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Piety One (or So) Sentences at a Time


Paganism calls us to piety. ADF calls us explicitly, including it in the list of virtues that Dedicants are required to analyze, and implying by extension that it is expected of those not yet in the Dedicant's Program or having completed it. Analyzing it can be hard. Living it can be harder.

I would define piety as the "regular performance of acts of devotion to the gods (or to the Kindreds)." It's both the "regular" and the "acts" that have given piety a bad name in our culture. "Piety" is often accompanied by words like "just" and "only." Someone is pious not because they really love the object of their devotion, or because they understand the reason behind the acts, but out of training, fear, or desire to look good to other people.

I think this misses the point. Piety doesn't have to be about understanding, and a pious act doesn't have to give us some great spiritual experience. The doing is enough; it may bring understanding or enlightenment in its wake, and those are wonderful things, but they are unnecessary not just to what piety is, but for living a pious life.

The importance of acts in Paganism is a no-brainer. Paganism is about doing, not believing; of deeds, rather than states of mind. It's about being where and when you are, and doing what is appropriate to that place, moment, and person. Our answer to the person who says that we're performing acts without the proper feeling is, "find, you have your beliefs. Now what are you going to do about them?" Faith without works is indeed dead. In fact, thinkers from to Aristotle to Dr. Phil have known that belief follows action more easily than the other way round that changing your behavior changes your state of mind.

The "regular" part is criticized, translated as "meaningless" or "boring." Boring it may be sometimes, but as Joseph Campbell has observed, boredom is part of religion. How can this be so? First, boredom can be the emptiness into which the divine can erupt. For our purposes, though, it's because boredom arises when nothing out of the ordinary is going on. But it's precisely the ordinary that Paganism is about, the doing of the appropriate thing. Some ruts are good.

That's not to say that regular acts can't lead to excitement. Sometimes they are banging at a door over and over until it opens to something wondrous. But sometimes it's the banging away that's the right thing to do.

We also need to be careful with impatience. We can't expect that doing something once, or twice, or any other small number of times will give us the desired effect. Sometimes it's only after we've said something a lot that we suddenly understand it.

Sometimes the meaning is in the rote nature itself. We can't, as Pagans, honor the cycles of nature, where seasons, days, moons come around again and again, and then say that performing the same prayer on each occasion isn't worthwhile. To do something each time a particular circumstance presents itself is to give a structure to the universe, or to recognize the structure that already exists.

And this finally brings us to the point of this essay: regular acts provide structure, and regular sacred acts provide sacreds, structure. Religions throughout history have known this: you say this prayer when you wake up, that one when you eat, this other one before going to bed. There may even be rituals surrounding going to the bathroom. Every act, no matter how small, can be made sacred by being caught up in a sacred web made from regular, rote, even sometimes boring, acts.

Now, we often get to thinking that these regular rituals have to be complex. Maybe we think we have to meditate a certain amount of time each day. Maybe it's a full-fledged ADF ritual, even if it is stripped down, with all three hallows, gates opened, all three Kindreds honored, and so on. No matter how beautiful these are, or no matter how important they may be to creating an instinctive understanding of the way ADF does things (which is why I especially recommend them to new members), sooner or later you're going to stop doing them. It can begin innocently-you oversleep or have a houseguest, or your child is sick (or you're sick). No matter how much you might want to do them, you can't find the time. So you promise yourself that as soon as things settle down, you'll get back to them. The problem is, life doesn't settle down; it's just one thing after another. You feel guilty, or course, and resolve to do better. Then something else comes up, and you miss again, perhaps for a few days, which makes you feel even guiltier. Eventually you avoid even thinking about doing your ritual because it makes you feel guilty.

Can you tell I speak from experience? What if there was a way to avoid the guilt without avoiding the rituals? Wouldn't that be great? What if there was a way to be pious while still keeping your life going? Sure, there is a lot to be said for making a big effort to set aside specifically for the performance of ritual, but is there another way to be pious?

Of course there is, or I wouldn't have written this article. The way is to be pious one sentence (or so) at a time.

I'm going to divide pious acts into two non-mutually exclusive categories, those of relationship and those of consecration.

Relationship acts are those that establish, re-establish, maintain, and strengthen the relationships we have with those for whom we perform them. They include inviting the presence of the being(s), praising them, giving them gifts, asking for blessings, and thanking them for what they give. There isn't much different from what we do in human relationships - we say nice things about our friends, we thank them for things, give them presents, ask them for the occasional favor, and let them know we consider them our friends by calling just to talk. Little things can mean a lot with friends, both human and divine. We can perform a big ritual (throw an elaborate birthday party) or make a small offering (give someone a present you picked up just because you knew they'd like it). The big things are great - who wouldn't want a big birthday party?-but the little things are more important. They're the ones that keep the relationship going. Who'd want a friend who remembered you on your birthday every year, but didn't bother to keep in touch the rest of the time?

We're used to these things as part of bigger rituals, but they can be the focus of extremely short ones. For instance, when I wake up in the morning, before I even get out of bed, I say, "Holy Ones, I thank you for guiding me through yesterday, and I ask that you guide me through today, and all days to come." That's it, just one sentence. But it starts my day off with an acknowledgement that I live my life in a relationship with the Kindreds. If I forget because the cat is badgering me to feed her, or because I'm too groggy to remember, no problem; I do it when I remember it. That can be while I'm eating breakfast, or brushing my teeth, or taking my shower; whenever.

Or before I write, a prayer to Vac ("Word") that I should say more often (I just thought to say it): "I pray to Word, in the simplest words I know, for simple words, for words more true."

Or when I turn on my stove, "I cook with Brighid's fire." One sentence.

Each of these concerns a relationship with a divine being or beings. Each makes me mindful of them. Each keeps me in continual contact with the divine.

Prayers of consecration are those which make holy an act, a time, or a place. These prayers constantly put us in a sacred context; by performing them we live a sacred life. We say that when we are, where we are, what and who we are with, and the links among these, are all sacred. By the frequent practice of such prayers, we come to live in a world in which we might encounter the holy.

For instance, before a meal: "May I be aware that by eating and drinking I take part in living and dying, giving and receiving." Going outside, "The sky is above me, the earth is beneath me, and I walk in between." Getting a wrench out of a toolbox to fix the plumbing: "May my work be worthy of the spirit of this well-made tool." I could purify myself in the shower: "May this shower wash away all that keeps me from seeing the holy in all things." (An idea courtesy of Michael Dangler.) In this way, what I am doing becomes sacred, either by being encompassed with a ritual (meal purification) or being turned into a ritual itself (the shower). A shower becomes more than just a shower, it becomes its own ritual. And look, it's one I don't have to get around to doing, I do it every morning!

When I turn down my heat at night, I say, "I bank the fires of Brighid;" when I turn it up in the morning, I say, "I fan the flames of Brighid." My furnace is thereby consecrated as a hearth in which Brighid is present; my going to bed is consecrated as a time by bringing me into the presence of Brighid. Similarly, while locking my doors: "The blessings of Janus be on this door; Janus it is who guards our doors." My doors become consecrated to Janus, my locking it becomes a sacred act.

I said that these aren't mutually exclusive categories. The prayer when I go to bed is not just a consecration, it's one of relationship. I'm acknowledging the presence of Brighid in my home and in my life, and by implication thanking her for heating my house, at the same time that I am consecrating the furnace and the time. The Janus prayer doesn't just consecrate a place (the doorway), a time (nighttime), an object (the door), and an act (locking up for the night); it's also an affirmation of a relationship with Janus. My morning prayer doesn't just thank the Holy Ones and ask for their continued blessings, it consecrates the morning by making it a time associated with a sacred act.

The one sentence (or) so technique accomplishes something very different from the more complex ritual system. That allows an intense experience, and by setting apart the time, one acknowledges the importance of the Holy Ones, and of one's spiritual practice. One sentence (or so) tends to give a more low-key experience. There may be times when you are blown away by a strong awareness of the presence of Brighid when you turn on the stove, but in most cases it will be more of a warm fuzzy, a coming into contact with an old friend.

One great thing about these prayers is that they're so easy to do. One (or so) sentences are easy to memorize, and don't lend themselves to procrastination. They can be ones that just pop into your head at any moment-"Thank you, sun, for this lovely day"-or tied to a cue-when turning down the heat at night-so there doesn't have to be a conscious decision to make them. Best of all, they become habitual. After a while, they start to live themselves.

They become a habit. And, surprise, surprise, habit is a good thing. Sure, when you do something by habit, you aren't thinking about it at the moment. Thinking is over-rated, though. Why does something have to be done consciously to "count?" I'd say that their becoming unconscious is a major plus. If you've ever learned another language, you'll know that a word doesn't acquire its true meaning until you've forgotten to notice it. Sometimes it's exactly the conscious meaning that gets in the way. Do you breathe consciously? Do you consciously make your heart beat? Those are just parts of life. That's what habits are, parts of life.

Think about that-when these prayers become habits, they become parts of life. Each time I turn on the stove, I'm not making a conscious decision to call on Brighid. If I did, then I would be saying that my relationship with Brighid is in some way separate from my life. If I made a conscious decision to say my morning prayer, I would be saying that I'm the one who makes the day sacred. If instead these prayers become habit, then I live in a continual relationship with Brighid, I live in a continually sacred procession of time.

From a practical point of view, once it becomes a habit to say a prayer to your hearth goddess whenever you turn on the stove, you'll never forget to say the prayer, you'll never have troubles "getting around to it."

Better still, instead of a conscious thought giving rise to an act, the act will often give rise to the conscious thought. By acting in a way that shows your piety, you come to be a person who desires to act piously. You become a person who has a deep and constant relationship with the Holy Ones, a relationship that is woven through the little acts of your everyday life, with short prayers that don't weigh you down with huge responsibilities. Because they're short, you can't very well feel overloaded by feeling you have to say them, and because they're short, if you miss them, you miss them. No whoop. You'll remember next time, probably. The guilt is gone. What's left is a life that can't not be lived in a sacred way, a life in which the sacred is not separate from the everyday, a life that is consecrated to the sacred, and a person who is as well.

Who knows, once you make prayers like these part of your routine, you'll be inspired to do the more complex rituals you've always felt guilty about not doing. Maybe you'll be more aware of the sacred, and eager to deepen your understanding of it with a more carefully constructed ritual.

In the meantime, bit by bit, in a habitual way, you can stop feeling guilty about not doing frequent full-blown ritual. Bit by bit, just a sentence at time-or so.