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.

Commentary on Hymn XXVI: To Antinous Homo Deus

Blessed are you, Antinous Homo Deus,
deified by the waters of the Nile:
blessed are you, man become god,
one with Osiris, mortal raised to
immortality. Blessed is the mystery
by which human becomes divine,
blessed the holy gods who welcome us
into their company; with Herakles, Semele,
Ariadne you take your place among
the glorious ones. Bid us remember,
O Bithynian boy, the lesson behind
this mystery: That no human becomes
a god without first dying.

I am not a fluent user of Latin; nevertheless, I dare to say that “Homo Deus” is a phrase that does not translate well into English. You could render it as “Man God”, but you could equally render it as “God Man”. It is possible in Latin to say that X is Y or Y is X without having to use any form of the verb esse, to be, so one might extend the translation into “the man who is a god” or “the god who is a man” or even “the human god” or “the divine human”.

This to me is the central mystery of Antinous’ deity and of his mortal life: that he was an ordinary youth who, as it were by accident, became a god. That he was a historical person deified by fate. The other names I mentioned, Herakles, Semele, and Ariadne, are mythic rather than historical, and there are good reasons to think that Semele and Ariadne were originally seen as divine in their own right rather than elevated through relationship to Dionysus. Antinous is simply right there, in history, standing perhaps beside and slightly behind Hadrian, and then changed by the waters of the Nile.

Of course there is another historical figure who became divine, a not-quite-contemporary of Antinous: namely, Jesus. While I myself am persuaded that Jesus was, indeed, a historical person, it ought to be said that the evidence for Antinous is much greater than that for Jesus. Antinous was mentioned in historical record by people who had met Hadrian (and perhaps Antinous, too) and by people who were hostile to his relationship with the Emperor and skeptical of his divinity. Jesus himself is not mentioned outside of writings within his movement.

Christian theology looked at the divinity of Jesus from two perspectives, traditionally called high or low, descending or ascending Christology. From the high perspective, Jesus was the human incarnation of the divine Logos, a manifestation of the only true deity, a unique instance of God becoming human. From the low perspective, Jesus was an ordinary man chosen or adopted by his heavenly Father who attained godhood through his death, which he accepted as an offering of himself to his Father’s will. The high perspective can be seen in the prologue to the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word…”; the low perspective in the speeches of Peter in the Acts of the Apostles.

You could say that, to coin a phrase, we have an ascending Antinology by default. We know Antinous was mortal, died, and became divine. In the religions of his time and place, he was not unique in that. And as I say in today’s hymn, death is the only way that mortals become immortal. We are not allowed to not die; even if we experience apotheosis, deification, death is part of the process.

Yet I wonder if we cannot imagine a descending Antinology as well; if Antinous the mortal youth cannot be seen as the embodiment or instantiation of a universal principle, a Platonic Idea (if I understand the Idea correctly, and I make no guarantee that I do). Likewise, if each of us is potentially divine, then perhaps each human being is the embodiment of a universal principle as well. Every deity, every human, every Idea is in a process of both ascending and descending, as Heraclitus said: “The way up and the way down are the same.”

Lord, come and save us

I have more than once heard pagans talk about how their Christian parents, teachers, or pastors talked about being saved, and they never knew what they were being saved *from*. If I’d grown up in a church that talked a lot about life as dangerous, about the possibility of hell, about divine wrath–something Episcopalians are noticeably not big on–I’d probably have come to ask the same question eventually: What’s so dangerous? What am I being “saved” from?

It took me a ritual initiation and five decades of maturity to come up with an answer for that question. image005

In November of 2017, I flew to Seattle from the other side of the country to put myself in the hands of people I’d only met on the internet and undergo initiation into the Mysteries of Antinous. Through the ritual actions of a very capable group of witches and devotees of the god, I underwent an experience of death and revival that changed me on a deep level. Nothing I had experienced before or since has been so terrifying and so exalted. I came out of it with a magnified trust in the Beautiful God that when I die, I will be welcome on his Barque of Millions of Years.

Some time later, it occurred to me that Christian baptism was supposed to do the same thing: To put an end to the initiate’s old life, bring them through the underworld, and induct them into a new life as the god. On a day in Seattle, Washington, I became Antinous. Theoretically, on February 13th in the year of my birth, I had already become Christ.

If you attend the liturgy of the Easter Vigil in a Roman Catholic or Episcopal church nowadays, you will see something that approximates what adult converts to Christianity experienced in Jerusalem in the fourth century C.E. There will be fire kindled in the darkness, and a procession that carries the light of that fire forward and spreads it around. There will be stories told of the whole history of the world, from the creation recorded in Genesis up to the time of Jesus. There will be blessing of waters and a ritual conjunction of the fire and the water. There will be a great deal of chanting, a sudden illumination, the dazzle of white vestments, baptism followed by a joyful celebration of the Eucharist.

The Paschal Triduum from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday is an initiation rite that sends the converts on the same journey as Jesus: to be arrested, tried, and executed, to descend into the underworld, to free the prisoners there, to lead them into a new life. Every person baptized becomes the resurrected Christ, living from the divine life. The readings weave in the history of the Hebrew people as told in the Old Testament so that baptized also become members of a community who went through the waters of the Red Sea together and were led by a pillar of cloud and a pillar of flame, embodied in the Paschal candle.

Christianity was a school or sect within Judaism that mutated first into a mystery cult, then into a state religion. Like the cults of Isis or Mithras, Bacchus or Orpheus, it promised contact with exotic (i.e., not Roman) deities, secret pathways through the afterlife, and a post-mortem existence that was at least as satisfying as earthly life, if not more so. Before any of those deities brought their cults into Rome, Greeks and Romans, too, had streamed to Eleusis every autumn for hundreds of years to partake of the mysteries of Demeter and Persephone and be assured of a pleasant station in the afterlife.

All of these mystery cults promised salvation. Jesus was not the only deity called “Soter”, savior, in Greek. The savior gods were the rescuers who promised a good afterlife to those who underwent their mysteries. What were people seeking to be saved from? Death. Death without a destination.

What happens if you don’t prepare for death ahead of time, if you don’t undergo a mystery and find a place with a particular god? I’m not going to tell you that I know! What I do know that is that both Norse cosmology and Greek cosmology have a place for people who just die, and haven’t deserved either punishment or special reward, and don’t know the secret handshakes and the passwords. In the North, the vast majority of the dead wind up in Helheim, where the table is set only with bread and water, but there is food for all and room for them. In Greece, Hades was called the Receiver or Host of Many, and the greatest part of his domain was Asphodel, where the shades of the dead lived a thin and insubstantial life.

Perhaps the uninitiated dead wind up somewhere that’s a shadow, a two-dimensional version of mortal life, an okay place to hang out until, one way or another, you get tired of it. Perhaps reincarnation is a kind of recycling; perhaps it’s a way to advance spiritually; perhaps it’s both. I tend to think that some people degenerate so much, morally, spiritually, that they cease to be human; maybe they simply get snuffed out like a candle that has burned down all the way, maybe some of them get punished for harming others.

I don’t feel at all certain of what happens to other people after death, nor do I need to. I do have faith that I have a place with Antinous, and with Jesus, too, and that the gods bring those they love to be with them.

Jesus and Prometheus and other stories

I had two Bibles as a child, that is, Children’s Bibles, selected stories from the Old and New Testaments with illustrations. I remember one of them as having a mostly white cover and a lot of white space on the pages, with simple, cheerful drawings that looked like they were done in crayon by a very clever child. I think that Bible contained mostly nice stories about Jesus retold in simple language.

childrensbible

The other Bible I remember was for older, more sophisticated readers, with more nearly “Biblical” language, if I’m remembering correctly. There was little white space; every page had both text and pictures, and the illustrations were rather like 19th-century paintings of Bible scenes, or of Cecil B. DeMille Bible movies. It had judicious selections from the whole of the Old Testament, even the portions that aren’t stories, such as the Psalms and the prophets. I don’t remember, however, whether it had selections from the individual Gospels, or just a Story of Jesus, with a few bits of Paul’s letters and Revelations for completeness.

What I do remember vividly were the paintings of Jesus. Jesus, quite frankly, would not have been out of place in an episode of Xena or Hercules. He was depicted as a Hollywood-handsome blond with intensely blue eyes, having fairly long hair and a short beard. In the large illustration of his baptism by John, he was standing thigh-deep in the water, bare to the waist with his white robe gathered around his loins (to use the Biblical expression), and displaying a fairly impressive set of abs. Yes, I am saying that to a girl of eight or ten years old, Jesus in her “children’s Bible” was a hottie. (And then came the miniseries of Jesus of Nazareth and the hottie Jesus played by a skinny Welshman with intense, dazzling blue-green eyes.)

provensenilloThere was another book that came into my hands around the same time, although it may have come from the library rather than being something bought for me. It was a collection of myths and legends retold, and I believe that it was either The Iliad & the Odyssey adapted by Jane Werner or else The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends, both of which were illustrated by Martin and Alice Provensen. Unlike the better-known retellings by Edgar and Ingrid D’Aulaire, the Provensen books are no longer in print, but used copies can be found on Amazon.

It was in this book that I came across the story of Prometheus, who brought man a gift the gods had not intended to give him and was punished in a cruel and grisly way. As you probably know, Prometheus was bound to a great rock, and every day a bird, in some versions an eagle, but in others a vulture, came and ate out his liver, causing him great pain. But Prometheus, being an immortal Titan, did not die of this, but instead grew back his liver every night, only to face the same attack the next day.

I have a distinct memory of lying in bed as a fairly small child, looking toward my closet in the dark, and fearing that a vulture might come out of the closet and eat my liver. I am quite sure that I didn’t know where my liver was in my body, or what kind of bird a vulture is. But I remember that something about the combination of the story and the illustrations frightened me deeply. Unlike the D’Aulaire’s books, unlike my children’s Bibles, I did not read that book a second time.

Pauline-Baynes-Mr-TumnusMy children’s Bibles, the Bible readings in church, and the many books of mythology I read as a child all offered me stories. Not all of those stories were comforting and safe, like the Sunday school stories of Jesus healing people and welcoming little children and telling curious stories about lost sheep and wayward sons. I’m not sure that my mind made a distinction between the stories of Jesus and the stories of Prometheus, or Athena punishing Arachne, or Odin binding Loki, as true vs. false. The Episcopal Church did not then insist on a literal understanding of the Bible any more than it does now, and nobody was telling me that Jesus was real but Prometheus wasn’t. What the Church seemed to be telling me was to pay attention to stories, and to language, to how stories are told, and whether they are true to our experience, whether they provide some kind of wisdom. I learned that lesson, learned to tell stories, and have continued to pay attention to them ever since.

POEM: On giving roses as offerings

small_red_roseO Dea Rosa, you are the sacrificial daughter,
your bodies cut down and offered up
on the altars of Venus, of Jesus,
of Mother Mary. Your petals were torn
and scattered like the spread limbs
of the crucified Jesus by the dying
Little Flower, roses in her arms
and blood on her hands where
your thorns had pricked her, blood
on her handkerchief where she coughed
out her suffering. You beautify the coffins
of our dead and atone for the sins
of rich husbands, together with
the brilliant tears of Tellus Mater,
diamonds hard as an adulterer’s heart,
and the sparkling blood of grapes
gathered in champlains of Gaul.
I place on my shrine, lascivious virgin,
your body of red petals green leaves
and pricked stem and think of defiled
daughters and broken women
and holy mysteries.

(Originally posted to Antinous for Everybody, 5/14/2016)

A prayer for people I care about

In the Name of Antinous, the Beautiful Boy, the beloved of Hadrian and lover of all queers, Star of the Eagle and heavenly Navigator, victor over the archons:
I call on Antinous, the Liberator, the protector, to bless, guide, and protect transgender people, nonbinary people, gender nonconforming people.
I call on Dionysus, cross-dresser, sexual transgressor, gender outlaw, to bless, guide, and protect these beloved people.
I call on Hermes, lover of males and females, guide of the dead, father of Hermaphroditus, to bless, guide, and protect my friends.
I call on Melinoe, the bright dark lady, half black and half white, daughter of Hades and Persephone, foster daughter of Hel and Loki, to bless, guide, and protect the people betwixt and between.
I call on Loki, the shapeshifter, mother of monsters, father of giants, who lies to the mighty and befriends the powerless, to bless, guide, and protect the shapeshifting people.
I call on Cybele, Attis, Agdistis, and the honored spirits of the galloi to bless, guide, and protect transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people.
I call on the spirits of the trans, intersex, two spirit people of North America; humbly I call on them although my ancestors wronged them, to bless, guide, and protect the trans and intersex and two spirit people who live on their land today.
I call on Jesus, who defended women, foreigners, and eunuchs, and on his disciple Philip the deacon, who baptized and taught the Ethiopian eunuch, to bless, guide and protect those whom they would have called eunuchs.
May the blessings and protection of all the gods, along with my own love and good will, stand between transgender people, nonbinary people, gender nonconforming people and all malice, hatred, bigotry, violence, and tyranny, until all such evils wither away. In Antinous’ name, may it be so.

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.