Spiritual cleanliness is without doubt an important topic. For many years I borrowed the medical model to better understand and explain my experiences. I used (and still use, sometimes) terms like ‘cleanliness’, ‘contagion’, and ‘repair’. Of course, these words – and all others – are merely analogies for the processes themselves, placeholders that indicate familiarity with the principles I seek to describe. If, for instance, I do energy work in an environment I’ve prepared as ‘clean’ in order to achieve a highly controlled result, I have not actually changed anything from dirty to clean; I have simply undertaken actions that I know will help me achieve my desired outcome. The medical model is an analogy that helps me describe control, clarity, and precision in my work.
A couple years ago my local Thelemite body discussed spiritual purity and consecration. To paraphrase that conversation, we collectively put forward the definition that to purify something spiritually was to remove prior associations not in keeping with the desired outcomes; to consecrate was to dedicate something to a particular purpose.
“Is that what we’re trying to do?” I asked. “Become aware of the associations holding us back so we can consciously set ourselves to a new purpose?”
Purification and consecration are achieved by close examination of the assumptions, expectations, hopes, and fears inhibiting truly honest self-perception. For the magician, purity is honesty and honesty, purity.
In some of the paradigms informing my practice the accumulation of what-might-be-called spiritual contamination is not actually something to be terribly worried about. Becoming aware of the influences that cloud our spiritual senses is the first step towards addressing that contamination – but the contamination is not bad except insofar as it might prevent us from achieving our individual spiritual goals. Contamination only becomes a problem when you decide that it is; until that moment, it is simply accumulation.
I recently attended a class given by local Hellenics, people for whom I have a good deal of respect. They’ve been doing their work seriously for a long time and have chosen to share the insight of many years’ worth of practice with the greater community. In that class they led us in identifying three primary causes of miasma – which, according to people actually within the tradition that this term comes from is simply defined as ‘the spiritual byproduct of being human’. We wrote on the dry erase board DEATH, MARRIAGE, and SEX. These are three highly human concerns and in their tradition these are three concerns rather saturated with the spiritual byproducts of being human. DEATH, we determined as a group, concerned Holy Powers like Hades. MARRIAGE concerned Holy Powers like Hera. SEX concerned Holy Powers like Aphrodite.
The instructor asked, “Are these beings impure?”
“No,” the class responded.
There is an image of the Divine Mother that depicts Her holding a clear glass bottle along with traditional items like Her bell, sword, trident, discus, and noose. Why a glass bottle? Because it is garbage. Because when one of the innumerable demonic creatures that threaten cosmic balance started acting up, the Shining Ones came to the Mother as She emerged from a river after bathing. The demon had descended into the sewers where all pollutants go to collect and stew. Bound by the laws of the universe, the Shining Ones could not enter a place fundamentally incompatible with their nature. Moved by their pleas, She rubbed some of dirt from Her skin and manifested Her power into that speck of grime. She used dust from Her celestial body so that the new being could enter safely into that hidden place. She used Her power so that this new being would be able to act with all sacred agency no matter where the battle took place.
Some people questioned this story – how is there any part of the Mother that is impure? Others responded saying, “This is Her lila.” I personally say this story shows us that there is no place where the gods are not.
There is a “new” goddess – Swaccha Narayani, the broom goddess. The broom, a symbol of the very lowliest sort of chores, was elevated to a place of worship in order to make cleanliness something that everyone felt personally responsible for. No longer could it be the task of only a handful of people to clean up after everyone; cleanliness is everyone’s responsibility and Divine Mother Herself is no stranger to the broom, to filth, or to need to make improvements in the surroundings. If a sword can cut down an enemy when held in the sweet hands of a goddess, a broom can surely be used with similar effectiveness. There is no impurity in filth, for even the Mother wields the symbol of cleaning up, of getting dirty.
In my Shakta lineage there is a saying: “There is no impurity before the Mother.” The Mother offers unilateral mercy to drunkards, thieves, murderers, cheats, fools, saints, and you. And me. While a certain standard of behavior might be in place for the rituals that lead one to being ready to approach the Mother, even if these things are not in place the Mother still grants mercy; after all, grace is Her prerogative. Even when the standard is rigorously followed to the highest degree, the Mother might still withhold Her grace. While it is a good idea to strive for those behaviors that make ritual purification most effective – proper diet, charity, compassion, temperance, chastity, and humility – grace is the Mother’s to give. She cannot be compelled by anything – save, perhaps, our devotion.
There exists in some almost-forgotten corner of the Asian continent an enormous manual of ritual practices. This manual outlines in precise and exacting detail how qualified individuals prepare for worship – and only individuals who prepare can even hope to become qualified. Every waking moment is prescribed from the way to wake up, to the first direction to face, to the first words to say upon standing up for the first time each day.
Every proper sort of worship is also outlined in meticulous detail. What metal should be used to make the implements of worship? How should those materials be collected? How should those materials be prepared? Who is qualified to collect, prepare, and transform the materials required to create the required implements for worship? Those details are there. The people who prepared these rules were quite possibly the highest experts on the matter of spiritual purity. Centuries later their descendants still possess that manual and still implement its instructions. They pride themselves on holding themselves to a standard of practice more rigorous than any other line of spiritual descent. When asked directly if they still follow every rule, the only response was a sheepish non-committal gesture.
It seems that the experts determined that when the pursuit of purity got in the way of the actual doing of the work, then the actual purpose of the endeavor was lost to the minutia. In other words, at some point it was determined that one could, in fact, have too much purity.
(Here, now, we might scoff and say that well *of course* there’s such a thing as “too much” of something if you stretch an example to the point of outrageous absurdity. Except that the people compiling the manual of ritual purity and ritual worship *did not* see it that way. Their task was preparing a book that would contain answers to all possible questions regarding a topic of utmost importance to them. They wanted no ambiguity on this matter. They were not, perhaps, themselves personally concerned with overseeing the implementation of every rule they wrote down. They simply did their best to anticipate every possible question and to provide appropriate answers. Having an answer to every possible question regarding ritual purity might be valuable in a tradition that holds purity to be a matter determined nearly exclusively by behavior, not by birth or any other characteristic; however, even in the midst of striving to implement absolutely every rule at every time for every person involved in the operation of central ritual settings the line of descendants eventually had to concede that *someone* had to sweep the floor. If preparing to do ritual becomes of greater concern than the ritual itself, eventually one’s emotional focus shifts from love of the gods to love of achieving perfection via following rules. Admittedly, this probably something that very few of us have to worry about and indeed, adopting a purity practice had a profoundly positive impact on my spiritual life – but if you talk with enough Ceremonial Magicians you’ll discover that this problem is alive and well today.)
My personal purity practice began formally about five years ago. Even though I’d been following ideal diet and dress habits for many years prior to that and attempting to grow into purer mental and emotional spaces (attitudes of humble service, charity, compassion, tolerance, and forbearance being essential parts of these efforts), none of these were taken up with an eye towards purity practices. Indeed, since I had always been taught that there was no impurity before the Mother I rather thought that I didn’t have to worry about these rules and standards. I was wrong. It is intensely wrong to dismiss out of hand something that you actually don’t understand anything about. I knew nothing about ritual purity; I was extremely arrogant to assume that it had nothing to teach me
Over weeks and months and years I very gradually started to acquire better ritual hygiene. And I don’t just mean energetic/spiritual hygiene in front of the altar or in ritual or in magical practice – though these are kind of the intended outcomes of such habits. My worldview shifted profoundly, yet subtly. I saw things differently and I understood things differently. The practice taught me, as all good practices should.
I’ll be the first to admit that I know nothing. Five years is not enough time to become even mildly fluent in the school of purification I was studying. A lifetime might not be enough. I imagine all practitioners eventually realize in a very personal way that there will never be enough. The elusive ingredient (heh) is divine mercy. This is why we confess our errors; this is why we ask forgiveness; this is why we seek shelter. Mercy must come from another place, from a source that can deploy a power that drowns our errors and imperfections. Even purity, I discovered, is impure. Even purity requires humbly asking our guides, gods, and Powers for grace – for presence freely given.
The title of this post comes from one of my very favorite videos of my very favorite video makers. Watch. Love.
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