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Devotional Q&A #1
Last week, I promised my readers that if you sent me questions about devotional work or polytheism I would answer them to the best of my ability. Well, you haven't disappointed and I have at least a dozen or so questions (maybe more---I haven't actually counted) sitting in my inbox. They're' all good questions and thought-provoking so over the next few weeks I am going to take them one by one in the order in which they were received and answer them here (or maybe on my other blog depending on my mood).
Today, my first question comes from V.M. who asks:
1. What does devotional work (either Ancestral or Deity wise) entail?
2. What is the difference between devotional work and ritual?
3. What is one of the best ways to honor Loki?
4. And finally, "is it normal to feel a bit nervous doing a devotional routine with a deity for the first time?"
Obviously that's more than one question, but I'm feeling altruistic at the moment and in the mood to write and they all arrived in the same email. V.M. it's your lucky day.
Let me take these in order. Firstly, regardless of whether or not you are expressing devotion to your ancestors or to a Deity, devotional work is a matter first, of setting side time and attention for them/Them. You have to be willing to make engaging with the sacred a priority. Devotional work at its core teaches us to priorities the Gods and ancestors over our own pettiness. It teaches us to make Them a central focus of our lives around which everything else revolves (and around which eventually, everything else falls into place). This really does enhance every aspect of one's life, but it also demands a good deal of personal work both internally on oneself (because believe me, issues that need to be addressed will arise as one engages with the Powers. We don't get to be passive aggressive with Them and we don't get to avoid our own healing and growth. These things compromise our usefulness), and externally in however one's devotion manifests.
For most, that will include altar work, regular prayer (not set formulaic prayers necessarily, though these can be lovely, but speaking from the heart to one's Gods and kin), meditation (it's ok to talk, talk, talk, but try to listen once in awhile too), study, and perhaps even what christians might call "good works.' I certainly know that some of my ancestors like me to engage with the community via volunteer work and such. It's important for them. Also, it's important for us: it keeps us moving from a place of gratitude and from getting too wrapped up in our own selves and minds.
Devotion can be a very personal thing too. In addition to all of that, each person may find their devotional relationship with the Powers expressing itself in personally unique ways; painting, dancing, gardening…i knew a woman once who kept a gorgeous garden specifically as an offering to her Goddess, keeping a good house, raising one's children in one's faith, studying a particular subject, behaving rightly and honorably in one's relationships. The every day is not separate after all from one's devotional life: it is an extension of it.
Perhaps your choice of a career is an outgrowth of your devotional life. I know mine is and i have a friend whose polytheistic husband works in law enforcement and this is very clearly part and parcel of his devotion to his warrior Deity. There's a wonderful quote by Rumi that I use quite a lot: "There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground." It's true, there are hundreds of ways, of pathways through which the devotional impulse may flow and it's a matter of working with one's ancestors and Gods to find the devotional currents that are right for you.
V.M also asks what the difference might be between devotional work and ritual. There are numerous types of rituals. Group rituals are a communal expression of one's devotion to the Gods or ancestors; initiatory rituals mark a change in the status of a person before the Gods and ancestors (and community), some rituals are done alone, some in a group. A ritual is a systematized expression of veneration. It may include repetitive words or gestures or actions, it may have elements prescribed by tradition, it may be utterly extempore. What is important to take away from this is that it is one means of expressing devotion.
In many cases there is a communal element to ritual. It is what one does with others. Of course there are private, personal rituals and these have more to them of the intensity of personal devotion, they taste and touch more on the work that one must do externally and internally when in devotional service to the Powers. The communal rituals celebrate those Powers…it's a different type of devotion. At its best, public or communal rituals are where the fruits of one's personal devotions may be celebrated. Needless to say, I find that group rituals do not in any way take the place of personal work and personal devotion. I suppose the occasional group ritual will suffice if one wants to be the polytheistic equivalent of an Easter and Christmas Catholic, but really, only engaging with the Powers in community rituals is doing yourself and Them a disservice.
As to what the best way to honor Loki or any of the gods might be, I'd say in whatever way They wish. That may be very different for each single person. I would suggest starting by laying an altar to Loki. Make regular offerings (these may be simple: alcohol, sweets, food…incense, whatever you feel moved to offer) and make it a point to spend time, at least a few minutes, praying (talking to Him) daily. Then allow it to evolve naturally and organically from there. There is no one "BEST" way; there's the best way for you.
My only caveat to that would be regardless of the actual techniques employed, the "best" way to honor any of the Powers is respectfully.
Finally, yes, it is completely normal and even to be expected that one will feel nervous or awkward doing devotional work for the first time. Nothing in our culture prepares us to engage with the Powers in this fashion. Plus, most of us are converts to our polytheistic traditions and there's often either the fear of doing it wrong, or a subconscious guilt instilled in us by our birth religions that must be dealt with during the conversion period. Give it time and consistent engagement. You're learning new skills, building a relationship. That's part of it too: this is a new relationship that you're fostering, one between yourself and your ancestors or yourself and your Gods. All new relationships have their moments of jittery nervousness about them. Just be respectful and keep at it and eventually the nervousness will fade as you grow more rooted in your new tradition.
That's all for today, folks. Keep those questions coming.
Next week, (or maybe before if i get really inspired today) I'll be posting the next in my Mani series.
(the picture accompanying this post is of one of the home altars of a member of House Sankofa, Chantel C. It is used with permission).
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