The McCoy Disclaimer

In one of the classic episodes of the original Star Trek series, “Devil in the Dark”, Dr McCoy is faced with a wounded Horta, an alien that is basically a sentient rock. Captain Kirk has only just learned that the monster that’s been killing miners is, in fact, a sentient person and a mother trying to protect her eggs, which have been crushed by the mining operation. Faced with trying to patch a phaser wound on a rock, McCoy balks and utters the famous line, “I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer!”

Being a doctor, McCoy improvises and successfully helps the Horta, and Kirk mediates a peace between the alien mom and the miners. McCoy got to make his disclaimer several more times over the course of the series, and while I’m a little behind on some canon, I’m pretty sure every other doctor in a Trek series has gotten to echo McCoy’s line at least once. 

I’ve been looking at witches, pagans, and occultists on various social media platforms lately, and my reaction to what I’m seeing can basically be summed up in a McCoy Disclaimer: I’m a polytheist, not a witch.

I’m a polytheist, not an occultist. I’m a polytheist, not a magician. I’m a polytheist, not a priest, or priestess, or priestx, even. I’m a polytheist, not a spiritworker.

What I am, what I do, as a polytheist, seems to me to be closest to what Christian tradition calls an oblate or a tertiary. An oblate or tertiary is someone associated with a religious order, usually with a specific local community, who is a lay person with a day job and a mundane home life, who also carries out certain religious practices in unity with the monastics. Benedictines and their relatives call them oblates; Franciscans and similar orders call them tertiaries (the “third order”, after monks and nuns). 

Oblates, like their monastic kindred, make promises of dedication, keep a rule, and keep in contact with the monastic community. But they continue to live “in the world”, in secular society, a kind of outreach of the monastic life of prayer.

The oblate analogy is not a useful one for everyone, to be sure. But even if it’s not, I have a little secret to whisper to the internet, in case you haven’t heard it.

Are you ready? Here it is:

You don’t have to be a witch to be a pagan.

No, really. You don’t. You don’t have to be a witch or any kind of magical practitioner. If you are a polytheist and believe there are many gods and want to worship some of them, you can just do that. You don’t have to learn Tarot, follow astrology, or cast spells. (Although Tarot is neat and astrology is useful.) You don’t have to cast a circle and call the quarters, You don’t have to have the witch’s tools (if you’re not a witch). You don’t have to work with crystals. (Unless you like them, which I do. Rocks are friends.) 

If your inclination, like mine, is to be a devotee, a religious person, rather than a magical practitioner, you can simply make, purchase, or even print a picture of a deity, put a tea light and a glass of water in front of it, burn some incense, and say a prayer. Start with “hi how are you I think you’re neat” prayers, perhaps something from historical sources like the Orphic or Homeric hymns (if you’re approaching Greek or Roman gods, for example), rather than “oh hi there please gimme X asap” prayers. Be respectful and a little formal. Asking for help can come later, once you’ve established a relationship.

Because that’s really all we’re talking about: establishing a relationship between a human person and a divine person. You don’t need magical skills to do that. There are magical skills that can help you in refining that relationship, but they aren’t absolutely necessary. You can proceed on the assumption that the Gods are available, that they have good will toward us, and that an offering and prayer respectfully presented will be noticed. 

You don’t have to wait for a sign or a calling. If you are inspired to worship Anubis, you don’t have to sit around hoping you see x number of black dogs as a sign that Anubis! wants! you! Do a little research, make a little offering, make a few more offerings, and–here’s another little secret for polytheists–give it time and see if devotion to Anubis enriches your life. I don’t mean expecting Anubis, or any deity, to hand you a new car, that big promotion, the really expensive Mac computer, or anything strictly material. I mean asking yourself if devotion to Anubis makes your life more meaningful, more coherent. If it gets easier to go with the flow and deal with your average daily level of stress. (Allowing for the fact that right now, especially in the U.S., we are all at above-average levels of stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) If maybe you are inspired to make fancier offerings or to create something for the god, like an image, a painting, your own hymns and prayers. 

I have a lot more to say on these topics, I think. But I’m going to say them another night.

Devotion is for losers

candle-3663352_640That’s what the little voice in my head tells me.

Devotion is for losers.

When I light my candle and incense, look at the divine images I printed off the Internet and pasted together, read poems I have written and then fumble my words when I try to ask for help–the little voice says, “Devotion is for losers”.

It sounds a bit like Chris Evans in an early, jerkass role–masculine, slightly nasal, tenor register, and very American. (No offense to Evans, who remains one of my favorite actors and beautiful people.)

I’m a strong independent person who don’t need no gods, right? I live by myself (well, self and bird). I work full-time and support myself. I’m an introvert who needs plenty of alone time. I should be pursuing the empowering path of Magic/k or however you want to spell it, right? Grinding out spells to make the changes in my life that I want.

Except that doesn’t work for me. Positive change happens when I’m not looking. Things I want tend to come to me if I genuinely, steadily desire them. Trying to have some sort of regular magical practice turns out to interfere with the one thing in my life that is genuinely, invariably, reliably empowering–that is, writing.

I’ve seen over and over again that if I have to choose between using my limited time and energy for magic/k/e or for writing, writing will win, every time. Writing wins over laundry, dishes, bingewatching, and sometimes even eating or sleeping, let alone magic.

Yet devotional practice flows in around the edges of work and dinner and writing and video and supports all that. Replenishes energy instead of taking it. Makes dealing with everyday stressors easier. Inspires my writing. Tends toward greater kindness to myself and others.

“Devotion is for losers.” I’m not sure where that snotty voice in my head came from, but I’m pretty sure it’s wrong.

(Image by s-ms_1989 from Pixabay)

Considering devotion

9e847b085dc8494226401cc0a20b9226In fannish circles we have a saying: “I didn’t know I wanted that until I saw it.” It refers to something, usually a fan work, that satisfies a need or desire you weren’t aware of having. It might describe an unusual pairing, or a fan video using a particular song, or a what-if scenario in a fanfic that goes far afield of what “really” happened onscreen. A large part of the pleasure of fannish activities, I think, is simply discovering and connecting with your actual pleasures, desires, even kinks. In fandom it’s okay if you want to read a dozen different stories about a character overcoming past trauma by taking care of an abandoned child, however badly that sort of thing would work out in real life. (Not that I would ever read that sort of thing myself, of course….)

There was a moment sometime back in 2014, I think, when I realized that I wanted to make an offering to Antinous and ask him for help with something specific. At the time I had been going to church regularly for over a year and identifying as an Episcopalian. But despite going to Sunday Eucharist and saying the Daily Office (daily), I had no desire to take this particular problem, whatever it was, to Jesus or his Father. That was when it hit me that I had a relationship with Antinous, a Greek teenager who drowned in the Nile and was deified by Egyptian custom in the year 130 C.E., that I had never had with the god of my childhood religion, a religion I kept coming back to in spite of exploring a lot of alternatives. I had feelings for Antinous that I had never had for Jesus, and it wasn’t that I hadn’t tried to cultivate those feelings for Jesus–I had. I had relationships with some of the saints that had this emotional resonance–Julian of Norwich, in particular–but never with Jesus or his Father. That relationship, those feelings, are devotion.

That was what caused me to give up Christianity and adopt a polytheism focused on Antinous, finally, decisively. Devotion, this deep emotional connection with a deity, was the thing I didn’t know I wanted, the thing I didn’t quite know was missing, until I had it. I couldn’t manufacture it, any more than I could make myself fall in love with someone. Devotion is a sort of falling in love, being in love, falling in love some more.