Devotion, as it is applied to pagan and particularly to polytheist religious engagement, is characterized as intensely loving, passionate, and may have the features of romantic love. Devotional practice – the expression of these feelings in behaviors, actions, decisions, thoughts, and problem solving within a distinctly religious context – is characterized as similarly passionate; after all, devotional practice rises out of these intense sentiments, right?
Some of the discussion surrounding the boundaries that delineate devotional practice and devotional engagement from other types of polytheist religious practice erroneously assume that action follows sentiment, that one’s religious inclinations and behaviors arise from emotions that are already present within the worshiper.
This model of emotion preceding action is, perhaps, cultural; certainly this model is based in the way we culturally imagine the experience of love. That feeling, that spark, leaps up inside the body without us asking it to; something within us responds and quickens without us even having decided that we would feel anything – that’s love, right?
If you talk with people who have been in long-term relationships you will eventually hear them say that being in love is a choice as much as anything else. Sometimes love is a decision much more than it is a sentiment. It is something you do as opposed to something you (only) feel. At times, love is not something you feel at all but a series of actions and choices carried out because what you feel in the moment – or don’t – is actually of lesser importance. So it is with religious love.
Bhakti-sadhana – devotional practice – is something you do. It’s something you wake up every day making the decision to do. It is a series of choices made day after day and sometimes hour to hour because what you feel in the moment – or don’t – is less important than the doing itself.
We engage in devotional practice not because we are in love but because we wish to be.
We chose devotional engagement because it promises rich emotional rewards – rewards that are physically tangible through the vehicle of the body. The gods become lively in us because we feel them.
It is a practice. It is a discipline. It is a study – of the tradition, of the gods, of the self – in order to gain mastery over the circumstances that are most optimal for experiencing loving sentiment towards the gods. We don’t (necessarily) persist in our practice because we love the gods, but because we hope to someday be.
Devotional practice is not ritual magic, it’s not philosophic inquiry, it’s not selfless service or activism (although I believe it ought to contain all these things and much more). Some of these engagements, such as ritual magic, are expected to have very direct and particular results in accordance with what is done. Others, such as philosophic inquiry, are not engaged in with the expectation that it will ever be finished; finishing the inquiry would be, I imagine, to fail at the task of questioning all assumptions. Devotional practice relies quite fundamentally, though not explicitly, on an acceptance of the reality of (or at least the possibility of) divine grace – that the gods can choose the time, place, manner, and nature of engagement with us. Grace is, to poorly summarize my teachers, presence freely given. We can ask and beg and desire sacred presence as much as we may – but we cannot compel the time, place, manner, or nature of sacred presence. That’s for the gods to decide. We can, however, make ourselves slightly more likely to stumble across such an experience. We can make ourselves more sensitive to the experience when it is granted.
Crafting ourselves into the sort of being slightly more likely to experience sacred presence is not easy. We have to improve many aspects of ourselves and jettison any number of bad tendencies and habits. This means rigorous self-evaluation *and* not getting subsumed by pathological self-loathing in the process (I speak from experience). Refining our capacity to sense and savor sacred presence is also not easy. We have to develop a lifestyle conducive to such sensitivity and recognize what dulls the same. This means choosing practices that seem boring or illogical to others, to developing a set of rules and guidelines that help you make choices in a variety of circumstances (again, personal experience speaks).
Religious people generally want to experience sacred presence. It’s why we go to temples, seek out other believers, set up altars, and celebrate holy days. Some people do these things and are satisfied. Some people have goals and priorities that the desire for sacred presence does not conflict with. This doesn’t mean that they value or treasure or love the experience of sacred presence any less than someone for whom many goals and priorities are a conflict. Religious engagement looks different – not because it *is* different but because people simply want different things and have different expectations and assumptions regarding how that engagement fits into their life. Devotional engagement looks different depending on who’s doing it – not because it *is* different but because people simply want different things and have different expectations and assumptions regarding how this particular sort of engagement fits into their life. This doesn’t mean that it’s somehow not devotional. It is. It just looks a little different.
Of course, for one reason or another someone may choose not to identify as a devotionalist. I, for instance, do not identify as any sort of religious philosopher even though I’ve made an in-depth study of certain subjects for two decades; I am a student of religious philosophy because I’m a devotionalist. My practice would be even more ignorant than it already is if I didn’t bother studying. (Besides, if one is going to fall in love with the divine, doesn’t it make sense to know as much about the Beloved as possible?) I’ve met any number of people who identify as magicians – but who have a distinctly devotional streak that they encountered through their magical practice and that they express through their magical practice. Often, labels come down not so much to any particular definition or even to degree of sentiment and affection, but to which paradigm one feels most comfortable moving about in.
Saying that devotional polytheists are somehow more intense, more emotive, more sentimental than non-devotional polytheists is misunderstanding what devotion and devotional engagement actually is. The nature of one’s religious emotionality or the way it is expressed does not in itself place one inside or outside the devotional category. One’s choice of paradigm does.
Devotion is based on the belief that relational paradigms are real, possible, and accessible. Since the second assertion of polytheism might be that any given individual might seek, experience, desire, or reject relation with our many real gods, I personally feel that the term “relationial polytheism” is a bit redundant. That said, I must loudly admit my own bias as a devotionalist. It is very hard for me to step out of my relational paradigm; I see everything as a series of relationships. It is entirely possible that devotional polytheism can become a subset of relational polytheism – a subset that deals particularly with connections between humans and the Powers – alongside the sort of polytheism that compels people to serve each other, to serve the earth, to champion the cause of justice, and other ends that rise out of a fundamental awareness of our individual relationship to all things. Once again we reach a very special and very authentic truth: This sort of service- or activism-oriented polytheism is not restricted to those who already know all there is to know about how the individual relates to the world (and vice versa); this polytheism is open to anyone who wishes to see these relationships more clearly and to know them more intimately.
Devotion is for everyone. For the lovers, and those who wish to be; for the loving, and those who wish to be; for the loved, and those who wish to be. To whatever degree, in whatever way, for however long – for everyone.