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devotion

What, I wonder, are the differences between a contemplative practice and a devotional practice?

I’ve read a lot about devotional polytheism this morning. I read Galina Krassova’s first installment of her Fundamentals of Polytheism series, “We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Theories,” and Galina places a great deal of focus on the development of a devotional practice. Many hard-polytheists I know in ADF do a similar thing.

Even in the Solitary Druid Fellowship we have devotionals, but those devotionals (I think) are very different than the kind of devotionals that Galina might be speaking of.

The first half of the SDF’s Morning Devotional reads like this:

I am one and we are many. Fellowship, in solitude.
Here I stand to greet the sun
And welcome in the morning light.

In my mind and in my body,
I hold space in solitude
For all of those who walk alone.
May they find comfort on this day.

And may the day unfold in peace,
And may this peace be born within,
And may my heart be set ablaze,
That I might shine into the world.

This is not language which supports a devotional practice with a specific deity, per se. This devotional is humanistic in nature. It centers around the human experience. When I wrote this devotional it seemed like the only way to create something that would be relevant and usable to solitaries of many different paths was to focus on what would be meaningful to the person, rather than focus on what one person (or tradition) thinks is meaningful to a god.

That said, ADF’s cosmology is present in the devotional:

I honor this fire.
The fire of the gods.
The gods of my heart.
The gods of this land.
May I come to know the mystery
Of the divine in all its forms.

I honor this water.
The water of the ancestors.
Ancestors of blood.
Ancestors of spirit.
May I understand the knowledge
Of the wise and ancient ones.

I honor this tree.
This living body.
This sacred plant,
With roots and leaves.
May I feel the spirits of nature,
And be one with all the earth.

This language is heavily symbolic, and open to interpretation. For some, “the gods of my heart” is too general. Or, perhaps it is inaccurate to their understanding of what the gods are or how they function. To me, this language makes space for the archetypalist and the hard polytheist, for either might use the idea of a “place in one’s heart” as a sign of deep connection and devotion. The rest of the language seeks to put one in a state of awareness and mindfulness of their ancestors and the living earth that surrounds them.

But again, it’s all about the awareness and interpretation of the individual.

The SDF’s use of devotionals seeks to ground people in their own conscious practice, not to place them in “right relationship” with the gods in any particular way. My intention was not to dictate to anyone what “right relationship to the gods” might even mean, but to instead trust that if they first sink into a deep and meaningful practice (even one that lacks a clear focus on any specific deity), that they will be led to the spiritual awareness that is most appropriate for them. They might come to know what value the concept of “right relationship” has in their own life and practice.

Perhaps, then, a contemplative practice can spring forth from a devotional practice if one makes the space for a certain degree of unknowing.

Galina emphasizes the importance of knowing in the context of her practice, and while she distinguishes that experience of knowing from “faith,” the two still look similar from where I sit.

To me, the statement “I have faith that the Gods are real” would be more compelling than “The Gods are real,” if for no other reason but that the former emphasizes the human element, while the latter does not.

I love the human element. I have to begin with the human element first, and from that place open up to something beyond my field of vision.

And that’s just where my temperament leads me. It isn’t to say that I’m correct, or that Galina is not. There is, I think we’d both agree, a distinct difference in what we do in our religious lives — and why we do it.

But regardless of our differences, there may be some common ground in emphasizing the value of a devotional practice. We may have different ideas that inform why we think a devotional practice is important — hers’ being that it beings the devotee in right relationship with the Gods, and mine being that it encourages contemplation — but we might be able to agree that one grows in their religious and spiritual life by doing things, just as much (if not more) than by simply thinking things.

And for me, contemplation is right action.

 

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  • Cara

    When hard polytheists say, “The Gods are real” what they generally mean is “I’ve had direct experiences that prove to me the Gods I worship are real, but I feel no compulsion to prove it to anyone else.” We’re (again, generally) not speaking of faith or belief.

    • I think I understand what you mean, Cara.

      One’s personal, direct experience of the Gods can never, by its very nature, function as empirical evidence for anyone else. In that way, it makes sense that a hard polytheist might not want to try and explain how they came to their conclusion that the Gods are real. There is *no way* that their conclusions could serve as concrete evidence for someone else, because their conclusions were informed by their own personal experiences.

      Am I interpreting what you’re saying correctly?

      • Cara

        Yep, that’s exactly right. We (again, generally speaking, of those in revived religions) try to be specific in our language, but we’re still speaking in shortcuts without intending to do so.

        So we’ll say, “I choose to believe the Gods are real” when we have not had direct, personal experiences and will be more emphatic and definitive when we have (“The Gods are real.”) In both cases, we don’t seek to explain or persuade anyone because a) that’s rude and b)you would be interfering between a person and their relationship with the Gods and c) it’s not possible.

        I’m not the same religion as Galina, but there are some … cultural views … that people in European revived religions share.

        • I appreciate the clarification, Cara. And, as always, I thank you for being willing to engage in dialogue with me about this.

          I appreciate your use of the word “choose.” I think that everyone’s belief about the Gods, or about their religious life in general, is a choice they are making. Perhaps where I’m different than many polytheists is that after having had what I consider to be direct, personal experiences with the Gods (and with divinity as I understood it in my former tradition), I’m still comfortable in saying “I choose to believe that the Gods are real.” I’m also willing to say that what I believe the Gods to be with regard to that *real-ness* may be something other than what they actually are.

          In short, I’m willing to build a good number of caveats into my expressions of… faith.

          And I fall back on that term for a reason: to me, holding a belief about or asserting direction knowledge of something that is experienced only through my personal, subjective lens — something for which there is no empirical evidence — is, to me, always an act of faith. That does not mean it is any less potent or powerful, or that the thing I believe in is less *real* (even if it is un-provable). I just use that word to describe the gray area between my *experience of something* and my *conviction about something*.

          Does that make sense?

          • Cara

            Hmmm…Not really. But let me see if I can narrow it down?

            Are you saying that you preface every experience you have with the disclaimer that it may not have been what you thought it was? Unless you have independent confirmation? That’s a hard way to live.

            If I see my cat yawn I’m not going to question if it was really my cat and if she was really yawning – after all I have no video and no witness.

            Or are you saying you only restrict this questioning of experiences to religious matters? Because they are so difficult to independently confirm?

            Or is this more a “all reality and memories are subjective and therefore can’t be trusted” philosophical outlook. I’ve looked at that and decided it doesn’t matter if reality is subjective or objective because it’s what we have. I’m a pragmatist. 😉

          • I love this conversation.

            No, I don’t preface my experiences with that kind of disclaimer. I’m also not seeking verification as a scientist might. Despite the language I’ve been using in this thread, I’m not that hell-bent on scientific evidence when it comes to my personal religious practice.

            I think it’s a matter of context.

            I have experiences, and I am responsible for interpreting those experiences. I may make the choice to filter those experiences through the lens of my religious tradition (which is, by and large, a hard-polytheist one), but those experiences could be viewed through different lenses as well. The choice of how to view the experience is arbitrary in the grand scheme of things, although it is very relevant for me, personally.

            I think that there is a difference between interpreting a cat’s yawn as a cat’s yawn, and interpreting the complicated mixture of inner-experiences as the presence of a God, the working of a God, or even proof of the existence of a God primarily because others can observe cat’s yawning (even if they didn’t see *your* cat yarn), but no one can have the same inner-experience that you have. And your decision to interpret your inner experience as evidence of a God (a decision that I have made, myself) is still just a choice. And making that choice, because of the very nature of the trust you and I might be putting in the interpretation of our inner-experinece, resembles — to me — an act of faith.

            Interestingly, this line of reasoning seems kind of pragmatic to me. 🙂

  • William Brook

    I wanted to comment on your blog, Perennial Philosophy: Is Hard
    Polytheism Incomplete? – I am not a huge fan of Theosophy and the new
    age movement. I do have to say and admit that in my Taoism philosophy
    that there is room for everything and every theory, including there is
    only one deity with infinite faces/personalities. There is also room
    for: Hard Polytheism (ADF) that says: every deity is different and has
    it’s own area & culture. In the infinite Tao, there is room for
    everything, every theory and every practice. No one is completely
    correct, no one is completely wrong and at the same time, everyone is
    completely correct in the path that they follow. I do understand that
    this philosophy can and does lead to confusion at times, but that is
    part of the process and part of our individual growth.