I typically define devotion (in the religious sense) as ’emotionally-engaged religiosity’ or ‘a form of religious engagement that prioritizes emotional experience’. To my mind, that’s really all it is in a broad sense. Naturally, each tradition is likely to discuss devotional matters in different ways; some are highly emotive and seek to refine the emotional experience to greater and greater heights while other traditions dedicate the lion’s share of their discussions regarding engagement to things like scripture study and prayer. Today, here and now in 2016, the people reading this blog are likely to place activities like scripture study and prayer into the category of ‘devotional activities’ because these things can be both an expression of the religious emotions we feel and the religious emotions we hope to feel.
I am delighted and thrilled that the category of devotional engagement is opening up because 10+ years ago the idea of clarifying pagan- or polytheist-specific devotional practices was met with an awful lot of blank stares. Sure, there were people doing some amazing work – there were people tending the flame for Brighid in the late 90s and probably long before that, there were some prayer books, and some teachers I knew had identified a dozen or more devotional practices relevant to solitary pagans – but the level of discussion was nowhere near what it is today.
I say this because we have to remember that the practices of pagans, polytheists, witches, and others functioned coherently and delivered profound spiritual satisfaction *even in the absence of articulated devotional practices or ideas*. We didn’t need to know that we were – or weren’t! – “doing” devotion in order to get deep pleasure and enormous benefits from our various spiritual practices. We heard the gods. We spoke with the spirits. We danced with the Powers and blended our lives together in revolutionary ways.
The “doing” of devotion has not changed. We’re still all doing very much the same things, if only because there are sets of tools that consistently work more or less regardless of context or applied meaning.
The “talking” of devotion has changed considerably. The words we use, the things we say, and the ways in which we say them are very, very different. Against the way internal dialogues of paganism and polytheism five, ten, fifteen, and even twenty years ago we here today in 2016 might as well be speaking a different language. I know because I was there and I remember.
The “thinking” of devotion has also changed. While I’m generally inclined to say that anything that pushes the thinking, talking, and doing of devotion into new territory is ultimately good, growing up is not easy.
In my own devotional maturation I’ve chosen to spend a lot of time around my practical elders – in particular people coming from highly articulated religious and devotional practices going back hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years. Some of these experts are people for whom emotional engagement is the only meaningful language of spirituality. All other forms of engaging with and relating to the Holy Powers are subsumed by the endless tide of sentiment. They take their devotion very seriously and so I have gone to them for instruction.
They have very helpfully pointed out – on more than one occasion – that devotion is not easily approached when one is hungry, fearful, injured, in pain, grieving, angry, or depressed. One cannot focus on cultivating sacred relationship or even on simply associating with sacred spaces when you are worried for your life, the lives of your family members, and the lives of people who look like you. “Devotion is hard,” they say, “when you’re hungry.” Devotion is hard, they say, and they know that devotion is the very simplest and easiest form of sacred relationship.
If one cares about devotion, about the “doing” of devotion in particular, then one must also care about removing the impediments to that doing.
Even as I fall to the ground in front of the sacred spaces I have spent years carefully preparing and beg for assistance meeting my physical needs, I know that not everyone has the freedom or safety to do the same.
Can one discover the gods under duress? Of course. But perhaps there are easier ways.
To be clear, I care about the pursuit of justice, equity, resolution, and reconciliation because I find these things to be intrinsically valuable for their own sake. Striving for equity and reconciliation is a way of honoring the intrinsic dignity of every soul, of securing the freedom of sentient beings to pursue their own ends without being restrained by needless suffering and conflict. In other words, the material world can really suck but an awful lot of that suckage is due to people being shitty to one another. Whether individual or systematic, oppression creates suffering that doesn’t actually need to be there. When suffering is compounded by years and by generations, how can we reasonably expect someone to dedicate valuable mental real estate to the “proper” ways to pray, build an altar, or worship? Moreover, what kind of spiritual violence would I be enacting if I degraded someone’s choice of spiritual refuge from this kind of suffering? What do I know about their struggles? What do I know about their pain? What do I know about the relief that they seek in the arms of their own particular spiritual Beloved(s)?
If I was angry at people for seeking relief from the pain of existence in a monotheist paradigm, I would be as harmful as the people who are angry at me for seeking relief and spiritual shelter in a polytheist paradigm. I’m not willing to perpetuate that kind of unnecessary ideological or spiritual violence.
There are an awful lot of people in this world who would tell me that my life would be better if I just turned to Jesus. There are an awful lot of people in this world who would tell me that my my life be better if I just turned to the Gods. Neither of these hypothetical groups of people actually understand the nature of my suffering or the ways in which I seek to relieve it through communion sweet. If you wish me to take your spiritual counsel seriously, seek first to remove the burden of unnecessary suffering from my life. Seek to help me access medical care that I can afford. Seek to raise wages to a living level. Seek to secure safe housing. You see, these are the obstacles to my devotion. If you care about devotion – about my devotion, in this scenario – then you must also care about the things that prevent my desired engagement.
In an ideal world we perhaps would not have to chose between, say, beautiful altars to our beloved Powers and a bedroom for a roommate who will split the monthly rent. Perhaps there are people for whom money is no object, employment a secure pattern, and good health a lasting guarantee. Perhaps these are the people most likely to scoff at the idea of balancing outwardly-visible signs of devotional engagement with the need to simply live.
I will not tell someone engaged in the fight against militarized police, against worker exploitation, against the institutionalized murder of poor people through the withholding of life-saving medical treatment that their priorities are wrong. I won’t tell them they’re wrong because first of all, I’m trying actively on a daily basis to be a decent human being. Second, I would never tell them they’re wrong because *it’s absurdly obvious to me* that the very forces they’re struggling against are the forces keeping them from devotional practice, spiritual engagement, and simply being alive.
Caring about social justice, about the pursuit for equity, for resolution, for peace,and for compassion is *not* an either/or proposition in relation to a devotional practice. Caring about social justice is the way that any of us may finally secure the kind of spiritual life we wish to lead.
The gods are made immediately present in this world through the hearts, actions, words, and bodies of their devotees. In a devotional paradigm, this single truth is the reason why the company of believers is so ardently sought and the reason why so many traditions emphasize the provision of service to one’s religious fellows. We might therefore regard the loss of a single believer as the loss of something beloved by our Beloveds, as the loss of a unique and irreproducible window into the divine world. What does stating that someone ought to focus more on the gods and less on the struggle for livelihood, health, and familial security actually mean? Does it mean that we disapprove of someone’s religious priorities? Does it mean that we don’t take their struggles seriously? Does it mean that we respect their contributions to the body religious more than their inherent needs as an embodied being – and if so, are we comfortable with the fact that not addressing people’s inherent needs as embodied beings *directly* reduces their capacity to participate in religious activities even as we criticize them for lack of participation?
Do you see the cruelty contained within these conclusions? You might come to the same conclusion I have: that holding such opinions means that the spiritual activities and contributions of some people are more valued than others. That is, if I am unwilling to take seriously the struggles of my fellow believers and if that lack of consideration leads me to criticize their lack of involvement in our shared faith, then I don’t actually care about my fellow believers as human beings. If, on the other hand, I truly see the gods reflected in their eyes then I know that any impediment that prevents them from living freely, loving deeply, and growing to their full potential as embodied spiritual beings then I must make their priorities my own – else I have failed to care for the very body of gods.
Once again, I want to emphasize that caring about the many facets of what we currently call social justice is a reasonable conclusion if one acknowledges the inherent dignity and the right to the means of existence common to every sentient being. I simply wish to put forward a defense of this stance framed in a devotional paradigm. I’m tired of seeing the devotional paradigm only used to criticize the pursuit of equality and justice. Frankly, I don’t think that that’s really what devotion is for (see my personal definitions up at the very top). By the same token, I don’t really think that a devotional framing is necessarily the right refutation either – but it needed said nonetheless.