Monday, September 14, 2009
I've been thinking a lot recently about polytheism and deity, prompted in part by Kullervo's post about his "conversion experience" (for lack of a better term), and in part by my own continuing explorations in meditation and daily spiritual practice. I can feel it--part of me is waiting for something to click. And it hasn't happened yet. When I read about others' experiences of deity--the power and beauty and awe that go along with it, the certainty as well as the surprise--and when I talk with Jeff about his own views of the gods and goddesses, I feel as though I might be missing something. But try as I might, I can't seem to wrap my head around these ideas of gods, at least not in anything but a metaphorical sense. Faeries, Shining Ones, elemental beings and spirits of all shapes and sizes striving and thriving together in an "ecology of Spirit" that echoes and gives rise to the physical world--sure, hell yeah. But where do the gods come into it? How do I understand them? I'm still waiting for that part to fall into place.
As a child, and even into my teens and college years, I had experiences of what you might call "personal deity"--the small, intimate kind. Jesus and I were rather close for a while, even though I'd always had a better grasp of the Big Guy, the Transcendent Spirit of Godhead, the Breath and Life that infused everything, everywhere, with love and connection. In her recent post, Cat talks about how she began not with this unifying, unified Spirit that was too big and abstract, but with the little particulars of the world. For me, it was just the opposite--the Spirit moving over the dark face of the waters was something almost tangible to me, as though all these particulars were secretly veiling something else, some deeper essence. I could feel it in the wind and rain, in the bright summer fields, and in the way everyone's shoulders rose and fell together in one rippling intake of breath reciting the Our Father during Mass.
For a while, in fact, I struggled to understand where Jesus came into it at all, besides playing the role of wise teacher and political rebel. But at some point, this role as wise and loving shaman-sage developed into full-blown deity, Jesus the Christ, the Reconciler who brought transcendence and immanence together in a uniquely and fully human form. Jesus was not just embodied Godhood, but conscious, living, breathing, moving, evolving Godhead--change and flux within the perfection of essence, the human becoming as an expression of utter being. And other kinds of mystical language. But the simplest way to put it is, he was the broken-hearted god I met in dream: sitting quietly in an empty corner sipping his beer and watching the careless violence of love and connection bloom and shred to dust under dancing feet... he was the shy bisexual and misunderstood poet-lover shunned by the noise and callousness of the raging house-party, and utterly in love with every drunkard there. He was the one I could turn to when I needed to understand devotion and sacrifice, loneliness and death.
And then, gradually, we just lost touch. Almost without noticing it, I began once again to relate to the world with an immediacy that seemed to have no need for a medium or Reconciler. I went through periods of depression and near suicidal moods (that is, if a heart aching for connection, even if such connection means bodily death and the dissolution back into the universal tides of Spirit, could really be called "suicidal"); yet during these times, the world would not abandon me, would not leave me alone. Its presence--both beautiful and terrible in its indifferent, impersonal, imperfect perfection--bore down on me inescapably, so that I knew I could not merely cease to be even if that was what I wanted. All this time, it was the world-as-sacred, the immanence of what I once would have called Holy Spirit, that lurked in every blink of an eye, moved through every corner of being before I could look away. Transcendent Godhead seemed far away, or rather deep, deep within past the dull, devastatingly holy mechanizations of embodiment. And personal deity seemed about as real and relevant to me as things like "getting a real job" and "establishing good credit." It was something that happened to other people.
Where am I now? Back in February, I felt as though I might be onto something, something having to do with imagination and love and the way they work in tandem to create images of deity. I had some realization--which I can now barely remember--about the way poetry and metaphor led me back and forth between the transcendent Universal and the intimate Particular, and how these same faithful allies could teach me about personal deity in a polytheistic sense, about the role of archetype and personality, guardian and guide, in my understanding of divinity. I was making progress, developing an interesting if not always warm-fuzzy relationship with Caer Ibormeith, the faery swan-maiden of Aengus Og's dreaming, exploring through meditation and prayer ways in which her story of independence, strength, transmutation and love might have lessons to teach me. Perhaps I learned those lessons a bit too well; soon after that, I found myself plunging into a new romantic relationship that fulfilled and sustained parts of me that had been starved and bitter for several years. The need for personal deity once again dropped out of view, as the very real and immediate presence of a fellow human being took precedence.
Labels & Names
Three real and immediate human beings walked into a bar. I might be a masochist, but I can't resist the urge to provoke debate between two dear friends when I know they disagree. I sat nursing my Woodchuck (all right, not exactly a beer, I'll grant you) between Raymond, my old anam-chara, and Jeff, my new kindling flame. You might call Raymond a skeptic, or even an agnostic--if you wanted to sit through a long lecture about how he rejects labels like "god" and "spirituality" and "agnostic" not because he is uncertain or unwilling to commit to certain beliefs about this possible Something else, but because he respects the power of language and would not idly rob that Something of its namelessness. And you might call Jeff a polytheist--as long as you knew about the time his Zen Buddhist mother asked him if he believed the gods were actually real and he replied, with a conspiratorial wink to anatma, "As real as I am." And I sat in the middle, as if some literal-minded playwright had scripted the event, hardly saying anything but listening intently to their conversation.
I might call myself a panentheist--someone who believes in both the immanence and transcendence of divinity--and in fact I have called myself that for many years now... Except that more recently this term has started to sound redundant, as though it were almost too obvious to bother articulating. What else could Spirit be than "the eternal animating force behind the universe, with the universe as nothing more than the manifest part"? I don't exactly like the slightly dismissive sound of "nothing more than"--the vast complexities and mind-blowing, heart-wrenching harmonies of intricate manifestation are nothing to sneeze at--but in a nutshell, there it is: immanent manifestation and transcendent source, the complete package. Still, for me this doesn't resolve the question of the gods. From the panentheistic point of view, it seems to me that everything is God, you might even say that everything is a god in one way or another. But what could this possibly mean for traditional ideas of polytheistic gods like Apollo, Brigid, Cernunnos, Odin? I might feel the deity-aspect of ocean, but it is this ocean here, not some abstracted Manannan mac Lir striding through myth; just as it is this sun and not Apollo; or this woods and not Cernunnos. I struggle to bridge this gap between particulars in the manifest world, and particulars in the realm of transcendent divinity where specific gods and goddesses rule over certain ideals, realms, activities and cultural traits. Isn't the nature of transcendent Spirit precisely that it does not break and fracture into bits and pieces, but resides in a kind of unity of Universality? And yet, I understood Jesus at one time as personal deity--connected to that transcendent Godhead. Was this different, because I imagined or experienced him as "in the world" in a way that these other deities seem not to be? (Am I dancing around the need for idols, perhaps, and places of consecrated space dedicated to the gods and allowing them residence in the manifest world?)
I am losing myself in language once more, it seems, as I try to articulate my own stumbling blocks. Jeff's views of polytheism seem simple and elegant, but at times almost too literal for me to connect with in a deeply meaningful way. I admire the trust that both he and Kullervo express when they speak of taking their experiences of the gods at face value, and yet as someone without such experiences of my own I wonder if I'm missing something, or if I'm just not as good at make-believe. Of course this sounds insulting, but it's not meant to be. There are certain things in which I believe almost as though they were a part of my nature--reincarnation, for instance, and to some extent faeries and elemental beings--and I have wrestled before with the question of why some beliefs, which are no more rational or mature, come naturally while others just don't "click." But even if this struggle cannot help me to appreciate the language of polytheism, in other ways it helps me to understand where my friend Raymond is coming from when he objects to the use of certain words as unhelpful, even bordering on meaningless.
Because if there's one thing I do believe in, it's the power of language--not to label things, but to name them. For me, words are never fatal, killing a thing dead when we speak about it. Indeed, words are powerful--they allow us to think, they provide us with a structure, a grammar and vocabulary of thought. But a word that cannot evoke a meaningful and complex reality is useless to us; it is language which depends on a thriving essential connection to the real world, and not the other way around. When a word--be it "god" or "truth" or whatever--is thrown around too easily or too often misapplied, then yes, something does die: the word itself. A word that cannot speak to experience is dead indeed, empty and disconnected. But we're mistaken if we think that because the word is dead, we have killed the reality with it, or even that we have cut ourselves off from that reality in its uniqueness and intimate presence. The struggle to articulate our experiences can lead us far from the original immediacy as we knew it at first, but working through this divergence eventually brings us back again to a place in which reality can speak on multiple levels at once, both through particulars and through universals, without one denying the other. When we respect the role that language can play, when we respect both its power and its limits, words can become an instrument of connection, freedom and creativity, rather than a barrier or killing blow.
This, I believe, is the difference between naming and labeling, or the difference between limit and restriction, choice and decision, as I've discussed before. I have never allowed labels--even those applied to me against my will by others--to act as a restriction on my freedom to be who I truly am. Quite the opposite, in fact: I have always felt that who I truly am shapes and gives context to whatever words might attach themselves to me. This is the essence of a name. This is why I am and always will be an "Ali," not because my parents knew me before I was even born (they barely know me now!) and somehow picked out the best label for me, but because the arbitrary gift of that name has given me something to work with creatively and deeply, and I have made it my own. Likewise, being "a waitress" has not restricted me or forced me into a role I do not like; instead, I help to define and expand on what it means to be a waitress by accepting the word as a name and working creatively with it. Being "a Druid," I do the same thing, my ideas and experiences adding meaning, context and life to the word, instead of sucking life out of me and rendering my spiritual experiences shallow or silly. When someone seeks to label me, I do not worry too much that I might somehow be lessened in their eyes, for if they reduce me to a label it is not really me they are talking of, and if they acknowledge my own true being then the label itself is transformed and expanded by "my good name," so to speak.
Understanding the limits of language, as well as its power, means that I also relax a bit and develop a sense of light-hearted playfulness. Words are immensely powerful in shaping our thoughts (and our thoughts do, arguably, shape reality in turn), but I am not just my thinking. I am also my poetry, my music and aesthetics, my intuition, my laughter, my crying, my running and walking, my dancing and my sitting quietly in the park. I am my meditation, whether that meditation is discursive explorations of reasoning and free associative logic, or imaginative journeying through inner landscapes, or the zazen practice of sitting still and quieting the monkey mind. For me, language is something that I play with, in the same way a musician might play his instrument, setting aside all the theory and "right" ways of making music, breaking all the rules in order to give his own soul-song a chance to breathe and speak. To be able to play, to act creatively and discover or make new meaning, I need the freedom of allowing myself not to take language so seriously all the time. I need the freedom to say whatever occurs to me, without worrying if it's always precisely and exactly what I mean, to explore what sounds good and what evokes suggestive or provocative images and ideas, even if it doesn't say something "true." This is what allows me to write poems and stories about gods and goddesses that still hold meaning and power for me, even if I do not know what I believe exactly about deity or the truth of others' beliefs. By playing with language and allowing myself to explore, I learn what it is these words mean for me.
Where It Gets Me
It gets me right here. The other night in meditation, I posed the question--to Caer in whatever form she felt like showing up, or to the universe in general, or to my own subconscious--why I don't seem to experience personal deity any more. The answer came back that it was simply because, at some point, I decided I didn't need personal deity anymore, that this focus on mystic transcendence or whathaveyou was more valuable or more real or simply more meaningful to me. But this was a choice I made, based on what I believed about the universe, and not necessarily some revelation of inherent universal truth. It was the name I chose for my own spiritual path, and to some extent I have been working with that name and making it my own ever since. That doesn't mean this approach is any worse than relating to divinity through personal deity or deities....and it's certainly not a matter of whether or not one "needs" gods or God to grow or love or evolve or connect. I don't think gods, or even a conscious connection with what I call Spirit, is necessary for these things. But that doesn't mean, either, that having a spiritual life that includes ideas about Spirit and deity is worse or more damaging, or prevents people from connecting, growing or appreciating reality, anymore than having relationships with family, friends and so on prevents me from realizing the unity and interconnection at the heart of all our uniqueness.
So in the end, I continue to question myself and others about these subjects. Sometimes I'm surprised that I've been worrying this same bone for more than three years now; other times it just amuses me how some things are ingrained no matter what kinds of other revelations we might have. It is not that I feel my spiritual life is somehow lacking or that I'm not making progress. It's that I am curious about these experiences of personal deity as experiences, as things that others have experienced. In a way, I want to see if I can choose differently, choose a new way of approaching Spirit, precisely because then I will know to some extent that I do indeed have the capacity to choose freely and truly as a creative, free individual. If I have such experiences of my own, I will understand the experiences of others better and the language they use to speak about them. Perhaps, if it is true that not everyone can wield the power and limit of language effectively without slaying the reality it means to express, then I might have some other gift to offer, speaking or writing about these ideas and experiences in ways that are meaningful for others and articulate things they themselves have not yet learned to say. I can only ever talk deeply and meaningful about my own experiences, in the end, but I can strive to shape and work with language in ways that illuminate and communicate meaning and truth, rather than obscuring and detracting from it. And if this effort can help to honor and praise Spirit, in whatever form, then that's what I will work at until my bones ache and my tongue and fingertips are sore.