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.

A Reader’s Digest Condensed Book

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, or even just for the last three days, you have probably figured out that I’ve had an intense interest in religion from a very early age. I was interested in my religion, my culture’s religion, the Anglican Christianity of the Episcopal Church, but also in the religions of the past, embodied in the myths of Greece and Rome, Egypt, the Norse lands, and the Celtic peoples, and in other living religions of the present, Judaism and Hinduism in particular. At the same time, I was a willing participant in church-going as a child and a member of my church’s small volunteer choir.

I discovered an interest in one particular kind of religion fairly early on. My grandmother belonged to a “Golden Age Club”, a city-sponsored social group for elderly people that met at the neighborhood recreation center. Besides their weekly meetings (I’m still not sure what they did there), they went to dances, took bus trips, played bingo with the residents of the local nursing home, had lunch after meetings, and held fundraisers where they sold handicrafts, knick-knacks, candies and baked goods, and used books.

I don’t think I’ve ever walked away from a pile of books for sale in my entire life, not since I was able to walk. Amongst the books donated for sale was a peculiar kind of book: the Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. In one fat volume, you might have three or four books, both novels and nonfiction, carefully “condensed”, that is, abridged for faster, easier reading. I acquired a bunch of these books, probably for something like ten cents apiece. I remember one volume had selections from James Michener’s Hawaii; another had an abridgment of Coretta Scott King’s memoir, my first introduction to ideas of racism, social injustice, and protest. There was a funny story, the name of which I had forgotten, about a large family whose car broke down by the side of the road, and rather than getting the car going again, they inadvertently created a whole town around it. I do remember that the narrator said of the family babysitter, a clever and resourceful young woman, that she “warn’t really smart, she just read a lot of books.” 1259908657.0.m

But the condensed book that made the most impression on me was a novel called In This House of Brede. I’ve blogged more than once about discovering this story at the age of nine or ten, reading the abridged version, then finding the complete novel in (where else) my neighborhood library and reading it over and over. It is the story of an English woman, Philippa Talbot, who seems to have it all. A widow, she has risen to a high position in government, unusual for a woman in the 1950s. She has a quiet past, an excellent salary, and a very quiet affair with a coworker that is emotionally satisfying. And as the novel begins, she leaves it all behind at the age of forty to become a cloistered Benedictine nun.

It was not that real-life nuns figured anywhere in my childhood. But I was drawn into this book, which created a whole world as rich and detailed, unusual and enchanting as any fantasy novel’s otherworld, a world of sacred hours, special clothing, exotic rituals, bits of Latin. It was also a world populated almost entirely by women, and dominated by women. A few men pass through the novel’s pages: the retiring priest who says Mass for the nuns and hears their confessions; a charismatic sculptor engaged to redecorate the chapel; Philippa’s former supervisor, the only friend who has any grasp of her monastic vocation. But they are relatively unimportant compared to the parade of female characters, the nuns and sisters with their differing personalities, interests, talents, and faults. There are plenty of faults on display, including Philippa’s wounded past and a too-passionate friendship between an older and a younger nun, but that makes the story only more engaging.

I took away two things from this book. One was the Benedictine vision of a community ordered around prayer, liturgy, silence, and creative work, living an undramatic and sustainable spiritual life. The other was the portrayal of women who were as passionate about religion, about God, as I found myself to be, who were flawed, ordinary, sometimes outright sinful, but psychologically healthy. I have come across few novels about nuns besides this one that do not depict religious faith and fervor as some kind of pathology, or religion itself as a kind of scam.

I think my inner monastic was born the first time I read of Philippa Talbot and her life as a Benedictine of Brede Abbey, and she is still very alive and healthy in my psyche, waiting for her chance to be abbess of my life.