I recently read an exchange online between a polytheist (what type, I do not know) and a Heathen that to my mind, highlighted what I consider to be the biggest issue in Heathenry. The exchange was a simple one. In the course of the discussion, the Polytheist commented that he was seeing a lot of people talking about human sentiment and human feelings but he didn’t see anyone considering what the gods might want, or what They might feel about the topic at hand, one that had the potential to significantly impact ongoing religious praxis. The Heathen fired back that this errs into the realm of UPG — unverified personal gnosis– and was better left undiscussed.
I could not disagree more strongly. Those are precisely the questions we ought to be asking, ever and always: What do our Gods want. This is where divination comes into play. This is where your mystics and spiritworkers are essential. This is where we are all served by cultivating a strong practice of prayer and discernment. Whenever I hear Heathens disparaging UPG — and this happens quite a bit–I just shake my head. All religion is unverified personal gnosis, if we look at it objectively. Of course community practices evolve out of a need to find some way of approaching and engaging with the sacred as a community. If enough people are having the same experiences then we might get a common range of accepted, mainstream praxis. Those community practices, however, will only ever be the reflection of the lowest common spiritual denominator, those areas of experience where the most number of people can participate with the least effort expended. Personally, I’m deeply ambivalent about this. I’d like to see that bar held higher, but that too comes with its inherent problems not the least of which is alienating a number of otherwise good folk. That being said, personal gnosis is sacred. It’s the fuel that keeps a religion vital and alive, relevant, and sustainable. It reminds us that the point of what we’re doing is right relationship with the Holy Powers. It places Them at the center of the equation, and encourages us to fuel the fires of our own devotion.
I often think that part of the ongoing hostility toward gnosis, i.e. toward direct experience of the sacred unmediated by community ritual, is the mere fact that one person is having experiences that another isn’t. It’s often a matter of ‘you’re doing something I can’t, so you must be wrong, bad, perverse, not Heathen, or [insert epithet here]. It comes down to two equally vexing things: spiritual envy and having one’s personal prejudices and world view challenged. I tend to think that if the latter isn’t happening fairly regularly, then maybe something is amiss with the depth (or lack thereof) of our spiritual praxis; the first however, is one of the most hurtful and destructive spiritual issues that I’ve encountered; and it’s hurtful not for the one being envied, but to the emotional and spiritual integrity of the one consumed by it. Given our Protestant-influenced worldview, it seems that we all too often we ascribe moral superiority to intense gnosis, we impose a hierarchy of value where in fact, none exists. There’s a lovely story told by St. Therese of Lisieux in her autobiography that touches on this. She recounts that as a small child, she asked her sister if God loved saints more than regular people. The sister — in a moment of inspired brilliance–got a wine glass and a thimble and filled them each to capacity and asked the little Therese, ‘which is more full?’. The child got the point that we each experience the sacred to our capacity and “more” is a very subjective matter.
I also believe that part of the aversion is a problem with authority. Someone having direct engagement with the Gods is a danger to human structures of authority. A mystic, a spirit worker, a shaman, even a priest who has a strong devotional life (as all priests should ,but sadly don’t) is a specialist. A specialist is, by experience and training, an authority in his or her field and that is problematic when that field is religion, a field where we’ve been taught to eschew standards in favor of subjectivity. If something is subjective then it doesn’t really lend itself to external evaluation and challenge. Beyond your specialists, someone, — your average jane and joe– having direct engagement with the sacred has the potential to challenge the comfort of our unexamined practices, to argue for piety over dubious ‘progress’, authenticity over personal comfort, and engagement over ego. Those direct experiences upend our value system, the value system of middle working class *Protestant* America, the value system mired in its own lack of vision.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I think part of it also comes down to the inherent distrust our modern, post-Reformation world has with the deeply spiritual, particularly when it touches the emotions. Devotion is not only déclassé, but suspicious. We’d rather pathologize it as a culture than accept that the Gods are powerfully real and can and do interact with Their devotees in ways that mirror every bit the mysticism experienced by some of the ancients. Instead, we all too often avoid the experiential, fearing to look foolish, primitive, fearing to make the mainstream uncomfortable and the result is that we cull the depth out of our practices until what is left is at best a shallow shell.
With this restoration, we are charged with resacralizing our world. Personal experience, what Heathens call UPG and what many other religions refer to as mysticism is central to this process. An anti-experiential attitude goes hand in hand with a desire to purge every bit of mystery out of our traditions, to render them as dull, mediocre, and ultimately as shallow as we possibly can, to render them innocuous, to render them profane.(1) It is our mystics who keep the rampant desacralization of our world from devouring the budding flower of our traditions wholesale. It is those who embrace their own potential — however great or small–for experiencing the sacred who hold a line with their very minds, hearts, and spirits against this excision of the sacred.
We need our mystics desperately. We also need those who are not mystics, but who have a deep piety and desire to maintain right relationship with the sacred. We need that tension to force our own evolution and healthy growth. We need our mystics to remind us to keep the Gods central to our praxis, to ask “what do the Gods want here?” and we need our devotees, who may not be having deeply intense religious experiences but who love the Gods and ancestors, to remind us that there’s a human equation too. This organic balance isn’t happening in Heathenry. Instead, the mystics (and I’m using this term broadly as a gloss for those whose praxis is primarily informed by direct experience with the sacred) are marginalized and the human-centric raised up in place of the sacred to the extent that I’ve even seen it posited that the Gods don’t interact with us anymore, that this was something that happened only to our ancestors, long ago and far away.
People who are intent on venerating the Powers and on active, experiential engagement have the potential to be living windows through which the sacred may seep back into our traditions, and ultimately into our world. Not only is it important to ask, as we go about restoring our traditions, what the Gods want, it’s crucial; and if that upends the world of many gnosis-phobic Heathens out there, then so be it.
1. I use the term profane in a similar way to Mircea Eliade: as the mundane balance to the sacred.