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11. What blocks to devotion have you had to overcome?
First I think I need to address what “devotion” means to me. Devotional polytheism is, to me, relationship-oriented polytheism. I identify as a Devotional Polytheist in that my practice is centered on my personal relationships with multiple separate deities and spirits. As such, “devotion” is itself characterized as both how I feel about those powers, and how I practice the expression of that devotion.
As such, I see three kinds of obstacles to devotion: External obstacles to practice, internal obstacles to practice, and obstacles to emotional attachment. I have definitely encountered all three.
1: External obstacles to practice.
I haven’t had a lot of external obstacles to practice since I’ve really gotten started. I’ve been privileged to have the support and time to spend on getting the training I need, getting involved in a community that shares enough of my beliefs and values, from whom to learn practices, and loved ones who are very accepting, and occasionally outright enthusiastic about my calling.
However, when I first started really getting into seeking my path, my Partner, Chien, wasn’t really comfortable with the idea of me becoming more religious. He asked me early on to not use anything that belonged to him for my practice, and not put up altars where he would encounter them. Since at the time I lived with him in his relatively small house in San Jose, that basically required my practice to take up no physical space that I did not myself occupy.
At first, that was fine, really. I hadn’t started acquiring things for shrines. I hadn’t even started discovering my existing spirit relationships, much less establishing more of them. But once I came to understand my path as at least initially devotional to Freyja, it became something of an obstacle. I would put up an altar temporarily, to do some ritual service honoring Freyja, or Rabbit, or whoever else, and then take it down when I was done. I would make crafts, and then hide them away in boxes or give them to friends. I eventually got Chien’s agreement that I could have a shrine as long as it wasn’t something his parents could recognize as “a Pagan altar” if they came to visit us, and wasn’t in his way, or somewhere he’d be obliged to directly interact with it in order to go about his own business. So I made my first wall shrine.
Sometime later, when Chien was out of town, I set up an altar for Freyja for a small ritual I was hosting for my Teacher (at the time) Lorrie, and a friend of ours who needed help. The altar served our purpose beautifully, but after the ritual was over and they had left, I found it so comforting and lovely that I didn’t have the heart to take it down immediately. So I allowed myself to keep the altar as a temporary shrine until Chien came home. The day Chien was to come home, I kept not finding the time, until he walked in earlier than I expected!
He walked over to the table with a curious expression and said, “What’s this?” and I started apologizing profusely for my altar being in his way, and moving to take it down immediately, when he stopped me, confused.
“I was just going to ask why you didn’t do lovely centerpieces for our tables more often. I had no idea this was an altar. I think it’s beautiful.”
“I… you… Well… I mean, Freyja IS a goddess of beauty, and I’m an artist, why shouldn’t it be beautiful?”
“Fair enough. But how was I to know it was an altar? What’s the difference between an altar and some other kind of art project?”
“… You really can’t tell?”
“I have no idea. The altar at church growing up never looked anything like this.”
“Oh! You don’t want me to have a Methodist altar!” I laughed in relief.
After that we began to have conversations about what makes an altar (or shrine) what it is, and how he could know how to treat my belongings, and what does and doesn’t make him uncomfortable. We discovered that while clutter does bother him if it gets too overwhelming, most of my religious practice registers as very elaborate art projects to him, and thus doesn’t trigger the emotional dissonance that he was seeking to avoid when he asked me not to put up altars or shrines in his home.
Since then I’ve found Chien to actually be a major boon to my practice, because he gets me to think about things from a very different angle – how can I explain what I do to someone who really has no idea at all what they’re looking at? It’s very helpful for when I need to help newcomers understand what’s going on around them.
When we moved to our current home in 2005, one of the things we agreed to was that we wanted a house where I could have some kind of temple space. I admit, my ambient practice tends to sprawl more than even I like, and I know the clutter gets to him (and to my more recent Co-Partner, Kit), but for the most part we’ve settled into a comfortable habit of keeping my religion and his introvert sanctuary relatively separate.
2: Internal obstacles to practice.
I find it very difficult to construct habits. On the one hand, I don’t necessarily find it hard to avoid developing new active bad habits. On the other hand, I find it obstructively difficult to establish new beneficial good habits. And good or bad, any habits I do have, whether habits of inaction or habits of action, are very, very hard to change again. Even if I manage to maintain a new good habit, or quit an old bad habit for several years, the older, stronger habit may reassert itself. Chemical addiction is entirely optional.
This is why I am in no hurry to try the more chemically inventive aspects of ritual, and am glad I’ve never been that into alcohol for more than a sip or two. It’s also why I find it strangely difficult to hold onto a glass of mead for more than a few sips before reflexively offering it to anyone and everyone around me as though all glasses of mead are a faining horn.
I managed to build a habit of going all the way through my spiritual basics paces, energy work for good health, prayers, devotional naming, etc. before bed, at least 5 days a week for all of a month, and 3 days a week for most of a year, before falling back out of the habit. Sure, I still have all those tools available for use as-needed, and most of them get used frequently enough that I don’t get rusty. But there’s a difference between frequently and regularly, and I’m keenly aware of that difference.
It IS an obstacle to my practice but it only interferes with my relationships with the two or three Powers who expect that kind of disciplined regularity from everyone. Most of the Powers I serve regularly know me well enough to know that I’m more the kind of person you just go ahead and call up or otherwise send a message to when you want my attention, and I’ll happily just see you whenever we’re both free otherwise. Since a lot of my spirit work is dreamwork, and I couldn’t stay awake for more than a day if I tried anymore, it doesn’t take much discipline to maintain my relationships.
But better habits would certainly be good for my spiritual health, so I do keep trying on establishing them.
3: Obstacles to emotional attachment.
The biggest obstacle to any relationship with a non-corporeal power is inevitably self-doubt. Discernment is indeed an important tool but short of the ethics of giving people bad advice or acting like a jackass, I’ve had to learn that most of the time it just doesn’t matter whether I’m right about what exactly the gods are, or if I heard Them right. As long as it’s just between me and Them, as long as it’s just my own practice, as long as I don’t go about claiming authority or expertise I don’t have, and am honest about how I know what I know, it’s more important that I be psychologically functional than that I be empirically factual.
That obstacle I’ve mostly overcome for the general case, but it still comes up a great deal whenever a new relationship, especially with a god from a pantheon I don’t often work with, comes up.
“Wait, what? Dionysos? I’m not Hellenic, I’m sure I’m hearing this wrong… Nope, there it is again. Oh, hey now I’m totally crushing super hard on a Dionysian devotee. Aaaaand now it’s louder. But that’s probably just because I’m dating him, not because Dionysos is actually interested in me… Oooooorrr not. Right. Okay then! Io, Dionysos, what can I do for you?”
That’s the frequent kind. That’s the sneaky kind it’s hard to make shut up. But it’s not the hardest kind to deal with.
The worst is when I have to stay in relationship with a deity I don’t trust. Especially if the reason I don’t trust Them is that I’ve gotten hurt by Them, or Their actions, or Their followers, or all of the above in layered combinations, in the past.
Ever met Odin? Yeah.
But He’s basically my Dad, spiritually, so I’m not off the hook any time soon. And it’s about as challenging as you would expect for someone who has a very mixed relationship with a parent. I love Him. I don’t always like Him. I definitely don’t entirely trust Him. But I know He’s still Family, and that ain’t changing any time soon.
So I’m still wary, and sometimes I’m still hurt, but I try to be as fair as I can when I serve Him publicly, or when someone else needs my help where He is concerned, and I try to respect Him in the applicable areas of my life. I go through phases of all but forgetting which domains I’m supposed to treat as His, falling into a stubborn subconcious avoidance of Him to the point of seeking other pantheons entirely for help with, say, School. (Of course, it doesn’t help that His domains in my life are also significantly overlapped with the areas of my life I’ve got the deepest unrelated anxiety over.)
But He periodically reminds me, sometimes less gently than others, that this relationship is still here, still strong, and can still be loud. He still loves me. He’s still frustrated with me. He’s still only going to hurt me when there’s no other way. And being stubborn about it won’t help either of us any time soon.
Because really, am I going to out-stubborn Odin?
Lon’s answer: The Charlie Brown Football of the Soul