An interesting book

I recently finished a fascinating and challenging book – “The Year of Living Biblically“, by A. J. Jacobs.

Mr. Jacobs is a secular New York Jew who decided to tackle the confusing issue of biblical literalness head-on – by spending a year trying to obey (almost) every rule in the Bible as closely as possible. The book chronicles his journey – overall it’s very funny, but in places unexpectedly moving and insightful. I won’t tell you how it ends, other than to say that he reports being changed by the experience in unexpected ways… because I want you should go and read it, already!

Reading this book started me thinking about my own engagement with my chosen religious traditions, and about religious inheritance. At one point, he says that living the Old Testament way was familiar and almost comforting – “I felt like I was trying on the robes and sandals of my forefathers.” And I have to admit, I have a somewhat similar feeling now when I attend a service at the synagogue – seeing my friends, participating in the familiar rituals and singing the (mostly) glorious music is rather like putting on a favorite old sweater.

I also have to admit that I don’t usually have that feeling about the rituals of my own religion, to say nothing of the religion I was actually raised in; whatever is the opposite of that feeling, is what I got the couple of times that I contemplated returning to Christianity. I’ve only been following Hellenism and Druidry for a few years, and we don’t really have a local pagan religious community (our Druid group has basically fallen apart as far as getting together for worship, although we all still see each other as the friends we were before we started worshiping together). I suspect our daughter is going to grow up thinking of herself as UU with a pagan coloring, which is not inherently a bad thing, I suppose, although I tend to think of us the other way round. But aside from a number of shrines scattered about the house, and performing basic home piety – offerings to Hestia and the occasional libation (we can’t burn incense because of my wife’s respiratory issues) – my paganism is more in the head and heart than in the hands.

I have said in previous posts that I was drawn to Hellenism partly because I see it as the ancestral religion of Western culture, and this is still true; but it’s also true that while the roots run deep, the branches are frequently well-hidden, and it often requires a lot of research to find the fruit… which leads me right back into the religion-in-the-head dilemma. I spend a LOT of time thinking and writing about religion, both mine and other people’s – probably more than is actually good for me, considering that I don’t get paid for it. If I could afford to go back to school, I think I’d get an MA in religious studies, just for fun.

But in the meantime, I wrestle with the question of how to remain engaged in a religion that sometimes brings me great comfort and a sense of complete rightness, but is missing the increasingly critical (to me) element of a worship community… and I just don’t know the answer.

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15 thoughts on “An interesting book

  1. Anti-Thesisofreason

    Sometimes, lately especially, I feel that same way. I left a Wiccan coven about six months ago, it was my only physical connection to my spiritual path and now I consider myself solitary but do little practical work at home due to time constraints and family obligations.
    I really want to practice what I preach but lately there is little time, devotion and motivation on my part.

    I hope I can find a solution soon. Let me know if you do.

    Thanks, love your blog.

    -Jay

  2. Morninghawk

    I can relate to what you are saying. My family moved from the Minneapolis area to South Dakota about 15 months ago. It was quite a change from being an active member of a group to becoming a solitary, due to a lack of other Pagans in the area wishing to get together. The experience has taught me a lot, though.

    I went through a period of living my religion in my head, as you put it. After a while, though, I kept hearing the Gods calling me, asking me to actually do something for Them. I’ve started small devotional activities, including live culture cheesemaking (for Demeter), lighting a candle (for Hestia), performing a verbal daily devotional and incorporating short prayers into our children’s bedtime routine.

    It has helped a lot, though I still long for a group where we can do larger things together and where I can talk freely with people of like mind. Right now, the blogosphere is the closest thing to that.

    Good luck in your journey.

  3. executivepagan Post author

    Jay,
    love your blog
    I’m glad! :) If I come up with something I’m sure I’ll be posting about it. Thanks for reading!

    Morninghawk,
    Yeah… I need to become more intentional about *doing* devotions, and hope that will help, at least as a starting point.

    Good luck in your journey.
    Thanks, and the same to you.

  4. Cat Chapin-Bishop

    You write, “my paganism is more in the head and heart than in the hands,” and I find myself nodding vigorously. I know that, as a new Pagan, in an area of Vermont that back then, had even fewer Pagans than it does today, it sometimes seemed just easier to stay home, do my own personal trance journeys, and forget the community piece. I vividly remember the trance journey when the Goddess disabused me of that idea–one very strong message that that was NOT THE WAY. I kept seeking, and I did eventually find community.

    Though, as you point out, Pagan communities are volatile, and even when the friendships survive, the forms of communal worship sometimes evanesce. It’s frustrating!

    In my own life, two things have been helpful to finding and keeping a Paganism of the hands, not just of the heart and head. One is the satisfaction of time… There is one annual retreat which my husband and I have been a part of for the past 14 years; other groups I regularly connect with I have ties with that go back twenty years. Babies I held in my arms before they were a week old are in high school now, and couples I handfasted have large, happy families. Celebrating with these groups isn’t as intensely involving as my earliest Pagan rituals were in some ways, but in others, the slow burn of banked up community warmth is deeply satisfying.

    I am enjoying building connections with my Quaker community, too, but I will say, that sense of a warm central hearth is not there in the same way. I suspect its true for your UU connections, too: satisfying, but somehow less visceral than the feeling of building a tribe or a village that I get among Pagans, even when we’re not as good as sustaining our institutions. But the Pagan world is getting better at all these things–it’s been fun, for instance, watching Margot Adler, who had almost given up on getting her spiritual needs met by the Pagan community, coming back into active involvement with the Pagan world after many years away, with only the UU world as spiritual community. She’s so delighted and enthusiastic with the changes she’s found!

    That makes it easier to see how fast the movement is growing. Some of what we lack just hasn’t been built yet. But it’s in progress–the foundations poured and the lumber ready.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that patience and hanging in for the long haul have led to some of the missing pieces falling gradually into place. Which is bearable–especially for those of us, like you and like me, who are fortunate enough to have membership in more than one worship community. (There are perils and frustrations that go along with that, too, of course, but, well, whaddaya gonna do?)

    The second thing that has helped me to keep my Paganism a thing of the hands as well as the head and the heart is practicing quite literally a hands-on spirituality. In another trance journey, years after the first one I mentioned, the goddess I work with most often appeared to me in the underworld. She was sitting beside a well (or a pool–the imagery was inconsistent) and spinning at an enormous wheel. When I approached her, she set me on her lap, rather the way an adult might set a child on their lap to let them “drive” a car. She put the thread she was drafting into my hands, and had me spin.

    I took the hint. When the Mother of the Universe (or Norns or Fates or Disir or Lady Frigga) tells you to take up a craft, you’re well advised to do so. It took a while to find teachers, materials, and books, but I did eventually teach myself to spin and to knit (a skill that had eluded me since childhood). And, though I’d be hard pressed to explain why, I am in fact able to feel a strong, deep connection with the gods when I’m spinning and knitting. Oh, not all the time–having a wheel spin out of true, or having to take out rows and rows of stitches after a really BIG knitting mistake tends to make me pretty cranky, actually. But often enough, I feel this gentle, warm sense of connection.

    Literally warm. I received a Reiki attunement some years back, and, as you may know, one of the hallmarks of that system of energy healing is that the hands of the practitioner become noticeably warm, even hot, while they’re using the energy. Usually, it’s when laying on hands, but, wierdly enough, I often feel that heat in my hands as I knit or spin.

    I feel it in Quaker meeting, too, and have developed the habit of placing my hands over my heart when I’m in worship. It just feels right, and whether the energy of my hands deepens my worship, or my worship heats up my hands, I couldn’t tell you. But I find it happening, not always, but a lot.

    I also find that, when I have really important spiritual truths I’m trying to say, my hands and my body feel them first, before I have the words. Some spiritual experiences I have only gestures for, not really any words that seem to fit. My spiritual life, in other words, has become grounded into my body. My body–my lumpy, imperfect, middle-aged body, which nevertheless does not know how to lie or boast or or become complacent. I’ve come to use my body as my barometer of truth and spirit in a way that is very hard to explain, but good to feel.

    I honestly don’t remember whether it was my Quaker friend, Jan Hoffman, who said it, or whether I thought it because of something she said: that spiritual discernment feels like a plumb line, lining up, straight and perpendicular, inside me. That sense of things being lined up, just so–of heat in my hands, and of hands doing well what my ancestors’ hands surely did before me… There’s something about embodied spirituality that keeps us from drifting off into silly, self-inflating, faux spirituality.

    I can’t guarantee a god or a spirit will give you any suggestions for arts and crafts, Erik, but if they do, give it a try!

    Embodied spirit–doing what you can feel in your hands (and muscles and spinal column–you know what I mean!) is a great way to go the distance in a religion based on life in the here and now–in the body.

    *laughing!* I’ve written you a book! Many apologies for such a long comment–it would probably have been better as a blog post, and perhaps I should go ahead and put it up as that! In any case, thanks for getting me thinking.

    And, yes… feeling in the body, even as I type these words.

    Blessed be.

  5. executivepagan Post author

    UU connections, too: satisfying, but somehow less visceral

    Pretty much. The folks at my church are nice, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it rarely moves me, either emotionally or spiritually. There are a couple of other pagans, but unless we organize the Winter Solstice service there’s not really an outlet for our spirituality there. (Now I’m realizing that not only did we have to bow out of organizing the Solstice service, which meant it didn’t happen, we also dropped our annual winter party, both due to time constraints. No wonder I’m feeling disconnected!)

    Also, our newly-retired minister was very cerebral, and as we move into this interim period I hope for some positive changes… but this particular congregation is rather top-heavy with humanists and others who don’t have much use for religion, so I have to wonder what sort of minister we’ll wind up calling.

    Anyway…
    practicing quite literally a hands-on spirituality.
    I’m fairly crafty, in general – I sew, cross-stitch (I’m currently working on a *huge* project for Hera), and work in leather, wood and chainmail – but it’s true that I don’t have a dedicated craft-as-spiritual-practice. I have made a couple of sets of prayer beads and am interested in making more (one small set I made goes with me everywhere and gets told pretty regularly), and I keep coming back to the feeling I ought to try my hand at mosaics… but I resist taking up a hobby that requires me to grout! :) I do need to think about whether this prompting is internal or external, though.

    I also would dearly love to learn blacksmithing (I’m a fiend for pretty much any pre-industrial technology), but I know I don’t have the time/money/energy to get into it now.

    I often feel that heat in my hands as I knit or spin.
    When I am singing, particularly when I’m singing either at the synagogue or certain pagan music in the car, I definitely feel that plumb-line. When I channel that energy and emotion into my vocal production, it is truly an amazing experience. (And yes, I also get that feeling *occasionally* when a write a really good, close-to-the-bone poem or blog post.)

    I miss singing at shul, but it had gotten to the point that straddling the two (very different) religious worlds was wearing on me and on my wife. There’s a definite attraction there that is still not fully resolved, and that may be contributing to my mood this past week; last Friday I went back to see an old acquaintance who has gone off to Cantorial school and was home for the weekend and singing services.

    I’ve written you a book
    And I appreciate it! This kind of encouragement – the get-off-your-butt kind, that is – is exactly what I needed today, so thank you.

  6. Feral Boy

    Erik wrote:

    > “If I could afford to go back to school, I think I’d get an MA in religious studies, just for fun.”

    “So let me get this straight — you’re just some kind of religion geek?” ;)

    >
    > Yes, I am!
    >
    > Thanks,
    > Erik

    I’m in that club, too. I do a lot more in my mind than most other ways. That’s part of the reason my path is so eclectic. Ultimately, our habits of perception lead back to the same source, which is too all-inclusive to fit in the molds of our human minds. And the act of visualizing a single image almost always seems to destroy the
    balance of the whole. I’ve been reading about Jung and Pauli’s efforts to find a common basis for physics and the unconscious (one aspect of religion). Niels Bohr postulated
    the complementarity principle of light: a single quantum mechanical entity can either behave as a particle or as wave, but never simultaneously as both.

    That very much reflects our conceptions of metaphysical reality: if picture your god as the Father, you literally cannot perceive the Mother — and likewise with the reverse! Our minds, at least in the West, are too prone to see all in black OR white, never the whole. Eastern conceptions, such as the Tao, are much more reflective of this complementarity. And that may be the result of our deification of Logic. If you have read “Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid”, you’ll know of the absolute limitation of logic: it is impossible to establish the truth of EVERY statement expressible in any system of logic, no matter how simple the system.

    That is why I abhor ANY religion espousing Absolute Truth, and especially those who go to war over a supposed _universal_ truth. (It’s also why I never pursued mathematics past my B.A., and why I particularly abhor differential equations — how much sense does it make to search for an answer that may not even exist!?)

    That being said, my mindset pretty much gets in the way when I attempt the perception of other realities, instead of merely the understanding. That’s the beauty of the symbol of the Circle — the Gods within, worldly cares and absolute logic without. Our job, should we choose to accept it, is to define these spaces for ourselves, in whatever way our hearts show us. Mine encompasses music, the wild world without, and the recognition that rational limits do not exist in the worlds beyond. And also, attempts to balance the whole, the many lives I lead — work, keeping the hearth burning, bringing the beauty of music through my harp, and walking the wild paths that most often bring me peace.

    Feral Boy

  7. executivepagan Post author

    Pat,
    if picture your god as the Father, you literally cannot perceive the Mother — and likewise with the reverse!

    And also – if, as I do, you picture the Divine as fundamentally multiple (at the level that we can comprehend/interact with it, at least), then is it impossible to perceive a unity underlying it all, if such exists? Of course, as Rachel said to me the other day, these questions are unanswerable – it’s the wrestling with them that’s important.

  8. Kullervo

    Erik:

    Of course it’s not impossible. Its what the Hindus do.

    Feral Boy:

    Mormons believe God has a wife (at least one), for what it’s worth. So they picture God as a father but can also imagine a mother, though they don;t like to talk about it.

    Anyway, though, I certainly agree with you about logic–logic is a set of rules human beings made up anyway. It’s not like we found logic inscribed into the tablets of the universe or anything. Sure, they’re practical because they theoretically give reliable results (at least when you can reduce a problem to few enough factors for the rules of logic to handle), but there’s no particular reason to assume that they actually are the rules that reality operates on.

  9. executivepagan Post author

    Kullervo,
    I’m not sure that most Hindu sects consider Divine reality as *fundamentally* multiple – recognition of Brahman kinda argues against it, IMO.

  10. Kullervo

    Hrm, well. I can;t really argue the point beyond what I know, and I’m not actually Hindu, but Brahman is the unity underlying everything, which means the gods and giodesses can be at least as “fundamentally multiple” as individual human beings are while still being part of the same thing.

  11. executivepagan Post author

    Right… but at this point I’m not convinced that whatever underlies the reality that we experience can be called a “being” at all, even a divine one.

  12. executivepagan Post author

    Both/and, I think… this quote from the Himalayan Academy website seems fairly typical: “In the Vedas, God is called Brahman, the Supreme Being who simultaneously exists as the absolute transcendent Parabrahman, as omniscient consciousness or shakti power and as the personal prime Deity.

  13. Kullervo

    Yeah, but the Vedas aren’t necessarily the only or the most sophisticated expression of the Hindu religion. But nevertheless you might be right.

  14. executivepagan Post author

    *shrug*
    It’s just my current understanding based on some things I’ve read. I may be off base totally – only more study would tell for sure. AND… back into the head I go! Boy, that was fast… :)

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