Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Prayer’

As I indicated in a post last week, I have this whole list of things I am struggling with spiritually right now, and the second item on the list says SATISFACTION/SPIRITUALITY. I don’t know if I have as much to say about this one as I do about the last, even though in many ways it is bigger. And again, it’s more of a cluster of interrelated issues (that are themselves related to other things on the list) than one discrete one. And it’s a hard one to talk about because it’s vague, abstract, and super personal.

One of the facets of this problem is trying to figure out how to deal with the fact that I hunger for God. I desperately want to know God and be known by God, to experience God’s presence and have that hunger somehow be satisfied in God.

The problem is that God never satisfies, and I don’t know what to do about that.

I can sometimes get little tastes of God’s presence and momentary mild satisfaction in God, but never in the deep, complete sense that I desperately long for. And I only get any of that when I engage in some kind of dedicated spiritual practice. God never calls me; I always have to call God. And even when I call God, never fully satisfies.

Really, it would be easy to just not care about God. That’s what a lot of people do. They’re not worried about it, it doesn’t interest them, so God presence or distance is just irrelevant. God is not a thing they have in their life and they don’t miss God or sense a lack. That would work great for me, except I sense the lack. I have this hunger, and it wants to be satisfied. I want God. I can’t just, not. So here I am.

I have yet to find an approach to spirituality, prayer, spiritual practice, rule of life, or “relationship with Jesus Christ” that leads reliably to any kind of satisfaction in God. Granted, I have never been able to do any of that stuff very reliably or consistently, but that’s one of the relevant variables, isn’t it? A pathway that leads to God that I am unable to walk may as well be a pathway that doesn’t lead to God at all.

This drifts into a second facet, which is that I consistently find that, the darker things are for me (whether it’s a matter of depression, anxiety, or just terrible shit happening), the less I am able to pursue God through spiritual practice. Really, it’s more extreme than that: I am only able to bring myself to pursue God through sustained spiritual practice, but I am only able to engage in sustained spiritual practice when I am in a good place, things are going well, and I am generally emotionally and spiritually healthy. When things are dark, I can’t. And that means that when I need God the most, God is the least there for me.

I mean, on the one hand, I could just totally blame myself. I’m not doing a good enough job of connecting with God, so how should I expect God to be there for me? But I need God to have enough grace for me to be there when I’m unable to reach out for him. I need God to call me when I’m unable to call him. If my relationship with God is solely dependent on my ability to consistently maintain it, then I’m basically screwed. Also, if that’s the case, then God is an asshole, because that’s not how healthy relationships work.

Many very lovely people have recommended all kinds of approaches and spiritual practices to me as ways to connect to God, but most of them are non-starters. I have had some success (during good times) praying the daily office from the Book of Common Prayer, but, like I said, that only holds for as long as things are going well. When I really need God, God is never there. But the hunger stays.

Someone smart told me that the hunger itself is actually a connection to God. That’s probably true, but it doesn’t solve the problem of never feeling satisfied.

Finally, I wonder if I am onto something with last week’s revelation about Mormonism, i.e., that one of the biggest obstacles I have to knowing God deeply (and experiencing God’s presence) is knowing God with all of my pieces, and that means collecting them and honoring and acknowledging all of them. Even–especially–the Mormon ones. But I don’t know what that looks like. My gut says that the way to connect to God is through depth–engaging deeply in a set of spiritual practices over time, but that also involves choosing a framework to engage with, to the exclusion of others, and I don’t know if that works. So it’s a frustrating paradox. Setting aside the fact that God pretty much utterly abandons me every time I even have a dim twilight of the soul, my intuition says that I could theoretically commune with God in, for example, an Anglican way (the daily office, like I’ve been trying to do), but it turns out that doesn’t work because I’m not an Anglican person. Or at least not just an Anglican person. I’m also, deep in my heart center, a Mormon person. So, somehow I need to figure out how to reach out to God in a way that honors all of my messy pieces, I guess. But I don’t have any idea what that even looks like in practice.

And I know there are some of you out there reading this and thinking “oh man, you’re seriously over-complicating this; it’s really so easy to just (fill in the blank with something trite or vague.” Well, fuck you, you smug asshole. I’m doing the best that I can with the tools I have. I’ve already tried simple and it doesn’t work.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Over the past few weeks it has become more and more apparent to me that, in a very real sense that will never go away, I am still a Mormon.

It’s been more than a decade since my de facto exodus from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and nine years since I formally resigned my membership. I am not likely to become a member ever again, and I disavow many of the church’s truth claims. I never, ever wonder if I made the wrong choice, or if the Church is Really Actually True After All.

But as I continue to struggle to find my way spiritually through the world, and to navigate my relationship with God (and it’s a big struggle, and one I hope to talk more about in the coming few days), I have realized that one of the many issues I have to work through, spiritually speaking, is how to integrate all of my pieces.

The reality for me is that, as attracted as I am to unidirectional zeal, I am never just going to be One Thing. I’m never going to be a Methodist, and nothing but a Methodist, through and through. (I mean, I don’t think I’m ever going to be a Methodist at all, but that’s just an example). Every time I try to be just one thing, I wind up only able to hold it together for a little while and then I disintegrate again. Because it’s always a lie. The truth is that, spiritually speaking, I contain multitudes.

I have a lot of pieces and I have to figure out how to integrate them.

Some of my pieces are bigger than others, and one of the biggest pieces is that I am a Mormon, regardless of my membership status in an organization or my belief in a given set of truth claims. I am still, in a real and deep sense, a Mormon. I was raised in a devout Mormon family, I went to primary, I was baptized and confirmed at age eight, I was ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood at age twelve, became a deacon, teacher and then priest, I was active as a youth, I passed and blessed the sacrament every week for years, I graduated from Seminary, I received a Patriarchal Blessing, I was ordained an elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood, I made covenants in the temple, I served a full-time mission for two years, I returned with honor, I went to Institute, I met a girl and married her in the temple, I read the Book of Mormon fifteen times in two different languages, I prayed, fasted, and sought the guidance of the Holy Ghost, I spoke in Sacrament Meeting, I taught Sunday School, I served as Ward Mission Leader, I blessed my firstborn child in front of the congregation. I can walk away from that in the sense of formal disaffiliation from an organization, and my beliefs can evolve over the years, but come on. How am I going to say that all of that didn’t form and shape who I am as a person? Of course it did. To claim otherwise would be absurd.

My ancestors crossed the goddamn plains. How am I going to say that I am not Mormon?

When I talk about integrating my pieces, I am not talking about combining religions into some sort of weird syncretism, so much as I am just talking about figuring out a way to hold those pieces loosely together and not neglecting them completely. Because I am all of these pieces and if I just pretend I am not, then I think I will never be satisfied and never know God the way God knows me, becaue God knows me in all of my multitudes.

Of course, this also means, on some level, dealing with the fact that I will never be a full-insider in any religious community. And that makes me sad, because it’s something I want, but it’s also something that I wind up never really wanting, because the shoe never really fits right.

And I worry that it means that real spiritual depth might be elusive. I have an intuition that commitment to a spiritual direction is the key to truly diving deep. I hope that’s not the case, but I am afraid it is, because I want spiritual depth, but I just can’t pursue it at the cost of neglecting who I am spiritually. (Like, I literally can’t–I have tried and I always fail.)

So then, what does being a Mormon mean to me? Because, like I said above, it certainly doesn’t mean re-affiliating with the Salt Lake City church. Mostly, I don’t know what it means in terms of the big picture. I don’t really know what it means to hold all of my pieces together, even loosely, and still try to find and know and experience God in the middle of that. And I don’t know what it means in terms of navigating Sunday mornings, which are always complicated for me, no matter what I do. But I do know a few things that it means:

-It means I’m allowed to listen to “Come, Come Ye Saints” and still get choked up about it. And I can claim it as mine.

-It means I’m allowed to find this crazy nineteenth century prairie vision of Zion incredibly compelling. And I can claim it as mine.

-It means I’m allowed to still believe that families can be together forever (whether or not that has anything to do with what a bunch of octogenarian men say about The Temple), on a gut, visceral level. And I can claim that as mine.

-It means I’m allowed to find the Book of Mormon’s imagery and symbols compelling and meaningful. And I can claim them as mine.

-It means I can identify with and align myself with the people on the fringes of Mormonism (in and out). There are some pretty great people out there doing some pretty great un-correlated things. And I can claim them as mine.

I am a Mormon. I have always been a Mormon. I will always be a Mormon. It’s time that I made peace with that.

Postscript: I guess it’s interesting that I am thinking through this right at the time when the Salt Lake City Church, under Russell M. Nelson’s leadership, is distancing itself from the name “Mormon.” As silly as I think that is, I think it is infinitely preferable to the SLC Church trying to claim the term for itself alone and zealously police it’s use. Mormonism is a lot bigger than one organization.

Second postscript: My good friend Katie wrote a great post recently on similar themes, except hers is way more poetic, generous and Christlike and way less navel-gazing than mine.

Read Full Post »

This video from the Mormon Channel is currently making the rounds on social media. It depicts a mother going through a day of frustrations, failing to accomplish the items on her to-do list, failing to meet other people’s expectations, being ignored and/or taken for granted, and ultimately having to cancel her own plans (which she had clearly been looking forward to all day)because of the tornado of things that got in her way. At the end, crying and hopeless, she hears her son pray his goodnight prayers, and suddenly she realizes all the good she actually did that she didn’t realize she had done, because she had been focused on what she was unable to do.

“You Never Know” is clearly intended to encourage and give hope to mothers (and others!) who feel like they just are never able to measure up, to do everything they are supposed to do and still take care of themselves. The message is, “hey now, don’t get so discouraged, you did better than you thought you did!”

Most of the criticism I’ve seen focuses on the absurdity of the specifics (that project really won the science fair?), the parenting problems (making your kid a second meal after they reject the first), the gender issues (why are there apparently no able men anywhere?), the value judgments about life choices (the career-oriented and accordingly selfish sister) and the terrible modeling of interpersonal relationships (COME ON WOMAN, LEARN TO SAY NO TO SAVE YOUR SANITY).

In other words, the critics say, the problem is not the concept, but the execution. But the thing is, the problem is definitely the concept, and it’s a big problem.

Even looked at as charitably as possible, the message of this video is still firmly built on the premise that your value is based on your merits. Whether its the things you know you do or the things “you never know” that you do, at the end of the day, the question is still, what did you do? Folks, that’s what we call the Bad News. Spoiler alert: you will never do enough. You will always fail. You will never measure up, ever. Even if you add in all the good you do that “you never know,” you still fall miserably, wretchedly, abysmally short.

But the Good News is that Jesus Christ did enough, Jesus Christ never fails, and if you will put your trust completely in him and nothing else, He offers grace to you that is truly amazing: in him, you have also done enough. In Jesus Christ, you have already succeeded.

You don’t deserve God’s grace. You could never deserve God’s grace. And that’s precisely what makes it grace: you have failed, and God is under absolutely no obligation to do anything other than to subject you to his unbearable wrath, but even so, God gives eternal life to those who believe. Not because they earn it or deserve it, but because Jesus Christ earned it. Jesus paid it all.

That’s the good news: at the end of the day, the answer is that Jesus did everything.

And that’s also why criticism based on the need to set healthy boundaries is misplaced and will fall on deaf ears. As long as someone believes that they have to earn their salvation, your plea to them to do less for their own sake is completely and utterly vain. They know perfectly well that God demands nothing less than absolute perfection and unbounded righteousness, and they know perfectly well that God demands sacrifice.

People don’t need to be told to give themselves a little break, fall a little short, and God is okay with that (even if you actually did “more than you know”). People need to be told that Jesus already did everything.

Read Full Post »

Sometime in mid-2012, I turned to Jesus.

There wasn’t a day when I had a big spiritual experience, or made a conscious decision. So maybe some people will say I’m not really converted or not really born again. Maybe they’re right; I get nervous about it sometimes. But I do know that on January 1 of 2012 I still identified as a pagan, but on December 31 of 2012, I was a committed little-o orthodox Christian.

I hadn’t been much of a pagan in awhile, to tell you the truth. I was not particularly pious by then. I had pretty much totally stopped making offerings or praying or singing hymns to the gods at all. My paganism had sputtered out into just thinking pagany thoughts every now and then and reading pagan blogs. I was more into the Civil War, Southern literature and country music than I was into the theoi. And I tried to hold it all together into some sort of broad paganism that could include all of that stuff, but it didn’t ever really seem to fit right (Stonewall Jackson was a Presbyterian who talked about Providence all the time, Flannery O’Connor was deeply Catholic and it intensely informed all of her work, and Jesus is all over country music), and it was increasingly evident that the paganism was slipping away.

I also started getting more interested in pagany things that leaned a bit back Christianward. Tarot. Arthurian stuff. In fact, that was one of the first tipping points, really. I read Keith Baines’s rendition of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur in the spring of 2012, grail quest and all, and it moved things in my heart. I was back to thinking about Druidry and Vedanta a bit (again, trying to hold it all together). I read Gareth Knight and underlined all the references to Jesus and the Trinity (there are a lot). I started looking into the Gnostic gospels. I picked up some books about esoteric Christianity. And within a really short amount of time, I was earnestly reading the Gospel of John and then the rest of the actual Bible.

At the same time, my kids were getting older and getting literate. My oldest (then six) was starting to get interested in the Bible and Bible stories. We always had tried to be multireligious (my paganism, my beautiful and sexy wife’s Christianity), but it was plain that the kids liked Jesus best.

Flashing back for a minute–the day I knew I was going to marry Katyjane was the day I came back from Chattacon with my buddy James and we went straight to a Young Single Adult broadcast at church. I looked around for a place to sit, and I sat down by my friend Daniel. But then, a few rows up, I saw Katyjane, sitting by herself. So I hopped back up and went up to sit next to her. And when I sat down, it felt so insanely right. I was in trouble. I knew I wanted to sit next to her in church for the rest of my life.

So going to church with Katyjane, and now with my kids, was important to me. Even if I was a pagan. But we hadn’t been going to church regularly since we moved to Chicago, and I kind of wanted to start again. Especially since my kids were showing interest (and pWning me with the Bible, which is a story I’ll tell in another post). So my mind was inclined in that direction.

As I said above, I was also listening to a lot of country music (I still am), and that also meant basically relentless exposure to Jesus. I could not help but think about Jesus Christ because the music I listened to mentioned him over and over again and it moved me. It was troubling, uncomfortable, and kind of exciting.

But again, there was no moment of clarity. No road to Damascus (unless the whole year was my road to Damascus). I mentally made peace with some sort of Green, liberal, vaguely Hinduish pagany kind of Christianity, but that was clearly just a threshold to walk through, since I spent basically zero time grappling with that. Instead I was just on a straight trajectory to orthodoxy. I picked C.S. Lewis back up and read Miracles, and was blown away by how much I had just glossed over things like the Incarnation when I was first grappling with Christianity as a post-Mormon.

That’s important: I left Mormonism mostly because I had an increasing sense that Mormonism and Biblical Christianity were not the same thing. But I really struggled with Christianity in the years after that because my notion of what Christianity is was really limited to the teachings of Jesus and the Atonement. I think I had an acceptable handle on those, but I understood them in such a radically different context that I just could not make the direct transition, and I didn’t realize the pieces I was missing. even when I read about them I just kind of glossed over them as secondary. No wonder I struggled.

But this time, coming to Christianity with fresh eyes after a couple of years of pagan detoxification, it was all just totally new, and totally amazing. I just found myself hungering for the Bible and for Jesus and the more I consumed, the hungrier I got. I still feel that way. Reading the Bible just makes me want to read the Bible more.

So Jesus just sort of gradually sucked me in.

By the end of the year, we had moved to Baltimore (that was unrelated, but not irrelavent), I was reading the Bible and praying every day for the first time in years, I was devouring N.T. Wright’s New Testament for Everyone, and I believed in Jesus Christ, my prophet, priest and king and my only savior. And then I spent 2013 continuing to grow. We were baptized. We joined a church. I kept reading the Bible. I prayed more. I put my trust in Jesus. I even read Augustine!

I have to eat a lot of crow to write this, and of of the reasons I have held off on spelling it all out is fear of being called out for wishy-washiness. “Oh, Kullervo’s found a different religion again. Must be a day that ends in -y.” I don’t have an answer for that either, other than to swear that this time it’s different. But of course I can say that all day. I can say that through all my pagan years, I always had a sneaking suspicion that I would eventually come back to Christianity, that like C.S. Lewis I had to learn to be a good pagan before I could learn to be a Christian, but I realize that’s easy to say and hard to believe. Maybe it doesn’t matter because it’s ultimately between me and Jesus anyway.

But I wanted to finally write it all out, mostly so that I can refer back to it in some other posts I want to write and not have to give a lot of background every time.

So there you have it. There’s a lot of different ways to look at that I guess. Country music and the Bible turned me to Jesus. A good Christian woman turned my heart to God. The Holy Grail and the blood of the Lamb called me straight from heaven itself. I finally dropped the pretense of exploring spirituality unbounded and settled down like I was always going to do anyway. However you want to look at it, that’s how it happened.

Read Full Post »

I go to Church to experience the real presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament of the eucharist.

For Mormons, the sacrament is a covenantal rite: you take the bread and water as symbols, in rememberance of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and in order to renew your baptismal covenant. It’s a sacred ordinance, but it is purely symbolic. Plenty of Mormon literature discusses the Roman Catholic doctrine of transsubstantiation and why it is a false and apostate doctrine, but that’s it, really. As a result, for most of my life I didn’t have the slightest inkling that there was such a massive excluded middle between those two polar ends of the eucharistic doctrinal spectrum.

But now, years after leaving Mormonism, I have discovered the middle, and it is absolutely amazing. I don’t buy that the bread and wine literally transform in my stomach into Jesus’s flesh and blood. But when I take the eucharist, I know that God’s presence is literally there in a unique, incarnational and mysterious way. And it blows my mind and makes me actively and impatiently look forward to it all week. I hunger and thirst for it.

I’m no theologian, so I couldn’t tell you the ins and outs of the doctrine, but what I can tell you is that when I understood that God was literally and uniquely present in that bread and wine, all the awkward and troublesome pieces of Christianity fell together for me. I knew it was what I was missing.

Like most liturgical Christian churches, the service at the church we attend is completely centered on communion. The eucharist is the climax of the liturgy. Everything else points to it or builds up to it. If you, like me, have spent your life in a sermon-focused (or talk-focused, whatever) worship tradition, you have no idea what a eucharist-centered liturgy is like. The sermon is nice, but I don’t go to church to for the sermon. I go to church to take communion. If the sermon winds up being a flop, that’s sad, but it’s really not that big of a deal. The sermon is only a small part of the worship. The real message is the bread and wine, and the unique presence of God in it. When we eat it and drink it, we eat and drink grace itself. It is a physical, tangible thing, and it is completely and utterly infused with Spirit. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t bother.

The other day I was chatting with Katie L, and I told her that I felt so strongly about the doctrine of real presence that I didn’t think I would even be willing to take communion at a church that taught that it was only a symbol. I surprised myself not only by saying that, but by really meaning it. It was like revelation.

My last serious attempt at Christianity as a post-Mormon, in 2008, was a frustrating and sadly dissatisfying experience. To put it simply, I was in it for new life, for transformation, for the experience of God, and it kept not happening. I got a lot out of the theology and the worship service, but on a personal spiritual level, I was waiting for something like a click in my head, something to happen that made me feel changed. I was waiting for Grace to so something, something I could feel. I felt like I should know when I was forgiven or when I was accepted as Jesus Christ’s, like I should feel something that would mark the transition from the old life to the new life.

But it kept not happening, and I didn’t know what was wrong. I wanted to become a Christian, but I didn’t know what to do to become a Christian. Or how to know when I had become one.

I know that there are a lot of Christians out there, especially Evangelical Protestants, who would say that all I had to do to be a Christian was to accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior. Well, I tried that, but it didn’t feel any different. I prayed sincerely and told Jesus that I accepted him, that I wanted to follow Him, that I was His, and it just didn’t click. Nothing happened. I didn’t feel any different after praying than I did before, and I didn’t understand why.

So eventually I just lost interest. The transformation I wanted to happen wasn’t happening. As appealing as I thought church and Christianity were, Led Zeppelin gave me a heavier buzz than Jesus christ ever did. So I drifted away from Christianity. Explored other options. Looked for spirituality in unconventional places.

Here’s the thing though: while I was going to Church, praying, and grappling with scripture and theology, what I was not doing was anything that was sacramental. I didn’t get baptized. I didn’t take communion. I was waiting for something inward to happen first.

In Mormonism, the religious tradition I was raised in, the conversion process is neatly prescribed: you read the Book of Mormon, you pray to ask God if it’s true, you feel a “burning in the bosom” that tells you it’s true, you become a member of the church by being baptized, you are confirmed a member and you are given the Gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, and then you take the sacrament (what they call communion) every week as a symbol of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice to renew your baptismal covenants.

The critical variable in the equation was that “burining in the bosom.” The expectation that you will be converted by a personal mystical experience–a click that makes you feel different–and then you respond to that mystical experience by ritually making and renewing covenants.

For better or worse, that is how I have approached religion ever since I left Mormonism, and that is how I approached Christianity in 2008: I read, I prayed, I worshipped, but nothing mystical ever happened. And I held back on making commitments or taking part in sacraments because I felt like that click should come first. That’s how I was raised: the click happens first, and you memorialize it with ritual second. The click is conversion. The click is how you know that things have changed, how you know you have been changed from a non-believer to a believer. And since the click never came, I I felt like it wasn’t taking. So I observed. I prayed along. I sang. I crossed my arms and let the priest bless me. But I never pursued baptism, and I never considered actually taking communion, because to me, sacraments were secondary. Sacraments were for people who already felt the click.

I was totally and completely wrong. The sacraments are the click. I was waiting for something to happen in a vague and inward way that was being offerent to me right up at the front of the church in a literal and physical way. I was praying for Jesus Christ’s presence to enter into me without realizing that Jesus Christ’s table was set liberally with his presence right before my eyes and I was invited to eat and drink my fill, but I kept saying no.

Jesus Christ, the bread and water of life, is offered to me every week, and I am welcome to it.

That’s why I go to church. Well, one of the reasons, I guess.

Read Full Post »

One time I went on a short hike in the Wisconsin woods with my beautiful and sexy wife and our kiddos. We were mobbed by mosquitos–-more than I have ever seen at once in my entire life, and I spent a chunk of my childhood in Alaska, where the mosquito is the state bird. We showered ourselves in industrial-strength, hazardous-chemical, deep-woods mosquito repellant until our skin was on fire, but it did nothing. My exasperated five-year old son finall asked in anguish why Jesus made mosquitos, to which my wife replied “I don’t know, why don’t you pray and ask him.”

A moment of silent hiking later, my son pipes up, “Mommy, Jesus says he didn’t do it.”

Read Full Post »

Over on Tim’s blog, a self-described Pentecostal showed up in an old comment thread, and (as is my habit) I asked him if he handles snakes. This was his response:

Uh . . . no. No Pentecostal did that until George W. Hensley started the practice in 1912, 12 years after Pentecostalism began. He was still a rather new convert and was praying in a mountain reading a passage in Mark when he received some weird revelation. Pentecostal denominations quickly labeled serpent handling as fanaticism and it has only ever been a feature of some churches in Appalachia. It is not a characteristic of Pentecostalism, neither now or in the past.

Why do you ask?

All I know about it is what I’ve read (having never encountered a serpent handler before). They believe, according to their interpretation of Mark 16:17-18 that serpent handling and drinking poison (some serpent handlers may also consume strychnine) are commanded in Scripture.

These activities will only take place when participants perceive the direct intervention of God. In other words, they wont do it unless “the anointing” is present. Deaths are explained by these people in the following ways: 1) the anointing was not present, 2) such deaths prove to outsiders that the snakes are poisonous and have not been defanged, 3) God wills their death.

I do hope you realize that the vast majority of Pentecostals are not serpent handlers. I would point out that people who assume that will be looked on as terribly ignorant and offensive by Pentecostals.

Now, I realize that the historical and organizational relationship between Appalachian snake-handlers and mainstream American Pentecostals is not even remotely similar to the relationship between fundamentalist polygamist Mormons and the mainstream Mormon Church, but Shane’s response may as well have been cut-and-pasted and searched-and-replaced from a mainstream Mormon’s reaction to being confronted about polygamy.

The only difference is that, as a bonus, Shane’s response also just drips with prejudice and snobbery towards Appalachian people.

Read Full Post »

Before you dismiss this post as just being about music and not spirituality (again), hang with me for a few minutes, because I’ll get there. “Pancho and Lefty” is a song written by Townes Van Zandt, one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived, and like Jim Morrison, one of the tradition of young musicians who bit into something too intense somehow, too young, something too big for them to handle, and it raged through them, used them up, and left them dead too soon. If you haven’t listened to Townes Van Zandt much, shame on you.

This song is the kind of song that worms its way into your head and just gets more interesting the more you think about it. The lyrics have a gloss of conventionality, but it’s a trick–Van Zandt wrote a song that comes across as simple but is anything but. Once you get past the impression of the words, you see that the songwriting is far more complex and poetic. This is not a generic ballad. This is something interesting:

Living on the road my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
Your breath’s as hard as kerosene
You weren’t your mama’s only boy
But her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams

Pancho was a bandit, boys
His horse was fast as polished steel
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Pancho met his match you know
On the deserts down in Mexico
Nobody heard his dying words
That’s the way it goes

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him hang around
Out of kindness I suppose

Lefty he can’t sing the blues
All night long like he used to
The dust that Pancho bit down south
Ended up in Lefty’s mouth
The day they laid poor Pancho low
Lefty split for Ohio
Where he got the bread to go
There ain’t nobody knows

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose

The poets tell how Pancho fell
Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel
The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold
So the story ends we’re told
Pancho needs your prayers it’s true,
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
Now he’s growing old

A few gray federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him go so wrong
Out of kindness I suppose

Most interpretations of this song that I have encountered seem to assume that it is about two different people: Pancho, the Mexican bandit who is betrayed and killed by one of his own men, Jesse James-style, out in the desert, and Lefty, the one who killed him, who fled Mexico and settled down to an ordinary life in Cleveland, Ohio.

But I think they’re wrong. That’s much too easy, and it’s also not clear from the lyrics. Nobody heard his dying words. His death was told of by the poets, not the witnesses. Pancho “died” out in the desert, after a hard outlaw’s life, and then, from nowhere, this Lefty flees to Ohio. What’s Lefty fleeing from? Where did Lefty come into the picture? Was anyone chasing Lefty? Was anyone after him to get revenge? Does Lefty live his life nervously like the Ford brothers, reviled for killing a popular outlaw? The song says nothing about that.

That’s because Lefty is Pancho. Pancho let the poets tell of his death because it was the only way out. And he moved to Cleveland and lived under an assumed name and spent the rest of his life living in a cheap hotel with his demons and his regrets, wondering who he is and what could have been. And if anyone could have tracked him down, nobody tried too hard. They let him go because it was enough.

So what’s spiritual about this? Why does this matter? The thing is, this story is mythology. It’s not non-fiction, but there’s a bite and a life to it that crackles with something more than just a made-up story. It might not have actually happened, but it’s certainly true.

Wrapped up in this mythic ballad is some powerful stuff about strength, manhood, what it means to be human and alive, and living life close to the quick. More importantly, it’s about the hard choices that lead a man to give all of that up, and what’s left when he does, for better or for worse. There’s an authenticity to Pancho and Lefty that radiates significance because at the end of the day it cuts into the heart of the big things, the raw, the stuff that makes us remember we’re alive. And I say this over and over again, but that’s what spirituality is really about: making sense of mortality.

And then there’s this, from an interview with Van Zandt: “I realize that I wrote it, but it’s hard to take credit for the writing, because it came from out of the blue. It came through me and it’s a real nice song, and I think I’ve finally found out what it’s about.” This song came to him from out of the blue. He put it to paper but he didn’t make it up. Don’t believe in the Mousai? This stuff comes from somewhere. Someone out there is trying to tell us something important and they are using people like Townes Van Zandt to do it.

Chew on that while you listen to a live version the song:

And then there’s the popular version by Willie Nelson and Merle haggard. Listen to it, too:

Read Full Post »

Homeric Hymn 8 to Ares (translated by Evelyn-White):

Ares, exceeding in strength, chariot-rider, golden-helmed, doughty in heart, shield-bearer, Saviour of cities, harnessed in bronze, strong of arm, unwearying, mighty with the spear, O defender of Olympos, father of warlike Nike, ally of Themis, stern governor of the rebellious, leader of the righteous men, sceptred King of manliness, who whirl your fiery sphere among the planets in their sevenfold courses through the aither wherein your blazing steeds ever bear you above the third firmament of heaven; hear me, helper of men, giver of dauntless youth! Shed down a kindly ray from above upon my life, and strength of war, that I may be able to drive away bitter cowardice from my head and crush down the deceitful impulses of my soul. Restrain also the keen fury of my heart which provokes me to tread the ways of blood-curdling strife. Rather, O blessed one, give you me boldness to abide within the harmless laws of peace, avoiding strife and hatred and the violent fiends of death.

I have been praying to Ares quite a bit lately. This is not a result of some personal mystical experience or powerful gnosis I have had. It’s just a growing understanding of the role that he plays in the human experience and in my life in particular. Ares gets painted in a pretty negative light in Homer, and Ares represents some powerful facets of humanity that are in extreme disfavor in modern liberal western society. But I think that by ignoring or downplaying Ares and the things that he represents, we have done ourselves a terrible disservice.

Ares is a god of war, and war is a part of being human. There has always been war, and there will always be war. Real paganism means dealing on a sacred level with the world as it really is: acknowledging and honoring all of the parts of human existence. War is violent and terrible, but it is part of who we are. By rejecting war entirely, we reject a part of humanity. I realize that this is a statement with strong implications, so I am willing to spell them out: I believe that real Paganism is completely incompatible with pacifism.

I utterly reject the notion that there are “different ways to be a warrior.” Social reformers and crusaders for justice are laudable and praiseworthy, and the struggles they face may well be like war, in a metaphorical sense, but it’s not war. They are warriors, metaphorically, not warriors, period. Ares is not the god of metaphorical wars; he is the god of physical violence, of blood and battle. Ares has no place for pacifists, and while he is also a god of strength and endurance and surely has respect for anyone who exhibits those characteristics, no matter the context, metaphorical warriors are not truly his.

Ares is also a god of manliness, of masculinity. As I said, he is a god of strength, power, and endurance, of mastery and skill. He is a god of those characteristics that men should exemplify at their finest. is a god of properly-channeled aggression, a god that knows anger but knows how to control his anger and save his wrath for the right time and the right place: thus there is nothing unusual about asking the god of war and anger for aid help to “abide within the harmless laws of peace.” Ares is not about being out of control. The experience of being out of control is the realm of his brother, Dionysus.

Ares is a god of courage. Fear and panic may be his children, but he expects us to act with strength and decisiveness even when we are faced with them. He does not expect us to be fearless, but he expects us to do what we have to do anyway.

Ares is a lover and protector of women. He makes women happy and women make him happy: Ares and Aphrodite are lovers for a reason, and their children include Harmony as well as Fear and Panic. While Dionysus teaches us that there is a place for exceptional individuals, unusual circumstances, and value in turning convention on its head, especially when it comes to gender expectations, that’s not what Ares is about. Ares shows us that there are expectations for manly behavior, that there are divine norms–not rigid, inflexible norms, but norms nonetheless–for how a pagan man is supposed to act.

I worship Ares: I pour libations to him, I make offerings to him, I sing his hymns. He inspires me to act with strength and courage, to be decisive, and to be bold. He is a god who is truly worthy of worship–so much more than the hateful, spiteful, unworthy portrayal that we see in the Iliad–and in worshipping him I find fulfillment.

Hail terrible, warlike Ares! Hail bronze-armed, spear-wielding stormer of cities who rallies fighting men and leads them to battle! Hail murderous, manslaying, bloody-handed Ares! Hail Ares the switft, the strong, and the violent! Hal abundant Ares, feasted by women! Hear my prayers and accept my offerings!

(Note: Over at Aspis of Ares, Pete Helms tackles some of this stuff unsurprisingly well)

Read Full Post »

I am a Hellenic polytheist actively working out my spiritually while keeping a balance between reconstructing the ancient ways and moving forward boldly in living faith.

I believe that the gods are alive, that they take interest in the affairs of mortals, that they are approachable, personal–they hear our prayers and are capable of responding with infinite might and ultimate softness. I believe that by entering into relationships with them we can let their divine passion into our lives and be changed forever. I believe that we live in a world full of gods, and that when we wake up and see it for what it is, then only can we begin to fully understand and experience its beauty and terror.

I believe that virtue is eternal. I believe in honesty, loyalty, courage, and temperance. I believe in the the significance of fatherhood, motherhood, sisterhood, and brotherhood. I believe in friendship that transcends affinity. I believe that what we do, what we accomplish, our reputation, our deeds–these things matter; these things can live forever.

I believe in meeting my fate boldly and unafraid, in walking the path that the Kosmos has laid out for me without reservation or trepidation. I am not afraid to love, to fear, to feel joy and sadness, and I am not afraid to hate. I am unafraid to live life to the fullest, and to meet death when it comes.

I am a father, a husband, a son, a friend, and a brother. I am a soldier. I am a mystic. I am a man.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: