Embodied spirituality, sacrifice and the everyday sacred

This was going to be multiple posts, until I realized that I can’t separate the concepts enough to discuss them in isolation… and this will probably not be the last word on the topic, as I can already tell I’m not going to get all my thoughts out in this little space.

The other week I mentioned Rachel Barenblat’s post “Worship Through Corporeality” on Velveteen Rabbi; she also has a related post on Radical Torah called “The Heart of Things“; go and read, and then come back when you’re sufficiently elevated. :)

She says,

Today I’m struck by some of the reading for my Hasidism class… on avodah be-gashmiut, “worship through corporeality”… the teaching that we can serve God in and through the physical world, which brings the entire range of human activity into the domain of religious significance. [emphasis mine]

To me, this is the essence of embodied spirituality – the understanding that just as the Godhead is not something “out there”, but is inside and outside and through us, so our spirituality is not something separate from us, but is embodied in every step, every action, every choice. We *are* (a part of) the Godhead, and It is a part of us. When someone truly gets this, I believe, they can’t help but show it in how they conduct their walk through the Divine.

How that realization plays out in one’s own life, of course, will mean different things to different people; for me, right now it manifests as:

  • a heightened concern with the sources and treatment of my food supply – joining a CSA, paying extra for non-factory-farmed meat and searching for a local supplier, and so on – I’m less concerned with being strictly organic than with minimizing the suffering of the animals I eat and reducing our family’s dependence on the hyper-extended supply chain that is the modern commercial food industry.
  • trying to get back in shape (Aikido rocks!).
  • reconnecting with the non-built world more regularly.
  • considering a tattoo as a perpetual aide-memoire, psychological marker and personal test (it doesn’t get much more embodied than that…).

Ritual and sacrifice

In a thread on Pagan Sojourn, a poster named Emily Lilly said,

One thing we’ve found is that the ritual and overt symbolism is extremely powerful and meaningful for our young children. To act out these things is to bring them forcefully, truthfully into the living world.

She has hold of something very deep there – and of course, it’s not just true for kids. Ritual repetition does indeed have the power to actualize the beliefs and worldview that the ritual encodes – not necessarily in some other-than-ordinary, magical sense, but quite prosaically, by imprinting that worldview into the participants’ own. Ritual operates at the symbolic level, largely bypassing the consciousness.

I think of it as analogous to training “muscle memory” as in martial arts or other sports, where specific actions are repeated to the point that they become reflexive and arise spontaneously when needed, much faster than would be possible if we had to stop and *think* about them. Over time, as we repeat an action or series of actions, associated reactions and emotional states become ingrained. For instance, the smell of sandalwood incense is enough to put me into a state of pre-trance receptivity… in fact, I’m beginning to relax just from the tertiary stimulus of writing this sentence. That’s how powerful this programming is.

(I also talked about ritual with Jeff in the thread for this post at Druid Journal.)

This embodiedness is also, to me, the impetus behind sacrifices and offerings as the primary mode of worship for our Ancestors, and thus by extension also for us today. Back to Rachel:

Now we’re getting into the heart of things.

And the blood of things, and the entrails of things, the kidneys and the fat of things… a valuable reminder that avodah, service of God, was once a very physical act. Today we think in terms of avodah she-ba lev, the “service of the heart” — which is to say, prayer; but once we operated in terms of the Temple service, as embodied and physical as anything I can imagine.

Torah doesn’t say, “this is how you shall draw near to Me now, for the time being; later on, when humanity is maybe a little bit more evolved, you’ll find other ways of approaching My presence, offering thanks, and seeking to atone for your misdeeds.” It might make our lives easier now if those words were in there — if God had given us an advance alert that someday our paradigm for relationship with God would change. That we would grow to be capable of finding connection through words, instead of bodily fluids and ashes.

But I imagine those words would have been disconcerting and painfully baffling to our ancestors…

Indeed. I think that she is perhaps over-simplifying things a little, but there is still a large kernel of truth there. She says further,

In the days of sacrifice, who could have imagined the satisfaction, joy, and genuine connection we would find in our strange modern worship…?

but then goes on to say,

…when I immerse in this week’s Torah portion, that’s what really moves me: the mystery of physical bodies. The clear sense that there’s a direct connection between our flesh and the Holy One of Blessing, even if we can’t articulate what that connection is. The sense that what we really want to offer up to God is the life that courses through our bodies — life which ultimately comes from God, and returns to God; which can be sensed but not touched; which can be burned but not ultimately consumed.

What Rachel has almost articulated here, and what she had to dig so deep within her tradition to see, is the same truth that underlies the basic assumptions of Hellenic religion – there is no prayer without sacrifice. Historically, Judaism (and to a much greater degree, Christianity) has more or less sublimated this connection, grounding the spiritual life mainly in the heart and the mind, in the world of texts and verbal prayer, of emotion and intellect, rather than in the world of the flesh. Traditional pagan religion, and the best of modern paganism, maintains to a much greater degree the connection between prayer and physicality.

I find this very compelling. The simple act of pouring a libation or casting an offering into the fire grounds my prayer in the physical universe, and reminds me that I am a part of Ultimate Reality, and that the Gods are equally real and equally present here with us.


11 thoughts on “Embodied spirituality, sacrifice and the everyday sacred

  1. Jeff Lilly


    As I get deeper and deeper into Paganism, Paganism goes right on getting deeper, too! What you’ve written is really eye-opening for me. Thank you!

    And I have to make a confession: “Emily Lilly” is me — I wrote that comment. But it was just after my wife, Emily, had set up her own blog, using my existing Google account; and so Blogger posted the comment as Emily’s. I didn’t realize it had done that until just now! Is there any way around that?


  2. executivepagan Post author

    I don’t know… you might have to log out of Blogger and log back in as yourself?

  3. Mam Adar

    Rachel had to go deep into her tradition to find the meaning of sacrifice only because of historical circumstances–the Diaspora of the Jewish people and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. Regular sacrifice was at the heart of Jewish religion for centuries, and text-based synagogue worship is an adaptation.

    As I stand outside Christianity, finally, and can look on Judaism as separate from it rather than contiguous, a “prequel”, I am struck more and more that Judaism is essentially tribal and earth-based. It is the way of life of a particular people in a particular place in the world, adapted to the displacement of those people in time and space.

  4. executivepagan Post author

    Mam Adar,

    During the Temple period that was certainly true. There *is* still a good bit of seasonal/nature awareness still in modern Rabbinic/Pharisaic Judaism (Tu B’Shevat, Sukkot, Lag b’Omer, and so on), but there is one *very* significant difference – it’s all centered around the natural cycles of Israel. This makes perfect sense for their tradition, but it’s a very different perspective than what I’m talking about.

    You might find this site interesting:

    Tel Shemesh is the brainchild of Rabbi Jill Hammer, and it seeks to (re-)integrate nature based spirituality and awareness into Jewish practice.

  5. Cat Chapin-Bishop

    Hi, Erik,
    I thought I’d come check out the new digs. :) Hopefully the blogroll link to your blog from my site is working now–I’ll check later.

    Nice to see that your tradition of syncretizing ideas from a whole range of spiritual teachings continues. I enjoy seeing how you compare and contrast different schools of thought. Hope you won’t mind my adding my two cents worth…

    I hear what you are saying about the importance of sacrifice in Pagan religion historically, and I have certainly given thought to the ways that the small, token sacrifices in many modern Pagan religions are shabby substitutes for the level of commitment ancient Paganism once called for. (When I pour a libation, even of my best home-brew, it’s just not on the level of sacrificing one goat from a very small herd, in order to share a feast with the Gods in Homeric fashion–for cultures that so rarely ate meat, the loss of an animal was a tremendous sacrifice for a family to take on… or so it has always seemed to me.)

    I have come to believe, though, that the Charge of the Goddess’s words, “I demand no sacrifice” can really be taken at face value. While, from a “hard polytheist” perspective, I suppose there are deities that respond exclusively to traditional, sacrificial prayer, I’m also convinced by my own experience that there are also beings out there who are no more interested in sacrifice from us than we are from our friends. I have the impression that for many of the sacred beings in the world, the thing most desired of us is relationship–friendship–and growth in integrity and wisdom (so we’ll be more interesting friends).

    My most vivid and important spiritual moments have all seemed to come to me as a kind of “free gift from the universe.” I know it’s popular among intellectual Pagans to discount that perspective as kind of airy-fairy and white-lighter… but it really has been my experience, unfashionable as it might be to say so.

    Good luck in the new blog site!

  6. Mam Adar

    Hm, maybe you could explain the difference? Because I certainly see a lot of American Neopagans celebrating ritual cycles that have everything to do with farming customs in pre-industrial Europe and next to nothing to do with their own climate, soil, agriculture, and personal cycles.

  7. executivepagan Post author

    Mam Adar,
    Both true and fair… but it’s not what *I’m* doing, which is mostly what I’m talking about. Within ADF and OBOD I celebrate the “wheel of the year” because that’s the liturgical calendar they use, but even there when I am creating or adapting a ritual I try to tie it to what’s actually happening here in the Southeastern US, which is quite different from the UK, climate-wise.

    Likewise, there are a number of Hellenists who are working to revive/adapt one of the ancient Greek festival calendars (http://www.numachi.com/~ccount/hmepa/ is one of the more comprehensive sites); I don’t see a point to doing this either, for myself. For a hardcore Reconstructionist, it makes sense because they’re approaching it from almost the same direction as the Jewish observances we mentioned earlier.

  8. executivepagan Post author

    > Nice to see that your tradition of syncretizing ideas from
    > a whole range of spiritual teachings continues.

    :) There’s wisdom everywhere.

    > I have certainly given thought to the ways that the
    > small, token sacrifices in many modern Pagan religions
    > are shabby substitutes for the level of commitment
    > ancient Paganism once called for.

    Wow, there’s a lot going on there! In fact, a proper answer is going to require its own post… I knew there was more to this topic, and you’ve helped me find the direction to take it. It may be the weekend before I can get to it, but I will.

  9. Angela

    “The simple act of pouring a libation or casting an offering into the fire grounds my prayer in the physical universe, and reminds me that I am a part of Ultimate Reality, and that the Gods are equally real and equally present here with us. ”

    I would like to use this quote in a handout for describing my group’s (www.becomingdc.org) practice of libation and honoring the gods. How would you like me to credit you, if you are okay with me using your quote.


  10. executivepagan Post author

    Hi Angela,
    Thanks for stopping by! I’m checking out the website currently; so far I have to say I’m pretty impressed with what I see. I’ll come back with an answer this evening or tomorrow, if that works for you.

    In the meantime, I would like to recommend a couple of books to add to the required reading list for the Journey of Scholarship:
    * A World Full of Gods: an inquiry into polytheism, by John Michael Greer (Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America). Essential reading for any pagan, but especially for those getting involved with academic religious studies.
    * The Deities Are Many: a polytheistic theology, by Jordan Paper. In some ways this is the book that I hoped York’s Pagan Theology would be.

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