If your religious journey begins with unrealistic beliefs and expectations, it will end in disillusionment. The end is always in the beginning, and the beginning at the end. It has been pointed out how delicate a time a beginning truly is- and today, in our world of recently liberated people striking out onto new spiritual paths, beginnings are a very important matter.
How it begins says everything about how it ends. I don't guess many people want to hear this, because many had difficulties at the start of their path. But new beginnings are always in the sieve of possibilities. Don't cling to a doomed path; the beginning will reveal to you something about the end.
These sentences are a strange way to start a letter about realistic spirituality, but crucial to my later point. Those of us who have embarked on the "lesser known" paths through the forest of spiritual experience- which is the forest of life- have to watch ourselves and our paths carefully. We have all seen how the people on the "well known" paths fare in this world- we have all seen disillusionment, and probably felt it ourselves. But did we ever really question why so many people end up being disappointed or put into intolerable quandaries after faithfully following their religions?
I've been doing a lot of thinking and reading and walking about in this late fall. It's gotten very cold, and we are expecting our first real snow tomorrow evening. It's below freezing every night, and has been for weeks. There have been flurries of snow, and ice on the roads. The glorious colorful blaze of the autumn leaves is gone now, and, aside from the evergreens, everything is straw or brown. The world is turning harsh- your hands go numb if you don't wear gloves outside; your body begins to shiver and feel weak at times. The sun vanishes by 4 PM every day, leaving behind an impenetrable darkness in the countryside where I live. There's less light, less activity, and just... quiet.
The entire environment lends itself to the sort of pondering I've been doing. I've studied a lot of religious, down to very exacting details. I've chosen for myself the religious path that I felt most drawn to, and I have excelled in its power, gained a lot from its poetic story for this world. But I have encountered, in this land, the most recent "round" of stories from an ancient people that I have found, and a people to whom I am ancestrally related- the Mi'kmaq. I have no intention of seeking out some membership in the Mi'kmaq community; the collection of their sacred stories and essays on their worldview which I have collected, is blessing enough for me.
Before I came to this home, I had never even thought twice about the Mi'kmaq. I certainly knew nothing of their ancient beliefs. But in the time I have studied it, I have discovered so much wisdom and power, it seems that my journey here was intended for deeper reasons. By studying the organic ways and perspectives of these great people, I have seen finally why my religious life turned out the way it did. I know why I was attracted to organic polytheistic and animistic religions.
I would say that the spirit in me was comfortable with nothing else. But I can bring it up a detail level- the spirit in me couldn't accept that the entire world and universe was really all about human beings, and that an omnibenevolent, omnipotent power was "holding us all in his hands."
I have come to see now, clearer than I ever have, the flaw in the thinking of the Christians and monotheists who truly think that the "all good, all powerful" man-god will protect them and make everything perfect one day in the future. Before now, this idea had just seemed like fanciful wishful thinking; but now I know how wishful it really is.
I recently acquired a superb book by Professor Mary Lefkowitz, called "Greek Gods, Human Lives: What We Can Learn from Myths." It is an excellent overview of what the ancient Greek and Romans believed about the Gods, and what their religion told them about human life, and the relationship of the Gods to humans. Like any classicist worth the name, Lefkowitz points out that the ancient Polytheists didn't live in a world that contained any religious guarantees.
That's right- the Gods lived their Godly lives, and mortals lived their lives, and sometimes- just sometimes- the two overlapped. The Gods on Olympus dwelled in pleasure and peace; to take a human form and come to this earth, in response to a prayer from a favored mortal, or to take some direct action in the unfolding of things, was not a very common event. Humans could give gifts to the Gods that the Gods would be grateful for- but even if a God favored a certain person or group, there was no guarantee that this God could spare them suffering; one God's will could be contravened by the will of a more powerful God, and then, despite the care the original God felt for others, nothing could be done. There were simply no guarantees. There was a good bit of certainty that the Gods would reciprocate to the worshipers what gifts were given, but the reciprocation wasn't an exact science, either.
Humans died and didn't go happily among the Gods, at least not in Greek and Roman belief; they went to a shadowy, quiet underworld. Some there might be blessed to be happy, and some cursed to be miserable because of extraordinarily wicked deeds in life, but in general, the mighty and the lowly went to the same dark rest. That's that. That's it. And for millennia, people were content to believe these things. Humans were promised nothing in particular by the Gods; humans were very much left to their own devices. What they discovered was that their greatest strength was each other- humans had to rely on one another greatly in those days. Your family was your best strength and your greatest comfort.
Christians today scratch their heads at this and wonder why anyone would want to see the world in such a way. Why give up the comfort of the all-powerful loving God that cares about each person, individually, and who will put all evil to rights one day?
The answer to them is simple- no one who believed as the Greeks believed was "giving up anything", because such a God doesn't exist. That's not how reality works. Such beliefs in cosmic omnibenevolence are as much wishful thinking now as they were when Christianity first spread out across the ancient world. And the attestation of many ancient peoples- beginning with the Polytheists of old Europe- reveals that the worldview of "no guarantees" was once the nearly universal worldview of the organic spiritual world. I can understand how the "everything's going to be okay" story could be an attractive sell to the sentimental or dull people of ancient times (or today) but enough is enough!
I had to stop, freezing in the cold in these long evenings, and look at it directly, perhaps for the very first time. None of my Pagan European Ancestors ever said "The Gods will make it all okay." In fact, my northern Ancestors had Gods who perished eventually, struggling at the end of the world-cycle with the forces of destruction- forces who won the last battle and ended all things.
For the Greeks and Romans, the Gods led separate lives that didn't include, as their first priority, the well-being of each individual human, or sometimes, large groups of humans. The Mi'kmaq native peoples had a worldview of "power" in which the world was seen as a great mass of constantly transforming power- precisely the same as the Wyrd of the Heathens- forces interacting and changing and transforming, eternally.
Within that kaleidoscope of power, some patterns of power gained consciousness and became "persons"- humans were just one. Animals were others; spirits were others; there were many non-human persons. But within this system, even though it was all sprung from a "greatest power" called Ukji Mn'Tu, there were no "guarantees" of how life was going to be for anyone. Spirits could befriend humans, and humans spirits; but spirits were neither "good" nor "evil", but both, just like humans. Mood and circumstances could lead any sort of person, human or otherwise, to act in a destructive or selfish way at certain times, and in a benevolent way at others. The "highest power" was a mysterious abstraction, who certainly didn't act as a doting, protective parent to human beings.
Like the Greeks and other people of Old Europe, the Mi'kmaq found their greatest solace and benefit in one another, in bonds of clan and family. But humans had to face a hard truth- the central truth that I have come to embrace as key to a mature spirituality- that we are not guaranteed anything by life or by the sacred powers that co-exist with us in this amazing world.
Christians love to tell me how satisfied and safe they are with Jesus and their God. And for all their reports of protection and divine security, these people regularly lose jobs, live paycheck to paycheck, succumb to serious health problems, get into car wrecks, lose relatives and friends to accidents, crimes, or diseases, and are crushed by death and loss in other ways. From top to bottom, being Christian apparently spares no one from the same sufferings that non-Christians have to endure. The only difference is that Christians mindlessly drone on, seemingly in denial, about how powerful and good their great benefactor is.
Some would say that was an endearing portrait of "faith". But I see it now, clearer than ever, for what I believe it is: people sticking their head in the sand and living in denial. They don't want to face the hard truth that the ancients knew: you aren't in the hands of a great universal power that's watching out for you, and despite your cherished hope and belief to the contrary, you never were. And the more you try to live in a religious path that teaches this dream, the faster you are heading for disillusionment.
Because when your world is in the hands of the all-good, all-powerful whatever, then that car accident that killed your toddler was somehow part of this being's "plan", and this being (like it or not) allowed it to happen. This being that you loved so much took all of your joy from you, and all you can do is sit quietly, crushed in grief, forbidden from questioning it. You will simply have to be like Job, and make a great showing of your faith, hoping to at least squeeze some eternal reward out of the bad situation. Those who do question it enough- and have the courage to see clearly- tend to jump ship and "lose their faith".
The "prayer of protest" which is allowed in Judaism has no place in Christianity or Islam. That's because the Jews have at least one salient fact about "God" right- even though they foolishly believe that God is the greatest and in charge of the whole universe, they also admit that he's an ass at times, and isn't nice all the time, and that's just his prerogative as the supreme being. And his followers can wail and whine at him if they want; so long as people follow his laws, they don't have to like him.
That's actually quite mature of Jews, in my opinion. The point is that they have a place in their spirituality for humans to complain to heaven, to rebuke even God for his unfairness or harshness. Jews certainly spared their "God" no shortage of harsh words as he watched, unmoved, while millions of his chosen people were gassed and burned to ash by the Third Reich.
Beneath their maturity lies a deeper, more primordial vision: the vision that never put a single "God" in charge of all things to begin with. If your helping spirits and household Gods don't have complete charge over the universe, then when tragedy strikes, you don't have to lose your religion. The spirits that care about you can mourn with you, or help you some other way. The world is just hard like that, unpredictable, and not even spirits can stop some things; and even spirits can die or be transformed away from their condition, and into something else. The world is always changing.
Our Buddhist cousins have evolved a worldview that is every bit as mature as what I have been discussing, and it goes back 2500 years. Even though the many worlds of the Buddhists are inhabited by countless Buddhas and Bodhisattvas- universally compassionate and loving beings with miraculous powers, not a single "enlightened" being can save a human from their own karma, the consequences of their own thoughts and actions. The world is full of enlightened beings, but the help they offer suffering mortals is through teaching them how to see themselves and the world properly to escape suffering. But mortals must do it for themselves, must apply the teachings. Buddhas can't spare mortals from house fires or tsunamis. Buddhas can't fix the stock market.
When mortals purify their minds sufficiently, they can sometimes "see" the awakened, compassionate beings (the Buddhas), and understand something of how these beings try to help. But in the end, the Buddhists have no "great God" in charge of the universe; refreshingly, they are a non-theistic world religion.
In Buddhist thinking, nothing is in charge of everything. There are simply many classes of sentient beings, and awakened beings, all interacting and changing and transforming within the inter-connected web of reality. There are no guarantees in this world of "Samsara"- the world inhabited by beings who are not enlightened; Buddha himself described this condition as unreliable and unsatisfactory. And- no surprise- Buddha believed that many Gods did exist, but like the Pagan Europeans, he believed that these Gods were not all-powerful, and had to exist as victims of the greater system, just like mortals. Gods could sometimes interfere in mortal lives, but Gods, in the end, had their own lives to lead.
The nicest people have to suffer the most awful fates. This is a simple fact of life, as true now as it was when the world was young. There are many ways to react to this fact that no one can deny- you can imagine that it's all "really okay" and that a big all-powerful good guy is really secretly behind it all, or you can see that nothing but countless powers shifting and combining is behind it all. You can see that in the web of causality, the web of power, there are no guessable guarantees, with one possible exception: the bonds of affection that can arise between human beings, and help us endure through this amazing, open, and boundless world of possibility. And sadly, even those bonds can suffer and fail at times. But they are, I think, all we can really put our deepest and best trust in.
I believe in Gods, of course. I believe in spirits or non-human persons that co-exist with us in this great world, seen and unseen. But like my ancestors, I know for a fact that I can't trust my entire well-being to Gods or spirits. I know that I can befriend them, or at least offer my friendship; I know that I can trust in the benevolence of Gods, and the friendship of certain spirits, but not much beyond that. Even the Gods must bow to the weaving of Fate. I can believe that things are working out as they have to, but I also know that, in the fateful sense, "working out as it has to" doesn't mean "in a way that I like it."
I don't have any doubt that some Pagans- like some Native Americans- believed that a sort of "divine justice" existed. We know that such a concept did exist; mortals could not violate the "order" of things- the Rta of the Vedas, without repercussions. But then, neither could Gods. I'm not talking punishment after death, or for eternity; usually the sort of punishment that comes from violating the Cosmic Order comes in terms of a ruined life. It could be "after death", but these sorts of stories become diffuse, strange, and even speculative. Again, there are no guarantees.
That seems so desolate when you compare it to the shining, optimistic story of churches, but ask yourself: which story seems to coincide with the evidence of your senses? I've not seen one shred of evidence- nor felt a shred of evidence- that a great storyteller with wonderful intentions was controlling my world. I have sensed the darksome power of Fate straining behind the threads of reality, and felt the touch of spirits interfering here and there, but never have I encountered anything that would lead me to believe that "the Good God" was in charge. The universe may be set on a fated course for a doom one day, but there is no "plan" for us all. There is only power and the shifting of power, and sentience seeking to know itself within the kaleidoscope, and to live the best it can.
And indeed, as the ancients told us, the Gods themselves are subject to Fate, and fatal, blind Necessity. What's a person to do? It's smart to offer friendship to the other powerful beings that co-exist with us. That's "Pagan common sense." But the real thrust of the ancient organic worldviews generally would seem to be this: don't have great expectations; don't make great plans. Live and love generously here and now, make bonds, don't assume anything about the future. Be flexible. Lean on your fellow humans for aid and comfort, and be a helper yourself. Don't think that you can control everything, or that spirits or Gods can.
Live with the dignity that is native to the human being, for as long as you can, or as long as it is useful to the greater good of your folk. Like the animists of this world, asking a God or a spirit for healing is fine and well; you might get it. But finding a human being who had acquired the power of healing was a far better bet. And yet, even powerful people couldn't heal everything. Live well with your own kind. Cultivate the joy that it was possible for humans to have.
I think that in doing so, we'll find the treasure that truly belongs to humans- and it isn't an eternal life with a God, but a deep satisfaction with our capability to love and be loved, and to work with others for good ends. Who knows what will become of us when the kaleidoscope of power shifts- as all kaleidoscopes do- a "shifting" we call "death". Like the array of colors and shapes in the kaleidoscope, we will change, and remain a part of the web of power, as perhaps we have always been a part of it.
But in what condition, what world, who can say? From day to day, hour to hour, century to century, who can say what will be? Maybe these questions aren't so important. The questions we ask about our lives here and now are, in my way of thinking, the truly important ones. In my way of thinking, "death" is not the greatest issue at all. Living wisely is.
If your religious path begins with wishful thinking about the world, it will end poorly. Don't plant the seeds of absurd optimism early on. Don't live in the world like the world was made for you, or like you are an exceptional part of the world, above its natural cycles and disasters. You aren't. We are conscious parts of a whole, and that whole doesn't show a great preference for us, and nor should it. A deeper pattern is playing out. With us in this situation are Gods, spirits, and other sentient powers, who have themselves learned to endure and thrive in their own great ways. We can learn a lot from them.
Plant seeds of acceptance for the great mystery that faces us all, whatever the form it will take. Plant seeds of real affection for those that have been placed closest to you, and those you meet and recognize a kindred soul in.
We may worry about the premature deaths of our loved ones, but in the shifting of power, we are not the authors of their lives or deaths. We can only offer them our one guarantee: that we will love them and protect them as much as we are able, as far as we are able. That's all anyone can do. If you can't have peace with that, you should take a long look at yourself and your thinking about the world.
These are all good seeds. These sorts of seeds planted at the beginning of any life-path, I believe, will take a person all the way to peace.
Ruth Holmes Whitehead, the great teacher and expert on Mi'kmaq culture whose books have changed my life so much, makes a statement in her book "Tales from the Six Worlds" that sums up what the Mi'kmaq people felt was the real point and purpose of a wise human life- something that we could focus our energy and attention on, that would serve us always. Want something to invest your time into? What could be so valuable in an unpredictable, dangerous, and beautiful world like this one?
The acquisition of power, that's what. Whitehead writes:
"Because of this aspect that nearly everything in the six worlds- including the geography- can change both its shape and its mind, the universe is unpredictable, unreliable in a European sense. So how do humans and other Persons survive when nothing is necessarily as it seems? They survive by accumulating Power of their own, the ability to change their shapes and modes as circumstances require. This is such an important tenet that almost every story of the People has Power as its central theme: how to acquire it, how to use it, how to lose it, and the consequences attendant on all of the above."
Becoming a shape-shifter, gaining the power to change your own mind and even form to cope with the constant changes of the world- that was the point. Being flexible, in the most powerful sense imaginable, was what led a person to do well in this world, and even in death- for the most powerful Persons in Mi'kmaq stories are able to maintain their power and reconstitute themselves even after death.
And it all comes from being able to accept whatever arises and to shift oneself appropriately to match it, to deal with it. I cover this spiritual aspect of "Shape Shifting" in the textbook of Witchcraft I wrote entitled "The Horn of Evenwood"- not for no reason was the Master of Witches believed to be a great shape-shifter himself! For he is one of the spiritual powers- a non-human Person- who teaches the primordial wisdom that can even overcome death.
On a mundane level, the power of shape-shifting begins with being brave and flexible in your thinking about things in this world. It means being open-minded and not fooled by "everything is going to be alright" stories. It means being responsive to whatever arises in your experience, and not in denial about things that arise and bother you or offend you. May we all internalize this ageless wisdom, and overcome the traps of wishful thinking. May we all engage a mature spirituality, and live well.