit burnout or some kind of blockage in their spiritual life, along with other areas. I’m sure it’s not limited to pagans and polytheists and magical practitioners, either. We’re having a pandemic, for gods’ sake, and a lot of people are not getting the help they need to get through, and a terrifying number of people are just outright denying it.

I’ve been tired. My spiritual practice has dwindled to what might be an all-time low. The gods are mostly silent right now, and I think maybe they’re tired, too. I think the gods care that over four million people have died, globally, and that many of those deaths could have been prevented, and the pandemic isn’t over. So here we all are.

A few weeks ago, I hit what felt like the bottom. Or the opposite of hitting the bottom; not having any ground to stand on. And after reflection, after prayer, with the blessing of my gods, I decided to start practicing Christianity again.

It was a matter of practice, of things to do. I grew up an Episcopalian, with an emphasis on praying together in the liturgy rather than on believing certain things. I never had to swear to any particular interpretation of a dogma, like exactly Jesus is present in bread and wine or the sequence of events at the Second Coming. Just sit, stand, or kneel with everyone else, sing the hymns, say the prayers. And if you want to be hardcore–which of course I did, and do–say some kind of Daily Office, morning and evening, and have private prayer as suits your temperament.

I told myself that it didn’t matter what I believed, that my gods weren’t upset about the decision, that it didn’t mean I would turn into a raging anti-queer anti-vaxxer; that I just needed a stable practice, and a community that was local and in-person and supportive. I went back to the church where I grew up, a small congregation in a small building (and even smaller now, in late summer, during a pandemic). I started saying Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. I got in touch with some old friends of the churchy persuasion. I felt enormous relief to be doing something simple, stable, familiar, even dull.

Two weeks later, I’m done. Thomas Wolfe was right: you can’t go home again. Even, sometimes, when you are welcome there. When they willingly take you in.

I grew bored with the Office. The words tripped off my tongue, but they didn’t engage my mind or my heart. I liked the same Psalms I have liked for years and disliked the same ones, too. Jumping into the first book of Kings was a bit like starting to watch an HBO drama two seasons in and not being sure why all these elaborately costumed people hate each other so much, and it wasn’t the least bit relatable. Over the last few years I’ve come to feel pretty strongly that the “Old Testament”, or more properly the Tanakh–the Torah and the other Hebrew scriptures–belongs to the Jewish people, and while there is wisdom and poetry in it that anyone can appreciate, it’s not my story. It’s just not about me.

I did some private prayer and deliberately took an approach of getting to know Jesus better, of trying to make contact with him. “Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy-laden,” he says in the Gospel of Matthew, and I sincerely wanted to go to him and put down my burdens–my confusion, my perfectionism, my burnout, my sheer weariness. But it was like calling for someone because you think they’re in the next room, only the room is actually empty. I have never, in over fifty years of life, much of it spent in the Church, had any real sense of Jesus, specifically and in particular, as a person or as a deity. He is the lead actor of a magnificent theatrical production who goes home immediately after every performance, never greets fans at the stage door, never reads or answers fan mail, simply plays his part and then disappears. And no one, not even the Christian writers most helpful to me, has been able to tell me how to contact him.

As I write this, part of me is decrying my pride and hubris and impatience at giving up on a practice after only a few weeks. I’d like to remind that part of me that I practiced Christianity for decades before really and truly committing to polytheism. And the results have always been the same: silence on the godphone, feeling that I don’t really even know Jesus and reluctant to ask him for what I need, feeling “sinful” but never sure what I’ve done wrong (confessing personal lapses that I now see were rooted in my then-undiagnosed depression and ADHD), confusion, frustration, and ultimately seeking elsewhere for a practice that makes sense to me and genuinely supports a thriving life.

I don’t know what happens next. But I have some core practices to fall back on, and Antinous and the Forest God are still there, still listening. I could start by cleaning their shrines.

POEM: Annunciation

On this day the seed is planted:
The earth being soft again after winter,
the early flowers being in bloom,
the hens laying, the rabbits mating.
On this day something bright and
incomprehensibly swift lands on the sill
of a sleeping girl and wakes her
with its rarified fragrance, frankincense
and jasmine and just a hint of myrrh.
On this day the offer is made:
beloved, favored, mother,
the son of David, the ruler,
god with us.
In the trembling of the angel’s wings,
like an anxious dove’s, the girl sees
all that was not spoken: the silence,
the gossip, the looking at and the looking
away from her swollen belly,
misunderstandings, arguments,
loneliness, death–not hers but his,
and the long years after that, outliving
her memories in a foreign land. She cups
the spoken and the unspoken together
in her thin brown hands, holds them,
drinks: I am the handmaid of the Lord.
Be it unto me according to thy word.

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Image by SAJ-FSP from Pixabay

 

In honor of St. Mary Magdalene

stmary-magdalene-brkennethhosleyopcHere’s a post I wrote several years ago on my Antinoan blog: “Throwing the First Apostle under the bus”.

Almighty God, whose blessed Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of body and mind, and called her to be a witness of his resurrection: Mercifully grant that by your grace we may be healed of all our infirmities and know you in the power of his endless life; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

(Collect of the Day and icon of the saint from The Daily Office.)

Truthfulness, gentleness, generosity

I’ve been thinking a lot about ethics lately.

It’s a subject that comes up pretty often for me, in various contexts. If you’re a regular reader, you might have noticed that I’m a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and of the Captain America movies in particular. Ethics is a central concern of Steve Rogers’ story: What is the right thing to do? How best can I do it in my particular circumstances? What if doing the right thing is costly, risky, or just plain dangerous? Steve Rogers doesn’t necessarily respect rules, laws, or orders, but he does have an unshakable commitment to his own personal sense of what is right.

Ethics comes up a lot in magical, pagan, and polytheist circles, too. Is the Wiccan Rede a sufficient guide to moral, ethical behavior? What does “harm” mean in that context? Is hexing or cursing magic ethical? Is there a difference between using magic to attract a lover or persuade an employer and using it to restrain or punish a rapist? If pagan ethics don’t derive from the specific commandments of a deity (as they do in Judaism and Christianity), what do they derive from? These are the sorts of topics I see discussed in the blogosphere and in my Facebook feed.

After over forty years of reading about religion, it’s my observation that ethical training usually starts with the negative. The Ten Commandments have more “shalt nots” than “shalts”. The five core precepts of Buddhism are all negative: no killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, or using mind-altering substances. The ancient Egyptians listed 42 negative confessions for the soul in the afterlife, an exhaustive list of wrong things which the deceased denies having done.

Most religions share an ethical core. Theft, lying, and murder are wrong behaviors that damage social relationships. Prohibitions against sexual wrongdoing seem to me to be related to vows and covenants. If you have vowed to be celibate, don’t have sex. If you have vowed fidelity to a spouse, don’t fuck around. Even if you are under no vows yourself, don’t cause or help other people to break theirs. Specifics on what constitutes wrongful killing or sexual misconduct certainly vary widely from religion to religion, culture to culture, but there’s a fundamental agreement.

There’s also, I think, a fundamental agreement on what constitutes ethical behavior, starting with the reversal of the negative precepts. Tell the truth instead of lying. Refrain from killing and doing physical harm. Be generous and give to those in need instead of stealing or defrauding your neighbor. Make vows wisely and keep them once made. Welcome friends and strangers into your home and consider them sacrosanct while they are under your roof.

I have seen these ideas in pagan philosophy, in Judaism, in Christianity, in Islam, in Hinduism and in Buddhism. There is no religion or source of ethical teaching that says casual killing is ethical. There is no religion that recommends greed, stinginess, and denial of those in need. There is no ethical system in which generosity and hospitality are not virtues. No sage or philosopher has praised a chronic liar.

Yet here in the United States, right now, I see people who call themselves Christian, devotees of Jesus, who are shooting unarmed African-American citizens, eliminating social supports for the needy, profiting at the expense of the poor, and terrorizing immigrants by taking away their children and interning them (and interning is perhaps the most neutral word I can use). I see these people and others like them defending this unethical and definitely un-Christian behavior on legal or religious grounds. And it hurts to see it, to read it, to hear about it, to know that this is how the teachings of Jesus have been twisted and perverted.

I won’t engage in the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. If someone says they’re a Christian, I’ll assume that, yes, they were baptized, they are communicants in good standing of a parish or congregation, they have some sort of spiritual life based on the Bible. But I will, as a pagan polytheist, as a progressive Episcopalian, as an occasional Buddhist, as an ethical human being, argue that racism, sexism, violence, greed, homophobia, transphobia, nationalism, and terrorism have no place in Christian theology or behavior, no place in ethical behavior, whatsoever. Not if their Christ really is the Jewish teacher and healer who rejected nobody who came to him, disagreed with the religious authorities of his own culture, and was executed as a terrorist by an army of occupation.