Worship: anything is not everything

16 May

“ And while other things can be made into acts of devotion by grafting elements of worship onto them, without those elements it just does not qualify. Worship is done for somebody or something else – and that’s how you can instantly tell the difference. If you take Dionysos out of the equation and nothing changes – you’d still be doing the same thing in the same way and getting the same results – then it’s just not worship.” Sannion at Witches and Pagans.

I belief that anything can be a potential act of devotion. But that’s it, it is potentially so. My weekly run can be a devotional act, but it can also be just a run. And then to decide that this should suffice as my main religious practice, long after the deed is completed, is dishonest pretence. What matters is our mindset during the act itself. Anything can be a devotional act, but not everything is. It is important to know the difference, and the difference is us. We can remain passive consumers, hoping that a some revelation will magically descend upon us, or we can actively engage with the world around us and the gods and spirits within.

The thing that really gets me, though, is that it’s not difficult to make these into proper devotional acts.

It does not require much … what is required is to take a stand, to dare shout the names of the gods, not caring who hears them … or perhaps shouting loudly because we do care. Because we want those ancient names to be heard again, if only by the gods themselves. Words are powerful. We all know that some things only become very real if we say them aloud, and we do want the gods to be real, right? I have always been frank about my doubts concerning the objective reality of the gods. This is not about that, really. This is not even about theology. But if we wish to experience the gods as real, we must embrace their names. To say their names is the most basic devotional act there is, a practice of recognition and acknowledgement. To know the gods in any way, we must invite them. That is common courtesy, and frankly common sense. It also my first step to re-ignite my own practise.

Drinkin a glass of wine can be revelling in the glory of Dionysus. It can also be a way to escape boredom. Which is it this time? And what can it be the next?

Allison Leigh Lilly here below, has eloquently commented that we need not include the gods in order to have a meaningful religious experience. This is true. If we want to experience a sunrise in its own right, we need not say  ‘Aurora’  to be in awe. Yet … we must do something, something more than just take a picture and move on. To turn it into a religious moment, we somehow must express our awe. Connection makes sacred. Expression makes sacred. And if its gods you want to connect to, we must reach out to them.

Nature religion – whether it includes the concept of gods or not – means we cannot just be on the outside looking in. We should sing, dance, build cairns, kneel, pray, create. I need to do this. I need to do more. Religion is more than hoping for mystical experiences and counting them afterwards.

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3 Responses to “Worship: anything is not everything”

  1. Alison Lilly May 17, 2013 at 5:02 pm #

    It strikes me that devotion is much like art — any object or act can potentially be art, but not everything is art. Part of the difference is the intention of the artist/creator, whether the maker intends for the act or object to be a work of art or not.

    On the other hand, it can be controversial to call a thing a “work of art” if it is also an object of practical, everyday use — say, a piece of pottery, or a rug. There are people who want to say that the only things that count as “art” are certain kinds of objects that are made to be seen and appreciated in the context of a gallery; art is “for” collectors and museum curators, not for the household to use to cook rice in or for little Susie to walk all over in her muddy sneakers. But when we insist that art must be for only certain people and certain purposes, and can only be seen and appreciated in certain contexts, we impoverish our everyday lives, we devalue the mundane and we miss out on all the potential to bring art and beauty intentionally into our ordinary lives (instead of sticking it behind glass in a gallery somewhere). How much better to live with art?

    I think there’s a similar problem with Sannoin’s stipulation that devotion must include the acknowledgement of gods, or otherwise it’s not worship. Yes, intention matters, but it is the intention for this act to be an act of devotion which makes it devotion, not necessarily the audience to which the act is directed. I can certainly experience devotion and awe for the sunrise without needing to imagine a literal, transcendent deity “behind” or “in” the sun. I can get up every morning with the intention of greeting the day in a ritual act of brewing tea and breathing deeply — that can still be an act of devotion, even if I don’t do things like pray or light incense or say the names of specific gods. If I do this act with the intention of it being an act of devotion, then it is.

    Sannion says (right before the part you quote), “Worship is a specific set of actions that remain fairly constant across cultures and religions.” But this is not true. I guess it’s just my background in comparative religious studies — I did my thesis on ritual theory and its applications to understanding aesthetics and the act of creating art — but the reality is that worship, like art, is an incredibly murky category of activity, and almost everything can and has been considered worship at one time or another. Sannion is attempting to be prescriptivist, to come up with a single definition for worship and then make everything fit that definition. As an academic, I was trained to be descriptivist, to ask people what it is that they are doing (and what it is that they think they’re doing) when they do what they call “worship” — and then to take their self-descriptions at face value and build my theories based on the data, not based on my opinions of what I think people should do or think. So if there are people out there calling what they do worship, and it doesn’t look like what Sannion wants it to look like — he’s perfectly free to say that this isn’t his religion, but the fact is that his religion doesn’t set the standard for what counts as worship for others. (Academia is still trying to learn its lesson after centuries of assuming that Christianity set the standard, with the result that many native and indigenous peoples were dismissed as not having a “real” religion because it didn’t look like a Christian service. It’s a shame to see Pagans now falling into the same trap.)

    (Sorry that this response turned into such a long one!)

    • Soliwo May 17, 2013 at 7:40 pm #

      I agree. And I do not agree with everything that Sannion states here. I intended to write a more lengthy and thought-out response – like you just did – but I had little time and I was so struck with this one thing that I wanted to write something immediately.

      What struck me in this post had nothing to do with theology. I am rather a messy polytheist and converse more often with the sun than any sun god. It is not just the names of the gods that need to be said. We can leave out the gods altogether for now. What I mean to say is that the sacred needs to be expressed. And that we only get to experience the sacred fully, if we express and acknowledge these connections. Watching a sunset can be a profound experience indeed. But the experience can be an even more powerful one if we watch the sunset whilst swimming in the ocean and drink in that experience fully. This is not to say there is no profoundness in being still … I mean to say that often we can do so much more, experience so much more. And the lack of connection is not because the gods (or the natural world) won’t speak back to us. It is because we won’t speak to them. Because somewhere deep down, we still do not believe that there are others listening to us.

      I keep saying ‘we’ but clearly I am talking about myself here. Sannion’s writing has made me aware how passive and reserved have been in my own religious practice. I wish to develop a deeper connection to the gods (which in my imagination and experience, are rather more primordial and less anthropomorphic), but I have been afraid to acknowledge and express this connection before having some certainty of who and what they were. I guess … I wanted them to make the first move.

      So my point is not so much that we must all include gods and their names in our worship. What I am saying is that in order to experience the sacred more fully, we need to engage more fully with those forces we wish to experience, regardless of whether they are gods, archetypes, kindred spirits, animals or trees.

  2. Ellie May 22, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

    What an interesting post! I’ve added your blog to my feed so I can catch your future posts too.
    I’ve found devotional acts to be something that need conscious thinking about because it is so very easy for any action performed as a devotion to become something done out of habit. I also find that if I attempt to stick to some sort of routine of this-is-when-I-perform-my-devotions then I tend to lose the feeling behind them. So my devotions happen when they happen now. Logically it seems to lack devotion to not be able to stick to a devotional
    routine, but I figure logic has little to really do with love, which is what it’s all about for me!

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