Pagans, in general, are a pretty independent bunch. I think many Pagans are drawn to one tradition or another because it offers them a way to be spiritual without a hint of being servile. It honors their independence, encourages them to develop their own philosophies, and does not demand that they subscribe to one specific dogma. Many traditions are explicitly bound together by common practices, rather than common beliefs. In the local cell of the tradition I have recently become involved in, there are hard polytheists, soft polytheists, Wiccans, pantheists, panentheists, people who follow a very specific pantheon, and others who go in and out of atheism. It doesn’t matter to anyone, as long as circle etiquette is observed and peoples beliefs are respected.
I’ve noticed many Pagans have an uncomfortable relationship with the words worship, submit, humble, dependence. They were drawn to Pagan traditions out of an expression of independence and they are not going to begin getting on their knees and crawling on their bellies before their God/dess now. Many of them came to Pagan traditions from religions with an authoritarian God that issued rules and regulations. A recent blog post from Brendan Meyers titled The Worship of the Gods is Not What Matters started me thinking about this.
In my relationship with Herself, I do not bow. I do not obey. I do not ‘worship’. Perhaps this is one of the last remaining strands of my Catholic upbringing, but to me the word ‘worship’ means absolute unquestioning affirmation of the authority of the deity. I’ll not have that in my life. If you are wise, neither will you. The gods, if they exist, are just the people who happen to live on the other side. And they shall be friends to me, or strangers to me, the same as any of you.
Teo Bishop posted a response in which he wrote
When I light a flame for my goddess, and I invite her to transform me, to refine me, to envelop me and change me into something better, I do it without reservation. My rationality does not dissect this action. This is a relational act. A devotional act. One might say it is an act of faith, and I’m not sure they would be wrong.
But I also see the refinement of myself as something for which I am solely responsible. Should I wish to walk this path and prepare myself for a life committed to service I will need to shore up my strength and charge forward alone. If I make the choice to pursue this line of study, to commit myself for the next four years to being a student of knowledge, it will not be faith that carries me through: it will be conviction, perseverance, and courage. This will be a human endeavor, a human challenge, and ultimately, a human goal.
The gods may be with me, in my heart and in my mind, but it will still be — as always — a solitary journey.
In the comments to the original piece, this was posted:
I was trained (via Feri Tradition) that we don’t have to kneel to the Gods, that we do stand with them as equals (in moral terms, even if not in scope and power), and that worship is about celebrating that reciprocal and mutually-affirming relationship. But I will add that I’ve since learned that submission to the Gods can also be entirely positive – in just the same way that we might sometimes submit and surrender to a lover, as an act of devotion and ardent play. It is in that spirit that I worship my Gods. The important thing to note here is that there is never an abnegation of the will of the worshiper involved. That is, I think, the defining difference between worship in a Pagan context and that of monotheisms.
Obviously these do not represent the beliefs or all, or even most of Pagans. These are just three opinions. But these viewpoints are extremely troubling to me. Not that there are people out there, believing this—No, I am happy for a wide breadth of ideas, opinions. But when I read other people’s ideas, I allow them to challenge my own. And these ideas make my own beliefs uncomfortable. I am uncomfortable with the idea that I should not bow or worship the God/dess. I am uncomfortable with the idea that any pursuit of mine is solitary; she is always with me!. I am uncomfortable with the idea that I am the equal to God/dess (not that I think I am dirt on God’s shoe, but God is all and knows all. I am operating a much smaller ship).
Let’s examine why.
The first requirement is that we be convinced that any life run on self-will can hardly be a success. On that basis we are almost always in collision with something or somebody, even though our motives are good. Most people try to live by self-propulsion. Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show; is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way. If his arrangements would only stay put, if only people would do as he wished, the show would be great. Everybody, including himself, would be pleased. Life would be wonderful. In trying to make these arrangements, our actor may sometimes be quite virtuous. He may even be kind, considerate, patient, generous, even modest and self-sacrificing. On the other hand, he may be mean, egotistical, selfish and dishonest. But, as with most humans, he is more likely to have varied traits.
What usually happens? The show doesn’t come off very well. He begins to think life doesn’t treat him right. He decides to exert himself even more. He becomes, on the next occasion, still more demanding or gracious, as the case may be. Still the play does not suit him. Admitting he may be somewhat at fault, he is sure that other people are more to blame. He becomes angry, indignant, self-pitying. What is his basic trouble? Is he not really a self-seeker even when trying to be kind? Is he not a victim of the delusion that he can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this world if only he manages well? Is it not evident to all the rest of the players that these are the things he wants? And do not his actions make each of them wish to retaliate, snatching all they can get out of the show? Is he not, even in his best moments, a producer of confusion rather than harmony?
Alcoholics Anonymous, page 60
This was the nature of my life before I entered recovery. I was focused entirely on getting what I wanted out of life, and I was willing to do whatever was required (lie, cheat, steal, manipulate) in order to get it. When other people stood in my way, I felt self-righteously resentful. Didn’t they understand that I was just trying to please everybody by putting on a great show? Didn’t they understand that I suffered from a great deal of pain and that as such I was excused from the normal conventions that everyone else hewed to? My life was one great struggle between what I wanted and what society (my mom, school, friends, my job) expected from me. As the Big Book says:
Selfishness—self-centeredess. That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly without provocation, but we invariably find that at some point in the past we have made decisions based on self which later placed us in a position to be hurt. So our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn’t think so. Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must, or it kills us!
Alcoholics Anonymous, page 62
So what’s the solution? Let’s see what Recovery proposes. First of all, try not to mind the Christianesque language. This book was written in the 1930’s by Christian men. Their intention was that each person should choose a higher power that made sense to them. They stated explicitly that:
“Much to our relief, we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God. Our own conception, however inadequate, was sufficient to make the approach and to effect a contact with him. As soon as we admitted the possible existence of a Creative Intelligence, a Spirit of the Universe underlying the totality of things, we began to be possessed of a new sense of power and direction, provided we took other simple steps. We found that God does not make too hard terms with those who seek Him. To us, the Realm of Spirit is broad, roomy, all inclusive; never exclusive or forbidding to those who earnestly seek. It is open, we believe, to all men.
Alcoholics Anonymous, page 46
Creative Intelligence? Spirit of the Universe, capitalized? Realm of the Spirit? Those are pretty progressive concepts in the 1930’s for a bunch of Christian dudes. They were pushing the envelope REALLY far for their time and place, and even though in this day and age their language can seem extremely Christian, I am honoring their intention, which was to be wide open and welcoming of all spiritual beliefs. I’ve been Pagan the whole time I’ve been in a 12 step program and never had a problem with it.
With that out of the way, let’s find out what recovery programs say we should do about the problem of how selfish we addicts and alcoholics are!
We had to have God’s help. This is the how and why of it. First of all, we had to quit playing God. It didn’t work. Next, we decided that hereafter in this drama of life, God was going to be our director. He is the Principal, we are His agents. He is the Father, and we are His children. Most good ideas are simple, and this concept was the keystone of the new and triumphant arch through which we passed to freedom. When we sincerely took such a position, all sorts of remarkable things followed. We had a new Employer. Being all powerful, He provided what we needed, if we kept close to Him and performed His work well. Established on such a footing we became less and less interested in ourselves and our little plans and designs. More and more we became interested in seeing what we could contribute to life. As we felt new power flow in, as we enjoyed peace of mind, as we discovered we could face life successfully, as we became conscious of His presence, as we enjoyed peace of mind, we began to lose our fear of today, tomorrow, or the hereafter. We were reborn. We were now at Step Three. Many of us said to our Maker, as we understood him: “God, I offer myself to Thee—to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy Will always!” We thought well before taking this step, making sure we were ready; that we could at last abandon ourselves utterly to him.
Alcoholics Anonymous, page 62
Okay, so…Submit my will to God. Ask explicitly to be relieved of self-will (bondage of self) so that I can better do God/dess’s will. Do this because God/dess knows what is best for me and I do not. Do this because otherwise my own self-will run riot will twist me again towards selfishness. Abandon myself utterly. UTTERLY.
Result? Feel new power flow in. Enjoy peace of mine. Discover I can face like successfully rather than hide from it or feel the need to manipulate it. Lose my fear of today, tomorrow, and the hereafter. Be reborn.
And guess what. It worked.
Suddenly (and I do mean, SUDDENLY) I was relieved of not only the compulsion to shove numbing agents into my body, but also the need to lie, cheat, steal, manipulate. A whole lot of change came quickly at once to bring me to a level where I could function as a near-normal person in society, and since then has come hard-won slowly throughout the years, each bit treasured and earned.
I still submit. I still humble myself. I do not believe that I know what is best for myself. I do believe that my self will is broken. I have a broken compass in my brain and body. It will take me only to dark places. I have to remain deeply connected and deeply humbled so that I can borrow my higher powers compass when I need to know where to go.
And why do I worship?
Because a night came where I couldn’t imagine going on with my life and I couldn’t imagine changing my life. I felt hopeless, powerless, and alone. There was this thing I wanted to stop doing more than anything in the world, but I could not stop. I just couldn’t stop, no matter my plans or how much I promised or how much I swore or how much I tried. I kept doing it. I lay on the beach and cast a circle and within that circle, with the sounds of the waves filling my ears, I begged her to help me stop. By Earth, by Air, by Fire, by Water. Since that night I have not done that thing again, even though I spent the first two years in recovery utterly surrounded by it. She was with me. She lifted me from total darkness. She gave herself utterly to me, so I give myself utterly to her.
She saved my life! Of course I worship her. Worship means to revere and adore. I owe her every breath, every happiness. I love her. I submit to her because she sends me in the right direction time and time again. She’s proven herself. She is love itself.
And I am personifying the Divine, which cannot fully encompass the totality of what I believe. The totality of what I believe also means worshiping and submitting to the fact that I am made of divine matter, just like everything else. Submitting to Her means submitting to my inner Divinity, and listening to the message coming from the source from which I was born, a message that tells me how to attain my highest form of expression.
Among a sea of independent people, I stand dependent. I desperately need the Divine Power as I understand it to provide me with guidance, courage, strength. I try and align my will with the will of the Divine, because I do not trust my own. Is being dependent a bad thing?
Let’s examine for a moment this idea of dependence at the level of everyday living. In this area it is startling to discover how dependent we really are, and how unconscious of that dependence. Every modern house has electric wiring carrying power and light to its interior. We are delighted with this dependence; our main hope is that nothing will ever cut off this supply of current. By accepting our dependence upon this marvel of science, we find ourselves more independent personally.
Alcoholics Anonymous, page 36
And so is introduced the idea that through dependence, we become more independent. I cannot agree more. There are things I do not have to do today, or worry about today, due to my dependence on the Divine. Like trying to control the future, what other people think of me, what other people do. Not having to use drugs or drink.
Maybe someone needs to be fully dependent on some kind of harmful addiction in order to understand the freedom that can come with being dependent on a God. Maybe you need to have experienced how debased and degraded relying on your own willpower can get you before you are willing to see the grace and honor in putting your entire life in the hands of the God/dess. Because it is an honor. It is an honor to be alive, an honor to be connected, an an honor to kneel before her in love and gratitude. It is an honor to be of service.