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Since I began working through the Dedicant Path this second time, I’ve run across a number of people who are also starting their studies with ADF. They’re showing up in the comment section on Bishop In The Grove, on Facebook, and I’m wondering if there’s some deeper meaning behind it.

A friend of mine suggested that we should distrust the Volkswagen Bug syndrome. You know — the one where you buy a VW bug, and then all you see around you are VW bugs. They start popping up everywhere — in parking lots, next to you while driving on the freeway, trailing you home from your knitting class…

…that last one isn’t part of the lore. It just came to me.

You know what I’m talking about, though. You make some change to your life, and then you see that change reflected in the world around you.

If I was an adherent to a popular New Age theory like The Secret (which my husband calls “The Trick”), I might say that this is the Universe providing me what I asked for. Although, it would seem a bit more like the Universe on overdrive, wouldn’t it? How many VW bugs does one guy need?

Photo by Marty Desilets

This search for the source of the repeating VW — or the new wave of ADF Dedicants — may be fruitless. If it’s the Universe, there’s no good way to trace that. Same goes for the gods.

Right?

In the comment section of my last post people went to town explaining their relationship to Pagan and metaphysical stuff. It was eye-opening.

I’m reminded of one comment now.

“On the one hand, I fully agree with the idea that Pagans collect too much stuff….On the other hand, what if it’s what the gods demand of us?”

How do we know (he asks with no clear answer) if the gods are encouraging us to buy that fancy wand or that new “mysterious” crystal skull? How do we discern the meaning behind the multiplying VW’s and Druids?

Perhaps that word — discernment — is a key to unlocking some of this.

Photo by Jef Safi

A quick search for the meaning of discernment reveals this (the secondary definition):

(in Christian contexts) Perception in the absence of judgment with a view to obtaining spiritual direction and understanding

  • – without providing for a time of healing and discernment, there will be no hope of living through this present moment without a shattering of our common life

Why, I wonder, is this labeled as “in Christian contexts”?

The Christian context for discernment assumes that you’re listing to the One True God, but if he isn’t your Mr. Right you’re going to be listening for something, or someone else.

Many a Pagan turns to divination for answers, and perhaps for them divination is the Pagan version of discernment. But, for those who divine as a way of listening to the gods (or the dead, or the spirits of place), isn’t there a teensy-weensy bit of discernment involved in that process? Don’t you have to suspend your judgement — or, at least your immediate, knee-jerk, influenced-by-your-cultural-conditioning-and-prejudices judgement in order to tap into the knowledge of something other than yourself — something non-human?

In my ADF studies, I’m doing a lot of book work. I’m also being called to do a lot of personal reflection. In reflection, an act of seeing inward, there is an auditory component. There is inner-listening.

I think “inner-listening” might be another way to think of discernment.

The question is, listening for what?

Your personal truth? The voice of Demeter? The advice of your dead great-grandmother?

Discernment is nuanced in the Christian world. It points to a personal relationship with deity, and when I’ve heard it used it was done so with seriousness and sensitivity. You don’t just hear God without freaking out a little, or without having to go through a process of trying to figure out — did I just hear God?

So what about discernment outside of the Christian context? I have this strong feeling (perhaps I’m discerning something) that there is a place for discernment in the religious lives of polytheists and Pagans.

So, what is that place?

What is the use of discernment in your life?

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  • There is absolutely a place for discernment in a Pagan context. I’d argue that place is anywhere you don’t have absolute objective certainty about a course of action… which is virtually every place, every time.

    Our tendency is to react from a gut-level instinct or intuition and then rationalize why our reaction was correct, seconds or hours or days later. A better way is to think first and then decide, after considering alternatives, likely outcomes, and unintended consequences, and after making sure what we’re considering really is in alignment with our values. Does it benefit the gods, our community and our world?

    This is very similar to the Buddhist concept of mindfulness.

    How do you know it’s the gods you’re listening to? Is what you’re hearing in alignment with what’s known about this particular god? Is it in alignment with what others are hearing from the same god? Is it challenging you to live more like this god? Or is it telling you what you want to hear?

    • Thanks, John. This is a great comment.

      These questions at the end are exactly the kind I think we should be asking.

  • Oh, hey, that’s my comment….

    On point: I think you’re right with the idea that divination is how we, as Pagans, listen to the gods. But there are so many forms of divination that reflect essentially every type of act, from the reading of cards to the examination of candlewax in water. If each of these ways are valid, though, does that not mean that the gods or the universe is always speaking to us, it is just up to us which way we can best listen?

    Personally, I subscribe to the idea that the gods are always speaking, though not always to us the individual. As such, my divinatory practice has always been primarily focused on cryptomancy, the reading of signs and omens. I’ve worked with Tarot, but those always seem more based towards spiritwork, rather than hearing messages from the gods.

    I think, though, that what it boils down to, regardless of how you practice divination, a sense of intuition. Now, how do we define “intuition,” though?

    Intuition: the ability to acquire knowledge without inference and/or the use of reason (Oxford English Dictionary via Wikipedia).

    So, basically, intuition is just knowledge that has no source in reason or logic. So where else might that come from? Well, in the case of divination, the answer can be simple: the gods, spirits, etc. You ask, they answer, and then it’s your intuition that helps you hear or discern the answer.

    I hope this makes sense. I have a lot of thought threads that have all tried to weave into my reply here and I tried to touch on each of them.

    • Great comment, Kaye. And yes, I did snag those lines from your original comment! 🙂

      There are times when I wonder whether in seeking to communicate with the gods, in attempts we make to discern their will, their voice, their actions in our lives, that we oversimplify them. I wonder if we expect them to communicate as we would, or if we desire for their attention and therefore seek evidence of that attention in our lives.

      I’m not discounting that the gods act in the world, but I’m not sure it’s always how we perceive them to. Does that make sense?

      Your point about intuition is well taken. I still wonder — when we are reading the signs, are we reading the language of the gods, or are we entering into a process of reading ourselves?

      • Yes, it does make sense. See, this is why I’m enjoying commenting on your blog: you ask the questions I’ve been dying to discuss for years now and I can talk to you intelligently about these things.

        Now, onto my response:

        Why can’t it be simultaneous? One of the things that I’ve been “taught” or reasoned is that the difference between Paganism and the Abrahamic religions is that the Abrahamics find divinity outside the world – their god manifests as an external component – whereas Pagans find divinity within it – meaning our gods manifest within the world, which would make sense if you follow a polytheistic view and each deity has their own “sphere of influence” and this just got a lot more complicated than I thought it would going into this train of thought, so! I’m willing to put that on the backburner for a bit unless you want to come back to it. Regardless, if we accept this idea, that the gods manifest in our natural world, then it would make sense that the gods would attempt to communicate.

        In a different world view, take animism, the idea that everything has an inherent divine spark. So my divine spark and the divine spark of this couch I am sitting on as I write this both stem from a similar source or “divine pool,” to use the imagery that makes the most sense to me. But we are then faced with the problem of whether or not my divine spark is similar to the divine of the gods. If you subscribe to the idea that “Yes, it is, the gods just have a whole ton more of it” then we are all on a similar field. To put it in different terms: the gods are the first string of the football team and humanity are the ones on the bench. We’re all still on the same team, but some have more innate talent and prowess.

        So if we take these two world views and combine them, as I am wont to do in my spiritual view of the world and Universe, then it makes sense to me that the gods speak to us and we can hear what they say, but sometimes we are learning more about ourselves at the same time. That’s not to say that these two things are not, at once, both similar and vastly different.

        Again, I hope that made sense. These are big questions and I tend to have a more, ah, aetheric thought process, so putting it into linear terms doesn’t always go the way I want it to.

        • Saule

          Kaye,

          I was going to leave a comment that basically boiled down to a far less well put version of what you wrote. So I thank you for speaking my mind a lot clearer then I could have.

          • Saule,

            I’m glad to hear we have similar thoughts on the matter. Makes me feel less crazy and like someone else is able to follow along my messy brain patterns!

  • Of course there is discernment in the religious lives of people from other religions than Christianity. Just because it’s not the Christian god one ‘listens’ to doesn’t make it any less valid. I personally think it’s both ‘inner listening’ and ‘outer listening’. Or rather simply noticing things around you and putting two and two together. I shall give a personal example to why I came to this conclusion. Some time ago I had a ritual instrument made for me by an artisan friend (a wooden spear, with an obsidian tip – it’s about the size of my palm + a few inches – which I have dedicated to Seth). The idea of using such an instrument didn’t come out of the blue, there was much meditation work, devotional work and such involved. And as a plus, without any intent from my part, I continuously stumbled upon iconography depicting Seth with a spear (slaying Apep, the embodiment of utter chaos and destruction), various references to Him using a spear in mythology, articles, etc. Plus the nature of the magical workings I was doing at the time indicated the need for a powerful instrument. So I knew I had to have one made for me (ideally I would have crafted it myself but I have no experience with woodworking).
    So in this particular case, I can say that yes, it was divine guidance involved in owning such an instrument. It wasn’t a case of ‘oh cool, I want one of those!’

    • Thanks for the comment, Kallista. I’m glad you joined us here. I think I can relate to your story, and I’d imagine others can as well.

      I didn’t mean to suggest that discernement outside of a Christian context is less valid. This really isn’t about validity, and I assume that there is discernment going on in the Pagan world. I just don’t hear it spoken of that often.

      Again, thanks for being a part of the dialogue!

  • Josh

    I felt compelled to offer a comment on this, since in my own religious tradition (Buddhism) there is a bit of discussion about this. There are certain Buddhist practices that are oriented towards particular deities, and one reads in traditional literature that it’s not at all uncommon for practitioners to have experiences such as visions of deities, sudden epiphanies, or strong emotional feelings arising during meditation (in fact, this is true even of styles of meditation that are not particularly involved with specific deities). The tradition is quite clear that, while such experiences can be seen as signs of progress, they are not the goal of practice in and of itself, and one should not develop strong attachments toward such experiences or go out of one’s way to elicit them. In other words, engaging in the practice itself is the goal, and such experiences, if misinterpreted, can actually become hindrances. But perhaps it’s a case of “apples and oranges” when we compare this to the Pagan perspective.

  • I have two complaints with this. First, the VW syndrome is not something to merely think about, but a known cognitive distortion that will make you think the wrong answer is correct. You’re not wrong when you say that many would say it’s the universe giving them something real, but they would all be wrong in thinking that. Second, Christian discernment is really not about listening to the voice of god at all, but it is absolutely about judgment. It has to do with telling “good spirit” from “bad spirit” behind any given thing in the world, and relies on a spiritual gift (hearing the voice of god would be a different one) so it can be applicable to finding a vocation, deciding Elvis is from the devil, or that the pope is. A Christian is expected to judge even the angels, as they say, so you practice on people.

    So what use is discernment to druidry? Monroe is not to be trusted as an authority on ancient druidry. Morganwg was a big fat liar. Damh the Bard is awesome even though he’s in an order that is built on Morganwg’s perspective. It is knowing what your information is worth, and recognizing that the voice in your head is in YOUR HEAD. The random number generator or ogham has meaning because you give it meaning in your head. It is the universe that is divine, and if you want to call the voice in your head god, fine, but also give the title to your brain tissue, your dead skull, the air around it, the vacuum of space and the light that travels between them. There are no secrets in the universal plan; just delusions on the part of its more irrelevant members.

  • Jason Ash

    Like many folks, I come from Christian background so I have gone back to that background for context for some of my religious experiences. In some ways, I feel like it would be better to consult with Hindu or other polytheists about this kind of process as it is something they may given some though to over the last few millennia. 😉 I tend to think that we have a similar process as a Christian, only with the step added of “which god” after deciding if the message is coming from myself or from (a) god.

  • I didn’t think you could have ‘discerning’ in a Christian (or Abrahamic) context since most of their religion(s) (from what I understand) requires that they suspend critical thinking.

    Being able to discern or ‘suss something out’ is at the heart of what it means to be a Pagan. Granted, it should could more naturally to 2nd or 3rd generation Pagans than fresh Pagans just out of their old religions (usually even harder if it was an Abrahamic religion).

    As Pagans we’re not told every single step A to B to C to on and on, that’s why we get so many people fade out back to easier faiths that just demand you fall in line. I mean for goodness sakes it’s Pagan societies that gave us some of the greatest philosophers and scientists. Paganism DEMANDS that you are forever required to put on your big girl panties and thinking cap. Because of that, Pagans should know the difference between when the phone is broken, and when a spirit is having fun with you. Why? Because being able to discern the difference is a *necessity* not a hobby.

  • Joshua

    I would love to see a Pagan discernment tradition(s) geared towards intersubjective verification of unverified personal gnosis and/or other mystical/religious experience. Perhaps along the lines of a process theological inspired spiritual direction?

    Additionally, my ADF membership is official now. Thank you again Teo!

    Cheers,

    Joshua

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    I’ve talked about discernment quite a bit in my time…

    The particular Christian context from which it comes is Jesuit practice, where it is shorthand for “discernment of spirits,” i.e. determining whether one is being guided by an angel or a devil in a particular direction–or, as the modern über-psychological Jesuits say, “Am I being guided in the direction of integration or disintegration?” I was educated during my Religious Studies M.A. by Jesuits, so I thoroughly internalized this language and these concepts, and have found them quite useful within polytheism.

    The big difference, though, is that for Christians, their main gods (i.e. Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and God the Father) don’t get directly involved with humans very often, and thus freaking out a bit would be normal…all they’re required to do is “believe” in those gods, and then that relieves the individual from requiring any kind of proof or direct experience beyond the faith in what they’ve been told. For polytheists, the gods (and other divine beings) are getting involved all the time, and it’s simply a matter of recognizing when they are communicating, whether it’s a blinding vision or a sudden profusion of VW bugs. (The latter is why so many deities have a variety of symbols, colors, animals, and other “correspondences” that correlate to them, so that we who are looking for them can better know when they’re appearing or communicating…the outer world is just as much the message board of the gods as the inner world, after all!)

    As useful and important as it is to develop one’s own inner listening and to have a strong sense of a critical voice and faculties of discernment when having experiences of the gods, it’s also important to have the “reality check” that a spiritual community, a body of lore and traditions, and the fellowship of other mystics and spirit-workers can create. There are far too many people who are new to the gods running around out there thinking they’re somehow “special” or “gifted” when they’re simply experiencing basic things that all of us have experienced, but they don’t know that because “rational pagans” and others have made it sound as if spiritual experiences are things that are to be shunned and pathologized and avoided rather than openly discussed. There are points that come when it may seem things are very strange indeed, and questions can (and should!) always be asked when the gods communicate with us, just as when humans communicate with us–a god suddenly appearing and asking you to sell all your stuff and stand on a street corner preaching their name is just as much to be mistrusted as a Nigerian spam scam. Relationships with deities, just like with humans, have to be built over time, and curve-balls do get thrown even in established relationships.

    In any case, there’s a lot more to be said, but anyway…!

  • Well, the reason I’m considering doing the ADF Dedicant programme is mainly because of you. I don’t know what that says about your VWs 😛

    This is a fantastic post. We absolutely need a (poly)theology of discernment. It’s far too easy to ascribe our personal desires onto the gods, or the universe, or whatever.*

    Personally, I’m more likely to believe it’s the gods talking to me if they want me to do something out of my character but consistent with theirs – depending on the god I’m talking to, something bold, or honourable, or deeply true to myself. I don’t honour any god who would want me to have more stuff – but that’s just my gods. Discernment is really important in dealing with many gods, and it’s something I’m just starting to (re)learn (I was better at it as a Christian). We have to be careful who we’re listening to, not least because (in my belief) there are a lot of spirits out there who could be talking to us, along with other gods. And there’s the blunt fact that my gods’ values will not always be mine, and one god’s views will clash with another god’s, frequently.

    *The phrase ‘the gods, the universe or whatever’ is becoming my stock theology of divinity. I don’t know if it’s nearly vague enough.

  • eelsalad

    I’m reminded of a saying of Victor Anderson’s that T. Thorn Coyle often quotes when she’s talking about Godsoul – “Turn on your porch light (Godsoul) and see who’s out there.” Connecting to the spark of the divine we all carry is vital when figuring out whether something is Significant or not, whether a spirit is benign or not. I see discernment in a pagan context as being about a close connection to our inner divinity, that part of us which is also God Herself.

    Discernment isn’t just useful when talking about magic or significant events or spirits, either. Discernment is how we tell whether a teacher is trustworthy or not, whether something is a good idea or not, whether an impulse is destructive or not, etc. Discernment is how I can tell whether a statement from my inner monologue is accurate or not (there’s nothing like working with a pagan therapist AND a very psychology-minded pagan teacher at the same time, lemme tell ya). Discernment helps me set aside my neuroses and see things more accurately, rather than just reacting all the time.

  • Maybe we can look at two kinds of discernment – one more technical and the other more philosophical. Technically, anyone who undertakes to examine the contents and processes of the mind will have to learn to discern which of the voices in their head they might be hearing at the moment. My impression is that everyone already has a headful, often mixed-down into a continuous muttering with moments of emphasis. When we take up meditation and invocation of specific beings then we are likely to stir up those voices. There’s a traditional process of learning which is who, etc, that seems to mainly involve trial and error unless one is inside a spiritist system with clear controls. However we should, I think, be teaching ourselves that every voice in our heads isn’t our Genius (or a genius) and we must learn to discern what the actual voice of a spirit sounds like. There’s a good deal on this in both spiritualist mediumship and grimoire magic. Philosophically I think the comments here are on the right track. Discernment starts with shutting up and listening, being still and watching. It’s about first observing the real conditions of a situation or thing, and then applying that observation to the proper choices of action. One thing that I think hasn’t been mentioned is the core Pagan idea that divine awareness is intrinsic within each of our individual spirits. So the ‘still small voice’ doesn’t have to belong to anyone but oneself in order for it to speak with divine wisdom. It is wise for us to seek to hear the voices of the Gods and Spirits, but we have an intrinsic discernment that trumps the commands of Gods. I suppose locating that voice is one of the things we mean by leaning discernment.

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  • Annie

    You can safely assume that you’ve created god in your own image when it turns out that god hates all the same people you do.